AF’s Weblog

May 7, 2012

Universal Audio Apollo Review

To read the full detailed article see:  Universal Audio Apollo Review

Universal Audio is a brand like no other in the pro audio world. The company has been competing in the hardware market for over 50 years with preamps, compressors and channel strips. But it has also been present in the plug-in market for about a decade with the famous UAD DSP platform. We have always wondered what would happen if Universal Audio were to combine their analog and digital technologies. Introduced at the NAMM 2012, the Apollo is the first answer. Focus on the Universal Audio interface!

… one giant leap for DSP technology!

We have often asked ourselves why a manufacturer offering high-quality preamps, hardware compressors and plug-ins never conceived a product including all this know-how. They have finally done it with the Apollo, a digital audio interface with four preamps and the famous UAD-2 DSP. We dreamed about an audio interface with a Twin-Finity preamp or even a 1176LN (hardware), but Universal Audio decided to focus on digital audio and to allow the user to work with UAD plug-ins like with classic analog gear. To achieve that, the engineer team developed a system that allows to decrease the latency to less than 2 ms — a bit like Pro Tools HD does —, giving the musician and sound engineer the possibility to process the signal directly during recording sessions. Since the latency time is imperceptible, the musician can play freely and record without any hassles.

Look after your musician

Universal Audio Apollo

Some of you might have doubts about processing the signal during a recording session when using a fully digital system. A couple of decades ago, when recording studios were analog, it was usual to process the signal during recording, for example by inserting a compressor or an EQ in the signal path. Back then plug-ins didn’t exist and the number of compressors and EQs available in the studio was limited. So it was usual to insert processors during takes, even if it meant taking risks and artistic decisions on the spot: there was no other choice! This way of working is still used in modern production environments where some engineers like to take risks and insert hardware compressors and/or EQs during the recording. However, we could ask ourselves whether this workflow makes any sense within a fully digital system. In fact, plug-ins always process the signal after the AD converter. As a consequence, a compressor plug-in won’t be able to reduce the risk of clipping at the converter stage. The same applies to EQs: why should we use destructive processing during the recording, while digital audio technology gives us the possibility to record the settings and edit them later? Modern sequencers give us this chance — it would be a pity not take advantage of it!

Universal Audio Apollo

But inserting plug-ins during the takes can have other advantages. To record a singer you can use a dedicated bus for his monitor headphone mix with the sequencer return and the voice of the singer captured by the microphone in front of him. We all know that musicians need to feel comfortable to perform at their best. When a musician plays well, 50% of your work is already done! That’s the reason why you have to look after the musician: offer him a cup of tee at the right temperature, a bowl of M&Ms without the brown ones, or a flattering sound in his headphones. The Universal Audio interface allows you to insert up to four plug-ins into the channel of the musician/singer with less than 2 ms latency time (1.1ms @ 96kHz, from the analog input to the analog output) and to assign the recorded signal to the monitor headphones adding a bit of compression, a flattering EQ setting and a whiff of reverb so that the musician feels like he’s playing in his favorite cathedral. This can seem superfluous, but it isn’t. The performance of the musician has a direct impact on the final quality of the recording.

But let’s have a look at our all-gray Apollo.

Conclusion

The Apollo was eagerly awaited by many Universal Audio fans and home studio owners — and we must admit that it’s a great achievement! The manufacturer offers you the possibility to insert its famous plug-ins with a latency of less than 2ms, which is more than enough for recording applications. The look and the manufacturing quality are perfect. The mixer is very practical and easy to use. When it comes to audio, the interface offers good quality converters and pretty linear preamps considering the price. We only regret that the mixer is still limited (in the number of Aux buses, for example), that the Thunderbolt option is too expensive and that the interface offers no MIDI or USB connections. But as soon as the plug-ins are available in 64 bits, the interface supports Windows and the mixer offers a couple more features, the Apollo package will be nearly perfect. The user will still have to decide if he “marries” the UAD platform, which forces him to stay faithful to the brand’s plug-ins, otherwise the advantages of the Apollo are limited. But considering the overall quality of the UAD plug-ins, this forced marriage might quickly become a perfect match!

Advantages:
  • Good quality converters
  • Transparent-sounding preamps
  • Less than 2ms latency with inserted plug-ins!
  • One UAD-2 under the hood
  • Nice design
  • High quality construction
  • Simple and easy-to-use mixer
Drawbacks:
  • No MIDI connectors
  • Only FireWire support
  • Thunderbolt option too expensive
  • Currently, only two AUXs in the mixer
  • No Windows support yet
  • No 64 bit plug-ins yet

To read the full detailed article see:  Universal Audio Apollo Review

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December 1, 2010

Lifting the Lid on Audio Laptops: The Test

In Part 2 we go deeper into PC laptops for music production and put a few choice models to the test.

 

The most sure fire way of removing the headache from selecting a laptop is to pop along to someone who knows what they are doing. If you pick up a laptop from a specialist Audio PC builder then you can feel assured that the DPC latency will be under control (see Part 1), and it would have been tested with numerous audio interfaces. However, regardless of the marketing materials, no laptop is going to be “designed for audio”. With desktop computers Audio PC specialists can carefully choose and combine components to produce a system that will work well for music production. With laptops this isn’t possible. Unless you order direct from the Far East in large container loads then you are not going to get any say over what goes inside a laptop. Audio PC builders have to rebrand and sell someone else’s laptop.

Some name brand manufactures release what’s known as a “whitebox” version of one or more of their range of laptops. This is essentially an unbranded, vanilla laptop chassis without CPU, RAM or hard drive installed. The specialist would then add the missing components to order, rebrand and sell it as their own product.  In the UK at least whitebox laptops are increasingly rare. Asus, MSI and Intel have all had a go in the past but the general feeling is that the money to be made supplying specialist builders isn’t really worth it. That leaves a company called Clevo. Clevo specialise in whitebox laptops, they do nothing else and don’t tend to sell them under their own brand – so they’re not competing with their own customers like the name brands do. They supply laptop shells to all the little companies and shops that wish to brand and their “own” laptop – been doing it for years. There’s nothing wrong in any of this. For people wanting a properly tested and supported laptop for audio then this is the best route. The only downside is that the choice is very restrictive. The chances are that wherever you go the specialists will be selling the same laptop. The laptop won’t have any features specific to music making, it will probably be designed for gaming as much as anything and the best the Audio PC company can do is tweak it and support it for audio use – which is a great thing in itself. The value in having a laptop properly set-up and supported to do the job should not be underestimated. It’s one of the downsides of buying from Apple – you’re not going to get that specialised music production support in the event of trouble.

As an Audio PC builder whitebox laptops can be quite frustrating because you don’t have any control over the internal technology. When a new version arrives there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get it work for music production and you are off again trying to find a new solution. This has been particular difficult with the latest laptop technology from Intel. The mobile Core i3, i5 and i7 CPU’s seem to have brought with them a bumper set of features and components that all get stuffed into the laptop making it really difficult to minimise the DPC latency impact and maximise the firewire bandwidth.

So, instead of restricting ourselves to only whitebox laptops let’s take a look at some name brand manufacturers that just might do the job.

The Laptop Face-Off

Our search resulted in five possible solutions from three manufacturers:

  1. Asus N61JQ i7 720QM 1.6GHz 4GB ATI HD5730 ~ £1000
  2. Fujitsu Lifebook E780 i5 520M 2.4GHz 4GB Nvidia GT330M ~ £1050
  3. Fujitsu Celsius H700 i5 540M 2.6GHz 4GB Nvidia Quadro 880M ~ £1900
  4. Lenovo Thinkpad T510 i5 520M 2.4GHz 3GB Intel HD GFX ~ £1100
  5. Lenovo Thinkpad W510 i7 720QM 1.6GHz 2GB Quadro FX 880M ~ £1650

These aren’t cheap and cheerful, they’re high spec, professional laptops comparable (arguably) to the MacBook Pro – that’s the idea anyway.  It was interesting how out of the box they all had various problems and barriers to working well for music production. I’m pretty experienced with these things and so I knew how to approach the issues but I often wonder how non-technical people get past this point – or even if they do.

Let’s look at them one at a time and then compare some test results…

Conclusion

The similarity between the results of the Fujitsu E780 and Lenovo T510 shows that the technological differences between the two laptops has little effect on the performance. Both units have the Core i5 520M 2.4GHz processor and although the E780 has one more gigabyte of RAM it didn’t make a substantial  difference. The question remains though if the E780 had a graphics solution that didn’t cause a blue screen would the performance be even better? The two Quad Core’s were not as fast as expected but then the comparison between at 2.4GHz dual core and a 1.6GHz Quad core is difficult to make assumptions about – essentially you are comparing 4.8GHz to 6.4GHz and so we should be looking at a 25% performance difference and that is actually not far from what we got. The perception of a Quad Core though would assume a much bigger increase! The Fujitsu H700 was largely untested due to the driver clash problems and so its results are inconclusive. The Asus was always lagging behind the W510 in all but one test – probably down to the lack of available BIOS editing to stabilise the CPU speed but it’s also the cheapest model on test. On performance alone the Lenovo T510 and W510 take the crown although the Fujitsu could equal the performance if the clash with the graphics drivers was sorted out.

The performance differences and behavior of the audio interfaces is worthy of note. The Edirol FA66, which has the most uninspiring driver and control panel, seems to outperform the other, arguably more professional, interfaces by a fair margin. The FA66 also worked the same whether it was connected to a TI chipset card or the internal firewire port – it didn’t seem to care. When plugged into the Fujitsu it was the only interface not to blue screen – instead you got crackly playback. Edirol obviously know what they’re doing in terms of programming – shame they have no sense of style. At the other end the Firestudio misbehaved the most, failing to work successfully on everything except the T510. The Saffire Pro 24 sits safely between the two. I know very little about how driver architecture actually works but my assumptions are that the differences are to do with the amount of channels the interface requires – the FA66 only needs 6in/out, the Saffire 16in 8out whereas the Firestudio needs 24 in/out. Maybe the interface has negotiate the full bandwidth to accommodate all of its ins and outs when plugged into the firewire socket  – further testing required I think. That said, once working the Edirol was a clear winner on performance which must be down to a combination of the technology in the box and quality of the drivers.

Was that helpful? Who knows! I think it shows some of the trials and tribulations involved in choosing a laptop for music production and how performance can vary not just between laptops but also between audio interfaces. As the majority of users don’t get the chance to compare their laptop to others then it all comes down to whether it’s doing what you want it to do. If you can make music on it then it’s doing a good job.

To read the full detailed article see:  Choosing a Laptop for Music Making Part 2

August 31, 2010

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP Review

The FireWire digital audio interface market is somewhat saturated with products like the M-Audio ProFire610 or the TC Electronic Impact Twin which we already tested here at AudioFanzine — now is the time to pick at Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 DSP…

Focusrite’s range of external digital audio interfaces is very comprehensive, including the small Saffire 6 USB with 2 ins/4 outs, the big Saffire 56 with 28 ins/outs, the Pro 40 with 20 ins/outs, and two Saffire Pro 24 (16 ins/8 outs) with or without integrated DSP. We will test the version with integrated DSP, MixControl 2 software and VRM technology (Virtual Reference Monitoring).

Before testing the software package, let’s open the box…

Physically Ordinary

The Saffire Pro 24 DSP didn’t really impress us when we took it out of the box… The interface, which is a bit less wide but deeper than the M-Audio ProFire 610, has a very classic look compared to the TC Electronic products for example. Its dimensions and weight are standard: 8.5″ x 1.8″ x 8.65″ and 3.5 lb. Everything looks pretty sturdy. It includes four sticky rubber feet for the bottom so that it doesn’t slip off. The controls are small but easily accessible since they are well spaced out. The interface is provided with a six-pin FireWire cable, a mains adapter (in case the computer’s FireWire interface cannot provide enough power), a “lite” version of Ableton Live 8, one GB of “Loopmasters” samples, the Novation Bass Station virtual synth, and the drivers CD, of course.

Now, let’s take a closer look to the interface…

Front/rear Panels

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP

The front panel of the interface features two inputs on Neutrik combos (XLR + 1/4″ TRS), with switchable 48V phantom power, to connect a microphone (dynamic or condenser mic), a musical instrument or a line signal. The selection between instrument and line source must be made via the MixControl software because the interface does not provide any input level selector. A small, red LED is the only way to know that instrument level is activated. The interface also provides two gain controls for the inputs; their range is from -10 dB to +36 dB for the mic signals and +13 dB to +60 dB for instrument signals.

In the center of the front panel, four level meters with five LEDs each show the signal level for each of the four inputs. It’s not ideal but it’s still better than the ProFire610 or the Impact Twin… Three green LEDs allow you to monitor the on/off status, the FireWire connection and the internal or external clock sync.

On the right side of the front panel, you’ll find three additional volume controls. The first one is conceived for studio monitors and also features mute and dim (-18 dB) buttons. The two other volume controls are dedicated to the pair of headphones outputs. Each headphones output can have its own mix (see below), which is a very valuable feature!

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP

The rear panel hosts the connectors, i.e. analog and digital ins and outs. On the left, you’ll find two coaxial S/PDIF connectors (in and out), the power switch (we would rather have it on the front panel…) and the connector for the mains adapter. You’ll also find 5-pin DIN MIDI in/out connectors, a 6-pin FireWire connector, an optical input to be used with ADAT or S/PDIF signals, and six analog line outputs on 1/4″ TRS connectors just like the two analog line inputs (3 and 4). You can connect balanced or unbalanced jacks to the interface and choose between two different levels (Hi and Lo Gain with +16 dBu and -10 dBV respectively) using the MixControl software.

And now that we’ve mentioned the MixControl…

Let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

For about $400, Focusrite offers a very comprehensive and reliable audio interface with 16 inputs and 8 outputs (analog, S/PDIF and even ADAT!). The software package is also very interesting. It features a virtual mixer called MixControl that can proudly stand up to its competitors. The routing functions are very flexible and you can create up to eight different mixes assignable to the line or headphones outs. The insert processors available for the first two inputs make a very good job, while the VST and AU compatible plugin suite is a valuable complement. The icing on the cake is the VRM technology that allows you to simulate different rooms and speaker pairs in your headphones. You’ll be finally able to mix in silence!

Among the drawbacks we can include its boring look, the lack of a physical switch to select either line or instrument sources and the position of the power switch (on the rear panel). But they are only small details…

The Saffire Pro 24 DSP is certainly one of the best digital audio FireWire interfaces in the $400 price segment.

Advantages:

  • Good-quality preamps
  • Construction quality
  • Price
  • Two independent headphones outputs
  • Eight different mixes thanks to the MixControl
  • Insert EQ and compressor on the first two inputs
  • Reverb for monitoring applications
  • Flexible routing
  • VST and AU plugin bundle with four processors
  • ADAT and S/PDIF digital ins/outs
  • Driver stability (with our computer)
  • Four five-segment meters on the front panel
  • Possibility to link other Focusrite interfaces
  • Virtual Reference Monitoring
  • Live Lite 8 included
  • FireWire powered

Disadvantages:

  • No line/instrument level switch on the front panel
  • Very boring look
  • Power switch on the rear panel

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP Review

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