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Universal Audio LUNA: Real-World Review

Inspired by the fast real-time workflow of analog recording, the LUNA recording system offers music recording, editing and mixing with analog immediacy.

Universal Audio Luna Recording System

At January’s NAMM show, Universal Audio announced LUNA, a recording application that allows you to follow a UA workflow to a logical end—not only plugging instruments into its audio interfaces and using its bridging application Console to send processed signals onto your DAW, but to provide a recording environment into which they could be directly recorded.

You might be wondering why we’re taking such pains to avoid using the acronym DAW here and instead using phrases like “recording environment.” The reason is simple: According to UA, LUNA is not a DAW.

According to us, it partly is. A first-version DAW, certainly, and one missing some options you might expect from an established DAW. But what’s here is really rather good, and you’ll find, once you’ve made recordings and have mixed and edited with it, that it’s a DAW by most people’s definition of one.

Click to listen to the LUNA Extensions

The reason UA wants to avoid the DAW acronym is because of Advanced Real-Time Monitoring (ARM), which is at the heart of LUNA’s workflow. This technology allows you to configure Apollo-hosted, latency-free effects processing through which you can track and monitor recordings. No buffers to adjust, no one-app-to-another configuration.

Just as an SSL console providing multiple channels of audio plus a computer hosting recording software to capture those channels don’t add up to a DAW, so goes UA’s contention that LUNA is more than one of those, too. LUNA is free, but the price of entry is a Thunderbolt-enabled Apollo interface. It doesn’t have to be one of the latest generation of Apollo X interfaces (including the smaller Twin and Arrow); the previous-generation Apollo “black” will suffice.

LUNA allows you to work not only with UA’s plug-ins but with third-party AU ones too, which is great. However, install here was held up by an issue with the eLicenser software, which authorizes plug-ins like Vienna Symphonic Library, and I had to do a fair amount of Component moving to isolate problem elements. UA is working hard on known issues (this is one of them) and once you’ve got LUNA up and running, there’s a feedback option in the top right-hand corner where you can report issues and make suggestions—a direct line to contribute to future development. Well done, UA.

Universal Audio Apollo x4 Interface: A Real-World Review, by Rich Tozzoli, April 17, 2020

LUNA’s design will be familiar to Apollo and Console users, as well as to those who have used their interface to track into Pro Tools, which has inspired plenty of LUNA’s workflow and key commands. There are three basic track types in LUNA: Instruments, Audio Tracks and Bus Tracks. Instrument tracks let you record, program and edit MIDI; in addition to any third-party plug-ins, LUNA’s release coincides with the introduction of UA’s own Instruments. For now, there are three: Shape (which is free), Ravel (a deeply sampled Grand Piano costing $299) and a Moog-endorsed Model D MiniMoog (also $299). Shape covers core sounds for those lacking a full stack of Kontakt-style instruments. What’s there is good, solid and reliable.

Audio tracks do what you’d expect, though there are some really nice touches here, taking all of Console’s functionality and pushing it onwards considerably. You can configure an audio track with a Unison plug-in, a chain of inserts, and so on, but there’s also a dedicated tape option, which adds a tape emulation stage to every channel on which you instantiate it. Oxide Tape is included for free, but if you own (or want to buy) the Studer A800 plug-in, you can swap it in here instead. Indeed, there’s a store that lets you buy content (for instruments, extensions and plug-ins) directly inside the app.

Universal Audio LUNA with Apollo interfaces
Universal Audio LUNA with Apollo interfaces

In order to configure a Unison plug-in, you’ll need to enable Record-Ready or Input Monitoring mode on your selected audio track; this area remains inaccessible and greyed out until then, which is a contrast to the immediacy of this function in Console. Instrument and audio tracks can then be routed to a bus track, if you want to apply batch processing, create effects auxiliaries, or do anything else that buses do. A paid-for extension called Neve Summing brings bus tracks to life by enabling an emulation of the Neve 1272 Summing Amp to be placed across the bus. Not only does this sound really great, its incorporated Trim option makes it very easy to attenuate sub-mixes before the master bus.

LUNA features two main pages: the Timeline Display for showing audio and MIDI files, and the Mixer view. In the Timeline Display, LUNA features a number of workflows, accessed from the top in the Transport area. These provide a task-specific, focused set of tools; in the MIDI workflow, you can turn your QWERTY keyboard into a MIDI one, and in the edit workflow, you’ll find shortcuts to audio tools such as cut, copy, paste, fades and clip consolidation.

LUNA has some serious audio tasking tricks up its sleeve. First, it contains multiple great-sounding Warp algorithms (Elastic Audio equivalents), which let you seamlessly manipulate timing without needing to cut and move. Second, you can record multiple named takes to a single track and then consolidate them into a master take. Better still, LUNA appears to work without needing a fixed project sample rate. You can import audio recorded at any sample rate and the software will bring it in without so much as a grumble. And even better still, changing the host tempo can automatically affect audio files without you having to alter their status in advance. LUNA makes it very easy to experiment with project tempo, even deep into the production and mix process.

There are some issues for UA to iron out. For example, selecting a track de-highlights it, so it looks less selected than everything else, which is a bit odd. There is no surround sound provision and you can’t host video, so it’s not yet ready for media composers. And, of course, it’s a somewhat closed shop; Mac-only, Apollo-only and with a one-way approach to its new instruments and extensions: They can be used in LUNA, but not outside it, although the reason for this is DSP management and avoiding latency issues.

Universal Audio Apollo interfaces
Universal Audio Apollo interfaces

Perhaps most crucially, LUNA must have an Apollo interface attached to work, which means it’s not the most immediately-ready audio environment for use on planes and trains. Everyone’s needs are different and some of those issues might dissuade you, but I really like LUNA. It feels as much like working with a hardware console and tape-based recording system as it does something computer-based, somehow. If you’re already part of the UAD community, it’s a natural recording environment for everything that’s good about that: extremely high-quality effects provision and ultra-low latency tracking via ARM.

Visually, the mixer environment, when you’ve reached that point in your project, is a joy to work with. Indeed, even if all you did in LUNA was to bounce stems in your favorite DAW, importing them into LUNA for tape-based processing and Neve summing, your mixes would probably sound better … and yet you’d barely be scratching the surface of an environment that is much deeper than you’d expect of a version 1.0 recording program. Whether you call it a DAW or not, LUNA is here and, I suspect, here to stay.

The verdict: A brave and broadly successful move from UA. Expect plenty more to come in future updates, but even at v1, LUNA offers plenty, with a smooth and pleasing workflow.

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