Universal Audio Apollo Reviewed
By Stephen Fortner
Tue, 4 Jun 2013
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“What’s the one thing our UAD system doesn’t do . . . yet?” Universal Audio’s Amanda Whiting quizzed me some weeks before the Apollo was first announced. I first wondered if maybe they were adding soft synths to their stable of DSP-powered plug-ins, but that wasn’t it. Once she was satisfied I was stumped, she affected a perfect Mona Lisa smile and said, “Tracking.” As in, front end recording. My next thought was that if anyone could be an exception to the rule that the universe doesn’t need more audio interfaces, it’d be Universal Audio. After living with the Apollo for the better part of a year, that once-cautious optimism has been rewarded on so many levels that my own smile when I use it is less Mona Lisa and more Cheshire Cat: ear to ear and the only thing you can see. 

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Overview

imgThe Apollo combines a two- or four-chip UAD-2 system—which runs audio effects and processing on dedicated DSP hardware, freeing up your computer’s CPU—with a full-featured audio interface. Only this audio interface sounds so good that you’d have to step up to dedicated converters from the likes of Prism or Apogee to get appreciably better. Most compellingly, the Apollo lets you do something you can’t do with a card-based UAD-2 system: Treat the UAD plug-ins as “hardware” upstream of your “tape machine”—the signal can pass through them before it arrives at your DAW and you can print the results to your audio tracks.

The Apollo connects to your Mac or PC via FireWire 800 or Thunderbolt, the latter of which is now well established on current model Macs (except for the Mac Pro, grrr . . . ) but still somewhat nascent in the PC realm. Thunderbolt promises far greater speed and bandwidth, and enables two Apollos to act as one. That said, throughout this review, I connected to my Mac Pro (first-gen quad core) and a 13" MacBook Pro via FireWire 800 and had a largely great experience.

We don’t have the space to review or even list UAD plug-ins in here, but they’re at least half of what makes the Apollo so desirable. Briefly, they fit into two categories: Spot-on emulations of coveted classics of analog recording gear (Teletronix limiters, Pultec EQs, Neve console circuits . . . the list goes on), and things that aren’t emulative but no less great sounding and useful (DreamVerb, for example). For sheer variety and sonic excellence, Waves is the only real competitor, but since we’re talking DSP-powered plug-ins that don’t drain your CPU, their TDM versions running on Pro Tools HD would be the fair comparison—and that’s a whole other price league.


Hardware

The faceplate and controls of the Apollo ooze quality in terms of both look and feel. A detented, endless Preamp knob controls a digitally stabilized analog gain stage on inputs 1 through 4, which can take mic or line level. Pressing this knob in steps through the input channels, and a green LED collar around the knob shows its position on the current channel; the continuous, no-segments look of this is a nice touch. 

Phantom power is switchable independently per channel, as is a low cut, 20dB pad, stereo linking, and phase reverse (though you can’t reverse just one side of a linked pair). Since these channels have separate XLR and 1/4" jacks instead of the now-usual combo jacks on the rear panel, the mic/line switch can function as a source switcher—you won’t need to unplug a synth to plug in a mic. Likewise, plugging a cable into either Hi-Z input on the front takes over channel 1 or 2 and switches to guitar-appropriate impedance, which can also provide a nice boost for recording an old passive Rhodes.

The Preamp knob doesn’t tweak the gain on inputs 5 through 8, which are line level only but can be independently switched between -10dB and +4dB in the included Console software (see below). But in a keyboard-based studio, we’d marry synths (or patch bay jacks for synths) to those inputs, and synths famously have widely divergent output levels at maximum volume. I know almost no audio interfaces do this, but given the Apollo’s premium positioning, it’d be nice if the Preamp knob were a one-stop shop for trimming all your signals as you set up your session. 

The monitor output knob is the best studio volume control I’ve ever had, moving both stereo channels in smooth and predictable lock step (I can’t say the same for my Mackie Big Knob or TC Level Pilot). Next to it, two headphone outputs can each have their own mixes, and stay clean while getting plenty loud—though not as loud, I found, if you happen to like higher-end headphones that have 600-ohm impedance.

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On the rear panel, eight analog inputs enjoy separate mic and line inputs for the first four channels. Lightpipe inputs support S/MUX for sample rates above 48kHz, and the Console software can do realtime sample rate conversion on an incoming S/PDIF signal.
 
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