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Review: Universal Audio UAD-2

December 1, 2008
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I sometimes wonder if there's some sort of rivalry between Universal Audio's analog and digital product divisions. On one hand, the company has garnered accolades for some of the most lauded analog gear in history, stretching back to the '50s, and it still manufactures contemporary versions of the venerable 1176 and LA-2A compressors. On the other hand, UA brought hardware accelerated plug-ins of unparalleled quality to the masses with the UAD-1 card. Offering the same LA-2A and 1176 in digital form, along with more than 30 other plug-ins, including emulations of Neve, Helios, Roland and other classic gear, the UAD card has enjoyed robust support in the recording industry.

The rift in UA's split personality grows deeper with the UAD-2, the latest successor in the company's hardware-accelerated plug-in line. Like its predecessor, the UAD-2 offers more than 30 plug-ins that run in any VST- or Audio Units-compatible host software (RTAS compatibility is expected by the end of 2008). Rather than consuming CPU power in the host computer, these plug-ins offload to the UAD card, leaving more power available for other native plug-ins and playback tasks.

The UAD-2 comes in three flavors — Solo, Duo and Quad — named and priced by the number of DSP chips onboard. For this review I scored a Quad card and a full complement of UA plug-ins. Over two months, I put the UAD-2 to use on five mastering projects, and I found a lot of reasons to love UA's latest creation.

THE HARD STUFF

The modest-size PCI Express board sports four shiny DSP chips. Designed for PCIe-1x bandwidth slots, it can also work in any slot with the specified speed rating or higher. A status LED on the back panel is a nice touch; green indicates communication between the driver and the board, while red means something's not kosher.

The installer disc includes drivers for both the UAD-2 and UAD-1 cards, as well as all VST, RTAS and Audio Units plug-ins, so there's no need to pick and choose different setup packages based on hardware or software purchased. One package handles everything.

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Installation on my 3 GHz quad-core PC running Vista Business was flawless. After blowing past a couple of Windows security dialog boxes and one reboot, the UAD-2 showed a green status light and happily coexisted with my two older UAD-1 cards. I registered the card online and downloaded a new authorization file to enable all of my previously purchased plug-ins. The entire process from unboxing to operational took about 15 minutes.

GOING SOFT

The new UAD Meter received a major overhaul with the version 5 software. It's slightly larger than its predecessor and now has the ability to monitor DSP loads on both UAD-1 and UAD-2 cards in real time; it also squeezes in a new Program meter for UAD-2 cards. The UAD-2's new DSP architecture allocates fixed blocks for plug-in algorithms, and in my experience, DSP power topped out long before the program meter even bumped the 50-percent mark.

The System Info screen is a significant improvement over earlier versions, displaying in-depth information about each card in the system, including latency figures, card type and a detailed report on DSP and memory usage for individual chips on each card. The Configuration page still provides the same DSP, PCI and Sonar compatibility settings for UAD-1 cards, adding an extra section for the UAD-2 where DSP load limits and buffer options are selected. The LoadLock option, another newcomer in version 5, pre-allocates adequate DSP resources for each plug-in on the UAD-2 and ensures that complex arrangements with lots of plug-ins won't choke during playback.

Upgrading to new hardware sometimes means leaving old software behind. However, UA sidestepped such a nightmare by engineering backward compatibility into the UAD-2, ensuring that existing plug-ins will run seamlessly on both UAD-1 and UAD-2 platforms. The Plug-Ins page lists UA's entire library of world-class plug-ins, your purchase status for each and a Run On column where you assign which card — UAD-1 or UAD-2 — will run the plug-in. At the moment, some plugs still aren't available for UAD-2, although UA says all existing plug-ins (except the Nigel) will be ported to the new hardware by the end of 2008. Unpurchased plug-ins are available for a fully functional 14-day demo.

While nearly all existing UAD-1 plug-ins will run on the UAD-2, you need an extra UAD-2 license before assigning them to the new hardware. Right now, upgrading is a simple and free process handled at UA's Website, but time is of the essence; free upgrades are only available through the end of 2008. Next year, cross-grading to a UAD-2 version will cost $25 per plug-in, with a maximum upgrade cap of $250. It's a reasonable price to pay, considering the coding effort involved, but keep the expense in mind if you wait until 2009 to buy a UAD-2.

LIVETRACK

UAD's notorious latency bumps the moderate delay involved with native plug-ins up to a hefty lag that makes it difficult to use when playing a track along with live instruments. However, version 5 of the UAD software introduces a new LiveTrack mode designed to alleviate that problem, so I dusted off my bass guitar to see how usable the UAD-2 could be in live situations.

LiveTrack circumvents with the usual processing delay by doing away with buffering on the UAD card in favor of speedy processing. Naturally, the trade-off here is increased load on the host PC's CPU. In Ableton Live, I tossed five plug-ins — Fairchild, LA-2A, Helios 69, Cambridge EQ and Plate 140 — on a single channel processing live input, bringing my host CPU load to six percent. Engaging LiveTrack boosted that to a whopping 48 percent, a hefty chunk of the quad-core 3 GHz processor.

Still, as CPU-hungry as LiveTrack can be, it delivered on its promise, letting me play bass along with a track with imperceptible latency. LiveTrack could be a very useful tool for anyone recording session players in studio settings or stage musicians who need to keep latencies under tight control. Only the UAD-2 supports LiveTrack mode; the UAD-1's architecture is incompatible with it.

UNLEASH THE POWER

The UAD-2's new Analog Devices SHARC 21369 DSP chips are roughly two-and-a-half times more powerful than the single processor on the old UAD-1. It's difficult to quantify the exact increase in power because the architecture of the processors is quite different, and each plug-in is coded in a unique fashion. But in my experience, projects that routinely maxed out three UAD-1 cards ported smoothly to the UAD-2 Quad and used only about one quarter of its total processing power.

In practice, one instance of the beautiful Neve 33609 chewed up a whopping 34 percent of the UAD-1, while the UAD-2 Quad handled it with a nonchalant five percent on the DSP meter. Kicking up the sampling rate to 96 kHz nudged the DSP usage only one percent higher. I could instantiate 16 33609s on one track at 44.1 kHz.

Either way, the UAD-2 Quad performed everyday mixing and mastering tasks with ease, and while there's always room for more power, I think a single Quad card is more than enough for moderate usage. If you're planning on working at high sampling rates, or if you're inclined to use 20 instances of plug-ins with complex algorithms such as the 33609 or Plate 140, consider purchasing multiple cards to spread the load around.

WHEN ONE'S NOT ENOUGH

The only thing better than UAD plug-ins is more of them. I've become so addicted to the UAD sound that I had three cards in my studio PC and still pined for more juice on complex projects. If you're a power user who chews through DSP like a shark in a chum tank, you'll love the new capacity to combine four UAD-1 cards and four UAD-2 cards in one PC, creating a massive DSP array.

The possibilities of that dream scenario are staggering. A fully loaded rig with four UAD-1s and four UAD-2 Quad cards could theoretically crank out as many processor cycles as 44 UAD-1s — enough power for 512 instances of the Neve 88RS channel strip with plenty left over for extra effects. Granted, it's a rare PC that has eight PCI slots, so you'd likely need a pricey PCI expansion chassis, but the potential for a monster rig is there.

It's rare that a product has no real functional drawbacks, but the UAD-2 is such a gem: powerful, flexible, backward-compatible and easier to use with version 5.1 software. The price is on the high side, but still within reason given the unparalleled quality of UA's plug-ins and the astronomical pricing still attached to TDM systems and other high-end plug-in bundles. There's no doubt that when it comes to plug-ins, the UAD-2 is the single finest studio investment you can make.

Find this review at Remixmag.com to read a bonus hands-on review of the brand-new Universal Audio Moog Multimode Filter plug-in for UAD sytsems.

UNIVERSAL AUDIO

UAD-2 > $1,499 (QUAD), $899 (DUO), $499 (SOLO)

Pros: Impressive DSP power. Outstanding plug-ins. Software now supports eight cards. LiveTrack reduces latency.

Cons: Some plug-ins currently unavailable for UAD-2. Pricey.

Contact: www.uaudio.com

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