UA’s latest updates add new compressors, delays, voice channels and virtual bass amps, as well as refreshing a few familiar faces.
Universal Audio’s most recent 8.7 and 9.0 software updates for the UAD and Apollo platforms bring with them yet more new plug-ins, all of which can be tried free of charge for 14 days. Version 9.0 adds emulations of the API 2500 stereo bus compressor, the Chandler Zener Limiter and the A/DA STD-1 stereo delay. It also includes support for the Townsend Labs Sphere microphone modelling system, which requires additional hardware (expect an SOS in-depth review soon). New too is Unison support for latency free processing when using the Ampeg SVT Bass Amps plug-ins.
Also new in this release are Thunderbolt support for Windows 10, compatibility with Mac OS Sierra, compatibility with the Windows 10 Anniversary update and Console 2 software for Apollo Firewire. The earlier 8.7 update, meanwhile, added the Manley Voxbox channel strip, Ampeg’s B15N bass amplifier, and the Classic FX Bundle, based on three pieces of vintage Roland hardware, and two further bundles of existing products have also been made available: the Manley Complete Bundle and the Ampeg Heritage Bass Amplifier Bundle.
API’s 2500 stereo bus compressor (shown above) is an attractive addition, as this versatile piece of kit was used to add attitude to many a classic mix. Derived from API’s Paragon series consoles, the 2500 is notable for its optional Thrust feature, which places a filter before the RMS side-chain detector to achieve a better balance in the way high and low frequencies are treated, helping to add punch. The release section offers fixed or variable options and there are the expected attack, threshold and ratio controls, as well as a choice of soft-, medium- and hard-knee modes. You also get the choice of Old and New compression modes, respectively using either feedback or feed-forward gain control topologies. The channel linking also departs from convention, as rather than being simply linked or unlinked, the degree of linking is variable. A Shape control adds further tonal variation.
I was impressed by the way this bus compressor flatters mixes in a very natural-sounding way. I preferred the Old (feedback) mode for most applications, but having so much control over the character of the compression is useful, allowing you to dial in more or less coloration. The API 2500 does that magical ‘glueing’ thing spectacularly well, and this plug-in version has lots of ‘per track’ applications in addition to bus or mix compression. Even though there are lots of control permutations to try, it really is very difficult to make this compressor sound bad.
The Chandler Zener Limiter is another classic piece of high-end outboard, informed by the EMI TG limiters used at Abbey Road Studios for sessions ranging from Pink Floyd to the Beatles. As its name suggests, Zener diodes are used in the gain-control section, which can operate as a limiter or compressor. Below a certain threshold voltage, Zener diodes behave like any ordinary diode, conducting only in one direction; once the signal exceeds this threshold voltage, however, they conduct in both directions.
The TG12413 Zener Limiter and its UAD emulation, developed by Softube, build on EMI’s original design to add more up-to-date features and a greater range of control. For example, the original hardware featured a single attack setting and six release settings, while the TG12413 offers 11 attack and 21 release settings. A THD feature adds controlled distortion, and the plug-in can operate in Mid-Sides or conventional stereo modes. As you’d expect, Softube have modelled the whole signal path, including the coloration imparted by the germanium transistors and audio transformers used in the original.
The original’s ability to add attitude made it popular for processing drums, but it also works well on vocals and acoustic guitar and is said to be suited to processing individual tracks and mixes as well as for mastering. This was borne out in my tests, which demonstrated the plug-in’s ability to add punch and presence to a mix without killing the dynamics or making things sound unduly harsh. Indeed it almost seems to lift out detail and push it forward. As always, you have to be very careful to balance the unprocessed and processed sound levels to avoid being fooled by the ‘loudest is best’ illusion, but there’s something about the character this plug-in imparts that makes it difficult to turn off.
The A/DA STD-1 Stereo Tapped Delay is a hardware unit that dates back to 1980, when analogue ‘bucket-brigade’ delay chips were in common use. This design used six such chips, with the addition of dual LFO-driven modulation; individual delay taps could also be panned left or right to create stereo delay effects. In addition to its more usual delay roles, its doubling, flanging and chorus capabilities were used on many records for widening and enhancing the sound of guitars, vocals and drums.
This plug-in emulation, developed by Brainworx and approved by A/DA, is certainly capable of creating huge-sounding delay treatments. The ability to add modulation in combination with multiple taps and feedback all contribute to a quality best described as ‘lush’. There are other multi-tap delays that can produce a similar effect, but nothing else I’ve tried does exactly the same job. It may be a bit of an indulgence, depending on the type of music you produce, but from pseudo doubling to modulated madness and all points between, the A/DA STD-1 has a lot going for it.
Both the Manley Voxbox and the Ampeg B15N plug-ins take full advantage of the Unison technology employed in the mic preamps on the Apollos. This means that you can record through the plug-in with no latency penalty, and the Apollo hardware automatically adapts to present the same input impedance and gain structure as the original hardware. However, these plug-ins can also be used as conventional inserts at mixdown or recording, so you don’t have to be an Apollo user to benefit from them. Manley’s use of high-end valve circuitry and audio transformers lends their products an extremely musical sound, exemplified in the 3U-high Voxbox input channel, launched back in 1997 as an all-in-one vocal toolkit. UA’s plug-in version is officially endorsed by Manley Labs and aims to emulate the hardware original to a high degree of accuracy. The Voxbox features a valve preamp followed by a compressor, a passive EQ and a de-esser/limiter, each of which has its own bypass switch.
Up to 60dB of gain is available in the preamp section, while a mic/line switch changes the gain and also toggles between the mic and line inputs on a connected Apollo. Low-cut filtering can be introduced at 120Hz or 80Hz, and gain can be set in 5dB steps from 40 to 60 dB. This gain control works by adjusting the amount of negative feedback within the preamp circuit, and can be used in conjunction with the separate input level control to add character to the signal: the higher the gain setting, the lower the amount of negative feedback and the greater the coloration.
The compressor in the Voxbox is an optical design based on Vactec’s Vactrol, an opto-isolator developed in the ’60s incorporating a light source and a photo-resistive element in the same package. It has five speed options for both attack and release, and a variable threshold; the ratio is preset at a nominal 3:1, though is somewhat programme-dependent. A backlit meter defaults to showing gain reduction but can be switched to display levels at various points in the circuit.
The compressor is followed up by a three-band, passive EQ that we’re told is informed by the Pultec MEQ5, and it features 11 switched frequencies per band. There are high and low peaking controls teamed with a mid-range cut control that overlaps the frequency ranges of both: the high band spans 1.5kHz to 20kHz, the mid 200Hz to 7kHz, and the low 20Hz to 1kHz. A switch takes an audio transformer in or out of circuit for a subtle change of character, and when the plug-in is being used on a stereo track, there’s a switch to determine whether the compressor and de-esser side-chains are linked between the left and right channels or whether they should operate independently.
At the output is another optical gain-control circuit, which can be set to operate as either a de-esser with a choice of four frequencies or as a 10:1-ratio limiter — in essence, the de-esser is an adaptation of the limiter but with side-chain filtering, so the whole signal level is ducked when sibilance triggers gain reduction.
As you’d expect, the Voxbox plug-in comes with artist presets from professional users, but there’s nothing complicated about using the controls to create your own settings. As with the hardware, the sound somehow seems to be pushed slightly more towards the listener, even when the controls are set near their minimum values. Being a dedicated voice channel, the controls are designed to meet the needs of the human voice with nothing sounding too heavy-handed unless you overdo the compression. Heavy compression is often used as an effect, and Manley point out that although this is primarily a voice channel, it also works well as an instrument preamp, and the heavier end of the compression range could be particularly useful on bass guitar or drums. Overusing the de-esser can also lead to slightly lispy artifacts but that’s typical of any full-band de-esser. UA’s engineers seem to have got very close to the classy ‘smooth but solid’ sound of Manley’s hardware, making this a very practical plug-in both for tracking and mixing.
The Ampeg B15N ‘fliptop’ bass amplifier was made popular in part by its use on countless Tamla Motown records. This emulation, designed by Brainworx, aims to deliver the thump and character of the Ampeg B15N and provides a choice of two different versions of the design. Four input jacks give a choice of ‘1964’ or ‘1966’ modes: selecting either of the top two jacks runs the plug-in at instrument level, while the lower two are for line-level inputs. Each of the two channels has controls only for volume, treble and bass, though there is a Bias switch that changes between the 1964 cathode-bias mode or the 1966 fixed-bias mode. To my ears, the 1966 mode gives a slightly looser, warmer bass end. The switchable bias provides a couple more options for changing the sound, as either bias setting can be used for either era of amplifier.
The biggest surprise is just how deep and solid this amplifier sounds. Feed it with a bland DI’d bass track and out comes a monster — or, if you are an Apollo user, play through it, and it feels just like a bass amp should. You may need a little compression before the amp to even out the playing, but really, getting a good sound is a doddle. Tonally, the 1964 sound seems rounder and less defined in the upper mids than the later incarnation, but both are capable of great classic bass sounds. But that’s not all: clicking the centre panel of the amp opens up additional options including a noise gate, adjustable high- and low-cut filters, an input gain control and even a virtual power soak. The filters can be switched before or after the amp.
By balancing the settings of the volume control, input gain and power soak, the amp goes from super-clean to distinctly hairy around the edges. There’s also a huge drop-down menu of cabinet and microphone combinations (you can set these to cycle automatically every bar or so for auditioning purposes) and the choice of whether or not to use a horn speaker for the highs. Exploring the mic/speaker part of the plug-in lets you expand the tonal range quite dramatically, and this will definitely become my go-to bass plug-in.
From a personal viewpoint, lovely though it is, I think I could get similar results to the Voxbox using combinations of other UAD plug-ins, so the real star of the 8.7 show for me is the Ampeg B15N, which adds the kind of weight and depth that most other bass amp emulations I’ve tried to date have failed to match. Even if you don’t have an Apollo, this is an excellent mixing tool for treating DI’d basses. And, although we’ve probably all got access to decent stereo compressors and delays already, the new API, Chandler and A/DA emulations in the 9.0 software all have their own individual charm. In all, this is another significant set of upgrades for the UAD2/Apollo platform.
The Classic FX Bundle comprises three emulations based on classic Roland and Boss hardware, specifically the Studio D Chorus (Dimension D), the Brigade Chorus Pedal (CE-1) and the Galaxy Tape Echo, based on a Space Echo. Previous incarnations of these emulations were available as individual plug-ins badged as Roland and Boss; UA told me that the new versions are, sonically, the same as the older plug-ins, but with updated cosmetics that no longer reference the Roland or Boss names. Purchasers of the older versions will automatically get the new ones, which is nice.
I compared all three plug-ins to their UAD Roland/Boss counterparts and couldn’t hear any significant variances other than the Brigade Chorus, which has a higher output level than the existing Boss CE-1 plug-in with the controls set in the same positions, presumably to allow enough gain for live playing via an Apollo. Having these three classic devices available in a single bundle is very welcome.