Universal Audio UAD Spark review: UA’s best plug-ins run without hardware for the first time
Load a curated collection of UAD plug-ins on your computer without the need for hardware. But is UA’s new offering worth subscribing to?
⊕ Beautiful and rich sounding instruments
⊕ Pro-grade effects and processors
⊕ Reasonable subscription price
⊖ Package is currently a little light on plug-ins
⊖ Currently macOS only and runs in Rosetta on Apple Silicon
⊖ Can’t seamlessly switch from UAD-2 to UADx
For over 20 years, Universal Audio’s premium UAD plug-ins have only been available to those that have the brand’s UAD hardware – be it a PCI card, Satellite box or Apollo audio interface. Influenced in part by the recent chip shortages around the world, UA has introduced UAD Spark, finally making its plug-ins native, so that they are available to all without the need for hardware.
There is a major caveat to UAD Spark, though – it’s a subscription package, and it’s not the full UAD catalogue. With this in mind, it won’t be for everyone, but newcomers to music production and UAD will find plenty to get stuck into.
- READ MORE: Universal Audio Opal Morphing synthesizer review: Analogue meets wavetable in UA’s new flagship soft synth
UAD software version 10 comes with a new application, UA Connect, that helps you manage and install the plug-ins. You’ll gain a license via iLok cloud and a physical iLok dongle that UA supplies, which, although not ideal, gives a lot more freedom than being attached to an interface or box.
The package currently includes 15 plug-ins and four instruments, which feels a little light considering the size of the full UAD catalogue – which currently stands at over 200 plug-ins. UA’s reasoning is that UAD Spark comprises a carefully curated collection of tools that covers most bases so that you don’t get overwhelmed with too many options. The brand adds that it’s an evolving collection that will gain exclusive new instruments and tools. We’ll have to wait and see if the expanded plug-in list comes with a higher price tag.
Although the package is relatively small, the plug-ins you get are all of exceptional quality. UA has a prestigious reputation in the music tech industry and the detail in its modelling of iconic hardware units is among the best.
On the compressor front, you get the LA-2A and 1176 collections, which each include three plug-ins covering different models, and the API 2500 Bus Compressor. For tonal shaping and character, you get the Neve 1073 Preamp and EQ, the Studer A800 Tape Machine, and the highly versatile API Vision Channel Strip, which boasts EQs, filters, compression, limiting, gate, expansion and a mic pre. Then, on the time-based effects side, there’s the Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb, Pure Plate Reverb and Galaxy Tape Echo for adding rich and characterful tape delays.
While this is a solid and versatile collection, it lacks tools for modern mastering-grade EQ and harmonic enhancement. It feels like an odd omission not to include the UAD Pultec collection, which is the bread and butter for most UAD users. Plus, the Lexicon 480L would perhaps have been a better reverb choice as it includes additional creative effects. Hopefully as the collection grows, some of Spark’s fuses will be fixed.
In fact, while we were reviewing Spark, UA added a new product to its catalogue. The Hitsville EQ Collection features two plug-ins based on the custom‑built graphic equalisers that shaped the legendary Motown sound. These include a seven-band graphic EQ for quick sound shaping, and a rare disc mastering EQ with custom Motown filters and mid/side control. These can help your tracks jump out of the speakers and give them a fat, vintage hi-fi sound. It’s also a bonus to see that Spark’s plug-in list is expanding so soon after its release.
Spark’s instrument list is small but mighty. First up is Ravel, a meticulously sampled Steinway Model B piano. It weighs in at 10GB and uses UA’s UltraResonance technology to recreate sympathetic resonances, resulting in a beautifully detailed and nuanced sound. Next, there’s the Waterfall B3 Organ that emulates the classic Hammond B3 alongside its companion Leslie 147 rotary speaker cabinet. Then we have the Moog Minimoog, which has been developed in partnership with Moog Music and features exceptional circuit modelling to bring the analogue sound to life. Finally, there’s the Opal Morphing Synthesizer, which is the only product that’s entirely exclusive to Spark. It’s an excellent and versatile, modern synth with a mix of analogue and wavetable synthesis, plus morphing oscillators, filters, LFOs and noise. You can read our full review here.
Although these instruments may not cover all your needs, they still manage to cover a lot of ground and they are some of the best examples of each respective instrument that we’ve heard.
The amount of use that you can get from this package will massively depend on your current plug-in collection. If you’ve been mostly using stock plug-ins and are looking to expand with some higher quality tools, then there is a lot of value on offer. On the flip side, if you already have 1176 compressors and deeply sampled pianos, or you’re already a UAD user, then it’s perhaps not so enticing.
Thankfully, UA has made all native versions of Spark’s plug-ins available for free to UAD users that have already purchased them. This allows you to take a little load off the limited DSP chips by using some plug-ins native, and others running via the hardware. The Apollo interfaces also have the added ability to track with zero latency, so they still have their place. Although it’s not a real-world scenario, we managed to run 180 Studer A800 plug-ins on our 2017 MacBook Pro compared to 35 instances on the Apollo X6.
One thing to note is that these new native plug-ins show up in a separate folder in UADx format alongside the original UAD-2 versions. Unfortunately, this means you can’t seamlessly load one project with original UAD plug-ins and then open it elsewhere without the hardware and expect it to magically work. From a workflow perspective, this is a pain but you can copy and paste settings between the two plug-in formats to speed things up a bit. We can only assume that this is due to some complex technical restrictions, but fingers crossed that UA finds a way around this in the future.
Spark is currently macOS only, and although the (hardware-based) UAD-2 plug-ins are now running natively on Apple Silicon, these UADx versions are still on Rosetta. This is a shame, not because of any known compatibility issues, but that a company of UA’s stature cannot meet the requirements demands of technology that’s been around since 2020. Full compatibility is promised soon though, along with a Windows release sometime in Winter 2022.
UAD Spark has had a luke-warm start when we compare it to offerings from the likes of Slate Digital and Plugin Alliance. Hopefully over time, the collection will expand a little to offer more choice, variety and value. The plug-ins and instruments in UAD Spark are all undoubtedly superb and if you don’t already have these tools, this is a fantastic way to access and explore some exceptional analogue plug-ins and find out what all the fuss is about.
- Run UAD plug-ins without hardware
- 15 plug-ins and 4 instruments
- Includes 1176, LA-2A, Neve EQ, API channel strip, Studer Tape, Lexicon reverb and more
- Ravel Piano, B3 Organ, Minimoog and Opal synth
- VST3, Audio Units, AAX and LUNA formats
- 14-day free trial
- $19.99/mo or $149.99/yr
- Contact Universal Audio