For their latest plug-in, Universal Audio have revisited one of the consoles that defined the ‘British sound’.
The latest UA software update, to version 9.5.1, includes four new plug-ins: a Neve preamp, a Helios Type 69 preamp and EQ, the A/DA Flanger and Friedman’s Buxom Betty amplifier. As usual you can try all the new plug-ins for a couple of weeks before deciding whether or not you can live without them. All of them are tempting, but the Helios Type 69 plug-in is in some ways the ‘flagship’ launch in this release. However, there has already been a Helios Type 69 plug-in in the UA arsenal for some time, so why revisit it?
UA tell us that this new version is an ‘end-to-end’ circuit emulation that is far more detailed than the original Legacy version (which is included in the price, for those who don’t already have it), and it emulates the preamp as well as the EQ circuitry. For this revised emulation, UA benchmarked two original ‘golden’ units, chosen for their sound quality and originality. Importantly, this new incarnation supports UA’s Unison technology, allowing Apollo users to track or monitor through the plug-in with near-zero latency, and permitting the plug-in to exploit an Apollo interface’s ability to reconfigure itself to reflect the input impedance and gain structure of the original hardware when a Unison plug-in is loaded in the Console Unison insert slot. This means the plug-in should behave in an authentic way when deliberately overdriven, as well as presenting the correct load to the input source. The hardware preamp knob on the Apollo audio interface addresses the gain and level parameters within the Unison plug-in, so you can adjust how hard you drive the plug-in without having to open its GUI.
Helios consoles had a ‘sound’ all of their own, and played a vital part in Britain’s rock history, having being used to record classic albums at studios including Olympic, Island and the Rolling Stones Mobile. The likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, the Who, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd all recorded on Helios consoles, as did various international artists such as Bob Marley and the Wailers and AC/DC. Their punchy quality is credited with helping shape Pete Townshend’s aggressive guitar sound and with beefing up drum sounds.
If you look inside many characterful bits of studio hardware, you’ll find inductors and/or transformers, and the Helios is no exception. In the version UA have chosen to model, the preamp circuit uses a Lustraphone input transformer, and the three-band EQ is based around inductors. UA have accumulated a lot of experience in modelling the sound characteristics of inductors and audio transformers so I was particularly interested to hear just how ‘analogue’ this new version sounds.
The graphical user interface pays homage to the original hardware, with a long double fader to set the output level joined by a mic/line switch and a stepped six-position Gain switch. This changes the feedback around the input stage circuit to provide stepped gains of 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70 dB. The EQ section faithfully reflects the quirks and limitations of the original: a High Shelf Gain knob introduces a shelving band at 10kHz, which is switchable in four increments from 16dB cut to 12dB boost, while the Mid control is a little more flexible, with switched frequencies of 700Hz, 1kHz, 1.4kHz, 2kHz, 2.8kHz, 3.5kHz, 4.5kHz and 6kHz available, and up to 15dB of boost or 9.9dB of cut on offer. Cutting causes an overall 1dB level reduction, which is faithful to the way the hardware operates.
Least conventional is the Bass control, the function of which changes depending on its position; again, mimicking the hardware, it also introduces a very slight gain boost when active even if no bass boost is dialled in. In the 60Hz, 100Hz, 200Hz and 400Hz positions, the low EQ has a bell characteristic rather than the more usual shelving response, and the amount of boost is controlled by the Bass Gain knob, with up to 15dB of boost available. However, if you select one of the -3, -6, -9, -12 or -15 dB settings, the EQ changes to a 50Hz shelving cut EQ. The Bass Gain knob has no function when these shelving options are in use, as the switch setting determines the degree of attenuation, while setting Bass Gain to its lowest position bypasses the Bass EQ circuit, though for true-bypass operation, the Power switch should be used instead. Clearly, then, this is a design that you’re going to want to exploit for its tonal character rather than for its far-reaching EQ options!
The question of how accurate this emulation is to the original is perhaps slightly moot, considering the tendency of ageing and component tolerances to introduce differences between individual modules. Having said that, UA did try a lot of channels, and say they settled on those they felt were most representative of the console. Certainly, the preamp section adds a tangible sense of analogue weight to the sound, especially when pushed a little, introducing a slightly compressed sound and seeming to reduce the level of grittiness in the sound by smoothing over the highs. This is particularly evident on slightly crunchy guitar chords, which sound fatter and less harsh with a dash of gently overdriven Helios.
‘Assertive’ might be a good description of the EQ section. The peaking bass circuit adds useful weight to kick drums and bass guitars and, unlike a shelving EQ, doesn’t bring up too much unwanted subsonic rubbish below the area of interest. Inductor-based EQs always seem to bring something extra to the sound and UA have done a great job in modelling this. If you’re into rock or reggae recording, this bass EQ is going to be your friend.
That mid EQ behaves in a pretty conventional but still very appealing way, and despite its fixed frequencies and non-adjustable Q, it sounds musically correct for most non-surgical applications. At the high end, the shelving 10kHz filter works effectively to add air to the highs when boost is applied, though its 4dB steps might seem a little coarse to some users.
But what of those UAD customers who don’t have Apollo hardware? Is this new version able to offer something useful to the UAD card or Satellite user? The short answer is yes, though you lose the Unison gain staging and impedance matching, as well as near-zero-latency input monitoring. On previously recorded signals, the preamp is more transparent than you might imagine until you start to push the level, and if you add too much gain it all starts to sound rather nasty so you have to use your ears to find the sweet spot where the fattening, smoothing effect kicks in — just as you would with the analogue equivalent.
If you’re still not convinced by the plug-in, reissues of the hardware channel are available, some conforming to the 500-series rack format, but they’ll cost you over £1000$1000 apiece — and, unlike plug-ins, you only get one instance.