Comparing Convertors

I regularly review music gear for Sonic State, it’s an interesting job as I have to look in detail at a particular piece of hardware or software. Often when you are just using a piece of kit, you don’t get time to delve into all the subtleties of it and learn all its’ full capabilities. I recently had a look at the new range of Apollo audio interfaces from Universal Audio, the full video review will be coming out in due course over on the Sonic State website, but in the meantime I thought it would be interesting to post up some audio illustrating the performance differences compared to the previous generation of interfaces.

The new Apollo thunderbolt-only interfaces boast different cosmetics and some enhanced functionality, but what I was most interested in was the sonic differences due to the revised A/D and D/A signal paths. On paper the specs show improved SNR, THD and Dynamic Range. Given that the previous generation of Apollo interfaces were already very well specified in this department, I did wonder how much of an audible difference these improvements actually made.

In order to test the differences I set up a simple drum recording session: 4 mics on a 1950’s Premier drum kit (EV RE20 outside kick, AKG C414 on snare, Oktavamod Oktava MK012’s for overheads) and my good friend and ace drummer Mark Whitlam laying down some funky yet consistently repeatable grooves. We tracked first through the 4 preamps on the older generation Apollo, then immediately switched the mic cables into the first 4 preamp channels on the Apollo 8P. Mark layed down the same groove again (clicked for ease of comparison) and that was it. Admittedly, this is more a real-world test rather than a carefully controlled scientific experiment, there will always be slight differences in the playing between each take no matter how consistent the drummer, but it gives a good indication of the differences.

Here are the audio files, listen for your self and decide if you can tell the difference:

First, the old generation Apollo Quad:

And next, the new generation Apollo 8P:

Can you hear a difference?

You can download the 24bit 44.1kHz audio files yourself from this link, load them into a DAW and flip between solo’d tracks to get a more direct comparison.

To my ears, I hear a different emphasis in the mid to high range, I can hear it in the hi hats and ride cymbal. I also perceive a bigger stereo image somehow, the the whole thing sounds a little smoother, more open and less boxy compared to the old generation. These are very subtle differences, but good monitoring or headphones do show them up.



DIY preamps continued….

As promised in the previous post, here are some sound samples to demonstrate the sonic differences between the DIY EZ1290 Neve-style Mic preamps and the stock preamps on the Universal Audio Apollo firewire interface.

The setup for this was pretty simple, a remote drum recording session where the drummer (the fabulous Mr Mark Whitlam) was given a score and a backing track to record the drum part to. The session was carried out in Marks garden studio cabin, a compact but decent sounding purpose-built space that has been acoustically treated.

Listening to the stye of the track and how the drums sounded in the space I decided to go for a simple 4 mic setup: 2 overheads placed more out in front of the drums to get a more balanced picture of the kit as a whole, supplemented with kick and snare close mics.

The drums themselves were:

Vintage 1960s Zildjian A 14″ hi hats, 22″ Istanbul Agop Azure ride (next to hats), Bosphorus 21″ medium thin ride and an 18″ bosphorus thin crash. Drums …. Snare: Canopus Zelkova, 1960’s premier Olympic 20″ bass drum and 12″ Tom, modern premier 14″  Tom

Of course, all properly tuned…..

On the overheads I used 2 Oktava MK-012 modified by Micheal Joly at Oktavamod, on the kick an Electrovoice RE20 and on the snare a cheap and surprisingly cheerful Audio Technica AT2020 (high SPL handling, nice response, good rejection).

On the following audio examples you are listening to just the overheads so you can hear more clearly the differences between preamps. Note that these are different takes, although the drummer is incredibly consistent, so the comparison is not entirely precise.

Firstly, through with the UA Apollo preamps


And then with the EZ1290 preamps


You can hear the subtle differences, especially when you listen to that ride cymbal from about 10 seconds in. The Apollo preamps are very good, very clear and crisp, but the EZ1290 has a smoother sound, more open and somehow with a better sense of space.  What do you think?

This is the only direct comparison I’ve done but I’ve been working a lot with these preamps on voice and guitar and really like the sound I’m getting, I’m finding I’m using less processing further down the line to shape the sound. I’ve particularly enjoyed the combination of this preamp and the modified Apex 460 valve mic mentioned in a previous article.