First Impressions: Universal Audio’s LUNA DAW

The thing I hate most about digital recording? Latency. Even though I’m about as far away from a technically-accomplished player as you can get, I really struggle with coping with latency when I’m recording with Reaper. It’s the main reason that I bought my first UAD Apollo interface back in 2016.

So when Universal Audio announced LUNA, and made a huge song-and-dance about how it enables recording with virtually zero latency, I had to try it.

That was at the end of April 2020. I’ve been using it on-and-off throughout May, and scribbling down notes as I went along.

When you read this, please remember that it’s perfectly possible that some of these points may have been addressed in more recent releases of LUNA. UAD seem to be doing a great job of getting regular updates out for users.

That kinda hints that I ran into a lot of pain points with LUNA …

A Quirky UI That Renders Slowly

Let’s start with the user interface. LUNA’s user interface is all kinds of quirky.

  • There are no tooltips for anything. That’s incredibly frustrating, especially for the controls that are impossible to see.
  • Lots of accessibility issues with low contrast colour choices and tiny font sizes. I haven’t found a way to change these yet. I’d go as far as saying that the accessibility issues are serious enough to potentially breach employment law here in the UK, if you made an employee use LUNA in its current state.
  • You can’t add a Unison preamp to a track until the track is armed and selected. The innovative ‘focus’ strip on the left of the screen doesn’t switch between tracks when you arm them.

LUNA doesn’t use the Mac’s own UI toolkit; it seems to be rendering everything using its own toolkit. That’s good news in the long run for Windows users (and for Mac users who are migrating away from Apple in frustration).

At this early stage, though, this UI toolkit isn’t yet mature and optimised. It’s really apparent when switching between plugin windows. Here, it takes a second or two to render the window each time. You can also see it when switching the ‘focus’ strip between tracks that have several plugins inserted.

The weird thing is that UAD’s existing Console app doesn’t suffer from the same slow rendering issues. That suggests that LUNA probably isn’t reusing the UI toolkit that was used to build Console.

Problems With Presets

No Import From UAD Console Sessions. No Export Either.

I’ve been using UAD’s Console for over three years, and I’ve made heavy use of its ‘Sessions’ feature to save working setups that I could easily switch between.

I couldn’t find a way to import Console sessions into LUNA, or export from LUNA back to Console sessions. That’s a real shame; that’s a feature which would really help me.

For now, the only thing that both Console and LUNA seem to share are plugin presets.

Plugin Presets Don’t Sound The Same

I went through one of my Console sessions, and saved out the plugins’ settings as presets. Back in LUNA, I setup a couple of tracks and busses with routing, added in my plugins, and loaded up the presets that I’d just saved.

And then spent half an hour wondering why things sounded different in LUNA, compared to the Console session.

To start with, it took a couple of minutes to work out why I couldn’t hear the plugins on my busses at all. When you add a Send from a track to a bus, that Send starts with the volume all the way off. With the quirky UI, that’s not immediately obvious.

The Send Volume isn’t a slider-style UI element. It’s a knob surrounded by something that doubles as both a volume control indicator and a level meter all in one. Once you’ve learned it, it’s fine.

The main problem I had to track down was a phasing issue from the EP-3 delay on my bus. This is where things get interesting.

The long and short of it was that my EP-3 preset wasn’t set to ‘wet’ mode. As a result, the ‘dry’ portion of the EP-3’s output was interfering with the ‘dry’ signal on my track. There must be a latency issue there, somewhere.

And it doesn’t happen in Console.

I’m working with the assumption that Console (which is a mature piece of software) is accurate, and this is just an early LUNA bug. I notice it’s using my UAD Satellite (something Console never did). Maybe there’s a latency issue there that’ll get resolved in a future release?

It’s something to be aware of.

Can’t Save My Presets From LUNA

This is the first LUNA bug that actually caused me a problem. I’ve loaded the plugin presets that I made from Console. From LUNA, I can’t update them to re-import into Console.

The problem is that I’ve put my presets into their own folder. LUNA supports loading from folders, but atm it won’t save back into folders. Let’s hope that gets fixed soon.

For now, I have to go into Finder and manually move the presets into the right place on disk.

Can’t Save Channel Strips As A Single Preset

To be fair, I don’t believe that UAD’s Console app (the app that has come with Apollo interfaces for years) does this either. In Console, I never really thought about it because we could save Sessions. In LUNA, which has started life with zero templating support, it struck me pretty quickly.

One of the things stopping me using LUNA all the time is that it’s a laborious task to setup a new recording session. There’s no template support at all. I have to create each track manually, and then I have to go into each track and setup each plugin individually.

That gets old really quickly.

Yes, full template support would sort this in a heartbeat. To be honest, I’d be very happy if I could simply save a single configured track as a Channel Strip preset. even though I have a mature template for Reaper, I still end up setting up new tracks on a regular basis, using its Track Template feature.

Support For External Plugins Needs To Improve

Beware The ARM

At first, I couldn’t get LUNA to see any third-party plugins of any kind.

The docs (which you have to get separately from the website) say that LUNA should support AU plugins. They weren’t showing up in the built-in plugin selector. Very frustrating.

By default, LUNA has ‘ARM mode’ enabled. This mode uses your Apollo hardware to run all the plugins, to try and deliver on that sub-2ms latency that we buy UAD hardware for. One of the (inevitable) consequences of ARM mode is that LUNA disables support for third-party plugins when it’s switched on.

Like, completely disables that support.

Hopefully, as LUNA matures, UAD will improve the UI so that third-party plugins don’t completely cease to exist when ‘ARM’ mode is on.

The ‘ARM mode’ is just another LUNA quirk that you get used to once you know about it. The same can’t be said for VST plugin support.

No VST/VST3 Support

At this time, LUNA doesn’t support VST & VST3 plugins at all. That makes the majority of my plugin collection out of reach, when I’m working inside LUNA.

I’ve mixed feelings about that.

  • I tend to prefer the sound of UAD plugins over third-party ones anyway, and only use third-party plugins for features that UAD doesn’t offer.
  • Problem is, some of those features – like frequency analysis, noise removal, and impulse responses – aren’t optional for me. And UAD has shown zero interest in providing those kinds of plugins to date.

I’m not sure if I’m going to replace the VST plugins with AU ones at this stage. Like many people, I’m not sure if I’m going to continue to use Apple Macs or switch to Windows.

This is just going to accelerate some changes I’ve been wanting to make anyway.

Why Am I Still Running Out Of DSP?

If Universal Audio gear has an Achilles’ heel (other than cost …), it’s that it’s never been very good at utilising all of the DSPs we’ve paid so much for. LUNA was originally advertised at addressing that.

Not in my experience.

I have 10 DSPs available, and it’s far too easy for me to run out of DSP, even with a very simple recording session of one armed audio track (Unison console, EQ and compressor plugins) into one aux bus (delay and reverb plugins).

As far as I can tell, all the plugins for an armed track have to fit onto a single DSP. If your armed track is routed to a bus, it seems that all the plugins on that bus have to fit onto that same DSP chip too – but I’m not as confident on that one.

Also, as far as I can tell, LUNA doesn’t use any of the DSPs in my UAD Satellite unit. If it does, I’ve yet to see it. That’s 4 DSPs (40% of the available processing power) doing absolutely nothing.

This is a topic that I need to really get into at some point. UAD gear is expensive, and that price is hard to justify to others if we can’t actually use all the hardware we’ve paid for.

Where Will LUNA Fit Into My Workflow?

Updating My Recording Workflow

For the last few years, I’d done tracking, mixing and mastering inside the exact same session. I’ve built a Reaper template with that in mind. And, honestly, it’s a naive approach that needs to change.

I’m already planning on doing tracking in one session, mixing / initial mastering in a second session, and then final mastering in a third session using a dedicated app. LUNA will fit right into this.

  1. use LUNA for tracking, for that low-latency goodness
  2. export the stems back into Reaper, so that I can mix and do the initial master using every plugin in my collection – UAD and third-party
  3. then export the master track into a dedicated app like Finalizer to finish the job

It’s a longer workflow than my old Reaper template. My Mac used to struggle to keep up with everything in that old template, making it really hard to do good tracking. Assuming I can get Superior Drummer 3 up and running in LUNA (I haven’t tried it yet), this new workflow should produce much better results.

For Practice

I use most of those Console sessions for practice and rehearsals. The whole reason I’m looking at LUNA is because it has the potential to save me a lot of effort there.

If you’ve ever found yourself switching between different Console sessions, just to switch between setups for different sound sources, you’re going to love LUNA. In LUNA, that’s as simple as switching which tracks are armed.

This is the main thing I’m using LUNA for right now.

Final Thoughts

As much as I love the UAD hardware, and UAD plugins, I’m not sure how deeply I want to commit to LUNA.

I chose Reaper as my DAW partly because it breaks with that tradition, that legacy of trying to recreate the analogue workflows of yesteryear. Some of my frustration with LUNA is definitely down to it being far closer to Pro Tools than to Reaper. I’ve had a Pro Tools license in the past, and it wasn’t for me in the slightest.

The other consideration is that LUNA is currently tied to UAD hardware. Reaper allows me to collaborate with people who don’t use UAD hardware. That’s something I do every week (or at least, I did until we all went into lockdown, and the band had to stop rehearsing).

I think that’s ultimately going to be the problem.

On the one hand, LUNA has the potential to get a bit more out of your UAD hardware and UAD plugins. Given how much they cost, this is very welcome. It’s also the beginnings of a walled garden, where everyone has to be in the UAD ecosystem to collaborate. Not everyone can afford the luxury.

In short, UAD needs to learn how to design their software (and especially the software) for amateur / hobbyist musicians. Because, if they don’t, eventually someone will come along and take that market away from them.

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