by Jon Chappell
The UAD-2 Satellite QUAD connects to a Mac via FireWire 800 and powers all plug-ins externally, giving back processing power to the computer.
There’s an old expression that says you can never be too rich or too thin. If you translated that for DAW recording, just substitute “tracks” and “plug-ins” for the operative qualities. You can never have too many available tracks and plug-ins. Or, more precisely, you never seem to have enough computer power to run as many tracks, effects, or virtual instruments as you might in an ideal world. Where most people feel the pinch is when trying to run even a reasonable amount of plug-in effects. You start to come up against the limits of your processing power pretty quickly. And if you want to include a resource-draining plug-in like convolution reverb, you’re prevented from running all but the bare minimum number of effects before your system bogs down. It requires being parsimonious with your CPU resources and keeping a constant, watchful eye on the CPU meter.
Universal Audio changes all that with their line of powered-plug-in DSP accelerators, which removes all effects processing from the computer itself and redirects it to external circuitry (a PCIe card or tabletop box). Many companies produce DSP accelerators, and for a variety of different purposes. But for plug-in effects (in the form of VST, RTAS, and AU), Universal Audio has been leading the charge for a long time. And their products show it: the hardware is rock solid and screamingly fast, and their software is evolved, great sounding, and just plain gorgeous. (For an in-depth exploration of the plug-ins, check out Craig Anderton's UA Powered Plug-ins Pro Review, which has audio and video clips, and has garnered more than 45,000 views.)
It used to be that you had to use a tower computer to avail yourself of a DSP accelerator because they came only in PCI card format (a circuit board that plugs into the motherboard of your computer). Many accelerators are still available only this way. But in the Satellite series, UA has put their accelerator processing in a tabletop housing, which then connects via a FireWire 800 cable to any computer—most significantly a laptop. The UAD-2 Satellite is a boon to mobile recordists who demand high-quality effects in a portable format.
The UAD-2 comes in several bundle configurations, but my review unit was the UAD-2 Satellite QUAD for Mac. It connects to your computer via a FireWire 800 cable (it will work on a FireWire 400 system, but you’ll need to supply the FireWire 400 cable yourself). In the box was the Satellite (about the size of a Nook tablet or standard FireWire hard drive), an installation CD, a multi-volt power supply (complete with different adapters for foreign plugs), and a 76" FireWire 800 cable. Figure 1 shows what the components look like, just out of the box:
Fig. 1. The UAD-2 Satellite components (left to right): three different plugs for the power adapter (multi-voltage, not shown), UAD-2 Satellite QUAD, FireWire 800 cable, installation CD. The box is in the background.
Placed on top of my computer, the 6"x8"x1" UAD-2 seemed perfectly to scale (see Fig. 2). It was neither too big nor too small, and its rugged all-metal construction ensures that it will travel well. It weighs just under 1.5 pounds.
Fig. 2. The UAD-2 Satellite is well-scaled to a 15" MacBook Pro. It makes an ideal traveling companion.
Outwardly, the UAD-2 Satellite QUAD is a straightforward box with no controls on the front panel at all. On the back are just three FireWire jacks (one 400, two 800) to connect to your computer and to a daisy-chained device (see Fig. 3). There’s a power supply jack accompanied by an on/off rocker switch, Kensington Lock holes, and an LED labeled UAD Link, which glows solid green when successfully connected to your computer and operational. The box runs cool, and the industrial design is sophisticated and appealing.
Fig. 3. The UAD-2's back panel contains just three FireWire jacks, a power supply jack and switch, and a status LED.
Under the hood is the high-bandwidth FireWire DSP accelerator sporting four Analog Devices SHARC processors, which handle all the heavy lifting for plug-in processing. This is the engine that provides the smooth sounds of all the products included with the UAD-2 software bundle: the LA-2A Classic Audio Leveler, 1176LN and 1176SE Classic Limiting Amplifiers, Pultec EQP-1A and RealVerb Pro plug-ins. The purchase price also includes a $50 voucher toward any of the multitude plug-ins available in UA’s online store, including modules modeled on equipment by Studer, SSL, Manley, Empirical Labs, Neve, Roland, BOSS, EMT, Fairchild, Harrison, Helios, Little Labs, Pultec, SPL, and more.
With virtually no controls and only two cables to attach (power and data), installation is quick and simple. You register with Universal Audio and sign up for an account, which allows for updates and purchases of additional plug-ins. When you’ve finished the installation routine, you find on your computer's dock or taskbar a utility called the UAD Meter & Control Panel (see Fig. 4). The control panel is handy for keeping an eye on your CPU resources, and it lists all the onboard plug-ins. Just out of the box, six of the bundled plug-ins are unlocked and yours forever, but the rest are available as demos for 14 days, at which point you can purchase them. The Control Panel informs you of many useful aspects of your system, including CPU usage and which plug-ins are activated and which are still in demo mode. I wish the CP included one more column listing the effects type (EQ, dynamics, reverb, etc.). As it is, you have to go into the pull-down menu of a channel's plug-in slot to see your UAD plug-ins organized in that way. But most functions are obvious from the product name itself.
Fig. 4. Three selected screens from the UAD-2's control panel. (Click to enlarge.)
With a hardware component so spartan in design, you might not be prepared for the luxurious world of software that awaits you when you instantiate a plug-in slot in your DAW. Every plug-in offered by the UAD-2 features a dead-on accurate rendering of the original hardware version’s front panel interface, beautifully designed and producing realistic results.
The included bundle is a well-rounded mix of essential processing gear, ranging from emulation of classic models to modern utilities of UA's own creation. I was eager to test them out, and of course I started with the classics. Now, I didn’t have an actual vintage Pultec EQP-1A or a Teletronix LA-2A compressor (see Fig. 5) on hand to A/B with the UAD-2, but I am of the age where I can remember when those units were de rigueur in all the big studios. So I have a lot of sense memory to work with, both aural and tactile. The UA plugs do uncanny re-creations of those classic boxes, both in terms of the resultant sound they provide, as well as the behavior of the knobs and switches themselves. You just can't get any closer than UA's respectful and assiduous rendering of these classic units in the digital domain. And of course, there are advantages to using these effects as plug-ins, the most obvious being having multiple instances of an effect on different sound sources, each with its own settings. And as these instances are handled by an external processor, you don't have to worry about taxing your computer's CPU.
Fig. 5. The Pultec EQP-1A and Teletronix LA-2A are two of the bundled plug-ins included free with the purchase of the UAD-2 Satellite QUAD.
After spending several sessions getting re-acquainted with just the Pultec and LA-2A, I called up the other four processors. The pair of Limiting Amplifiers, the 1176SE and 1176LN, have identical control surfaces but different characters. The best way I found to A/B them was set them up on a pair of cloned channels, identical in every way except for the compressors. For quick setups, I like the SE. When I drilled down, I found I could sculpt my tone with a little more refinement with the LN. So for me it was more of a question of how deeply I wanted to work on a sound, versus the resultant sound, both of which were excellent. If I were mixing and needed multiple instances, I'd do with the SE. For tracking, and where I wanted, and had the extra time, to take extra care and produce a specific result, I'd go with the LN.
Including RealVerb Pro (Fig. 6) was greatly appreciated, as it's kind of a benchmark for physical-modeling reverbs, and this processor-hungry class of effects is ripe for inclusion in a DSP accelerator. The RealVerb Pro is all I'll ever need, because as much as I love vintage 'verbs, my workaday ambient effects are the ones that approach the greatest realism. RealVerb Pro fits the bill for both great sound and its intuitive interface. When I need a "combined" or non-realistic effect, I can go to the Morphing control, which for me keeps things real at the core, but combines elements not always possible in nature.
Fig. 6. Included in the QUAD bundle is RealVerb Pro, a versatile modeling reverb.
So having two classic processors for EQ and Dynamics, two compressor, plus a forward-looking modeling reverb, what else could you want? How about a channel strip to complete the picture? Here, UA includes the CS-1 (Fig. 7). To tame a signal from start to finish, and including ambient and some modulation characteristics, the CS-1 can't be beat. I particularly found the Delay inclusion useful, as I'm often calculating repeats to the tempo (converiting ms to bps), and the interface here makes that quick work. The modulation controls are surprisingly versatile and sophisticated, too. Also, the CS-1 takes up only one plug-in slot, ensuring a speedy setup from a single front panel.
Fig. 7. UA's CS-1 is a channel strip with essential submodules that guarantee quick setups.
It might be helpful to understand that Universal Audio works with the original manufacturer in realizing these effects (even when that includes themselves!), which means not only getting permission to use the circuit design and aesthetics, but tapping their expertise as well. Here is the company's approach, summed up in a quote from UA's Director of Product Management, Lev Perrey: "UA has a tradition of targeting really difficult-to-emulate, highly coveted pieces of studio equipment. In the 'early days' of the UAD platform, say 2001 to 2004, the devices we emulated included some of the 'bread and butter' classics—including our own LA-2A and 1176 compressors, which we knew intimately well, at a component level. However, it was still a feat to model them convincingly in software. Fast forward to today, and each of our last three major plug-ins (the Studer A800, Lexicon 224, and Manley Massive Passive) were true multi-year projects that had a similar air about them at the outset. Namely, we knew the emulations were going to be extremely difficult, due to the non-linearities of the hardware, and how complex our algorithms had to be to deliver the correct sound and behavior."
At about $1500, the UAD-2 Satellite Quad is not cheap, nor will purchasing it be the last dollar you’ll spend in processing, as many of the drool-worthy plug-ins (such as the Studer A800, the Lexicon 224, the Manley Massive Passive) require additional purchases. But these sounds—and the very processes of the knob-turning and the results that follow--are as close as you can get to the original experience while still in the digital domain. That stunning realism is endorsed and corroborated by, and in cooperation with, the original equipment manufacturers themselves in many cases. Add to that the digital advantages of lower cost per unit and the multiple instances possible with that unit, and you have an irresistible economy of scale. If you have a respect for audio history, yet are firmly entrenched in modern recording practices, the UAD-2 Satellite Quad is a required investment in your quest for excellence in processed sound.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).