“Thunderbolt” is a word that tends to establish where you sit on the spectrum of home recording enthusiasts. There are generally three levels of user. The novice may not have heard of Thunderbolt or, if they have, they don’t really know much about it. The intermediate user knows that Thunderbolt is a serious replacement for USB when it comes to audio (but without the widespread hardware integration USB enjoys). Serious users insist on Thunderbolt, or at least they would if their budgets allowed.
That’s of course a gross generalization, and there are novices doing just fine with Thunderbolt and experts who crank it out with USB. There are plenty of differences and similarities between Thunderbolt and USB, particularly with the introduction of Thunderbolt 3, which uses a USB-C connector.
Since this is a product review, you’ll have to go elsewhere for a Thunderbolt tutorial. Here, we’re looking at the entry level Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII (Amazon), dubbed the Solo, a 10-in and 6-out hybrid analog/digital audio interface.
Serious Audio and One Big Knob
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There’s no simple plug and play involved with the MKII Solo. Unlike many hardware installations, the unit is connected and powered up before software installation. That’s just the start. Setting up your MKII Solo won’t resemble the process you may have seen from other audio interfaces. This is fair, because you’ll see performance that you won’t get from other audio interfaces either.
After connecting device and computer, download and install software from UAD. This will trigger the registration and authorization processes for hardware and plug-ins.
The Apollo Thunderbolt Software Manual, at 200+ pages, is perhaps one of the most comprehensive manuals out there for a desktop audio interface, but it’s easy to follow and full of good tips and helpful links.
This is a case where reading the manual probably shouldn’t be optional. It’s the quickest way to get up and running with a minimum of frustration.
Unlike interfaces that work directly with your digital audio workstation (DAW) software, the MKII Solo routes through UAD’s Console application. This may seem like a resource hogging extra step, but since it’s part of a system that reduces the level of latency produced by DSP to indistinguishable levels, it’s using the resources in the right spot, in my opinion.
That said, you’re going to have a learning curve using your MKII Solo with your DAW. Plug-ins are loaded, edited and removed in Console, and then processed by your DAW. How you load up plug-ins within your DAW depends on the program itself. However, since UAD is an industry leader known for tremendous sound quality, the documentation is out there. Find it and learn it. You won’t be disappointed.
The big attraction of any Apollo device is the ability to use UAD’s famed plug-ins. These can be pricey, about $150 each, or cheaper if you’re buying bundles. Occasionally, there are bonus promotion bundles offered with a MKII Solo purchase, and the standard package includes a selection of plugins from compressors to amp simulators to reverbs. There’s plenty to get you going out of the box.
Since your DAW still functions as always, you can continue to use software plug-ins as you always have, but these are subject to the latency induced by your computer’s processing speed. The MKII Solo delivers plug-in performance of less than 2 milliseconds of latency. Effectively, that’s no latency. For that fact alone, you’ll find yourself using your UAD plug-ins whenever possible.
Despite its minimalist appearance, unlike other audio interfaces, the MKII Solo is surprisingly intuitive and easy to use once you get its tricks into your head. It’s just a button push to enter preamp mode, when the control surface converts to an audio input section.
Click into monitor mode and now you’re dealing with output parameters. The One Big Knob controls level in both modes. There’s also some integration with UAD plug-ins, those designated as Unison-enabled.
Compared with other audio interfaces, the MKII Solo perhaps invites a more interactive experience, but it’s one that flows naturally and feels good. It’s like driving a standard transmission, when you feel the clutch and stick shift immerse you more fully into driving. It’s always been a shortcoming of computer-based recording, particularly those who love the tactile sensation of buttons and faders.
As with any high-end user interface, there are fewer user reviews, because there are fewer users. Street priced around $600, the MKII Solo isn’t an impulse purchase. However, the only 1-star review I encountered was obviously from someone who didn’t read the user manual and is venting frustration borne of ignorance. Calling the MKII Solo an “instructionless tin can” immediate marks this reviewer as a capital T troll. There are few better documented interfaces out there, if any at all.
Otherwise, it’s all 4 and 5-star reviews. The only legitimate negativity came from a guitarist whose instrument sent the Hi-Z input into distortion at even the lowest gain settings. A direct inject (DI) box into one of the XLR preamps would probably solve that issue. When that’s the only naysaying out there, you know that UAD and the Apollo devices are worth their reputation.
If you can swing the change to pick up a MKII Solo, give it a go. You’ll note that the Apollo Twin comes in flavors named Solo, Duo and Quad, each with a bigger price tag. These designations refer to the DSP processors included in the Apollo Twin package. More processors mean more power. You can hit the limits of the Solo with comparative ease.
However, if you find out that your needs outgrow a single MKII Solo, you can build a chain with up to three additional Apollo devices (not just Apollo Twins). Such is the capability of Thunderbolt and the Console program. These devices then share the DSP processing between them. Buying a MKII Solo is therefore not a dead-end purchase.
The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Solo (Amazon) probably represents the most affordable entry into truly professional audio quality. There’s good, there’s really good, and then there’s truly professional. Do you need a MKII Solo to record world-class audio? No, you don’t if you know how to use your gear. The MKII Solo, however, bumps everything up a level.