Universal Audio’s UAD line has certainly withstood the test of time. Pairing hardware acceleration with a fine selection of plug-ins has proven a winning combination, and raised the bar for audio quality when recording “in the box.”
The UAD-2 Solo/Laptop shoehorns the single-chip UAD-2 Solo card (reviewed with the Duo and Quad models in Nov. ’08), which has about three times the power of the original UAD-1, into a 34mm ExpressCard slot. Mac users take note: Of the current MacBook Pros, only the 17" model has an ExpressCard slot; other models replaced it with an SD slot when the line was revised in late 2009.
Keyboard Video: Craig Anderton shows you the Solo/Laptop.
But aren’t today’s computers so awesomely powerful that you don’t need hardware acceleration? While there’s nothing wrong with native plug-ins, by delegating audio processing to external hardware, you can get high-quality sound without causing your laptop audio to “gap,” or being forced to use high latency settings. You always know how many plug-ins you can use, the designers aren’t afraid to use the available DSP power to get quality effects, and you can “redline” the DSP—on native systems, CPU consumption varies dramatically, so you always need to leave headroom. Besides, UA’s plug-ins run only on their cards; to get the sound, you need the hardware.
If your laptop has a 54mm Express slot, the Solo/Laptop comes with an adapter for a snug fit. Standard cautions apply to handling the card: Insert and remove with power off if you want to be careful (although the technology is hot-swappable) and keep it in an anti-static bag. If you remove the card before shutting down applications that are using it, you won’t damage anything, but you might lose data or crash the computer.
When you register the card, you can sync licensing to your desktop computer. Any UA plug-ins you already own for your desktop will then be good to go on the Solo/Laptop. Major kudos to UA for putting users above profits.
Installing the UAD-2 software also installs time-limited demos of all current extra-cost plug-ins. The countdown doesn’t start from when you install the software, but from when you first use the plug-in. The card also comes with a $50 voucher that’s good towards any plug-in at UA’s online store.
Bundled with the card are the Pultec EQP-1A EQ, 1176SE Limiting Amplifier, RealVerb Pro Room Modeler, and CS-1 Channel Strip—a solid, basic collection. The CS-1 is a workhorse, as it combines a five-band equalizer, compressor, delay modulator, and the RS-1 “reflection engine.” This provides a variety of room reflections, and while it’s presented as a more DSPfriendly alternative to RealVerb, I’ve found that combining the two—augmenting RealVerb with additional room reflections—makes for a very satisfying ambience effect. To save DSP, you can disable CS-1 modules that aren’t in use.
The rest of UA’s line includes virtualizations of recording gear by Manley (the over-the-top-cool Massive Passive), Roland (notably the RE-201 Space Echo), Helios, Empirical Labs, SPL, Harrison, Fairchild, Little Labs, Neve, and even a Moog multimode filter. All were done with the blessings of these companies. Individual plug-ins range from around $80 to $300—a great deal compared to hardware, and bundles save more.
UA’s signature is their ability to model analog mojo with both definition and warmth. Having used much of the classic gear UA emulates, I can vouch for the uncanny accuracy. And when I asked EveAnna Manley what she thought of UA’s Massive Passive, she had nothing but praise for it.
All UA plug-ins are audio processors—there isn’t a soft synth in the lot—but with the card’s DSP doing your heavy audio lifting, your computer will have far more power to run your favorite virtual instruments.
The Solo/Laptop includes UA’s standard control panel software, an evolved applet that lets you know how much DSP is being used and which plug-ins are authorized, provides links for updating, and so on. Authorization involves getting a file online from UA, and dragging it to the control panel. Latency at 44.1 and 48kHz is reasonable—typically well under 100 samples, and often half that or less, but this lengthens considerably at higher sample rates. Programs with automatic path delay compensation (PDC) have no trouble accommodating the plugs; and the Solo/Laptop package includes Mellowmuse ATA, which provides a PDC function for Pro Tools LE and M-Powered (which don’t have their own PDC). One plug-in, the Precision Multiband, is a compressor/expander that has huge latency; but as it’s meant for mastering,not for realtime tracking, latency shouldn’t be an issue.
Furthermore, there’s LiveTrack, a mode that reduces latency to the absolute minimum by bypassing standard buffering processes. This is intended for monitoring during live recording, or playing through the plug-in in real time. However, the tradeoff is significant additional host CPU loading; it’s proportional to the plug-in’s DSP load, even though the CPU itself isn’t used for processing. For most recording and mixing, you’ll leave LiveTrack turned off.
For me, one particularly useful Solo/Laptop application is editing videos in Sony’s Vegas. Much of my video work is done on the road with a laptop, so having sterling audio processing while sitting in a Berlin hotel room at 2 A.M. is a beautiful thing.
I first turned on to UA plug-ins when an analog snob friend of mine said he couldn’t hear any difference between their LA-2A limiter emulation and his beloved Teletronix hardware—which he then sold on eBay, so that says something. Having that kind of power on a laptop is a gamechanger— especially when the UAD-2’s DSP lets you save the computer’s precious CPU power for other things, and you can load any plug-ins from your desktop setup without re-buying them. Essentially, the UAD-2 Solo/Laptop lets you stuff a rack of great-sounding analog gear into your laptop. Need I say more?
The control panel applet and the smaller meter applet show how much DSP is used. The latency reflects your audio interface plus the UAD-2 card.
PROS Saves CPU power compared to native plug-ins. DSP power is independent of your computer. Includes four useful plug-ins. Uses the same plug-in licenses as your desktop machine. UA plug-ins sound amazing.
CONS Runs quite hot.
CONCEPT Laptop-friendly hardware DSP for running high-quality audio processing plug-ins that don’t load down your CPU.
FORMATS Mac or PC. AU, VST, and RTAS.
SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS Mac: OS 10.4 or higher. Windows: XP or later. Compatible with 32- and 64-bit systems on both.
Approx. street: $499