Review: Universal Audio UAD-2 Satellite Thunderbolt

Life In the Fast Lane for UAD-2 Platform Plug-In Users
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From its first incarnation, Universal Audio’s Satellite line was designed to add portability and system flexibility to the UAD-2 platform. Users who wanted to run UAD-2 plug-ins were no longer limited to PCIe cards in their desktop computers.

When Apple replaced FireWire 800 with the faster, higher-bandwidth Thunderbolt format for data transfer, Universal Audio responded with Thunderbolt versions of the Satellite, offering the capacity to run more plug-ins simultaneously than the FireWire models.

The UAD-2 Satellite Thunderbolt (see Figure 1) is available in either Quad or Octo models, which feature 4 and 8 processors, respectively. Unlike the FireWire Satellite models, however, Universal Audio does not offer 2-processor Duo configurations for Thunderbolt.

The UAD-2 Satellite Thunderbolt units are available with several bundled plug-in packages. The lowest-cost units are the Core bundles, which include the Analog Basics Bundle containing eight plug-ins. The Custom Bundles feature the Analog Basics Bundle, but let you choose three additional UAD plug-ins of your choice. If you’re feeling really flush, you can opt for the Octo Ultimate Bundle, which comes with 79 plug-ins.

Universal Audio lent me an Octo Satellite Thunderbolt to review, and included some of the latest plug-ins, three of which will also be covered in this review—Neve 1073, Manley Variable Mu, and Thermionic Culture Vulture.

LAUNCHING THE SATELLITE

The UAD-2 Satellite Thunderbolt is a tabletop unit housed in a sleek matte-black metal box that is wider and taller, but less deep, than the silver-colored FireWire versions. On the front panel, the word Host glows white when the unit is connected and flashes red when its not. Like the other Satellite products, the unit doesn’t have a fan so it functions silently.

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Fig. 2. The rear-panel of the unit features a power switch, power adapter input, and Thunderbolt ports. The rear panel (see Figure 2) sports a power switch, a snap-in receptacle for the two-piece (line-lump) external power supply, and a pair of Thunderbolt ports; the second port allows you to daisy-chain up to five other Thunderbolt peripherals. The air vents on the back are sized to fit Kensington security products, which is handy for installations where theft could be an issue. As with Universal Audio’s Apollo products, you have to supply your own Thunderbolt cable.

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The only documentation in the box is a card (which the company refers to as a “coaster”) that points you to the Satellite start-up page at uaudio.com. Once you download the required software, you can watch a video that lays out the setup instructions. Although many of the nine steps are self-evident, some steps have to be completed in a particular sequence. The UAD-2 Satellite Thunderbolt is not a complex device to setup, but having to refer back to the video is time-consuming, and the task would be a lot easier if the steps were printed in one location, in a paper-based startup guide in the box (or a similar PDF on the website) with the steps printed out in order.

NAVIGATION

According to Universal Audio, the difference between Thunderbolt and FireWire, in terms of the number of UAD-2 plug-ins you can instantiate, is significant: Under FireWire, the maximum number of plug-ins you can have open is 55, whereas with Thunderbolt, a much higher number is possible, depending of course on how DSP-hungry the plug-ins are and how much DSP power is in your Satellite. I tested the Satellite Thunderbolt Octo using a 2013 MacBook Pro.

I began by opening 60 mono tracks and put an 1176LN (Legacy) plug-in on each; this used up only 34 percent of my DSP. Next I tried 75 tracks, each with a mono 1176LN and mono Cooper Time Cube plug-in, which required 84 percent—that’s 150 UAD plug-ins opened simultaneously.

Some plug-ins, such as the new Neve 1073 or Thermionic Culture Vulture (both covered later in this review), require more DSP, so the total number you can instantiate will vary. Past UAD systems required a very judicious use of the plugins to avoid maxing out your DSP. But even with Universal Audio’s Quad Satellite Thunderbolt processor, you should easily be able to exceed the 55 plug-in limit of FireWire.

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JOIN TOGETHER

Users of Apollo systems or FireWire Satellites can use them in tandem with the Thunderbolt Satellite to create an even more powerful UAD-2 system. Apollo owners may need to purchase the optional Thunderbolt card from Universal Audio in order to do this.

To see what it was like to combine systems, I connected my Satellite FireWire Quad into my MacBook Pro’s second Thunderbolt port, using a FireWire 800 to Thunderbolt adapter. Once connected, I restarted the UAD Meter and Control Panel application, and it showed both units as active. The DSP power of the two Satellites was now seamlessly combined. I tried the same mono 1176LN and Cooper Time Cube combination on 75 tracks, and the DSP meter read only 57 percent (as opposed to the 84 percent reading from the Satellite Thunderbolt alone). I then added a mono Dangerous BAX EQ to each channel, which resulted in a total of 225 UAD plug-ins open simultaneously but with a 74 percent reading on the DSP meter.

SATELLITE IN ORBIT

Fig. 3. The new Neve 1073 plug-in is a modeled replica of the original unit. Overall, I found the Satellite Thunderbolt to be quite an impressive piece of hardware. It’s not cheap, but it is quite powerful. And the ability to use it to expand another piece of UAD-2 hardware opens up a lot of possibilities for those with existing systems.

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Now, let’s look at some of the latest UAD-2 plug-in emulations of classic hardware.

NEVE 1073

The Neve 1073 console mic preamp/EQ has achieved legendary status in the audio world, and this is the second UAD-2 emulation of it. (The previous version is now dubbed Neve 1073 Legacy.) The new Neve 1073 plug-in (see Figure 3) has a larger display than the previous incarnation and a vertical orientation with a nice-looking, wood-grain frame. More importantly, Universal Audio says it is a complete end-to-end model of the circuitry of the unit, which was pulled from a Neve 8014 console.

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If you have an Apollo interface, you can use the Neve 1073 as an actual mic preamp, thanks to the UAD Unison technology. If not, you can insert it on a channel like any other plug-in and still get the benefit of its great sound and EQ.

The Input Gain can accommodate the mic and line inputs. The mic range is mainly on the left side and line-level range on the right. Switching between them takes a little getting used to: You can’t switch from Line to Mic by “turning” from one range to the other. Instead, click on the gain number displays on of one or the other, or on the words Mic or Line.

If you’re inserting the plug-in on a track, the Line range offers everything from clean to crunchy sounds, depending on the settings of the Input Gain control and the Level control, a large virtual slider on the right side of the interface. Setting it in the Mic range while using it as a standard insert will provide a variety of distorted timbres because you’re overloading the input to varying degrees.

Below the Mic/Line gain knob is the High Shelf knob, which lets you add or subtract 18 dB at a fixed-frequency shelf of 12 kHz. Turning the knob clockwise from its default 6 o’clock position gives you the “Neve sheen,” a glassy, high-end sparkle that sounds fantastic when used in moderation. Between its contribution to the signal and the sweet crunchiness you can get from the gain controls, the Neve 1073 adds a pleasant shininess to all sorts of tracks. I tried it on drum kit, guitar, and vocals, and was thrilled with the results.

For additional tone shaping, the semi-parametric Midrange Band and low-shelving EQ are impressively smooth sounding and have a definite console EQ vibe. The EQ can be switched in and out, and a phase switch is included.

I have rarely been as impressed with the sound of a plug-in the way I am with the new Neve 1073 emulation. It seems like everything it touches turns to sonic gold, and it’s going to be a go-to plug-in for me. The only downside is that it requires a lot of DSP power. Based on the readout of my UAD Meter and Control Panel app readout, the effect uses more than three times as much power as the Neve 1073 Legacy plug in.

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THERMIONIC CULTURE VULTURE

The hardware version of this effect from the British company Thermionic Culture is an outboard tube-distortion processor that lets you dial up anything from subtle crunch to utter mayhem, with plenty of control. Universal Audio modeled this esteemed unit and added additional controls.

Fig. 4. The Thermionic Culture Vulture plug-in can give you everything from subtle breakup to full-on distortion. The Culture Vulture plug-in (see Figure 4) is a 2-channel processor that can be opened in mono, mono-to-stereo, or stereo instantiations (depending on the source track, of course). In stereo mode, with the Link/Ctrl toggle set to Link, the settings in one channel are mirrored in the other. Flipping the switch to Control mode lets you independently control each side, allowing you to create some wonderful stereo effects.

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I set up the Culture Vulture plug-in on a stereo drum loop, put it in Control mode, and dialed up separate distortion settings on each side, which resulted in a very big sound. I tried the same configuration with a mono guitar track with a mono-to-stereo instantiation and was again able to obtain a big, wide sound. (See “Big Stereo from Mono” sidebar below.)

The Culture Vulture offers three types of distortion that can be independently set for the left and right channels, depending on the plug-in’s configuration. The Drive control governs the amount of distortion, and the Overdrive switch adds a 20dB boost to give an extra push to the distortion setting you’ve dialed in. On the hardware unit, the Bias control regulates the current sent through the 6AS6 tube, and its effect is displayed in the meter for that channel. The plug-in’s Bias control simulates this effect and its meter movement: Lower settings yield cleaner sounds. A Filter switch for rolling off high-end from the distortion, and an Output Level knob round out each channel’s control set.

Universal Audio added a global Mix control that gives you an additional way to vary the amount of distortion, allowing you to change the ratio of clean to distorted sound. I found it to be particularly useful. For example, on a drum kit, you can set up a heavy distortion using the Culture Vulture’s other controls, but dial it back for a subtler effect. Nice touch.

Overall, the Thermionic Culture Vulture is warm and rich sounding, easy to control, and very flexible; it sounds great for subtle or intense distortion.

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Fig. 5. The Manley Variable MU replicates the smooth sounding tube compressor and adds a wet/dry control for parallel compression.MANLEY VARIABLE MU

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The UAD-2 Variable Mu, which is described in the manual as developed “under Manley Labs’ rigorous scrutiny,” models Manley’s popular Class A, dual-channel tube compressor (see Figure 5). The result is a transparent dynamics processor that can be used on the stereo bus, on individual elements, and switched between Stereo and Mid-Side modes.

The Variable Mu plug-in can be used as a mono, mono-to-stereo, or stereo instance. The Controls/Link toggle switch lets you unlink the two channels putting you in dual-mono mode. When in Mid-Side mode, the mid signal is controlled on the left side of the compressor and the sides on the right.

Like the original hardware version, the Variable Mu plug-in has a Dual Input knob, which controls the input level going to both channels, rather than offering separate controls for right and left. Each channel has controls for Threshold, Attack, and Recovery (a three-position release parameter). Each channel can be toggled between compression and limiting, and even set separate thresholds for each of the channels, depending on the settings of the Sidechain/Link and Controls/Link switches. Universal Audio added a Dry/Wet knob, which facilitates parallel compression. Two large meters display gain reduction.

I used the Variable Mu plug-in on a variety of sources—vocals, bass, kick drum, drum overheads, and on the stereo bus—and was impressed with its smooth-sounding compression: It improved virtually everything I used it on. The combination of excellent sound quality and flexible controls make it, like the hardware version, a very desirable dynamics processor.

SPEED AND POWER

All told, the Satellite Thunderbolt provides a higher-bandwidth solution for the UAD-2 plugin platform, allowing you to run significantly more instantiations than you could on its predecessors.

Universal Audio continues the UAD-2 tradition of releasing officially certified models that painstakingly re-create the functions and sound of the original units. Although the new plug-ins require a lot of DSP to run, the Satellite Thunderbolt is more than up to the task.

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STRENGTHS
Thunderbolt bandwidth allows for larger plug-in counts. Other UAD-2 hardware can be seamlessly used in tandem. Available with a range of plugin bundles. Fanless, silent operation.

LIMITATIONS
Lacks PDF setup guide. Thunderbolt cable not included.

Quad Core Bundle ($999)
Octo Core Bundle ($1,399)
Quad Custom Bundle ($1,499)
Octo Custom Bundle ($1,899)
Octo Ultimate Bundle ($5,999)
uaudio.com

QUICK TIP: BIG STEREO FROM MONO

Here is a simple way you can use the Thermionic Culture Vulture plug-in to create a huge sounding stereo track from a mono source. Insert a mono-to-stereo instance of the Culture Vulture on the track you are processing. Next, move the Control/Link switch to Control to unlink the two channels. Set one of the channels of the plug-in to the T (Triode) distortion type and the other to P 1 (Pentode 1).

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With the track playing, adjust the drive controls to taste (you can also engage the Overdrive switch on one side), but make sure that the left and right channels have different amounts of distortion on them and that each side has a different character. If they sound unbalanced, use the Output Level knobs to set the left and right channels to an even level.

Mike Levine is a musician, producer, and music journalist based in the New York City area.