Senior Writer Dana Gumbiner covers the bulk of this major new software release from Universal Audio, but we've also asked our newest reviewer, John Radin, to comment from a guitarist's point of view. -SM
Please don't call it a DAW! Universal Audio's new recording system LUNA is here, fresh out of beta and free as hell – provided you've invested in at least one of Universal Audio's Thunderbolt Apollo [Tape Op #130 & #136] or Arrow systems. LUNA sounds stellar, is beautiful, powerful, easy to acclimate to, and also very much in a version 1 state. This is not a cheap dig; instead, it's intended to signify excitement for the journey ahead – if this is the launch platform, we're in for a successful mission! Overall, LUNA feels... surprisingly comfortable. Can a DAW feel cozy? (recording system, I mean!) Yes, it can.
Although this is version 1, LUNA has an abundance of mature elements under the hood, including an innovative and completely autonomous "Accelerated Realtime Monitoring" system. ARM is an integrated under-the-hood management of Apollo low-latency Unison and UAD plug-ins, allowing real-time tracking through the plug-ins without the twin hassles of switching between the Console app and your DAW's buffer settings. One button to enable it, and ARM goes to work. Console is fully integrated ("absorbed" is probably a better description) into the LUNA tracking environment, and all buffer management is invisibly handled behind the scenes, so the tracking workflow is fast, fluid, and friction-free. Note: Standard, non-UAD AU plug-ins are temporarily disabled when ARM is enabled on a given track. ARM also automatically controls the muting and unmuting of Apollo input channels (no more switching over to Console to mute open Apollo inputs between setups).
While we're on the topic of general workflow and speed, the onboarding and getting started periods with LUNA is hands-down the fastest of any DAW I've used. Again, there is a comfort factor here: The folks at Universal Audio Mission Control have wisely opted to closely parallel most of the familiar Avid Pro Tools [#126] keyboard shortcuts. My immediate reaction to simple tasks, like the creation of new tracks or navigation around the timeline, was that it felt familiar. After years of trying to break from that Pro Tools muscle memory, at some point, you eventually ask, "Why fight it?" UA has published a brick of helpful content online (check out their "Office Hours" series of videos for some really useful deep dives), and I keep uncovering little hidden gems that save me time.
The built-in one-click feedback form makes it simple to capture little feature or change requests that (thus far), the Universal Audio team has been very responsive to. For instance, the latest LUNA update addresses several minor UX optimizations suggested by the user community – for example, using option+click to change all parameters (like mutes or solos) no longer affects hidden tracks.
Recording in LUNA is a revelation: Exposing all of the power of the UAD platform to a full-fledged DAW (dammit!) recording environment, from simple tasks like building a cue mix to punching in and out with pre-roll, to creating custom UAD tracking chains – well, it all seems so fluid and natural that you genuinely do feel a little more connected to what really matters: The Music and the inspired moments that a great-sounding take can create in the studio. Maybe this sounds like marketing-speak, but the pure function of recording through Unison plug-ins in LUNA is as close as I've come to having the immediate satisfaction of recording with tape-based systems. Committing to a sound and printing it, where every next step, every next take is fast and rock solid, and I don't even have to think about saving – LUNA auto-saves and offers 64 levels of undos even after you've quit and re-launched. The undo cue is persistent over multiple sessions, meaning the undo cue is maintained upon opening any session or backup – this can be handy in verifying what work was last done on said session. Awesome.
Editing audio and MIDI in LUNA is similarly familiar, with most keyboard shortcuts and general paradigms corresponding to those found in Pro Tools (again, my muscle memory is grateful). MIDI editing is somewhat limited in this version when compared to, say, Ableton Live [#126]. But most of the low-level work inside of LUNA is mercifully free of menu-diving or focus switching. Because Console is folded into the LUNA environment, there are only two primary workspaces to navigate: Timeline and Mix. Provided you have enough screen real estate or multiple monitors, LUNA allows you to run multiples of each of these windows, each configured with a different focus – super handy for complex sessions. One important note: As of this version, you cannot run a LUNA session without a Thunderbolt Apollo or Arrow system attached to the host computer, so for mobile editing (remember when humans would travel together on planes and trains?), you'll want to find a portable solution like an Arrow, Apollo Twin X, or similar. Otherwise, your post-session editing is a bit land-locked – UA, may we ask for a bus-powered Apollo Micro with DSP and a headphone out?
LUNA's built-in (free) Shape virtual instruments are lovely, as are the pay-to-play options in Ravel (modeled Steinway Grand) and the impeccably emulated Minimoog. It'll be interesting to see how UA's library of LUNA Instruments grows over time and to what degree these paid options will charm users with larger existing VI libraries. The Spitfire Chamber Strings, Woodwinds, and Brass are tremendous.
Mixing in LUNA is another highlight, with a few minor version 1 caveats that I'll speak to upfront. External hardware insert sends using bus tracks are not yet supported but is planned for a future release. The other minor point of confusion for me was precisely where my rendered or consolidated audio files live on my hard drives – UA has implemented a consolidated file structure for LUNA sessions such that there is just one visible file, with no folders or ability to access the session audio pool. Right-clicking on a LUNA session file allows you to expose the package contents and inspect a folder titled "audio" where your audio files live alongside related JSON files. Sometimes I need easy access to those files, and I feel like I risk breaking my session by poking around in a file package that wasn't meant to be opened in this fashion. Universal Audio recommends using the Export Files and/or Export Mixdown commands to export audio files to disk. As suspected, poking around inside the LUNA Session package is not recommended. I'm confident that these minor issues will be addressed with future updates to LUNA, and there are no doubt very practical development reasons for elements like the hidden file structure. Ultimately, it's easy enough to export stems straight from the session and re-import processed as needed.
In some ways, my thoughts around just how I intend to use LUNA are evolving. Part of me views this system as an exceptional digital front end, and that there may be specific sessions that I'll want to transition via AAF export to another DAW for mixing or mastering. But there are certainly compelling reasons to stay put and mix entirely in LUNA, notably the paid LUNA Extensions like the Neve Summing emulation of the 80 Series console bus amplifiers – wow! Inserting Neve Summing across the stem and master busses makes an unbelievable difference in character and heft. And again, the implementation is optimized for speed – features like automatic gain compensation when adjusting headroom on the summing controls are stellar.
Of course, there is room for "Moonbase LUNA" to grow in future versions – my wish list: It'd be nice to have more interface customization options, especially concerning keyboard commands, and perhaps a greater emphasis on customized macros within the control bar "workflows," External control or fader surface support (HUI and/or EUCON protocol). Personally, I'd love to see ARA support for plug-ins like Celemony Melodyne [#84] (a la PreSonus Studio One [#132). I wish the search features in the focus browser offered contextual search such that I could use other search strings to scan through my plug-ins. Searching by type of effect like "Distortion" and have it reveal all of my harmonic distortion options, like Thermionic Culture Vulture, would be a time-saver. Additionally, more customization of the plug-in browser would be an ask for future revisions (currently plug-ins are only displayed by vendor – you can filter by vendor and plug-in name). Lastly, third party VST3 support would be cool. However, most of my plug-in library does offer AU versions, so, meh – maybe it's time to kick VST to the curb (I know plug-in developers have contrasting and hotly contested opinions about the format). I'll be sure to submit all of the above via the handy feedback button! Kudos to UA for LUNA – especially for its early release during these rather trying times when many musicians and producers are stuck at home. This is a really exciting and promising recording system (ahem), and I can't wait to see more!
-Dana Gumbiner danagumbiner.com
Let me take you back to the first day I really started to rethink my relationship with the guitar. It started with a conference call for my day job getting canceled, so my mind turned to trying out some new things on my guitar during my (very) brief lunch break. I scurried on over to my closet to lug my carefully curated boutique analog pedalboard and tube amp, then plugged them in to warm up. I went out to grab some lunch around the corner, and came back to realize I had neglected to power up my Toneczar Echoczar dual-channel analog delay pedal, which was going to be front and center for my new ideas – this beast was going to take another 15 minutes to warm up! My smile evaporated, and I decided to just scrub the impromptu jam session. This lingered with me throughout the day and was most upsetting. There has to be a better way to do this in our modern age. From that day, I set out to try to find it.
The last time I had looked into simplifying my guitar had been with a green, kidney bean-shaped amp simulator pedal that simply did nothing for me. However, since then I've run into a new acquaintance who recommended I take a look at the Universal Audio ecosystem. Before taking the plunge, I did some online research and found some videos of Pete Thorn (an amazingly talented guitar session player and gear aficionado who I have always respected) demonstrating what was possible with the Universal Audio Apollo and its guitar amp and effect plug-ins. I was sold, and picked up an Apollo with a smattering of plug-ins and haven't looked back since.
For me, tone has always been sacrosanct. It is always fun to play, but if it doesn't sound good, what am I accomplishing? To my ears, the Universal Audio models sound authentic and responsive, with low latency – I have been very satisfied after taking the jump. My favorite amp emulation is the Diezel Herbert, plus I use several of the reverb, chorus, and delay plug-ins as well. I had started with the Universal Audio Console application, but as a non-audio technician, I found it a little confusing to try to route my signal to Apple Logic for my preferred punch in/punch out and monitoring workflow. However, Universal Audio's new LUNA Recording System is a fantastic piece of software, and I've been using it now since the day it was released. I've found it to be vastly superior to my favorite DAW in terms of workflow, with an extremely well-designed and intuitive UI, providing a unified base for everything I need or want to do in my studio.
I would like to see some wah-wah and pitch shift plug-ins, as well as a small, simple foot hardware controller with two expression pedals and two switches to toggle through complete guitar amp and effects configurations – like some of the features found in Universal Audio's OX Amp Top Box [#128]. I do find it addicting to be able to just click between entire rigs and signal chains at will, instead of tap-dancing on my old pedalboard. Overall, I heartily recommend LUNA to the guitarist who also wants to partake in everything else Universal Audio has to offer. With software instruments like Ravel, Shape, and the Minimoog, it really is a complete and uncompromising system at your fingertips.
-John Radin firstname.lastname@example.org