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UNIVERSAL AUDIO UAD-1e Expert Pak (Mac/Win)

June 1, 2007
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FIG. 1: You''ll need the UAD-1e expansion card to host Universal Audio plug-ins in a computer with PCI Express slots. When bundled with the Expert Pak, the card comes with five plug-ins and a $750 voucher to buy more.

Universal Audio (UA) was established to further the vision of recording pioneer Bill Putnam, whose company was the first to bear the name. Since Putnam's sons Bill Jr. and James resurrected UA in 1999 and later merged it with Kind of Loud Technologies, the company has taken a two-pronged approach. It has meticulously re-created analog hardware, including a few of Putnam's classic inventions. It has also developed a family of native audio plug-ins that includes emulations of processor hardware. Most recently, the company has been popping out models of analog gear from Roland and Neve.

UA's plug-ins run exclusively on its DSP expansion cards, and they are the only software that does; no third-party plug-ins are available for either the original UAD-1 acceleration card or the newer PCIe-bus version, the UAD-1e (see Fig. 1). Fortunately, this exclusivity is fine, because the plug-ins sound extremely good. And even though they require a UAD card to run, they appear in your audio software like any other plug-ins.

The plug-ins that accompany the UAD-1e in UA's Expert Pak bundle — the CS-1 channel strip, 1176SE limiting amplifier, Pultec EQP-1A program equalizer, Nigel guitar processor, and RealVerb Pro reverb — are the same five that originally shipped with the UAD-1. Although the UAD-1 and UAD-1e work in different buses, they have the same custom DSP chip.

The UAD-1e is supported on both Mac OS X Universal Binary and Windows 2000/2003/XP systems and works with native hosts only. In Digidesign Pro Tools, the UAD-1e supports RTAS using a free version of FXpansion VST to RTAS Adapter that UA provides, but it doesn't support TDM. The plug-ins run at sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 96 kHz, and all but a few of them also run at 176.4 and 192 kHz. A system can contain as many as four UAD-1e cards, and a PC that has both PCI and PCIe slots can mix the UAD-1 and UAD-1e.

Inward and Onward

Installing the card and its drivers into my quad-core 3 GHz Mac Pro was simple and seamless, and the card never again required my attention. Installing the software (version 4.5) took an extra step to authorize the plug-ins, but that process was also painless.

The UAD-1e is available in either the Express Pak ($599) or the Expert Pak ($1,299). Both packages include the UAD-1e card, the five plug-ins I mentioned, and a voucher for buying additional plug-ins from UA's Web site. The Express Pak includes a $100 voucher, and the Expert Pak includes a $750 voucher. If you assume that the card costs $499, the Expert Pak doesn't work out to be a greater bargain unless you calculate using street prices, but I promise you'll never regret having the extra plug-ins.

At the January 2007 NAMM show, UA announced two more UAD-1e developments. The UAD-1e Extreme Pak ($2,499) includes all of UA's plug-ins — every last one of them. The UAD-Xpander, a new ExpressCard for laptops, is available in three bundles with the same plug-ins as the UAD-1e: the UAD-Xpander Xtreme Pak ($2,599), the UAD-Xpander Xpert Pak ($1,699), and the UAD-Xpander Xpress Pak ($1,199).

The UAD-1e's excellent PDF owner's manual contains a tremendous amount of useful knowledge, from providing general information about signal processing and how to use the UAD-1e to revealing the idiosyncrasies of the original hardware (which may be essential to understanding the original's appeal) and explaining the plug-ins' added features. While you can apply nearly all the plug-ins to good result just by instantiating and playing with them, you simply cannot get the most out of them without reading the manual.

Applied Theory

I'll begin by discussing the UAD-1e's five included plug-ins, and I'll continue with a rundown of additional plug-ins you can buy. I also refer you to the November 2002 review of the original UAD-1, as well as the March 2006 review of the Plate 140 reverb plug-in (both are available online at www.emusician.com).

CS-1 is a collection of four processors in one plug-in: the DM-1 delay modulator, RS-1 room simulator, and EX-1 compressor and 5-band parametric equalizer (see Fig. 2). If you don't need them all, you can instantiate them separately to reduce DSP demand. CS-1's utility is great and its sound is excellent, though not quite as good as some of UA's plug-ins dedicated to only one function. The compressor is nice, but not quite up to the 1176 models.

FIG. 2: CS-1 packs four processors into a single plug-in that provides EQ, compression, delay, and room simulation.

I use the 1176 plug-ins a whole lot — mostly 1176LN, but also the SE version. As UA says, the sonic difference between them is slight and not really noticeable unless the source is very exposed. I've had the opportunity to use the original UREI 1176 hardware, and the model really captures its distinctive but broadly applicable sound.

EQP-1A is for shaping, not surgery. The original Pultec EQP-1A was known for its beautiful, round warmth at high levels, and the plug-in represents that behavior well. I put a slightly wimpy kick drum in, cranked it up at 80 Hz, and got back a fat, punchy kick drum, matching my first experience with Pultec hardware.

RealVerb Pro worked well on delicate sources like vibraphone and vocals, as well as on drums and guitars. Whereas most digital reverbs let you adjust acoustic attributes such as diffusion, RealVerb lets you adjust architectural attributes such as wall materials. The cool thing about RealVerb, though, is that it has some acoustic parameters too, so you get the best of both worlds. Universal's DreamVerb plug-in, which is essentially the next iteration of the RealVerb engine, provides even more-intricate control of architectural considerations.

Nigel is a guitar suite that comprises five modules: the Preflex amplifier/cabinet simulator, Gate/Compressor, Phasor, Mod Filter, and Tremolo/Modulated Delay/Echo. It's kind of like a collection of stompboxes with an amp modeler. You can instantiate each module independently, and I found myself using the modules separately more than together.

Through the graces of Universal Audio, I was able to try a variety of Powered Plug-Ins beyond those included with the Expert Pak. UA has a lot of plug-ins in its catalog, and nearly all of them are outstanding. My particular favorites are the dynamics processors, including 1176LN and 1176SE, Fairchild 670, LA-2A, Neve 33609, and the highly transparent Precision Limiter. Plate 140 (a model of the EMT 140 plate reverb) is the first reverb emulator I have heard that sounded anywhere close to a real plate. The EMT 140 has a bright, explosive attack and very high density that no digital plate before Plate 140 has managed to reproduce.

All Things Equal

Universal Audio makes 21 plug-ins for the UAD-1e card. You can also get two utilities (Track Advance and Delay Compensation), individual versions of all the modules in CS-1 and Nigel, and reduced-DSP versions of the 1176 compressor and the Neve models. That's a fair amount of software. Although I don't have room to adequately report on everything, I had the opportunity to try nearly all of them. Individual plug-ins cost between $79 and $249, and UA also offers bundles containing two or three related plug-ins.

In addition to Pultec EQP-1A and CS-1's 5-band parametric EQ, UA offers several other equalizers. Cambridge EQ ($149) is modeled after Sony's Oxford EQ — something I can say but UA can't. Others include Neve 1073 ($249), Neve 1081 ($249), and Pultec Pro ($79), which adds a midrange band to Pultec EQP-1A. Another EQ called Precision Equalizer ($199) is designed for mastering. They all sounded terrific to me, but I used the Cambridge and Pultec EQs the most.

Cambridge EQ's five parametric bands and high- and low-cut filters sport numerous features beyond the usual frequency, Q, and boost and cut parameters. For example, four different topologies are available for the cut filters: coincident pole, Bessel, Butterworth, and elliptical. Each topology has its own characteristics and offers several choices of filter order. Three parametric types, which apply globally to all parametric bands, use the same algorithm but have different behavior for gain versus Q. In addition, each parametric band can be individually switched to shelving or peaking.

Neve 1073 emulates one of the most famous of all audio equalizers. With two shelving bands, one semiparametric band (Q is not user controllable), and a low-cut filter, it is not the most surgical of EQs, but it has that amazing Neve sound. The virtual front panel is nearly all rotary pots, including two concentric pots. Although this layout makes readability quite poor, vertical dragging is enabled and saves the interface from being hard to operate. It also helps that clicking repeatedly on the band-response symbol above any of the EQ pots cycles through that band's available frequency values. Neve 1081 is another Neve classic; it has four bands and high- and low-cut filters.

Weightless Compression

FIG. 3: Neve 33609 is a versatile and powerful compressor/limiter. It has a sweet sound with a subtler coloration than some of UA''s other vintage compressors.

Compressors include the aforementioned 1176, LA-2A ($149), Fairchild 670 ($149), Neve 33609 ($249), Precision Multiband ($249), and Precision Limiter ($199). Favorites are really hard to call in this area, because each has a distinctive sound. I compared Precision Limiter with several other limiter plug-ins, including Waves L1 and L2, and found Precision Limiter to be the most transparent, even when adding a fair amount of oomph.

Neve 33609 was a very pleasant surprise (see Fig. 3). I have never had the good fortune to encounter a real 33609 in the flesh, so I was completely unfamiliar with it before trying UA's plug-in version. In spite of being quite costly in terms of DSP, it immediately became a favorite. It's difficult to describe the sound; it's not squishy like the Fairchild 670, and it's not transparent like the Precision Limiter. It has a wonderful sound quality that is not too heavy handed. Each channel of the 33609 has a compressor feeding a limiter, and the two channels can be linked in stereo (a feature lacking on the original unit) or run separately.

It is safe to say that a Fairchild 670 is something very, very few of us will ever actually own. Given the cost, size, weight, and maintenance, it is questionable whether one would even want to — that is, considering that the UA plug-in makes the same sound available for a lot less cost. The 670's controls have considerably more subtlety than might appear at first glance, but it offers all kinds of unique functions. For example, Lat/Vert mode refers to a scheme in which the channel sum (mono material) and difference (stereo material) were compressed separately in vinyl-disk mastering — still a very useful process even when not cutting vinyl. Similarly, the LA-2A compressor looks simple, but there's more going on under the hood than meets the eye.

Old Favorites Anew

Recently UA has been shipping models of classic Roland analog processors. My favorite is RE-201 Space Echo ($249), which emulates one of the great tape echoes. UA has modeled the RE-201 right down to the distortion and wow. The plug-in even has a switch for choosing the virtual tape's age, a factor that strongly affected the sound in the original.

The Boss CE-1 chorus pedal ($99) is one of the simplest of all UA plug-ins to operate. The original device was all about thick, shimmering chorus without lots of user parameters. The situation is similar with the Dimension D chorus ($149), which has only four buttons to select a sound. All three Roland models are available individually or in the Roland Classic Series FX Bundle ($399).

Testing Boundaries

I decided to see how many plug-ins I could run before hitting the UAD-1e's limit, keeping in mind that every plug-in has its own DSP needs. I was able to run seven stereo channels, each with LA-2A and CS-1, and one instance of RealVerb. Another test gave me the same number of channels, each running 1176SE and EQP-1A, and one RealVerb.

On numerous occasions, I requested a plug-in and got a dialog box warning of insufficient DSP and informing me that some plug-ins would be disabled. Unfortunately, it never said which plug-ins were disabled. Because I found no visual indication, I never knew what was really going on. It turns out that communications glitches can occur between the UAD-1e and some hosts and produce “false positives,” triggering the dialog box. That kind of uncertainty makes recording engineers extremely nervous in session. UA really should have a clear indication for disabled plug-ins.

You're probably aware that moving audio between a host and a hardware card incurs latency. Many hosts provide latency compensation, but some do not, including Pro Tools LE. UA provides a free DelayComp plug-in for those situations, but it's a bit of work to set everything up.

Disturbing Graphics

With the exception of RealVerb and DreamVerb, all the UA plug-ins have virtual front panels that resemble the hardware they emulate. In my experience, they look much better than they work — I had to click-and-drag to change stepped switch values on some plug-ins, for heaven's sake. I suppose virtual front panels must really sell products, apparently indicating many users are more concerned with appearance than functionality. I allow some slack when modeling a well-known piece of analog gear, which UA does quite a bit. On the whole, though, I find virtual front panels a flawed idea, and UA's plug-ins fail to sway me on that point.

It is interesting to contrast the reverbs' graphical user interfaces with those of plug-ins that model specific hardware. For example, whereas RealVerb has editable graphics showing the reverb's frequency contours (see Fig. 4), neither CS-1's EQ nor the Neve EQ models display equalization curves, let alone editable ones. The lack of graphic displays has always been a difficult drawback of analog equalizers; why perpetuate that paradigm when it is no longer necessary?

Something for Everyone

To my ears, very few companies do modeling well. The challenge is to emulate specific hardware's sonic behavior and to capture whatever makes the hardware sound pleasing. UA is one of two companies whose models I really love (the other is Line 6). I have yet to hear a model that really sounds as good or better than the best example of the analog hardware it's mimicking, but real vintage units often are not at their best and therefore vary widely in how they sound. UA plug-ins fall just short of the magic I've heard the best analog gear provide, but they're capable of excellent sound that's entirely consistent, easily available, and much, much cheaper than the real thing.

From stompboxes to high-end studio wonders, UA offers a broad selection of plug-ins that make the UAD-1e an extremely versatile tool. Any UAD-1e bundle is a bargain for the fabulous-sounding plug-ins alone, and removing some of the burden from your CPU is a bonus. Aside from feeling like the user interfaces could be made more effective, I love the Expert Pak system. It has become my first call for processing on prominent tracks that really have to sound great.


Larry the O just returned from Thailand, where he learned to scuba dive and discovered the real meaning of tropical paradise. Sawadee krop!

PRODUCT SUMMARY

UNIVERSAL AUDIO
UAD-1e Expert Pak

DSP card and plug-ins
$1,299

FEATURES 5
EASE OF USE 4
AUDIO QUALITY 5
VALUE 5

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Wide variety of plug-ins available, including software models of classic analog processors. Outstanding audio quality. Relieves CPU of DSP burden. Ability to use multiple cards in a system.

CONS: Some rough user-interface edges.

MANUFACTURER

Universal Audio
www.uaudio.com

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