First Listen: A Review Of The Universal Audio Apollo X Audio Interfaces
Since its initial release in 2012, the Universal Audio Apollo series has revolutionized the world of digital audio interfaces by offering an impeccable sound at an affordable price. With the announcement of the Universal Audio Apollo X, the brand is once again pushing their flagship interface forward and providing significant upgrades in power, conversion and monitoring.
To purchase the Universal Audio Apollo X Series, which is in stock and shipping from Vintage King right now, please click here. To take advantage of best-in-industry trade-in values when upgrading your current Apollo to an Apollo X, please click here.
The Apollo X series features four new rack mount interfaces including, the x6, x8, x8p and x16. Perhaps the biggest upgrade to these interfaces is in the inclusion of HEXA-core processing, which utilizes 6 SHARC DSP chips to offer 50% more power during tracking and mixing than any of the Apollo Quad MKII units.
In terms of conversion, Universal Audio engineers have once again improved the internal converters in the Apollo and created an ultra-clean signal path. Pairing together 24-bit/192 kHz converters with new analog circuitry, the Apollo x6, x8 and x8p offer users pristine sounds with 129 dB dynamic range and 128 dB THD+N. The Apollo x16 improves on that with industry-leading 133 dB dynamic range and THD+N of -129 dB.
Each interface is equipped with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity which is the fastest, most stable and future-proof protocol for connecting to compatible Mac and Windows computers. If you’re using an older Mac, you can use a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter for connection, which is what we did for all of the demo videos you’ll find below and it worked just fine. You can link a total of four Apollos and two other Thunderbolt devices in a single chain to create a powerful studio set-up.
All interfaces now offer +24 dBu of headroom, making it much easier to connect mixing consoles and other pro-level gear to the interface at full 24 dBu for the best performance in and out of the analog world. You can still use +20 dBu for compatibility with existing Apollo systems.
With the improved line in/out connections, the Apollo X x6 supports surround mixing up to 5.1, while the x8, x8p and x16 all support up to 7.1 (available Q4 2018). All models feature room calibration. Fold-down is included within the interface and software so there’s no need for an external monitor controller.
Lastly, and one of my favorite improvements on all the interfaces, is a built-in talkback microphone for easy communication with the artist or voice over talent. This also makes it very easy and fast for recording slate takes or recording scratch tracks on the fly. Adding an Apollo Twin MKII to your rig will give you hands-on desktop remote control for talkback.
As always, Universal Audio is offering an incredible plug-in package when purchasing from the new Apollo X series. Every Apollo X interface comes with the Realtime Analog Classics Plus Plug-In bundle, which right out of the box gives you 16 UAD-2 plug-ins including the new Marshall Plexi and Ampeg SVT-VR amp modelers, UA 610-B unison preamp, 1176 and LA-2A compressors, Pultec EQP-1A EQ and many more.
To show what the new Apollo X series can do, we took the interfaces to four different studios for recording and mixing sessions. For the remainder of the blog, I’ll go over my experiences with each Apollo X interface and detail how it was specifically able to cater to each different audio project.
Universal Audio Apollo x6
The Apollo x6 is pretty much a super-charged Apollo Twin. It provides two Unison mic preamps and six line inputs and outputs through TRS connections. With the use of ADAT connections, it can be expanded up to 16 inputs and 22 outputs, making it a great companion for electronic musicians, singer/songwriters or smaller project studios.
For the x6 demo, I headed over to Vintage King Audio Consultant Brandon Murphy’s home studio for some colorful, in the box processing on an 80’s soundtrack-inspired beat he made, utilizing Ableton Live 10 Suite, the Push 2 controller, his Eurorack modular synth and lots of UAD processing.
Here's Brandon's process for creating his track:
"On the main synth lead for this track, I used the API 550A EQ as an insert to add some air and crispness at 10 khz, then sent that to a return track with the Roland Dimension D for some woozy chorus/ ensemble effect.
For the plucked string sound, I simply used some of the EMT 250 for a bit of triplet delay as a return to give the part some movement. Next came the Moog-style synth bass. Here, I opted for the Eden WT-800 preamp to give the sound some depth and crunch, followed by the Teletronix LA-2A for further coloration.
For the drum bus, which consists of some classic 1980s drum machine samples, I used the Empirical Labs Distressor to add a touch of punch and harmonic saturation, along with two return tracks; The Lexicon 224 for a classic 1980s gated reverb and an API 2500 for some aggressive parallel compression.
I decided to improvise a small jam on my Eurorack modular synth to chop up and use as a textural element. The part was recorded using the SSL 4000 E channel strip as a Unison plugin to add some subtle vibe from the Jensen transformer-based preamp and to protect the often unpredictable signal levels of the Eurorack from clipping unpleasantly.
Finally, on the master bus, I used the mighty Studer A800 tape simulator for some glue and nostalgia.
Many of these plug-ins are quite processor intensive, but thanks to the HEXA Core processing, it barely made a dent and I was moving fluidly the whole time. It was quite liberating to use the UAD library with such reckless abandon, all while barely moving the DSP meter."
Univesral Audio Apollo x8
The Apollo x8 is equipped with four Unison preamps and eight line inputs and outputs. By utilizing the ADAT inputs and outputs, you can access up to 18 inputs and 24 outputs, all capable of near-zero latency monitoring on the insert path. One of my favorite improvements from the Apollo MKII is separating line inputs 1-4 from the unison inputs, which makes it more flexible and much easier to use with hardware inserts or external preamps while tracking or mixing.
The mic inputs have been converted back to solely an XLR connection. The line inputs and outputs have individual TRS connections. Two separate dedicated monitor outputs are also included so they don’t eat up any real estate on the line outputs.
For the Apollo x8 demo, I brought in my good friend Olivia Millerschin to sing an old spiritual and play piano while I accompany her on acoustic guitar. We used her Nord keyboard for the piano sound and plugged directly into the Hi-Z inputs on the front panel of the Apollo. On the Unison inputs for both channels, I inserted a Neve 1073 preamp. I then followed that with an API 560 EQ for a touch more control of the tone.
For her vocal, I used a Sony C100 condenser microphone plugged into channel three of the Apollo x8 with the Manley VoxBox on the Unison input, one of my favorite preamp emulations by Universal Audio. For years, I used two hardware Voxboxs and I have to say the plug-in is so close to the real deal it’s scary. The preamp is extremely detailed and smooth, the optical compressor can be hit pretty hard without ever really noticing it kicking in.
On this example, I didn’t end up using the DeEsser, but it works like a charm as it does in the hardware. I did add a touch of EQ to get some more of the low mids and open up the high end of her voice. I then set up a UAD-2 EMT 140 plate reverb on Aux Send One to add atmosphere while tracking.
For the acoustic guitar, I used a Royer R-121 on channel four of the Apollo x8 with an API Vision channel strip on the Unison input. The playing was quite soft as it’s a mild accompaniment to Olivia’s vocal and piano, so I cranked the gain quite a bit and added some compression within the channel strip. The API is also a fantastic recreation of the hardware, even with this much gain and compression, I wasn’t getting any unwanted noise from the preamp or even the room itself.
The cue mixes were all built inside the Console software. Olivia and I both had our own mix, each coming out of a dedicated headphone out on the front panel of the Apollo x8.
After recording the track, I did a quick mix using only UAD-2 plug-ins. Between all the Unison plug-ins and inserts running in the console software and all plug-ins used for mixing in Pro Tools, I had nearly 30 UAD-2 plug-ins running at 96kHz / 32 bit.
In my experience, no older standalone Apollo system would be able to handle this. Not only did the x8 handle it without any problems, it was only using 80 percent of the six onboard SHARC DSP chips.
The Apollo x8 is a great interface for singer/songwriters, post-production facilities or smaller project studios that want to maximize how many plug-ins they can use during both tracking and mixing.
Universal Audio Apollo x8p
The Apollo x8p is equipped with eight unison preamps as well as eight line inputs and outputs. The Unison inputs are XLR/TRS combo jacks, just as they were one the Apollo 8p MKII, but the line inputs and outputs have been changed to DB25 connectors. The 8p MKII doesn’t have any dedicated TRS line inputs and only six TRS line outputs, so providing eight dedicated inputs and outputs offers much more flexibility to this interface when hooked into a patch bay than the MKII.
For this demo, I brought in my good friends, Bob Mervak and Takashi Iio. We performed one of Bob’s original tunes “When You Walked Away” with Bob on keys and vocals, Takashi on electric bass and myself on drums, all tracking together live at the 45 Factory. All preamps and inserts are UAD-2 plug-ins powered by the onboard DSP of the Apollo x8p.
For the drum set up, I used a Neumann FET 47 on the kick drum, Shure SM57 on snare top, a matched pair of Coles 4038s as spaced overheads and a vintage Neumann U87 as a mono room microphone about 8’ from the kit. I used the UAD-2 Neve preamp on each Unison input.
On the inserts of the kick channel, I used an API 560 to carve out some of the midrange and reduce some rumble from the low end. That was followed by an SPL transient designer to help shape the attack and sustain of the drum.
With the snare, I followed the Neve preamp with an API 550a to add some air to the top, crack to the midrange and some weight to the low end. I also used a transient designer to increase the attack and slightly extend the sustain.
The overheads both had a touch of EQ from API 560s to open up the top end of the snare and cymbals as well as carve out some boxiness coming from the mid-range. Those were followed by Universal Audio 1176 Anniversary Edition compressors at the lowest ratio to help pull out the tom fills and glue the overall kit together.
The room microphone was heavily compressed with an API 2500 buss compressor to make the drums sound bigger and more exciting. I then used a 560 to get rid of the build-up of low end and also tame some of the harsh 3kHz-8kHz build-up in the cymbals.
With the extra 7dB of headroom in the Apollo X interfaces, this was by far the best drum sound I’ve got only using Apollo and UAD plug-ins. I have to say, I was (and still am) blown away by how good five mics on a drum kit in a small room sounded, not to mention being able to run 15 plug-ins without a dent in the available DSP.
For the bass, Takashi used a Music Man Stingray into his Acme Audio Motown Tube DI. At first, I was using a line input on the x8p, but it was a little too clean in the chorus, so I ended up plugging him into preamp six without any added gain or unison modeling. Hitting the mic line instead of the line input overdrove the Apollo a little bit which added some grit to the chorus when he played harder. On the inserts, I added a 560 for tone control followed by a LA-3A to help glue it all together.
With Bob’s keyboard performance, I went stereo out of the Nord into Acme Audio Wolfbox DIs (If you haven’t used these DI boxes, I highly recommend trying them out for yourself, I won’t get into the details, that’s for another blog). I used the API Vision Channel Strip on the Input, using the gain control as well as the 225L compressor. Since this is kind of a dark pop/rock tune, I wanted that intense “overly compressed” sound on the piano.
We tracked the drums, bass and piano live in one take, all of the Unison preamps and inserts were printed directly into Pro Tools. We thought it would be cool to add a lift when the chorus hits, so we added some electric guitar.
The electric guitar is a Fender Stratocaster plugged directly into the Hi-Z input on the front panel. We ended up layering five separate tracks, low power chords, thirds, fifths, octave and a tonic pedal, which is a nice little production trick I like to do on these pop/rock tunes. For a couple of the overdubs, we used the Marshall Silver Jubilee, and the Friedman Buxom Betty for the rest.
On Bob’s vocal, I used a Soyuz SU-023 Bomblet into the Manley Voxbox Unison plug-in. The vocal is pretty dynamic in this tune, but I was able to dial in the preamp level and compression to respond well in the verse and chorus without changing any settings.
While we were tracking, there were around 30 plug-ins running at 96kHz / 32 Bit, still only using around 80% of the available DSP. The Apollo x8p is an absolute beast, a perfect first interface for a smaller project or a commercial studio, or even a bigger studio who wants to make a huge addition to an existing Apollo rig.
It was so easy to get what I was looking for out of each source, I never ran into any shortage of DSP and still had plenty to spare. I love the improvements to this interface, it's a big win for the Apollo x8p.
Universal Audio Apollo x16
The Apollo x16 is now the leader in A/D dynamic range, providing 133 dB, as well as the +24dBu operation mentioned earlier. This is a great interface for integrating with an analog console or other pro audio outboard gear into your rig.
For this demo, we took the track we recorded on the x8p and brought it to our friends over at Willis Sound to mix on their API 1608 console. The 16 inputs and outputs allowed us to easily map the song out on the analog console and take advantage of all the flexibility it provides, while still utilizing the interface's six SHARC chips to power any UAD plug-ins we needed.
We hooked the x16 directly to their Mac Pro using a thunderbolt cable. After installing the UAD driver, Pro Tools immediately recognized it and we were able to route out tracks to individual channels on their API 1608 console. Since we ended up with 17 tracks by the end of the session, we combined the vocal and vocal double to a single channel on the desk.
The first 12 tracks on the 1608 are equipped with 550a EQs, so Willis Sound Head Engineer Jim Roll started by adding a little bit of color to the drums. On the snare, he used the hardware insert on the desk to add a Distressor which helped smooth out the transients and get some second order harmonic. He was also able to utilize the onboard bus to make a parallel drum bus compressor through a pair of analog API 525s.
Jim then used the hardware inset on the desk to patch in an analog DBX 160 on the bass, this helped glue the preamp saturation and the low end of the bass together much better in the overall mix.
No outboard EQ or compression was added to the keys, just a little bit of love from the onboard 550a EQs. Jim then set up an analog EMT 140 plate reverb on aux send one, sending a tiny bit of the keys to it to give them some ambience.
On three of the main guitar tracks, Jim used the channel inserts to add some outboard compressors for more attitude and aggression. For the main power chord electric, he used a custom-built Blue Stripe 1176 style compressor and for the thirds and fifths electrics, he used two Purple Audio MC77s. For the low power chords and thirds electric tracks, he used the last two onboard 550a EQs available and began using the 560s for the remainder of the electrics.
For the vocals on this track, we used a 560 EQ to clear up some of the low end and make the higher frequencies cut through. On the channel insert, we used an Acme Audio Opticom, a beautiful compressor that has a smooth sound even if you’re hitting it pretty hard, it also adds warmth and depth to whatever you run through it.
It was so easy and seamless using the Apollo x16 with this full analog rig. The sound was stellar, even more so than when monitoring through the Apollo x8p at the 45 Factory. The mix went smooth from start to finish and everyone in the room was impressed by the sound and flexibility of the new x16.
As mentioned earlier, not only do you get 16 channels of world-class conversion, you also get 50% more DSP processing power for Apollo plug-ins, something no other interface in this class can come close to. Two of these in any system would give you a beastly recording/mixing rig capable of working with nearly any size hybrid system.
I was already a big Apollo fan going into all of these demos, but even more so by the end. I was very impressed by each interface and how they were able to handle each project I threw at them. From the setup and workflow to tracking and mixing then onto the sound of the finished product, the Apollo X did an amazing job.
If you'd like to purchase a Universal Audio Apollo X, please visit our product pages for the Apollo x6, x8, x8p and x16. If you have any questions about the Apollo X, our team of Audio Consultants is available to answer any questions via email or by phone at 888.653.1184.
For those of you that own previous generations of the Universal Audio Apollo interfaces, we are offering best-in-industry trade values when upgrading to the Apollo X. Click here to submit your information for an Apollo trade-in and one of our team members will be in contact shortly.