For the first time ever, Universal Audio’s acclaimed plug‑ins are available in a native format.
Universal Audio have built a considerable reputation for the quality of their plug‑ins, many of which — processors, preamps and instruments — provide emulations of classic, highly sought‑after (expensive!) hardware, and they are widely regarded as some of the most authentic recreations available. However, these plug‑ins require UA hardware with its dedicated DSP to run...
Well, they did; UA’s new Spark suite delivers a subset of the same plug‑ins in a native format. The initial release provides 13 audio processors and four instruments and is Mac OS (using Rosetta on M1 systems) only. However, Apple Silicon support is on the way, Windows versions due before the end of the year, and UA have indicated that the plug‑in collection itself will expand over time. The other key thing to note is that access is subscription‑based, with monthly or annual options available. So, if you like the idea of using UA’s impressive plug‑ins, but are not currently in the market for new UA hardware, is Spark a viable option?
Sweets For My Suite
UA’s Connect software provides a no‑fuss install and licensing process for the Spark suite. In terms of the plug‑ins themselves, you get seven dynamics options via the LA‑2A collection and the 1176 collection (both of which offer three different flavours of their respective hardware originals), and the API 2500 bus compressor. For channel strip/EQ, Spark includes the Neve 1073 preamp/EQ and the API Vision channel strip. The Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder provides tape emulation, while a combination of the Pure Plate reverb, Lexicon 244 digital reverb and Galaxy Tape Echo provide the ambience options.
The four virtual instruments include the Moog Minimoog, the Ravel Grand Piano (which is where most of the 10GB of disk storage is required), the Waterfall B3 Organ and one brand new synth that’s exclusive to Spark: the Opal Morphing Synthesizer. I’ll come back to the latter in more detail below, but it looks like a very interesting addition to UA’s growing virtual instrument line‑up.
Clearly, this initial suite of native plug‑ins represents only a modest selection of those currently available to users of UA’s hardware‑based plug‑in collection, but it covers the core mixing needs with dynamics, EQ, ambience and saturation. Incidentally, if you are a UA hardware user with a license for any of the plug‑ins within the Spark collection, you will automatically have access to the new native versions.
SOS have reviewed many of these plug‑ins in their hardware DSP‑based formats, so I’ll focus here on how they translate into the native world. Having previously used a number of these same plug‑ins via an Apollo‑based system, I certainly didn’t notice any compromises in the Spark versions. Yes, there is the expected CPU hit but, if you have a modern, up‑to‑date computer host, then a busy mix populated just with Spark plug‑ins ought to be totally possible. It will be very interesting to see just how they fly when M1 compatibility is added.
Just like the DSP versions, the Spark plug‑ins do an excellent job of bringing the character of the hardware they are emulating. For example, just like the original hardware classic, Spark’s various 1176 emulations can do magic things to an acoustic kit when placed on a drum bus, whether that’s taming it for a ballad, or making it big and splashy for those about to rock. Equally, the LA‑2A emulations sound great on things such as vocals or bass and, like the original hardware, remain very forgiving even when pushed quite hard.
Paul White reviewed the API Vision channel strip in the March 2014 issue of SOS and, while those unfamiliar with the actual hardware (myself included) will require a little time to fully appreciate the functionality of the control set, it’s an incredibly flexible — and very characterful — full channel strip experience suitable for almost any audio source. My other personal highlights are the two reverbs. These are obviously very different in nature but both sound absolutely fantastic.
Instruments Of Sound
There are, of course, plenty of sample‑based pianos you might turn to, but Ravel is an excellent option. The ability to adjust the virtual mic distance is very effective but the real trick up Ravel’s sleeve is the reverse options, allowing you to blend forward and reverse samples to taste; media composers will love this for creating drama or tension‑style cues.
Both the Minimoog and B3 emulations sounds absolutely huge and are full of analogue character, even down to the realistic noise of the Leslie speaker emulation in the B3 (which can, of course, be muted in the Settings section if you don’t want that particular bit of realism). The presets supplied with both instruments are excellent. Do watch your speaker cones with some of the Minimoog bass presets and, with the B3, it will soon have you trying out your Jon Lord impression; whether it’s for classic rock, soul, funk or R&B, the B3 is a joy to play.
Morph For Your Money
The fourth virtual instrument — the Opal Morphing Synthesizer — is new and exclusive to the UAD Spark suite. Described by UA as an analogue‑meets‑wavetable synth, the engine provides three full oscillator sections, a noise section, oscillator modulation, two very convincing analogue‑style filters, LFOs, modelled envelopes, a modulation matrix, a macro control system (for easy sound tweaking if you don’t want to dig under the hood too much), insert and send effects, and the intriguing ‘Multi‑Seg’ multi‑segment function generator. Two of these Multi‑Segs are offered and they blur the lines between an LFO, envelope and step‑sequencer, essentially allowing the user to define some very complex curves or sequences than can then be used as a modulation source for any suitable target including filter controls, amplitude or pitch; it’s very powerful stuff.
It’s also pretty deep and, while UA have very helpful online documentation available for all of the Spark plug‑ins including Opal, I suspect this is a synth engine that some might initially find quite intimidating. Don’t be put off, though; there is a very impressive collection of well‑categorised presets that provide plenty of sonic encouragement to take your first steps. These span a huge spectrum of sounds and, therefore, potential styles, but there is lots of classic analogue goodness to many of the presets, be they basses, pads, strings or leads. The presets also offer some more digital sounds, a range of drum/percussion sounds, some vocal textures (the well‑stocked wavetable options include some vocal and vowel‑based starting points) and a number of effect‑style sounds.
The bulk of the detailed controls are accessed via the upper‑mid panel, the contents of which can be toggled via the labels that run horizontally across the centre of the UI. Based upon the review period, I certainly wouldn’t claim to fully understand all of what Opal is capable of, however, the morphing (modulation) options for the oscillators open up plenty of possibilities, the filters sound fabulous, and the Multi‑Seg modulation potential is intriguing (if a little daunting on first inspection). The effects options are also excellent, with choices between reverb, delay, modulation, saturation and EQ all drawing from UA’s expertise found across their processing plug‑in offerings. In short, I think Opal’s sound will impress pretty much everyone, and those prepared to dig in will find some truly excellent sound‑design options on offer. Opal is a bit of a sonic monster.
Take The Subway
The takeaway so far is that both processor and instrument plug‑ins sound excellent. The transition to native processing obviously requires your host computer to carry the CPU load but, that qualification aside, you are getting the same classy, authentically analogue sound from the Spark incarnations of these plug‑ins as you would via the DSP versions running on UA’s hardware. And, of course, the Spark‑exclusive Opal Morphing Synthesizer has some awesome preset sounds and a powerful engine for those inclined to design their own.
So should you take the plunge? Well, there are a couple of further — and fairly obvious — things to consider. The first of these is your personal position on the issue of subscription‑based software licensing. This is a payment model that gets some music makers very hot under the collar. I can understand some of the negativity towards subscription‑based services for the hobbyist or independent solo artist/producer but, for those for whom music production is part of what puts food on the table, being able to plan your annual software spend in advance does have its advantages. It is, however, a very personal decision and not one for a reviewer to make for you. However, given the pricing of the same plug‑ins for use with UA’s own hardware, it’s difficult to argue that the subscription pricing — particularly on an annual basis — isn’t a good deal if you have already decided you want access to UA’s plug‑ins.
The further question then becomes whether it’s the best deal. Perhaps the obvious competitor to UAD Spark is Slate Digital’s All Access Pass. The annual cost of the All Access Pass is also currently set at $149 and currently offers over 60 plug‑ins, the impressive ANA2 synth, some sample collections and a set of masterclass tutorials from the Slate Academy. During the course of the review, I was able to compare a number of the Spark and Slate plug‑ins that emulate the same original hardware, and it’s an interesting experience. For example, with the various LA‑2A or 1176 dynamics plug‑ins, to my ears at least, the results were very similar and, in some cases, even down to very close matching of the actual settings used. Both, however, sounded great and both delivered a very attractive combination of compression and character; I’d be more than happy to use either in my own studio.
Both suites of plug‑ins provide convincing software‑based emulations of classic studio hardware, and both are highly regarded. However, purely in terms of bang‑for‑buck, it’s difficult to argue that the Slate bundle doesn’t currently represent exceptional value. It will be interesting to see just how quickly UA can port other plug‑ins from their DSP‑based catalogue over to the native Spark collection. Of course, any decision will be influenced by personal preferences and, in that regard, the free trial periods available for both the Slate and UAD Spark bundles are an essential resource. Be careful though; trying may well lead to buying... or, rather, subscribing.
The initial UAD Spark suite covers the key bases in terms of audio processing and provides some excellent instrument options, with Opal being especially impressive.
Personally, I think making their plug‑ins available in a native format is a very sensible move by UA. It opens up their software product range to a wider pool of customers who might be attracted by the plug‑ins themselves but don’t want (or need) to invest in the dedicated DSP to host them. Equally, providing you confine yourself to the areas of plug‑in overlap, it could allow you to move sessions using UA plug‑ins between systems with and without UA’s DSP hardware.
The initial UAD Spark suite covers the key bases in terms of audio processing and provides some excellent instrument options, with Opal being especially impressive. It’s a very promising start down the native route for UA. Providing you are comfortable with a subscription‑based approach for your premium plug‑in access, compared to the obvious competition, perhaps the key question is one of quantity. That might be a consideration for some potential subscribers. However, if these initial native versions are indicative, quality is most certainly not an issue; in that regard, UAD Spark shines very brightly indeed.
- UA’s highly regarded analogue emulation magic translated to a native format.
- New Opal synth — exclusive to Spark — is very impressive.
- Subscription model will suit those happy to plan their annual software spend.
- In its initial iteration at least, some may consider Spark a relatively compact selection of plug‑ins.
- Not everyone likes software by subscription.
- Currently Mac OS only but M1 and Windows support is on the way.
It’s great to see UA’s high‑quality plug‑ins becoming available in a native format via the UAD Spark platform. The initial plug‑in collection provides plenty of analogue character and demonstrates excellent proof of concept. Hopefully, more will follow.
UAD Spark subscription $19.99 per month or $149.99 per year. Non-US customers add local tax before converting at current exchange rate.
UAD Spark subscription $19.99 per month or $149.99 per year.