Universal Audio Century Tube Channel Strip by Diogo C
As I previously stated in my review of the Apollo X8P, picking which preamp model to use when recording with Universal Audio’s Unison technology is a bit of a struggle, simply because there are so many great options to choose from — first world problems, I know! Right now their roster looks like a virtual preamp Hall of Fame, with the likes of Neve, API, SSL, Manley and there are certainly more to come. Choosing a preamp might be for most a luxury these days, but when we are given options it becomes a rather critical part of the recording process alongside all the mic and preamp interactions which are equally important. I’m a firm believer that certain mics are better with certain preamps, and that’s not to mention the most important aspect which is the source, and that’s what utterly determines what’s best combo. Whilst preparing the gear for a soft-jazz duo recording session and going through the vast UAD2 catalog I decided to try the Century Tube Channel Strip, a plug-in that is not emulating any particular piece of sought-after hardware and instead takes bits from UA’s vast history with tube gear and puts it together on a brand-new plug-in comprised of the following sections:
- Preamp/Input Stage featuring low/high gain settings, line/mic input selection, -20dB pad, polarity switch, high-pass filter (80Hz) and input gain knob with overload indication led.
- Equalizer with low shelf (110 Hz), high shelf (10 kHz) and a parametric mid range band from 300 Hz to 7.2 kHz with constant-Q and reciprocal characteristics, boasting a generously broad bandwidth. All three bands ranges from -12 to +12dB. There’s a curiosity here: upon engaging the EQ the mid frequencies will be gently bumped in a very subtle way by a few decimals of a dB, so dial down the parametric band a bit from its initial position to counter that if you really want it flat. See attachments for frequency response graphs.
- One-knob opto leveler compressor with automatic gain compensation and gain reduction meter. Sound-wise it reminds me of famous opto levelers such as the LA-2A and CL 1B but Century is a bit more snappy than what’s usually associated with this type of compressor.
- Output Stage with gain control, bypass switch and VU meter (calibrated to 0VU = -20dBFS with low gain selected and input knob on default position as reference points)
- Signal flow goes from the left to the right side of the GUI, from the preamp to the EQ followed by the compressor and output stage.
As noted and seen above, it’s a rather streamlined channel strip, it’s quite easy to grasp and shouldn’t need much further explanation. There are some nuances, especially in how each stage affects the other, but overall it’s one of the most accessible plug-ins in this category.
Sound quality: Easily my favourite virtual tube preamp right now in the Unison range, and sound-wise I’d favour it on most occasions over the other “tubes” options, namely as the Manley Voxbox or UA’s own 610s. I generally tend to go for tube preamps when tracking vocals, guitars, drums and other acoustic or “organic” material, so those would be my preferred applications for the Century — for “synthetic” sources like drum machines or synths my go-to still has to be that UAD2 Neve preamp. The mellow opto compressor deserves a highlight as it does wonders to the human voice, delivering smooth leveling on all fronts and truly shining on music vocals, narration or voice over recording, so it’s a solid choice to consider for mixing or even when recording without the preamp mode. My least favourite bit would be the equalizer, but I’m not usually a huge fan of this kind of approach and of vintage EQ plug-ins in general. The fact that my favourite UAD2 equalizer is the Cambridge should say it all, so take my opinion with a grain of salt and given the overall quality of the plug-in I’m sure some will make good use of the EQ.
Ease of use: A straightforward plug-in with only a handful of parameters and a clean GUI that is effortless to read, but there certain interactions between sections that can make it a bit trickier than initially expected, especially when the compressor is in use or when the input is driven into distortion. The interactions between input, compression, EQ and output stages can lead to quite diverse results in terms of harmonic distortion and tone, but it’s not hard to learn how to predict them and it shouldn’t take long to achieve great sounding results. It’s certainly easier to use than other channel strips such as the Manley Voxbox or API Vision, and perhaps the best choice in the UAD2 channel strip line if simplicity is desired. Lastly, the documentation is top-notch and the DSP bite is relatively modest when compared to UA’s recent offerings and other Unison-powered preamps, with Century taking roughly 30% of a SHARC chip at 44.1 kHz.
Features: A rather simple channel strip and its features are set accordingly in minimalist fashion, so there’s not much to ask here. Other than a pre-EQ setting for the compressor I see no other missing features. It’s rather unconventional for some mixers to equalize before compression, so this might be troublesome to some. As a gearslut I’d also welcome a sweepable high-pass filter or at least 60/80/100 Hz cut points, but not having that doesn’t take anything away from it when we take into account that this is first and foremost a preamp, which means we’ll likely add more processing further down the mixing road.
Bang for buck: At $149 (and given UA’s incentives such as sales and coupons) I’d say that the Century Tube Channel Strip is certainly worth checking out, and if one is dealing a lot with organic material it is certainly in the must-try or must-have territory. For its simplicity and effectiveness it’s certainly my favourite channel strip right now when tracking vocals with my Apollo.
Gorgeous tube preamp sound.
Superb on acoustic and/or organic sources.
Friendly to use and relatively low DSP-load.
Lacks a pre-EQ option for the compressor.
Click on the attachments below for frequency response and THD graphs.