Universal Audio Apollo x8p by Arthur Stone
The Apollo x8p: The x8p (with 8 Unison preamp's) is part of the Apollo X range released Fall 2018, the third-generation of Apollo. Other models include: the x8 (4 Unison pre's); and x6 (2 Unison pre's) with all, except the x16 (16 channels w/line amps; no pre's), sharing Unison preamp and dual-crystal converter tech.
The Unison preamp is a digitally-controlled analogue circuit that can be modified by inserting a software plug-in.
The Apollo X range also segues with Universal Audio's other hardware which can be connected in a network and controlled jointly from a single software interface and up to four Apollo's can be cascaded for increased channel count and DSP: up to 6 UAD2 devices inc up to 4 Apollo's up to 64 I/O.
Universal Audio: It's a real pleasure and a privilege to review Universal Audio/UAD gear – a company with a fine tradition of producing state-of-the-art audio gear (and related-recordings) since 1958. Founder, Bill Putnam Sr. was engineer of choice for the most successful stars of the era – in fact, the history is so extensive I can't begin to cover it in this review and I'd recommend the Wikipedia article and Universal Audio's own History page.
Bill Putnam Jr. and the UA design team had to follow a phenomenon; a seemingly impossible challenge to innovate this heritage and bring to market products to equal (and even technologically-surpass) the legacy of the company; to remain relevant at the cutting-edge after 60 years. No small feat. Another factor is the plethora of high-quality recording gear from other manufacturers. Can the Universal Audio Apollo live up to it's namesake – Apollo, god of music?
Gearslutz concerns: I read through the Apollo X thread and also elsewhere. Existing and potential users were interested in converter quality? The x16 has the premium conversion but the regular conversion didn't sound like it needed improvement TBH. Another concern: Thunderbolt 3 to 2? Yes.
I'd heard good things (literally) about UA and the Apollo series so my expectations were high. It was always going to be a difficult challenge for the Apollo to impress me; I'm not short of quality hardware, software and iZ RADAR and Sound Devices conversion. I usually work hybrid and sum in analogue.
Would the UA hardware and software overcome the challenge of homogeneity? Whereas analogue gear is not consistent i.e. “no two units sound exactly the same” (for reasons of ageing, manufacture or environment) it follows that the Apollo units and software will all sound the same...the differences being the natural variations in source material or choice of settings.
Studio in a box? Big test here is whether Rob the Guitar would notice latency. He's like a hawk (or is it Owl?) and can spot the tiniest discrepancy. He's polite, for sure, but no software has really convinced him over a real amp. He likes the sound...but not the feel and playability of sims...bit of lag, man.
I was interested to see how he'd get on with the Apollo x8p's stock guitar amp: a classic Marshall. The plan was to DI into the Apollo and monitor in real-time and overdub a lead track onto the mix.
I also had to be convinced that nothing was awry in terms of timing at mix time. If the Apollo is a studio in a box then good performance interaction is the basic requisite. If the performers can't bond with the monitoring. then the overdubbing, even tracking, is impairing the mix from the offset. Out-of-sync'ness.
Out of the box: Straight out the box the Apollo looks and feels like a professional piece of gear; quite deep; solid but relatively light. The Apollo feels 'balanced' with an even distribution of weight.
The user controls: the buttons and dials feel perfect for the task and do not make any mechanical noise via the unit chassis. Just a soft click that can be felt by the fingers.
All the sockets and connection points are best quality. Nothing was wonky or cheap.
The power supply is external – a slim brick the size of an early 1980's mobile phone (yes I said that) – and that's reassuring as it ensures a more-than-adequate, high-quality power supply; a good basis on which to start making music.
Price: US $2999 (MRRP $3699) – UK £2700 inc. VAT - Euro 2999 (MRRP 3569 Euros)
If you love music and want to have a good time making it then this is great value; especially if you look at the cost spread over the years of use it offers.
Apollo x8p features:
No MIDI facilities: not unusual. Could the spare Thunderbolt port be utilised for controller input in the future?
3rd Gen: Exponential growth (development of multiple features) rather than just a facsimile of the previous model. In the Sweetwater (other retailers are available) video overview, Gannon Kashiwa of UA discusses the challenges in implementing the 3rd generation of the Apollo dynasty: the buyers expectations are high, more DSP, better sound, faster, cheaper, etc. Everything has been re-worked and improved. The circuitry surrounding the conversion chip(s) can make or break the sound; Gannon explains that this is one 'under-the-hood' improvement leading to 133.2 dB of headroom; with special attention paid to jitter (sub 10 picoseconds). This leads to a clean and perfect audio image across frequencies; improved transients; and wide, deep soundstage. Listening tests confirm this.
New FGPA-chip routing architecture enables more efficient processing with the new Hexa SHARC chips. Gain-matched, phase-aligned accuracy ( to 0.1dB across channels) provides the 7.1 surround mode (to be implemented soon)
The models in the 3rd gen range each fulfil a different capability and purpose to meet customer scenarios/requirements and budget: from simple home studio tracking and overdubbing to full studio/console application even multiple units linked. Other UAD2 hardware can be integrated into a network increasing DSP.
What really stood out was the different sonic characters of different sample rates: I had switched from 44.1 to 96 kHz and thought “Wow, the sonic characters of each sample rate are accentuated. 44.1 is 'tighter' and I can hear more air/reverb/soundstage at 96 kHz.
This change in sonic palate made sense when I learnt that there are in fact 2 crystals: one for 44.1 kHz and multiples thereof, and another crystal for 48 kHz and multiples. To paraphrase UA's Gannon: the crystal is less stressed. The audio sounds relaxed and comfortable in it's existence.
Using the Unison preamp: The Unison preamp is analogue but digitally-controlled and this allows bi-directional control between hardware circuitry and the software Unison-enabled plug-in. The preamp sounds great without plug-ins inserted; amongst the best I've used. Inserting a plug-in changes the impedance and characteristic of the physical circuitry.
The Apollo front-panel hardware dials are mapped to specific features on the plug-in; the analogue circuitry convincingly takes on the characteristic of the preamp type and model (each virtual preamp having been component-modelled from a prime hardware unit).
The Unison signal is always recorded with source, whereas the channel inserts can be switched in or out for recording and/or monitoring only.
Unison-enabled plug-ins include a range of preamps and channel strips plus guitar amps and pedals. Only one plug-in can be inserted into Unison although chains can be created by inserting plug-ins (non Unison i.e. not affecting the preamp) into the channel inserts; for example, a Screamer pedal in Unison slot and Marshall in the channel insert (non-Unison) or the Marshall in the Unison slot without the pedal in front.
Some Unison-enabled plug-ins are channel strips e.g. SSL channel or Manley Voxbox or semi-channel strips e.g. UA 610 or Helios 69.
Like the real thing it takes some time to 'understand' the preamp.
In addition to sounding awesome and convincing the performance interaction was there too; obvious when playing a guitar into an UAD amp but also more subtly when singing a vocal into an exotic preamp with EQ.
Low-latency monitoring: 'Real-time' monitoring via the Unison inserts on the preamp has a positive impact on the performance; a mojo loop. Sure you could record a straight clean (non-Unison take) and apply modelling later but the performer won't get to appreciate the extra vibe of the Unison plug-in.
I gelled with the Apollo immediately: for the performer, for the audio engineer, the latency is negligible; 2 ms and a bit of hyperspace lag (OK I made that bit up). Rob the Guitar was suitably impressed and he said positive things about the sound and latency from the wedge monitor (which did sound reasonably like a loud Marshall close-by in the room or with tweaking, in another room!). The monitoring was great through Kali monitors, Focal CMS40's and various low and higher-quality headphones.
The UA Console software has excellent cue facilities and the headphone amps worked beautifully with the range of headphones, with no gain-bunching on the dial. Power without danger!
Out of all the interfaces we've tested this one is the best. The Apollo x8p works with the performer and engineer to make tracking a pleasure.
The UA 'Console' software: The 'Console' – the mixer interface - works well for tracking, mixing and ITB/OTB routing. Not too mysterious. Common sense really especially if you've used an analogue or digital mixer (or DAW). There are a series of channel strips with aux sends and channels and a cue/monitor and master section.
The 'Flex' routing system is very clear and there's really a lot of connectivity with the Aux's, Cue's and Sends plus the software IO mixer. If you're new to interfaces and it seems a bit complex then UA have it covered with support and training videos, how-to's and excellent manual(s).
The main point of potential confusion is the IO numbering system which implements differently in different DAW's. Track 1 output from Console isn't necessarily Input 1 in your DAW; it depends on the IO patchbay settings and Outputs 1 & 2 are reserved for monitor outs. It's nearly perfect.
Visually, it's a good look. Hyperreal simulacra worthy of a graphic novel.
The visuals added to the enjoyment. In general, the main control and feedback (e.g. metering) is clear with backlit status buttons and symbols. Short learning curve.
Key functions are mouse-clickable to reveal a sub-menu; the menus are shallow: one or two layers. UAD plug-ins can be placed into available insert slots in each mixer channel and aux channel with a separate slot for the Unison insert (one per channel). The regular channel inserts are 4 maximum; depending on the plug-in's appetite and channel DSP, only one or two inserts can be used with a hefty Unison plug-in such as a channel strip.
UAD Plug-ins: The stock plug-ins are a great start. If you need to spend all your loot on the unit itself then there's enough to make music in high-quality. More plug-ins are easily obtained and demo-able. Sure, it's possible to spend a lot of money on the competitively-priced goodies but there's also some usable, useful bargains and the bundles seem like good value given that they are the 'best emulations' and certainly sound like it.
I tried every plug-in I could in the short time available: given the range of classic gear it was a sonic education and everything sounded great and each preset was an inspiration to create music or refine a specific task e.g. adding harmonics and mid-side fx.
The range is so extensive and reactive that it's a great way to virtually audition hardware purchases; an indication anyway. Of course some of the units emulated are unobtainium for mere mortals and UA is probably the closest we will get, ever.
We have a review of the new UAD Lexicon 480L plug-in in a couple of weeks time and also Diogo will be presenting a Part 2 review of the x8p next month.
Making music with Apollo: Apollo was the ancient Greek god of music (amongst other things) and leader of The Muses (an early Greek punk band). Apollonian-thinking is ordered, top-down, rational and self-disciplined – a good metaphor for the x8p in it's music-making role.
Apollo is often contrasted with his brother Dionysus (the goat-footed minstrel wandering the woods playing his flute...basically a hippie); Dionysian-practice is chaotic, lustful, bottom-up and uncontrolled (ref: West Coast synthesis).
For the demo track, the Dionysian musician (me) will interface with Apollo's sonic and electronic architecture; the song is called 'Hyperion' and it's acoustic and electric guitar, bass, and synth strings; vocal; and, hand drums. No outboard used, just the UA Unison preamps, and stock UA plug-ins. Here is the song: Hyperion
Initially I couldn't get the Apollo audio into Reason. Nada. The Apollo x8p and the Console software and UA plug-ins were working perfectly – but not with Reason. Instead I hooked up a DSub cable to the Apollo x8p's line outs and into iZ RADAR Studio running a Reason session. I was recording within a minute. I was tweaking Console and sexy UA soft-gear. I was happy.
The problem with Reason was solved easily and UA had published an article that day to explain that the computer microphone (which can be utilised as a talkback mic in the Apollo) needed permission to be used.
In fact, I'm glad it happened: if I'd just made a normal ITB review I'd have missed the opportunity to show Apollo x8p's strength as a front end – for iZ RADAR; for a multi-track tape machine or hard-disk recorder – even as an adjunct to a console. A high-function stand-alone unit that'll integrate into the analogue or hybrid studio with ease: DSub's into patchbay or recorder inputs. No DAW in sight.
The Apollo x8p has been designed to interface with external gear in this way and has selectable +24dBu headroom available for consistent metering/voltage headroom with connected professional analogue and digital gear.
Of course, with a DAW running on the same machine as Console matters are greatly simplified in terms of logistics and ergonomics. In addition: 'virtual tracks' within Console can be used to process DAW tracks with the UA plug-ins running on the Apollo.
With a laptop you have a portable 'small-producer' studio, power off the Thunderbolt and you need only one mains socket – equally this set up is ideal for small studios in rooms and apartment or larger studios where space is at a premium.
Plato and The Cave: Can the wonderful world of UAD software be compared to the shadow play of Plato's Cave? The audience having convinced themselves that the shadows are the 'real world'?
My experience is that the 'shadows' – the UAD plug-ins – go a bit deeper than Plato could have reasonably imagined; and who can make a comparison to the 'real world' daylight of hardware? Few; and those few seem to be happy using the UAD – at least alongside their hardware equivalents.
At the end of the day reality is something we experience and that is real no matter the context: a shadow play in a cave or a material box in a studio. Reality is about vibe – something we feel at an intuitive and emotional level, and the UAD plug-ins, Apollo x8p (and I suspect the rest of the range) provide this.
Not every plug-in blew me away but most did, especially the dynamics, compressors and limiters, some EQ's and the effecs: reverbs, delays and also the amp emulations.
Final thoughts: I started by wondering if the Apollo would sound homogeneous – a characteristic software sound that smears everything – but it didn't, it sounded awesome with plenty of individuation and variation in timbre and ambience.
OK there's a case for saying that there's enough variance in hardware (equivalents of the plug-in models here) that different units will sound different and some will sound better than others; perhaps due to component vitality or a fault or different applications, genres and environments. We can surmise that, and say it's probable, but we'll never know for sure and IMO life is too short and sweet to worry about it.
The performance is nearly everything: the finger pressure and speed of muscle contraction and relaxation; the honest emotion reflected in the movement of air over the vocal chords; the attitude of the drummer. The Apollo is just presenting the best available of all possible recording scenarios.
Of course you could spend a hundred times more and a lot more time and inconvenience in recreating this as a hardware studio; but for mere mortals the UA Apollo x8p has all the sweet spots covered.
Sound quality: 5/5 During meditation one can become aware of an expansion of inner spaciousness: similarly the x8p offers the listener an expanded but unforced soundstage' and there is an extra layer/dimension revealed (as if 'audio smog' were clearing) and this is particularly noticeable in the upper mids. All sources sounded bedded /shelved/glued at mix time. The x8p sounds pleasurable, accurate and engaging. The dynamics and density and resolution of sources are detailed. I didn't sense harshness or fatiguing 'aura.' The weakest area is the low mids/bass but my monitoring is a bit amateur and it'd be nice to have monitored on the ADAM S3V's.
Ease of use: 5/5 Smooth, short learning curve with a couple of obstacles; the IO patchbay can be difficult depending on your DAW but not enough to lose a point. Front panel legends can get dark but it's intuitive with good visual feedback. Metering is good. The hardware and software have great workflow and control ergonomics.
Features: 5/5 Something for everyone. Combined with the wide range of UAD plug-in's the x8p can be configured for many scenarios and set-ups. The only things the Apollo doesn't currently provide is DAW-type recording tracks or virtual instruments.
Bang-for-Buck: 5/5 In addition to the wonderful Apollo and world of UAD plug-ins you also get very good literature and manuals and ongoing development of the UAD 'ecosystem.' It's not like your heading into a technological 'box-canyon' with no way out. You need to budget for a Thunderbolt cable; this is a specialised cable with microprocessors onboard and UA cannot supply them at less cost than 3rd party.
Links and credits:
Apollo x8p | Thunderbolt Audio Interface | Universal Audio
About | Universal Audio
Apollo - Wikipedia
Apollonian and Dionysian - Wikipedia
Simulacra and Simulation - Wikipedia
Photos used courtesy of UA; other photos by Arthur Stone.
'Apollo of the Belvedere' photograph by Livioandronico2013
used under CC BY-SA 4.0