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Universal Audio Apollo

7/18/2012

Okay . . . Apollo. The Big Deal at Winter NAMM. You could review it as an audio interface with a built-in UAD-2 card, which would be sort of like reviewing a car by how it looks, not how it drives. Because the Apollo story isn’t as much what it is—we’ve seen audio interfaces and UA’s powered-plug-ins before—but what it does. So we’ll cover the basics, but more importantly, the implications.

Overview Apollo has 18 inputs. Eight of these are analog 1/4" TRS line ins; the first four can serve as mic inputs (with XLR ins and digitally- controlled gain up to a ribbon-friendly 65dB). The mic pres are Burr-Brown PGA2500 chips, which are extremely high quality. The first two ins can also serve as instrument DI inputs, using front-panel 1/4" jacks. ADAT S/ MUX optical ins provide eight ADAT channels at 44.1/48/88.2/96kHz, and four channels at 176.4 and 192kHz. The other two ins are stereo coaxial S/PDIF (optical isn’t available), which can do automatic sample rate conversion if the source doesn’t match Apollo. The outs are eight mono TRS 1/4" line outs, stereo monitor outs, two stereo headphone outs, and S/PDIF out. Apollo includes word clock I/O with termination, but no hardware MIDI connectors.

The front panel’s user interface has a single mic channel’s buttons (mic/line, lowpass filter, phantom power, pad, polarity flip, and stereo link) and gain control. Pushing the gain knob steps through the four inputs. There are eight 10-step LED meters and a stereo output LED meter (also ten steps); an output monitor control and two headphone level controls round out the front panel.

The global (110/240V, 50/60Hz) power supply is a large “line lump” with an IEC connector (the unit ships with US and Euro cables.) The power supply connector is no flimsy minijack, but a macho multipin XLR connector.

With FireWire 800 interfacing, you get excellent bandwidth. The bad news (at least for Windows users) is that Apollo is currently Mac-only, with 32- and 64-bit drivers. Unfortunately many compatible Macs with FW800 ports can deliver only an FW400 port’s bandwidth, but if needed, you can install one of the inexpensive, UA-recommended FW800 cards to bring your Mac up to spec. Also, props to UA for recommending against particular FW800 cards, and naming names.

Expect Windows support this summer, although you’ll need to buy a compatible FW800 card due to variability among Windows computers. Thunderbolt support is also slated for summer.

Fig. 1. Apollo’s mixer goes far beyond the average interface’s mixer applet.
Surprise: It’s a Mixer Most interfaces have mixer applets that let you route inputs to outputs for zero-latency monitoring (which UA more appropriately calls buffer-free monitoring), but Apollo takes this concept much further (Figure 1) to take advantage of the onboard UAD- 2 DSP. (Apollo comes in a Duo or Quad version, with two or four SHARC ADSP- 21469 chips respectively.) Each channel has four inserts for UA’s effects, and two internal aux buses have four effect inserts. (External aux busing through hardware isn’t out of the question—route your signal to a headphone out, then bring the signal processor’s output back into two analog ins.) Note that there are no master output insert slots.

The input channels have solo and mute buttons, as well as two aux send controls with input panning. The two headphone outs are treated the same way as buses, but include on/ off buttons. You can right-click on a channel fader or panpot, and copy the mix to any headphone or aux send—a real time-saver. Apollo remembers your mixer settings even when not connected to a computer, making it a suitable digital mixer for keyboard rigs and the like. However, if you power it down then power it back up without a compuer, only the routing and mix is remembered.

UAD-2 Processing Few plug-in lines are as universally liked as UA’s Powered Plug- Ins, even by analog audio snobs. But the key here is they serve multiple purposes. They can exist as VST/AU/RTAS plug-ins within your DAW, like a normal UAD-2 card. But if they are inserted into the mixer’s channel or bus inserts, you can record with processing while monitoring the processed sound in near-real time—in other words, you don’t experience latency caused by monitoring through your computer. You can also send the dry signal to your DAW, but listen to the DSP processing—ideal for vocalists who want to hear compression and limiting in their earphones, but whose effects you don’t want to record with the vocal track.

Furthermore, you can do a complex mix within Apollo, and send the mixed output to your DAW. When recording multiple inputs simultaneously across analog and digital inputs, you may need path delay compensation, but this isn’t necessary with individual instruments where inter-instrument phase coherency isn’t an issue. What’s more, you can deploy a combination of UAD-2 plug-ins within your DAW and within the mixer so you can listen to existing tracks, as well as monitor the input you’re currently recording into, through UAD-2 processing.

There are also some pretty slick features. For example, for inserts with several plug-ins, you can open all of their GUIs simultaneously as a “channel strip.” (However if the height exceeds that of your screen, you can’t move it up to see lower plug-ins that may be hidden.) An even slicker feature is the Console Recall plug-in. This inserts like a standard VST/ AU/RTAS plug-in, and provides limited control over the console while working within a DAW; and it can also save and load mixer configurations, and store a console’s configuration within the DAW.

Apollo is also ideal for those using a laptop in live performance. As the DSP inside Apollo does the “heavy lifting,” your laptop doesn’t have to work so hard. What’s more, the laptop could provide backing tracks or run DJ software, while using Apollo’s inputs for mics and instruments with realtime processing. Ableton Live fans definitely need to know about Apollo.

Is That It? Nope. There are lots of subtle features and options designed to speed workflow (for example, a switch to determine whether insert effects go to your DAW for recording, or are routed purely for monitoring). And you can pick a workflow for the task at hand, like ignore the mixer applet when mixing—use the plug-ins solely in your DAW, and Apollo as a way to get your DAW output into the real world. In my tests with MOTU’s Digital Performer, the flexibility afforded by Apollo became pretty obvious. Couple that with seriously excellent build quality and sound quality, and it’s no wonder that Apollo has gotten so much attention from the cognoscenti.

 
SUMMARY

STRENGTHS: Near-realtime monitoring through UAD-2 processors while recording. Useable as standard UAD-2 plug-ins (VST/ AU/RTAS). 32/64-bit drivers. Sophisticated mixer software. Excellent sound and build quality. Four digitally-controlled mic pres with up to 65dB gain. Upcoming Thunderbolt support. Word clock I/O with termination.

LIMITATIONS: No MIDI ports. Windows drivers not yet available. May require add-on card for full bandwidth with some FW800 Macs. Analog Classics bundle are the only included plug-ins, although there’s a $100 voucher for the online store. No master output inserts.

Apollo Quad $2,999 MSRP, $2,499 street; Apollo Duo, $2,499 MSRP, $1,999 street
uaudio.com
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