New plug-ins continue to emerge from Universal Audio HQ at a scary rate, and their DSP-based effects and processors are now available to laptop users for the first time.
Universal Audio’s UAD1 card goes from strength to strength, with new plug–ins being added all the time, many based on vintage or classic analogue gear. There’s also a new option for those who want to use the plug-ins on a laptop: the UAD Expander (see box). The original UAD1 card itself has been covered in SOS many times before, so we’ll concentrate here on rounding up the latest and greatest of UA’s new plug-ins.
To tackle the new plug-ins in no particular order, Neve 88RS Channel Strip is based on the EQ and dynamics sections of the highly acclaimed Neve 88 Series console launched in 2001. The EQ includes 12dB–per–octave high and low cut filters, plus a four-band EQ where the two mid sections are fully parametric and the outer bands can be switched between two fixed-Q ‘bell’ modes or the more conventional shelving operation. The VCA-style compressor can be switched to operate as a limiter, and there’s a separate expander/gate. There’s a continuously adjustable ratio control, with a choice of preset fast or slow attack times, while release time ranges from 0.01 to 3 seconds, with a programme–dependent Auto option.
The expander/gate likewise has variable release time with a choice of fast or slow attack. The usual controls for Threshold and Range are joined by a Hysteresis control allowing the gate opening and closing thresholds to be set differently, which is a very effective way of avoiding gate ‘chatter’. The EQ and dynamics sections can be patched so either comes first, and the EQ can also be placed in the compressor side-chain for frequency-conscious dynamics processes such as de-essing. Global controls include a phase switch, an output level control and separate bypass buttons for the EQ and dynamics sections.
As you’d expect from its provenance, this channel strip is a great workhorse tool, and it operates very predictably. The EQ can be assertive without sounding harsh or phasey, while the compressor adds consistency and density without killing the high end or making the sound seem squashed, and is a good choice for all routine compression tasks, including vocals. The gate section is also extremely positive in operation, especially if you add a little hysteresis.
LA3A Audio Leveler is an altogether simpler proposition. Based on the original Teletronix solid-state optical LA3A Audio Leveler produced back in 1969, this design is capable of faster attack and release times than the earlier and more celebrated LA2A. The controls couldn’t be simpler: there are just Gain and Peak Reduction knobs either side of the central meter, and a switch to change from compression to limiting. Though it can be used on individual tracks, it is also good as a simple tool to help glue together the elements in a mix, and seems to help remove the raw edge from a track or mix without dulling it.
Universal Audio have also developed a series of plug-ins under the ‘Precision’ label, and there are three new entries in this category. Precision Buss Compressor models a dual-VCA–type, single-band compressor, and sounds to me as though it is based on the famous SSL bus compressor; certainly, it has the same ability to make mixes sound more cohesive. This plug-in also includes a Mix control that allows the processed and dry sounds to be mixed for parallel compression. As the name suggests, it is often used to process entire mixes or submixes, but can also be quite effective on individual tracks.
Most of the controls will be familiar to anyone who has used a compressor before, encompassing, as they do, Threshold, Ratio (switchable 2, 4 or 10:1), Attack and Release. The release control includes a multi–stage auto–release function designed to adapt to a wide variety of programme material. A variable high-pass filter in series with the side–chain input allows the user to reduce the sensitivity of the compression to lower frequencies if required, to stop basses and kick drums causing pumping. One unusual addition is an automatic Fade function that allows the user to set an automatic fade-in or fade-out of up to 60 seconds in duration. The master faders in many DAWs operate pre-insert, so this function allows you to create a post-compression fade that might not otherwise be possible.
This plug-in turned out to be easy to use, and it works particularly well on rock music tracks for adding punch and blending the sounds together. The Mix function is particularly useful in this respect, as it allows low-level signals to be kept up at a sensible level without robbing the louder parts of their dynamics. There is a definite tonal similarity between this plug-in and the bus compressor found in SSL’s Duende, but the UAD plug-in has rather more control flexibility.
UA’s Precision Maximizer is a dynamic processor designed to increase the apparent loudness of a source but without increasing its peak level or killing the impression of dynamic range, as simpler limiting algorithms tend to do. It can operate as a single-band or three-band processor and includes an element of harmonic manipulation as well as limiting. This seemingly applies a combination of tube saturation emulation and techniques used in other UA mastering processes. The aim is to increase subjective loudness while minimising the side-effects of the processing, but at the same time giving the final mix more punch and clarity, which is exactly what it does in practice. A Shape control appears to alter the non-linearity of the compression and soft saturation, and a Mix parameter allows the processed signal to be mixed with the dry input, creating parallel compression.
This plug-in can bring about a significant increase in apparent loudness and density without smothering transient detail, so should prove popular even though what really goes on under the hood is a bit of a mystery!
UA’s Precision De-Esser tackles the age-old problem of sibilance. A Threshold knob controls the amount of sibilance reduction, there are two switches governing the envelope attack and release rate of the detector, and a Frequency knob controls the range of frequencies reaching the detector. This filter can be switched between band-pass and high-pass response and has a wide range — 2 to 16 kHz — which makes it useful not only for tackling vocal sibilance but also the frequencies of over-splashy cymbals or hi-hats. In band–pass mode the width can be varied from just two semitones to 20 semitones. Split mode enables gain reduction to be applied only to the high part of the audio spectrum, but it can also operate as a full-range processor for more traditional de-essing, where the whole signal level dips when a sibilant sound is detected. Personally, I’ve never liked full–range de–essers, as they tend to make vocals sound ‘lispy’, so Split mode is the one I’d use for normal vocal treatment. Again, this is a simple and very effective plug-in.
Among the well-regarded hardware gear UA have licensed for plug-in emulation is SPL’s Transient Designer. I’ve long been a fan of the original, as it allows the user to modify the attack and release characteristics of a percussive sound without having to worry about threshold levels, as you would with a conventional compressor. This is achieved using something SPL call Differential Envelope Technology, where just two controls allow transients to be sharpened or slowed down, and sustain lengthened or shortened. Attack transients can be amplified or attenuated by up to 15dB, while Sustain can be amplified or attenuated by up to 24dB. Other than that there’s only an output gain control, a bypass control and a stereo link switch.
Using the SPL Transient Designer plug–in is simplicity itself, as you simply turn the two knobs until you hear the attack and release character you like. The Attack control can modify a bass-drum sound to give it lots of clicky attack or a more rounded, electronic sound, while lengthening the sustain brings up the natural decay of the drum and also emphasises any room reverb. The plug-in works well both on individual drum tracks and drum mixes, and has applications on other musical sounds, such as acoustic guitar. It’s also a great fix-up tool for drying up sounds with too much spill or reverb, where it is far more subtle than conventional gates or expanders. I’ve been wanting this great tool in a plug-in format for ages, so now I’m very happy, as it performs just as the hardware does.
Universal Audio’s plug-in designers just go from strength to strength, and the latest crop are uniformly impressive. Some of the processes offered here can be handled more affordably by competing products without the user hearing a radically different outcome, but the Precision Maximiser is rather special and really works well. I also liked the simplicity and the sonic effect of the LA3A, and it’s great to have an authentic emulation of the Transient Designer. And, of course, many laptop users will be over the moon to learn that they can finally join in the fun!
The new UAD Xpander basically offers the same DSP power as the UAD1 and UAD1e PCI/PCIe cards, but packaged in a nice box with an Express Card 34 interface attached to it, so you can connect it to your laptop. This is the first time that UA’s plug-ins have been available outside of the desktop computer and the Xpander promises the same performance as a single UAD1 card, running at sample rates from 44.1kHz to 192kHz.
Three different Xpander bundles are available, all of them named in sympathy with UA’s apparent dislike of the letter ‘e’ (a traumatic experience with Sesame Street in childhood, perhaps?). The bundles are functionally identical, apart from the value of the included plug-in voucher. So with the Xpander Xpress (£779) you get 14 free plug-ins and a $500 voucher, with the Xpander Xpert (£1099) you get 14 free plug-ins and a $1000 voucher and with the £1699 Xpander Xtreme you just get all of the plug-ins. It is perhaps best to buy the Xtreme package, purely in the interests of making your life less complicated. Incidentally, there’s also a PCI card called the Xtenda, which allows you to connect the Xpander to a desktop PC, should you wish to do so.
The unit itself is about the size of a large paperback book, and is black, unless you buy the Xtreme version shown here, which is a pretty silver. Power is supplied via an included 12V DC wall-wart adaptor and the Xpander is connected to the host computer via a metre-long cable. UA don’t specify any of the usual system requirements, but, given that Express Card 34 slots are only found on Apple’s Macbook Pro and some modern PC laptops, they don’t really need to, as the bar is already set pretty high. What they do specify, however, is that you will need Mac OS 10.4 (or higher) or Windows Vista — Windows XP is not supported on laptops by the Xpander.
Installation is very straightforward, although it does require your computer to be connected to the Internet in order to download the authorisation files to unlock the plug-ins themselves. Aside from that, the whole process is very much of the ‘run the installation program on the CD, follow the steps it takes you through’ variety, and I had the Xpander up and running on my 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo Macbook Pro in no time at all.
One of the disadvantages of external DSP units is the additional latency they add to the system — although it does help when the processor is connected via an Express Card 34 interface, which can move data at 2.5GB per second. Like the UAD1 and most competing products, the Xpander basically doubles your system latency, so if, for instance, you set a buffer size in your DAW of 128 samples, your total system latency will be 512 samples, as audio has to be buffered into and out of the computer, and to and from the Xpander.
There’s a helpful chart on UA’s web site that suggests how many instances of each plug-in your card will be able to run. While some testing shows that this seems to be largely accurate, it also represents the only real down side of the Xpander — that, unlike on a desktop computer, where you can install up to four UAD1s if space permits, you’re always going to be limited to using just one card with the Xpander. The bottom line is very simple: if you want to run UAD plug-ins (which, as has been noted elsewhere, are really very good indeed) on a laptop, this is how you do it. David Glasper
- Plug-ins sound very musical, and the emulations are close to the originals.
- Xpander makes UA processors and effects available to laptop users at last.
- Some of these plug-in effects can be achieved adequately for rather less money, albeit without the sonic signature of the processers modelled here.
- Only one Xpander can be connected at once.
Universal Audio continue to expand their range of excellent plug-ins, and the Xpander opens them up to laptop users as well.
informationXpander Xpress £779; Xpander Xpert £1099; Xpander Xtreme £1699. Prices include VAT. Precision De-Esser $99; LA3A $149; SPL Transient Designer, Precision Maximizer and Buss Compressor $199 each; Neve 88RS $299.
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