Universal Audio is back with updated versions of their well-regarded Apollo line of interfaces [Tape Op #95, #99, #101]. Let's talk about the Apollo 8p variant. Similar to its predecessor, this is a 1RU-height interface capable of 24-bit, 192 kHz operation, with an onboard QUAD UAD-2 for real-time effects (with four SHARC processors inside to process the UAD plug-ins). The Apollo 8p's differentiators are compelling, if not downright sexy: Thunderbolt 2, providing higher I/O bandwidth and a claim of under 2 ms of latency, analog input to analog output, through UAD plug-ins hosted in the included Apollo Console software application (at all sample rates); eight channels of Unison preamps (up from the previous generation's four); a freshly redesigned front panel in sultry black, with convenient monitoring functions like Alt Speakers, Dim, and Mono; and improved AD/DA conversion.
That last point can't be emphasized enough. The first-generation Apollos had class-leading specs for conversion, and for me, the "silver-face" Apollo was one of the best-sounding interfaces I have owned in my studio. Some may wish to challenge me to an ear-off, but, man, the original Apollo consistently beat my Metric Halo 2882+ DSP Expanded, and older interfaces like the RME Fireface 800 just couldn't come close. And those were both stellar interfaces in their own right! It wasn't until I tested the Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt 2 [Tape Op #105] that I felt another interface had topped the original Apollo (within the scope of a similar price range). But in the ever-escalating audio interface arms race, UA has upped the game once again with the next-gen conversion on the new Apollo range. The Apollo 8p sounds great - as in, really, really, holy-crap-I-can-hear-the-difference great. I compared my original silver-face Apollo and the new Apollo 8p by recording the same sources (in this instance, acoustic guitar, string bass, and a snare drum) using the same mics and cabling, directly into each interface's Unison mic preamps at 96 kHz, and was pleasantly surprised; to my ears, the sources captured with the Apollo 8p seemed more accurate and more "dimensional," for lack of a better descriptor. Tracks recorded with the Apollo 8p seemed to have more reality to them, with a finer sense of clarity in the top end and especially in the crucial low-mids.
Later, I was able to use the Apollo 8p alone to track a full band during a video shoot I was doing for Lee Bob & The Truth, a great San Francisco Bay Area soul and roots-rock band. First, I loved the principle and potential of being able to track "wet" with eight Unison-powered mics through an assortment of UAD-2 plug-ins [Tape Op #76, #83], like the Studer A800 [#85] and LA-2A emulations. The band wanted an honest recording of the shoot (to be used as the bed for the final assembled video), and we went through a few rehearsals before capturing about five takes. As I was the one-man production unit that day, I needed to be able to bounce between two camera setups and focus on my shots - I couldn't wear my audio engineer hat the entire time. While we had plenty of prep (and gain-staging) going on in the rehearsals, while rolling, I didn't have time to constantly monitor the session for any problems or hiccups. However, the layout of the Apollo 8p front panel is clean and easy-to-read, even from across the room, so it was easy to quickly check levels or see peaks at a glance. The Apollo 8p performed flawlessly and yielded surprisingly stunning results. The Neve 1073 and API models for the Unison preamps are excellent, and really turn this box into something irresistible. With the original Apollo, I never felt truly comfortable taking the unit alone to mobile sessions. It was always accompanied by at least one or two racks of outboard mic preamps. After this session, I felt completely confident in the Apollo 8p as a standalone solution for full-band tracking to a laptop. (Plus, if more than eight mic channels are needed, combining up to four Apollos is as easy as plugging in Thunderbolt cables - maxing out at 32 Unison mic preamps!)
Critical to tricky sessions like the above is the ability to organize in advance, thus it was important to me to be able to utilize the included Console 2.0 software to make sure I had all of my signal paths set up, outlined, labelled, etc.; I even set up a few alternate sessions and track input presets within Console to quickly audition different signal paths. Console 2.0 is a huge part of what makes the Apollo experience so joyful; there isn't another hardware- controlling console software application which is as easy to use, or as powerfully flexible. It's the gold standard, and other manufacturers could benefit from such a refined and effortless UI. (RME, I'm looking at you!)
I discovered many nice touches within Console 2.0. The Apollo preamp circuitry can be bypassed on each of the line inputs, ostensibly for the "purest" signal path to the converters - really handy if you are patching external outboard gear to the line inputs. Also, the Flex Driver feature is a huge time-saver and a beautiful solution to the long-standing problem of switching between audio applications while using the same interface. Flex Driver allows you to create custom I/O maps, remapping any Apollo input or output to any Core Audio input or output, and also rename any I/O coming from Apollo - all at the Core Audio driver level! If you want your Apollo I/O to show up consistently as "Apollo 1" or "Neve > 1176" or "Uncle Gary's Blumlein Pair" or whatever, no matter which DAW is in front of your face, Console makes it happen. The new Gain Stage Mode allows you to control different stages within a particular plug-in from the single front-panel preamp knob. For instance, in the Neve 1073 plug-in, you can instantly switch from the "red knob" to the fader level (output) control - nice, although it'd be great to see a similar mode for tactile control of other plug-in parameters as well. Right- clicking on any button or section within Console yields a treasure trove of helpful shortcuts and useful features. For instance, all fader and pan values for any input (basically, your entire monitor mix) can be copied simultaneously to any send mix bus. Instant headphone mix templates! Finally, when I added my first-gen Apollo via an additional Thunderbolt cable to the spare port on the back of the Apollo 8p, it appeared immediately in Console, color-coded and segmented for easy identification. Note that you can combine and cascade up to four Apollo Thunderbolt interfaces. In my testing, multi-Apollo recording and mixing is as seamless as you might expect - from a setup and control perspective within Console, it just felt like I had a Super Apollo. (UA, you can re-use the term "Super Apollo" for a low licensing fee. Just talk to Larry.)
Jeez, what else, Apollo? Okay, mixing and monitoring flows are also handled thoughtfully here with direct, front-panel control of up to two pairs of alternate monitor speakers, as well as monitor Dim or Mono (all via a single configurable button labeled "FCN"). Additionally, if you're using an external monitor controller, the monitor outputs can be set to bypass the monitor circuitry and operate at a fixed reference level for the purest signal path. My only (minor) gripes are the lack of talkback function, and UA's inability to include a Thunderbolt cable. (Rack screws are included, but no cable to, you know, actually use the thing?) Oh, and assignable MIDI control of the Console software (beyond just tap tempo) would be nice.
Well, Universal Audio has done it again. Take my damn fanboy money, already. If you're even modestly invested in the UAD platform, or you're in the market for a flexible and great sounding interface, the new Apollo 8p is pretty undeniable.
$2999 street; www.uaudio.com
Dana Gumbiner is at www.danagumbiner.com