Universal Audio’s new Apollo X range sees the company pull out all the stops to best the competition — have they succeeded?
Over the last two decades, computer‑based recording and mixing has become completely ubiquitous. This trend has brought both challenges and opportunities for equipment manufacturers — and few companies have grasped the opportunities as fully as Universal Audio.
The original Universal Audio was established by studio owner, engineer and designer Bill Putnam, and produced many items of classic studio kit such as the 1176 compressor. The modern company of the same name was set up by Bill’s sons Jim and Bill Jr, originally with the goal of re‑making this vintage analogue equipment, alongside new designs such as the 6176 channel strip and 4‑710D mic preamps. Many software‑based studios have found a role for UA’s analogue gear alongside their Macs and PCs, but what has really put the company on the map is their own contributions to the computer recording revolution.
Jim and Bill Putnam realised early on that there would be a market for plug‑in emulations of vintage analogue outboard, and began recreating devices like the 1176 and LA‑2A for the Pro Tools TDM format. The next step was to develop their own DSP platform: a PCI card that repurposed a graphics chip to run audio DSP algorithms. This was superseded 10 years ago by a newer and more future‑proof product range employing Analog Devices’ SHARC DSP chips. Over the years, these UAD‑2 processors have been made available with PCI, FireWire, ExpressCard and USB connectivity, while the current range is dominated mainly by Thunderbolt devices.
Universal Audio’s ‘Powered Plug‑In’ platform has also been central to their hugely successful Apollo range of audio interfaces. Introduced in 2012, the original silver Apollos were 1U rackmounted FireWire devices, while a second‑generation of black units offered improved specifications and connected using Thunderbolt 2. UA have also introduced Thunderbolt and (Windows‑only) USB Twin and Twin MkII desktop interfaces, which can serve as monitor controllers in a multi‑Apollo system, along with the miniature, bus‑powered Arrow.
The Arrow and Twin MkII remain current products, as do — for compatibility with legacy systems — the original FireWire Apollo and the blackface Apollo 8 Quad. However, the other ‘blackface’ rackmount Apollos have now given way to a third generation of interfaces with grey front panels. The new Apollo X interfaces offer more DSP grunt, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, even better audio specs and additional functionality, and to cap it off, UA have added a completely new model to the family.
The Apollo x8, Apollo x8p and Apollo x16 are direct replacements for the Apollo 8, Apollo 8p and Apollo 16 respectively, all of them featuring broadly the same list of upgrades over their immediate predecessors. For many people, the most significant of these will be that all three devices are now available only in a ‘Hexa core’ configuration, with six SHARC chips, offering 50 percent more DSP power than the previous Quad versions. This is particularly significant in the case of the x8p, with its eight Unison‑enabled mic preamps; some of UA’s Unison plug‑ins are so resource‑intensive that using them across all eight preamps would pretty much max out the Quad version, but you can now have eight emulated Neve 1073s running alongside other plug‑ins.
Universal Audio have also pulled out all the stops as regards sound quality. There has never been a bad‑sounding Apollo that I know of, but other manufacturers have edged ahead of the silver and black units in the race to achieve ever‑better specifications. UA’s response is impressive: the Apollo x16, for example, boasts dynamic range figures of 124dB on its line inputs, 127dB on its line outputs, and a staggering 133dB on the stereo Monitor output pair. UA have also catered for professional users by adding the option to align these inputs and outputs to +24dBu rather than their predecessors’ +20dBu, and by making it possible to leave all the mic and line inputs connected simultaneously (see 'No More Sharing' box). And whereas most interfaces derive all clock signals from a single crystal, the Apollo Xs use independent crystals for 44.1kHz and its multiples, and for 48kHz and its multiples. This has made it possible to reduce jitter to less than 10 picoseconds.
The other major changes in these third‑generation Apollos concern ‘master section’ features. The monitor volume control in previous Apollos was a digitally controlled analogue device, which could be bypassed if the interface was being integrated into a studio with its own monitor controller. On the Apollo Xs, the volume control has been switched to the digital domain. In theory, this can have an impact on sound quality, because at low levels, you’ll be hearing what is in effect a word‑length‑reduced version of the output signal. However, given the amazing dynamic range figures quoted for the monitor outputs, you’d have to have a very odd monitor signal chain for this to be apparent in practice, and the key benefit of the change is that the Apollo Xs will all be capable...
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