Selecting the right recording interface is a crucial task for any studio, as choices here can significantly affect your entire workflow.
At high level professional studios—particularly those equipped with analog consoles or rack-based systems—simple conversion between the analog and digital worlds is often the sole purpose of the audio interface. But in small and home studio environments, our interfaces are often called upon to act as multiple devices: Mic pre, signal processor, headphone and monitor controller, converter and usually, master clock.
While there has long been a wide availability of barebones multi-channel interfaces for big studios and small, portable units for producers on the go, recent years have seen a significant increase in the number of flexible, all-in-one solutions that seek to emulate large-scale studio functionality in a single box. Universal Audio‘s new Apollo 8p falls firmly into this new and growing category. Let’s see how they pull it off.
Unboxing and layout
Like all of Universal Audio’s gear, the Apollo 8p comes impressively and carefully packaged in a beautiful-looking display box.
Included in the box are the unit, the power supply, manual, and download/registration instructions for your software and hardware. The 8p and its power supply feel sturdy and solidly constructed.
Although a slim one-rack space in height, the Apollo 8p can get hot during normal operation, and it’s recommended to leave one rack space free above it for adequate ventilation.
The physical controls on the interface are clean, minimal and easy to adjust and read. On the left side of the front panel, a single knob allows you to cycle through channels and adjust gain for any of the on-board preamps, while additional buttons allow you to engage stereo linking, phantom power, low-cut, polarity reverse, pad and adjust the input signal type.
Over to the right, a second large knob offers control over the playback level and acts as mute switch. It’s paired with three buttons: An “alt” speaker toggle, meter selection button, and an assignable function button. (More on that in a bit.)
Two smaller knobs that adjust headphone/cue levels are also found on the front panel, along with two Hi-Z inputs, monitor meters, and indicator lights for host, clock source, and sample rate.
The Apollo 8p offers a variety of analog and digital connections, mostly at the rear of the unit, which allows for a high degree of routing flexibility, both internal and external. Dual Thunderbolt ports allow you to chain up to four UA interfaces or satellite processors with the 8p, allowing plenty of options for expansion with a minimum of cabling.
Additional digital connections can also be made via S/PDIF or ADAT protocol over twin optical I/O, and the S/MUX protocol can be used if working at higher sample rates. Clock signal can be sent through these digital connections, or via the 75-Ohm BNC connector. For this review, I connected multiple devices using Thunderbolt, and clock selection and master/slave assignment was easy and near fool-proof using this method.
The Thunderbolt ports are actually mounted to removable I/O card, which makes for the possibility of upgrades, helping to future-proof this device. Certain computer manufacturers who will remain nameless can be a bit abrupt and capricious in their unveiling and dismissal of crucial connector types. It’s nice to know that this product will not have to be replaced wholesale come the singularity. (Any day now…)
On the back of the unit, you’ll also find six TRS line outs and a pair of stereo TRS “Monitor” outs. Line outs 1&2 and 3&4 can be used as Alt 1 and Alt 2 monitor selections allowing you to change the function of the line outs as needed. Eight XLR/TRS combo jacks accept input from either mic or line-level inputs. (Though inputs 1 and 2 are overidden when the Hi-Z instrument jacks on the front are in use).
In a step that I really love, the input and output gain controls can all be bypassed to offer straight +4 dBu in and out . This is especially useful when you’re using an external mic pre to hit the A/D directly, or feeding signal to your own dedicated monitor controller/summing amp. This kind of forethought and flexibility is greatly appreciated.
In terms of hardware, that about covers it. However, the Apollo Systems offer much more than just connectivity thanks to their proprietary “Console” application.
The main purpose of Console is to facilitate input monitoring, routing, deep interface control and real-time processing of input signals using Universal Audio’s extensive plug-in line. This program is a surprisingly powerful and flexible tool that can solve many of the issues facing engineers who work almost entirely in the box.
Console can be used for everything from simply routing iTunes and other audio applications from one place to another, to creating truly complex monitoring or processing paths. The depth and flexibility it adds to your setup will require some practice and exploration to fully appreciate.
The Console GUI actually looks like a recording console, making it intuitive and easy to use for anyone who comes from an an analog background. Channel strips represent your input path and include mic pre gain, insert points, cue controls, faders, solos and mutes for every channel.
The right side of the application offers a full monitoring section for control over the engineer’s and artist’s cue mixes. Near zero latency on the artist’s headphone mixes eases the tracking process substantially.
Pro Tools users looking to escape some of the shackles of Core Audio will especially love what Console brings to the table. Non-HD versions of Pro Tools allow for a max simultaneous input count of 32 tracks.
For the most part, this artificial limitation isn’t too big a deal. However, because Core Audio recognizes your interfaces and their available connections in a strict order, this means that regardless of your total interface I/O count, you may not be able to access the specific I/O that you need on any given day, particularly if you move from one studio to another.
Universal Audio has leveraged the flexibility of Console to allow users to totally re-route their I/O as needed. This can make hardware inserts less frustrating by allowing you to keep your insert sends and returns symmetrical no matter where you open your session. Nicely done!
In Use with Intent
Personally, I love the real-time processing of input signals before your DAW. While I may never own a Neve 88R and Studer A800, I can now track through top-notch emulations of these, and many other virtual vintage pieces of gear.
The inherent value of tracking with an end-goal in mind, and crafting the production as it’s created is severely under-exploited in our field. No other art form allows one to create so much while committing to so little.
Over the review period, I used the Apollo to track and mix several projects. Both the artists and myself were very pleased with the results. Tracks were recorded through emulations of the venerable Neve 1073, the API Vision Console, and the AMS Neve 88RS emulations.
A key feature here is that UA’s “Unison” technology alters the input impedance and gain-staging of the preamp to match the intended hardware model. This is very important in getting the interactive relationship between mic and pre correct.
I was also able to use a variety of wonderful tape, eq, and compressors plugins on my input path during the tracking session with so little latency that is should not be perceptible to the human ear. This allowed me not only to “work with the end goal in mind”, but also saved precious DSP for hungry, hungry reverbs and bus processing during the mix.