Studio Diary #11: Thunderbolt 3 Brings A New Problem

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

When I traded for the Apollo x6, I couldn’t test it right away. Universal Audio don’t include a Thunderbolt 3 cable with their Apollo units. I had to buy one separately from somewhere.

It’s frustrating that UAD (and their competitors!) don’t include an essential cable in the box. But I already knew that they didn’t. That’s an inconvenience, not a problem.

The problem is that Thunderbolt 3 cables are much shorter than Thunderbolt 2 cables. The Apollo x6 is in a studio rack about 3-4 metres away from where my computer normally sits.

Thunderbolt 3 cables come in two types:

  • “Passive” cables are incredibly reliable, as there are no active electronics involved. If they’re only 0.5m long, they can deliver the full 40 Gbps throughput of the Thunderbolt 3 spec. A passive cable between 0.5m and 2m only delivers 20 Gbps throughput.
  • “Active” cables are available up to 2m. Very roughly speaking, it’s the equivalent of adding a buffer to a long audio cable run. They deliver the full 40 Gbps throughput.

Unfortunately, not only are “active” TB3 cables rare – and very expensive – they get absolutely terrible reviews online. Whether it’s just early days, and they need to improve the manufacturing design or quality control, or whether there’s just a problem with compatibility, it doesn’t matter – I don’t want unreliable gear in my home studio.

And besides, a 2m cable is still about half the length that I need.

For now, I’m going to have to use a 2m passive cable, and simply string it through the air in a straight line over to my computer. Hopefully one day someone will release an affordable, reliable, 4m active cable that I can upgrade to.

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.

New Arrivals For October

Here in the UK, the online second hand gear market is in the worst shape I’ve seen for decades. Even frequent ‘sell for £1’ events by eBay haven’t helped.

So instead, I’ve decided to sit down, and sort out my home studio setup.

Marshall DSL 20HR

These were launched around the same time as my beloved Marshall Origin, as a replacement for the old Marshall DSL range. I played through the 5w combo at the Origin demo night, and loved it.

One finally turned up at a great price, and it now completes my collection of classic amp tones from affordable amps. I’m looking forward to learning how to get the best out of it over the coming months.

The Hermit’s Cave has spent most of this year as the rehearsal space for the band I’m in. I’m currently getting things sorted out and wired up for recording once again. When that’s done, and I’ve found my feet with this amp, I’ll record some clips and demos to show how this amp compares to the Origin 20H.

OMEC Teleport by Orange Amplifiers

Before there were Pods, there were Roland guitar synths.

When I worked in London in the mid-90s, Denmark Street was the place to search out great gear. Did I buy a vintage guitar, back before they cost the earth? No. I bought a piece of electronics that dated faster than fresh bread: a Roland guitar synth.

That old unit brought me years of pleasure. I wrote a whole album’s worth of music on it, veering off from writing guitar music to writing music for other instruments. I can’t remember what happened to it – whether it died or I sold it on – but I still miss it. And the two? versions that Roland brought out since were IMHO inferior. Roland seems to have completely given up on it in recent years.

The OMEC Teleport is a little pedal that acts as a USB audio interface. It’s just another way to get your guitar signal into a computer. Combine it with Jam Origin’s Midi Guitar 2, and I’m hoping it’ll give me renewed access to the guitar synth world.

And if it does, I’m planning on taking all that old music I wrote, revising it, and re-recording it. Fingers crossed 🙂

Synergy Friedman BE Module

I’m always on the lookout for extra modules for my insane stereo Synergy pedal platform. Many of the ones I don’t have yet don’t clean up enough to use with most pedals. Sometimes it’s great to simply go straight into a filthy amp, so if I can get those modules 2nd hand, I will.

ART XLR Patchbay

There’s a part of me that would love to have a Universal Audio Apollo rack unit, partly for the extra processing power, and partly because I hate recabling before I can sit down and record stuff. They’re serious money, and completely overkill for my situation. Processing power on my Apollo Twin is an issue, but I hardly ever need more than two preamp inputs at a time.

So what if I simply made the chore of cabling a lot less of a chore? That’s where the two patchbays I’ve bought this month come in.

The idea is to have (nearly) all of my gear wired up permanently, and then I just need to jumper a few ports to pick the gear I want to use.

Neutrik Patchbay

As well as the XLR patchbay (above), I bought a traditional 3.5mm jack patchbay at the same time.

When I want to switch amps, one of the things that’s a real pain is switching over the FX loops. They’re not always easy to reach without moving the amp, and sometimes I can’t find the right length cable to reach my pedal board.

For convenience, I’m hoping that I can run the FX loops of all my amps into this patchbay, and then it’s just a case of moving a couple of cables to plumb in my preferred delay and reverb pedal chain. It should also be possible to jumper the cables for when I don’t want anything in the FX loop either.

If that works, I’ll also try patching in the input to each of my amps. That’s just out of curiosity though 🙂

Kemper Remote Footswitch

Another thing the patchbays are for is for me to get my Kemper wired up once again, so that I can start using it a bit more.

One advantage of using the Kemper for practice is that it means I’m not using up the life of my tube amps. Another advantage is that it has a built-in looper – but it seems that you need to pair it with the proprietary footswitch unit to use the looper.

These footswitches have shot up in price recently, so when a 2nd hand unit came up, I decided to grab it while I could.

Universal Audio Apollo x6

I got fed up of juggling inputs on my trusty Apollo Twin, so I traded away my Taylor T5z to help fund this new unit.

I’d been waiting for a Apollo x4 of some kind for the best part of a year now. Historically, there’s been a huge gap in the Universal Audio hardware lineup: you had the Apollo Twin with two preamps, and then had to jump up to the Apollo 8 with four preamps. Four preamps would be a good sweet spot for a home studio setup.

They’ve just announced the Apollo x4, and while it does have four preamps (yay), it’s still a desktop unit (boo!) with potentially limited processing power … that’s launched at around the same price as the Apollo x6.

The other thing with the Apollo x6 is that it currently comes with a free UAD Apollo Satellite. That’s a unit that provides additional DSP processing power. Together, the bundle is far better value for money than the Apollo x4.

Gear News: The Apollo x4 Has Been Announced

This conversation was originally posted to my Twitter feed.

A couple of very interesting bits of new gear announced today.

  • PRS are updating the McCarty 594 range to sound bang-on like a vintage burst.
  • And UAD are releasing new Apollo desktop interfaces, including something I’ve always wanted: an Apollo x4.

Tim Pierce has a video up about the McCarty 594 changes:

Chicago Music Exchange has a great comparison too:

And Sweetwater has a good video about the Apollo x4 here:

The Apollo X4 Is A Missed Opportunity

Last year, UAD revamped their rack units, and introduced an Apollo x6. 4 Unison preamps + 2 more normal ones, and plenty of lines out. Pricing was too close to the old Apollo 8 units to bridge the gap though.

[The Apollo x6 actually has 2 Unison preamps, and 4 additional line-in-only preamps – Ed]

(It’s not just the hardware that’s expensive. You need to buy plugins from UAD to run on that hardware, and they’re not cheap either. They’re a fraction of what the actual outboard gear they’re emulating costs, but every UAD owner spends more on plugins than on Apollo hardware)

I’m sure I’m not the only UAD customer who told UAD in one of their surveys that I would love to buy a 4-preamp unit. Now it’s actually here, there’s a problem. It’s expensive. It’s practically Apollo x6 money. They’ve plugged the hardware gap, but not the pricing gap.

Actually, it’s worse than that. At least one UK retailer is listing the Apollo x4 for *more* than the Apollo x6 atm.

I’m genuinely gutted. I’ve been trying to justify an Apollo x6 to myself all summer. When we’re rehearsing, I record each session, and I could really use an extra preamp or two. Same when working with my Kemper, where I’m using multiple mics at once.

If the Apollo x4 had been priced in the gap, I’d have ordered mine first thing in the morning. But I’m not paying Apollo x6 money for one.

Slate Digital VRS8 Interface Launched

Slate Digital has launched the VRS8, their 8×8 recording interface for Thunderbolt-equipped Macs.

For home studio enthusiasts who want pro-level gear, there’s really only three ways to do it: Universal Audio Apollo, Slate Digital VRS and the Everything Bundle … or buy a standalone interface and collect your own plugins from lots of different vendors.

The UAD system relies on DSP chips in the Apollo hardware to run emulations of analog outboard gear. You have to buy these plugins separately, and they cost hundreds of pounds each. The results are fantastic, and not only well worth the money, but also far cheaper than buying (and maintaining!) the real outboard gear.

There’s just one problem, and it’s the reason why I haven’t bought any UAD plugins this year. The Apollo hardware is simply underpowered. It doesn’t take many plugins to max out the available hardware. And if you’re a home studio enthusiast, it’s a lot of money to move from the Apollo Twin up to the Apollo 8.

Enough money to consider looking at switching to something else.

Now Slate Digital has its own serious problem to take into account. It’s secured by an iLok key. Look at a modern Mac. Where the hell do you find a free port to plug the iLok into these days?!? One port is taken up by power, one by the external storage that the session is on, one by your audio interface, and one by your external monitor.

Yes, I know there’s a virtual iLok now. I live in the UK, where our broadband is about as reliable as a Trump tweet or a Brexit promise. I don’t want a (rare!) creative day ruined because of a broadband outage.

That said, the Slate Digital VRS looks really interesting. For pretty much the same price as the Apollo 8 Quad, you get 8 preamps and a year’s access to the Everything Bundle. (The equivalent UAD Ultimate Bundle is currently over £2,300 and doesn’t include all of the plugins). And your Mac will be able to run far more plugins at once than the quad-DSPs of the Apollo 8.

Thing is, if I’m going to use all 8 preamps, I’d want the Apollo 8p, not the Apollo 8. The difference? The extra Unison preamps, which model the electrical behaviour of whatever outboard gear you’re simulating. I’m a big fan, and a big believer that part of the organicness of a recorded tone comes from the interaction of the electrical circuit.

Question is, though: is it a difference that is noticeable in a final mix? And is it a difference that’s worth the extra money?

How Rabea Makes Kemper Profiles

Rabea Massaad has posted a video showing us all how he makes profiles for his Kemper.

This video is perfect timing for me perfectly. We have a long weekend coming up here in the UK, and I’m planning on spending all three days with my Kemper. Any tips I can get will save me a lot of frustration.

I hope we see Rabea’s Kemper profiles available soon. Is there going to be an official Victory Amps profile pack, I wonder?

Please head over to YouTube to leave a like and a supportive comment.

UAD v9.5 Is Out!

Universal Audio has released v9.5 of their plugin software platform today. The highlights are three new plugins to buy:

  • Helios Type 69 Preamp & EQ
  • Friedman Buxom Betty Amplifier
  • A/DA Flanger

To promote the release, Universal Audio has posted some short promo videos over on YouTube:

If you’re not familiar with UAD … they’re custom software plugins that you buy and run on Universal Audio’s Apollo hardware. Each plugin is a faithful recreation of some of the finest studio equipment around. Although the hardwae and the plugins aren’t cheap – right now, the Ultimate 6 Bundle is £2,999 – they’re a lot cheaper than the real gear, assuming you could get it in the first place.

I’ve had the Apollo Twin for about 18 months now, and I wouldn’t go back. I’ll write some articles about my experiences with it soon.

Universal Audio OX

Henning Pauly has just published an in-depth look at Universal Audio’s OX amp top box. It’s a much-anticipated reactive load box, attenuator, and digital speaker simulator all in one.

If you’ve not come across Henning before, he’s been doing great YouTube gear demos for years. He’s a professional musician and producer, running his own recording studio over in Germany. Anyone who makes living from running a recording studio is worth learning from – they have to know what they’re on about to stay in business.

A long video, so you might want to make a drink before you settle down to watch this one.

Personally, I’m reluctant to sink money into digital gear, as a rule. Digital gear isn’t cheap, and you’re unlikely to still be using it five years down the road. If you put the same money into analogue gear, that gear can last you 20+ years. And it often sounds better.

Universal Audio though is one exception to my rule. The Apollo gear isn’t cheap, sure, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the gear that the Apollo system models. Much of that gear is unobtainium to us home tone folks … and where would we put it even if we could get our hands on it?

The OX is an option for anyone looking to record real amps silently at home. You plug your amp’s speaker out into the OX, and take a line from your OX into your recording interface. No need for a real speaker, or the hassle of mic’ing up your cab.

You’re limited to the models that Universal Audio provides; this thing won’t run your favourite impulse responses. Henning covers that in his video. I imagine that UAD will make more models available in the future, if the OX sells well enough.

It sounds fantastic in every demo I’ve watched so far. And price wise, it seems very competitive with its main competitor, the Two Notes Torpedo Studio.

At the moment, I’ve gone down the Two Notes Captor route. I’ve built up a collection of impulse responses over the last 4 years, and they’re more than good enough for what I do. (I’ve also picked up a Kemper. More about that soon!)

But I will be keeping an eye on the OX. I really want to move more of the signal chain off the computer, and reduce the amount of work it has to do when I’m recording … and the OX would be a great way to do that.

Please head over to YouTube and leave a comment if you liked Henning’s video.