Universal Audio UAD-2 (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: The UAD-2 Quad sports four SHARC processors and fits in a PCIe slot.

For those of us who closely follow Universal Audio's UAD updates, an email about a new plug-in or a new set of features can light up our in-box like a Christmas tree. When I got the email about the introduction of the UAD-2 card, which boasts 2.5 to 10 times the power of a single UAD-1 card, depending on your configuration, it was more like fireworks.

The UAD-2 is a PCIe card with one, two, or four SHARC processor chips attached (covering the Solo, Duo, or Quad versions, respectively), for use in Mac and PC desktop computers. Universal Audio notes that each chip on the UAD-2 has 2.5 times the processing capability as the UAD-1. That means the UAD-2 Quad that I received for review is 10 times faster than the card it replaced (see Fig. 1).

The PCIe card format has been around only for a few years, so check if your computer has the older PCI/PCI-X slots before you consider this upgrade. The three-year-old G5 in my studio didn't have PCIe slots, so I upgraded to a Mac Pro specifically to use the UAD-2 — that's how excited I was about the upgrade. Installing the PCIe card is relatively easy for anyone remotely tech savvy, although it does entail opening up your computer.

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FIG. 2: UAD Control Panel helps you configure the plug-ins and monitor the performance of the DSP cards.

Next, you install the software, which runs on the UAD-2's DSP chips, thereby freeing up your computer's resources. You can install the software either from the included DVD or from a download page at Universal Audio's Web site. (Either way, you'll want to keep an eye on the download page because the company regularly updates its plug-in set, often based on user requests.) During installation, you have the option of including VST, AU (Mac only), or RTAS versions of the Powered Plug-In set. (To use the RTAS version, you need to install the VST version because you'll use FXpansion's VST-to-RTAS adapter.) A little LED on the UAD-2 card glows green when communication with the software is stable.

At this point, you can use the base set of seven Mix Essentials plug-ins, but to authorize any additional plug-ins, you must purchase and download an authorization file from your user area of UA's Web site. Along with the plug-ins, the UAD Control Panel application is installed; it is a manager utility that handles configuration, performance, and authorization for the plug-ins (see Fig. 2).

The Times Are a-Changing

I began the review running Digidesign Pro Tools LE 8.0 with the UAD-2 card on my 8-core, 2.8 GHz Mac Pro. When I opened a session that was mixed with the UAD-1, the first thing I noticed was that the Delay Comp utility was gone. That plug-in is one part of the compensation routine I've developed to be able to use latency-inducing plug-ins in Pro Tools LE. The latency caused by DSP hosts is inevitable, but if your DAW has full automatic delay compensation, you don't have much to worry about.

For Pro Tools LE users, the Delay Comp plug-in has been replaced by the Mellowmuse Software ATA (Auto Time Adjuster) plug-in, which is included with the UAD-2. (It is available to UAD-1 users for $39.) ATA calculates the latency compensation for you, but you still have extra routing to do. And as far as I could establish, this setup works only if you're mixing in the box through a master fader. For those of us stemming audio to outboard-processing and analog-summing gear with the UAD-2 in Pro Tools LE, it's still better to do the math for manual compensation using Digidesign's Time Adjuster plug-in.

I also tested the AU versions of the Powered Plug-Ins in Apple Logic Pro 8, which does provide automatic delay compensation, giving you a much nicer user experience overall. Another benefit of using Logic to run the UAD-2 plug-ins is that there is access to numerical values of all control parameters in addition to the standard UAD-2 GUI. Yet another plus is that the Mackie Control Universal protocol works much better through Logic to control UAD-2 parameters.

Pumped Up

Up to four each of the UAD-1 and UAD-2 cards can run on the same computer, assuming that you have the open slots. If you're switching over from UAD-1 to UAD-2, all of your prized plug-ins (except for the amp-modeling system Nigel, which has been discontinued) are available for the new card. And as of this writing, Universal Audio just eliminated the upgrade fee to transfer the licenses to the UAD-2 system. That means all you pay for is the hardware upgrade.

I've been running two UAD-1s for a while now, so in essence the UAD-2 Quad unit I reviewed gives me five times as much processing as I had before but requires one less card slot. So instead of having to economize with the processor-hungry plug-ins — Fairchild 670, Neve 33609, Helios 69, Neve 1081/1073, 1176LN, Moog Filter, and Plate 140, to name a few — I'm able to use them as needed. The boost in performance is quite staggering, and it allows me to base my plug-in choices on creative reasons instead of pragmatic ones.

Going Live

LiveTrack mode, a new feature for the UAD system, lets you temporarily disable the buffering that causes the card's extra latency. This is useful if you want to hear an effect while recording, although it's for monitoring purposes only. (You could bus the audio to another track if you wanted to print the wet signal.)

The inherent latency of your DAW's buffer size still applies, so even with LiveTrack I found a host buffer setting of 128 to be the largest I could use without latency being problematic. Both LiveTrack and low buffer settings dramatically increase the strain on your computer's CPU, so I recommend disabling large plug-ins and making unnecessary tracks inactive while using LiveTrack.

Universally Endorsed

If you're a UAD-1 user and are used to scrimping and saving on plug-in instantiations, get ready to have your mind blown with the UAD-2. On the other hand, if you've never heard the UAD plug-ins before, you couldn't pick a better time to get to know the power these DSP cards offer. With the UAD-2, Universal Audio has made one of the most attractive plug-in families even harder to live without.

Eli Crews is over compensating manually at New, Improved Recording (newimprovedrecording.com) in Oakland, California.

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