Review: Black Lion Audio Universal Audio Mod

Modifying your audio gear can be a great way to make it perform to an even higher standard than it already does. Matt Vanacoro found out what Black Lion Audio could do to supercharge his Apollo 8.  

Black Lion has been in the modification game for quite a while. I remember my first experience hearing an upgraded MOTU 2408 interface many years ago, and the difference was obvious. Less noise, more headroom, and wider dynamic range were all present. When I heard that BLA was offering modifications on newer, higher spec audio interfaces, I was interested to see how far they could ‘push’ the envelope with a device so recently released. I sent them my beloved Apollo 8P (black) interface and invited noted NYC audio engineer Gianluca Trombetta to weigh in as well. Gianluca’s resume ranges from Dream Theater to the Today Show, and I trust his ears unquestionably.

The Mod

The first thing I was curious to find out was ‘exactly what are you going to do to my Apollo?’ I talked with Nate from BLA and he gave me the lowdown. Newer, high-performance op-amps would be put on the analog ins and outs (mic, line, monitor, headphones). The capacitors would be upgrade on the analog input signal path. The A/D and D/A converters would be decoupled, as well as the mic preamp chips.

This sounded like a handful, and on paper, of course, upgraded components on these major parts of the signal path should translate into improvements - but how much? Would those improvements be worth the money (as well as the time without my interface)? After receiving my upgrade Apollo, Gianluca and I put it up against an un-modded control unit to compare. Here are our first impressions:

Track Playback

The very first thing I noticed was that my modified Apollo seemed much ‘easier’ to listen to. Using the exact same output settings and monitoring path, the tracks we played back through the BLA modded device were less fatiguing to listen to. I tried to vary what we listened to from pleasant sounding ‘known quantities’ to some harsher tracks (after all, who gets to only mix music that they like and sounds good? Not your average working audio engineer, that’s for sure!). Gianluca and I both determined that a bit of wider dynamic range was definitely present, and the added bit of acoustic ‘space’ definitely made even a bit louder playback a lot more easy on the ears. 

The Mic Preamps

Gianluca and I set up a quick A/B rig to record a simple acoustic guitar. We were both interested to see if there would be any improvement to the mic preamps after the op-amp and decoupling had been completed. We heard a difference immediately and listened back a few times to try to quantify what we heard.

Gianluca commented, “There is definitely an improvement. I hear a lot more detail in the high end, and a lot more definition in the bass area. I think the reason that the bass seems more refined is that the bit of sparkle this gives the high end allows the bass to have more room to breathe.”

I had to agree. Combined with the improvements of the BLA-modded Apollo’s output stage, the preamps really shined. After listening back on a second computer, the difference was a lot more subtle, but I also chalked that up to a testament of the output improvements on my new Apollo. It’s like shining a light on an object in a dimly lit room. You knew what the object was before, but you can see a lot more detail with that light.

I’ve attached 2 quick audio samples here. 

 

Original Apollo, ballad strumming

Modified Apollo, ballad strumming

 

Original Apollo, funky strumming

Modified Apollo, funky strumming

I should note that the difference is very subtle, and you’ll want to listen on a good pair of studio monitors. Truth be told, I hear the different a lot less on other computers and playback devices, and that makes sense. As Nate from BLA pointed out to me, there really isn’t a ‘tentpole’ feature of the Apollo mod. It’s the sum of all parts of the modification working together that truly makes the mod shine, and I’d have to agree. Getting this mod done will absolutely save you time with mic placement, EQ, mixing, and compressing. If you rely on your Universal Audio Apollo and want to make the most out of it, the BLA mod absolutely makes sense. The more you utilize your Apollo, the more you’ll get out of it.

Conclusion

I’m a skeptic by nature, I’ll be the first to admit. From summing to 432hz tuning, it takes a lot of data to convince me of outlying techniques. I was a little more open to the idea of BLA modifications having experienced their MOTU mod in the past (as well has owned the pretty awesome B12a mic preamp), but I was still in the ‘show me the money’ camp when my Apollo 8p first arrived on my doorstep with the BLA sticker on it. Fortunately, the BLA mod exceeded my expectations in every conceivable way. I found their communication as to what to expect was excellent, they were helpful in separating placebo effects from reality, and they explained the reasoning behind what I was hearing at every step of the way.

I feel that their transparency and assistance is an important part of this review. After all, you’re purchasing a service here. The efficiency and transparency of how to best utilize their service is part of what Black Lion Audio is selling to you. In this department, Black Lion was truly fantastic. Every step of the way, I was provided with information on what to expect, how to get the most out of the mod, and why the new unit sounded the way it did.

If you track, mix, edit, or master music on a regular basis with a Universal Audio Apollo, you can do so a lot faster with the BLA mod. It’s a welcome enhancement and well worth the money.

Price: $399 - $995 depending on which Apollo unit you own

Pros: Tangible positive difference from end to end (tracking to playback). More acoustic ‘space’ to mix in, more definition in the high end, more dynamic range in the low end, reduces monitor/listening fatigue in a very clear way.

Cons: Scheduling a mod is key to minimizing the downtime without your interface. Take advantage of their good communication and schedule accordingly!

Web: https://www.blacklionaudio.com

Matt Vanacoro is one of New York’s premier musicans. Matt has collaborated as a keyboardist in studio and on stage with artists such as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Mark Wood (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel Band), Aaron Carter, Amy Regan, Jay Azzolina, Marcus Ratzenboeck (Tantric), KeKe Palmer, C-Note, Jordan Knig... Read More

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