Universal Audio UAD-2 Solo/Laptop (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: The Universal Audio UAD-2 Solo/Laptop houses a single DSP chip in an ExpressCard/34 format.

Those of us relying on a laptop as our primary music-making machine are often left behind when it comes to DSP power. Although 10 years ago I couldn't have imagined having the amount of muscle that my dual-core MacBook Pro gives me, the demands that multitrack sessions make on a CPU can still outstrip these resources — especially when it comes to plug-in effects.

With its successful track record of producing DSP hosts, Universal Audio has come to the rescue: The UAD-2 Solo/Laptop (see Fig. 1) gives you access to the company's marvelous range of Powered Plug-Ins without the commensurate CPU hit, and in a travel-friendly format to boot.

Plug ‘n’ Play

A 2009 EM Editors' Choice Award winner, the UAD-2 system relies on Analog Devices Sharc ADSP-21369 chips, which exceed the power of the UAD-1's chips by 2.5 times. As its name implies, the Solo/Laptop offers a single chip just like the UAD-2 Solo card does for desktop computers, except that it is embedded in an ExpressCard/34 card. (The package also includes an ExpressCard/54 adapter.)

By designing the UAD-2 Solo/Laptop for an ExpressCard slot rather than a FireWire port, Universal Audio gives you significantly faster throughput for its Powered Plug-Ins while freeing up the FireWire bus for your hard drives and audio interface. The ExpressCard/34 itself is just more than 4.5 inches long by 1.25 inches wide, and it is conveniently powered by the ExpressCard slot. The bulky section houses the DSP chip, which leaves about 1.5 inches of plastic sticking out of the computer once you plug in the card. The appendage is shorter than an iLok dongle, thankfully, but you'll still want to be careful not to lean on it while working.

The UAD-2 Solo/Laptop supports the same AU, VST and RTAS Powered Plug-Ins that are available for Universal Audio's PCIe cards. The standard package includes CS-1 Channel Strip, RealVerb Pro, 1176SE compressor and Pultec EQP-1A, as well as a $50 voucher that can be used to purchase additional plug-ins. (A review of the UAD-2 PCIe-based platform is in the April 2009 issue at emusician.com.)

For this review, I used a 17-inch MacBook Pro with a 3.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip and 4 GB of RAM, running Digidesign Pro Tools 8, Apple Logic Pro 9 and i3 DSP-Quattro 3. (At the time of this writing, Mac users need to pony up for the top-of-the-line 17-inch MacBook Pro if they want a new computer with an ExpressCard slot.)

G'bye Card-Cage

Setting up and using the UAD-2 Solo/Laptop is simple: Install the software and then go online and register it at the Universal Audio Website. It'll prompt you to download an authorization file that you double-click or drag onto the included UAD Meter and Control Panel application to activate the plug-ins. Then slide the card into the ExpressCard slot and get to work.

When you plug the card in, a light on the top flashes red and green for a few seconds before giving you the solid green that indicates the card is powered and ready to use. When you're done with your session, simply quit your audio application and pull out the card. The card is remarkably small and easy to store. Because I do a lot of traveling, I use a zippered carrying case (like the kind you'd use for eyeglasses) to hold all of my dongles and Digidesign Mbox Micro interface. The UAD Solo/Laptop fits in there perfectly.

To get the most from your card, visit uaudio.com and make sure you have the latest version of the UAD-2 software. (I downloaded Version 5.4.1 for this review.) Windows users should note that this version adds the Clear CPU Affinity control in the Configuration pane of the UAD Meter & Control Panel application. When enabled, this setting automatically removes any preferences a plug-in may have for one processor over another within a multiprocessor system, resulting in fewer problems with CPU overload. You'll see why that's important in a moment.

Zero to 60 in One Instant

I had no issues installing the software and booting up the card the first time. In fact, I had no problems using the UAD-2 card and plug-ins at all. As you would expect, some of the effects are more processor-hungry than others, and it's not necessarily obvious which are the most demanding. Although a trip to uaudio.com/support/uad/charts.html shows you how many mono and stereo instantiations of each plug-in you can run in a given session, the reality is that it all depends on the full complement of effects you're using during a session (not to mention other factors of your system). Sure, you might be able to run the full 61 mono instantiations of the UAD 1176SE, but that'll change significantly if you're running two instances of the FATSO Powered Plug-In. (More on this processor-hungry plug-in in a moment.)

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FIG. A: The UAD FATSO Sr. adds a number of improvements to the original effect, such as a threshold, attack and release controls for the compressor and a saturation knob for the Tranny section.

This is not a slam against the UAD-2 Solo/Laptop or the Powered Plug-In product line itself; it's a reality with any DSP system. Effects require processing cycles, and the more sophisticated the plug-in (or modeling involved), the more cycles you will typically need to get the job done. With the UAD Powered Plug-Ins, Universal Audio did a fantastic job of offering high instantiation rates for many of its great-sounding, bread-and-butter effects. Only a handful — the sexier ones, such as DreamVerb, Moog Multimode Filter, Neve 33609, Plate 140 and Roland RE-201 — give you single-digit instantiations.

On a 12-track, 24-bit, 44.1kHz session, I was able to get three instances of FATSO Jr., one of the Moog Multimode Filter and an EX-1 equalizer/compressor. This ate up 95 percent of my Solo/Laptop's DSP capabilities. When I tried to add the excellent-sounding Plate 140 reverb, I got the dreaded DSP Load Limit Exceeded dialog box, indicating it was time to bounce the tracks to disc with the effects I wanted to keep.

If you're a Pro Tools LE user and have never noticed the latency that plug-ins add to a track, here's your chance to hear it. A couple of the Powered Plug-Ins add substantial delays, so you'll want to make sure you have the latest version of Mellowmuse Software's Auto Time Adjuster RTAS plug-in, which provides automated (though not automatic) delay compensation. (Most other sequencers offer automatic delay compensation, so you won't need an AU or VST version of this plug-in.)

RTAS versions of Powered Plug-Ins appear in your plug-in pull-down list under Wrapped Plug-ins. That's because the system automatically uses FXpansion's VST-to-RTAS adapter for compatibility in this format. And thankfully, the RTAS versions are hassle-free. If I had one wish, it would be to have the Powered Plug-Ins sorted by functionality (dynamics, reverb, delay, etc.) because the list is long and requires an extra bit of head-scratching when you first work your way through the plug-ins.

Flying Solo

I highly recommend the UAD-2 Solo/Laptop for the simple reason that it gives laptop owners convenient access to the wealth of Powered Plug-Ins. When you hear how good these effects sound, you're going to wish there was a Quad/Laptop card. Whether you're mixing or mastering, the UAD-2 Solo/Laptop is the best addition you can make to your system for less than five bills.

Gino Robair is editorial director atgearwire.com. His blog, The Robair Report, is atemusician.com.

Plug-Ins Du Jour

Just before I received the card for review, UA released some exciting new plug-ins with UAD-2 Version 5.4.1, so I decided to take them for a test drive.

UAD FATSO Jr./Sr. Analog Tape Simulator and Compressor ($299)

The Empirical Labs EL7 FATSO (Full Analog Tape Simulator and Optimizer) was originally designed to emulate the sonic signatures that tape and transformers add to audio signals, as well as provide various kinds of low-order harmonic distortion and compression. It's the processor that pros use to give an instrument serious attitude. But it also offers plenty of subtlety when you want to add a bit of old-school thickness.

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FIG. B: The UAD EMT 250 gives you a unique-sounding reverb, as well as a number of useful time-based effects.

The FATSO Jr. plug-in is a dead ringer for the original stereo hardware processor, including its awesome-sounding Spank limiter. The plug-in is great for adding character to a weak bass guitar track or adding punch to drums. Like its namesake, the FATSO Jr. can give your tracks a vintage sound in an aggressively modern context. And it sounds so good, it's hard not to overuse it.

UA worked with Empirical Labs designer Dave Derr to come up with an expanded version, called the FATSO Sr., which adds a threshold dial, attack and release controls for the compressor, a switchable highpass sidechain filter and a saturation control for the Tranny (transformer) section (see Fig. A). These added features give you the extra tweakability you need for subtle coloration.

Remarkably, FATSO Jr. and Sr. are also the most processor-intensive of the Powered Plug-In set, especially with the Tranny control engaged. I was able to run three mono instances (without Tranny) in a session at 44.1 kHz, which is about what the UA chart says is possible. (My contact at Universal Audio noted that this plug-in was so processor-intensive that the company had to wait for the UAD-2 platform before they could get the sound they wanted and not eat up the entire DSP chip.)

I'm certainly not complaining: With the hardware version listing at about $3,000, I'm happy to run three instances for a tenth of the price of two channels of hardware.

UAD EMT 250 Classic Electronic Reverberator ($249)

This plug-in emulates the first commercially available digital reverb, which hit the streets in 1976 at a price of $20,000. Only 250 units were built, but they made their mark on popular music because of the unique algorithms designed by Dr Barry Blesser, who was consulted for this plug-in recreation.

The hardware version had one input, four outputs and additional time-based effects — echo, delay, chorus, phase (comb shift) and space (a reverb with a 10-second delay time). The UAD EMT 250 (see Fig. B) comes in mono and stereo versions, but it sums stereo signals to mono before treating them, while sending the dry signal through in stereo. What were four discrete outputs on the hardware version are now switchable front and rear stereo pairs, which sound different from each other in some of the effects. On other effects, the switch either sums the processed outputs to mono or mutes the input.

It's certainly not the hungriest of the Powered Plug-Ins; the UA chart says you should be able to get about 11 stereo instances of the UAD EMT 250 running in a 44.1kHz session. That's great, because the effects have a unique vibe — somewhat '80s-sounding to me — and are very flexible, so it's great to be able to have a few going and not eat up the Solo/Laptop's resources.

I particularly enjoyed using the Phase effect to add character to rhythm instruments, such as electric guitar. Rather than offering a sweeping phase-shifter sound, it's a comb filter that you can use like a radical EQ to help make an instrument standout in a mix.

In our reviews, prices are MAP or street unless otherwise noted.

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