With many things — clothes, cars, restaurants, concert tickets — you can do well on a budget; you can even have style. But if you really want the best, you have to cough up the dough. The same rings true for audio gear: mics, preamps, guitars and plug-ins. The differences may be subtle or extreme, but either way, you definitely know them when you hear them. Certainly, you could make an entire album in Propellerhead Reason, and if you have talent, it will be good. But eventually, given the means, computer musicians will want to step up to the big leagues.
When that time comes, you'll face the other bane of computer music: processing power. With few exceptions, the plug-ins with the highest audio quality and capabilities demand the most CPU juice. Even in this day and age, high-level audio software brings modern machines to their knees — especially laptops. External DSP units are desirable — if not essential — add-ons for computer producers who want to rock top-shelf plug-ins more than a few at a time. However, until recently, mobile producers and laptop performers have had few decent options for hardware DSP hosts. Fortunately, the Universal Audio (UA) UAD Xpander presents a simple yet ingenious solution.
The Xpander chassis is a bit smaller than an average external hard drive, making it truly portable, unlike huge PCI card boxes that connect over FireWire. The Xpander connects via a laptop's ExpressCard slot, meaning only Apple MacBook Pro and a select PC laptop owners will be able to use it. That's a bummer if you don't have such a laptop, but it's really the smartest way to handle portable DSP. Because many notebooks have only one FireWire bus and one high-speed USB 2.0 bus, you'll likely want to save those ports for an audio interface and external hard drive. If you double up an audio interface and a FireWire DSP unit on one bus, you'll damage the performance of both and defeat the purpose. Xpander's ExpressCard/34 protocol has the same throughput as PCIe cards, and it houses the same CPU power as UA's UAD-1e PCIe cards so you don't sacrifice any performance. (It will also work with ExpressCard/54 slots.) UA's optional Xtenda PCIe card ($99) lets you plug the Xpander into a desktop machine.
PLUGGING IN THE X-BOX
The handsome Xpander chassis features a mirrored aluminum case (that's an unavoidable fingerprint away from being tarnished) and a backlit logo on the front. The remaining pieces include a carrying case, UAD ExpressCard/34, UAD Link Cable, a software/PDF manual disc, DVD tutorial, AC power supply and — a thoughtful addition — two wall-plug adapters for international use.
Installing Xpander is a bit of a production, but certainly worth the effort. First you install the UA Powered Plug-ins software (and check www.uaudio.com for the latest update), which lets you choose any or all of the VST, Audio Units and RTAS formats to install (UAD plug-ins run in RTAS mode using an FXpansion wrapper program). You have to shut down the computer first every time you boot up Xpander, which is kind of pain. Xpander isn't hot-swappable either, so you have to be careful not to accidentally press in the UAD ExpressCard because it could pop out. With the hardware running, you open the UAD-1 Meter program (which monitors the Xpander's CPU usage), and go online to register the Xpander. You also have to download a file to open to register the software. Then you can open your DAW, and the UAD plug-ins will appear where you normally access plug-ins. When you want to disconnect the Xpander, you must quit all the host applications and “eject” the Xpander from the ExpressCard icon in the OS X Menu Bar or Windows Vista Task Bar.
Xpander comes in three packages: Xpander Xpress ($1,199/$999 street), Xpander Xpert ($1,699/$1,399 street) and Xpander Xtreme ($2,599/$2,199 street). They all have the exact same hardware; the only difference is the plug-in bundle. Xpress and Xpert come with the same 14-plug-in set of 1176SE limiter (low-CPU version), Pultec EQP-1A, RealVerb Pro, the CS-1 channel strip suite and the Nigel guitar amp and processor suite. The Xpress adds a $500 voucher for UAD plug-ins, and Xpert has a $1,000 voucher. You'd generally get two or three plug-ins for $500, such as the rad duo of the Neve 88RS channel strip and new SPL Transient Designer.
For the big bucks, Xpander Xtreme includes 32 total plug-ins — nearly all of the UAD line except for a few recent releases, such as the Precision Buss Compressor. You get most of the kick-ass marquee UAD plug-ins, including the full-strength 1176LN; Neve 33609 compressor, 1081 EQ and 1073 EQ; Pultec Pro; DreamVerb; Roland CE-1 chorus, Dimension D chorus and RE-201; LA-2A; Fairchild 670; and more, including the aforementioned 14 standard plugs.
We're concerned mostly with the hardware for this review, but for the sake of brevity, allow me to reiterate for anyone who doesn't already know that Universal Audio plug-ins deserve their near-universal critical acclaim for outstanding sound quality, as well as faithful emulations of classic dynamics and effects hardware. Case in point, the Neve 33609 Limiter/Compresor sounds simply awesome. Not the least of its charms is the hard and dirty, yet warm distortion that occurs when you crank up the output gain. One of my favorite uses for that is to take an acoustic picked bass and make an aggressive, funky, analog-sounding electro-house bass out of it. Another example not emulated from hardware, DreamVerb gives you just about everything you could want in a stereo reverb plug-in: fantastic sound; a large, intuitive interface with ample graphical feedback; many room shapes and materials to choose from; room shape and material “morphing;” 5-band EQ; and more.
Without the absurdity of entering a “who's better” discussion, I'll just say that UA easily ranks among the elite plug-in makers, along with luminaries such as Waves, McDSP, SSL, Sonnox and others. UA's penchant for re-created hardware GUIs may strike some as easy and intuitive, or it may seem to overlook the conveniences of graphics-heavy GUIs (although Xpander Xtreme has its fair share of the latter, with RealVerb Pro, Precision Multiband compressor and others).
ON THE GRIND
While interfaces and the minute particulars of sound quality are a matter of taste, you can't argue with performance. To test Xpander, I used a MacBook Pro 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB RAM running OS 10.4.11, but the ExpressCard slot is the most important spec. I used the plug-ins mostly as VSTs in Ableton Live 7, but also as Audio Units in Logic Pro 8. The following is fairly typical of how I used the Xpander.
In Live 7, I had a fairly simple 8-track mix. On the Master output, I slapped an 1176LN, which is worth a huge chunk of the cost alone for the way it smoothes out a mix seemingly like magic and prevents any clipping on the output. On an Aux Send I put the terrific CS-1 Channel Strip. Once I dialed in its EQ, compressor, delay and reflector dialed I simply adjusted how much signal per track to send to it. With several sounds all on the same drum track, I put the Precision Multiband compressor/expander/gate, so I could more easily tweak the kick and hi-hat on the same track. On the bass I put the low-CPU Neve 33609SE, which sounds almost as good — but noticeably not as huge and warm — as the full 33609. The 33609 takes a massive 61-percent CPU hit on the UAD-1 Meter (compared to 33609SE's 12 percent), so it's tough to use unless you want to process one clip at a time and print a new audio track. I dropped a couple of other choruses and EQs on tracks until I had nine total UAD plug-ins using 91 percent of the Xpander CPU, while my laptop barely touched 25 percent.
There's no comparison to mixing with UAD plug-ins over DAW-bundled plug-ins or midrange third-party plugs. I laid down mixes much faster than normal and with results I liked much better using Xpander. One small caveat is that Xpander won't run any non-UAD plug-ins, nor can you pull any UAD plugs off of Xpander. With several plug-ins tipping the 20-percent CPU mark (Plate 140, 23 percent; RE-201, 25 percent; Precision Multiband, 27 percent; the full Nigel suite, 32 percent), you have to exercise some strategy with bouncing tracks to audio if you want use all UAD plug-ins on a project, or else save the UAD plug-ins for the most important tasks only. It's not surprising why some pros pack desktop machines with three or more UAD cards; once you get hooked, you won't want to work without them.
THE YEAR 2008 U.A.D.
The UAD Xpander units bless new laptop users with an amazing outboard DSP option that won't tax your precious data ports. Combining it with a FireWire audio interface and a USB 2.0 hard drive for storing and recording audio, I had a truly capable music workstation both for the road and my small home studio. I may even ditch my desktop computer altogether, and that would have never happened without the Xpander.
UNIVERSAL AUDIO UAD XPANDER XTREME > $2,599 ($1,699 for XPANDER XPERT; $1,199 for XPANDER XPRESS)
Pros: Same processing power and bus speed as UAD-1e PCIe cards for desktop machines. 32 bundled plug-ins comprise a full mixing and mastering suite with world-class audio quality. The ExpressCard is the best answer for laptop external DSP to save the FireWire and USB buses. Roadworthy carrying case.
Cons: Requires AC power supply at all times. Must shut down computer before connecting Xpander. Vista only for Windows.
Mac: Intel processor; OS 10.4 or later; ExpressCard/34 or /54 slot; RTAS, VST or Audio Units host
PC: Windows Vista; ExpressCard/34 or /54 slot; RTAS or VST host