Over 20 years ago, Universal Audio ushered in a new standard for plugins and interfaces. UAD’s plugin catalog is a huge collection of some of the best analog emulations out there. Most importantly, the software runs on dedicated DSP supplied by either an Apollo interface or a satellite, which is a prerequisite for getting into UAD plugins. Today we’ll explore some of the best UAD plugins for vocals!
Mixing Vocals with UAD Plugins
As mentioned above, the first step to mixing vocals with UAD plugins is going to be having the right hardware. Apollo interfaces come in a variety of configurations, and they’re known for industry-leading conversion and preamp quality. The cheapest Apollo will still set you back about $500, so unfortunately they aren’t cheap. However, the quality is well worth it, as is the ability to run Universal Audio plugins.
Assuming you don’t already have an interface, going the Apollo route is a great choice. Every interface also comes with a free plugin bundle called ‘Realtime Analog Classics.’ That alone will give you plenty of toys to try on your mixes, like Pultec EQ, 1176 and LA-2A compression, and more.
From there, it’s a matter of experimenting to find the best UAD plugins for vocals; moreover, which of those work for you and your style!
UAD Vocal Chain
Now there’s a lot open to interpretation here, and even a lot to debate in terms of which effects go where in a given vocal chain. Keep an open mind and take nothing we say as gospel, because every mix is its own beast with a million variables. Because of that, instead of listing out an exact vocal chain, we’ll instead talk about the most common effects for vocals with some loose hints as to placement.
In any chain of effects for vocals, UAD or otherwise, you’re going to find EQ; compression; de-essing; perhaps realtime pitch correction software like Auto-Tune; saturation; and time-based effects like reverb and delay (usually on sends).
Like we mentioned earlier, where these effects go is ultimately up to you. There are still a few things to keep in mind, though. Usually pitch correction will go as early in the chain as possible; that way it’s receiving the dry signal and correcting the pitch just the way it comes into the DAW. Next, you could try following that up with corrective EQ, a touch of de-essing, a fast compressor to catch the sharpest peaks, some ‘sweetening’ EQ, and a slower compressor to glue everything together. You may wedge some saturation in there somewhere if your vocal benefits from it, and of course you’ll have reverbs and delays on sends to mix in to taste.
Now we can talk about some of the best UAD plugins for vocals to fit into your chain!
Best UAD EQ for Vocals
1. Pultec Passive EQ Collection
Straight away, one of the best UAD plugins for vocals is the Pultec collection. These things are just amazing. The easiest way to describe it is that they take a vocal from 0 to 100 real quick! There’s plenty of literature out there as to how and why Pultecs sound the way they do (it’s all in the EQ curves and how boost/cut interact), so we’ll spare you the lecture. Try the EQP-1A and MEQ-5 on your vocal bus (or the Pultec Pro Legacy, included in the Realtime Analog Classics bundle), and just play around with it. It’s great!
2. Mäag EQ4
Next up is the famed Mäag EQ4. As the name suggests, this is a 4-band, fixed-frequency EQ, with additional Sub and Air bands. The Air band is actually what makes this so special and can be heard on vocals by Madonna and Celine Dion. The Mäag is absolutely a sweetening EQ, fantastic for vocals, and can add a ton of natural presence and character to any voice.
3. Harrison 32C
Criminally underrated is the Harrison 32C equalizer modeled off of Bruce Swedien’s own 32 series console; the one that he recorded Thriller on! This thing has color and character for days—come to think of it, each of the equalizers listed here does! There’s nothing better than a nice colorful EQ on a vocal; save the surgical stuff for something like FabFilter’s Pro-Q 3, but when you need a tone-rich analog emulation, no one does it better than UAD.
Best UAD Compressors for Vocals
1. 1176 Classic Limiter Collection
The most famous FET compressor of all time, designed by UA founder Mr. Bill Putnam himself, is a mainstay for vocals. It’s ultra-fast attack and release times give you a wide range of dynamic control. It works great as one of the first lines of defense on a vocal, catching the biggest peaks. The 1176 Classic Limiter Collection is also known as an aggressive compressor that can add some really cool character to any source.
2. Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection
After the 1176, the LA-2A is easily one of the most-used vocal compressors around. You can almost imagine it as the yin to the 1176’s yang. The LA-2A is an optical compressor with a tube amplifier, so it’s much more gentle than the 1176’s aggressiveness. In a vocal chain, it works well as a last line of defense, where it can mop up any remaining peaks and provide gentle overall leveling to the signal.
3. Tube-Tech CL 1B MkII Compressor
And then there’s Tube-Tech. This is another renowned compressor, optical like the 2A, but with additional control. Engineers for modern artists like Kanye and Rihanna love to track through the Tube-Tech as part of the vocal chain going in. It’s just as good for mixing as well, though! Softube actually developed this emulation originally, but UAD made it available to run on their DSP. What that means is that you can also track through the software Tube-Tech compressor by inserting it onto your vocal channel in UA Console. It’s great for rap vocals!
Best UAD Reverbs & Delays for Vocals
1. EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator
Plate reverb is a go-to on vocals, and you cannot go wrong with the iconic EMT 140. UAD modeled three different 140s housed over at The Plant Studios in Sausalito, California, and put them all into this plugin. For lush plate reverb that sounds incredible on vocals, this is it.
2. Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb
Next we have the Lexicon 224 which debuted in 1978. If it sounds crazy that a single digital reverb unit defined the sound of an era…it really did. From Talking Heads to U2, the Lexicon was all over everything, and it remains an undisputed studio staple to this day. You can get all sorts of different sounds out of it, and it sounds wonderful on vocals.
3. EP-34 Tape Echo
Finally, there’s the Echoplex—the most famous tape delay ever made. This is probably one of the most vibe-y vintage delays you can get your hands on, and can be an excellent tool for experimenting on vocals with things like slapback echo and even a bit of input distortion for additional saturation on the delays.
Best UAD Channel Strip Plugins
1. SSL 4000 E Channel Strip Collection
When the 4000 E debuted in 1979, it revolutionized music production. The console is responsible for capturing more Platinum records than any other as a ubiquitous powerhouse throughout its heyday. Its EQ is musical to sculpt sounds in a pleasant way, and the famous VCA compressor provides unparalleled dynamic control. Mixing vocals through a channel strip is an efficient way to add character and accomplish multiple tasks in a single plugin.
2. Manley VOXBOX Channel Strip
Specifically designed for vocals, Manley knew what they were doing in designing the VOXBOX. It starts at one end with a tube preamp going into a compressor, de-esser, and Pultec-style musical EQ. Truly a one-stop-shop for vocals (and other instruments — it’s quite versatile!), the Manley is a worthy addition to any plugin collection.
3. Neve 88RS Channel Strip Collection
One word: Neve. As a modern large-format analog console goes, the 88RS represented the peak of innovation at its introduction in 2001. Heavily steeped in all of the most beloved Neve gear that came before it, the 88RS offers unparalleled clarity and depth. For classic Neve sonics with modern functionality, the 88RS is a phenomenal channel strip.
As you can see, the best UAD plugins for vocals tend to have a lot of character. Pretty much all of them will add unique color and musicality to your vocal that you just won’t get from anything else, thanks to how accurately UAD models their software after the analog counterpart. You can take your sound a long way with some simple EQ, compression, and reverb! Feel free to explore everything else UAD has to offer as well, like channel strips and other specialized effects.