Audio, Reviews

Universal Audio’s Thunderbolt 3 audio interface, the Arrow, rocks

universal audio arrow interface

Arrow, the newest audio interface by Universal Audio has ultra-low latency input monitoring and Digital Signal Processing (DSP) on board. The Arrow is a solo processing interface, meaning it will accept all the Unison and common plug-ins from Universal Audio, but won’t be able to process as many of them as the more expensive models. The Arrow can be had for around €499.

The Arrow is the world’s first Thunderbolt 3-powered desktop recording audio interface for Mac and Windows that delivers class-leading audio conversion (the built-in DAC, for example, is said to be a high-end 32-bit Sabre model), two Unison mic preamps, a Hi-Z instrument input and a suite of onboard UAD plug-ins.

The Arrow has a lovely design, but a different form factor than my trusted Duet iOS/Mac, although it isn’t much bigger. It has a 2×4 interface, which comes with UA conversion derived from UA’s flagship Apollo interface range, and which should sonically outperform anything in its class. In contrast with the Duet, which is an ‘ordinary’ audio interface, the Arrow has Unison technology on board and a built-in UAD-2 SOLO Core processor for Digital Signal Processing (DSP). These features allow you to record through classic audio tools including the 610 Tube Preamp, LA-2A and 1176 compressors, and a genuine Marshall Plexi amp plug-in – all at near-zero latency, regardless of your audio software buffer setting.

I first tried Arrow by using it as I would my Duet, i.e. without any of the features that make it truly unique. Used “as is”, the Arrow is a fine device to work with. Its preamps are top-notch, with a clarity that slightly surpasses my Duet’s, but with less warmth. The DAC and output electronics make for a great sound, no different from the Duet. Again, the latter may have just a bit more warmth, but it could just as well be my imagination. Sound-wise, the Arrow came closest to the Sound Devices MixPre-6 I reviewed here earlier.

The Arrow has a +10dB base gain and you can add 65dB to that, which also equals what I’m used to from my Duet. Testing it with the sE Electronics V7 revealed as much. The sE2200a too could be driven at the same level. Only the RØDE NT1 seemed to be happy with a slightly less gain setting. Why that is, is a mystery to me.

Where the Arrow shines is when you start monitoring the input. It’s advised to turn software monitoring off, which I did. This allows the Arrow and its Console app to take over input monitoring completely. It must be said that this works brilliantly. There’s no lag at all and you can reduce the Logic Pro X I/O buffer to zero – I left it at 32 – because the Universal Audio system takes over. That results in a latency of less than 2ms.

When you start using Arrow’s unique features, the possibilities expand beyond high-quality preamps, a first-class DAC, and zero-latency monitoring and recording. I was using Logic Pro X throughout, so I’ll refer to Logic to discuss the integration with Universal Audio’s interface.

The Arrow’s unique features

In Logic, you can select different inputs – as many as there are on your device. It works slightly different with a Universal Audio device and so, also with the Arrow. In Logic Pro X, I got no less than 10 input channels to choose from. Those include software outputs that you manage and control through the Console app.

The reason for this is that you can route Logic’s output to a Console input and then out again via another channel to Logic. If you don’t want to have all these channels at your disposal, you can change them inside Console, in the I/O Matrix Panel. There’s one thing to note: the software-based channels only work with a sample rate of less than 176kHz. On Apollos, I assume you’ll be able to go higher.

The routing functionality is only the first feature that is unique to UA’s system. The other is that you manage and apply plug-ins – amps, delay plug-ins, reverb, etc – from within Console. The non-latency is one reason you should want to do that, but also because you don’t have to record any of the plug-ins with an Arrow unless you are happy with the results.

Processing these plug-ins is where the DSP power of the Arrow comes into play. UAD plug-ins aren’t processed by your computer’s CPU, but – in this case – the Arrow itself. In order to have some control over how many plug-ins you can load (on the Arrow, there are up to five slots available in all), there’s a DSP-load meter installed on your Mac which tells you how much power you’re using. I could load up to five on one channel (didn’t try it with two), but I had to choose carefully as the Unison plug-in apparently consumes more DSP power than some others.

Unison plug-ins

And you will definitely want to load that Unison plug-in. Unison is an exclusive analogue/digital integration system that’s built into every Arrow preamp. It’s the only audio interface on the market that offers to emulate classic analogue mic preamps, guitar amps and pedal behaviours and as such the Arrow is the smallest and least expensive model that enables it.

As I already witnessed before trying out the Unison inserts, Arrow’s preamps deliver a high-resolution, high-transparency translation from the microphone to the converter. Nothing is added to your mic’s (or guitar, or…) native characteristics and this clean design is the foundation for adding colour with a Unison UAD plug-in.

Unison-enabled UAD preamp, guitar amp, and pedal plug-ins reconfigure the physical input impedance, gain staging response, and other parameters of Arrow’s mic preamp hardware to match the emulated hardware’s design characteristics.

Indeed, a Unison plug-in lets you work with gain staging. On the UA 610-B Unison preamp plug-in, I had three stages that I could control using the Arrow’s control knob. By pressing the knob, you cycle through the three stages.

What I noticed when I activated this Unison plug-in was that the gain for my microphone suddenly and dramatically dropped. The starting gain for the three stages was low. By turning up the gain on each of the stages, I could achieve the same sound level again, but not only did I get the character of this – once analogue – famous preamp in the package, I could also individually control the low and high tone levels. As I am a fan of warm vocals, I turned up the lows more than the highs, which, much to my enjoyment, had the predictable effect.

Back to the Arrow hardware

Now, all of this comes with visual feedback on the unit, with the ability to monitor it all without any noticeable latency and the ability to burn it into the recording – or decide to only route it to my monitors or headphones.

Another great feature of the Arrow/Console system is that you have a separate headphone cue mix bus, which can be used with per-input sends to ensure performers hear more of themselves if needed. It’s something that you associate with a genuine music studio, not with a “simple” audio interface.

The Arrow has a lot more to drool over, but I’ll wrap it up here. Suffice it to say the Arrow is a superb piece of gear for making and recording music or audio of any kind. It doesn’t matter whether you’re creating a music CD or a soundtrack for a film, the Universal Audio system is superior to anything else I have had my hands on so far. And that includes my own Apogee Duet iOS/Mac, which I’m truly fond of.

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