Review: Universal Audio plugins

Stephen Bennett reviews a quintet of Universal Audio plugins…

Universal Audio (UA)’s software/plugin combo UAD has come a long way since the early PCI-based add-on cards that were designed to add some Digital Signal Processing (DSP) grunt to the underpowered computer of the day. Now on version 9.3, the hardware choice available consists of devices with PCIe or Thunderbolt, Firewire and USB connectivity as well as UA’s excellent Apollo interfaces that allow you to use UAD plugins in real time.

The UAD suite under review adds four of what UA call its ‘direct developer’ plugins (which are designed by their direct developer partners), and one from UA themselves. The first of the new quintet is the UAD version of Sonnox’s Oxford Dynamic EQ. This was reviewed in its ‘native’ format in AMI’s September 2017 edition, so have a look there for a more detailed description of its features. I can confirm that it works in precisely the same fashion as the ‘native’ version and sounds identical – as a phase-reversal comparison demonstrated.

One of UA’s claims regarding the accuracy of their emulation is the close working relationship they have with the original manufacturers and having access to their “golden units” and algorithms must pay dividends with those plugins based on digital technology. But when the emulation is a mixture of analogue and digital the situation becomes more complex. Many people like the ‘sound’ of digital processors because of the ‘colour’ imparted by the analogue input and output chain, so to emulate such devices effectively, both sides of the audio coin must be addressed.

The revered AMS RMX16 was an early digital reverb whose processing power seems laughable against that of a typical smartphone. Yet they were used on countless hit records by many respected engineers and represented an excellent use of limited processing power, clever algorithms and high end analogue circuitry. Developed by Mark Crabtree, the original designer, one might expect the emulation to be pretty close to the original. I was never lucky enough to own an AMS unit, but I do have a lot of recordings that were processed by one and still have the original instruments used. Listening back to these the similarities with the original unit are uncanny, the room, plate and nonlinear I used most (hey! It was the ‘80s) capturing the ‘vibe’ of the AMS perfectly.

AMS-Neve throws in presets created by the likes of Steve Levine, but to be honest, the AMS is so simple to use you don’t really need the guiding hands of audio giants to build useful programmes. The 1982 KORG SDD-3000 13-bit Digital Delay was a key component to U2’s guitar sound made famous by The Edge and UA claim that the UAD version is an end-to-end emulation. If you’re after a versatile, yet sonically interesting delay, then you may just have found what you’re looking for. The SDD-3000 features the then- amazing one second delay time and modulation effects, both syncable to the DAW’s tempo.

Add-on DSP hardware is here to stay and UAD are demonstrating that they are still at the top of that particular game"

The Dytronics Cyclosonic Panner is something I’ve never come across before. It’s an emulation of a 1984 vintage analogue modulation and panning processor that features autopanning, ‘3D’ panning and a gate for trigger panning. That’s a lot of panning. Usefully it can also synchronise to the DAW tempo. Comparing the sound to the bog-standard autopan in my DAW makes it apparent that the plugin definitely adds a certain mojo to the sound and when you were one of the few people in the world using the original hardware, it’s sonic idiosyncrasies were probably worth the price of entry. But now everyone with a UAD DSP processer can have one, it’s probably not so cool. However, kudos to Universal Audio for digging out these relatively obscure processors – I would not be without my UAD Cooper Time Cube now.

One of the challenges of reviewing UAD’s plugins is trying to track down the original of the hardware being emulated. Luckily one of my colleagues has an ENGL Savage 120 Amplifier so I was able to do some direct recorded comparisons of the plugin version versus the amplifier itself. We’ve come a long way since I strapped Rockman on to my belt for a simulation of that Delta Blues sound and, if you are turning the volume up to 11, the ‘real thing’ still definitely has the edge – but I’d challenge all but the most geeky listeners to try and distinguish a recording of the ENGL Savage 120 emulation from the amplifier mic’d up in a decent sounding room. You’d ideally need a near-zero latency UAD Apollo interface to use these in real-time, but I managed to record useable guitar parts using my usual interface. Until quantum computing offers a significant increase in real-time audio processing (or doing it in the past – the quantum world is like that) add-on DSP hardware is here to stay and UAD are demonstrating that they are still at the top of that particular game.

Key Features

  • Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ
  • AMS RMX16
  • SDD-3000
  • Dytronics Cyclosonic Panner
  • ENGL Savage 120

RRP: £115 – £249 ($151 – $327)

Stephen Bennett has been involved in music production for over 30 years. Based in Norwich, he splits his time between writing books and articles on music technology, recording and touring, and lecturing at the University of East Anglia.