Recording audio into your Mac or PC requires a standalone digital signal processor. The most popular models are the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96, but now advanced audio tech manufacturers are getting into the DSP hardware game. Take the $699 Universal Audio Apollo Solo, for example, which is a new DSP from a 60-year-old company more famous for analog sound gear than high-end electronics.
At its core, the device takes in two XLR/1/4-inch inputs and allows you to send the audio directly to your computer via a Thunderbolt cable (not included). There is a headphone jack for monitoring the sound and a pair of 1/4-inch output jacks that take advantage of the device’s built-in pre-amp. It has a number of switches, including input controls, +48 volt phantom power, padding controls to reduce the total audio input, and a system to link outputs.
All of this is standard fare with audio interfaces, which means the insides of this thing, as well as the associated software, are the real draw. For example, the Apollo Solo features built-in DSP chips that actually reduce latency of effects, taking a lot of the heavy lifting off of the computer and placing onto to Solo itself.
The Apollo Solo supports 24-bit/192 kHz input, which is fairly standard for this space, but UA claims far less latency, especially in the audio-monitoring system. The Apollo Solo is specially designed to work with UAD’s plug-ins and digital audio editor, Luna. UA has carefully modeled a number of classic amps, pre-amps, and studio tools in an effort to recreate the sounds and tools used to make many famous pieces of music. For example, their flanger is set to emulate a 1979 solid-state device as well as a more modern 2009 sound. The free Luna recording system is on par with a simpler version of Apple’s Logic or a more complex version of GarageBand.
Again, the real draw here is the connection between the software and in-app filters and effects and the hardware itself. UA is famous for its replicas and versions of classic studio gear, and this software coupled with the Apollo Solo makes the entire package shine. Sadly, many of the plug-ins have a 14-day demo period and require payment after that trial period elapses, which could make setting up your workstation a little expensive. For example, the Flanger I tried costs $74 to activate. The device does come with a few free plug-ins, including a simulated UA 610-B Tube Preamp and EQ, which is actually a software version of their Solo 610 tube amp that sells for about $1,000. The value proposition is that you get is extremely unique and perfectly matched simulated effects for far less than you would pay for the actual analog hardware. This is important if you’re running a music studio but not as important if you’re trying to hop on a Zoom call.
To be completely clear, this device is primarily for recording music and voiceover work. At $699, this is three times more expensive than entry-level DSPs from Focusrite and Presonus, and if you’re looking to connect a microphone to your computer for basic podcasting, you’ll probably want to look at a cheaper DSP. If you know that you’ll be doing lots of high-quality music recording, however, the Apollo Solo is amazing. I find the audio coming out of this to be definitely superior to my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 and for good reason: this system is designed to increase quality and reduce latency at the hardware level.
One pet peeve is that when your computer goes to sleep the Thunderbolt version of the device also goes to sleep. When it restarts, small relays inside the case fire a few times, creating a ticking noise as the box boots up. If you sleep next to your computer, I suspect this insect-like buzzing might get annoying.
That said, UA has done some interesting, exciting things with digital and analog sound, and the Apollo Solo is the gateway into their high-end audio world. If you’re still on a beer budget, however, the unit’s champagne price might be too steep.