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Anderton

​Apollo Twin USB 3.0: Creating a Windows Music Production System

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Precision Reflection Engine and Precision Delay/Modulation Plug-Ins

 

These are the remaining two plug-ins bundled with Apollo Twin USB. They complement the Precision Channel Strip’s EQ / Dynamics plug-in covered earlier, because these provide time-delay effects.

 

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The Reflection Engine is not a reverb; it’s more like a specialized “early reflections” section of a regular reverb. As the screen shot shows, it has the parameters you’d expect but you get a lot more mileage because of the Shape parameter. There are 19 different “virtual space” shapes, which depending on the balance between the dry signal and the reflections, can give subtle or obvious effects. You’ll also find convenience features like soloing the 100% wet signal.

 

The only oddity is that size and predelay have to divide up the available delay time, so for example with the maximum size, the maximum amount of pre-delay is around 60 ms. Decreasing the size gives more delay, up to 300 ms.

 

I’d consider this a “utilitarian” plug-in. It can create small ambiences by itself, or “tack on” an ambience at the front of a longer reverb.

 

Delay /Modulation is a multi-purpose, stereo, time-based effect; but by itself, it’s pretty much all about delay, albeit with modulation. However, that changes when you set Delay / Modulation to wet only, duplicate the audio feeding the Delay / Modulation effect, and then mix the dry audio with the processed sound. With short initial delays, this provides flanging and chorusing effects.

 

As with the Reflection Engine, the screen shot pretty much gives the lowdown on the controls. What you can’t see is there are six different modulation waveforms, and the maximum available delay is 1 second for each channel.

 

Now that we’ve covered the hardware interface itself and the software, it’s time to segue into how to put together a Windows recording system based around the Apollo Twin USB. This will also illustrate how the Apollo Twin USB fits into various recording scenarios.

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Setting Up a Windows Recording System - First Steps

 

The first step for me was to clean up a space to put my new Windows recording studio. Basically what I need is a Studio B to complement my main studio so that "Sgudio B" is always at the ready for songwriting, adding overdubs, recording voiceovers, etc. Also, sometimes I have guests and I thought how could would it be if they could have access to a high-quality, but relatively uncomplicated, studio setup.

 

I decided that I'd integrate the system with my office for several reasons: it would help when writing articles and such to be able to use my printer and scanner, as well as access archives of articles done in the past. This would also allow me to set up music in the office based on the new recording computer, and because the only programs I really use in my office are Open Office and various art programs, I could put those on the music computer and get rid of my clunky old Compaq that (I'm embarrassed to say) is still running Windows XP. Hey, it's just a glorified typewriter.

 

As to the computer, I have to say that Intel's NUC is one slick little machine. This one has an i7, four SuperSpeed USB ports, Ethernet, mini-Display Port, Wi-Fi, and mini-HDMI as well as a headphone jack. As I didn't want to tie up my office during the hours I expected would be required for updating, I set up a test system on the floor. I first tried using the HDMI with a Panasonic TV, but couldn't get the display to scale properly so I gave up on that. I grabbed an older, spare computer monitor but it has neither Display Port nor HDMI. Fortunately I have a mini-Display Port to DVI adapter, so all was well.

 

Anyway, here's the test setup, busily downloading and updating. Check out the vintage mouse pad :)

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31799595[/ATTACH]

 

First was updating to Windows 10 Anniversary Edition. Next up was installing SONAR Platinum and various Cakewalk instruments. Thanks to the extremely sssssslllllllloooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwww download speed where I live (love ya, AT&T!), the installing and updating took a couple hours. By that time I had to move on to other things, so the Universal Audio software and Ableton Live will be installed next.

 

The four USB ports might end up not being enough, so I'll just get a USB hub for the keyboard, mouse, and printer. Then I'll have a USB port for Apollo, one for a keyboard controller, and one for whatever else strikes my fancy for a particular session. A hub might even have enough bandwidth to accommodate a keyboard controller...I figure as long as it doesn't have to pass audio, I'm probably okay.

 

Of course the inevitable question is how does the NUC compare to a Mac Mini, and we'll get into that in the very next post..

Edited by Anderton

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Meet the NUC (Next Unit of Computing)

Since the computer is the heart of the system, let's get into that in depth. Intel's Broadwell NUC5i7RYH is slick, small (115mm x 111mm x 48.7mm), and doesn't draw a lot of power. The processor is a Core i7-5557U @3.10 GHz; the unit maxes out at 16 GB of RAM.

 

By small, I mean small - for a size comparison, here's a Sharpie pen laid on top for comparison. In a way, what Intel has done is take a powerful laptop and turn it into a desktop computer.

 

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Although NUCs are available pre-configured, they're commonly available in a “bare bones” configuration. This i7-based version costs around $450, but you'll need to add at least one drive, RAM, and the operating system. In this configuration, the C: drive is a 240 GB Kingston SM2280S3 M.2 SSD with a SATA 3 interface. This means it won't get the same kind of speed as if it was using a PCI Express interface, but it's still plenty fast. A secondary SSHD drive, Seagate's ST1000LM014-1EJ1 with 8 GB flash RAM, provides 1 TB of storage. I'll be dedicating this drive to music projects and sample libraries.

 

Duplicating this system would cost about $925 total—$175 for the 240 GB SSD, $90 for RAM, $120 for Windows 10 Home (or $200 for Windows 10 Pro), and another $90 or so for the 1 TB drive. For comparison, if you were to spend that money on a Mac Mini, you'd typically get a 2.8 GHz i5, 8 GB of RAM, and a single 1 TB SSHD drive. The drive would have more flash RAM and you'd also get two Thunderbolt 2 ports, but for the kind of studio we're putting together, the Windows+NUC option is definitely more cost-effective—especially since Apollo Twin USB makes the need for a Thunderbolt interface moot.

 

As to the rest of the computer, here are the bullet points; check out Intel's NUC5i7RYH home page for more information on this as well as other NUC versions.

 

Graphics

 

On-board Intel Iris Graphics 6100

 

External Ports

 

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Going from left to right on the front panel, there's a USB 3.0 port, the USB 3.0 port with charging capability, the headphone/mic jack, and behind the plastic panel on the left, an infrared sensor.

 

1 x mini HDMI 1.4a

1 x mini DisplayPort 1.2

2 x back panel USB 3.0

1 x front panel USB 3.0

1 x front panel USB 3.0 charging-capable port

 

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Bringing up the rear (panel), from left to right there's power for the AC adapter, mini Display Port, Ethernet, two more USB 3.0 ports, and an HDMI jack. The large (relatively speaking, of course!) slots at the top expose the heat sinks to air.

 

Internal Ports

 

1 x M.2 slot for 42, 60, or 80 mm SATA or PCIe SSD

1 x SATA port for 2.5” HDD or SSD

2 x internal USB 2.0 via header

 

Audio (of course, we'll be using Apollo Twin USB)

 

Up to 7.1 surround audio via Mini HDMI and Mini DisplayPort

Front panel headphone/mic jack

 

Connectivity

 

Front panel infrared sensor

Intel 10/100/1000Mbps Network Connection

802.11ac Wi-Fi

Bluetooth 4

Intel Wireless Display

 

The enclosure itself is plastic and aluminum, with a removable lid so I suppose if you wanted to paint it or 3D-print something bizarre, you could. Of course, you can take off the bottom for fitting it with drives and such. Power arrives via a small (at least if you're used to laptops!) wall wart, but it will supposedly accept anything from 13 to 19 V.

 

There's an internal fan to supplement the generous heat sinking and ventilation, with the fan speed controlled by how hard the machine is working. I haven't really stressed it to the max yet, so it will be interesting to see what the noise level is. However, bear in mind that the small size means if you want to create a “machine room” it wouldn't need to be very big, and besides, you can stuff the computer under a table or whatever to minimize the noise level. It's certainly nothing compared to a desktop or more laptops.

 

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System Components: Interface, Headphones, Speakers, and Speaker Isolators

 

So now we have a computer. Let’s talk about what else we need to put together a system, and then we'll cover how to use all this gear together to make music, with an emphasis on the workflow involving the Apollo Twin USB, zero-latency monitoring, plug-ins, etc.

 

As to the gear, I’ll be basing a lot of choices around Gibson Brands gear not just because it’s HC’s parent company, but because the Pro Audio division has put together an “ecosystem” of gear that’s designed to work together. However, I’ll also mention plenty of alternatives, and always bear in mind that the following are just guidelines for what you need to consider in putting together a compact, high-quality, reasonably priced Windows music production system. Much depends on your exact needs; the way I recommend researching gear is first deciding which features are essential for what you do, and then seeing what matches that list the closest, at a price you can afford. I've included links so you can check out prices, as they often seem to be "subject to change without notice."

 

Audio interface. Well that’s a no-brainer, because the focus here is on the Apollo Twin USB, and with good reason: it’s not only a very high-quality audio interface that runs with USB 3.0, but the option to add top-shelf plug-ins, and record with effectively zero latency, make it an excellent choice by any standards. (And let’s face it, an added plus is that it looks cool :).)

 

Headphones. You’ll probably need these for overdubbing, but also for those situations where you can’t play music at loud volumes—nothing kills a creative buzz faster than a cop knocking on your door with a noise complaint. Be careful, though; you want something that’s not designed to hype the sound for consumers who want to rattle their brains with bass, but headphones that present a realistic version of what you’re recording. Phil O’Keefe has been a huge fan of KRK’s KNS 8400 headphones, so when he recommended I try they out, I did—and now, that’s what I use. They really do sound more like studio monitors that turned into headphones, and are reasonably priced (typically $150). If your budget pushes back, Audio-Technica’s ATH-M40x headphones cost around $100; they’re also designed specifically for studio work and have a suitably balanced response. In any event, I prefer circumaural (around the ear) headphones to minimize headphone-to-mic leakage when doing vocal overdubs.

 

Here's a picture of the KNS 8400. Unfortunately A-T does not allow reproducing photos (or even linking to content on their site) without prior written permission so I can't include their picture, but the above link will take you to a company that sells them, and shows a picture.

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31803986[/ATTACH]

 

Speakers. There are a zillion speakers at all possible price points, so commune with your bank account, and take your pick. Give the size constraints of the studio being set up for this review, I chose a 5” speaker—specifically the KRK Rokit 5 G3. Yes, it’s a Gibson Brand, but it’s also one of the world’s best-selling monitors, period. To my ears it doesn’t sound as “pretty” as some other speakers, but mixes translate well to other systems, which is all I really care about. Part of my choice is also because they’re reasonably priced, and I expect to replace them with the new KRK V-series speakers that are coming out in the fall so I want to save up some bucks for them. However there are plenty of other excellent compact speakers from Yamaha, JBL, M-Audio, Mackie, etc. etc. so audition a bunch of them with music you know really well, choose the one that sounds most accurate, and go for it.

 

Speaker isolators. I highly recommend some kind of speaker isolators if you’re placing the speakers on a surface of some kind. The Auralex MoPad family (top) is a fine low-cost solution, but if you can swing the bucks, the Recoil Stabilizer (bottom) from Primacoustic is extremely effective, and is available in various sizes for different speaker weights.

 

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The next post will cover mics, pop filters, software, and keyboard/control surfaces.

Edited by Anderton

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System Components: Mics, Pop Filter, Software, and Keyboard Controllers

 

Onward to the next bunch o’ gear…

 

Mics. Again, this is a situation where there are sooo many choices. It’s always good to have a Shure SM58 around, because it’s pretty much indestructible and you’ll want a dynamic mic in your collection.

 

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Shure SM58 (photo courtesy Sweetwater and used with their express written permission)

 

 

The Shure SM57 is another popular dynamic mic choice (and if you go to Sweetwater’s GearFest, they traditionally sell for $58 and $57 respectively at the show). For a ribbon mic, the Royer R-101 manages to hit a sweet spot for price/performance. For condensers, I have two Gibson Brands favorites—the Neat Microphones large-diaphragm King Bee and medium-diaphragm Worker Bee.

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31805627[/ATTACH]

 

This isn’t about brand loyalty; the two mics were designed specifically to complement each other (e.g., the King Bee has higher sensitivity and an output transformer; the Worker Bee handles high SPLs with no output transformer; the King Bee has a slight lift for vocals; the Worker Bee is flatter; etc.). So if I’m going to have only two condensers, those take care of pretty much everything.

 

Pop filter. I don’t even consider recording voice without one. The Neat mics have a snap-on pop filter, but even that’s not enough for really close miking. The good news: the Pauly Superscreen pop filter is amazingly effective and beats any other pop filter I’ve used, hands-down. The bad news: It costs $270, but I have to admit the time it saves from not having to remove pops from a track makes it pay for itself in no time. Meanwhile, you have plenty of low-cost options, including models from Stedman and sE Electronics.

 

Software. The NUC has sufficient horsepower to run any modern DAW. I’ve been using Cakewalk SONAR since 2000 and Ableton Live since 2001, so I see no reason to change now for the purposes of this review. :)

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31805629[/ATTACH]

 

Cakewalk SONAR, Platinum version

 

Why both? I’ve always seen SONAR as a big-bucks recording studio disguised as software, and Ableton Live as a musical instrument disguised as software. I also like rewiring Propellerhead’s Reason into either one as a sort of super-cool synth rack.

 

Keyboard controller and/or control surface. Many keyboard controllers include pads, faders, knobs, and other ways to have hands-on control over your software, which is useful even if you don’t play keyboards. But if you do, your main choice will be whether you want something that’s just a controller, or has a synth section that also makes sounds. With soft synths becoming such a big part of today’s productions, you may need only a decent controller.

 

One of the slickest keyboards if you’re tight for space is CME’s Xkey series; they even make a Bluetooth version (although my understanding is there’s about 7 ms of latency—I’m going to be testing one out soon, but meanwhile, I’m using the 3-octave USB version).

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31805632[/ATTACH]

CME 37-key Xkey MIDI controller

 

Once you get into control surfaces, your options multiply exponentially: Akai, Arturia, Nektar, Novation, M-Audio, Roland, and many, many more. Analyze your needs carefully; for example pads might be more important to you than faders. I do recommend finding a controller with aftertouch, as that can make synths much more expressive.

 

There are also non-keyboard control surfaces that are dedicated to specific pieces of software, particularly Ableton Live (Novation Launchpad, Akai’s APC controllers, Ableton’s Push controller, and the like).

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31805628[/ATTACH]

Ableton Push controller (photo courtesy Sweetwater and used with their express written permission)

 

Small guitar amp (if you’re a guitarist). I love using amp sims, and they’ve come a long way in terms of feel and realism. However, there’s still something to be said for miking up a guitar amp and moving air. You don’t need a big amp to get a big sound, and I’m a fan of the Line 6 AMPLIFi 30 because it’s small, highly editable, and does a bunch of other cool things like stream audio from Bluetooth.

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31805630[/ATTACH]

 

But of course, there are plenty of other options for small guitar amps, including a variety of pawn shop prizes.

 

And now, after collecting all this stuff, let's see what the studio looks like...

Edited by Anderton

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So here we go, with everything all set up!

 

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In addition to the gear mentioned previously, note the Primacoustic VoxGuard behind the King Bee mic. This keeps sound from reflecting off the wall, then back into the mic. You can also see the Pauly pop filter in front of the mic. The XLR cable is a Neat Microphones Beeline, a quad-conductor cable with shielded twisted pairs. There are zero problems having it in close proximity to the NUC, which is on the floor below the desk—look directly down from the mouse and a little to the left. I noticed there are no ventilation holes or vents on the bottom of the NUC, so you can put it on rugs without problems. When it’s on the floor like that, fan noise becomes a non-issue.

 

In addition to the CME keyboard for the virtual instruments, I splurged for a Logitech K380 Bluetooth QWERTY keyboard so I could have a pseudo-“wireless remote.” It’s super-light and portable so I can use it with my iPad and iPhone as well.

 

The guitar is a re-issue Gibson 1961 Les Paul SG, and in the lower right, you can see the Line 6 Firehawk amp (which is the subject of a Pro Review Xpress here on the site). One of the Firehawk’s cool features is that you can use it as an amp that moves air, or take it direct into an interface. Between that, the UA amp sims, and the amps included with SONAR, I’m covered for guitar sounds.

 

(Come to think of it…as a teenager in the 60s when I was reverse-engineering a Fender Bandmaster because I couldn’t afford one, if someone had said to me “Someday, you will own dozens of the finest guitar and bass amplifiers, and they’ll all fit in a box the size of a hardcover book,” I would have thought they were insane.)

 

Okay. Now that we have our studio together, let’s see how to use the Apollo Twin USB as the centerpiece of creating a musical project.

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Sorry for the OT, but... Oh My Goodness - that SG! You told me about it but... :drool: :love::philthumb:

 

 

That's a fine looking little studio! :cool2:

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One More Studio Upgrade...

 

I made one more change to the studio, because sometimes I need as much desk space as possible. One of the Apollo Twin USB's great features is that it doesn't take up much space, so no problem there. And while the CME Xkey isn't a space hog, when I found out CME also makes Xkey Air - a wireless Bluetooth version of the Xkey 37 - I figured it would be just that much easier to move around, or get out of the way entirely if needed. It looks pretty much the same as the standard Xkey 37.

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31811616[/ATTACH]

 

 

 

However - my big concern was latency, because I often experience 35-40 ms of latency with Bluetooth devices, which would clearly be unacceptable. And remember, the Apollo Twin USB has extremely low latency because of its USB 3.0 connection, so I've gotten somewhat spoiled.

 

The good news is that the Xkey Air 37 uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which cuts latency down to where it's only a tiny bit more than a standard USB keyboard - about 7 ms, which I can handle. The bad news is that the NUC, and most other computers that aren't the very latest and greatest, only have older-school Bluetooth and not BLE. The redeeming good news is that CME offers a $49 BLE-to-USB dongle called WIDI BUD, and after plugging that into the NUC, all was well.

 

Well, at least all was well after about an hour of frustration trying to figure out how to pair the Xkey Air with the NUC. As it turned out, I didn't have to pair it like a standard Bluetooth device, which is actually pretty cool. As soon as WIDI BUD was plugged in, Xkey Air "knew" it was there and connected. And as long as WIDI BUD shows up in Windows as a connected device, you're good to go and it will appear as a MIDI device in your DAW.

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31811618[/ATTACH]

 

 

So at this point, I'm feeling pretty modern...USB 3.0, check. Really great mic pres, check. All appropriate Universal Audio software installed, check. Wireless QWERTY and AGO keyboard...check. Must be time to make some music. :)

Edited by Anderton

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One Really, REALLY Great Feature About Universal Audio's Powered Plug-Ins

 

When you buy a UA powered plug-in, it shows up in any UA product you own. I have quite a few of the plug-ins installed in my desktop computer, which has a Quad DSP Accelerator card. So I was more than pleased (to say the least) when I opened up the UA software in the NUC, clicked "Authorize," and all my desktop plug-ins showed up as ready and available for use. I didn't have to buy special editions for the Apollo Twin, beg UA for more authorizations, or jump through any hoops other than clicking "Authorize."

 

Nice.

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First Project - and Time for a Template

 

“Studio B” proved its worth already. I was in the kitchen and a song idea bounced its way into my head. Rather than go to the big studio, wait for the computer to boot up, patch things in, and of course, forget what I went there for in the first place, I turned on the NUC (which I'm liking more and more) and the Apollo, and was recording in under a minute.

 

However, I wasn’t taking advantage of what Apollo does best: zero-latency processing, and realized the “instant songwriting” recording process could be even better if I created a default template for the Apollo Console app (as well as SONAR). So, I called up the Apollo Console software, and got to work.

 

Input 1 ended up with guitar. Most of the time I want an amp sound, so I inserted the Softube Amp Half-Stack. Input 2 is dedicated to the Neat King Bee mic, so I set it up for +48V and inserted two processors: the Precision Channel Strip (for a bit of EQ and dynamics control) and the RealVerb Pro, with a wam-sounding reverb for vocals. With Apollo’s zero-latency operation, the limitation of not wanting to use processors because you need to monitor through plug-ins is gone. Granted, some interfaces have built-in DSP (usually reverb), but they have nowhere near the range of plug-ins—nor the sophistication of the Powered Plug-Ins.

 

Furthermore, look at what’s circled in red on the screen shot. You can either record with the insert effects, or record dry and monitor through the effects (the template is set for monitoring). This is the Big Deal: all the benefits of listening with processing, without latency, while recording dry tracks into your DAW so you don’t have to commit to using the effects you loaded for convenience’s sake into the template. Then again, if you do want to record with effects, you can do so.

 

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Just in case that didn’t sink in, I’ll say it again:

 

All the benefits of listening with processing, without latency, while recording dry tracks into your DAW so you don’t have to commit to using the effects you loaded for convenience’s sake into the template.

 

It’s always wonderful to play through an amp sim where when you play something, you hear something as soon as you play it!

 

Now let's create a SONAR template, because when you do, the Apollo Console has a nice little surprise up its sleeve.

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And Now, a SONAR Template for Apollo

 

I use SONAR’s template feature a lot to get up and running as fast as possible, but the way this dovetails with Apollo is exceptionally useful.

 

As expected, two tracks in SONAR key into the Apollo interface inputs...but check out Universal Audio's Console Recall plug-in toward the middle of the screen shot. With Sync enabled, and the plug-in inserted in SONAR (here it’s in the Master bus, but it can go anywhere because it’s not a signal processor), SONAR will recall Apollo’s settings. These are all settings, including inserted plug-ins and such, extant when SONAR saved a project with the Console Recall plug-in inserted and sync enabled.

 

[ATTACH=CONFIG]n31816059[/ATTACH]

 

So the bottom line is when I call up my SONAR songwriting template, not only are all the inputs assigned correctly to Apollo—which you’d expect with any interface—but Apollo’s unique collection of processors and settings becomes recalled as well. With a lean, speedy Windows system and an SSD boot drive, you’re ready to record in seconds, not minutes, in a ready-to-go environment with zero-latency monitoring. How cool is that?

 

Well in case I need to answer that question...pretty cool :)

 

Also note that all the UAD plug-ins show up in SONAR’s plug-in browser to the right. This means that if you elected to monitor with effects but recorded dry, you can always use the Powered Plug-Ins as standard VST plug-ins. (Note that all the UAD plug-ins appear in the Browser, even the ones that aren’t authorized or in demo mode. To avoid confusion and foster a neater browser layout, it’s helpful to use SONAR’s Plug-In Manager to exclude extraneous plug-ins.)

Edited by Anderton

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Well Gee, That's Considerate

 

When SONAR does a Console Recall, and if it had been saved with phantom power on, a warning screen asks if you really want +48V enabled. This is another example of the extra little touches that you run into during the course of using the Apollo Twin USB software. I like it...particularly because I had a guitar with onboard electronics plugged into the jack at the time :)

 

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