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UNIVERSAL AUDIO Powered Plug-Ins

April 1, 2002
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High-quality plug-ins are often taken for granted. They broaden musical horizons and expand the musical palette in ways that many musicians never imagined, allowing bedroom producers to create tracks that rival those produced by million-dollar studios. The main drawback to this approach is the amount of raw processor power required to run them: Even in the age of gigahertz processors, CPUs simply can't keep up with the demands placed on them by power-hungry digital signal-processing (DSP) algorithms and power-hungry users. Enter Universal Audio's Powered Plug-Ins, a bundle of eight hardware-accelerated VST effects plug-ins that will give your poor, overtaxed CPU a rest and take your production to the next level.

BIG THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES

At the heart of the Powered Plug-Ins package is the UAD-1, a small PCI expansion card that provides the processing muscle for the bundled plug-ins. Don't be fooled by its diminutive size; the UAD-1's lone chip is a custom ASIC running at greater than 1 GHz, and it's more than capable of running a heap of plug-ins without breaking a sweat.

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Installing Powered Plug-Ins was easy. I downloaded the latest drivers from Universal Audio, powered down and installed the board in my 800MHz Pentium III, with 512 MB of RAM, running Windows XP Professional. After booting up, the system recognized the card, and the driver installation went without a hitch.

I wanted to make sure that everything was working, so I opened the UAD-1 Performance Meter, which floats above application windows and displays CPU and memory usage on the card. I poked around a bit and found a status window claiming that the card runs at 1006.4 MHz and has 4 MB of RAM running at 1200 MB per second. Impressive specs! I could not wait to put all of that raw power to use, so I opened Steinberg's Wavelab and proceeded to get down and dirty with Powered Plug-Ins.

JUST LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS

The package includes emulations of the UREI 1176LN and Teletronix LA-2A vintage compressors; RealVerb-Pro, a full-featured reverb; and the CS-1 channel strip, featuring EQ, delay, compression and an early reflection generator. I'd heard great things about the vintage compressor plug-ins, so I started there and couldn't believe my ears.

The emulations are incredible; it doesn't get any better than this. Universal Audio manufactures the hardware versions of the 1176LN and LA-2A, and they've done a remarkable job of developing plug-ins that accurately reproduce every nuance of the original units.

The 1176LN plug-in interface is entirely authentic, and operation is just as easy as its real-world counterpart. Two large knobs control the input and output levels, two smaller knobs control the attack and release times, and two rows of buttons on the left and right sides of the VU meter control ratio and meter response, respectively. The attack and release knobs can be a bit misleading at first; unlike with most modern compressors, turning the knob clockwise results in a faster attack or release time, and you won't find any markings that translate to real-world time. Just like the original, all you get are arbitrary markings from 1 to 7, and you have to dial in the sound by listening. A quick spin through the manual solved the mystery: The 1176LN's attack ranges from 20 to 800 microseconds, and the release ranges from 50 to 1100 ms.

I ran a few drum loops through the 1176LN and found that the material seemed to come alive with even the slightest amount of processing. Snares in particular sounded great, retaining all of their bite, whereas peaks were tame and reverb tails were more apparent, seeming to pick up a bit of creaminess that wasn't evident in the source material. I thought the VU meter was a little sluggish, but in spite of its slow response, it was still usable.

A nice bonus is the inclusion of British mode, in which all four ratio buttons are depressed simultaneously, causing some pleasantly unpredictable behavior (see Fig. 1). A simple Control-click on any ratio button kicks the plug-in into that mode, and its inclusion is a testimony to Universal Audio's commitment to producing exact replicas of the hardware units.

MORE VINTAGE COMPRESSION

The LA-2A is another classic compressor, also born in the mid-'60s, that became a studio standard shortly after its introduction (see Fig. 2). From gentle compression on entire mixes to heavy limiting on a hot bass track, the LA-2A is renowned for its ability to add a fat, warm tone to everything it touches while remaining transparent enough to keep the original signal in pristine condition. Universal Audio's LA-2A emulation captures all of the desirable characteristics of the original and integrates them all right into your VST setup. Don't let the LA-2A's deceptively simple interface fool you. The interface features only two knobs, Gain and Peak Reduction, and one switch for selecting limiting or compression, but they are all you need to make this baby work magic for you.

I was blown away by this plug-in from the start. I played the same drum loop I used with the 1176LN through the LA-2A, and it came alive with warmth and presence. The LA-2A has a far more subtle effect than the 1176LN, even when working with high peak-reduction settings. This is very much a compressor that you'll want to have riding the top of your mix, rounding off little peaks or balancing out lead and vocal tracks.

SONIC SPACE

RealVerb-Pro is part of a highly regarded reverb that has been available to Pro Tools users for quite some time (see Fig. 3). This plug-in doesn't quite compare with some high-end outboard gear, like the Lexicon PCM91 or TC Electronic M3000, but it's one of the best reverb plug-ins to date and easily outshines mid- and entry-level outboard processors.

RealVerb-Pro has an intuitive interface that allows you to create two distinct acoustic areas based on 15 different room shapes, such as shoebox, horseshoe, triangle plate and so on. Within those spaces, you can place two different materials, such as marble, hardwood, linoleum and so forth. These parameters can then be morphed in real time to create new, unusual and physically impossible spaces and materials. The possibilities are truly inspiring, and the interface makes it easy to explore RealVerb's broad sonic palette.

I put RealVerb-Pro through its paces using a couple of male a cappella vocals from Spectrasonics' Heart of Africa CD, and I was impressed with the depth and the stereo imaging that the plug-in brought to the bone-dry audio clips. The hall programs were clear, accurate and didn't exhibit any hollowness or plasticity common to lower-end reverbs, yet they didn't quite seem to deliver the same presence and warmth as my Lexicon PCM91. The room algorithms are equally impressive and widened the soundstage considerably without adding any unpleasant or unnatural artifacts.

RealVerb's basic algorithms are great, but the plug-in really shines when you move away from standard fare and start working with modeled materials. The Jazz Club preset, a combination of seat and curtain materials, was uncanny — you can almost hear the soft fabric deadening the room echo. The Apartment Living preset is equally impressive and does an outstanding job of placing the sound outside of the speakers.

CHANNEL STRIP

The CS-1 is one of the most comprehensive channel-strip plug-ins available (see Fig. 4). Featuring a parametric equalizer, a compressor/limiter, a delay modulator and a reflection engine, the CS-1 offers everything you need to make your tracks sparkle with that “produced” sound. Each section is also included as a separate stand-alone plug-in: The EQ and compressor are the EX-1, the modulation delay is the DM-1, and the reflection engine is the RS-1. For the sake of simplicity, I'll address each of these as components of the CS-1 channel strip.

The CS-1 is laid out in a logical order with the EQ and the compressor at the top of the chain and modulation and reverb at the end. I was a little disappointed to find that it's not possible to rearrange the modules within the CS-1. However, you can mix and match the EX-1, DM-1 and RS-1 to make a channel strip that suits your needs, the only drawback being that you'll have to use more plug-in slots in your host software.

The equalizer is a 5-band parametric with shelf and pass options on all but the middle band. Each band is sweepable from 21 Hz to 20 kHz and boasts 18 dB of gain or cut. The EQ has a crystal-clear sound that will easily meet or exceed the expectations of anyone who has used high-end packages such as the Waves Renaissance EQ.

The compressor/limiter is a straightforward deal with attack, release, ratio and threshold knobs. Attack times can range between .05 and 100 ms, release times vary from 25 to 2500 ms, and compression ratios from 1 to infinity are available. Those wide ranges make the CS-1 compressor more versatile than both the LA-2A and 1176LN, but it lacks the character that gives the two vintage models their wonderful sounds. This isn't to say that you can't achieve spectacular results with the CS-1 compressor. It may not have as much personality as the 1176LN and the LA-2A, but its sound is superior to most host-based plug-ins on the market.

I was impressed with the flange and chorus options offered by the delay modulator. Five different flange and chorus settings are present, and a switchable sine or triangle LFO controls the depth of modulation. All three of the chorus settings produced a rich sound with a broad soundstage, but the two flange settings were especially stunning. The most disappointing thing about the delay modulator — and the Powered Plug-Ins package as a whole — is the short delay time offered by the dual delay and ping-pong settings. The maximum available is 300 ms on both channels, making the delay modulator relatively useless for long-period delay applications.

The last plug-in in the channel strip is the reflection engine. It doesn't have a fancy interface like its bigger sibling RealVerb, but its room simulations sound nearly as good, and it's a lot easier to work with. Simply pick the shape of the room you'd like from a list of 22 presets, dial in the delay and room size, and you're set. Don't expect to hear any cathedral-type effects; I'm talking strictly short-period reverbs here. If you want to play in the Taj Mahal, head for RealVerb. The reflection engine is perfect for adding a little flair to dry percussion tracks, without using up a lot of resources.

Overall, the channel strip and its associated components are excellent alternatives to the more processor-intensive LA-2A, 1176LN and RealVerb-Pro. You can easily run 32 EQs and 16 compressors and still have processor power to spare!

It may seem pointless to use these stripped-down plug-ins when tantalizing plug-ins like the LA-2A, 1176LN and RealVerb-Pro are all right at your fingertips. But the fact remains that although the UAD-1 card is indeed powerful, it's not an unlimited source of processing power. Those high-end plug-ins eat up the processor on the UAD-1 pretty quickly, and you may find yourself willing to sacrifice a few in exchange for two or sometimes three times as many channel-strip plug-ins. I was able to get 10, 1176LN plug-ins running simultaneously on the card before maxing out the processor; by comparison, the EX-1 compressor was nearly twice as efficient, delivering rock-solid performance all the way to 20 instances. The EQ module was even more efficient, allowing me to use as many as 30. The channel strip plug-ins may not have the same subtle character as the RealVerb-Pro, 1176LN and LA-2A emulations, but in most cases, using them didn't feel like a compromise — they easily outshine any other native plug-ins on the market, and they offer an excellent alternative when processor power on the UAD-1 is at a premium.

DOES IT GO TO 11?

By the time you read this, the latest plug-in from Universal Audio, Nigel, should be available for download from the Universal Audio Website (see Fig. 5). Nigel is a combination unit much like the CS-1 and features a cabinet simulator, a phaser, a tremolo, an echo, a delay modulator and more. None of the plug-ins shipped in the Powered Plug-Ins bundle are particularly adept at any sort of real delay or echo, and distortion is absent from the lineup entirely. For these reasons, and simply because it sounds amazing, Nigel is a welcome addition to the family and will be available for free download at the Powered Plug-Ins Website.

My only gripe with Powered Plug-Ins is the user interface. I really like the way all of the CS-1 plug-ins sound, but I think Universal Audio could have spent a little more time making these particular interfaces a bit easier to work with. They're nice to look at, but trying to dial in a specific parameter value is extremely frustrating. It would be great to be able to just double-click on a parameter and enter a specific value; instead, you're forced to click and hold on a knob and move your mouse millimeters at a time, hoping to hit the right value — a process that's far from an exact science.

I'd also like to see graphic interfaces on the EQ. Seeing an EQ curve is much easier than visualizing it, and it would make work flow a bit faster if working with EQ curves was more of a drag-and-drop affair.

LATENCY

The one major drawback with Powered Plug-Ins is latency. On my machine, latency was a noticeable 2176 samples, or 49 ms. To Universal Audio's credit, the latency really isn't its fault. With native plug-ins, all processing is handled by the CPU at its rated speed; Powered Plug-Ins rely on the PCI bus, which runs at a relatively pokey 33 or 66 MHz, and that can cause some serious skew when tracks using Powered Plug-Ins are played back along with tracks that don't. Fortunately, most major manufacturers of sequencing packages have added some form of delay compensation to make working with cards like the UAD-1 easier. Both Steinberg Cubase and Emagic Logic Audio have this feature built in; if you're using a sequencer that doesn't include delay compensation, you can use the delay compensator plug-in that ships with the Powered Plug-Ins package.

Universal Audio is working on a “zero-latency” mode that will allow you to run some of its plug-ins with no latency. However, that will put a significant load on your CPU, much like a traditional host-based plug-in does, so you'll have to decide if the trade-off is worth the decrease in CPU capacity.

I could go on about other things that impress me about Powered Plug-Ins: multicard support in 2002, outstanding technical support, forthcoming support for Mac OS X and so on. Space is limited, however, so I'll sum it up by saying that this product flat out rocks. Granted, the package has a couple of minor interface issues, but they're overshadowed by the sheer power and sonic quality of the plug-ins.

It isn't every day that a manufacturer agrees to hand over $30,000 of high-end equipment for a mere $995, and when you add up what this kind of power would cost you in outboard processing, that's exactly what you get. If you produce music on your computer, you owe it to yourself to pick this up.

Product Summary

UNIVERSAL AUDIO
Powered Plug-Ins
$995

Pros: Stellar sonic quality. Extraordinarily accurate reproductions of vintage studio hardware. DSP card frees up host CPU resources.

Cons: Latency across PCI bus currently makes real-time usage difficult. No direct entry of parameter values. Short delay times in bundled plug-ins.

Overall rating (out of 5): 5

Contact: tel. (831) 464-0630
e-mail info@uaudio.com • Web www.poweredplugins.com

MINIMUM SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Pentium II/300 MHz; 128MB RAM; Windows 98/ME/2000/XP; PCI slot; CD-ROM drive; VST-compatible host software

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