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Review: Universal Audio Apollo Twin - EMusician

Review: Universal Audio Apollo Twin

Two-Channel Interface
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Fig. 1. The Apollo Twin’s intuitive controls are all located on the top panel.

A two-channel interface that doesn’t cut corners on quality

UNIVERSAL AUDIO'S Apollo line of interfaces have garnered high praise for their audio quality and design, but they have been out of the price range of many home recordists—until now. The Apollo Twin—available in Duo and Solo DSP configurations—is a Thunderbolt-ready, tabletop version for Mac OS X that provides two analog inputs, six analog outputs, and the same high-quality 24-bit/192kHz audio converters as the original Apollo. And as you would expect, the Apollo Twin lets you record with very low latency through the UAD Powered Plug-ins.

Orbiting the Apollo Twin The Apollo Twin is roughly 6" x 6.5", weighs 2.5 lbs., and has an angled top for the controls. But despite its size, the interface feels solid and substantial when you lift it, and the top panel is conveniently laid out (see Figure 1). The large knob in the center is used for controlling input and monitoring levels, depending on whether the Preamp or Monitor button is pressed. Push the knob in Preamp mode to switch between setting the level for input 1 or input 2. The Monitor button toggles the knob between controlling the monitor output and headphone levels.

The first five buttons below the lighted display select mic or line input and engage the low-cut filter, phantom power, pad, and polarity inversion for the selected channel, respectively. The Link button lets you use the knob to adjust both input channels simultaneously when you’re using the Apollo Twin for stereo recording. A high-impedance instrument input and a 1/4" headphone jack are on the front edge, facing the user.

Fig. 2. With the exception of the Hi-Z instrument input and headphones, the unit’s I/O is located on the easily accessible rear panel. The rear panel has two mic/line inputs on combo jacks, two pairs of 1/4" outputs (Line and Monitor), a Lightpipe optical input that can be configured for ADAT (for 8 channels, with S/MUX for high sample rates) or S/PDIF (for two channels) digital input, and a Thunderbolt port (see Figure 2). Unfortunately, a Thunderbolt cable is not included (although some retailers are throwing them in when you purchase the Apollo Twin), so be ready to plunk down an additional $30 to $40 for a cable, depending on the length.

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Unlike the original Apollo, the desktop version has no FireWire connectivity, and Universal Audio’s documentation states that FireWire-to-Thunderbolt adapter cables are not compatible. If you don’t have a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac, you can’t use the Apollo Twin as an interface. That rules out those of you with pre-Thunderbolt Macs, as well as all Windows users. However, you can use the Apollo Twin as a standalone 2-channel preamp by connecting its analog outputs to another audio interface.

On the Software Side The Twin is the first of the Apollo line to feature Universal Audio’s new Unison technology, which allows the preamp plug-ins to communicate bi-directionally with the hardware mic preamps in the unit. The software can be used to change the physical characteristics of the mic preamp, such as the gain staging and impedance—very cool!

Fig. 3. The UAD-2 Console software, with the included UA 610-B preamp open. A major component of the Apollo Twin ecosystem is its software UAD Console application, which gets installed to your computer, along with some utility applications, after you download it from the Universal Audio website (see Figure 3).

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Console is where you insert UAD-2 effects, including the new 610-B tube preamp plug-in. You not only get the modeled sound of the preamp, but you can also use its gain and EQ adjustments as you’re tracking. The 610-B is part of the included plug-in bundle (more on that in a bit) and can also be used as a DAW insert after you’ve recorded.

Console lets you place insert or bus effects on the Apollo Twin’s inputs. The handy Global switch toggles between monitoring with the effects and recording with them. I loved having this flexibility. I’ve used other interfaces that have onboard DSP, but never one that made it so easy to use (nor one with built-in effects that sound anywhere near this good).

The Console application allows you to save sessions, as well. So if you have, say, custom setups for different clients, you can easily recall them, instead of having to reinvent the wheel every time.

Included with your purchase is the Realtime Analog Classics Bundle, which gets installed on your Mac, along with the rest of the UAD plug-in lineup. They are all part of the main Apollo Twin software bundle that you download when setting up the unit. The bundle includes 10 plug-ins from the UAD-2 collection; the rest of the UAD-2 plug-ins (assuming you don’t already own some) will run only in demo mode, unless you purchase and authorize them.

The fully functioning plug-ins provided with the bundle include the 610-B Preamp and EQ; Softube Amp Room Essentials, a suite of excellent-sounding modeling plug-ins for guitar and bass; legacy versions of UAD’s 1176SE/LN, Pultec Pro, and Teletronix LA-2A; the comprehensive CS-1 Precision Channel strip, which gives you EQ, dynamics, and ambience effects; and RealVerb Pro, a handy reverb plug-in.

Sometimes a plug-in bundle is just an inexpensive add-on when you buy a piece of hardware, but that is not the case here. Other than the preamp, the included plug-ins are not among the newest generation of UAD-2 effects, but they are all very good and very useful. Considering that most à la carte UAD-2 plugins cost between $200 and $400, it is a bonus to have this useful selection included.

Flying the Apollo Twin Once you get the hang of using the integrated software and hardware system, the Apollo Twin is a total breeze to use. The user interface is thoughtfully designed, and I found it intuitive to operate, which is more than I can say about other audio interfaces I’ve used.

My review unit was an Apollo Twin Duo, which features two SHARC DSP chips. Also available is the lower-priced Apollo Twin Solo, which has only one SHARC DSP chip, but is otherwise identical. I tested the Apollo Twin with a MacBook Air running Mac OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion), and it performed very smoothly. I was able to open quite a few plug-ins before running out of DSP. To give you an idea of how many I could have open at a time, I set up an 8-track project and inserted a CS-1, Pultec Pro Legacy, and Teletronix LA-2A Legacy plug-in on each track, which used up about 84 percent of the UAD-2 DSP. Of course, the number of plug-ins you can open at a time depends on which ones you’re using, because some are more resource-hungry than others.

I tracked guitar and bass through the Softube amp-modeling plug-ins, and acoustic guitar through the 610-B preamp, using the Apollo Twin’s monitoring features, and there was no perceptible latency, no matter where my DAW’s buffer was set (as long as I remembered to mute the output of the DAW channel I was recording into).

I was impressed with the sound of the preamps, both with and without the 610-B plug-in inserted. To my ears, they offer a significantly higher level of quality than you’d expect from preamps on an audio interface. What’s more, the EQ and gain controls on the 610-B plug-in made it possible to alter the tone on input significantly.

Twin Me With the Apollo Twin, Universal Audio has succeeded in creating a lower-priced version of the Apollo without sacrificing quality. Assuming you have a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac, the Apollo Twin gives you excellent sound quality, UAD-2 plug-ins, and no-latency monitoring in one piece of gear.

Mike Levine is a musician, composer, and producer from the New York area.

SUMMARY

STRENGTHS Affordable Apollo interface. Intuitive controls. Excellent sounding preamps that are under software control. UAD-2 plug-ins included. Plug-ins available for monitoring, tracking, and mixing. Zero-latency hardware monitoring with effects.

LIMITATIONS Only compatible with Thunderbolt-equipped computers running Mac OS X.

Apollo Twin Duo: $899 street
Apollo Twin Solo: $699 street

uaudio.com