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.

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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.