Tuesday, March 29, 2016

REVIEW: UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid


I ended up with this device as my primary recording interface purely by accident. For several years, I used a combination of a MOTU 828 MKII and a Focusrite OctoPre MKII as my 18 channel location recording rig. While that mostly worked, MOTU’s software/driver was regularly glitchy and it became one of the many reasons I rarely “updated” my Mac’s software. When I retired and downsized my possessions and hobbies, the mobile rig went pretty early in the garage sale.

I had a couple cheap two channel USB interfaces and sort of assumed that would more than do the job for whatever I’d be doing in the future. A friend, Scott Jarrett, bought an UltraLite when it first came out and suffered with it for a few  months before he decided it was unusable. When I came upon a great deal on my MK3 version, I figured I’d buy it, play with it until it pissed me off, and sell it for a profit. Four years later, I still have it. While MOTU has a talent for making interfaces overly complicated, the MK3 mostly works as expected.

MOTU Specs the unit with:

Feature summary

  • Hybrid FireWire/USB2 connectivity — connect to your computer via either bus-powered FireWire or hi-speed USB2.
  • 10 inputs / 14 outputs — there's no channel sharing in the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid; the mic inputs, S/PDIF I/O, headphone out and main outs are all handled as separate channels.
  • Classic Reverb™ — provides five different room types, three frequency shelves with adjustable crossover points, shelf filtering and reverb lengths up to 60 seconds.
  • Two forms of compression — a standard compressor with conventional threshold/ratio/attack/release/gain controls and the Leveler™, an accurate model of the legendary LA-2A optical compressor, which provides vintage, musical automatic gain control.
  • Modeled EQ — provides 7-band parametric EQ modeled after British analog console EQs, featuring 4 filter styles (gain/Q profiles) to effectively cover a wide range of audio material. LP and HP filters are also supplied with slopes that range from 6 to 36 dB.
  • Front-panel control — access any setting in your entire UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid mix directly from the front panel.
  • "Reverb return" stream — allows users to record or mix UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid reverb output separately in their DAW. Effects can also be applied when the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid is operating stand-alone (without a computer) as a complete stand-alone mixer.
  • Stand-alone operation — program your mixes at the studio and then bring the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid to your gig — no computer needed. Just plug in the included power adapter and you are ready to go. Need to tweak the mix? Do it on site using the back-lit LCD and front-panel controls.
  • Multiple CueMix FX mixes — for example, create different monitor mixes for the main outs and headphones. Or add send/return loops for outboard gear — with no latency.
  • Two combo jacks provide hi-Z 1/4” guitar input or low-Z XLR mic input with phantom power, pad and plenty of gain.
  • Eight 24-bit 192kHz analog inputs and outputs on balanced/unbalanced 1/4" TRS jacks
  • Precision Digital Trim™ — Digitally controlled analog trim on all analog inputs (mic/guitar inputs + quarter-inch TRS inputs) provides accurate adjustements in 1 dB increments. Fine-tune the balance of your analog inputs and then save/recall trim configurations.
  • Direct Digital Synthesis™ (DDS) — a DSP-driven phase lock engine and internal clock source that produces imperceptibly low jitter characteristics (below the noise floor), even when the UltraLite-mk3 Hybrid is resolved to an external clock source via SMPTE time code.
  • Time code support — directly resolves to (or generates) time code via any quarter-inch input or output, without the need for an extra synchronizer.
  • Sample-accurate MIDI — connect a MIDI controller and/or sound module with no separate interface needed. MIDI I/O is sample-accurate with supporting software.
  • Expandable — add additional interfaces for more I/O as your needs grow.
  • Separate TRS main outs with front panel volume control.
  • Stereo 24-bit 96kHz S/PDIF in/out.
  • DC-coupled TRS outputs — can be used with Volta™ (sold separately) to manipulate and sequence voltage-controlled modular synthesizers from a host DAW.
  • Includes native 32- and 64-bit drivers for Mac OS X and Windows 10/8/7/Vista/XP, including ASIO, WDM, Wave, Core Audio, and Core MIDI. Supports all popular Mac and Windows audio software.
  • Front panel volume control for monitoring. Stereo, Quad, 6.1, 7.1 and user-defined surround monitoring setups available.
  • Front panel headphone jack with volume control.
  • Bus-powered FireWire operation. No need for external power when operating as a FireWire interface connected to a computer. A power supply is included for stand-alone operation.
  • Chassis dimensions, excluding rack ears and front and back panel knobs and connectors: 9.5 × 7 × 1.75 inches (24.13 × 17.78 × 4.45 cm). Knobs and connectors extend up to 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) from front and back panels, adding 1 inch (2.54 cm) to depth. With rack ears attached, fits one half of a standard 19 inch (48.26 cm) rack at 1U high.

MOTU makes some other specs-claims that I’d have to dispute. The worst of which is “Plug-and-play operation with your Mac or PC via FireWire or USB2.” I’m pretty sure MOTU does not know what “plug-and-play” means. In using any MOTU product, you will have to wrestle with their obscure and user-hostile drivers and software. Like another company I despise, DiGiCo, you can not obtain MOTU drivers without logging into their website and registering a product. As opposed to actual plug-and-play products, absolutely nothing useful happens when you plug in a MOTU product without pre-installing drivers.

MOTU follows that delusion with “Includes AudioDesk full-featured sample-accurate workstation software for the Mac and Windows with recording, editing, mixing, real-time 32-bit effects processing & sample-accurate sync.” On both my Mac and Windows machines, AudioDesk 2 was a total loser, failing to even function on Windows 7 and it was such a glitch monster on my Mac that I deleted it immediately.

mix_largeCueMix FX™, the MOTU proclaimed “flexible 10 input/14 bus mixer with on-board DSP effects, including reverb with sends/returns, plus EQ and compression on every input and output” is a pain in the ass. It has some useful features, like “full-screen real-time FFT display, spectrogram ‘waterfall’ display, oscilloscope, X-Y plot and linear or polar phase analysis,” but you will curse its existence often on the way to obtaining any of those features. CueMix is not really a feature, but an obstacle you just have to learn to live with if you use MOTU products.

Getting Pro Tools or Logic to “see” the features of CueMix is a trick. Once I found a setup that worked, I saved it and haven’t experimented much with it since.

Considering how powerful and flexible the UltraLite is, the fact that it can be powered with a Firewire A port (400Mb/s) is a nice thing. Unfortunately, unless you’re sporting a historic Mac/PC (like me), that won’t do you much good. The IEEE 1394 a spec allowed for about 5W of power on the 6-wire buss and 25-30VDC unregulated. USB2 has plenty of power, but the voltage is too low for most applications including the UltraLite.

The two mic pres are reasonably quiet and provide the usual 60dB of gain. The input connectors are XLR/TRS for balanced or unbalanced operation of microphones or instruments. Gain is 1dB/step continuously-variable analog/digital front-panel controls. The knobs are small and a little hard to find in low lighting. The knobs are also the push-button switches for selecting 48VDC phantom power and a 15dB pad. All 8 of the analog inputs, including the two mic pres, can be controlled remotely through my old CueMix buddy. That is, actually, a nice feature especially during a remote recording session.

Mostly, I’m pretty happy with my MOTU unit. Especially for the insane price I lucked into.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Motion City Soundtrack Notes (cont)

The school’s administration, apparently, didn’t get along all that well with the Motion City guys. The marketing contact more or less said, “they’re a bunch of assholes” after she’d dumped them in the student lounge that doubled as our artist dressing room. A couple other admin types made similar comments during our setup.

A couple of hours before showtime, I still didn’t know what the instrumentation will be or have a stage plot. The school’s live guy was more clueless than me. Information was doing the opposite of what is often called “flowing.” I lucked out, two of my students showed up for the setup; one for the duration and the other just for the setup before he had to go to work. While the kid who’d be there for the duration helped me run the snake and setup the recording equipment, I sent the other guy into to ask the band about their instrumentation. He was gone a really long time and I began to worry about him, based on the comments we’d heard from administration. When he finally made it back, he was drunk and had completely forgotten what I’d asked him to do. The band had generously shared their reception buffett, which was mostly beer. Summit Amber Ale, I think.

Not only was that kid pretty useless to me for the rest of the setup, but he was sort of screwed for work later that night. So, I sent in the next victim with instructions to stay the hell away from the beer supply. He came back pretty quickly with a stage plot and we got to work trying to optimize our 18 channels max on a five piece band with at least four vocals. We put up a minimal three-mic drum rig, DI’d the bass, keyboards, and mic’d the guitars and the bass amp. In the end, we had one open channel for a room mic. In the past, the audience mostly sat behind the FOH area in the cafe’s seating area. That was true, even for POS and Doomtree. So, it seemed like a fair bet that we’d get whatever audience participation there would be from that conservative location with a little isolation from the stage output.

The band came out for very brief sound check, looked at the setup and went with it. They had a couple of requests that required some grouping of the synth sounds to allow coverage for an additional stage amp. Otherwise, we were good to go and I, finally, took a breath, grabbed a bottle of water, and sat back to watch the crowd come in.

The crowd was unexpected. Most of the school’s students blew off the show, but Motion City’s fans were there in spades. In a few minutes, all of the seating was filled and a pretty decent sized group milled around the stage. The school president appeared and announced the band. Justin Pierre took the mic and said, “We’re not playing until you rush the stage.” Pretty much the whole crowd got up and packed the area between the FOH setup and the stage. No only could I barely see the stage, making getting levels sorted out for the usual changes in performance levels difficult, but it was pretty obvious that my audience-response mic was really positioned badly. A few minutes into the first song, it was also obvious that the audience really knew the band and their songs. So much so that Justin stopped singing often and let the audience fill in the spaces. And my one lonely, poorly-placed room mic barely snagged any of it.

In all, it was a great show and I became a big fan of Motion City Soundtrack, now owning four of their CDs. After the show Justin Pierre and Joshua Cain made a trip back to our area to thank us for doing the show. Good guys and good times.The video, below, was a mix from what we delivered to the Current's Local Show and it is absolutely representative of how great this band is.

Monday, March 7, 2016

How Quality Feedback Really Works

A while back, I was arguing with one of my MNSCU instructors about why he needed to get over his fear of lead-free solder and move his instruction program into this century. During this “discussion,” mentioned that the electrical assembly portion of almost every electric guitar I’ve ever disassembled has been an embarrassment. From the major factories to the boutique builders, the soldering, component placement and security, and wiring have been . . . sad. Likewise, many of the guitars (and other audio products) I’ve repaired in my career have failed because of soldering defects. His response was, “Don’t you think one of my long term customers would have complained if my soldering failed?”

My short answer was, “No.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this discussion, but it keeps coming back to haunt me. There is an old 5/5/5 restaurant rule that says something like “It takes $5 in advertising to get a new customer to try a business, 5 seconds of poor service to drive them away, and $5,000 in advertising to get them back again.” It’s a fact. I may be the Geezer with A Grudge, but I’m not the only person on the planet with a long memory or who would rather just move along than wrestle with convincing a company that I’d experienced poor service or had an unsatisfactory experience with their products.
A couple of days after our discussion, I remembered my last relationship with a luthier, back in the late 1970’s in Lincoln, Nebraska. For almost a decade, I’d fallen into the habit of buying guitars and, if I planned on keeping the instrument for any time, I hauled it to Lincoln and had my luthier setup the guitar at $150-250 per instrument. That seems like a lot for the time, but I was buying guitars idiotically cheaply from stoners and starving artists and had the margin to spare with most of my purchases.

Sometime in the early 80’s I brought in an old Gibson Explorer that clearly needed fretwork and a trussrod adjustment. The luthier had a couple of new employees, but I assumed that since I was an old customer my instrument would be serviced by the owner. I was wrong and the setup was awful. I lived about 75 miles from Lincoln and, while my studio was in Lincoln and I was in town for 2-3 days every weekend, I bought a book and made the corrections to the setup myself. Not only did I not complain to the store owner, I never brought in another instrument again and when my own customers asked where I’d have guitar work done I sent them to a shop in Omaha. I didn’t really know the shop in Omaha all that well, but I felt like I knew the Lincoln shop too well.

So, again my answer is “no.” I do not think the average customer, long-term or not, will bother to complain about lousy service. They’ll just move on unless you have set up some really clever system to almost require them to let you know how they felt about your product or service.

In my dotage, I’m taking a “guitar repair and construction” course at my local community college; mostly for access to the school’s incredible wood shop tools. After a couple of semesters, I began to wonder why none of the classes ended with the usual student course/instructor evaluations. Since the dropout rate in my class has been extraordinary, you’d think someone might care about student retention. After a little inquiry into the school’s policies I received the following response from administration, “According to policies set forth by both the State of Minnesota and MnSCU the tenured faculty are only required to assess their class once per year - and they can do so in whatever format they choose. Probationary instructors need to assess much more frequently. I should mention that we are in full compliance with the policies, so I'm not sure what you're looking to do with this.”

All I can say to that response is "Wow!" No wonder my experience with MNSCU's programs (from the UofM to Inver Hills to Southeast Tech) has been so marginal. It sounds like a system totally driven by teacher union contracts and management disregard with no system for maintaining quality-of-program or delivery performance considerations. There is no such thing as a feedback-free system that provides any sort of quality control.

Now I really feel like I'm officially in the Midwest, the home of the most mediocre educational experiences I suffered in my 30+ years as a student. It does explain the proliferation of for-profit schools here, though. Apparently, the solution is for the student senate to recommend RateMyProfessors.com and give up on the school administration doing any sort of job.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Dime A Dozen

One of the many things I learned working as an instructor at a music college was that talent, creativity, originality, stage presence, and “the right look” are not rare things. In my first couple of years at the school, I recorded original music from students and musicians from the Minneapolis/St. Paul community that blew me away. I recorded songs that I couldn’t believe the world didn’t want and need to hear. As my time there went on, that became such an expected and regular event that it was the background for my existence for 13 years. All the while, the stuff I heard on the radio and internet paled in comparison; or worse, often much worse.

Now that I’m retired and fooling around learning how to build and repair guitars it’s interesting to look back on my teaching and recording experience from the position of being in a classroom full of kids who are taking on a semi-practical trade while still hoping to be the “next big thing.” Most of these kids are pretty good musicians. Some of them are decent songwriters. The fact is that I’ve seen much, much better and all that talent went pretty much nowhere. Saying that, I don’t mean to discourage them. Their chance of making it big as a musician is almost exactly the same as it was for the music students who I thought had it all going for them: practically nill.

Luck and connections are more important than talent. It doesn’t hurt to have a few family members in the business, too. This is true for all areas of the arts. The world is full of amazing musicians, painters, sculptors, singers and dancers, funny people and dramatic actors, glass blowers, story tellers and poets, wood carvers and cabinetmakers, and people who make beautiful things and moments from nearly nothing. Some of those people make small or large fortunes from their “talent” and many of the most wealthy are nearly talentless (Yeah, I’m talking about you Kayne.) At the other end of the spectrum, there are incredibly talented people who, outside of friends and family, no one every hears about.

Like Mike Lewis told the 2012 Princeton graduation class talent only takes you so far. Luck is one hell of a lot more important a contributor to success and if you aren’t successful it could be because you weren’t lucky. If you were, it might not be due to anything about you.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.