Review: Universal Audio Arrow
UA stole the NAMM show with Arrow, its first Thunderbolt 3 interface. We load our bow with an interface that will tempt many to the world of UAD…
Contact Universal Audio
Arrow key features:
- 2×4 Thunderbolt 3, bus-powered audio interface with 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion
- Bus-powered connection to Mac and Windows
- Unison technology and built-in UAD-2 SOLO Core processor
- Includes Realtime Analog Classics bundle (Precision Mix Rack Collection, 2 Pultec EQs, two 1176 compressors, three guitar amps/effects, LA-2A and RealVerb Pro)
- Near-zero-latency tracking with classic UAD plug-in effects
It’s not often I buy a new computer to do a review, but that’s exactly what happened when the Universal Audio Arrow arrived. To enjoy all of the added Thunderbolt 3 speed and mobility that Arrow has, you will need a computer with some of that interfacing connectivity.
While there are cable solutions to convert Thunderbolt 2 to 3 and vice versa, Arrow is unsupported on any such backwards-compatible TB-2 setup. You need Thunderbolt 3 – it’s as simple as that. I’m now facing 16 monthly instalments of £156. Just don’t tell my wife or the kids, who, once again, will lack a holiday this year… But was it worth it?
The whole story
On the face of it, the answer is already a ‘yes’. This is a cost-effective UA interface that comes bundled with some of the company’s effects. I will cover some of the new format’s advantages in more detail later, but what we’re really focussing in on is Universal’s first foray into the world of mobile interfacing, and the plug-ins that you get for the money.
The other aim of this review is to explain Universal Audio’s approach to its hardware and software, which we haven’t done for a while. And that’s because Arrow is so competitively priced, we think that many will be tempted to take their first steps into the UAD world.
Universal Audio actually has a couple of histories. The early one began some seven decades ago when Bill Putnam – who engineered the stars of the day, including Sinatra and Ray Charles – started several enterprises including Universal Audio, Studio Electronics and UREI that would yield gear including the 610 console, the 1176 compressor and, via the purchase of Teletronix, the LA-2A compressor.
In 1999 Bill Putnam’s son, James and Bill Jr. relaunched the Universal Audio brand. Initially they produced a new 1176 but then developed a DSP-driven platform that would recreate classic pieces of outboard gear within a desktop environment. Back in 1999, computers weren’t really up to the task of running emulations, so companies including Universal Audio (and others, such as Creamware) used hardware processors
to add the power required.
That power has stayed with UA products to this day. Sure, you could argue that computers are more up to speed now, but any extra power always has to be welcomed and besides, when UA designs these plug-ins, it goes in at a component level for maximum authenticity, so they can be quite processor intensive.
Over the last couple of decades, then, UA has refined this hardware and software integration with better preamps, more rugged interfaces and produced better plug-ins (with many coming from third parties) to the point where there are now close to 200 available. The UAD2 SHARC processor provides the power to run them and has become the standard within interfaces like the flagship Thunderbolt 2 Apollo 16, the Thunderbolt and USB Apollo Twin and now Arrow: “the world’s first Thunderbolt 3-powered desktop recording audio interface for Mac and Windows”.
Do I really need this?
You need a great audio interface, of course you do, and there’s every chance you already own one. So whether you absolutely need Universal Audio’s Arrow will depend on several factors. If you’re a UAD convert already and simply need a compact and mobile device, then Arrow is your solution, simple as that. If you want access to the world of UAD plug-ins, that everyone and their dog seems to be barking on about, then Arrow is probably the best and most cost- effective way to get into that world.
The caveat is, of course, whether you have the Thunderbolt 3 technology to use it. That means you either own or can invest in a top-end Mac (MacBook Pro or iMac starting at around £1,750) or a cheaper PC (starting at around £600). If you already have Thunderbolt 3, then you really do need Arrow. If you don’t have it, though, you know what to. Apple has a good payment plan to upgrade, after all…
Getting up and running
That’s the history lesson dealt with and now we’re bang up to date. The interface ships with Universal’s Realtime Analog Classics Bundle which comprises 14 classic plug-ins that cover the compressor, channels strip, guitar- and bass-amp emulations. The hardware itself is a lovely wedge of an interface that is simple in layout and neat in operation. Its weight (heavier than you might think) combined with a rubber base, mean that it isn’t going anywhere fast when placed on your desk.
Start up by connecting via a Thunderbolt 3 cable. UA don’t bundle one with Arrow, which is annoying. I’d have rather paid a few quid more because getting one is an annoying delay, especially at that exciting stage of connecting up a new piece of gear. However, I say ‘sometimes’, as I have since noted a couple of dealers selling Arrow with a free cable, so do shop around.
You’ll need to register yourself and Arrow at UA’s website to download around 1.85GB of software. This covers the plug-ins and Console, the interfacing software that allows you to change routing options and load in those plug-ins at your input stage.
Once Arrow was connected, launching Console got everything up and running. There was finally a reassuring clicking noise, and a light display from Arrow and I was ready to go. At this stage, you also need to register the 14 plug-ins which will run within both Console and your chosen DAW.
The main headline is, of course, Thunderbolt 3, which delivers enough 48v phantom bus power for Arrow without the need for a separate PSU – ideal for laptop musicians. T3 is twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2 and, in some instances, can be four times as fast as USB 3. And with Arrow providing DSP power for the UAD plug-ins, we are looking at minimal latency when recording with them. And that is really what Arrow is all about.
Arrow is a solid piece of kit. The single dial can be used to control the input levels of the preamps (with the Preamp button selecting between the two). With the Monitor button pressed, it controls both the monitor or headphone levels and you can click on it to mute the monitor out. Buttons on the left control input options, including a high-pass rumble filter, phantom power, polarity and Link, which enables you to quickly link both inputs so all controls apply to both. Around the back are two outputs and two dual mic/line ins, plus a Hi-Z in.
Arrow’s two Unison mic pres are the stars of the show, and when combined with the UAD plug-ins really do offer you a glorious signal chain. They are pristine when you want them to be or warm and coloured when combined with something like the 610 channel plug-in. It’s also easy to set up favourite combinations of plug-ins on your inputs within Console or load in numerous channels trip presets.
The whole experience is like flicking between different classic mic pres. The only annoyance is that you’re often given the choice to load plug-ins you don’t own and, as with loading them within your DAW, it’s not clear which are the 14 that you do own. In Console you can filter this, but not within your DAW.
Compress to impress – some classics you get with Arrow
Teletronix LA-2A Legacy
It might be an older Legacy edition, but the LA-2A is as smooth a compressor as you can ask for and the two controls yield dramatic results.
UA 1176LN and 1176SE
Both of these compressors offer you a lot more control and envelope punch, so much so that you can get pretty creative with them.
Pultec EQP-1a and Pro
And talking of getting creative, there are enough options on these, especially the Pro, for some extreme EQ-ing as well as classic warmth.
Talking of the plug-ins… we’ll start with the Marshall Plexi Classic Amplifier. I recently interviewed Tony Platt, who helped develop it with Softube. Platt is famed for the AC/DC guitar sound and this Marshall amp is the very definition of rock. I barely need to describe it, but the simple controls, combined with a good sound make this a standard in your effects library.
Next up is Raw Distortion, another guitar effect, this time based on a vintage early-80s Pro Co Rat stompbox. The real benefit of these plug-ins for guitarists is that they can simply plug into Arrow and use the interface like a stompbox, in real time with no latency.
Finally, on the guitar side of things is Softube’s Bass Amp Room. All three of these plug-ins are not only good for real-time recording and playing, but also superb for someone like me who wants to turn some programmed guitar in Logic into something more real.
Pretty much all of the vintage gear that Putnam Senior was responsible for, and the Putnam Juniors have helped recreate, is on show. The Teletronix LA-2A is the Legacy version, so you don’t get the three different LA-2As that UA makes but this is lighter on your processor and lighter on controls too. It offers a very mellow, gentle compression.
Faster FET compression comes by way of two 1176s, again Legacy (or older) ones but still capable of great punch and character for vocals, drums or anything that you throw at them. The 610-B Tube Preamp and EQ emulates the channel from that iconic 610 console, so you get a lovely warmth and non-linear character – perfect for adding a bit of humanity to recordings.
For more in the way of EQ, it doesn’t come much better than a pair of Pultecs in the form of the EQP-1A and Pro. It’s that word ‘warm’ again, so often used with emulations like these.
The rest of the plug-ins cover more of your basics. There’s a very usable reverb (RealVerb Pro) which has a ton of options that help make it very intuitive and you also get four plug-ins in one in the Precision Mix Rack Collection, the delay modulation being a highlight. Okay, some of these are quite simple plug-ins, but you get the big, classic names and a varied and useful set.
Guitar greatness – the 3 plug-ins for bass and guitar
Marshall Plexi Classic Amplifier
Okay, it doesn’t do much, but it does do the sound of rock and it’s a Marshall, which people who talk endlessly about guitars seem to like.
Only three controls and not that many more presets, but this stompbox emulation does what it says on the, er, box. It’s raw and it distorts.
Softube bass amp room
Of the three guitar-orientated plug-ins, this has more options than the rest and can really fatten up your low end or make it trimmer and tighter.
Reverb to classic channel strip – more arrows to your heart
It might look like an old Logic plug-in but RealVerb Pro has some neat options, like adjusting room wall coverings, and can deliver great results.
UAD UA 610-B
An emulation of the classic Putnam console, so it should be damn fine. This adds some real sonic character to whatever you throw at it. A class act.
Not so much a plug-in, but…
And here’s a shot of Console, the rather great software that Arrow uses so you can set the plug-ins up to record with and route audio.
Precision mix – 3 more arrows in your quiver
Precision Reflection Engine
As part of the Precision Mix plug-in, you get Reflection Engine which is a subtle reverb that’s well suited to vocals.
Precision Delay Mod
Another good one, Delay Mod offers some varied delays and some that are especially well suited to fattening up basses with modulation.
Precision channel strip
A channel strip with a five-band EQ and compression. With clear controls, there’s plenty of sculpting action to shape your sound.
Arrow has been rock solid in my tests and performs very well indeed. The plug-ins are fantastic, offering a great taste of every corner of UA emulation. The interface itself is immaculate, pristine in sound and solidly built. It’s as fast as anything I’ve used and the UA plug-ins are at home working latency free on inputs as they are on previously recorded material in your DAW. Arrow has quickly found a home on my desktop. It’s certainly simplified everything about my studio and has been a marvellous introduction to the UA world.
Those who want an ‘in’ to that world that won’t find any cheaper way. Those who require a great, well-built mobile interface should also take note. Vocalists get real-time, latency-free recordings with effects that will transform their singing while guitarists can thrash away with an interface that effectively doubles as a stompbox. And the rest of us? Well, we can see and hear what it is those top producers have been going on about for all these years. Arrow has hit the bullseye.
Babyface from £649
I looked at this a while back, but it does share some features with Arrow, although it’s pricier but you get more connectivity. It’s an out-and-out mobile interface, though, and is great for roving recording tasks.
Clarett Thunderbolt 2Pre from £392
I actually looked at the bigger brother of this, the 8Pre, but this offers as good a speed and quality with less I/O and is comparable to Arrow in terms of price, although is only Thunderbolt 2.