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UAD Spark: Universal Audio's New Hardware-Free Plugins

UAD Spark is a new plugin subscription service that gives users access to Universal Audio quality plugins without the need for expensive and bulky hardware. Does the new service live up to UA's celebrated analogue hardware emulations? Headliner delved in and put the new plugins through their paces.

I love my Apollo x8p, but if I’m on a train journey with four hours to spare or stuck in a hotel room and want to spend my time completing a mix on my laptop, I can’t use my library of favourite plugins without an attached interface. Not only that, opening a project full of UAD and UAD2 plugins without an attached Apollo interface or UAD2 Accelerator causes untold heartache and frustration. It’s not something I’ve done a lot, but when I’ve made that mistake, I’ve simply closed my laptop, sat back and pondered the question: when will UA start making full use of the more powerful computer processing chips and give us some native plugins?

Well ponder no more my friends; UA have delivered with the Spark system. Now this is a subscription based system but if, like me, you already have an Apollo interface and a strong library of UAD plugins, then you are free to download all of the spark equivalents without charge. The only obvious negative I can see at the moment is there’s currently no Spark for Windows users, as I understand it represents around 10% of current music production platforms. The obvious benefit is I can now use my cloud iLok licence to authorise both my Studio Mac and my laptop so I don’t have to worry about migrating a project from one machine to the other. What’s more, I’m now free to take that train journey or hotel stay armed only with the simplest of USB interfaces and my headphones – or if you trust the onboard audio, just your headphones!

Firstly I want to start with what’s new and exclusive to Spark – or was previously only available to Luna users – and that’s the four virtual instruments.

Opal Morphing Synthesiser

Now this is going to open a lot of eyes and ears. I don’t profess to be a keyboard player and my knowledge of synths and samplers is at best rudimentary, but even I can tell from the sound this synth makes that it’s going to be a winner. It’s described as Analogue meets Wavetable with continuously morphing oscillators, noise filters and LFOs. It also features a host of familiar onboard effects; reverb, delay, modulation and compression which you can assign in various combinations in the output stage.

I have literally scratched the surface of this synth’s capabilities and awesome sound, but I can envisage an online community springing up to discuss user ideas and exchange or offer new presets. What I can tell you is that straight out of the box it already comes with a massive library of presets grouped into genre, type and description. I have already noticed a number of comments regarding the Opal and how it has become their favourite synth already!

The four keyboard instruments are beautiful – I found them to be latency-free, perfectly responsive and great sounding instruments.

Clicking on each section header expands your view into many hidden controls that increase your creative options exponentially. I have to admit that while I love exploring new things, it’s not everyday you come across something so good you can’t stop playing with it. This is one of those times and I can see this synth taking off in the cinematic world as well as all the current genres it caters for!

Minimoog Model D

With UA’s vast experience of modelling it was interesting to see that the Minimoog D, a model which has many plugin versions available, was the first to be tackled. Not surprising was how big the sound is from this little UAD Instrument. The UAD Minimoog was previously only available as an additional purchase from within UAD’s recording system Luna, which is still free for all Apollo owners. While Luna is a very capable DAW in its own right, it doesn’t seem to have received the credit and take up it deserved, as a result of which, this and the following two instruments remained largely unnoticed.

Ravel Grand Piano

Again, this is an instrument that first appeared in Luna and was as impressive there as it is here. Every little detail has been accurately and faithfully reproduced, from the sound of the sustain pedal being used to the closeness of the microphones. What I’m impressed with the most is the quality of sound. There’s a huge 9.8Gb of sampled audio but the interface is relatively simple with just simple dynamic and tone controls. Close your eyes and add a little hall reverb and your Steinway could be in any major concert hall. Most of the decent piano sound libraries I know of have prices to reflect their pedigree, so it’s good to see an excellent piano included in UAD Spark.

Waterfall B3 Organ

The Waterfall B3 is again no exception to UA’s constant striving for great sounding audio. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I remember seeing various players from John Lord to Mickey Simmonds playing these beasts and marvelling at the great range of tones they could get, however, when it came to transporting them around my love affair was cruelly halted. So having an authentic sound right down to the noisy old Leslie cabinet is a trip down memory lane. There’s a B3 in Logic which I’ll never use again!

Plugins

It goes without saying that anything UA is incomplete without the legendary 1176, a piece of hardware designed by UA’s founder and still to this day the most sought after vintage compressor ever built, not to mention the most modelled device in all its many incantations and revisions over the last two decades. Similarly, there’s the Teletronix LA-2A collection, also based on a product acquired and improved by UA. The originals have also been modelled by many of UA’s competitors and this is an area in which UA have potentially lost ground through keeping their wonderful plugins exclusive to their UAD2 ecosystem.

Luckily for all of us, UA are spreading their wings and are now offering nine of their most popular plugin titles in native form. In keeping with a love of all things analogue, there are three variations of the iconic 1176 and three of the LA-2A; the API 2500 Bus Compressor and the Studer A800 Tape Recorder complete the lineup of dynamic processing. API Vision Channel Strip, together with the Neve 1073 preamp and EQ, provide some historical console emulation, and effects-wise there’s the legendary Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb, the Pure Plate Reverb and the Galaxy Tape Echo, which looks and sounds like a Roland Space Echo without the reliability issues!

So if I’m not mistaken, the key question you’re all asking is how do the new native UAD Spark plugins (UADx) compare to existing UAD equivalents? Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference if there is any. As far as I can tell, it’s the same plugin just using computer processing instead of UAD’s DSP.

Conclusion

The four keyboard instruments are beautiful – I found them to be latency-free, perfectly responsive and great sounding instruments. The three classic emulations are absolutely in keeping with UA’s tradition of keeping the tones and flavour of classic, iconic analogue equipment alive, and boy do they do it well. But as for the Opal Morphing Synth, well that’s something a little bit special.

With the advent of Apple silicon and ever-greater processing power in today’s computing, it seems like a very logical move on the part of UA to open up their rather excellent plugins to a wider audience of hobbyists, as well as professionals just making their first strides. I think a few people might join just for a trial year to check out what all the fuss is about and then, depending on how quickly UA adds new plugins, stay or leave. I for one would love to see Luna included as part of Spark. I believe catching your potential customers while they’re still at the learning and experimental stage is vital for building loyalty and long term relationships. It’s going to be interesting to see which plugins UA adds to the native stable during the coming year.

With regard to the question I posed earlier, I was unable to detect any difference between my UAD and UADx equivalents. More importantly, I didn’t find the new plugins to be in any way more processor intensive than anything else I currently have from other vendors. This is also good news, as on a few occasions I’ve run out of onboard DSP in my x8p and had to bounce tracks in place to continue to use the plugins of choice, saving a number of versions of the same project so as to free up processing to continue a mix! Now I can utilise a combination of both if necessary – I’m chuffed to bits…

UAD Spark is available for OSX only in AAX, AU and VST3.

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