Universal Audio Volt Series- Game-changer on a Budget!
If you've attended any of my Home Studio Primer webinars over the last two years, you're very familiar with audio interfaces that don't break that bank but offer excellent audio quality. There are a number of boxes in the $100-$300 range that all effectively do the same thing. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo, Presonus USB 96, SSL2, and on and on. They all offer a single mic input (or two), a headphone output and possibly speaker outputs, plus some form of direct monitoring/ zero latency monitoring. They're all great! But there has been one missing element in all of them that Universal Audio seems to have brought to the table.
Most basic audio interfaces in the lower price range offer a direct, clean path to your DAW. But as an engineer dealing with actors recording from home, I can tell you that there is one consistent problem when it comes to moments where a voice actor needs to project or shout- and that's clipping. In the analog world, when a mic level gets too loud, it will distort. In the digital world, it will cause a sharp 'snap'' as the waveform peaks. This may also be accompanied by some pretty awful distortion. If the work you're doing is generally basic voiceover recording, you're mostly going to 'set it and forget it'. Get a healthy input gain that gives you a little bit of headroom to spare just in case you need to push a little harder. Simple. But if you're doing animation work or video games, you're likely going to need to nail some pretty loud moments. In larger stages like Digital Arts Studio E, backing off the mic a foot or two is a great way to project. The room was built with that in mind, so when directors ask for it- we're prepared. But even the best home setups don't have that flexibility... and backing up even a few inches reveals the inherent 'boxiness' of even the most expensive home booths. My work-around for most people is to have them set a normal speaking level on their interface, and put a pencil mark there. Next, speak softly and turn the gain up to where it's a nice level- and put a mark there too. Lastly, turn the gain way down and shout. Put a mark where your knob is a good level that doesn't clip. Now in session, if they want you to suddenly shout a line, you have a quick target to dial in for that.
This all seems easy enough, right? You'd think so! But very few people do it. At the studio, we use compression to pick up the slack. Not a ton of it- but enough to catch those moments before they blow us away, giving us a fighting chance to dial things down for the rest of the take (or the next takes). All of the rooms I've worked in for the past 20 years have had the Avalon 737 mic pre/ compressor/ EQ. It's a tube compressor that can really take a punch! But at around $3,000- not everyone is going to have those at home. There are affordable options to add a mic pre with a hardware compressor, which I'll write about in a future post!
And then came the Volt 76 series!
Universal Audio makes what I consider to be some the best 'level up' interfaces out there. What I mean by that is if you started with a lower priced, no bells and whistles interface like a Scarlett Solo... but you've been booking and want to take things to the next level, their interfaces are likely your next step. The Apollo costs around $700. with additional inputs and routing bringing the cost up more, depending on your needs. As a voice actor, a single mic input is likely all you'll need. What makes these a logical next step is the fact that they don't just directly feed your DAW. Instead, they have their own mixing board with the ability to add plugins at the input stage. In fact, you can get a $250 emulation of the very same Avalon 737 I was mentioning, and have that engaged on your input!
However, Universal Audio just released a new line of budget-friendly interfaces called the VOLT series. There are five options in the line: The Volt 1, Volt 2, Volt 176, Volt 276 and the Volt 476. The Volt 1 and 2 are functionally similar to a Focusrite Scarlett Solo and 2i2 respectively. The only difference between the Volt 1 and Volt 2 is a second input. The units ending in 76, however, have an added feature: a built in compressor, with the characteristics of Universal Audio's classic 1176 compressor.
Back when I recorded and mixed albums for a living, the 1176 was one of those "must have" tools, and it was in every studio. As simple as it was, it added wonderful character. You could control the input, output, and a series of compression modes from 4:1 to 20:1, via a column of buttons. You won't see all of that functionality in the Volt line, however. Instead, you'll find an on/off switch for the compression, followed by a few presets: vocal, guitar, and 'fast' (for hard transient sounds like drums). You'll have to experiment to find the setting that is right for what you're reading. Once you choose one, the amount of compression is determined by how hard you hit it via the input gain. Higher gain/ louder input will drive the compression harder, bringing your level down.
There are very few interfaces with baked in compression- especially at this price. For $249, you're getting a single combi-jack input (XLR or 1/4"), and a single headphone output with volume control, On the rear of the unit, you'll find a USC-C connection, power supply, a pair of outputs to drive your monitors (if you're working on speakers instead of headphones), plus MIDI in and out for the keyboard players out there. By way of comparison, the SSL2+ costs over $100 more, giving you a second mic pre to go with your MIDI input- but no compression. Both offer an ergonomic feature that I like compared to similarly priced competitors in this range: a table-top form. This means when you're sitting at your desk or rig, the knobs you need are on top of the surface. Most other interfaces are built as if they will be rack mounted, with controls along the front edge. This isn't a big deal, except that some of them are so light- just the act of turning the gain up and down can have the unit sliding across your desk. Most of the smaller UA interfaces have this desktop design.
On the top of the unit you'll find a decent sized gain knob to control your mic level. Above that you'll find a "vintage" button. This functions just like the 'air' button on the Focusrite units, and the '4K' button on the SSLs. It's emulating the character of legacy products from the company, but almost always ends up adding too much brightness for most VO applications. As previously mentioned, above that you'll find the 76 Compressor button. Pressing it will toggle through the presets: Vocal, Guitar, Fast or Off. Once engaged, how they behave is determined by your gain setting. You'll have to experiment to find what works for your style. Next to all that, you'll find a nice big monitor knob. In the lower right corner, you'll find a direct button. This is how you'll achieve latency-free monitoring in your headphones while recording. Engaging this feature sends your mic signal to your DAW and your headphones simultaneously, avoiding that slight processing lag you'd hear if you monitored through your recording software.
Along the top, you'll see your input and output LED meters. You'll also see an LED light to let you know you're connected to and powered by your host device (Mac or PC). You can also power this and use it with an Ipad Pro- or attach the provided USB power cord to power the Volt when connected to an Iphone or older Ipads. Like any USB interface, it will work with any DAW on any platform. They even toss in a helpful serving of software and plugins: Ableton Live Lite, Spitfire Audio's Labs for creative music making, Softube compressors and mastering software for your DAW, and much more from companies like Brainworx, UJam, Plugin Alliance and Relab.
For my money, this is a tremendous starter unit that will serve any voice actor or musician well for a long time. With a $249 price tag, it has many advantages over similarly prices interfaces.