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Review: Universal Audio Luna DAW
Matt Vanacoro on Mon, June 1st 0 comments
Universal Audio want LUNA to transform their excellent Apollo interfaces into the most inspiring recording systems on the planet. Matt Vanacoro discovers whether it lives up to the hype.

Universal Audio has long had a flair for the dramatic with their NAMM presentations, and Luna was no exception. WIth a virtual trip to outer space, the good folks at UA dropped Luna on a completely unsuspecting audience. UA made their entry into the recording software market with a ‘shot heard round the world’ (or ‘round the galaxy’ if you bought into the outer space theme they had for their booth). It recently became available for download and I’ve put it though its paces for a few weeks to report on the latest option for recording music if you have an Apollo interface.

The Elevator Pitch

The UA marketing team was quick to tell us that Luna was not a DAW. After using Luna for a few weeks I can confidently say… Luna is a DAW. It’s a really cool DAW, and it most definitely offers a level of integration with hardware you quite simply don’t see anywhere else. I understand UA’s desire for distinction - there are definitely some things about LUNA that very much blur the line between hardware and software that you just don’t see elsewhere.

With Luna, you get a recording system that bakes the controls and features of your audio interface directly into the software. If you want to record the way the big studios did in the ‘good ol days’, Luna is about as close as you’re going to get. The near-zero latency hardware monitoring aspect of your Apollo interface is integrated directly into the channel strips and mixing controls. You don’t have to go out to a console app to set up a monitor mix, you can do it all directly in the Luna interface and not worry about your typical software monitoring latency. With Luna, you’re getting that same sub-2ms latency that you’d get from monitoring with Console. 

Luna

Tape saturation is available with the flick of a switch on every channel, further pushing the ‘analog warmth’ concept. There are miniature controls for this inline and it makes adding the classic outboard sound convenient and simple. Neve Summing is there for the buses, and if you combine that with the ‘spillover’ feature (more on that later) you’ve got some real incentive to change up your mixing workflow a bit.

No recording system (ok, UA marketing, I’ll play nice) would be complete without a collection of virtual instruments. Luna comes equipped to use a stable of sounds in its Shape virtual instrument for free. There are 2 premium instruments available, Ravel and Moog, that represent a grand piano and a classic synth respectively. For those of you that need to span the orchestra, Spitfire Audio has collaborated with UA on a large collection also available for download and installation directly in the Luna interface.

(Since this review was written there are now more instruments and effects included!)

What’s Free and What’s Not

Luna is completely free for owners of an Apollo interface. That’s a pretty big feat, and with the software feeling like a ‘natural extension’ of the hardware that rests in your rack, it’s a fairly large incentive to download and use it. The tape saturation is free in the form of Oxide, and it’s a paid upgrade if you want to use the more controllable Studer A800. If you own the Studer A800 plugin, of course, then you have access to the in-line version free of charge. 

Neve Summing comes at a $299 price, as do all of the instruments individually (there are bundles that offer a significant discount). The basic set of sounds that ships with Shape is also free.

Integration in Practice

Hardware Integration

The very first thing I wanted to test out was the reported hardware integration. I immediately learned that Luna has the ability to ‘take over’ for Console (UA’s monitoring and audio interface configuration app) when you boot it up, and then ‘give control’ back to Console when you’re done. I was immediately impressed, because I use Console extensively for live streaming applications with plugins, and it’s good to know that Luna can seamlessly pass of control with Console. 

As I expected and hoped, Luna makes you feel like you’re controlling a classic analog desk. You can load up your favorite Unison preamp simulations right inside of Luna, have compact controls for these plugins available on demand, and control hardware aspects like gain, paid, phantom power, and the like right inside of Luna as if you were using a physical analog mixing desk. Want to send the current input channel to a variety of physical outputs on your device? It’s all a click away inside of Luna’s interface. Routing, monitoring, and even recording with specific UA effects is clearly organized, completely free of discernible latency, and unified right within the app. It feels very similar to a workflow you’d get with a Pro Tools / Pro Mixing Desk setup that costs tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of dollars. Score one (a BIG one) for Luna.

Have Sum Tape

I hope you’ll excuse that pun, it’s been a long quarantine. Like all UA plugins, there is a free demo available of the tape saturation and Neve Summing features. I enabled both on a quick test mix of an ‘Animal Crossing’ like tune (I mean… what ELSE are we doing with our time right now?).

You can set up 4 ‘virtual tape machines’ inside of Luna, and you can then route any channel to any one of them. You still have the option, of course, of opening up your favorite tape sim plugin in its entirety as an insert effect, but after trying out the tape ‘section’ of the channel strip with both the Oxide and Studer, I’m not sure why you’d want to. They both worked perfectly and gave me the sound I have become accustomed to.

Enabling the tape saturation and Neve Summing definitely gave my little mix the ‘finishing sheen’ that I spend quite a bit of time doing. I know summing can be a bit of a controversial topic, so I was interested to see if the emulation of said workflow could provide a remarkable difference. Here is a quick audio sample of my ‘Tom Nook’ inspired test mix, recorded with multitrack drums, direct bass, and the Ravel / Moog virtual instrument combo

Sound sample - Luna Test No Sum:

Sound sample - Luna Test Tape and Sum:

I think the difference is quite noticeable. The tape and summing combination gave my tracks an openness and polish that is usually reserved for the mastering process. The fact that you can get this level of acoustic sheen by simply flipping the tape / console summing switches ‘on’ is incredibly convenient and a real time saver. Score TWO for Luna.

The Instrument Collection

LUNA instruments

I found the instrument offerings of Luna to be a bit of a mixed bag. I was quite impressed by Shape and its free collection of sounds. Some of the sampled instruments rival much more expensive standalone counterparts. The acoustic guitars, in particular, completely surprised me and have no business being that good for a free sample library. Upright basses have legato slide samples, reed electric pianos have lovely mechanical release - the sounds are surprisingly detailed and great for an offering that costs you zero dollars.

The premium upgrades are hit or miss, in my opinion. I liked the Moog instrument a lot - it’s extremely detailed, well laid out, looks beautiful, and sounds authentic. The Ravel grand piano has potential, but without some of the basic features that have become standard for grand piano instruments these days (such as complete control of the velocity curve, more resonance options, lid position, and more) I am not sold on the idea of spending 300 bucks on it. That same price can get you a staggering amount of control and detailed sound from any of the major players in the virtual piano game.

The Spitfire Audio instruments have potential. The interface is quite streamlined, and all of the major features I’d expect to be there in that price point are there. From detailed articulation selections to key switching, everything is in place. I found some of the libraries to be a bit slow on the attack side for my taste, but the good thing is you can pick and choose which libraries you’d like to add.

My Favorite Nuts and Bolts

With so many new elements that Luna brings to the table, it’s hard to capture them all in one narrative. Here are my favorite ‘bullet point’ things I experienced during my extended vacation with Luna:

  • The metronome section is fantastic, and the click can be made VERY loud (this is a common gripe for me with other software). Like everything else, the metronome feels like it’s built into the fabric/hardware of Luna
  • Accelerated Realtime Monitoring is fantastic. It’s everything I love about Console, but now integrated directly into my recording software. Set up amazingly complex chains with loads of plugins and don’t worry a whit about latency. It’s truly ground breaking.
  • The graphical ‘look’ of Luna is very nice, and there is a good use of the GPU of your computer. Plugins often ‘fade’ satisfyingly into view as they load. The user interface feels incredibly snappy and responsive. Like a hardware console.
  • Updates seem to be coming frequently and with true substance. Luna was updated several times during my test period, and there was some real meat on the bones of those updates.
  • ‘Spillover’ feature encourages a workflow that is very old school and analog - and in my opinion, better. It’s the perfect marriage of modern digital convenience (you can use extensive automation) and classic tactile mixing (automation doesn’t mean you lose the ability to MIX)
  • Summing and in-line tape is the real deal. It makes a real difference, and you can get that ‘mastering touch’ on your audio quickly and efficiently.
  • Console Tracking Mode offers fantastic integration with the Console app. You don’t lose what you’re doing in Console with other apps, Luna simply ‘takes over’ and then ‘relinquishes control’ when you’re done. Or you can use Console with Luna! The flexibility is most appreciated.
  • Everything is autosaved, and undo history is preserved even after you’ve closed a session. Saving copies and versions is an option.

When You Wish Upon a Star

With all of that awesomeness, Luna is a brand new app. There is a lot of room to grow. My own wish list of Luna includes some big things, and some minor tweaks.

The settings menu is quite bare bones. It’s also completely full screen, so you lose view of your document when you open settings. It seems a waste of screen real estate to have your whole display taken over by a menu with only 4-5 choices per tab.

You can’t adjust typical things like audio buffer size and tweak latency. Granted, there really isn’t any latency to speak of when you use the UA plugins for effects - but I like full control of my virtual instruments. They are fixed at 128, and depending on the instrument that may or may not work for me.

I’d also like to see the plugins organized in the selection window similar to Console. Right now, they aren’t categorized, and if I’m adding an effect, I like being able to see my choices organized. Right now, it’s a loooooong scroll to get to the bottom of that window for me. Finally, I’d also like to see notation come to Luna. Right now, MIDI and virtual instrument recording is limited to piano-roll style editing.

Conclusion

Luna is truly ground breaking and the next evolutionary step in audio for Apollo owners. It realizes a long held dream of attaining analog sound with digital control and flexibility. It’s hard to believe this is the first version, there is quite a bit to this recording system. The tape and summing upgrades are definitely worth the price (although, if you have an Apollo and you don’t have Studer A800 already you are most definitely missing out). The free included instruments are really great, and the potential Luna has to transform your workflow is truly inspiring. I’m incredibly grateful for this offering from UA and I can’t wait to see where they take it in the future!

Price: Free (with various $299 upgrades available)

Pros: Completely transforms your workflow into a more classic style, analog tape and summing emulations work wonderfully, included free virtual instruments are better than they should be, accelerated realtime monitoring is truly fantastic, mixdown is easy and has plenty of choices, spillover buses/view can help give a classic ‘mixing board’ feel while maintaining modern digital convenience like automation.

Cons: Mac only. Ravel piano could use some more control features to make it more competitive with similar instruments. I’m not completely sold on ‘automatic audio buffer management’. 

Web: https://www.uaudio.com/luna.html

 

 

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