Possibly the biggest splash from this year’s winter NAMM show in Anaheim, California was Universal Audio’s announcement of their new LUNA Recording System. LUNA further expands the UA ecosystem and consists of a UA audio interface (Thunderbolt only), the new LUNA Application, LUNA Extensions and LUNA Instruments. We take a first look at this exciting new direction for UA...
The first thing to make clear is that LUNA is not a standalone DAW – it works exclusively with UA Thunderbolt Apollo & Arrow interfaces and is Mac-compatible only. The software is free to all owners of a UA interface, with optional paid-for LUNA Extension add-ons including Studer A800 Multi-track Tape and Neve Console Summing, as well as new LUNA Instruments including Minimoog and Ravel Piano (Steinway Model B).
Universal Audio are (very!) keen not to describe LUNA as a DAW, preferring to promote it as a "Recording System". Long-standing users of Pro Tools will be familiar with the software-tethered-to-hardware model, with the tight integration of software, hardware and DSP being one of the main reasons Pro Tools has such a great reputation for reliability.
Users of UA's current Apollo Console software will find the channel strip layout familiar, but not identical. The main edit window is your standard DAW format, the clip colouring is bright but tasteful and the menu system seems intuitive. Although the platform is still very much at alpha stage, UA seem to have prioritised getting LUNA’s more unique features in shape for the launch event… Unison preamps, Record FX and DSP Cue Mixing of Apollo can be controlled from the software channels in LUNA, meaning there’s no need to run Console in the background. If you have several channels all using the same physical Apollo input with a different Unison Pre on each, LUNA will swap out the Pre and Record effects with a click of the record arm button on each channel. Potentially a major time saver for users with fewer input channels wanting to keep the record channel strip in place for each of their sources.
One of the most commonly mentioned niggles when using Apollo is the inconvenience of having to leave the DAW environment to set up processing, cue mixes and punch-in workflows via Apollo Console. However, in conjunction with LUNA, Console now allows “Accelerated Real-time Monitoring” (ARM) plus UAD MON and UAD REC insert processing without having to change window – much more intuitive.
However, LUNA does not replace Apollo Console which will continue to be developed and used to control the Apollo when using 3rd party DAWs. A feature called “Console Tracking Mode” lets you bring existing Apollo Console setups into LUNA to make the transition as straightforward as possible. You can also isolate channels in Console from being overridden by LUNA, so you could leave an input up for jamming on guitar without having to launch LUNA at all.
Within the software, channel selection is contextual, allowing level changes, fades and bussing to be applied to multiple tracks simply by selecting them. A modifier key enables parameter change instead of screen scrolling via gestural mouse moves, making cursor navigation extremely slick. No more accidental pans or value changes whilst trying moving through the timeline or mix window.
The "Warp" audio editing features allow you to time stretch waveforms within clips, allowing users to pull a bass drum hit in-line with a bar start or tightening up a vocal run in a couple of clicks. Warp/time-stretching can also be used to quickly speed up or slow down an entire session. Also, files dragged into a LUNA project with tempo information (REX etc) will automatically conform to session tempo - handy for loop-based composition.
The Warp UI also flags sections of audio waveforms in red as a warning when reaching the limits of the stretch algorithm’s capability. A quick listen seemed to confirm that stretched audio is nicely artifact-free - a welcome change from competitors’ often phasey time stretch offerings. UA include 5 different warp algorithms in LUNA: monophonic, polyphonic, varispeed, razorblade and stretch - all optimised for different source material.
In place of playlists we find "Versions". Undoubtedly a better choice of nomenclature with a slightly different user experience, but ultimately functioning in the same way. Loop recording creates “Takes” so it’s easy to differentiate between full versions, comps and sectional overdub/punch-ins when editing.
While we’re yet to spend some serious time with LUNA, Universal Audio seem to be trying to head in a genuinely new direction from what we might expect from a DAW, re-ordering the priorities of screen real estate to focus more on what music makers use most frequently. Pro Tools users who may be tempted to switch platform will be reassured to hear that many of the hallmarks of their largely ex-Avid development team are present here. Keyboard shortcuts are more or less picked up where we left them and transport and automation modes well signposted.
In a nice touch, UA have included a feedback form so that users can send feature requests direct to the manufacturer – allowing UA to have an immediate insight into the functions most desired by their user base and ensuring they put their development efforts into the right places. Why has nobody done this before?
Make no mistake, UA are clearly going from strength to strength, flexing their usual NAMM muscle with a sizable chunk of the exhibition hall dedicated to a large stage for artist demos and a separate LUNA-focused walk through exhibit containing some tasty vintage kit including a Studer A800 tape machine, Moog System 35 (bearing Bob Moog's signature) and a Neve BCM10 Mk1 console.
Universal Audio have indicated a spring launch for the first LUNA release. This seems ambitious given the infancy of the platform at present, but UA are yet to misstep with a product launch and, if they set their sights initially on entry-level users, a minimal but well deployed package might be just enough to gain the traction they need to convince users to adopt the platform.
Is the LUNA announcement an overnight game changer? No, but bear in mind that a copy of Logic Pro and a Focusrite 2i2 costs more than a UA Arrow with LUNA bundled for free and you can see how it could very quickly become one. And if UA continues to direct their gargantuan resources into the development of the LUNA system, by the time it is officially released we're likely to see a very agile software platform with tight hardware integration. It may only then be a short hop to LUNA becoming viable as a platform for more demanding pro users.
Perhaps more importantly, LUNA means that UA can grow the system in any direction they wish without having to concern themselves with third party compatibility – very similar to the same path Digidesign took with Pro Tools. The huge potential offered by this blank slate is twinned with UA's refreshing focus on music and production. There's no video engine (and no plans to include one at the moment) and there is mercifully no burgeoning cupboard of post production features pushing the tools that music producers want deeper and deeper into sub menus. Even at this early stage of development, what UA are offering with LUNA seems genuinely useful and not in the least bit gimmicky – it’s a very promising start.
Watch this space as we'll be trying out LUNA and doing some audio comparisons with other leading DAW’s…