Building on their heritage of innovation and sonic excellence, Universal Audio has unveiled three studio-grade effects pedals: Starlight Echo Station, Golden Reverberator and Astra Modulation Machine. Each of these pedals offers three unique effects, and, like all things UA, the greatest attention to detail has been paid to both the quality of sound and the quality of build.
To learn more about these exciting new effects, we reached out to Tore Mogensen, Senior Product Manager at UA.
The HUB: In recent years, you’ve been dipping your toes into the guitar water with both your Unison technology and your OX Amp Top Box. How did this project start?
Tore Mogensen: The UAFX project really started as a labor of love. There are a staggering number of guitar players at Universal Audio, including our owner Bill [Putnam, Jr.]. There are literally guitars in almost every office at UA HQ. When combining this passion for guitar with UA’s legacy and expertise in developing what is arguably the best recreation of classic vintage effects in the world, it really is almost a no-brainer.
The HUB: Can you explain the basic concept behind the pedal lineup?
TM: The basic concept is to create a range of three pedals (delay, reverb and modulation) that each provides the absolute best-sounding must-have core tones (tape echoes, spring reverbs, chorus, etc.) in each effect category, without any compromises or “filler” effects.
The HUB: Were there any no-compromise features?
TM: Yes … to be honest, the entire UAFX range is built with a no-compromise mindset. But obviously the core sound of the pedals and the algorithms were of particular importance. This boils down to state-of-the-art hardware design that rivals that of our Apollo interfaces, designing a special silent switching circuit to prevent the footswitches from making noise in true bypass mode, to using a processor that is literally leaps beyond any other pedals in terms of processing power … all to be able to painstakingly develop and implement algorithms that are so realistic, we literally can’t tell them apart from their real-life counterparts.
The HUB: Let’s go pedal by pedal and break them down a little bit. What range of sounds will each one offer?
TM: First, we’ll look at the Starlight Echo Station.
Tape EP-III is an extremely accurate emulation of what is arguably the most famous tape echo device ever created. It includes everything: tape age, tape noise, wow and flutter, tape splice and the ability to turn the built-in preamp on or off. We’ve even gone to the length of modeling three different units: an NOS machine with an NOS tape installed for clean and pristine tones, a well-worn but perfectly serviced machine for the tones that most of us probably associate with this classic Tape Echo, and the same unit, but played for several hours, at which point the tape will start to slip on the rollers for more wow and flutter, and an overall grungier tone.
Analog DMM is another classic delay effect - this one being a very famous bucket brigade design famous for its warm repeats and lush modulation. Like the EP-III algorithm, we are modeling every last nuance of the circuit and the individual components, including the preamp.
Finally, Precision Delay is UA’s own amazing digital clean delay algorithm that provides pristine clear delay repeats, as well as a totally separate modulation engine that allows for either chorus or flanger to be added to the delay lines.
Now, let’s look at the Golden Reverberator.
Spring 65 is, in our humble opinion, not only the best, but the only spring reverb algorithm that really captures how a real spring tank sounds. The algorithm is brand new and has been in development for several years. It not only emulates the actual tank and springs, but also the tube circuitry “around” the tank, which we found was crucial to achieving a realistic sound.
During the development process, it became obvious that no two spring tanks are the same, so we actually ended up cherry-picking three radically different sounding units, out of around 25, and modeled those to give users a set of different spring reverb tones.
Plate 140 is modeled after a legendary studio reverb that has been used by everybody from Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd to Van Halen. UAD owners will probably already know this algorithm quite well.
Hall 224 models another legendary studio reverb—this one being a famous and easily recognizable digital reverb that came out in the late ‘70s and was used on virtually every major album for the next two decades. To this day, it still sets the benchmark for beautiful, lush hall and room reverbs.
Finally, we’ve got the Astra Modulation Machine.
Chorus Brigade is a recreation of the most famous chorus/vibrato pedal ever created and features fat, chewy bucket brigade modulation. We deliberately designed the algorithm exactly like the analog circuit. This means that you have the same controls as the original, with one knob for chorus control and two separate knobs for the vibrato.
Flanger /DBLR emulates a vintage rack flanger that is famous for being able to deliver both classic jet flanger tones as well as super cool through-zero flanger-type sounds. On top of that, it also has a very cool doubler mode, which is great for classic double-tracking sound. Think Dimebag Darrell, Randy Rhoads and other iconic rock and metal tones.
Trem 65 perfectly emulates the tones of vintage ‘60s amp tremolos—the ones that were labeled “Vibrato”, even though it is a tremolo circuit. Like with the other algorithms, we’ve modeled every single component in the circuit, including the tube section, and have even recreated how the modulation wave gets choppier at faster speeds.
The HUB: Whereas the Starlight Echo Station and Golden Reverberator each offer “variations on a theme,” the Astra offers three very different modulation effects, as you just explained. Why do it differently for Astra?
TM: The main reason behind this difference in design philosophy is that delay and reverb are both effects that guitar players use heavily, typically on every song. Modulation, on the other hand, is most often used more sparingly. This means that having a pedal that can cover all your modulation needs, instead of having to fill up your pedalboard with individual chorus, vibrato, flanger and tremolo pedals, is incredibly convenient. Especially when the quality of the effects easily rivals (or outperforms) dedicated chorus, flanger and tremolo effects.
Typically, most guitar players will choose just one or two modulation effects as having, say, a tremolo on your board to use on only one song is “a waste of space.” Having multiple modulation effects in one pedal means that guitar players can actually access and use all these different inspirational tones without worrying about pedalboard real estate.
The HUB: Historically, your UAD plug-ins have been voiced for an “any source works” application. Did you voice these differently knowing that they’ll primarily be used with electric guitars going into amps?
TM: Yes. Knowing the application allowed us to fine-tune the response of the effects to match how the real units would behave when used with guitar – both in front of an amp and in an amp effects loop, but we also spent a lot of time making sure the pedals work equally well with bass, keyboards and other instruments as well.
The HUB: Do these pedals use the same UAD/Sharc processor platform as your other UA products?
TM: No. They use a brand-new state-of-the-art and incredibly powerful processor that is needed to run the algorithms. Each effect is so detailed that they require way more processing power than your typical digital guitar pedal, but, on top of that, we feature dual processing, which essentially means that we are running two-times-two instances of each effect for true stereo processing AND the ability to seamlessly switch back and forth between two completely independent sounds and still have the decay from each sound ring out naturally.
The HUB: How does the effect fidelity compare to your UAD plug-ins? Is it higher since you’re only running one effect at a time?
TM: It is always tricky to say what sounds “best,” but all of the algorithms—even the ones that UA users will recognize from the UAD platform—have been tweaked specifically for guitar. Some, like the Tape EP-III, Analog DMM and Spring Reverb, are brand-new algorithms created from scratch.
The HUB: Can you tell us a little bit about your software integration? Is it only through USB connected to a computer? Is there an app for deeper control?
TM: Right now, users can interact with pedals using the USB connection, but while we unfortunately can’t really discuss future products or features, let’s just say that we always strive to make our products future-proof—this might even include adding components to the products that aren’t enabled when the products ship.
The HUB: Starlight and Astra offer configurable footswitch operation. What will that offer players?
TM: It is always a delicate matter when designing a pedal interface as you will rarely make a setup that pleases everybody. That is why we have given users the option to actually configure how the second footswitch of the pedal works depending on their preference.
On all the UAFX pedals, the left footswitch enables Live mode, which engages the main sound of the pedal based on where all the knobs and toggles switches are currently set.
The right footswitch has different functionality depending on the pedal, but that functionality can then be changed should the customer prefer another workflow.
For Starlight, the default configuration is Tap Tempo + Preset, which makes it possible to tap the tempo of the delay AND access Preset Mode by pressing and holding the footswitch. But we know from experience that some users never use tap tempo, so it is possible to set the right footswitch up so that it only actives Preset Mode, without the need to press and hold the footswitch. Similarly, users who rely heavily on tap tempo might wish to disable Preset Mode altogether and have the footswitch only control tap tempo. This is also possible in the software.
For Astra, the default setup is for the right footswitch to activate Preset Mode, but, using the editor, the user can also set the pedal up to enable tap tempo as well. This is great for guitar players who like their modulation effects, like tremolo and vibrato, in sync with the music.
Golden is the only pedal where the right footswitch can’t be reconfigured as tap tempo on a reverb pedal doesn’t really make sense. So, for that pedal, the right footswitch always controls Preset Mode.
The HUB: As long as UA has existed, you’ve been a “studio” company, but this move takes you on stage and under foot, which has some very different design considerations. Can you speak to any challenges or learnings that came from this project?
TM: We’ve always designed our products—even the ones that would typically be in a less “destructive” studio environment—with the utmost attention to durability, but we have obviously spent extra time making sure the pedals can stand the rigors of the road. Our QA team had a lot of fun doing beer spill and metal-capped boot “testing.” As far as power goes, we really didn’t want to compromise on audio quality, so the pedals do use more current than most pedals out there … but will still run using all modern “pro” multi-output isolated power supplies on the market.
The HUB: What’s next in the UA guitar world?
TM: Unfortunately, we can’t reveal upcoming products or projects, but we can say that we’re all extremely excited for the future … both for UA products in general and for guitar specifically.
The HUB: That’s great to hear, and yes, we agree! Thanks so much for your time, Tore!