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Analysis: Universal Audio's UAD-2 DSP Card Family

November 1, 2008
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Sometimes a review that covers only specs, pricing, and the reviewer’s reactions misses the point, because a product has a backstory with deeper implications. At first glance, the UAD-2 DSP card might not seem that novel: Offloading processing from your computer’s CPU to special-purpose DSPbased hardware dates back many years, and in some ways, it’s easy to see the UAD-2 as simply a “more/better/faster” version of the UAD-1. Fair enough. But scratch beneath the surface...

The Neve 88RS (right) is just one of many plug-ins you can run on the UAD-2 card (left).

Sometimes a review that covers only specs, pricing, and the reviewer’s reactions misses the point, because a product has a backstory with deeper implications. At first glance, the UAD-2 DSP card might not seem that novel: Offloading processing from your computer’s CPU to special-purpose DSPbased hardware dates back many years, and in some ways, it’s easy to see the UAD-2 as simply a “more/better/faster” version of the UAD-1. Fair enough. But scratch beneath the surface...

AN INTRODUCTION

For those unfamiliar with the UAD-1, it was introduced in 2001, back when computers had a hard time keeping up with native processing. Yet even as computers became more powerful, the UAD-1 remained relevant because all DSP power is not the same. In a computer, the amount of power being drawn from the CPU is in constant flux as various processes engage and disengage. With DSP on a card, the power being drawn from that DSP is relatively constant. You can often “red-line” a DSP card with no problems, whereas trying that with a computer begs for trouble.

However, it wasn’t just the CPU angle that hooked people; it was the strikingly realistic, and musical, emulations of vintage (and not so vintage) gear. I knew a studio owner who had scored a vintage compressor on eBay, and set up a blind A/B test with the UAD-1 version so he could prove to himself once and for all that no matter how good emulations were, they couldn’t really outdo hardware. Surprise: Shortly thereafter, the compressor ended up back on eBay.

BACK TO THE FUTURE?

Which brings us to the UAD-2. Probably not that many EQ readers were recording when a typical studio was an MCI (or equivalent) 24-track tape recorder, a big mixer, and a rack of outboard gear. Sure, the mixer had EQ; but there were times you wanted that gentle, strange curve that only an old Pultec could deliver, or a beat-up limiter with an optical response—hence the rack o’ gear.

The UAD-2 (especially the Quad version, with four Analog Devices SHARC 21369 DSP chips) is much more powerful than the original UAD-1. Because of this, the UAD concept is no longer to replace a few cool pieces of gear, but to be the 21st century equivalent of that rack of special-purpose processors . . . or maybe even an entire mixer.

For example, the UAD-2 Nevana 128 bundle (based on the Quad card) can instantiate 128 mono instances of the Neve 88RS channel strip plug-in in 44.1kHz/24-bit projects with full EQ and filtering, and either the Gate/Expander or Compressor/Limiter engaged for each instance. Consider the implications: For a street price under $2K (list is $2,499), you’re getting the heart of a Neve 88 console. And of course, you can run other UAD-compatible plugs, including esoterica like the Roland CE-1 and Dimension D. Perhaps more significantly, those who are wary of “mixing in the box” can use the UAD-2 DSP card to fold in processors that are not constrained by the computer’s limits.

Bottom line: Slowly but surely, we’re returning to the traditional studio paradigm— except that the computer is the multitrack recorder, sophisticated control surfaces provide the “hands-on” feel of traditional mixers, and DSP-driven devices replace racks of outboard gear. The end result is better workflow, fewer computer-related issues, and ultimately, a more musical recording experience— which suits me just fine.

 

WHAT ABOUT OBSOLESCENCE?

While the UAD-2 isn’t terribly expensive, purchasing the “optional at extra cost” plug-ins adds up—and your total investment is tied to the PCIe bus. Unfortunately, bus protocols don’t last forever: Just ask my NuBus and ISA cards. (This applies to FireWire and USB 2.0 too; anyone remember the Apple Desktop Bus, or parallel ports for printers?) As a result, it’s both fair and respectful of their customers that Universal Audio will let you upgrade your UAD-1 plugs to UAD-2 versions for free (even though that’s a limited time offer, you’ll still be able to crossgrade for a nominal fee after the “grace period” is up).
Too often, recognizing the value of software has been a one-way street: Companies want you to recognize that value and not copy their programs, but they also want you to abandon your investment when something new appears. It’s encouraging UA realizes that with their cards, most people will invest more in software than hardware, and has provisions for you to transfer that investment to a next-generation platform.

For more information on crossgrading, go to www.uaudio.com

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