Universal Audio Apollo Reviewed

June 4, 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.
 
 
 

Console Software

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. 


In Use

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 Orpheus.

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 communication. 


Conclusions

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.

PROS

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.

CONS

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. 

Bottom Line

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

uaudio.com

 
 

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