Universal Audio Apollo – First Impressions

For the past few weeks, I’ve had a Universal Audio Apollo Quad in my studio. It’s the first step in an overhaul of my music studio and a move towards a hybrid, in and out of the box setup, which I will be working with for at least the next few years.

Having been an Apogee user for a number of years, my plan was to upgrade to a Symphony system at the start of this year. Plus, I was also looking to upgrade to a UAD Quad card, so I could use more of UA’s amazing plugins in my production and sound design work.

But, when UA announced the Apollo, it felt like the perfect hybrid, the best of digital combined with the ability to manage lots of analog signals. The Apollo would allow me to use more plugins and give me the high quality analog to digital and digital to analog conversion I needed.

First Impressions

Because of problems with the local dealer, here in Singapore, it took a few months to get my hands on an Apollo Quad. Once, I got it into the studio and set the unit up, I was immediately impressed. This is an attractive piece of kit and, as you would expect at this price point ($2499 in the US), the Apollo feels sturdy and professional. There are solid connectors front and back, reassuringly firm switches and a hefty external power supply that connects via a studio-grade XLR plug.

However, I have two big hardware reservations. First, the front panel knobs, which look good, feel cheap and flimsy. Second, the Apollo only has one pair of Monitor outputs. While you can work around this, if the Apollo is being used in a studio, with all the outputs being used to external summing, you are stuck using one set of monitors, or employing an external monitor controller. Given that the console has a mono button, UA missed a trick by not adding at dedicated mono monitor output.

Console Time

The software companion to the Apollo is UA’s new Console app. Console integrates well with the System and Plug-In manager application and gives you, in true UA style, an easy to use retro-styled panel for managing the Apollo. In fact, Console feels like a step up from the user interface on most of the UAD plugins.

Console gives you control over all the Apollo’s inputs and outputs, including the ability to create two auxiliary busses and two independent headphone mixes. You can easily add effects and manage input configurations (although some users might want more routing options and more auxiliary busses).

But, the big selling point of the Console and the Apollo, is the ability to use UAD’s plugins in real time, with virtually no latency. This is, for me, the big breakthrough of the Apollo and something that has exceeded my expectations.

Playing The PlugIns

As anyone who is familiar with using hardware effects will tell you, playing into a quality piece of gear is an intrinsically musical experience. Adding a good compression or EQ plugin to a recorded track is cool. But, actually singing, or playing into a effect is something else – you can tailor your performance to the sounds being created and responses of the unit.

Playing the guitar into UAD’s excellent Roland RE201 plugin is a totally difference experience to recording a dry track then adding a delay plugin later. With the Apollo and Console, I found myself tailoring the groove and accents of playing to effect. It’s a thrilling experience.

Value

The Apollo is not cheap, but given what you get, I believe it represents good value. It’s really a two for one product, since you get a lot of external processing power and a high fidelity audio interface.

The quality of the unit is impressive. Of course, the technical cork-sniffers will ask hard questions about the Apollo’s conversion quality. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do blind tests with many other products, but my perception is the Apollo is superior to the Apogee Ensemble and close to, if not quite the equal, of the Symphony system, which costs considerably more.

The Apollo was a direct replacement for a first generation Apogee Duet and the quality difference between the two was stunning. The Apollo delivers a better, more detailed recorded signal, and gives me a much wider and more clear stereo output.

The Future

Universal Audio point out that Apollo is the first Thunderbolt equipped audio interface. However, you have pay extra for the thunderbolt card ($499 in the US). I have no doubt Thunderbolt is the future, but no Current Mac Pro has Thunderbolt and it looks like I will never be able to add Thunderbolt to my 2008 Mac Pro. So for now, I’m stuck with FireWire. This isn’t really UA’s fault, as much as a reflection of our current situation as computer design evolves.

When I first saw the Apollo specs, I assumed the solution for me would be to use two Apollos for full 16 channel input/output. You cant do that yet, but UA are promising this will work with future software updates. However, I now think that is overkill, since many of the features of the Apollo don’t need to be duplicated.

So, I will be adding a Black Lion modded ADA8000, to give me access to the Apollo’s digital outputs for full 16 channel I/O.

Conclusion

I’m really happy with the Apollo so far. It’s a new kind of audio interface that sits well for music producers who want the best of both worlds – working inside and outside the box. I’m impressed with the quality of the Apollo and excited by having this new “brain” in my studio.

Comments

  1. says

    Since you’ve had your Apollo for a number of months I’d really like to hear what your longer-term experience has been using it. Most importantly, how well the BLA-modded ADA8000 is playing with your Apollo.

    When I read this I thought, but won’t there be a big difference between what the ADA8000′s converters sound like compared to the Apollo? Won’t running them concurrently in a mixing session create sonic problems?

    Also, how do you connect your ADA8000 to your MacPro? I’ve not yet found an ADATfirewire/USB converter, short of using MOTU or Presonus lightpipe units to connect to the ADA8000.

  2. says

    Steven – Right now everything is working really well. I have planned a follow up review, but I want to write it after the current project I’m working on, so probably mid April.

    A few quick observations. The BLA mod is really impressive, makes the ADA sound really good. Yes, the sound and levels are different to the Apollo. I make sure to route things through either one, or the other. For example, on my current work, I run the sample drums and soft synths through the ADA and the vocals, live guitars and percussion through the Apollo.

    I also have a Logic test project, that allows me to fine tune the 5059 summing mixer so the channels are even regardless of which converter is being used.

    I’m not sure what problems there could be, unless the sonic quality, or noise levels were radically different. After all, running tracks through different outboard paths will always give them an uneven sonic quality anyway. As it is, I am blending live and samples all the time, so I’m used to this kind of mismatch and everything ultimately goes through the same analog path of summing mixer, EQ and compressor anyway, which settles things in a way I much prefer to my old In The Box approach.

    As for routing, I go FireWire from the Mac Pro to the Apollo, then ADAT to and from the Apollo to the ADA. I also have the Apollo has the master clock for the ADA.

    Hope that helps clear up a few things.

  3. says

    Fernando – That’s great news. Which BLA mod did you chose: the basic or premium?

    The part of your new environment that’s most interesting to me (but beyond my reach) s the 5059. It would fit very well into how I work now and what I want to be able to do.

  4. says

    Steven, I just finished reading Mixerman’s Zen of Mixing book & he comes out strongly in favour analog summing and the kind of rig I’ve built. I grew tired of the online ITB vs Analog Summing debates a long time ago. For me, I like what the 5059 does. Hope you get to try it, or something similar.

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