“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.
The 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.
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.
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.
For starters, the Console controls all the Apollo’s
hardware functions and lets you get at a few things you can’t do from
the front panel, including stereo linking for analog ins 5 through 8 and
the digital ins. It looks and acts like an analog mixer, with faders,
aux sends, headphone mix sends, and up to four plug-in insert points for
every hardware input on the machine.
You can use the Apollo in your DAW with or without the
Console. Without, the system works in your DAW as though it were a
separate audio interface and UAD-2 Satellite. Using Console concurrently
is where the real power lies, though.
It’s a heck of a cue mixer, letting you and your
session-mates monitor your takes through UAD effects with no latency and
independently of any native effects in your project. This is great if a
singer needs a bit of reverb to feel the vibe. Apollo does this so
well, in fact, that I wish it could do about eight headphone mixes, but
you get two. If you have more headphone amplifiers, you could task the
aux returns as two more headphone mixes, because you can assign the
hardware output pair for each aux right on the Console.
So, how about that tracking through plug-ins? Flip the big
honkin’ Insert Effects switch from “Mon” to “Rec,” and presto—you now
have the world’s sexiest virtual effects rack with its own “sidecar”
mixer upstream of your DAW. How do you route a console channel to an
audio track? Simple: In the input area for that track or its DAW mixer
channel, select the Apollo hardware input that corresponds to the
Console channel on which you’ve put the UAD plug-ins you want. Since
each Console channel is locked to a physical input on the Apollo (or
pair of them if stereo linked), this makes perfect sense. Adding to the
flexibility, Console output busses—both aux returns, both headphone mixes, and the main monitor out—also show up as input choices in your DAW.
Though you can use the Apollo’s plug-ins directly in your
DAW, you do need to host them in the Console to track through them. Once
you’ve set things up, though, you can actually quit the Console and
still record, thanks to the Console Recall plug-in. Put this in any
insert slot in your project (where it goes doesn’t matter and won’t hurt
anything, but your master bus is a convenient place), and it applies
the most recently saved Console configuration (or any you then load from
a menu in the Recall window) to your project, with all the plug-ins
affecting their corresponding hardware inputs. This is seriously slick.
Also slick: If two Apollos are daisy chained to your
computer via Thunderbolt, the Console sees them as one big interface,
displaying all the channels accordingly. Not so
slick: There’s currently no hardware control surface support, nor even a
way to MIDI-learn onscreen controllers. Given where the project studio
and personal computers are headed, though, I might vote for multi-touch
screen support first.
On a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 is the most
“character”-saturated tube mic preamp imaginable and 10 is a “wire with
gain,” I’d rank the Apollo’s preamps as a 7 to 8. I tried them with a
variety of source/mic combinations, ranging from a Blue Bottle on male
and female vocals to a pair of AKG C-451EBs on acoustic 12-string guitar
to an Audix D6 on kick drum to Marshall MXL-41s and an A-T 4050 on
grand piano. In all cases, they were transparent and detailed without
being clinical. I could hear the “air” around a vocal or the transient
of a guitar pick first hitting the string, yet there was enough body and
attitude that getting gutsy kick, tom, and Leslie sounds was just a
matter of choosing the right mic—at no time did I feel like the pres
were fighting me.
When I tried different mics on the same source, even
subtle differences between mics jumped out at me. The Apollo’s reserve
of clean gain even gave my beat-up petri dish of a Shure SM58 a new
lease on life. While I didn’t measure the noise floor, it was never an
audible problem even on quiet sources that required lots of gain.
One of my studio secret weapons is sort of a cult thing: a
four-channel Sytek MPX-4A preamp modified with Burr-Brown op amps to
improve its transient response. It’s not that the Apollo pres sound like
the Sytek, but they sound more like it than they do anything else I’ve
worked with. In terms of overall audio quality, I’ll go out on a limb
and say that to get better mic preamps in an integrated audio interface,
you’d have to spend considerably more on something like a Prism Sound
Using the Apollo as a simple output device to play virtual
instruments at 44.1kHz, I did notice a bit more latency than I’m used
to from my workhorse setup, a MOTU PCIe-424 card with HD192 and 2408
Mk.3 interfaces. I could make the latency go away, but doing so usually
meant going down a buffer setting compared to the MOTU rig—128 as
opposed to 256 samples if playing an attack-forward sound like piano
into a project that already contained several other virtual instrument
tracks. However, the Apollo having its own DSP for audio plug-ins you need means you can
run lower buffers without nearly as much fear of glitching. You can
also more confidently step up the sample rate to 96 or even 192kHz—at
96kHz, latency became almost a non-issue. I was unable to test latency
using Thunderbolt as I have yet to acquire a Thunderbolt-equipped
computer, but expect improvement and hope to report on this after this
review hits our website.
Since getting the Apollo, I’ve fallen into the way of
working it suggests: Let it handle all the EQ, dynamics, and other audio
effects, so that my computer’s CPU can run more virtual instruments.
How many of those audio plug-ins could I run at once? The screen shot above is of an endurance test done at 96kHz, right before
adding one more EMT 250 plate reverb made the session say “uncle.” I
actually maxed out the FireWire bus before hitting the ceiling of my
quad-chip review unit’s DSP, and again, I’m hoping to report better
results when I go Thunderbolt. But still, the decadent display of power I
did manage should offer peace of mind that on any virtually any real
musical project where you allocate plug-ins in logical ways, you’re
unlikely to run out of gas—especially with a quad unit.
A known issue on Macs is that if the computer goes to
sleep, it can and probably will lose contact with the Apollo upon
waking. Sometimes quitting and restarting the Console and my DAW fixed
this, sometimes I needed to reboot the computer. Also, it’s a best
practice to turn on the Apollo, then the computer to ensure solid
The Apollo’s I/O complement and price clearly aim it at
the producer, composer, or project studio owner who must deliver
professional results on tight deadlines, and its single rack size and
onboard DSP is a must if you do that while traveling with a laptop. If
you’re writing tunes entirely inside the box using virtual instruments,
it may well be overkill—luxurious, envy-inducing overkill—and adding a
UAD-2 card or Satellite to your existing setup may instead be the way to
go if you’re jonesing for plug-in power. If you
do any amount of recording vocals or external instruments, though, and
your mixes are processing-intensive, there’s no other single box out
there—at any price—that can boast the Apollo’s integration of mic preamp
and converter quality above its class, massive CPU relief, and what may
be the hippest plug-in ecosystem on the planet. That makes it a clear
Key Buy winner in our book.
Clean, detailed, musical, versatile mic preamps. Converter
quality approaches dedicated high-end units. Excellent UAD “powered
plug-ins” run on dedicated DSP. Lets you monitor or track through
plug-ins before hitting your DAW, as though they were hardware. Very
high build quality.
No MIDI learn or hardware control surface support for Console software at this time. No MIDI I/O. Can lose connection upon computer waking from sleep.
A beautifully executed integration of audio interface and
DSP accelerator. For what it does and how it sounds, it’s amazing it’s
not twice the price.
Apollo Duo: $2,499 list | $1,999 street
Apollo Quad: $2,999 list | $2,499 street