The Universal Audio name has been synonymous with innovative recording products since 1958. Adorama Audio Expert, Jay Goodman, takes a look at the evolution of the company through analog, digital and hybrid products they created.
The rise of the Internet in the late 90’s forever changed the music industry. Record sales plummeted as the world began to share and download MP3s. The major label paradigm of the last fifty years was collapsing and there was a lot of resistance to the change. As we have seen, you cannot stop technological progress. Those who succeeded in this shift were those who embraced technology and found new markets, such as Apple, Spotify, and independent labels. The rise of computer powered home recording studios had a similar effect on the recording industry and equipment manufacturers. Affordable home recording put the power of music production in the hands of everyone, without the need to go to big budget-recording studios. High fidelity digital plug-ins eliminated the need for racks and racks of outboard equipment. Some electronic music producers can create their next single while flying to the gig with nothing more than a laptop and headphones. The decrease in clients forced many studios to close their doors. Where some saw the end, others saw opportunity. Universal Audios is one of those companies that looked towards the future to create ways to market their classic sound processing in digital, analog, and hybrid options.
The Universal Audio name has been synonymous with innovative recording products since 1958. Founder Bill Putnam Sr. is widely regarded as the father of modern recording. Putnam was the inventor of the modern recording console and multi-band audio equalizer. He was a pioneer in the use of artificial reverb as well as stereophonic recording. Putnam was a favorite engineer of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, and more. Putnam was also a natural entrepreneur. He started three audio companies: Universal Audio, Studio Electronics, and UREI. All three companies built equipment that remains widely used today, including the LA-2A and 1176 compressors, and the 610 tube-recording console.
Putnam passed away in 1989. The discovery of Putnam Sr.’s design notebooks by his two sons sparked the re-founding of Universal Audio in 1999. In the past sixteen years Universal Audio has revived production of classic analog gear while putting half their energy towards developing award-winning UAD powered plug-ins. More recently, UA has even started to bridge the versatility of digital plug-ins and the warmth of analog circuitry through their line of cutting edge audio interfaces. Let’s take a look at the evolution of Universal Audio through the analog, digital, and hybrid products they have created.
Analog Preamps and Compressors
One of Putman’s greatest contributions to recording technology was the 610 console (which can be seen above). While recording consoles have become more complex over the past fifty years, the original preamp design of the 610 console is still widely used today. Universal Audio offers the Solo 610 Tube Preamp ($999), which provides the silky, vintage warmth of the original console’s tube design but in a portable one-channel chassis. With the exception of using more modern components, the internal construction is fairly faithful to Putnam’s original 1950’s design. To accommodate modern engineers with limited rack space, they also offer a combo version that has two channels of 610 preamps in a two-space rack unit.
The Universal Audio 2-610 ($2,199) offers the EQ capabilities of the 610B model by providing high and low shelving EQ for each channel.
Originally made by UREI, one of Putnam’s other business ventures, the 1176 Compressor was the first true peak limiter with all transistor circuitry. Universal Audio has faithfully recreated the 1176LN Compressor ($1,999). They even reproduced the custom output transformers from Putnam’s original design as opposed to using cheaper mass produced options. The ultra-fast attack time and signature sound have made this compressor a timeless industry standard.
The other side of the compression coin is the tube-amplified electro-optical LA-2A leveling amplifier ($3,499). The original was immediately acknowledged for its smooth, natural compression characteristics. The LA-2A allows instantaneous gain reduction with no increase in harmonic distortion, which was an accomplishment at the time and still appreciated today. This product is point-to-point hand-wired and hand-built. The boutique nature of the construction is reflected in the price but can be appreciated instantly in the sound.
While both the LA-2A and 1176 are fantastic devices, their original designs are large and cumbersome. This isn’t a problem for large recording studios that have walls of rack space. The home recording engineer is always considering space when they make purchases. Universal Audio recognized this change in their customer’s needs and started to create combo units that combine the 610 preamp and their classic compressors into a single two-space rack unit. The Universal Audio LA-610 MkII ($1,599) combines the classic all-tube 610 mic preamp with the authentic Teletronix T4 opto-compression circuitry of the LA-2A. It also includes modern upgrades such as true compressor bypass, larger metering, increased output, and an auto switching power supply. The Universal Audio 6176 ($2,499) is one of my personal favorites. The 6176 pairs the 610 preamp with the signature FET compression of the 1176LN. This model offers a “split” or “join” switch for separate or series operation of the preamp and compressor.
Project studios do not always have the budget or space to have individual units for each channel. Universal Audio developed a moderately priced eight-channel solution, all within a two-space rack unit. The UA 4-710d Mic Preamp ($1,999) is a boutique quality, four-channel microphone/line preamplifier with true-bypass 1176-style compression on each channel. Each of the four mic channels allow for continuously variable phase-aligned tone, between 100% tube and 100% solid-state signal path. In addition, there are four line inputs for a total of eight analog channels. The analog inputs are digitized via 24-bit A/D converters at selectable sample rates. Digital output is available via dual ADAT, facilitating integration with most popular audio interfaces. The 4-710d is an incredibly flexible and versatile preamp that offers a lot of analog bang for the buck.
Digital effects have been around since the development of digital signal processing chips (DSP) in the mid 70’s. At that time the biggest limitation was computing power. It required large stand-alone units to do the processing that can now be done in a child’s toy. As computer processors began to improve so did the quality of DSP. Universal Audio recognized this trend and invested a lot of their resources into developing the highest quality digital plug-ins.
They created the line of UAD and UAD-2 plug-ins, which recreate the signal pathway of analog equipment as faithfully as possible. UA’s DSP gurus work with the original manufacturers – using their exact schematics and original units. The team undertakes a thorough physical modeling of the actual hardware. Then they rebuild the vintage gear in the digital world, component by component. By doing this, UAD plug-ins replicate the exact, sometimes quirky, behavior of analog hardware. Of course, they offer UAD versions of their classic devices like the 610, 1176, and LA2A, but it doesn’t stop there. They have worked to recreate other legendary units such as the Neve 1073 preamp, the Fairchild 670 compressor, and the Manley Massive EQ. There are tape machines, delays, modulations, reverbs, synths, mastering tools, guitar/bass amplifier emulators, and more. The possibilities are endless with UAD, at least until you max out your CPU.
Running multiple instances and a variety of UAD plug-ins uses a lot of computing power. Universal audio recognized this and created a way to move the computing power out of your computer and into a separate unit. The UAD-2 Satellite ($999) is a quad core desktop DSP accelerator. The satellite effectively functions as a separate computer whose only job is to handle your UAD plug-ins. This allows a massive DSP boost for running large professional sessions. The satellite connects via thunderbolt for seamless communication with your Mac.
UAD plug-ins range in price from $100 to $400 (per device). There are combo packages available as well. Universal Audio offers seasonal discounts and special package deals throughout the year. All options are available through the Universal Audio website. UAD plug-ins allow bedroom producers to have access to big studio sounds at less than one-tenth the cost of the actual outboard gear.
Audio Interfaces and Unison Technology
Universal Audio is not one to become complacent with their product line. In a never-ending quest to put more features into less physical space, UA developed a groundbreaking line of audio interfaces. Universal Audio combined their stand-alone DSP accelerators and a desktop A/D interface to create the Apollo Twin ($899). The Twin is a 2-in/6-out interface with two class-leading mic/line preamps, two analog line outputs, two digitally controlled analog monitor outputs, and up to eight additional channels of digital inputs via optical connection. The Twin has a dual core processor to take the load off of your computer’s CPU and handle all UAD processing onboard. Utilizing thunderbolt connection, the Twin offers blazing fast communication and minimal latency.
For the studio that requires more inputs and processing power, Universal Audio has created the Apollo 8p ($2,999). The 8p is a 16-in/20-out Thunderbolt 2 interface with eight onboard preamps. The Apollo 8p also features powerful UAD-2 QUAD core processing, letting you run UAD powered plug-ins in real time with ample processing power. All Apollo purchases come with a bundle of seven UAD-2 plug-ins, which is over a $700 value.
The most innovative part of the Apollo line is the introduction of Unison Technology. The secret to Unison is its hardware-software integration between Apollo’s mic preamps and its onboard UAD-2 processing. Simply place a selected plug-in on your desired mic input, and record in real time with near zero latency. With Unison, the Apollo preamp changes its physical input impedance, gain stage “sweet spots”, and circuit behaviors to match those of the original device. In effect, Universal Audio has created the first hybrid analog/digital plug-in technology. The result is a more realistic and responsive world of plug-ins.
Universal Audio is one of those special companies that always looks towards the future. They could have a decent business just from their analog gear alone, but that is not enough for them. Since 1958 they have been addicted to innovation and evolution. UA is constantly trying to create the right tools for studios of every size and budget. The ever-advancing world of technology has certainly changed the music industry forever, but it doesn’t have to be for the worse. Universal Audio puts technology in the artist’s hands and allows them to use the tools of tomorrow to create the music of today.