Studio Diary #8: The Cheapest Way To Expand A Universal Audio Rig … Is To Buy From A Competitor?

I’m currently getting my home studio more organised, and along the way I’m sharing my thought process, decisions, discoveries and regrets.

I’m a huge fan of Universal Audio’s Apollo series of interfaces. I’ve been using an Apollo Twin for the last three years, and I’ve been delighted with the results. And, while the plugins cost serious money, they’re a damn sight cheaper than buying the genuine analogue outboard gear.

What I’m not a fan of is the cost of the hardware for home users like myself. And, specifically, what it costs to get more mic preamps.

Four Preamps Are A Sweet Spot …

… for home hobbyists. It’s just a shame that Universal Audio don’t have anything for that spot that’s worth the cost.

Two mic preamps are fine for most home musicians. You can track one mono source, two mono sources, or a single stereo source at a time. That’s enough for most electric guitar, or even recording an acoustic guitar with a stereo mic setup.

I feel that I’ve outgrown that.

  • I’m in a band now, and we perform better when we’re recording a live take. I need three preamps for that (two vocal mics, one guitar DI), and preferably four preamps (two vocal mics, stereo mic’d guitar).
  • I’m getting into mic’ing up mismatched speakers for electric guitar. I need four premaps for that (two mics per speaker), or three preamps (one mic per speaker, and one room mic).
  • I’m inching towards making demo videos. I need one close mic for me to talk into, and I’d love to have a stereo pair as a room mic to blend in too. It’s one of the secrets to why That Pedal Show sounds so good, after all 🙂

The studio refresh seemed like the perfect opportunity to make this happen. Unfortunately, I had to go away from Universal Audio’s hardware to do so.

The Universal Audio Choices

When it comes to Universal Audio gear, four preamps falls in between their existing offerings:

  • The Apollo x6 only has two mic preamps. The other four inputs are TRS-only. I can make use of those (for example, having the Kemper permanently cabled up).
  • The Apollo x8 does have four mic preamps – but it costs a good £500 more than the Apollo x6. That’s a lot of money for two extra preamps. And you don’t get any extra processing power to help you make the most of those two extra preamps either.
  • The Apollo x8p has eight mic preamps – but it costs £1000 more than the Apollo x6. It’s (slightly) better value than the x8, if you’re able to spend nearly £3000 on an audio interface.

What about the Apollo x4? It has four preamps, right?

Why I Don’t Like The Apollo x4

Like all Universal Audio products, it’s a superb piece of kit. My problem with it is that I think it’s a bit of a dead end product.

The Apollo rack units are expandable (more on that in a moment). The desktop devices … aren’t. You can slave them to a rack unit. You can’t slave other things to them. Well, technically, you can, but practically? No, not really.

The problem is the optical out. It only has one optical out, which places limits on the number of channels you can send out, depending on the recording rate you’re using.

  • At 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz, you can send 8 channels out over the optical link. That’s the four channels of the Apollo x4 itself, plus four more channels from a slaved device. Any more than that, and you’ve outgrown the Apollo x4.
  • Up to 96 kHz, you can send 4 channels out over the optical link. At that point, you’ve already run out of channels for audio from any slaved unit.
  • Up to 192 kHz, you’re down to just 2 channels out over the optical link. You can’t even use all of the Apollo x4’s preamps as a slave device.

Why does that matter? As a home hobbyist, it might not.

44.1 kHz is perfectly fine for many recordings – both as a home hobbyist, and even for releasing for sale. If you’re looking to record and sell music beyond the streaming services, 192 kHz is becoming the standard that these potential customers want.

The Apollo x4 only has 2/3 of the processing power of the Apollo x6, despite having two more mic preamps. I’m concerned about running out of processing power when trying to use all four preamps at once.

That’s not going to be a problem with the Apollo x6. Once a year, Universal Audio run a promotion where you can get a free Satellite when you buy any of their rack units. That adds a lot more processing power – at least the equivalent of adding an Apollo x4 – to the whole setup, for no extra cost.

At launch, the Apollo x4 was priced at around the same price as the Apollo x6 – and that’s when I was buying. It has come down to around £200 less than the Apollo x6, at the time of writing.

Given that I’ve outgrown the Apollo Twin, I don’t want to spend Apollo-rack levels of money on another device that I’m worried about outgrowing. Not when there’s another option available.

ADAT To The Rescue

The Apollo x6 has two ADAT input ports on the back, as opposed to the single port that the Apollo x4 has. This allows me to go out and buy an external mic preamp unit and slave it to the Apollo x6 … and still get up to 192 kHz recording.

It’s not without its own limitations. The two ADAP inputs can only carry a total of four channels at 192 kHz – and only if the external mic preamp supports S/MUX. That still gives me a total of 6 mic preamps that can do 192 kHz. 6 mic preamps is definitely enough for me.

To do better, I’d need to spend about £1000 more and get the Apollo x8p.

And that gives me my budget. Are there any external mic preamps out there that support ADAT, S/MUX, and come in well under £1000?

Turns out there is … just not from Universal Audio.

Focusrite Is The Answer?

Focusrite is a brand that’s well established in the home tone, home studio market. Many of us got started on their Scarlett audio interfaces, and many people never feel the need to move away from them.

They actually got started as a manufacturer of pro-studio gear, and their Clarett line is regularly spotted in YouTube videos shot inside professional studios. So why not throw them into the mix?

All I want is something that’ll give me 4 or more decent mic preamps, with dual-cable ADAT out so that I can slave it to my Apollo x6. That’s exactly what the Focusrite Clarett OctoPre does.

Now, it’s not perfect. They’ve made an odd design decision that means you have to be a bit careful whenever you use the Clarett OctoPre.

For some weird reason, you can’t switch phantom power on and off on a per-preamp basis. You can switch it on and off for channels 1-4 as a bank, and/or channels 5-8 as another bank. I think that’s a crap design, because it only takes one mistake to trash a mic by accidentally sending phantom power to something that can’t accept it.

But … I want those extra mic preamps.

Why Is UAD Leaving Money On The Table?

There’s no two ways about it: the only reason I’ve spent money with Focusrite is because Universal Audio don’t make their own equivalent to the Focusrite Clarett OctoPre.

The thing I find weird is that Universal Audio do put a lot of effort into marketing their products at the home hobbyist market. They just don’t seem to be able to sensibly plug the gaps in their product line at the right price points.

It’s not about whether their products are worth the money. It’s more about whether home hobbyists have the disposable income to afford the hardware at all. And whether or not that buys you a viable upgrade path.

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