UAD effects power in an easily portable interface
Review by Andrew Pask and Darwin Grosse
Universal Audio is one of the most active companies in the interface/plug-in space. With its range of Apollo audio interfaces, UA has covered much but not all of the interface world, from small 2-channel desktop systems through large-format multichannel rack systems. The one thing missing has been in the personal/portable space: something that could be bus-powered and tossed in a backpack for mobile recording, but would still feature UA quality and provide access to DSP-based plug-ins. That’s where the Arrow audio interface comes in.
- DECEMBER 2018: IK Multimedia UNO Synth
- NOVEMBER 2018: Softube Tube-Tech CL 1B Mk II Plug-in CL 1B Mk II Plug-in and Lydkraft Tube-Tech CL 1B
- OCTOBER 2018: ADK Zeus
- SEPTEMBER 2018: Focal Shape Twin
- AUGUST 2018: ART RM5 Active Studio Monitor
- JULY 2018: Universal Audio A/DA STD-1
- JUNE 2018: Toontrack EZKeys Dream Machine and Melancholic Pop MIDI Pack
- MAY 2018: Soyuz Microphones SU-013 Small-Diaphragm FET Condensor Mic
- APRIL 2018: RØDE Complete Studio Kit
- MARCH 2018: LaChapell Audio 583s mk2 Tube Preamp and 500TDI Tube DI
- FEBRUARY 2018: RME Babyface Pro
- JANUARY 2018: Arturia DrumBrute
What’s in the box
The Arrow is a cleanly laid-out interface; everything it’s about is pretty much displayed on the device itself. It’s a 2-input/4-output interface with a pair of XLR/TRS combination inputs and balanced 1/4” outputs on the back, plus a Hi-Z (instrument) input and a separately-addressable headphone output on the front edge. The top has multisegment metering for input and output levels, buttons for selecting interface functions (like bass rolloff, phantom power, and stereo linking) and a large encoder for level control. The whole package is 4.75 x 7 x 1.8 inches, a bit smaller and lighter than the Apollo Twin, and connects to your computer through a single Thunderbolt 3 cable with no extra power supply.
Things get even more interesting once you set things up on your computer. Universal Audio has developed an exceptional software system called Console for its interfaces; this software provides I/O routing, low-latency monitoring, and monitor control for all their systems, and it’s been updated to include the Arrow. Even though this is UA’s “low-end” interface, they didn’t skimp on the control software.
Universal Audio has also added a robust set of plug-ins for the built-in DSP chip on the Arrow: a set of 14 effects that include a number of Legacy compressor and EQ emulations, a set of UA’s Precision lineup of audio tools, guitar-focused effects like Marshall Plexi Classic and Ampeg SVT-VR Classic, and the RealVerb Pro reverb. This is a powerful selection of plug-ins that adds great value to the Arrow package.
Alas, there are a few things missing. First, as with other UA interfaces, there is no MIDI to be found. Most MIDI controllers are now USB-based, so 5-pin MIDI ports are probably an unnecessary (albeit convenient) addition.
What’s more surprising is that the package doesn’t include a Thunderbolt 3 cable… and this can get a little tricky. Heading over to your local big-box electronics store might net you a cable that looks like it should work fine, and even plugs in properly, but ends up not working. That’s because Thunderbolt 3 uses the same USB-C connectors as conventional USB-C cables, but the cables themselves are not always compatible. In fact, we went through at one non-working cable before finding a winner. Luckily, some retailers are including a tested Thunderbolt 3-compatible cable with the Arrow, so you might want to check on that when you make your purchase.
While we are on the subject of Thunderbolt 3 cabling, one other thing to keep in mind is that the Arrow will only work when connected to a computer that has proper Thunderbolt 3 ports, rather than USB-C or adaptors from USB 3.1 or the like. This limitation is unfortunately a requirement for the Arrow’s performance as a box with a single connection to your laptop with no external power supply; its electronics pull far more current than is available on any port short of Thunderbolt 3.
How does it work and sound?
If you’ve read this far, you are probably considering an Arrow purchase, and you’re probably wondering if it sounds as good as the Apollo interfaces, and if it will interface with the mics and monitors you already own. The answer is “Yes, it does.” The mic pres include the Unison technology found in the other offerings in the UA line-up, and provide an excellent signal for the UA system to do its thing. The DSP provides for emulation of classic audio hardware with great performance and near-zero latency.
You might be a little concerned about the input section because this is a bus-powered interface. No need to be; we achieved great performance from all our test mics (including a Royer passive ribbon mic), and the Arrow had plenty of gain available for everything we threw at it. The sound is crystal clear, but could easily be warmed up by using some of the UAD Powered Plug-ins that were included in the bundle, with the UA 610 tube preamp emulator working wonders for this task. We found ourselves wishing for another mic preamp that might bridge the gap between the warm-and-fuzzy 610 and the laser-focused Precision Channel Strip, but I guess this is left as an opportunity to take advantage of the UAD Powered Plug-Ins available for the system.
The monitor control section is similar to the Apollo Twin interfaces we’ve worked with in the past. The big control encoder provides switched function for headphone and monitor (output) levels, but is missing the mute and dim functions of its bigger brother. Nevertheless, the quality of the converters is excellent, the headphone levels were appropriate for every set of cans that we tried, and the speaker outputs worked great with our powered monitors. Also, having the headphone outputs separately addressable was great for software packages like Ableton Live that provide additional cueing capabilities.
The Arrow includes a UAD-2 SOLO DSP processor (vs. the SOLO, DUO, or QUAD processor in the Apollo Twin), which means that it can run a modest DSP setup—one that was adequate for most of our recording/overdubbing needs. We generally hit the ‘wall’ at around 5 or 6 UAD plug-ins; this was perfect for overdub and most mixing work, but might not be enough for heavily processed mixes. Our DAW mixes combined a lot of native VST and AU plug-ins with the DSP-powered UAD plug-ins, and we never really broke a sweat during testing.
As for the Console software, it performs admirably; in fact, it might be a bit of overkill for this 2-in, 4-out interface. However, having easy-to-grasp access to all the routing and processing functions of the interface was a pleasure, and it made session prep a breeze. The metering was also fantastic both on the hardware and in the software. We often found ourselves keeping the Console software on the screen during recording, because the meter resolution and responsiveness really supported our recording processes.
Right-sized, high-quality and DSP-savvy: there’s a lot to like about this box. The set of provided plug-ins—although just a small portion of the entire range of UA effects—provides a significant and compelling set of starter tools, and you always can enhance the system by purchasing additional UAD plug-ins.
For us, the quality of the preamps (especially the wide gain range), compact packaging, and clean sound makes this an interface that we want to use in the studio and on the road. It’s another winner by Universal Audio, and a worthy entry path to anyone interested in a quality recording interface with DSP under the hood.
More from: Universal Audio, www.uaudio.com