First Listen: A Review of the Universal Audio Arrow Interface

Universal Audio just announced a brand new interface called the Arrow that features the same sonic qualities and flexibility as their larger Apollo units. The Arrow features a single UAD-2 DSP chip, two Unison mic preamps, a Hi-Z input and comes in a small sleek package that routes audio and power through a single Thunderbolt-3 cable on both Macs and PCs.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Arrow's launch is that it enables a new generation of budding audio creators to access Universal Audio's world-class plug-ins and Console software at a much more affordable price ($499). The interface comes packed with the Realtime Analog Classics UAD Plugin bundle which features many of the brand's top emulations including the UA 610-B Tube preamp, Pultec EQP-1A EQ Legacy, Teletronix LA-2A Compressor Legacy, UA 1176LN Compressor Legacy and more.

After a recent visit from Universal Audio to Vintage King headquarters, we had the chance to demo the Arrow and record a song strictly using the interface and the Realtime Analog Classics UAD Plugin bundle. While I thought the single DSP chip might be limiting to the plug-ins that you can use while tracking, I was surprised how the Arrow could handle enough processing to power a unison preamp, EQ and compressor on each channel.

Watch a video of Bryan Reilly cutting and mixing a track on the brand new Universal Audio Arrow and continue reading to discover more about his experience with the new interface.

The Tracking Process
Even though I was going to be recording at the 45 Factory, I thought it would be cool to bring my laptop and record everything with headphones in the live room. This would be similar to the set-up I would use if I was recording at home or on the road, something that the Arrow would definitely be perfect for.

On the track, I ended up using a vintage Neumann U47 and Neumann U67 as my two microphones. We have them at the studio so I figured I had to use them. I know those mics aren’t going to be commonly paired with the Arrow, and you might say that a recording through any interface with those mics would sound good. To be perfectly honest, I think with the UAD-2 processing available within the Arrow, two Shure SM57s could get you the same results.

Universal Audio let me use a brand new, unopened Arrow for the recording. It was very easy to install and integrate into Pro Tools. From the time I opened the box and began recording, it was probably 20 minutes tops.

With the new Thunderbolt-3 and USB-C cables, I’ve heard there’s been some confusion if both cables are technically the same thing since both utilize the same connection type. I just want to clarify that they are not the same type of cable, a USB-C cable will not connect the Arrow to your computer, a Thunderbolt-3 cable specifically is required. In some instances, a USB-C cable can transfer the amount of data required and function as a Thunderbolt-3 cable, but not with the Arrow.

Getting Started/Scratch Track
I sat down with an acoustic guitar and wrote a little piece of music on the spot, something simple that had a couple changes in dynamic and room to stack some instruments. After about 15 minutes or so I was ready to lay down a scratch track. I plugged my acoustic directly into the HI-Z input on the front panel of the Arrow. Once you plug into this input, Arrow automatically switches channel one’s input to line level.

For every track on this song, I used the Universal Audio 610-B preamp on the Unison insert. By inserting a Unison plug-in, the channels input impedance and sonic characteristics are changed to simulate whatever preamp you’ve chosen. In the case of the 610-B, it models everything from the tube characteristics to the unique curves of the EQ. The Unison plug-in is always printed into the DAW regardless if you’re set to monitor or record inserts within the Console software.

I didn’t spend much time on this specific track because I knew it was going to be a scratch track and deleted later, but it actually sounded pretty good for a straight DI tone. I didn't really do anything except for engaging the 610-B preamp and leaving the stock setting.

Scratch tracks are always a good starting point when producing a song from the ground up. They help get a layout of the song, make sure the changes are right and the tempo feels good (especially if there are vocals).

Drums
Once the scratch track was done I was ready to lay down some drums. I used the U47 on the kick and the U67 as a mono overhead. After the 610-B Unison preamp, I inserted a Pultec EQ on each channel, an LA-2A compressor on the kick and an 1176 compressor on the overhead.

Depending on how I’m recording, I’ll switch between recording insert effects directing into Pro Tools or just monitor the insert and reapply the plug-in within Pro Tools later. In this case, on most of the sources, I choose to dial in a tone and just monitor the insert, bypassing the record feature into Pro Tools. Since I was recording through headphones and dialing in the tone while also hearing the source in the room, I wanted to make sure I didn’t under or overcook anything and put myself in a bad place later. You can save all the plug-in parameters in a presets folder so you can have the exact same sound when you go to start mixing.

For just two mics, I thought the drums sounded huge. The Pultec EQs on each channel helped add weight to the kick and snap to the snare. The compressors really brought the tracks to life and help glue everything in the kit together.

To fatten the track up a bit and strengthen the groove, I added a second drum part that had more of a march feel. I left the overhead mic in the same position, but moved the kick mic over the snare drum. I put a muffle ring on the snare top head and switched to thunder rod sticks for a different tonality. The inserts in the overhead remained the same, but I changed the EQ on the U47 to focus more on the snare frequencies.

Once that track was dialed in, the music bed was starting to take shape. For just four tracks of drums, I was impressed by the overall depth and clarity of each individual drum and cymbal. For a little extra sauce, I added a shaker and tambourine. I used the U47 that was positioned by the snare, angled it up a bit and was ready to go, didn’t even change any settings. One pass on each of those and I had a full, rich solid rhythm section.

Bass
I then moved onto the bass. I plugged directly into the HI-Z input on the front panel. I kept the Pultec EQ but changed the LA-2A to an 1176. This has always been one of my favorite signal chains for DI bass in the analog world. I’m very familiar how my bass sounds through this chain. The UAD-2 plug-ins were very simple to use and responded exactly like the real deal and it took me about two minutes to dial in the tone I was looking for.

Acoustic Instruments
Once I was finished with the bass I moved onto retracting the acoustic guitar. I used the U47 as a close mic and kept the U67 up a few feet away from me in OMNI to capture some room tone. I used the Pultec EQ for a boost overall body and shine, followed by an LA-2A compressor to glue all the overtones and harmonics together. On the room mic, I used the Pultec to bring out the ambience of the room, then heavily compressed that with an 1176 for some added excitement.

Acoustic instruments can be one of the hardest things to capture in a digital recording. There is so much information happening across the entire frequency spectrum, some interfaces and preamp modelers have a hard time capturing it all, resulting in a dull and thin recording. This is not the case with the Arrow and UAD-2 plug-ins. I think this acoustic tone would hold up to any I’ve recorded with vintage outboard gear. The characteristics of a Unison preamp are pretty spot on to the analog counterpart, I never feel like I’m using a plug-in or constantly fighting digital artifacts.

Since I was so happy with how the acoustic was recorded, I wanted to thicken up the string section with some ukulele and mandolin. I used the same mic and plug-in configuration as when I tracked the acoustic, just adjusted the parameters according to each instrument. A few quick tweaks and the tone was dialed in, one pass on each instrument and I was ready to move on.

The last acoustic instrument I wanted to add was a live piano. I miked it up from the front in a spaced pair configuration, U47 on the lower keys and the U67 on the high end. I kept the Pultec EQs on, carved a little bit of low end from each microphone and boosted the midrange on the U67. I didn’t end up using any compressors while tracking.

One thing I noticed while tracking the piano is that the Arrow has a very wide stereo image. Everything previous had either been mono or panned slightly left or right, the piano track was the first to be hard left and right. When the piano got dialed into the right place in the track, it opened the entire song right up. It now had a 3D quality beginning to sound like a professional production.

Electric Guitar
The last thing I added was an electric guitar. I plugged directly into the HI-Z input in the front panel, but this time instead of using the 610-B preamp, I used the Marshall Plexi amp simulator on the Unison insert. By inserting an amp simulator to the Unison preamp, your HI-Z input on your interface reacts as if you were plugging directly into the front of the amplifier.

When I was first messing around with the amp simulator, I wasn’t really impressed with the “Marshall” sound, I was struggling to find a tone I was happy with. The problem was, I was trying to make it feel as if a Marshall was in the room with me, not as if I was hearing a Marshall miked up from the other room. Once I hit record and heard the tone blended into the track, it truly responded and sounded like a Marshall. I kind of had a "bomb going off in my head" moment there, as it gave me a whole new appreciation for amp simulators.

Since that recording session, I’ve used a couple other modelers from the UAD-2 platform on productions I’ve been hired on. Once you get the hang of dialing in the tones, it's very easy to get something that sits just right in the track, and you never have to worry about microphone placement and phase.

Overall Impressions of the Universal Audio Arrow
Listening back to everything all together was quite an experience. I couldn’t believe that I just wrote and tracked this entire song all by myself, with two microphones in under four hours, and it sounded this good. Don’t let anyone fool you, if you know what you’re doing, you can make an entire professional production with only two mic inputs and a couple of plug-ins. It might take a few more steps to get to the final product, but the tools are there.

The Arrow is priced at $499, which is the cheapest Universal Audio interface on the market. Although there may be some larger interfaces available by other manufacturers in the same price range, I think it would be hard to find one that is anywhere close in overall sound, flexibility and processing power as the Arrow.

This interface would be a great purchase for someone just building a rig, who doesn’t have a lot to spend, but still wants professional results. It would also be a great companion for a traveling musician or audio engineer. The fact that it’s bus powered makes it very portable and convenient for off-site recording.

If you have any questions about the Arrow or any other Universal Audio interface, be sure to contact your Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 888.653.1184

 

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