Review: Universal Audio UAD-2 Solo/Laptop

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Adding extra processing power to desktop Macs and PCs has always been a relatively simple affair. With numerous PCI and FireWire-based products available from Universal Audio, TC Electronic and SSL, users are really only limited by budget when shopping for upgrades. For laptop users, things are not as easy. While FireWire products are always an option, they require users to sacrifice portability to gain access to some advanced processing options. If you''re lucky enough to own a laptop with an ExpressCard slot, one of the more elegant DSP upgrades is the new UAD-2 SOLO, which brings together the DSP power of the UAD-2, a collection of Powered Plug-Ins and access to a wide array of optional plug-ins, including emulations of classic hardware from Neve, SSL, Trident, Roland and a host of others.

The UAD-2 SOLO ships with the ExpressCard hardware and an install disc that includes the 1176SE compressor/limiter, Pultec EQP-1A program equalizer, RealVerb Pro room modeler and CS-1 channel strip. Users are given the option to install the AudioUnits, VST and/or RTAS versions. The installer includes every available Powered Plug-In, and the optional plugs-ins will run via a fully functional 14-day trial of each plug-in; each demo can be started independently. New users will also need to register with UA and create an account to purchase additional authorizations and unlock the other plugs-ins.

I tested the UAD-2 SOLO with a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo with 4 GB of RAM and OS 10.5.8. Installation was totally straightforward. I made sure to hit the UA site and download the latest UAD software, which is currently at Version 5.5.0. Once everything was installed, I inserted the hardware into the ExpressCard slot on my MacBook Pro, and after the unit clicked into place, a single LED switched from red to green as the machine recognized the hardware.

And Away We Go

I tested the hardware with both Apple Logic Pro 9 and Ableton Live 8. Upon launching Logic, the AU validator quickly cycled through the newly installed UAD plug-ins, and everything booted up without a hitch. The story was the same with Live; the UAD plugs were immediately available from the plug-ins folder. As a longtime UAD-1 user, I first started working through some older sessions in Logic that used UAD plugs, and not only did they open without a catch, but the extra DSP power that the UAD-2 brings vs. its predecessor became very apparent. My older system was a G5 tower running two UAD-1 PCI cards, and I usually had that system teetering on the edge. The UAD-2 worked as advertised, and I was easily able to make use of some additional CPU-draining processors like the Neve 1081 and Roland Space Echo.

Some of the newest and most notable additions to the UAD line include the 4K Channel Strip and 4K Bus Compressor, both of which are modeled after their respective components of the legendary SSL 4000. And like the UAD Neve emulations, the two 4K plug-ins bring a significant amount of refinement and that coveted “glue-it together” quality that so many engineers are after.

Overall, the UAD-SOLO is a continuation of an already fantastic product line. It''s a bit of bummer that more laptops, especially from Apple, don''t include ExpressCard slots. Hopefully, the good folks at UA have a contingency plan in the works for future laptop and non-PCI desktops. But for the time being, the UAD-SOLO is one the best investments you can make if you''re a laptop user in need of some truly world-class mixing and mastering plug-ins.

Universal Audio
UAD-2 SOLO/Laptop > $499
Ultra-portable ExpressCard version of the UAD-2. Close to 3x average increase in plug-in instances over UAD-1.
Cons: Could become a niche product as fewer laptops include ExpressCard slots.