It turns out there was yet another dimension for Universal Audio to occupy.
The latest breakout from UA puts their ideas onto the desktop, via the Apollo Twin High-Resolution Desktop Interface with Realtime UAD Processing.
An eye-catching 2×6 Thunderbolt audio interface for Mac, it’s a full-featured unit that puts the 24/192 kHz audio conversion of Universal Audio’s Apollo series of interfaces together with onboard Realtime UAD SOLO or DUO Processing.
On the outside, users will experience an ergonomic design, rugged aluminum construction, and front panel headphone and instrument connections. From there, the Apollo Twin allows Mac users (no word yet on PC) to record in real time (at near-zero latency) through the full range of UAD Powered Plug-Ins available in the UA Online Store, including titles from Neve, Studer, Manley, Lexicon, API and more.
But it goes much deeper than that. Apollo Twin is the vehicle for UA’s rollout of its new Unison technology (which will be available for Apollo DUO and Apollo QUAD in early 2014.) According to UA, Unison is built on an integration between Apollo’s mic preamps and its onboard UAD plug-in processing, allowing it to unlock “the authentic tone of the most sought-after tube and solid state mic preamps — including their all-important impedance, gain stage ‘sweet spots,’ and component-level circuit behaviors.”
All these characteristics are adjusted in real time prior to analog-to-digital conversion to accurately emulate the target mic preamp model. Furthermore, every Apollo mic preamp is already Unison-ready, with the UA 610-B Tube Preamp and EQ standing as the first of many Unison-enabled plug-ins for the UAD Powered Plug-Ins platform. In addition to being included with the Apollo Twin, it will be available for all Apollo customers in Q1. It’s a development that sounds appealing to recordists of all types, to say the least.
Apollo Twin ships with Universal Audio’s “Realtime Analog Classics” UAD plug-in bundle. That bundle features legacy editions of the LA-2A Classic Audio Leveler, 1176LN Limiting Amplifier, and Pultec EQP-1A Program Equalizer, plus Softube Amp Room Essentials, the all-new 610-B Tube Preamp plug-in, and more.
The Apollo Twin is available in both SOLO and DUO models (with either one or two Analog Devices SHARC processors, respectively). It is now shipping, with estimated street prices of $699 (SOLO) and $899 (DUO).
Here are more specifics on the Apollo Twin, followed by details on Unison, from Universal Audio:
● Desktop 2×6 Thunderbolt audio interface with world-class 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion
● Realtime UAD Processing for tracking through vintage Compressors, EQs, Tape Machines, Mic Preamps, and Guitar Amp plug-ins with near-zero (sub-2ms) latency
● Thunderbolt connection for blazing-fast PCIe speed and rock-solid performance on modern Macs
● New Unison technology offers stunning models of classic tube and transformer-based mic preamps
● 2 premium mic/line preamps; 2 line outputs; front-panel Hi-Z instrument input and headphone output
● 2 digitally controlled analog monitor outputs for full resolution at all listening levels
● Up to 8 channels of additional digital input via Optical connection
● Includes “Realtime Analog Classics” UAD plug-in bundle, featuring Legacy editions of the LA-2A Classic Audio Leveler, 1176LN Limiting Amplifier, and Pultec EQP-1A Program Equalizer, plus Softube Amp Room Essentials, 610-B Tube Preamp, and more
● Runs UAD Powered Plug-Ins via Audio Units, VST, RTAS & AAX 64
● Available with either UAD-2 SOLO or UAD-2 DUO DSP processing onboard
Unison Key Features:
- An exclusive analog/digital integration system that’s already built into every Apollo mic preamp
- Enables Apollo mic preamps to sound and behave like the world’s most sought-after tube and solid state preamps — including their all-important impedance, gain stage sweet spots, and component-level circuit behaviors.
- Continuous, realtime, bi-directional control and interplay between Apollo’s physical hardware and UAD software preamp model.
- Requires an Apollo Interface.
Universal Audio has announced the new “Fairchild Tube Limiter Plugin Collection“, featuring new and improved modeling of the Fairchild 660 and 670 studio classics.
According to the press announcement:
“In 2004, Universal Audio released the Fairchild 670 Legacy plug-in, which was quickly heralded as the best Fairchild 670 emulation available. Today, UA’s team of DSP experts have improved the original time constants and gain reduction curves while modeling — for the first time ever — the complete tube-powered amplifier and transformer sections of their hardware counterparts. Only the new UAD Fairchild Limiter Collection is based on an accurate circuit model of Ocean Way’s ‘golden-reference’ units.”
The Fairchild Tube Limiter Collection ($299) also offers modern workflow features like sidechain filtering, dry/wet parallel blend, and headroom controls.
Click for more details, videos, audio, and to demo or purchase.
Universal Audio has created a huge impact with their 1:1 modeling process for their UAD plug-in platform since its launch back in 2002. The experts of analog and digital realms have added to their UAD line with release of the API Vision Channel Strip plug-in. The channel strip itself is composed of five unique API modules that contain tons of artist presets to get started.
The API Vision Channel Strip is available now for $299 MSRP for UAD 7.3 platform and Apollo audio interfaces.
Here are more specs from Universal Audio:
The Classic Color and Punch of API’s Flagship Analog Console.
A longtime leader in analog console design, API desks have shaped hits from the Foo Fighters to Fleetwood Mac’s classic, Rumours. Introduced in 2003, API’s flagship Vision Console was crafted to uphold the company’s soulful sonic tradition while providing flexibility and features for modern workflows.
For the first time, you can have a complete channel strip of classic API punch, presence, and color with the API Vision Channel Strip plug-in — exclusively for UAD-2 DSP hardware and Apollo interfaces.
Now you can:
- Track and mix through a stunning emulation of API’s flagship analog console
- Warm up signals through the API 212L preamp with famed 2520 API op-amp
- Reshape envelopes and create dramatic dynamic effects with the 235L Gate/Expander
- Tame transients and craft wild new textures with API’s legendary 225L compression circuit
UA’s Most Colorful Channel Strip Plug-In
Comprised of five classic API modules, the API Vision Channel Strip plug-in transforms your DAW into a high-end analog mixing desk, injecting your tracks with the sonic color and personality that has made API legendary.
My assistant recently left the rotation in the studio here to begin as a freelancer after three-and-a-half years of faithful service. We were both bummed but it was the right thing to do for his career.
A big complication about graduating into freelancing these days is the unspoken covenant that most of the actively working young engineers in New York are also almost always studio owners. Unless you have managed to find your way into one of the very few large format rooms that remain somehow or have long since passed into the freelance realm from the previous era of big budgets, you will most likely find yourself making records for your scene because you are the person that has the gear.
So, in honest acknowledgment of that fact, our conversation inevitably turned toward gear. He would either A) need to clear budgets that could support his rate as a freelancer and an additional studio rental fee or B) build a scenario that he could make work within a slightly more guerilla capacity. At home, remotely, in the van, in other people’s rooms, etc etc etc.
No news here, but if you are a young engineer, producer, or band, the democratization of recording in the digital era is endlessly rad. For less than 10 grand, you can pretty easily put together a highly workable situation for mixing and overdubs that would provide equivalent facility to an amount of analog kit that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars historically. A good computer, an interface, a couple of decent input channels, some cans and away you go.
So then, how do you set out to build a multitrack studio in this era that is competitive (read: can cover the monthly nut sustainably, keep you sane, and still expand), sounds good, and is malleable?
This was our particular entry point for checking out the Universal Audio Apollo 16, a 24-bit/192 kHz audio interface that’s billed as a solid centerpiece for the modern professional studio.
UNBOXING THE APOLLO 16
This past spring, on the wings of their first Apollo series interface and hugely successful and widely-loved UAD plugin platform, Universal Audio introduced this new box, a purpose built big brother to the original Apollo.
At the core of the Apollo 16, you’ll find 16 channels of digital conversion in both directions as well as a UAD|2 Quad Core DSP card to authorize and run their rad plugins.
Unboxing the interface, I was immediately struck by how tough it looks. The chassis is super rugged and the whole thing feels very well put together. On the front, you’re greeted by 16 large 10 segment LED bargraph meters, a slick, illuminated monitor volume knob, a meter switch which determines whether your metering the input or output, and power.
On the rear, you’ll of course find all the salient connectors. Audio I/O on female DB25 connectors (Tascam standard for those of you who intend to wire the multipair snakes), Monitor outputs on XLR, AES/EBU on XLR, and Clock I/O on BNC terminals (with a latching switch to provide a 75 ohm load to terminate the clock signal happily). Additionally, the data ports are found back there. There are two FireWire 800 ports, MADI and even an optional expansion card with thunderbolt for a little future proofing. The power supply is external and it runs voltage into the Apollo 16 via a 4 pin XLR.
Having the audio I/O on DB25 is a good move, in my humble opinion, as it easily interfaces with a number of standard-use boxes you may want to add to this Apollo to complete your system. Many, if not most, summing boxes take audio input on DB25. Also, many patchbays these days are wired to Tascam standard if you need additional routing capabilities in analog.
INSIDE THE BOX
On the software side, the Apollo offers a few more tricks than most convertors.
You’re probably well aware of the UAD thing if you’re reading this, but allow me to add to the growing litany of folks who believe they are some of the best plugs in the game these days. There’s the usual host of digital clones, modeling coveted metal boxes, but there are some really unexpected and hip plugs too. The Little Labs emulations, for example, or the heavily modeled Ocean Way live room verb. Neato.
Moreover, there’s a standalone console app that allows you to track through any of the UAD plugins you have installed in the machine. The outputs from the software console can then be routed into the channel ins on your preferred DAW. There are two ways to go about this, as well. You can monitor through the plug in (MON on the insert effect on the console channel) or actually record through it (REC on the insert effects switch). REC is a destructive choice, mind. The audio is actually rendered through the plug-in in real time.
This is a fucking really neat thing that I have slightly mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the production process in this era is so mired by the infinite undo, infinitely revisionist mentality that it’s incredibly refreshing to have the ability to ignore that in favor of making strong decisions on the way into the recorder. This also serves to narrow the functionality gap created by the inability of RTAS plugins to function in input monitor mode.
Moreover, speaking towards my own process, I almost always find the most inspiration by the sound design itself in part writing. It can be difficult to envision how the mellotron part will sound in context when it’s represented by a cheap MIDI piano sound, for example. So, this real time rendering option allows you to crush/distort/paisley any source on the way in and be inspired by all those colors.
In application, the real time processing had a pretty simple learning curve and, once the internal routing was all set up, functioned pretty beautifully. I tried it on a few sources and the latency was negligible in my set up. I’m most primarily a bass player, so the obvious choice for heavy scrutiny was to compress a DI on the way in. This is a particularly sensitive instrument to be dealing with latency issues (note duration and pocket being the two primary differences between passable bassists and transcendental bassists, of course) and even fast passages of grace notes found their way into the pouch where I meant for them to be.
Contrarily, I could see the ability to permanently modify audio on the way in being badly and accidentally abused. Freelance mixers getting tracks that have been compressed to the recorder with poor time constants, for example. A client being really into a smashy/distorty vocal sound until they really aren’t… Obviously, mileage will vary but these are a couple considerations that come easily to mind.
It’s also worth mentioning here that the street price of the Apollo 16 ($2,999) is competitive with the larger market of professional 16 channel interfaces, and none of them have any of the plugin capability that the Apollo 16 does. I see the plugin capability of this interface as a huge selling point as you’re getting your thing started or as a significant bonus to someone looking to upgrade to a new convertor.
I’m not the guy to lace you with superlatives (here’s the only punchy you’re gonna get in this whole article and only in a parenthetical aside) so I’ll leave the qualitative valuations of the colors this box imparts to your own adventures. Suffice it to say the sound of the conversion is useful and hi-fi and that the plugins follow suit. I’m producing a record that’s being mixed by a very high profile engineer right now and the UAD plugins are very much in a starring role in his mixes.
BEYOND THE BOX
There are a couple of disinclusions from the baby bro Apollo that are worth mentioning as well.
For example, there is no dedicated headphone out on the Apollo 16, which presupposes certain factors about how you’re going to employ the Apollo 16. In my test rig, for example, I had to connect a cheap and cheerful little Rolls headphone box or connect it to my main rig via a DB25 to bantam breakout to get the I/O into my own summing situation here.
Also, there are no dedicated mic pres on the Apollo 16, which really informs certain aspects of how the designers see this box. Removing some of those functions that the all-in-one interfaces all tout imply that they intend for it to be the center of a more realized studio situation. Why add in mic pres of questionable usefulness if you’re going to always patch around them for your Neve’s, for example?
Also, UA’s inclusion of the ability to daisy-chain two Apollo 16’s on one CPU in order to double the audio throughput and also the plug-in firepower further speaks to the way they see it fitting into the already crowded landscape of interfaces. Whereas an all-in-one interface may easily become insufficient when you want to do drums or bigger full-band dates, the Apollo 16 provides the end user with a platform to grow as necessary and tons of options for usable colors in the box.
There really isn’t anything else that covers quite the territory that the Apollo 16 does, for that reason alone. Nothing sucks worse than buying some gear you know you will outgrow and I just don’t get that vibe off of this box.
And really, the whole design speaks to the zeitgeist in a very important way. There is a gap in this particular aspect of the market that UA has correctly identified and is offering this product as a result: The need for a high quality interface that isn’t the prosumer all-in-one box and isn’t cost prohibitive when compared to the highest end stuff of forum fanboy speculation, though can create a similar level of quality.
In conclusion, I would never tell anyone to purchase a piece of gear without having heard it, but if this is something you could see fitting into your vision of your workflow, there’s a good chance it’s exactly the thing. Well built, expandable, malleable. A worthy inclusion to the already deep legacy of Universal Audio.
Brian Bender is a producer/engineer and owner of The Motherbrain Brooklyn, where he’s recently produced albums with Gabriel Gordon, Jose James, Takuya Kuroda, and Bing and Ruth.
Audio engineers can officially add amp lust into their list of professional obsessions.
The impetus is the latest plugins for Universal Audio’s UAD Powered Plugins platform and Apollo Audio interface: a pair of ENGL Amps developed by Brainworx in the form of the E765 RT and the E646 VS amplifiers, as well as the Brainworx bx_tuner.
The E765 RT emulates an EL34-powered, two-channel 100-watt tube amp. Meanwhile, the E646 VS emulates ENGL’s four-channel, 100-watt, 6L6-powered, high-gain tube amp.
As Universal Audio points out, the ENGL Amps Bundle allows owners of UAD-2 DSP Accelerator hardware to re-amp their tracks with these amp models, while Apollo Audio Interface users can re-amp as well as track in real time with near-zero latency.
Based in Germany, ENGL Amps has built up voracious following among rock and metal mavens for their high-end tube amps. Now users can get their hands on these highly desirable amp sounds, with no waiting and for a considerably lower tariff from the UA Online Store.
RT and ENGL E646 VS are $149; the Brainworx bx_tuner is $19; while all three are bundled together for $249.
Both amp models contain an onboard FX Rack with a noise gate, EQ filter controls, and host-syncable lo-fi delay. Also included is a unique Recording Chains feature that allows the user to audition their tones through 64 different high-end mics, ENGL cabinets, and outboard gear, including hardware emulations from Millennia, SPL, and elysia.
See more of the heavy-duty specs from UA:
ENGL E765 RT Plug-In — $149
• Perfect emulation of a two-channel, EL34-powered, 100-watt tube amp for UAD-2 or Apollo
• Craft old school clean tones, gritty chunk textures, and aggressive distortions easily and intuitively with extensive EQ functionality — before or after mixdown
• Audition 64 different Recording Chains to match the perfect tone to the part
• Fine-tune your sounds with an onboard FX Rack that includes a noise gate, EQ filter controls, and host-syncable lo-fi delay
ENGL E646 VS Plug-In — $149
• Exacting emulation of a four-channel, 100-watt, 6L6-powered, high-gain tube amp
• Perfectly sculpt clean tones, muscular chunk, and high-gain textures with remarkable string-to-string definition
• Audition 64 different high-end Recording Chains for unmatched flexibility when tracking or mixing
• Fine-tune your sounds with an onboard FX Rack that includes a noise gate, EQ filter controls, and host-syncable lo-fi delay
Brainworx bx_tuner — $19
• Tune guitar or bass easily and accurately inside your UAD-2 or Apollo-equipped workstation
• Customize the tuning LED’s tracking with the Ballistics feature
• Quickly tune with reduced volume using the unique Output Dim feature
• Instantiate on multiple inputs to avoid plugging and unplugging of instruments
ENGL Amplifier Plug-Ins Bundle — $249
• ENGL E765 RT Plug-In: Perfect emulation of a two-channel, EL34-powered, 100-watt tube amp
• ENGL E646 VS Plug-In: Exacting emulation of a four-channel, 100-watt, 6L6-powered, high-gain tube amp
• Brainworx bx_tuner: Tune guitar or bass easily and accurately inside your UAD-2 or Apollo-equipped workstation
Universal Audio made a few announcements today surrounding the release of the latest UAD Software v7.1: firstly, that the new software provides enhancements for the Apollo Audio interfaces (Apollo and Apollo 16), including “Flex Routing”, and secondly, that it includes two new UAD plugs – the Millennia NSEQ-2 plug-in, and the Pultec Passive EQ Plug-In Collection.
Flex Routing features include:
- Route up to eight Console channel inputs to hardware outputs (analog, ADAT, S/PDIF, and AES/EBU) with optional monitor mirroring
- Apollo headphone mix buses can be mirrored to any hardware output
- Pre/post fader switching for Aux mix buses
- Vertical resizing of the Console application window
Then, the new Pultec collection picks up where UA’s legacy Pultec emulations leave off with two more classic Pultec EQs — the EQP-1A and MEQ-5 — and adds the HLF-3C filter.
According to the announcement: “The EQP-1A Program EQ is famous for bringing out individual frequency ranges without significantly altering neighboring frequencies, remaining smooth and musical even with extreme levels of boost. With the companion MEQ-5 Mid-Range Equalizer, producers can skillfully tweak the mid-range thanks to its abundance of band overlap and unique filter interactions. Finally, the HLF-3C adds 12 dB per octave low and high cut filters, providing broad, retro-flavored tone sculpting.
Available for purchase via UA’s Online Store, the new Pultec Passive EQ Plug-In Collection is selling for $299, or for $149 for current owners of the legacy Pultec Pro EQ plug-in.
Pultec Passive EQ Collection features include:
- Faithful circuit reproduction of the most popular outboard studio equalizers ever made
- Models entire electronic path of three Pultec EQs — including tube amplifiers and transformers — for colorful, highly-musical distortion characteristics
- EQP-1A Program EQ provides silky, vintage highs and tight, focused lows using combined boost/cut resonant shelf dip
- MEQ-5 Mid-Range EQ features broad, overlapping frequency selections for fine peak and dip midrange filter control
- HLF-3C EQ delivers 12 dB cut filter for tonal sculpting or special effects
- Includes artist presets from Neal Cappellino (Alison Krauss, Brad Paisley), Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M.,Taylor Swift), David Isaac (Prince, Eric Clapton, Robin Thicke) & more
- Requires UAD-2 DSP Accelerator Card or Apollo Interface, available from authorized dealers worldwide
Finally, designed by UAD direct developer Brainworx, the new Millennia NSEQ-2 Parametric EQ emulation is also now available for $299 from UA’s online store.
Says UA: “By perfectly emulating Millennia’s exclusive Twin Topology circuit and pure Class A transformerless circuitry, the Millennia NSEQ-2 plug-in offers a less-is-more approach to the audio chain, yielding a powerful, sonically neutral, analog EQ that brims with spectacular clarity. With the ability to switch between an all-triode 300-volt vacuum tube signal path, and an all-discrete JFET solid-state signal path, you’re afforded two distinctly different EQs, each with colossal amounts of headroom and an array of sonic flavors and colors.
Millennia NSEQ-2 Plug-In features include:
- Faithful model of the legendary Millennia NSEQ-2 Class A Twin Topology (Vacuum Tube and Discrete Solid State) Parametric Equalizer
- Switch between tube and solid state topologies
- New features such as M/S (mid/side) mode, Link mode, and an Output Trim control
- Fully parametric stereo EQ with unprecedented sonic purity & integrity
- Developed for the UAD Powered Plug-Ins platform by Brainworx
- Requires UAD-2 DSP Accelerator Card or Apollo Interface, available from authorized dealers worldwide
Pro Tools 11 is out now, and some users are already adopting early. However, one concern with the new platform is that some plugin developers have not yet ported their software over to PT 11′s new second generation AAX protocol, which runs now at 64-bits.
As of press time, a huge number of major plugins are already available – especially in Native – but there are a few key exceptions that might make users wait a tick before getting on board.
Fortunately, anyone who purchases PT 11 also gets a PT 10 license from Avid, and the ability to install both versions on their machine, which should help users get by until even more plugins become available for the new version of Pro Tools.
Which Plugins Are Available?
The list of plugins available for Pro Tools 11 is a long one, and it’s filled with many of the most essential small developers on the market.
For a searchable database of all the plugins that are currently available, see www.avid.com/plugins and filter the results by clicking the box marked “Pro Tools 11.”
Just about every plugin that Avid makes is currently available for PT 11 in Native.
The same goes for Plugin Alliance, Arturia, McDSP, elysia, SPL, Brainworx, the most popular entries from iZotope, and all 21 plugins made by Blue Cat.
Also on the list are Metric Halo, East West, DMG Audio, Fab Filter, Neyrinck, Nomad Factory, Synthology, TC Electronics, a good handful of the plugins from Flux, and for Mac users, all the FX and EQs by PSP. (PSP’s dynamics plugins and Windows versions are coming soon.)
Just yesterday, SoundToys also joined the list, releasing a PT 11 public beta of all their plugins for Mac users. They expect the “official” version to be ready by mid-July, and a Windows update should follow soon after.
Which Plugins Aren’t Available?
All put together, the AAX compatible list covers a huge number of plugins made for Pro Tools. But the exceptions are notable ones.
Leading the list of plugins that are yet to make it to Pro Tools 11 are Waves and Universal Audio, two of the biggest and most popular brands out there.
When asked for comment, a representative for Waves said they were expecting Native PT 11 compatibility “very soon.” The people at Universal Audio said that an exact date is “TBD” but that they expect to have all of their UAD plugins ported over “by the end of this year.” (UAD’s official FAQ can be found here.)
Also missing are Audio Ease, who say they are “close with Altiverb 7” and that “Speakerphone 2 will follow up soon after”; and Softube, who say their complete line should be available for Pro Tools 11 in September.
Antares’ AutoTune is currently missing as well, as is celemony’s Melodyne. celemony report that they are currently “working closely with Avid” to iron out Melodyne’s stability at 96kHz.
Currently the people at Massey report they are are “grinding pretty hard here on the ol’ AAX code” and expect updates “soonly.”* Also still to come are plugins from Slate Digital, Sonnox, Ohm Force, Mellowmuse, and Abbey Road/Chandler, who were not able to respond in time for this piece.
(*Update: Massey released their AAX versions Feb 11th, 2014)
AAX DSP Support?
Some plugins are also available for AAX DSP, the format that is set to replace TDM, but that list is a bit smaller.
Once again, Avid’s own plugins are pretty much all set. McDSP, Flux, Metric Halo Wave Arts and Neyrinck are on the list as well.
The Plugin Alliance has also gotten started releasing their line for AAX DSP. Already available are the MAAG EQ4, ProAudioDSP’s DSM v2, and some entries from Brainworx, elysia and SPL.
(A full list of Plugin Alliance partners can be found here.)
However, several companies have no plans to support AAX DSP, at all.
Obviously, Universal Audio will continue with their own proprietary DSP system, the UAD platform. But now, you can expect Waves to join that camp as well.
Word from the company is that they will be “releasing a Waves DSP solution for Pro Tools based on SoundGrid very soon.”
Computers have gotten so fast that some companies may decide to stay completely Native in order to help keep costs low to the user.
For instance, SoundToys say that they’re “going to investigate the AAX DSP format (i.e. how much DSP punch we get for the substantial R&D investment) but haven’t made a firm commitment.”
In a day an age when my humble 15” Mac laptop can run scores of tracks and hundreds of plugins, all under Native power, that may be a wise set of numbers to crunch.
Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based audio engineer, college professor, and journalist. He records and mixes all over NYC, masters at JLM, teaches at CUNY, is a regular contributor to SonicScoop, and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.
In this installment of Input\Output, Geoff and Eli put the Universal Audio Apollo up against a vintage Neve 8068 console and classic Studer 827 tape machine, to see if the two could possibly compare.
They A/B real tape to tape simulations, as well as converters and preamps to models of classic electrical circuits. Geoff and Eli conducted these tests at Stratosphere Sound in Chelsea.
To listen to the podcast, click here or right click below:
If you’d like to download the original test files in high-resolution WAV format to A/B and null-test for yourself, right-click the link below:
MANHATTAN: The streets of SoHo are paved with cobblestones. Walking down these historic blocks on a cool March afternoon, its easy to wonder where on Earth you actually are, and when – you could be far in the future or deep in the past.
Now imagine that your present trek is leading you to a studio where deadlines have all but disappeared, and the only pressure is to advance the art of songwriting even further: The front door you arrive at belongs to none other than Pål Waaktaar Savoy a.k.a Paul Savoy, co-founder of the globally embraced group A-ha.
Welcome to his realm – you have reached what just might be the best of all possible worlds.
“When you grow up, all you want to do is what you love to do,” says the soft-spoken Savoy. “The first time I started a demo studio in NYC, it was all tape machines – now it’s much more doable to make a great-sounding album. The technology now gives me more time to work on the things that I find to be more important.”
A Room In Tune
Those “things” are songs, and Savoy’s SoHo studio is a constantly humming incubator for these 4:04-spans of magic. And why not? Working with A-ha, the guitarist and his bandmates from Norway have seen first-hand the power of what well-crafted songs can do: To date, the group has sold over 36 million albums and 15 million singles worldwide, played for crowds as large as 198,000, and released nine records in their lengthy lifespan – from 1982 until their official farewell in 2010.
So closely associated is A-ha with their native Oslo that the discovery of Savoy living happily in New York City can be momentarily disorienting. But actually, this oasis in downtown Manhattan has been a natural fit for him since soon after the release of A-ha’s 1985 debut album, Hunting High and Low.
“In those days, we were traveling so much that I couldn’t say I lived anywhere!” Savoy recalls. “But the first time I came to NYC to promote, I fell in love with SoHo. I thought, ‘This is the place.’”
Almost three decades later SoHo remains an ideal creative center as he writes new material for his own band Savoy — which features his wife Lauren on vocals, his collaborations with other songwriters, and film music work. Savoy’s nonstop dedication to his craft is enabled by engineer Eliot Leigh and an optimal mix of guitars, synths, analog hardware and digital tools all living together comfortably in one room growing less crowded over time, as he becomes more selective about his tools.
“10 years ago I had a Trident desk, every synth in the book, and gear up to the ceilings,” Savoy explains of his less-is-more evolution. “Now it’s more computer-based, and I’m just trying to keep the stuff that we really love, and get breathing space.
“It works a lot better. I like to experiment, but if you have too many things, you don’t get around to it. Synths with 15,000 presets becomes like Lord of the Rings – it’s endless.”
A Creative Workflow
In today’s single-happy society, Savoy finds himself liberated from an album-oriented mindset. As a result, the studio is set up so that Leigh can quickly capture Savoy’s ideas after they surface from his acoustic guitar and piano, then pursue the musical ideas further with the array of tools at their disposal. Leigh records into Logic through the converters of an iZ RADAR system, committing to a sound as much as possible on the initial pass.
“My philosophy when we’re recording is to try and get the best sound in the moment – I’m big into processing on the way in, and not as much later on,” Leigh explains. “There’s not a standard setup for anything, however. We’ll often record through whatever happens to be our favorite gear at the moment.”
Available choices for Savoy and Leigh include a blue-stripe Urei 1176, LA-2A, Gates Sta-Level limiter/compressor (with “a secret tube upgrade”), EMI limiter sourced directly from Abbey Road, Neve compressor from the dearly departed Bearsville, Anamod ATS-1 Analog Tape Simulator, and a Bel Electronics stereo flanger. Classic reverb choices, like a Great British Spring, EMT, Echoplex, or AKG BX-10 and BX-20, abound — and with good reason.
“Sometimes you can really get a whole vibe on the track from a reverb,” notes Savoy. “It can be very important. Most of the stuff I write needs a certain atmosphere to work at all, so I’m very sensitive to achieving that for an instrument or vocal — I have to have that thing that gives me shivers. If I don’t feel it, we’ll work on something else. Obviously the performance is the most important thing, but you can help it along.”
Monitoring via Yamaha NS-10’s and Klein & Hummel O300 active studio monitors, Savoy and Leigh will do a rough mix of the songs in Logic, working mostly in the box with UAD plugins save for the multiple analog reverbs at their disposal. “Our mixing approach totally depends on what the song requires,” Leigh says. “Some of the songs are very electronic, while others are more classic songwriter-type records. In those (latter) instances, we’re trying to catch an older vibe, so we use the older gear.”
While the mixes could easily be completed in the SoHo space, Savoy makes a point of taking them outside the pod once they reach a certain point. “I think it’s good to get a clean, fresh set of ears on the material,” he reasons. “When you’ve worked on something for a while, it’s helpful to have someone new on it.”
Hits From His Perspective
No matter what the project or its duration, Savoy brings the irreplaceable perspective of someone who’s created utterly massive hits.
A-ha’s “Take On Me” arguably stands as one of the 20th Century’s most uplifting musical works, and a long list of internationally charting singles follows from there, including “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.“, “Hunting High and Low“, the James Bond theme “The Living Daylights” and the ballad “Summer Moved On.”
Although Savoy has experienced the unique satisfaction that comes with writing a global smash, he has a more focused definition for a hit song. “A hit, to me, is something that moves you,” he explains simply. “A song may have been catchy or on the radio, but if it doesn’t move me, it’s not something I’ll take a lot of time trying to emulate. In A-ha, we always decided that if a song gives us the vibe, then that’s what we go for – it will give everyone else the same vibe. There’s nothing more complicated than that. That’s why we thought every song we ever did would be a hit.”
The best thing about Savoy’s instinctual musical expertise is that you can do more than just read about it. Songwriters and producers who like his approach can get in touch: His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and interested collaborators are free to just drop the master craftsman a line, anytime.
For this Oslo-to-SoHo transplant, the open invitation exemplifies his ongoing connection to NYC – a sense of wonder that will always thrive. “So many talented people are doing so much cool stuff here that I find super-inspiring,” Paul Savoy says. “That hasn’t subsided at all.”
– David Weiss