No matter how many Apollo devices you have in your system, they are all controlled from a single instance of UA’s Console utility, which expands to accommodate everything. The review system sported around 70 physical inputs, and each Apollo also provides eight Virtual channels; in this sort of configuration, the Console channel count can become intimidatingly large, and the driver can present a huge number of possible inputs and outputs to your DAW software. This last is a particular problem for Pro Tools, which can only access a maximum of 32 ins and outs on a non‑HDX system, and is dealt with through the I/O Matrix page of the Settings dialogue. Here, you can choose whether you want the Apollo driver to present eight, 16, 32, 64 or 128 inputs and/or outputs to the DAW, and freely map these DAW inputs and outputs to physical inputs and outputs. This means you never need run into that awkward situation where Pro Tools can’t ‘see’ a particular input because it happens not to be one of the first 32 presented by the driver.
DAW output streams don’t have Console channels, so if you need the ability to adjust their playback level within Console, you’ll need to route the relevant DAW returns to Virtual channels, rather than directly to physical outputs. This can be essential when you’re overdubbing to previously recorded material, especially as there is no positive gain available on the input channel faders, only attenuation. Console channels themselves are routed to the master Monitor bus by default; this routing can be changed, but only to another physical output on the same Apollo. You can’t, for instance, route the first analogue input on one Apollo to the line outputs on another, nor to a Virtual channel. Unusually, it’s not possible to address the headphone outputs directly from DAW software. Instead, a Console setup can contain up to four Cue busses, fed either from the main mix or from sends, and it is these Cue busses that are routed to the headphone outputs.
To help you cope when the size of the Console threatens to get unwieldy, UA have added a number of helpful management features. You are free to name channels, inputs, outputs and entire Apollos according to the scheme of your choice, and there’s also a Show/Hide function that can be used to make unused channels disappear from the mixer. An overview window at the top, which looks a little like the Universe view in Pro Tools, displays all non‑hidden channels, complete with miniature meters, and you can drag around a grey frame representing the main viewing area to quickly focus on the channels of your choice.
This all works well, but to my mind, there’s more that could be done to make large Console setups manageable. It would be useful if the Show/Hide function could be made to operate on an entire class of input channel, so that you could for instance hide all ADAT channels or all Virtual channels with a single click. It would also be nice to have the option for the Console to hide channels that don’t have an active routing destination in the I/O Matrix, as would the ability to have names entered in one area mirrored elsewhere. As it is, it’s quite easy to end up in a situation where a given input has different names in the Console, in the I/O Matrix, and again in your DAW.
Finally, I often found myself wanting the ability to reorder Console channels across different Apollos so that I could put all the mic inputs in a single group, all the ADAT inputs in another, and so on, though I can see that this would introduce potential for confusion.
The opportunity to play with a fully expanded four‑unit Apollo system doesn’t come along every day, and to take full advantage, I arranged a live tracking date with a band. Now, I am not one of those people who fetishises mic preamps, and nor would I usually process signals on the way in, but for this session I decided to embrace the UA way, and turned the Apollo rig into a virtual Neve desk by slapping a Unison 1073 on every input. It was easy to do, it seemed to add a certain je ne sais quoi to the sound, and it didn’t undermine the convenience and flexibility of DAW recording in any way. In essence, the Unison technology allows you to use the Console in pretty much the same way that people use real Neve or API desks as a ‘front end’ for their digital recording setups, and on this sort of project, it felt exactly right. It also resulted in a multitrack that required less work at the mixing stage than I expected, which is always a good thing!
Any mixing utility needs to strike a balance between ease of use and flexibility. UA’s Console leans more towards the former than, say, RME’s TotalMix FX or the internal mixers in MOTU’s AVB interfaces, but I never felt it was preventing me from achieving anything I wanted to do. The only issue I encountered is that, occasionally, putting my Mac to sleep rather than shutting it down caused clocking aberrations on waking. Restarting always fixed this and I’d recommend doing so before any session with the Apollos.
In most respects, the Apollo X range represents refreshment rather than reinvention. It sees Universal Audio’s range of rackmount interfaces leapfrog the competition in the never‑ending race for better specifications; it offers more DSP to run more of their highly desirable UAD Powered Plug‑ins; and in a world where immersive audio is becoming A Thing, the promised surround support negates an increasingly significant reason for choosing the competition. Along with the option to align line‑level I/O to +24dBu and the ability to leave line and mic cables permanently connected, this will help to increase the Apollos’ appeal to professional users, while the introduction of the x6 fills an obvious home‑studio‑shaped gap in the range between the Twin MkII and the Apollo x8.
Admittedly, there are ways in which Universal Audio could have gone further to appeal to the upper end of the market. In terms of connectivity, your choices are still limited to Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt, and while the Apollo x16 offers line‑level A‑D and D‑A conversion of the highest quality, it doesn’t feature DigiLink connectors that would allow it to be integrated into a Pro Tools HDX rig. Nor is there currently any way to use an Apollo as a bridge into the networked audio world, as you can with products like Focusrite’s Red 16 Line or MOTU’s 16m. I’m sure this is a deliberate choice, and that UA considered these possibilities before deciding to retain the focus on project‑studio recording that has served them so well to date; but it does restrict the ways in which an Apollo system can be integrated into wider professional setups.
I don’t think the advent of the Apollo X series will see existing owners rushing to replace their second‑generation units, but really, that’s because UA got the formula right first time around — and the combination of new features, upgraded specs and backwards compatibility will surely tempt anyone who was already thinking of adding extra Apollo units to an existing rig. For those setting up a studio from scratch, meanwhile, the fact remains that when you buy an Apollo, you buy into a particular way of working. It’s a decision that makes the most sense for those who are willing to embrace the Console, Unison and UAD‑2 plug‑ins as core elements of the recording process. If your ideal studio experience is tracking real instruments through analogue consoles, preamps and processors, the Apollo X will get you closer to it than almost any other all‑digital system.
The Apollos come with separate PDF manuals for the hardware, the Console software and each of the UAD‑2 plug‑ins, which are models of clarity and consistency, and which are extensively hyperlinked so that you can find your way around without constantly having to return to the contents. However, there is one aspect of the Apollo design that presents a few gotchas, and which isn’t documented as fully as I’d have liked.
All of the Apollo Xs’ analogue inputs have front‑panel input meters, each consisting of a ‘ladder’ of 10 coloured LEDs. Input metering is also available in the Console utility, courtesy of the overview at the top, which doubles as a miniature meterbridge, and the detailed meters within each input channel. When no plug‑ins are used in the input path, the readings on the hardware and software meters coincide. However, when UAD plug‑ins are inserted into the standard insert slots, the Console meters now report the level at the end of the signal chain (they can also be switched post‑fade, if you prefer). This situation is unaffected by the channel’s Rec/Mon switch, so if you leave that in the default Mon mode in order to record the unprocessed signal, inserting a plug‑in means the Console meters no longer report either the true level coming into the A‑D converter or the level being passed to your DAW. As a consequence, clipping at the input doesn’t show up at all in the Console.
Things become even more interesting when you insert one of UA’s Unison plug‑ins, which have the ability to reconfigure the gain staging in the analogue domain. These seem to reduce the headroom of the analogue front end to the point where this is driven into saturation before it can clip the A‑D converter; so, although drums and other transient sources can make the front‑panel Clip LED illuminate, less dynamic signals don’t, no matter how hot they are. And although the Console channel clip light can still be provoked into action, this merely indicates an over within the Console processing, not excessive level at the input. The upshot is that it’s possible to have a grossly distorted signal coming into an input with a Unison plug‑in enabled, without seeing any red lights come on. Even keeping the Unison plug‑in interface open is no guarantee that you’ll be able to see when something is amiss; the Neve 1073 plug‑in, for example, has no metering or overload indication at all.
What this all boils down to, of course, is that you need to use your ears. As Joe Meek famously said, if it sounds right, it is right; and as long as you like the way it sounds, the Unison gain structure allows you more freedom to drive the inputs hard without running up against the 0dBFS ‘brick wall’. In that sense, the Apollo behaves more like an analogue recording device than any other digital audio interface I know of. And that, I suspect, is exactly UA’s intention.
The Thunderbolt interfacing protocol is an externalised version of PCIe, allowing compatible devices to hook into the computer’s architecture at a lower level than is possible over USB. One consequence of this is that Thunderbolt audio interfaces typically have very good low‑latency performance. UA’s design philosophy is intended to make round‑trip latency a non‑issue for audio recording, since all monitoring of live inputs will typically be handled through the Console, but of course it is still relevant for playing virtual instruments and so on.
The latency of the Console itself is variable. Some UAD plug‑ins incur latency, and there is a global Console delay compensation setting that can ensure sample accuracy is retained across all inputs on the way in. The lowest round‑trip latency for the system as a whole is achieved when this delay compensation is switched off and no plug‑ins are used in the Console.
When I reviewed the second‑generation Apollo 8p in our SOS December 2015 issue, the lowest buffer size on offer was 32 samples. At a 44.1kHz sample rate, this delivered an output latency of 1.5ms and a minimum input latency of 3ms, for a total round‑trip latency of 4.5ms. Those figures are maintained in the Apollo Xs, but UA have also now added a 16‑sample buffer size option to their Mac driver. Selecting this knocked around half a millisecond off both figures, delivering a reported output latency of 1.1ms and input latency of 2.5ms. These figures also varied slightly depending on how many of the four review Apollo Xs were switched on. On my relatively old MacBook Air, I wasn’t able to achieve glitch‑free playback at all at the 16‑sample setting, and the 32‑sample setting was marginal; the system load seems to rise as more Apollos are added, which is hardly surprising. I did not have access to a Windows machine with Thunderbolt 3 for testing on that platform, unfortunately.
Even if, like me, you are unable to use the Apollo at the very lowest buffer size, this is unlikely to be a problem in practice. Audio entering the system from outside can be monitored at low latency in the Console, while audio generated in the computer — such as the output of software synths — only passes through the output buffer.
UA’s plug‑in developers usually focus on emulating classic studio hardware, but the latest version of the UAD software includes a new processor that takes a slightly different tack. Century Channel Strip is designed to have a retro, valve‑flavoured sound, but does not recreate a specific piece of equipment. Instead, the idea is to offer users — particularly those who are new to the world of recording — a simple, foolproof tool for tracking and mixing.
There are three components, which can be switched in and out of circuit as you please: a ‘tube’ preamp with two gain stages, allowing you to take advantage of UA’s Unison technology, a simple three‑band equaliser, and an even simpler one‑knob, opto‑style compressor. These are followed by an output gain control with a VU meter.
UA have done their best to make it all as forgiving as possible, and they’ve also aligned the VU meter in such a way as to encourage the user to leave plenty of headroom, which has to be a good thing. The compressor is generally benign, and particularly effective for levelling vocal tracks, while the EQ is designed for restrained, broad‑brush tonal shaping rather than radical surgery. It is possible to drive the tube preamp into obvious saturation, and this can sound very nice on instruments such as bass guitar, but the controls are arranged to make gentle warmth a more natural outcome.
Whilst experienced engineers will sometimes want a bit more control than is available here, I think Century Channel Strip is a well‑judged tool for those who are just starting out and perhaps finding some of UA’s other plug‑ins intimidatingly complex or confusing.
The Apollo x8 and x8p provide basically the same I/O complement as their second‑generation predecessors, but the analogue inputs and outputs are implemented differently.
- Whereas the Apollo 8’s analogue inputs comprised four ‘combi’ mic/line sockets and four line inputs on quarter‑inch sockets, the x8 has four standard XLRs for the inputs with mic preamps, and eight separate quarter‑inch jacks for line‑level connections.
- The x8p, meanwhile, still offers eight analogue inputs on ‘combi’ XLR/jack sockets, and stereo Monitor outputs on quarter‑inch jacks; but the remaining analogue outputs now emerge on a D‑sub connector rather than quarter‑inch jacks, leaving space for a second D‑sub to duplicate the eight analogue line inputs.
- The new x6 also features separate XLR and jack sockets for its first pair of inputs.
The point, in all these cases, is to allow both mic and line inputs to be permanently connected and switched in software, which will be welcomed by anyone who needs to plumb their Apollo into a studio rig where a patchbay is involved.
One long‑standing limitation of the Apollo interfaces is that they have never supported surround monitoring. The switch to fully digital monitor control in the Apollo X series lays the groundwork for its introduction, which should happen before the end of the year, and looks set to be suitably comprehensive.
The Apollo x6 will support formats up to 5.1, and the other X‑series units will offer 7.1 monitoring also. The surround features will include not only ganged level control but the facility to mute, solo and trim individual speakers, and fold‑down of surround mixes to stereo or mono. Even those who don’t need to monitor in surround, meanwhile, will benefit from the ability to calibrate their monitor system to a dB SPL reference level.
Watch our AES show video interview below to learn how surround will be implemented in Apollo X.
- Excellent subjective sound quality, with probably the best audio specifications of any current Thunderbolt interfaces.
- With all the Apollo X interfaces featuring six DSP chips, there are no limitations on Unison processing even in the Apollo x8p.
- Built-in talkback and the promise of surround monitor control.
- The new Apollo x6 offers a well-judged balance of features for solo recording artists and smaller project studios.
- Mic and line inputs can be left permanently connected and switched in software.
- New Century Channel Strip is a worthy addition to UA’s plug-in catalogue.
- The Apollo range is probably a less good fit for users who don’t buy into the entire UA philosophy of using Console and plug-ins for input conditioning.
- The lack of networked audio and Pro Tools HDX connectivity limit the options for integrating Apollo X units into some professional environments.
- No Thunderbolt cable supplied.
Universal Audio’s goal is to make ‘in the box’ recording look, sound and feel more like working with a top-class analogue front end. With the new Apollo X interfaces, they are closer than anyone else to achieving that goal.
Apollo x6 £1800, x8 £2250, x8p £2700, x16 £3150. Prices include VAT.
Apollo x6 $1999, x8 $2499, x8p $2999, x16 $3499.