Updated: Feb 25
The market for home recording studios or small studios is simply overflown with options of gear in an affordable range that can yield professional sounding records - if driven by the right hands. Since the audio interface is generally at the core of a recording studio, we decided to take a look at two contenders which have a lot of traction in the market: the RME Babyface Pro and the Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII.
Let us just clarify, for the record, that are plenty of other options capable of delivering the results you are after. Competent companies like Apogee, Focusrite and Yamaha, amongst others, all have perfectly good options in the same price range as the two we will analyse here. But we have decided to focus on these two options for now.
Form Factor, Feature and Specifications
The RME Babyface Pro is a compact and portable interface which feels robust and is as reliable and high-end as the name RME suggests. The pedigree of this brand is quite impressive; many companies out there use their Fireface range of products for serious product development activities related to audio. During our visit to Winter Namm 2019, we could see the Babyface being demonstrated by no less than Michael Angelo Batio, whose shredding skills demand the lowest latency possible.
RME Babyface Pro
The summary of the features is listed below
· 4 x Analog Inputs (Mic, Line, Instrument)
· 4 x Analog Outputs (2 x XLR, 2 x Phones)
· 1 x ADAT I/O or 1 x SPDIF I/O optical
· 1 x MIDI I/O
· 1 x USB 2.0 (USB 3 compatible)
· Digital Gain control on all inputs
· Separate outputs for high and low impedance headphones
· TotalMix FX (with EQ, Reverb, Echo)
A more comprehensive set of specifications can be found at their website.
The Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII is also quite compact and portable, with an impressive looking user interface and quite a pervasive presence both at NAMM and on home studios around the globe. We will explore why a little bit later on this article, but this company has a long history of producing outboard analog gear for studios and is now bringing that history to your home studio for an affordable price.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII
The summary of the features is listed below:
· 2 x Analog Inputs (1 with Mic or Line option, 1 with Mic, Line or Instrument option)
· 4 x Analog Outputs (2 x Monitor with headphone jack in parallel, 2 x Line Out)
· 1 x ADAT I/O or 1 x SPDIF I/O optical
· Option of USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt 2.0 at purchase (different product under the same umbrella name)
· Gain on all inputs with plugin option
· DSP capability selected at purchase (from one to four, called solo, duo and quad) for running UAD exclusive plugins
· Console Application with 9 included plugins at the time of writing (quad version) and hundreds more available for purchase
For a more comprehensive set of specifications check their website and look for the user manual.
Our point of view: slight advantage to the RME Babyface Pro here. 2 more inputs on board, 2 headphone outputs, slightly better specs in the A/D conversion (while debatable if this makes a difference or not depending on the application) and just easier to shop for, as there is one option, take it or leave it. The Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII requires a decision of interface (USB or Thunderbolt) and that is a good option for mac users, but the selection of the DSP power is important and can be a bit overwhelming. We'll dedicate a special section for that as it is unique to the Apollo. On the I/O front, it could use more outputs and at least 2 headphone outputs for a better producer / musician scenario without additional gear. For our set-up we've expanded the I/O with an 8-channel ADAT, the Focusrite Scarlett OctoPre.
User Interface and Software
To have an efficient workflow in your home studio you need to be able to operate your interface quite efficiently. The combination between its physical user interface and the software provided to operate it via DAW are what makes or breaks an audio interface regardless of its capabilities, as no one wants to be slowed down by a cumbersome workflow.
The RME Babyface Pro sports a quite streamlined physical interface that allows basic settings via its front panel. Level settings for all inputs and outputs can be achieved there, as well as dimming the outputs.
The TotalMixFX software is installed when the drivers are installed and has a comprehensive set of features and routing options. The highlights on our tests were:
· The real mixing console look and feel
· The ability to pad inputs or turn phantom power quite easily
· Software outputs, which allows control of the system audio independently from the inputs
· Monitoring inputs at ultra-low latency, before the audio goes to the DAW, and control volume without affecting the recorded input
· The ability to customise a control room with separate mixes for monitor and headphones
· Additional EQ and reverb options can be applied to the outputs
· Scenes can be easily saved and recalled
The Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII has a more comprehensive set of options on the front panel, including high pass filter, phantom power, padding and selecting between mic or line for the inputs, and dimming, muting and mono (quite important for mixing) of the outputs. It also features a cool talkback microphone so you don't have to poke the performing musician on the shoulder when they are wearing their headphones.
The console application is part of the installation package and it also runs the Universal Audio Plugins. During our tests our favourite features were:
· It looks and feels like a real console, even more than TotalMixFX
· Settings are in your face and intuitive
· Inputs and outputs can be easily linked and labelled
· System audio can be sent to virtual channels so you can run plugins on audio coming from iTunes, Youtube, etc.
· DAW audio can be sent to virtual channels as well for better control
· Adding plugins right on the channel strip is easy and intuitive, monitoring is low latency independent from the DAW
· You can chose wether or not the strip settings and plugins are printed when recording
· Gain options are complemented by the Unison plugin options
· Scenes are easy to save and recall
· Metrics such as rate, DSP power used and clock source are always visible
Our point of view: a clear advantage to the Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII here, even without the plugins. The interfaces are just easier to use. The RME TotalMixFX works fine once you get the hang of it, but there is a bit of a learning curve. The UA Console feels intuitive and well thought, and matches well the intent of the device and its own physical interface. Rarely during our sessions we were induced to make mistakes, and that is the whole point of a sleek user interface.
Drivers, Latency and usage with Logic Pro X
Now let's tackle a very hot topic. Latency has been the plague of DAWs since their inception. I presume saying 'we are having latency issues' is equivalent to 'winter is coming' these days... with modern technology, most DAWs can compensate for latency while mixing or bouncing by keeping all plugins in sync, but while tracking a perceived latency can be quite annoying... it is hard enough to keep up with the drummer at 180 BPM as it is...
Both interfaces were subjected to a few different configurations, and tested under a few different scenarios:
· Software monitoring via Logic Pro X when using a guitar signal connected directly to the device (instrument input on Babyface, HiZ input on Apollo). Guitar tone provided by Helix Native running inside the DAW. Project running drums, bass and other guitar samples totalling around 8 tracks.
· Software monitoring via Logic Pro X when using a guitar signal connected to a Rupert Neve DI, and that in turn connected to the device's microphone input. Dry DI signal recorded to one Logic Pro X track, routed out to Helix Floor via USB, and then re-amped signal recorded into another Logic Pro X track . Project also running drums, bass and other guitar samples totalling around 8 tracks.
These tests were performed on an iMac 21.5 inch, 2017, 3.6GHz Intel Core i7 with 16 GB of RAM and a fusion 1TB hard drive. The sample rate was set to 48kHz. In none of these cases we could notice any latency that would hinder the recording and tracking session.
Our point of view: there is a slight nominal advantage to the RME Babyface Pro, 3.9ms against 5.0 ms. Its declared values are generally a bit better in every setting, so this may result in an advantage in scenarios with more tracks or more plugins. The Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII got close once we found out how to turn off its input delay compensation. UA has quite some information on their user manual about how to use this feature when recording multiple tracks, and a few online tutorials to help.
In none of the cases above the latency was noticeable while recording. But in the end if the sheer numerical result is what matters we would have to vote RME on this one.
Important note: Latency while tracking can be reduced significantly if the monitoring is not done via DAW (so software monitoring off) but rather directly on the interface software mixer. It will however sound dry unless you can add plugins to the hardware monitoring channels of that software mixer. This is where the Universal Audio Apollo Twin is really different than the other interfaces, a good segway into the next topic.
This is a topic for debate as it is what sets the Universal Audio product apart. Most interfaces these days are not conceived as outboard gear replacements but rather as robust A/D, D/A and routing monsters.
As such, the RME Babyface Pro provides EQ and reverb onboard but nothing else can be loaded as the non-native plugin feature is not available. Any other plugins in this case have to be run as native plugins in the DAW or as non-native in other outboard gear.
While this is fine for mixing, during tracking this requires software monitoring on the DAW to be turned on, which can add latency. While the device itself has one of the lowest latencies in the market, you are exposed to the performance of your DAW and the plugins you chose while tracking.
The Universal Audio concept is based on on-board DSPs (called UAD-2 DSP system) that can run exclusive plugins while tracking at very low latency levels (their manual claims 1.1ms at 96 kHz).
Here are some of the advantages:
· The ability to run these plugins during tracking with ultra low latency, and chose whether or not they get printed in the recording
· Some of the plugins use a technology called Unison (TM of Universal Audio) which changes the behaviour of the hardware if used in the dedicated slot of the channel strip. This yields a quite unique result for preamps and other plugins as they can interact with the hardware connected to your microphone or instrument. You don't get this with native plugins.
· The range and quality of plugins is quite impressive. You can have access to rare and expensive analogue gear emulators in your home studio.
· You can add these plugins even to audio coming from your system, and beef up iTunes or YouTube music while practicing.
· The plugins included are quite good and may be enough to get started. They are also installed in your DAW so you can use them while mixing later on if you don't want to print them while tracking. Note: even on the DAW they are still non-native and require the Apollo to be connected to the system.
Now the disadvantages:
· You cannot run any native plugins on the Apollo, only the specific Universal Audio ones designed for their range of Apollo devices. So in our case, Helix Native still needs to run on the DAW.
· Some of the DSP options can make the device more expensive than other competing interfaces. You will have to decide in advance how much DSP power you need and live with your decision.
o Tip number one: have a look at the UAD-2 DSP Chart to see how much DSP power you would need for the plugins you want to use.
o Tip number two: save money and buy the QUAD.
o Tip number three: you can expand this capability with their UAD-2 Satellite products.
· You become locked in to the Universal Audio system, and have to take your Apollo on the road if you want to keep the plugins when mobile. You are also subject to the upgrades and options they provide.
· Additional Universal Plugins are expensive and will be worthless if you no longer have your Apollo.
Our point of view: this is the Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII main advantage and is present in their whole range of Apollo options including the rack mounted ones. To be worth it you need to have a clear intention to use their plugins. Before making a decision we checked several tutorials, store demos, NAMM displays and YouTube videos and tutorials. If you go for the cool factor you will lose money, spending a lot on DSP power for plugins you won't use. They do sound amazing, but you need to have a clear reason for wanting them before you pull the trigger.
The bottom line for our tests was to check out what all the numbers and marketing claims actually yield in the end: the sound. After all it is an audio interface, right ? For the tests we used our trusted Ibanez RG8570z on the bridge humbucker pickup connected straight to the instrument input of each device (called HiZ on the Apollo) with gain adjusted until the levels were around -18 dBFS.
Our point of view: A close tie. Trust your ears and let us know your opinion. Perhaps the Babyface sample is a bit more pure and the Apollo has a bit more body added to it. Many claim online an advantage to the RME Babyface Pro, but the difference for us was too small to notice. Of course you can go out and listen to samples with other instruments and voice. Many producers using the Apollo claim that the main advantage is using the plugins while tracking vocals with high-end microphones. So again this is subjective and depends on your application.
These are both stellar options of audio interface for your home studio. They will take it to the next level and allow you to record a full record if you have the time, talent and dedication that are needed.
In our case we picked the Universal Audio Apollo Twin mkII for the power of its plugins and the benefits of its user interface and console software application. Again, this is only worth the investments if you really need the plugins.
It is a bit of a divisive decision, as there are many other interfaces that don't have plugins. Amongst those we would say that the RME Babyface Pro is probably the top choice, maybe rivalled only by some of the Apogee devices.
Another thing to consider if you have the budget for the Apollo Twin QUAD but don't care about the Universal Audio Plugins and want even more I/O than the Babyface is to get the RME Fireface.