The UAD-1 card is a PCI card that uses an onboard DSP engine to run high-quality plug-ins on various DAW systems without taking a big hit to your host computer. When I first saw the card demo'ed a few years ago, I was extremely impressed, and I couldn't wait to get one. I ended up buying one of the first units manufactured. But despite the promise of the card, I really didn't find it useful within the context of a working studio until recently. I use a Macintosh, and when I bought the card, I was mostly a Logic user but have since switched to Pro Tools. At the recent NAMM show, UA's Mike Barnes admitted that earlier Mac versions of the software were less than perfect, which echoed our attempts to use the card in Logic; it sounded great, but the latency made it unusable. I should mention that I have three different friends who've been using the UAD-1 for the last 18 months or so on PCs, and they rave about how well it works, how great it sounds, and how it frees up their computer's CPU. (My friends use the card with Nuendo, Cubase, and Sonar.) I should also mention that I loaned my UAD-1 card to a friend who used it with Cubase in MacOS 9 and said it worked perfectly. At the NAMM show, Mike told me that he too was a Mac Logic user, and that with the recent upgrades to Logic, the UAD-1 card worked better than ever in Logic. It is important to understand that with a hybrid hardware/software product that is essentially creating a new category, the successful operation of the card relies heavily on the DAW software, not only on the UAD-1 software. The key issue here is the DAW's handling of plug-in latency. The UAD-1 card is an outboard system and therefore exhibits much more latency than a software-based plug-in. All plug-ins have some latency, and I wish all DAW software would address this internally, even more so with the advent of cards like the UAD-1 and the TC PowerCore. Logic 6 addresses this on the inserts, but not busses, with a plug-in delay-compensation option within the audio setup menu. Nuendo has full latency compensation on inserts and busses. DP4 has no automatic latency compensation at all. To work around this issue, the UAD-1 has a latency compensation plug-in that will allow it work with any DAW regardless of whether or not it automatically compensates for latency. This however is an additional step.
I had a project that I'd mixed several years ago in Logic 4.7 that I really liked, but frankly the "in-the-box" mixes were less than stellar sonically due partly to the use of all the internal Logic plug-ins. One of my earliest attempts at in-the-box mixing, I'd say that it was a sonic failure. The band had since broken up, but I really liked a few of the songs and decided to remix them in Logic 6 for my own listening pleasure, replacing all the Logic plug-ins with UAD-1 plug-ins. The resulting mixes were a huge improvement! There are still latency issues with bus returns and the UAD-1 card with Logic, so I used Altiverb from Audio Ease for reverb, except in one case where the latency made for a cool pre-delay on the fantastic sounding UA DreamVerb reverb plug-in. However, on the channel inserts, the UAD-1 was a champ with no discernable latency. The Logic EQs and compressors were all replaced with the UAD-1's very credible simulations (more on this later) of the LA-2A, 1176, and Fairchild 670 compressors and the Pultec EQ. It should be noted that the latter two plug-ins are serious CPU hogs, with each instance of the 670 and Pultec using almost 10% of the UAD-1's CPU. But the plug-in that saved the day more than any other and impressed me the most was the Cambridge EQ. This EQ is obviously aimed to take on the Sony Oxford EQ (see Tape Op #32) right down to its nearly identical GUI interface and "British University" name. The Cambridge is a very serious contender to the Oxford, with both EQs winning out in certain areas over the other. I preferred the Cambridge's user interface over the Oxford's-it's just a bit easier to use-and the interactive graphic display at the top of the window is a big improvement over the Oxford's knob-only interface. But I missed quite a bit the Oxford's four different EQ algorithms (five if you include the GML option). Algorithmically speaking, where the Cambridge was most impressive is in its low and high-pass filters, offering no fewer than 17 different slopes and filter algorithms! Finally, one of the Cambridge's most impressive stats is that each instance only uses about 2% of the UAD-1's CPU! If you're mixing "in-the-box," you'll find that the UAD-1 is a very, very useful tool.
But how does it sound when stacked up against other plug-ins or even the hardware it emulates? When I was talking to Mike Barnes at NAMM, he turned me on to a company that was just across the aisle from UA: FXpansion. Best known for their BFD drum library (see review this issue), FXpansion was started when Angus F. Hewlett started to make software wrappers that would convert between different, otherwise incompatible, plug-in formats. Mike informed me that with FXpansion's VST to RTAS Adapter, the UAD-1 card would work with Pro Tools 6. This is huge for all the Pro Tools users out there, opening up Pro Tools to not only the UAD-1 plug-ins but literally thousands of VST plug- ins. Upon installing the VST to RTAS Adapter, I have to report that it works perfectly! The install was super easy, and the plug-ins all work fine in Pro Tools, albeit with a small amount of latency. The latency sounds like a very slight phase-shift if applied to one of two identical tracks. While this might be OK on a vocal or instrumental overdub, it would present some serious problems applied to one track of a drum recording for instance. I fooled around a bit with the UA delay- compensation plug-in, and I got the sense that this would be a satisfactory workaround (but did not have time to test this in actual usage). As we went to press, FXpansion released a new version of the wrapper that solves this problem and will be bundled with the UAD-1 card. however, the bundled version will only work with the UAD-1 card, not other VST plugs. The Pro Tools compatibility, however, did allow me to conduct a test I was always curious to try: comparing several different plug-ins against the hardware they emulate.
I invited over several local engineers (with ears I respect a great deal) for a morning of bagels and critical listening: Eric Broyhill, freelance engineer and owner/engineer of Monsterlab mastering studio; Joe Johnston, owner/engineer of Pus Cavern Studios; Kirt Shearer, co-owner/engineer of Paradise Studios; AJ Wilhelm, freelance engineer and Tape Op database dude; and finally Frank Maranzino of Skywalker Ranch, also a freelance engineer/producer. Eric, AJ and Kirt are also Tape Op contributors. The previous night, I set up files in Pro Tools bussed out through our Apogee Rosetta 800 converter and into our Soundcraft Ghost console. The four blind listening tests I set up were comparing the UAD-1 and Bomb Factory LA-2A, 1176, Fairchild 670 and Pultec EQP-1A plug-ins to each other and to their hardware counterparts where possible. We compared the LA-2A's to UA's hardware LA-2A, the 1176's to UA's 6176 compressor (an 1176 paired with a mic preamp, with the mic preamp unused for this test), and the Pultec EQ's to a Summit Audio EQP-200B, a contemporary hardware EQ that emulates the Pultec EQP-1A. We used a variety of source material, all mono for the compressors and a stereo program for the Pultec EQ's.
First up was the LA-2A shoot out. Three of the five engineers preferred the UAD-1 over the Bomb Factory plug- in, but all five chose the hardware version as their favorite by a small margin. Kirt rated the two UA versions as a tie, but said the knee on the hardware version sounded the best to his ears. Eric agreed with Kirt, and all five engineers liked the hardware version the best but thought the top end on the UAD-1 plug-in sounded the nicest. The 1176 results were more unanimous; all five engineers picked the UAD-1 version as the best sounding, even over the hardware version. There seemed to be a midrange hole in the 6176 that wasn't there in either plug-in. The Fairchild was once more of a toss-up with three of the five preferring the UAD-1 over the Bomb Factory, but again, only by a very narrow margin. While the in-depth controls of the UAD-1 670 were pretty impressive, all found the much simpler Bomb Factory version easier to use and less of a CPU drain. For the Pultec EQ, we ran two different tests, one that boosted top-end and one that boosted low-end. In all but one instance, the engineers chose the Bomb Factory plug-in as having the best sounding top- end in software and in all but one vote, better sounding than the Summit EQ. The Bomb Factory Pultec edged out the UAD-1 by a four to five vote (although the one dissenting voter was different here) on the low-end, while the Summit picked up two votes overall as the best sounding low-end EQ.
So what does all this prove or mean? Here's my take. All five of these guys make their living as full-time recording engineers and are very picky and discerning. More than the differences between the different plug-ins and hardware, all five were impressed by how similar they all sounded to each other. In other words, the plug-ins sounded pretty damn good. Does this mean you don't need hardware anymore? No, probably not. For instance, we've been using the Summit EQ for the last few months while both tracking and mixing, and every engineer who's used it has raved about how incredible it sounds, particularly in its top-end. But the engineers noticed a slight midrange-cut compared to the plug-ins, and this was part of their decision-making process, and as Eric pointed out, he would still reach for the Summit first when working on individual tracks. We've all become fans of the 6176 on bass and vocals, maybe because of the slight mid- cut it seems to have. On the plug-in side, should you throw out your Bomb Factory plug-ins and buy a UAD-1? No, the Bomb Factory plug-ins sound great; remember that the similarities between the plug-ins were greater than the differences. I'd say keep your Bomb Factory plug-ins and add to them the UAD-1 plug-ins, which also sound great-but ever so slightly different-and have less CPU drain. Bottom line is that the UAD-1 represents not only a huge step forward in DSP and plug-in technology, but at about $60 per plug-in, it's also a screaming good deal. I haven't even mentioned Nigel, the UAD-1's guitar amp modeler; Realverb Pro, its other reverb; or the UAD-1 channel strip. But they're all there as well. Now that UA has taken back marketing and sales of the UAD-1 from Mackie (UA has always done the DSP development), I think we'll be seeing even more impressive software and functionality for this affordable card. You should research your purchase so you don't end up having to wait for functionality like I did, but at this point, it seems like UA has most of the issues worked out. ($1199 MSRP for Studio PAK with all plug-ins; $499 for Project PAK without LA-2A, Cambridge EQ, DreamVerb, Fairchild 670; $149 for each plug- in missing from Project PAK; www.uaudio.com, www.fxpansion.com)