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Universal Audio UAD-1E Express(2)

February 10, 2007
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OVERVIEW

Welcome to the paragraph where we indulge in the obligatory PCIe definition, review the merits of this format, and ponder the performance impact it will have on our digital audio workstations. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it brief.

Basically, the existing PCI standard specifies that all cards share a communications line that goes to a bridge chip. In turn, the bridge maintains contact with the CPU (this is akin to everyone in an office sharing a single telephone line). For day-to-day computing this is fine, but shuttling lots of audio and video data can cause traffic jams.

PCIe technology allows each card to have a direct communications link to the PCIe switch: There’s no more sharing of the communications channel (i.e., everyone gets their own phone line). By centralizing data and resource flow functions, the PCIe switch can prioritize data packets so realtime activities such as audio recording can take priority. While this doesn’t mean your UAD card will magically acquire more DSP power per se, PCIe can reduce latency and, through better resource management, make better use of the newer, faster CPUs.

APPLYING THE CARD AND PRECISION MASTERING BUNDLE

I installed the UAD-1e in a Dell workstation with an available PCIe slot. The UAD-1e card is rated at 1x PCIe bus speed, yet my slot is rated at 4x; however, UA confirmed their cards will work in any speed PCI Express slot (1x, 4x, 8x, 16x, etc.). Plug-ins were tested using Magix Sequoia, with a variety of sources (plug-ins are VST or AU, with RTAS support available through a free VST-to-RTAS wrapper that’s part of the installer). As the bundle included with the UAD-1e card is fairly enormous, we’ll focus on the Precision Mastering Bundle (PMB for short), which includes an equalizer, multi-band compressor, and limiter. (For details on the various plug-in options, go to www.uaudio.com.)

The Precision Equalizer is a stereo (or dual mono) four-band EQ. It also includes a high-pass filter that lets highs, mids, and everything in between pass through unimpeded. The Precision Equalizer has a clean, neo-vintage interface that reminds me of a Fairchild Compressor crossed with a Manley Massive Passive. And, like many mastering compressors, the gain controls are stepped, making for easily repeatable settings. UA chose 0.5dB increments for the ±0 to 3dB range, and 1dB increments for the ±4 to 8dB range, which works well in most situations. One of the cooler features is how some bands can overlap; this allows many experimental boosts and cuts that other EQs could not perform.

Of the three PMB members, the EQ was my favorite in a mastering setting. I found the sound to be an intriguing blend of both transparency and musicality. It’s not as clean as an MDW EQ or an Algorithmix LP Red, but it’s not particularly colored either. In the right context, I would have absolutely no reservation adding this to my chain. Given the flexibility to bypass bands that are not in use, I was pleased that I could use the Precision EQ tactically, as needed. In a straight-ahead rock mix, I was able to tame low-mid mud very well.

Furthermore, the 0.5dB gain controls and preset Q widths made finding settings quick and painless: I was also able to bring out a vocalist by using a narrow curve and 1.5dB boost in the right area. Though I tend to rant about the inferiority of “mastering” plug-ins, the Precision EQ is a damn good complement to my outboard gear. I really liked the results I got with it.

Turning from mastering to mixing, the Precision MultiBand, with five bands and an intuitive interface, is quite possibly my new favorite multi-band. Adding to the Multi’s flexibility, you can choose linear phase (which works brilliantly for de-essing) or minimum phase processing, which has a more “rack gear”-like behavior; this was great as a drum bus compressor. Everything I tried it on, from bass guitar to backing synth beds, benefited from the treatment. If you typically call upon a multi-band compression plug-in for mixing, try this multi-band monster. Don’t let the mastering moniker put you off, this is the new multi-band plug-in to beat.

The Precision Limiter also offers more than meets the eye, serving as a high-resolution metering system. Four modes are available: Peak-RMS, K12, K14, and K20 (taken from Bob Katz’s ‘K’ System). And, if you feel like it, you can bypass the limiter and just use it as a meter.

As a limiter, the Precision worked very well, and being digital, it can “look ahead” to stop any potential overs. It pumped much less than most other limiter plug-ins, especially using the Auto Release settings. However, the key to the Precision is the Release and Contour modes, which can affect the sound’s overall “punchiness,” as well as give a source more or less “presence.” Consequently, the Precision can be a total chameleon depending on the source. As with the Multi, I suggest UAD owners try the Precision on individual tracks and buses in mixdown situations. I had good success making a guitar solo sit in a mix in that glassy, ’70s AM radio way (and I mean this as a huge compliment). And, using the Contour function, I was able to pull backing vocals up in a guitar-dense mix. Try doing that with your ordinary limiter!

CONCLUSIONS

Although they are labeled as mastering plug-ins, the Multi and Limiter are some of the best mixing tools I’ve heard in a while. Don’t believe me? UA offers a 14-day demo, so if you’re an existing card owner, give it a try in your own studio . . . but heed these words of warning: Those two weeks can fly by fast, so have some test material lined up. And if you’re a mastering engineer who’s blessed with a UAD card in your machine, you should definitely put the Precision EQ through its paces. As either a main or utility device, the EQ goes a long way. (Note: If you already know you want the PMB, the UAD-1e Expert PAK provides a 750 UAD$ voucher you can use to buy it.)

If you thought the UAD cards were a “fad” that would fade when faster CPUs hit the market, I have some advice: Wake up and smell the throughput! The UAD line is rock-stable, scalable, and complemented by some of the best sounding plug-ins available. I have no doubt systems featuring multiple UAD cards will be as ubiquitous as Pro Tools HD systems in the years to come. If you use any kind of digital audio workstation, the UA line delivers.

Product type: PCI Express Card with various plug-in bundles.
Target Market: Those needing a PCIe-based DSP solution who also want to add some great plug-ins to their DAW.
Strengths: Great value. Some of the best-sounding plugs on the market. Plug-in license works on up to four cards at a time.
Limitations: Multi-mono mode not supported in Pro Tools. Plug-ins are DSP-hungry; one card might not be enough.
Price: UAD-1e cards are available as UAD-1e Express PAK ($750 list) and UAD-1e Expert PAK ($1,299 list). The Precision Mastering Bundle is $500; separately, the Precision EQ is $199, Precision Multi-Band $249, and Precision Limiter $199.
Contact: www.uaudio.com

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