Universal Audio unveils the next generation of its Thunderbolt-powered desktop interface, the Apollo Twin Mk II. Mark Cousins takes a closer look…
Kit Apollo Twin Mk II
Manufacturer Universal Audio
Price SOLO £699, DUO £899 and QUAD £1,299
Universal Audio’s ability to straddle both the hardware and software worlds of recording has arguably been the making of the company. The bridge between these two domains comes in the from of Universal Audio’s Apollo range, which cleverly fuses an analogue front-end with the ability to process signals through a range of analogue modelling plug-ins. Having been first introduced back in 2012, the Apollo range has now grown to include six different interfaces, largely differentiated by the number of inputs and outputs on offer.
This Apollo Twin Mk II arguably forms the entry level to the Apollo product range, focusing on a two-input design ideal for desktop musicians that may well form the perfect starting point to an expanding studio setup.
What makes the Apollo range different to other audio interfaces? Well, alongside the traditional front-end of a conventional audio interface, the Apollo series also includes the DSP processing from UA’s UAD-2 system (now available in QUAD, DUO or SOLO formats). As well as recording through the interface, you can also use the unit as an external DSP processing system, relieving strain from your computer’s CPU, and running plug-ins exclusive to the UAD platform.
What really transforms the Apollo concept is the implementation of Unison technology, which creates a hybrid between the analogue front end and Unison-driven plug-ins on the UAD platform. So the Unison plug-ins enable the modelling of a range of mic preamps, guitars amps and stompboxes, pairing impedance switching and gain staging on the analogue front-end with component-level circuit modelling in software.
Loading a Neve 1073, therefore, feels (and sounds) just like the real deal, with a direct link between the plug-in and the functionality of the interface’s preamp, even down to a small ‘click’ as the Twin Mk II toggles impedance.
The Apollo Twin Mk II is designed with modern recording practices in mind – from the functionality of the unit itself, through to the software used to control it. The interface itself features two Unison mic/line preamps, two line outputs, a front-panel Hi-Z instrument input and headphone output, as well as two digitally controlled monitor outputs. Despite the input count being relatively light, it’s worth noting there are also eight additional digital inputs, as well as the option to cascade further Apollo units.
Although not dedicated switches, there’s plenty of hands-on control with the Apollo Twin Mk II, starting off with a prominent ‘big knob’ used to set pre-amp gain, monitoring levels and so on. The switches at the bottom of the unit can be alternated between preamp controls – like phantom power, bass roll-off, and so on – and monitoring controls. Some of the most significant improvements over the original Apollo Twin relate to its monitoring provision, with options like Mute, DIM, Mono, and ALT speaker switching now included.
An intrinsic part of using Apollo is its Console 2.0 application, which looks after routing, monitoring and, most importantly, signal processing. It’s a beautifully designed piece of software, with lots of functionality all applied with both the look and feel of a traditional hardware console.
For the first-time user, though, Console might take a little while to understand, but the reward is an application that places few limits to your creative and technical workflow.
Arguably the main role of Console is to facilitate the application of signal processing, either in the form of Unison-powered plug-ins, or traditional insert-based processing you’d expect to find in your DAW.
With respect to the application of processing, it’s worth making some key distinction as to what is and isn’t recorded. Given that Unison-powered plug-ins work directly with the preamp they will get printed to your DAW irrespective of any settings in Console. This is great if you want to inject a touch of ‘analogue’ warmth into your recordings (especially when you consider how much processing power plug-ins like the Tweed 55 can use up), but you want to be wary of applying too much saturation!
Plug-ins applied via the insert path or aux send, however, can either be used for monitoring purposes, or printed straight to your DAW like the Unison plug-ins. You’ll probably want to pick the ‘monitoring only’ option then load the same plug-in setting inside your DAW to carry on where you left off. The ability to print effects to your DAW may well be a good option for those with more engineering confidence, or for those short of DSP resources when they’re mixing.
As standard, the Apollo comes with the Realtime Analog Classics plug-in bundle, which covers 15 or so essential plug-ins from the UAD catalogue. Unison-powered plug-ins include the 610-B Tube Preamp and EQ as well as the Raw Distortion stompbox. Signal processors – like the Teletronix LA-2A, 1176SE and Pultec EQP-1A – come in their ‘legacy’ form, which are older versions of the key UAD compressors and equalisers that have since been updated. That said, these ‘legacy’ version still sound great, and are slightly less taxing on the Apollo’s CPU resources.
Sooner or later, you’ll want to start exploring the wealth of other plug-ins available on the UAD platform, especially those which feature Unison technology. As a means of evaluating what plug-ins most interest you, Universal Audio has included a 14-day demo period with each plug-in, reset with each purchase from its store.
Compared to many other two-input interfaces available, there’s no doubt the Apollo is in the ‘premium’ price bracket. However, when you consider the what’s on offer – including Unison processing, DSP plug-in hosting for mixing and the new talkback options – the Apollo Twin Mk II is the most complete two-channel system we’ve seen for modern recording – a perfect fit for a modern ‘desktop’ studio, where flexibility is key and you don’t need a huge number of ins and outs.
Having reviewed the original Apollo interface some years ago, it was pleasing to see just how much the Console application had evolved, and more importantly, how the list of Unison-powered plug-ins had grown quite significantly. Having initially concentrated on mic preamps powered by Unison, it’s pleasing to see the efforts being applied in guitar and bass plug-ins, which seems a neat fit with the technology. In use, plug-ins like the Fender ’55 Tweed Deluxe are much closer to the sound and feel of playing through a real amp.
Overall, the Apollo Twin Mk II is a fantastic audio interface we’d wholeheartedly recommend to all. From the quality of the audio conversion, to the thought applied to the Console application, the Apollo Twin Mk II is a high-class product delivering supreme audio quality at every stage of a production.
Apollo Mk II Key features
- 2 premium Unison mic/line preamps
- 2 line outputs
- Front-panel Hi-Z instrument input and headphone output
- Built-in talkback mic
- 2 digitally controlled analogue monitor outputs
- Up to 8 channels of additional digital input
As a point of comparison, Apogee’s Element 24 (£549) takes a completely different approach to a two-channel audio interface. Rather than having any hands-on controls, the device is entirely controlled via software, with just physical in and outs included on the unit itself. The sound of Element is good (with many parts of its design being directly ported from the Symphony range), but it lacks the DSP muscle – both in respect to Unison technology and DSP-assisted mixing – that gives the Apollo Twin Mk II the edge.