UAD Apollo x8p
Online, there's a wealth of reviews and technical information about UAD's Apollo x8p, but it was the list of plugins that initially caught my eye: suddenly I was back in the '80s at Master Rock Studios in Kilburn where a brief career as tea boy and cleaner introduced me to the world of high end gadgets. I must have driven Steve Flood mad with questions about how to use the Urie, Fairchild, and dbx 160 compressors; the SSL desk, not to mention the plate and spring reverbs, and perhaps my favourite toy of all, the Lexicon 244. I longed for the day when I could take one of those on tour. So having played with a whole host of gear in the studio environment as opposed to the more inconsistent live arena, I'm well aware of how these original devices sounded and behaved in their analogue form.
The measure of any piece of equipment for me has to fill two criteria in this order: sounds great; easy to use. Anything else is down to aesthetics. Unboxing the x8p was easy: unit, power supply, mains cable, and a small card which simply says visit www.uaudio.com/register. So I created my account, connected to my MacBook Pro via thunderbolt 3, turned it on, and proceeded to download the UAD software. Once it was all done, I restarted my mac, opened up Logic, there was a period while it initialised all the 200+ plugins, and I couldn't help but smile as their names, most of which are very familiar, flashed in front of my eyes. It came to a stop, and there was the interface in Logic preferences. How easy was that? I swapped my XLR cables out for a pair of jack to XLRs for my monitors, loaded a recent project which I had to copy across from my MacBook Pro, and hit the space bar on my laptop. Instant audio! I've had a fair few interfaces over the years, and I have to say things just keep getting easier and easier to install and set up. The whole process from box opening to audio at speakers took under 20 minutes. A compressor is one of those devices that you can never truly appreciate until you spend some time in a sealed control room just listening and playing. There is no right or wrong way to use a compressor or limiter – just do what sounds good. My all time favourite, luckily for me, was in most studios in London through the '80s, and was the Urie 1176. This box of tricks has a magic about it. Technically it's a limiter; there's no threshold, just an input control that you use to drive the level up against the limiter, and output level, attack, and release - plus a number of push buttons by the VU which need to be played with as the various combinations produce a cacophony of effects. The first time I heard one of these inserted on a vocal, the warmth of the low mid and the way in which the vocal came so close you could almost feel the spit in your face is unforgettable. The way it can turn an average drab snare into a powerful thing of beauty by opening up the attack speed is the other application for which this gem is truly memorable. I've used a couple of other emulations of this box, and while some are better than others, none have quite had that original magic. The UAD 1176 has the Blue-stripe (Rev A), the Blackface (Rev E), and a modern 40th anniversary model with additional stuff I've never seen before. And it wasn't long before I was running out of tracks to try this on. The Blackface is genuinely difficult to tell apart from its original, and I couldn't stop grinning.
"These UAD guitar modelling plugins are genuinely inspirational."
The next plugin on my list was the Teletronix LA2A Silver - another legendary iconic compressor, this time optical in design, which Bill Putnam later refined by updating valves with solid state circuitry to produce the LA-3A. Both units are here, together with a legacy version that is not as DSP hungry, but is very good. It isn't until you try to crank it into distortion that you spot the difference. It makes perfect sense that Universal Audio wouldn't emulate one of its own iconic products without it being accurate, enjoyable, and the best. I can't understand how it took me so long to try these out. All these UAD plugins are special, and I've just spent the best part of a day listening to them. It was also good building a compression chain - something I used to see back in the day - to sit that vocal right in front of the band. The 1176 to control the harsh peaks, and the LA-2A to smooth out the rest. Magic! You could almost imagine yourself physically turning the dials on those old masterpieces; they are hugely impressive, and thoroughly authentic sounding. And this is just my preference, of course; there are other great iconic comp and limiter plugins in the Universal Audio arsenal: Fairchild 670, SSL G-bus, Manley MU, API 2500, and dbx160. The Lexicon 224 and 224XL were the sound of the '80s; it's almost impossible to find a chart hit that doesn't feature one. But interestingly, it's never gone away, unlike some fashionable accessories. Again, there are plenty of good Lexicon emulations out there: working in live sound, you find many that mention either the 224 or 480L. The 224 always looked complicated until you actually got hold of the controller and realised that it had only nine programs, a couple of which are based on the same Lexicon preset, but with some parameter changes. For example, the Small Hall B and Large Hall B are the same preset [1 and 3] bus with different parameters. What makes this reverb so special and iconic is the way in which you can control the reverb tail in different frequency ranges. The first four faders control how much, and in what frequency your reverb tail sits, together with the crossover slider, which alters the frequency between the bass and midrange faders. The UAD 480L Lexicon delivers all of this functionality seamlessly, and the creativity you can inspire with this alone - at a fraction of the cost of the original hardware unit - is staggering. I could spend days going through all of the options in the 480L plugin, but the experience is really all about exploring and using your ears; it can enhance any work you've done prior, or inspire you to alter something new in a pretty dramatic way.
Now on to a number of key components that come with the x8p that offer both flexibility as well as a massive range of tonal options. First up, the Console application. In a nutshell, think of your DAW as your audio recorder, and Console as your mixing desk, in which you can prepare your recording and monitoring, with all the power of UAD plugins. And without using any of your computer processing, at near zero latency. Extremely impressive. Also, although I haven't referred to the manual once, I needed to understand the technologies going on, so there are two terms worth pointing out which you will hear while watching any Apollo x hardware and software tutorials on YouTube that make everything fall into place: UAD-2 and UNISON. UAD-2 refers to the actual computer processing within your Apollo x device. Besides the Apollo x8p I have here, there are other UAD-2 devices in the range which feature additional cores of UAD-2 processing, and these handle the processing of your UAD-2 plugins. And UNISON is the marriage of digital mic pre and instrument amp plugins with the analogue mic preamp hardware - all of which is controlled from within Console. This accurate emulation is achieved by a component level alteration of the physical mic pres' impedance to match more closely that of the original mic pre hardware. This is a bit of a revelation, as I don't know firstly how they do it; and lastly, anyone else who is using this mix and match technology. So in Logic I created a new project with eight mono audio tracks and opened Console. I plugged my Strat into the first Hi Z input on the front panel, channel one automatically gave a reassuring relay click and switched the Hi Z input into the signal path. I inserted an old [AKG] C414 into the second channel via the rear panel XLR. I also plugged in a pair of 451s, as I thought I might record my Martin acoustic as well. There are a whole bunch of guitar and bass plugins that come with UAD interfaces, and I was eager to find out how they stacked up. I've used untold amps and FX over the years, and still being a bit of a bedroom guitarist when I find the time, I have my trusty Line 6 HD500. I kind of settled on this because it was easy to use, and represented a consistent result at low latency compared to computer-based modelling. I tried Guitar Rig, but had issues with latency, so it just didn't feel right. These UAD guitar modelling plugins, however, are really very good, and quite inspirational; they felt and sounded just like the response of the real amp - right up there with the Kemper Profiler and the Fractal Axe. But this is where UAD-2 onboard processing takes over. Hey, as I'm writing this, I'm aware that as I touch the keys with the fingers of my left hand, there's pain in my finger tips - that's how much I've enjoyed playing again and putting the x8p through its paces! In the late '70s I bought my first Marshall JMP 2204 and 4 x 12, as well as the 2104 combo version, so it was in interesting exercise recording with the UAD JMP 2203 plugin, modelled on the 100W version of my amp. I'd always thought the 100W model was too loud, over the top, and aggressive – but I must have mellowed somewhat, because this was just like sitting in a control room with the head, and the cab in the next room doing its thing! There are four plugin slots per channel in Console, but if you fancy going hybrid, there's nothing to stop you wheeling out your Crybaby and your Tone-bender and attempting to sound like Ronson! How nostalgic.
And now to the age old debate, which console is best: Neve, Helios, API, Trident or SSL? Well, with the x8p, you can record using them all: just select input two as the input source on a bunch of channels in your DAW and run a take or two using each mic pre in Console's channel two. Some years ago, I owned my own Avalon 737, so I threw this into the mix as well, along with the Manley VoxBox - another great channel strip I've been lucky enough to use on a number of occasions. Now anyone can join the debate, as the range of tonal colour within these plugins is chalk and cheese, and it's easy to see why engineers have all grown to favour one over the other – and that's why particular engineers and producers were often associated with the same studios. My personal favourite plugin in this test was the Helios - a console I'd seen in situ, but never actually heard in action. It's almost like there's a little bit of something in the phase of the mid-range that sits the audio closer to you, incredible to listen to. The Neve 1073 has been around in various guises over the years, and never fails to please – it's one of those musical preamps that beautifies anything it touches, and these are in every top studio for good reason. If you're losing something in the mix and you want it to sit up without making it louder, UAD's 1073 is your go-to line level legacy plugin, as opposed to a stock EQ provided with your DAW. Hell, it's worth buying the Apollo x8p for the interface and this plugin alone! The Avalon 737 and the Manley VoxBox are again, both very faithful to their analogue counterparts. I use the Avalon all the time for female vocals as it has such a rich, warm depth that really works live without getting lost in the mix – and the Manley, more on a male vocal for similar reasons, but this time in the mid-range where it would enhance the presence of the vocal and bring it forward in the mix. Both boxes also benefit from excellent compression, and in UAD plugin form, they tick all boxes also. Next, I crossed my 451s and put them through UAD API Vision channels. I wanted to see if I could get anything like that lush acoustic guitar sound that I remember from Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Specifically Never Going Back Again, sadly let down by the fact I hadn't played it in years and it took my ages to work it out again... And I still couldn't play it! But even in my little room, it was easy to get lost in yourself and imagine you were somewhere far more salubrious. It's worth mentioning that I also had a listen to the Apollo's mic pres without plugins, and found them to be incredibly clean and whisper-quiet - until you put signal into the mic, of course. And it suddenly dawned on me that if you added another unit with eight or more preamps, you could box it all up in a 2U rack case, and with a bunch of your preferred mics, pick which room or studio you wanted to record in for that ideal drum sound. Suddenly, the idea of being able to quickly set up a session in advance or even save a snapshot of that magic moment and all that went with it for future use becomes an unbelievably attractive proposition. Saved sessions of preferred kit, channel plugins and settings to match a particular drummer's style ready for any future session... the ideas and possibilities are genuinely endless. Going back to that age old debate about which classic album was recorded or mixed in which studio with this or that console rather seems meaningless when the x8p is sitting in front of you, because essentially you have all those resources in front of you. I always remember commenting to Stuart Colman at Master Rock about what a beautiful studio he'd built, and how all the equipment was top class and would make great records. He kind of smiled and grimaced at the same time and said: “Great musicians and great engineers make great records.” So in conclusion then, the last few days have been so much fun. I've been re-inspired to such an extent that I want to go back and remix every project I've ever been involved with with this setup. I want this pandemic thing to be over so I can get my mates over for jam sessions, and to record new ideas. I've travelled back in time to those eureka moments when I first came across those inspirational pieces of equipment that defined the sounds of their era, and discovered others which I'd only ever heard about, but not had the pleasure of delving into at the time. And actually, I feel I've found the most useful, easy to use, professional studio tool ever that is, budget-wise, within reach for any musician wanting to make a career of music. I paid more for my MacBook Pro four years ago! I've become so attached to the Apollo x8p that I'm starting to have moments of anxiety about the prospect of giving it back.