Portable Plug-In Power

In his Continuing Adventures In Software, Rich Tozzoli explores an orbiting platform on a quest for enhanced processing.
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In his Continuing Adventures In Software, Rich Tozzoli explores an orbiting platform on a quest for enhanced processing.

Up to now, my Mac Book Pro laptop has been used only for composition and light mobile tracking purposes. All of the work I do on it gets transferred to my Pro Tools HD system for final mixing and polishing. That is, until I plugged in the sleek little Universal Audio Satellite.

Looking right at home next to my laptop, the Satellite is an external DSP unit that plugs into Intel-based Mac Book Pro, Mac minis and iMacs via either of the two FireWire 800 or single FireWire 400 ports on the rear of the unit. It does, however, require a power supply, as does any external FireWire 800 drive that you daisychain to it. It will run RTAS, VU and VST plug-in formats on Mac OSX Snow Leopard and is not Windows PC-compatible yet.

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This standalone unit takes the processing off your computer and can run the full catalog of UA plug-ins. It can also be added to a “group” that includes any other UAD-2 PCIe cards, which means it’s also a system expansion for Mac Pro users. I did, in fact, test it on my Intel Mac Pro, and it ran fine with my other Quad card. As of now, you cannot run more than one Satellite on a system, but UA notes that it is working on that.

As I mentioned, my laptop use was limited to mobile overdubs, composition and sound design. I would always transfer projects begun on the laptop to my HD rig, where I had the tools for a proper mix. On my first test TV cue, I ran the Satellite alongside my MBox Pro with a good set of Sony mastering headphones.

With a simple, 3-channel synth, loop and cymbal cut, I was able to put the SSL 4K bus compressor, Manley Massive Passive, Studer 800 tape recorder, and UA Precision Mastering Maximizer on my master fader. Now that’s what I’m talking about! Also, I added an EMT 140, Echoplex EP-34, Roland 201 Space Echo and Lexicon 224 on four Aux channels. On the drums, I put the Neve 33609 and a Fatso Jr. Playing around with automated snare hits to the 224, and using the EP-34 and 201’s panning and selfoscillation, I was able to create a cue that there is no way I could have done previously on this rig. Then I output a final and uploaded it to the producers’ FTP within minutes.

My laptop was running at under 8 percent of its CPU (mind you, on a small session), while the Satellite handled all of the plug-ins with ease (with only one of four chips reading at 69 percent). This is the way to go, and now it’s turned my laptop rig into a powerhouse. Just to show you, I took a screenshot of all of the plug-ins, (see image on page 26) and I like to call it my “dream screen.”

Also, like anything else new, there are some quirks to be worked out. On my particular model of Mac Book Pro, the Satellite will only run at a speed of 400, even though hooked up to a FireWire 800 port. When powering up, I get a message saying, “One or more UAD-2 devices is connected to a FireWire bus controller that has issues running at FireWire 800 speed. Devices on problematic busses will run at FireWire 400 speed, regardless of the Target Link speed setting.” A look at the UAD Control panel confirmed that it was running at FireWire 400 speed, and the plugin latency was 1088 samples (which Pro Tools 9 handled in the mix). For more info on certain computers that have issues, check the UA website. [Editor's note: UA informs that "You can purchase a PCIe adapter that allows for full FW800 speed on your model: http://www.uaudio.com/support/uad/satellite-support#adapters-repeaters"]

Satellite comes in several different configurations, with price points to reflect that, running from around $899 up to $4,499. The Duo (Core) features 2 X SHARC processors, the Analog Classics Bundle and a $50 voucher, the Duo Flexi has the same with a $500 voucher. The QUAD (Core) has 4 X SHARC chips, the Analog Bundle and $50 voucher, the QUAD Flexi has the same with the $500 voucher, and the Quad Omni has 50 plug-ins and a $100 voucher.

Apparently, Satellite has been a hit for the company. “When I bring it out with my laptop and playback huge multitrack sessions with all these plug-ins, I hear the same thing—‘Sounds great, but I thought the Satellite was much bigger,’” notes Bruce MacPherson, Universal Audio Eastern regional sales manager. “It may only be 6x8x1 inches and weigh 2 lbs, but great things do come in small packages.” I happen to second that emotion. Satellite is definitely a potent tool for anyone looking to turn his/her compatible Mac into a compact little mix monster. Now how about Thunderbolt connectivity?