Home » Recording Resources » Featured Reviews » An Engineer/Guitarist’s Experiences with the Universal Audio Apollo 8p

..including comparing the new Softube Marshall JMP 2203 plug-in to the real thing

 

Review by Alex Hawley

The Apollo recording interfaces were first introduced in 2012 by Universal Audio. Apollo combines UA’s sought-after micro-phone preamps, digital converter design, and powerful DSP-based UAD-2 plug-in technology, all in one box. As a recording engineer by day and a guitar player by night, I’ve always been very interested in this line of interfaces, but never had the opportunity to try one for myself.

Paul Vnuk Jr. reviewed the Apollo 8p in our March 2016 issue, and gave a very detailed explanation of the technical specs and upgrades in the newest generation of Apollo interfaces. In this article, I’m going to describe my experiences as a first-time Apollo user, and focus on the features that make it such a powerful platform for guitarists and bassists recording from home.

 

Up and running

Installing the Apollo was a very simple and quick process—unbox, power on, connect via Thunderbolt. I’m currently running Mac OS X 10.11 on a 2013 iMac with a 2.9 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and 16 GB of RAM.

The installation process was equally straightforward. After all of the software and firmware updates are installed, the registration page opens. Apollo comes bundled with UAD’s Realtime Analog Classics bundle: the UA 610-B microphone preamp, RAW distortion pedal, Amp Room Essentials by Softube, UA’s own RealVerb Pro and several Precision plug-ins, as well as “legacy versions”—now superseded by upgraded versions, but still great-sounding on their own—including the Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier and 1176SE/LN Limiting Amplifiers, Fairchild 670 Compressor, and Pultec Pro EQ plug-ins.

As a new user to the Apollo, you get spe-cial discounts on extra plug-ins from UA’s online store. Offers include any three plug-ins for $399, any six for $799, or any ten for $1199. This will be, without question, the most difficult (yet fun) decision during the registration process! I went with the Neve 1073 Channel Strip, Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb, and Marshall JMP 2203 guitar amp; later on you’ll read my detailed tone review of the JMP 2203 plug-in.

 

Console 2.0

After completing registration, I opened up Console 2.0, Apollo’s software interface, and started making some noise. Console 2.0 is easily one of the most func-tional and intuitive software mixers that I have used on an audio interface. It navi-gates like a normal mixer without worry-ing about any layers of pages or overly complex matrix routings.

From the Console screen, you have access to analog, digital and virtual inputs. It is laid out exactly as a mixer is, with mic/line input gain on the top, with 48V, HPF, polarity, and pad controls. Each chan-nel includes inserts for multiple plug-ins, aux sends, and a virtual pan pot and fader. For this report, I want to draw attention to one insert in particular…

The PREAMP slot, just below the mic/line controls, is a special plug-in slot that activates the Apollo’s Unison technology. UA’s Unison preamps are the cutting edge in terms of modeling technology; they combine UA’s circuit modeling with a variable gain stage and impedance matching. This creates a very realistic model of the analog preamp or guitar amplifier, emulating the critical input properties found in the actual hardware.

Inserting a preamp plug-in here will give you the sound of a Neve 1073, Neve 88RS, API Vision Channel Strip, or the UA-610 on your microphone. Unison technolo-gy also applies to the Hi-Z inputs; plugging a guitar or bass into the Hi-Z input gives you the option to enable Unison technology with one of UA’s modeled stomp boxes or amplifiers. Not all plug-ins are Unison-enhanced yet, but many are.

I love how Console 2.0 lets me customize frequently-used console setups. This way, when I’m just recording some guitar parts at home and not using every channel for recording the full band, I can have a core audio preset that only shows me the channels I need, hiding the others with a simple key command. You can instantly save and recall your settings from a previous recording session, or even just pull up a previously saved go-to signal chain on a particular channel with one click.

On the far right of the Console screen, you have the option to either print your signal chain to the DAW or just monitor the UAD processing and not print it to the recording (as of 2.0 this is selectable per channel). Note that the signal sent to the DAW is post-unison, pre-fader and mute, so any mix tweaks made with the Console faders will not affect the signal being record-ed in the DAW. For this reason, while recording with UAD processing on the way in, I typically mute the Console channels and monitor through ProTools, so I’m sure of what is being printed.

 

Tracking guitars, Apollo style

Let me try to describe what it’s like to track guitar through the Apollo. Grab your guitar and gaze on your wall of amplifiers to choose from. Maybe you feel like playing through the Friedman BE100, or perhaps you’ve been listening to some Clapton and feel like plugging into the 1962 Marshall Bluesbreaker. Pull open the channel strip and decide how you want to mic it… you can’t go wrong with a Neumann U67 paired with a Coles 4038.

Add some vibe using the sound of Studio A from the Ocean Way Studios plug-in. Open up the console and select ‘UAD Rec’, indicating you want to print this chain straight into your DAW of choice, and start playing. What a time to be a guitar player…!

The ability to track through the UAD-2 processing in real time is a very efficient way to work. More often than not, the tones that are being recorded into the DAW are close to the end goal, so I’ve been finding that not only does it save time during the mixing stage, but tracking through UAD processing generally creates a more inspiring sound to record with as a musician.

Every analog preamp can also be completely bypassed on the Apollo, letting it work strictly as a A/D converter. You can do this on a channel-by-channel basis, allowing you the freedom to use out-board preamps for tracking without the preamp circuitry adding another unnecessary gain stage to the signal path.

 

Tone (with a capital T)

Guitar players love to tinker with tone. That’s why we’re always swapping out pedals, changing the order of the signal path, trying new pickups, amps—everything. It’s all in the pursuit of finding that previously-unknown magic combination that speaks to us as musicians. This is why I was eager to see if UAD and Unison technology could really stand in for a miked cab on a recording session. In my previous experience, amp emulations can be uninspiring; they fall short of capturing the overall feel and response of playing through a real amplifier.

Universal Audio teamed up with Softube to create a very attractive set of amplifiers that work with Unison technology. I naturally gravitated to the new Marshall JMP 2203, as this is an amp that I’ve played with in my personal collection for a number of years and know very well. It has been a workhorse amp for my live performances, but coming in with a blistering 100 Watts, it isn’t the most practical option when recording at home (especially when home is an apartment). That’s where a digital version of the amp would be so appealing—tracking through a 100W head without disturbing someone sleeping in the next room. Naturally, the next step was to bring both the Apollo 8p and my Marshall JMP 2203 to the studio where I work, and create a practical “shootout” to see how the tone stacks up side by side.

Figures 1a & 1b

Figures 1a & 1b

Softube’s Marshall JMP 2203 for UAD vs. a real JMP 2203

Before starting the shootout, I reached out to Softube (many thanks to Niklas Odelholm!) to gather some details about their process of modeling the amp. For the JMP, they used a 1960B cab equipped with Celestion GT12-75 drivers, miked with different combinations of FET and tube condenser and dynamic micro-phones, all of which are selectable in the channel strip window of the plug-in.

For this shootout, I used a trusty Shure SM57 paired with a Shure SM7B (see Figure 1), and selected those two microphones on the channel strip of the plug-in as well. While I have slightly different drivers in my 1980 JCM800 cab, I think this is still a precise and practical shootout, as everything else in the signal chain is matched. I used a high-end DI box to split the sig-nal from my guitar, sending one to the amp, and one into the Apollo. This way, I was able to A/B the recordings of the same performance for a more accurate side-by-side comparison.

For the first tone, I wanted to keep it relatively clean before jumping to the heavy stuff. As you can see in the pictures (Figures 2a and 2b), the EQ, presence, and master volume are all set to 12 o’clock, with the preamp volume maxed, and the signal’s plugged into the low sensitivity input. I recorded a variety of chords and phrases, trying to vary my attack and dynamics to see if the emulation could hang with a variety of playing styles.

Figure 2a

Figure 2a

Right out of the gate, I was very impressed. The emulation feels very responsive and full, responding to varied dynamics with a very faithful representation of the real amp. Capturing the feel and overall essence of the real amp is crucial for the playability on a recording session. You know it’s a great emulation when you get lost in what you are playing—not caught up on the tone sounding like a software amp.

After playing for awhile on these settings, I listened back to the recordings and com-pared them side by side. The main difference that jumped out at me was the real amp hds more of a throaty growl, or bite, in the low-mid range, and a lack of high-end. The UAD version has a more even frequency response, with a flatter mid-range and neutral high-end. These are subtle differences; the overall tone is the closest I’ve heard an emulation get to the real thing.

Figure 2b

Figure 2b

Before moving onto a new tone, I wanted to see if I could achieve even closer results by making simple EQ adjustments in the channel strip of the plug-in. This really brought the emulation to the next level for me! The tone got much warmer with the high-end adjustment, and more punchy with a bump in the midrange. The low end is just a touch tighter on the real amp, but overall, it’s an unbelievable resemblance.

Next, I dialed up one of my go-to lead tones on the JMP 2203. The settings are pictured in (Figures 3a and 3b). Presence 0, Bass 5, Mid 7, Treble 0, Master Volume 5, Preamp 10, and plugged into the high sensitivity input (make sure to have ear plugs readily available for these settings on the real amp—ouch!). Every time I dial up settings similar to this on my JMP 2203, well, let’s just say it’s a good reminder of the sheer power these 100W Marshalls have. This is one of the meanest, most Led-Zep tones I’ve ever been able to get. After warm-ing up the tubes with Hendrix licks at blister-ing volumes, it was time to record the amp and UAD and see how they stacked up.

 

Figure 3a

Figure 3a

Once again, the emulation is very impressive. It has a more neutral response than the tone of the amp that I recorded, but it’s all there. A lot of digital amps can show their true colors when being pushed this hard; they end up sounding thin and harsh. This is not the case with UAD’s JMP 2203; it’s a very musical and responsive representation of the JMP. With some minor EQ adjustment on the channel strip, I had it dialed in and it definitely held its own next to the original.

While there is no substitute for the real JMP 2203 in a room, having a reliable option to stand in for this 100W beast is a really powerful tool—especially when you want to record some guitar tracks at 2 AM, and your roommates and neighbors are fast asleep. I’m sure they’d thank you for it.

Figure 3b

Figure 3b

Side by side on their own, there are minor differences that are audible between the real amp and the emulation. That being said, I’d be hard pressed to spot those differences when the guitar tracks are dropped into a full mix. The overall feel and response of the UAD version feels like the real deal when you plug into it. It even takes pedals well; I experimented with running my actual pedal board into the Hi-Z input on the Apollo, with the JMP loaded into the Preamp insert slot. The delay and reverb pedal got a bit messy at higher gains, but driving the front end with a compressor and overdrive reacts just like driving the front end of a real amp harder. It’s great!

 

Build your digital pedalboard

Sometimes the front end of the amp just wants to be driven harder. Any of these Marshall plug-ins sounds great with a little bit of gain in front of it! UAD offers the $249 Distortion Essentials Bundle, which includes the TS808 Tube Screamer (authorized by Ibanez), as well as the Bermuda Triangle and RAW (inspired by an early-1970s “triangle” version of the legendary Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and the Pro Co RAT). All three are compatible with Unison Technology, creating an extremely accurate and dynamic representation of each.

I love adding the TS808 to my chain for recording lead parts; the sustain and smooth touch really makes for some inspired playing. The RAW distortion is a very fun pedal to play with—you can capture anything from smooth distortion to bor-derline fuzz tone with a Black Keys vibe. I love putting RAW on vocals or a drum squeeze track to add some grit (a little goes a long way!). Also, try a running a preamp and compressor before the amp emulation. I’ve gotten some really great results trying to think of unique signal chains (Neve 1073 > LA-2 > JMP 2203 > Studer A800 is a fun one).

 

Final thoughts

There’s no question that the Apollo inter-face line is among the top of its class. It can seamlessly record with UAD-2 DSP technology in real time, with flexible I/O routing for multiple headphone cues, flexible circuitry for implementing external pre-amps, and tons of potential for guitarists and bassists to get great tone while staying in the box.

Yes, guitar tone is highly subjective, and yes, there’s a certain X-factor about playing through the real deal if you have the means and space to let a 100W head crank wide open. That said, you can’t beat the flexibility aspect of playing legendary amplifiers in places where they won’t fit—assuming you can afford one at all.

As a first-time Apollo user, I’m very impressed with how easily it integrated into my work flow; getting up and running was a seamless process. Packaged with Unison Technology and UAD-2 DSP—this interface, to put it simply, inspires me to create music.

 

Prices: Apollo 8p, $2999; Marshall JMP 2203 (as reviewed), $199

More from: Universal Audio, www.uaudio.com

 

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