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Review: Universal Audio UAD-Xpander (Mac/Win)

May 1, 2008
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FIG. 1: The UAD-Xpander delivers Universal Audio''s Powered Plug-ins to laptop users. The UA logo glows a brilliant blue when the Xpander establishes communication with the computer.

FIG. 1: The UAD-Xpander delivers Universal Audio''s Powered Plug-ins to laptop users. The UA logo glows a brilliant blue when the Xpander establishes communication with the computer.

For eight years, Universal Audio (UA) has offered exquisite digital reproductions of classic analog processors to desktop computer users. With the UAD-Xpander expansion system, UAD Powered Plug-ins are now available for laptops and notebooks outfitted with an ExpressCard/34 or /54 slot — most new Windows machines as well as Apple MacBook Pros.

The Xpander's brain is a bare-bones box (see Fig. 1). It's about the size of a small paperback, with only the UA logo, a power switch, a jack for the included AC power supply, and a port for the yard-long cable to connect to the system's ExpressCard. You insert the card into your computer's slot (it is a nonlatching interface, so be careful not to tug it out during a session). The benefit of using the Xpander's interface is its lightning-fast 2.5 Gbps bandwidth, which smokes FireWire and USB 2.0. The drawback is that you can use only one Xpander, whereas PCI- and PCIe-based UA systems support as many as four DSP cards.

Up and at 'em

The ExpressCard is not hot-pluggable; you must power down both the computer and the Xpander every time they are connected or disconnected. Installing the Powered Plug-ins software (currently version 4.9.0) was very easy on my 2.2 GHz Apple MacBook Pro. The included disc contains installers for Mac OS X and Windows (on a Windows laptop, the Xpander works only with Vista), as well as AU and VST versions of the plug-ins. For use with Digidesign Pro Tools, it also supplies a UAD-only version of FXpansion's VST to RTAS Adapter.

The software contains authorized versions of the 14 base-set plug-ins, as well as fully functional 14-day demos of all of UA's plug-ins. You will need an Internet connection to register with uaudio.com to get authorizations for the remaining plug-ins in your bundle or any additional plug-ins you want to purchase.

Three bundles are available for the Xpander. UAD-Xpander Xpress comes with a $500 voucher toward your choice of plug-ins at UA's online store, and UAD-Xpander Xpert includes a $1,000 voucher. In addition to the 14 base-set plug-ins, UAD-Xpander Xtreme contains 16 Powered Plug-ins. The Xtreme package is clearly the best value, because the additional plug-ins are worth more than $2,800 if bought one at a time (and in my experience, you're going to want most, if not all, of them).

For users of multiple computers, an adapter card (the $99 Xtenda) is available for connecting the Xpander to a desktop computer outfitted with PCIe slots. Because the Xpander's hardware contains the authorizations, the transition between stations is very easy.

FIG. 2: UAD Meter shows how much of the Xpander''s processing power and RAM is being used.

FIG. 2: UAD Meter shows how much of the Xpander''s processing power and RAM is being used.

Hardware Gone Soft

Because you can read EM's past reviews of UAD plug-ins (most recently in the June and December 2007 issues, available online at emusician.com), aside from the four newest processors, I won't go into how each one sounds and works. Every plug-in takes a different amount of processing power, and you can always check in with the UAD Meter application to find out where you stand in terms of the Xpander's CPU usage (see Fig. 2). In the roster of existing plug-ins, my personal favorites are Plate 140, Fairchild 670, 1176LN, Neve 1081 and 33609, and Helios 69. Boss CE-1, Roland Dimension-D, and Roland RE-201 Space Echo are also fantastic effects that get loads of use in my everyday studio work.

What follows are very condensed descriptions of the four newest additions to the UAD pack. As of now, none of them are included in any of the card bundles, but UA often offers special deals, so keep your eyes open for those.

Part of the Precision Suite (UAD's Mastering Series), Precision Maximizer ($199) makes material sound louder and more tubelike with the turn of a few knobs. According to UA, it does that without affecting the material's dynamic range, and therefore without the fatiguing artifacts induced by loudness-achieving limiters. Two knobs control Shape (harmonic content contour) and Mix (for blending in some of the dry signal), and a switch lets you select either one or three Bands; the latter, in effect, allows the plug-in to function as three Maximizers working on different frequency ranges. In practice, Precision Maximizer added a lot to the mastering jobs I employed it on, handily adding bushels of shine and presence to otherwise dull tracks while also getting the volume as hot as necessary.

Precision De-Esser ($99) is truly one of the best-sounding, easiest-to-use de-essers I've ever gotten my mitts on. This is the de-esser I've been waiting for — it's more musical, less intrusive, and more effective at curing pesky sibilance than any hardware or software de-esser I've ever used. You get knobs for Threshold, Frequency (2 to 16 kHz), and Bandwidth (from narrow to full highpass), as well as buttons for Speed (Fast/Slow) and Split (which compresses only the detected frequencies and leaves the rest alone). Split mode takes a little more processing, but I thought it sounded significantly better in most cases. This plug-in was effective at taming shrill trumpet notes and unruly hi-hats as well.

FIG. 3: Precision Buss Compressor puts the finishing touches on a mix in a way that practically makes the music come alive.

FIG. 3: Precision Buss Compressor puts the finishing touches on a mix in a way that practically makes the music come alive.

Precision Buss Compressor ($199) borrows a lot from the revered SSL G-Series stereo compressor but adds a few modern touches (see Fig. 3). Enhancements include a Mix knob for quick and easy parallel-style compression and a highpass Filter knob for filtering low frequencies out of the detector path. The plug-in also offers a Fade knob, which allows you to fade out (or in) the signal flowing through the compressor at a rate of from 1 to 60 seconds. This plug-in sounds unbelievably good. When you find the sweet spot at which all the compression artifacts are minimized, it makes the mix pop out of the speakers and into the room. And if heavy compression artifacts are what you're after, they sound great through this plug-in, too. I also had good results using it as a stereo drum bus compressor.

SPL Transient Designer ($199), which is based on Sound Performance Laboratory's unique and powerful rackmount Transient Designer, controls the envelope characteristics of a signal in a near-magical way. Other than Output Gain, it has just two knobs, for Attack and Sustain (see Fig. 4). With those two knobs, you can transform the tightest little click of a close drum microphone into a roomy wallop, or a diffused kick drum with zero definition into a beater-heavy punch in the gut. When I did an A/B comparison of the plug-in with my hardware Transient Designer, I slightly preferred the way that the hardware unit delivered, but the software version was highly effective and completely unlike anything else in my software toolkit.

FIG. 4: One of the most outstanding audio tools available, SPL Transient Designer actually changes the envelope characteristics of the audio passing through it.

FIG. 4: One of the most outstanding audio tools available, SPL Transient Designer actually changes the envelope characteristics of the audio passing through it.

Xpand Your Horizons

If you buy UAD-Xpander Xtreme and add the remaining seven plug-ins piecemeal, a fully loaded Xpander does not come cheap. However, the system is comprehensive and extremely portable, and it frees your host resources by running on its own CPU. Like any DSP host, it does introduce a bit of latency (see the sidebar “Of Late”). Did I mention that the whole package comes in a compact, durable flight case? When you consider the overwhelmingly meticulous approach that Universal Audio has taken toward modeling the best audio processors ever made, the price for what you get is actually quite fair.


Eli Crews owns and operates New, Improved Recording (newimprovedrecording.com), a studio in Oakland, California. Special thanks to New, Improved's co-owner, John Finkbeiner, for his help with this review.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

DSP plug-in host
Xpress $999
Xpert $1,399
Xtreme $2,199

PROS: Amazing array of impeccable plug-ins. Informative video clips on the Web. Can be used in desktop PCIe slots with optional Xtenda card.

CONS: Limited to one Xpander per system. Latency induced by external DSP hosting.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
AUDIO QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5
VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Universal Audio
uaudio.com

Of Late

The main drawback of using any external plug-in processor is the latency induced by the round-trip to and from the DSP hardware. If your DAW has automatic latency compensation, you don't need to worry about it, but Pro Tools LE and M-Powered (one of which will be your version of Pro Tools if you're working on a laptop) don't. The trick is to have the same amount of latency on every channel (down to the sample if you are processing multiple microphones on a single source) to avoid phase or timing problems.

Luckily, you can Option-Command-click (Mac) on the decibel value at the base of any fader to view the latency of all of your tracks at once. Then, using the UAD Delay Comp plug-in, you can add the specific amount of compensating delay to any tracks that don't have enough latency. This all may seem rather cumbersome, but it is the price of using UAD plug-ins in Pro Tools LE, and I have gotten quite used to it. It's a testament to how good the plug-ins sound that so many engineers I know are willing to jump through these manual delay-compensation hoops in order to use them.

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