apollo_mbp

How can hardware make the computer-based studio more productive? Each trade show invariably brings new offerings that seek to answer that problem as vendors hawk their wares. At Frankfurt’s Musikmesse, steps from one another, three well-known names each each offered their own take.

It comes at a time when the industry is re-imagining the role of our machines. It used to be that big, metal boxes said “pro” – and the studio was no exception. (Cue flashbacks trying to set up Digidesign expansion racks in the late 90s. Okay, now putting that out of my mind.) That’s still true in gaming and 3D rendering, but in audio, there’s no reason you can’t use a svelte laptop, to say nothing of the tablets (okay, iPads) finding their way into studio rigs.

From Universal Audio is perhaps the boldest sign that those days are behind us, as massive amounts of processing power and I/O are piped through a single Thunderbolt adapter (alongside FireWire). In fact, there’s no reason you couldn’t pair this rack with a MacBook Air.

But Softube and SPL also had their own offerings for the (now-mobile) studio, and they’re both just fine over USB. Softube is a hardware/software combination (Kore meets the channel strip?), and SPL is doing an audio interface that’s also a hardware controller.

I’m mentioning them together not necessarily because of what they have in common so much as how they differ. Do you want your software running on your host (Softube) or dedicated DSP chips (UA)? Do you want a controller for your DAW (SPL) or for dedicated, consistent channel strips (Softube)? Do you want an audio interface with DSP (UA) or an audio interface with controller (SPL) or a controller with no audio interface (Softube)? Do you want to provide your own plug-ins (SPL) or get some modeled stuff in the package (Softube, UA)?

And that’s only with three products introduced in adjacent booths in the same week. Let’s do a quick run-down of what these offerings are:

Apollo 16

Apollo 16, from the back, showing expanded I/O. (Updated image; early draft of this story incorrectly showed the earlier model.)

Apollo 16, from the back, showing expanded I/O. (Updated image; early draft of this story incorrectly showed the earlier model.)

Apollo remains a showpiece for Thunderbolt on the Mac - and an indication of why current iMac, Mac mini, and MacBook make Mac Pro look like a dinosaur.

Apollo remains a showpiece for Thunderbolt on the Mac – and an indication of why current iMac, Mac mini, and MacBook make Mac Pro look like a dinosaur.

a16console

Now nicely getting the name of a NASA moon mission, the latest Apollo from Universal Audio is a serious higher-end variant of the already-nice Apollo we saw introduced last year. The combination of Apollo’s hardware with UA’s software is something special, I’ve found, as I’ve used this in productions with my friend Benjamin Weiss (nerk) of De:bug. We in fact have our laptop poised atop the rack, as in the image. It’s the combination of sub-2ms monitoring with the range of UA effects that’s so appealing. You have a range of tools from modeled classics to apply as colors to your sound, but also the ability to monitor live – as nice when working with synths as when recording instruments. And while there’s something that seems a little unfair about having all these classics in software form, you can combine them in ways that were impossible, impractical, or hard-to-afford using the originals.

The 16, as the name implies, gives you 16×16 analog I/O of the same fidelity as the previous model, plus four stereo cue outputs for monitoring, and onboard UAD-2 QUAD processing for lots of horsepower. I am a bit surprised, honestly, to see that Thunderbolt remains an optional add-on. But the audio world is fairly conservative about hardware upgrades, so it makes some sense, I suppose – and the Apollo 16 still runs over FireWire, though Thunderbolt is what you want for the most bandwidth and latency going forward.

US$2999 (street) buys you the Apollo 16 second quarter of this year. The Thunderbolt Option Card is out now for this and the previous Apollo, at US$499, and includes two ports so you can connect other gear or chain Apollos together for 32 channels. It’s not cheap stuff, but it is powerful.

More:
http://www.uaudio.com/apollo

And then you can run this:
http://www.uaudio.com/uad-plug-ins.html

SPL Crimson

crimson_nah_web_1500

SPL is the most conventional of the products here: it’s a combination of a USB audio interface and a monitor controller. What’s nice about it is the roomy control layout and fine build quality of the controls and audio – the SPL-ness of it, let’s say.

And then there’s the price, which is a surprise for this amount of I/O on a gadget labeled “made in Germany.” The marketing folks claim, “a boutique level recording and monitoring device at a fraction of the price we used to know from traditional engineering and manufacturing.”

It’s impossible to judge that based on a trade show, but the specs look promising.

30 I/O channels (10 recording channels and 20 playback channels)
+/- 18V operational voltage for professional levels up to +24dB
Two boutique level, discrete Class A, +/-30V high-voltage mic-preamplifiers
Two Hi-Z instrument preamplifiers
Two separate headphones amps, individually controllable
Connect and control two stereo speaker sets
Monitor signal mix function for playback and recording paths
MIDI input and output via two DIN sockets
USB 2.0, S/P-DIF input and output
24Bit/192kHz converter
Made in Germany

Basic mixing functions work standalone, something I’d love to see all audio interfaces do. (Some, but not all, hardware has the standalone mixing function.)

Due in July for 549 € / US$725 at dealers.

Product info

Softube Console 1

Each control is mapped to individual tools. We've seen that in DAW-specific controllers and production tools, but this is just for one mixing plug-in - the DAW choice is then up to you.

Each control is mapped to individual tools. We’ve seen that in DAW-specific controllers and production tools, but this is just for one mixing plug-in – the DAW choice is then up to you.

Seen with the computer heads-up display, Softube has made both original software (running on your CPU) and hardware (for control, just of that software) to produce a unique mixing workflow.

Seen with the computer heads-up display, Softube has made both original software (running on your CPU) and hardware (for control, just of that software) to produce a unique mixing workflow.

Softube’s announcement, of the three, is perhaps the most intriguing – but it’s also the one with the most to prove.

It’s easier to describe what the Console 1 isn’. It isn’t an audio interface. It isn’t a DSP box. Even though it comes with a modeled UK 4k analog mixer, and even though Softube just began offering (rather amazing-sounding) Amp Room models for Universal Audio’s UAD platform (I’ve been using nerk’s on Apollo, in fact), everything runs on your computer’s native processor.

So, it’s just a mixing controller for your DAW? Well… yes and no. It is a controller exclusively for Softube’s own mixing software.

As Native Instruments’ Maschine attempted to do for drum machines, this is hardware designed to pair with software, giving you tactile control of software designed to work only with its controls.

Here’s how it works, as explained in Softube’s Q&A. You’ve got your DAW, and your plug-in collection. You insert the Console 1′s software counterpart as a plug-in. (Apparently it’ll work with even just one channel, but for the full mixing experience, Softube recommends you insert it on every channel.)

Then, Console 1′s hardware controls the Softube software designed for it, with a one-to-one correspondence of knobs and labels to parameters. This means that the whole package lives and dies on the software. What Softube says you’re getting is a new model called the UK 4k, based on “a classic large-frame British console from the late 1970s.” Each channel includes the expected EQ, compressor, modeled Drive (analog overdrive), and, departing from the UK original, a new expander/gate – transient shaper Softube is calling the Dynamic Shaper.

There’s also a nice visual display on the computer. But onboard LED meters and indicators around the knobs are enough, say Softube, to allow you to mix without ever touching or looking at a computer, presumably the main draw.

And, oh yeah, you won’t be able to touch the settings on the Console 1 software without the hardware plugged in, so this is in the “controller as dongle” category. (Accordingly, you don’t need an iLok to use it.)

Like the UAD, Console 1 will eventually be its own platform, with plug-ins that run inside the Console 1. There, I have to be a bit skeptical: with so many “platforms” out there, I wonder if people are ready for another. Unlike the UAD, you aren’t buying specific plug-ins to take advantage of DSP power on the add-on hardware; you’re just doing it for these controls. And initially, you’ll have to buy it just for the initial channel strip. But I guess we’ll see what the workflow is like, and whether it attracts an audience, when it ships this summer.

Softube’s software is compatible with VST, VST3, AU, RTAS, and AAX Native; initially Mac-only with Windows “to follow.” Because it’s a plug-in, it’ll support plug-in automation, so those knob twists do get recorded.

No pricing yet.

It’s certainly an intriguing idea: build a computer-based mixing system with analog sound, and focus on hardware controls. This summer, we’ll see if it delivers.

Q&A with Softube

Do any of these appeal to you? Any you’d want to see reviewed? Or are you passing on all three, in favor of other tools? Let us know in comments, and don’t hold ba– oh, yeah, this is the Internet. Probably don’t have to say that.

  • The Beep

    If the SPL really has that many independent IOs and no zero is missing in the price, i’m buying it. Instantly. The ADs alone are worth that and my Alesis 8 cost nearly the same and the ADs are…well…”sufficient”.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yes, that’s apparently really the price. ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/gustavolanzas Gustavo Lanzas

    The only one that makes sense to me is the Apollo. That bridges the gap between software and hardware production quite nicely. Wonderful quality i/o + dsp + low latency monitoring. The SPL is a nice product, but nothing revolutionary. I suppose it sits somewhere between the presonus central station and something like a dangerous music controller. The Softube Console 1 is just a headscratcher to me. What does it provide that a Mackie Universal Control doesn’t? Aside from dedicated controls.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Yeah, I think you have to really like Softube software – but then, many people do. And mapping controls from plug-ins is tricky, the fact that they’ve set this up to be a mixer means you get some plug-and-play support. So I get the idea, definitely, but we’ll see if they can sell it.

  • Bo

    Nice round-up, thanks. Personally I find the outings by UAD and Softube quite interesting. The live-input features of Apollo make it sound like a dream come true. And even though it’s a lot of cash to put down, hardware fx units in the same quality would cost way more. There is just one major drawback for me: The lack of a decent way to control the plugins. They don’t support midi and don’t offer a dedicated controller. I believe Mackie Control units would work but those aren’t exactly the first choice to control fx. That is if course not that big of a problem when mixing/mastering but for using those plugins live I think it’s mandatory.

    The Softube Control1 looks very well made. And I love some of their plugins. If the quality of the included console is fine and it doesn’t take up too much CPU power, this could turn out pretty great. And I don’t mind another format in that particular case.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Heh, well, actually, you’re making a great argument for why Softube’s piece makes sense – control convenience is a big deal.

      The only answer I’d have is, generally it seems you’re doing very fine-tuned work on the UAD plug-ins and so a mouse isn’t so bad. I then would mostly complain that those skeuomorphic interfaces are hard to read and have little knobs that are tough to grab with the mouse. ;)

    • Bo

      I guess it depends on the kind of plugin. I have no problem editing a comp with the mouse. But when I’m using fx live, e.g. a delay or reverb needs to be handled with a controller in my opinion. Generally, I always take a (precise) hardware controller over a mouse. It’s just more fun.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jossmolders Jos Smolders

    Accessorizing’s the right word

  • VHS

    Aren’t the converters in the Apollo 16 the same as the Apollo? I ask because of the use of the words, “higher end”. UA claims they’re the same despite their marketing jargon. It seems more like just a variant of the Apollo targeted at a different audience, if anything. Specs seem a bit different but negligibly so. Either way, very cool.

    The Crimson looks interesting. I haven’t’ quite warmed up to the idea of the Console 1, yet. Maybe I just need to look more into it.

  • D@rth T@ter

    Had an Apollo for a few months now…the only downside is their console software which is pretty awful.

  • john

    None of these are exceptionally new, I’ve been using similar gear for nearly a decade now. I’ve been through a lot, since system 7 and an audiomedia card, but now am using Metric Halo interfaces. They have similar specs as Apollo, dsp, software, very flexible mixing and are very good as a company. I’ve hardware that’s nearly a decade old which is still seeing software and incredibly, hardware upgrades. Apollo banks on UAD’s considerable name for plugs and is the only other company I’d consider switching too, but its not really fair to call it a game changer when Metric Halo’s ULN-8 is now a few years old and exceptionally high end, lacking only really powerful dsp to really kill everything else. MOTU is also putting out hardware which has similar possibilities, though not very high end.

  • http://madameblavatskyoverdrive.com/ Ifthenwhy

    With a little bit of ADAT routing trickery I now am using the UA Plugs from my Apollo in Reason 6. With the advent of Reason Racks AND UA’s plugs…well, I’m finding Apollo hard to beat. It’s a remarkable interface.

    Im also using Nektar’s Panorama, which has done a stellar job of mapping and controlling Reason and Reason Racks (although Nektor Marketing may argue this point, the Panorama is really the first dedicated Reason controller), which has made a significant/positive difference in my relationship with Reason.

    So I get the appeal of Soft Tube’s approach, as physical interface is “everything”. My only issue is my ever nagging need to consolidate physical gear. Do I need yet another controller on my desk? More stuff? Really?

  • heinrichz

    Hardware designed to control software…yes Maschine pioneered this and it was more than just an attempt. Softtube is looking good, i hope it wont introduce latency on input as the UAD stuff did, at least when using it with the express card. Yes there was a switch to improve latency which promptly put the cpu load back on the computer…defying the purpose of using external dsp hardware.

  • Henrik Andersson Vogel

    Hello,
    Henrik from Softube here – sorry about being late to the discussion. Just wanted to make a few corrections and additions: First, the Console 1 software will indeed work without the hardware attached, and you will be able to tweak the settings with a mouse. So the Console 1 hardware is NOT a dongle in any sense.

    Secondly, a poster commented that Console 1 is a bit of a head scratcher. Well, look at it as a mixer that you use with your DAW. Just like a mixer, you would connect any or all DAW channels to the mixer, and get physical control and better sound than your DAW offers. With Console 1, you don’t use physical cables to connect, you insert the Console 1 plug-in on each channel. This routes each channel’s audio signal to Console 1 where you can control it.

    In Console 1′s on-screen display, you see a meter bridge with the channel names and levels of 20 channels at the time (dedicated Page Up/Down buttons let you flip through the channel banks quickly). These correspond to the 20 channel selector buttons on the hardware. Using these, you select the channel you want to work with, and then tweak as much as you want. This lets Console 1 have a smaller footprint than a traditional mixer, but still have more parameters and effects at your disposal (the Console 1 channel is built up around four main sections, Shape, EQ, Compressor and Drive).

    Included in the purchase of a Console 1 system is our new channel strip UK 4k, which has all the world class sound quality that made Softube famous in the first place. So with Console 1, you don’t only get the analog sound, but also an intuitive and hands-on workflow.

    Hope this helps!

    Thanks,
    Henrik

  • hellojeffreyjames

    For me and my life right now – it’s between a Focusrite Forte, MOTU Track16, RME Babyface, and the SPL Crimson. I’m leaning toward the Crimson.

  • hellojeffreyjames

    Dear Peter,

    Why no Audient iD22 on this list?