Universal Audio’s Apollo
I don’t usually do product reviews but of everything I saw at this year’s NAMM show, this is by far what got me the most excited. Let me begin by saying that I am a total and unabashed fanboy of the UAD plug-ins, which I use on both a UAD-2 Duo and a venerable UAD-1e, and that I beta test for UA. Also, let me point out that I never record more than one or two people simultaneously in my studio at a time as it is primarily a software instrument based project studio, so I do not need a ton of inputs/outputs. When that is necessary, I go to a “real” studio. But guys like me are exactly who UA is targeting with this box.
Apollo is a “high resolution” low latency audio interface that, according to UA, features: excellent A/D/ and D/A conversion; eight channels of A/D conversion and fourteen channels of D/A conversion; four “ultra transparent” digitally-controlled mic preamps; Duo or Quad models that make having a separate UAD card unnecessary with the added capability of tracking though the UAD plug-ins, either printing them or just monitoring though them (with a couple of exceptions like the Precision Multiband) with no added latency!
Finally, it not only connects through Firewire 800 but sometime by this summer a Thunderbolt expansion bay will be available for Thunderbolt connectivity.
So why is this a big deal for you, the potential user? After all, are there not already competitors’ audio interfaces that come with similar quality converters, mic pres, and even more I/O and don’t some of them cost less than the Apollo? (Its estimated street price is $1,999 for the DUO processing model and $2,499 for the QUAD.)
In terms of sound quality, of course, the jury is out until people start doing A/B tests with some of these. However, UA’s has a history of delivering high quality audio hardware and until it is proven differently, I think they have earned the benefit of the doubt that it will be on a par with other higher end Firewire interfaces from Metric Halo, RME, Apogee, and Lynx. Ditto for build quality. And yes, some may be cheaper, some may be more expensive, but it is right in the same ballpark as these other players and some of those only are compatible with Macs where Apollo will be PC also, although the initial release is for the Mac.
But none of them can host the UAD plug-ins!
The elephant in the room is the connectivity. It has long been perceived by many, myself included, that PCI-e allowed for higher track counts, lower latency, and better stability than Firewire or USB. However, over the years when I have recommended getting into the UAD and its plug-ins, people have been leery of committing to PCI-e because Apple has had a nasty habit of changing from PCI to PCI-x and now to PCI-e and this can cause some pain. UA saw that and introduced its Firewire based Satellite series but Thunderbolt is the first external connectivity that will have identical speed and power to PCI-e. The same will be true for the PC with its version of Lightpeak, which is what Thunderbolt actually is, just with a clever name from Apple. It is also possible that some time in the not too distant future Apple will abandon the Mac Pro series and only sell computers that do not have PCI-e slots because they will have Thunderbolt, which will have the same upside. So it becomes a likely more future-proof purchase.
So perhaps now you are starting to see why the prospect of owning an Apollo appeals to me, even though I already have UAD cards. Presently I use an RME HDSPe-AIO, which is a very good PCI-e based audio interface and the two UAD cards, so I am using 3 PCI-e slots. This makes me nervous for the future. Also, short of bringing my entire computer to another studio, this gives me no portability to other studios to use my UAD plug-ins.
Another big issue for some potential users of UAD has been the inability to track through the plug-ins without added latency to whatever the audio interface’s round trip latency already has, because of the DSP based cards being outside of the interface. With the Apollo, as I sad earlier, there is no added latency with almost all of the plug-ins. This means I can record my singer or sax player monitoring though high quality emulations of an LA2a, Neve 1073, and a Lexicon 224 with the option to print them or record them dry without additional latency. I love that!
Oh, and did I mention it will come with a Console software app that has a companion Console Recall plug-in (VST/AU/RTAS) to provide control and recall of all interface and UAD plug-in settings within individual DAW sessions/projects, even months and years later?
So folks, how much do you want to offer me for a package with my RME, UAD-2 Duo and UAD 1-e? :)
Is NAMM still relevant?
Going to the NAMM show used to be a big deal for me, my idea of a trip to Disneyland, and I generally spent two full days there. It was the only place that before a hardware or software product was released I could go to see it demonstrated, try it, feel it, and compare similar products. It also was an opportunity to see and meet developers, big name musicians, and potential Logic Pro clients, and almost always, see Stevie Wonder!
And everyone was there: Emagic (now Apple) MOTU, Steinberg, Digidesign (now Avid) EastWest, Spectrasonics, Native Instruments, Roland, Yamaha, etc.
Now it is quite different. Every year, fewer and fewer software developers are exhibiting because they can simply post YouTube videos and accomplish the same thing to a much greater potential purchaser base with far less financial expenditure. It simply doesn’t make sense for them. With hardware, it is a less clear-cut decision. You want to get your hands on it and see how it responds to your playing, its build quality and feel, etc. and that is why all the big hardware manufacturers, as well as many smaller and lesser know ones, are indeed still exhibiting there.
Frankly, I am not buying much in the way of hardware these days but still I go to NAMM and probably will continue to do so, if less excitedly and only for one day. Why? Because composing in a project studio hour upon hour a week is a lonely task and I need to be out among my peers, exchanging ideas while hearing their voices, seeing their expressions, and interacting with them as real human beings and not just internet entities. It is the reason I also still go to video stores instead of just downloading from Netflix. I know, pretty reactionary and out of date for a guy who writes a technology column, but we are human beings first, artists second, and I think there is sill value in it.
And yes, this year I did again see Stevie Wonder!