A lot of audio interfaces have come and gone here. My favorite remains my trusted MOTU 828. Why? It has rock-solid drivers that have never caused trouble on Mac or PC, and it sounds terrific. Unfortunately, it’s also rather big and heavy as a full rack-space unit. That’s why I’m excited to see MOTU is shipping its bus-powered FireWire-based UltraLite, which has more features than my old 828 in a fraction of the space. 2 mic/instrument inputs with mic pres, plus 6 line ins for 8 inputs; 10 analog outputs, S/PDIF ins and outs for digital, and a dedicated headphone jack.

MOTU packs features into their interfaces that you don’t get from anyone else at this price point. That may sound like marketing spin, but I mean that — I’ve spent more hours than anyone should looking at spec sheets for audio interfaces, and I can’t think of a single piece of gear under $600 that has:

  • Digital trims for setting level, 3-way pad switch for mic pres
  • Sample-accurate MIDI I/O
  • SMPTE sync for video production (extremely rare on audio interfaces, unfortunately)
  • Integrated standalone 8-bus mixer (i.e., you can mix with this without your computer)
  • Backlit signal meters
  • Dedicated headphone jack, which is essential for monitoring Ableton Live mixes, click tracks, or anything else that requires a separate headphone feed.
  • Talk-back, listen-back monitoring
  • Daisy-chaining (via FireWire) so you can combine it with your existing MOTU hardware. (Yes, MOTU, my 828 is ready for its sibling now.)

  • And I don’t want to mention any names, but I’ve had trouble with some other portable audio interfaces: funky drivers, sub-par MIDI performance, lame mic pres. I’ve got high expectations for the MOTU gear; I can’t wait to give this one a spin.

    Compatibility: Mac Core Audio (including Intel) and PC (ASIO and WDM).
    Street price: Around $550.

    Now, if only my PC could hack bus power over FireWire like my Macs.

    • tristan

      I was just looking at this on the MOTU website yesterday. Looks great, though too expensive for my current budget.

      Have you heard any good/bad things about using the Presonus Firebox on Macs?

    • admin

      I've heard mostly good things about the PreSonus, but I'm not sure about drivers — I just don't know enough people who actually own them. Also heard good stuff about the Focusrite audio interfaces, which are particularly nice for the mic pres. I think the Focusrite would be my budget choice at the moment. Don't know if you missed the heated debate a few months back over the new Digi Xbox2, but consensus among readers here was that the Focusrite had the edge in mic pre quality (the old Xbox had Focusrite pres, but dropped them on the new model).

      The MOTU is a nice "premium" model, in that it does everything (SMPTE, etc.)

      Let me know what happens, though, and I'll let you know if I get to finally test any of this stuff!


    • herenot


      *chuckle* 🙂

    • admin

      That would most DEFINITELY be the Mbox, not the Xbox. That's a typo for the record books . . . not very often that I'm laughing at loud at my own mistakes!

      Trying to comprehend what a Digidesign Xbox would be like . . .

    • rolandreinke

      I owned the Presonus Firebox for about 24 hours, after which I had to give it back because the FW port on my TiBook emitted a high-pitched tone – not very loud, mind you, but too loud to be acceptable.

      Presonus claimed this was a known issue on certain Apple models and blamed it on the FW port.

      After this, I got a Motu Traveler, which works fine.
      Hope this helps.


    • tristan

      thanks for the info guys.

      unfortunately, while the focusrite saffire and the motu traveler look great, I'm on a highschool student budget. I'll continue looking around because the line-in port on my iMac G5 isn't nearly going to cut it, haha.

      If anyone has any other suggestions for good budget audio interfaces, I'm listening.


    • martin

      I was actually just thinking yesterday that I'd really like an A/D with just two mic preamps (all I need) but 6-10 channels with just line-ins for my synths, and then I come on CDM today and see this.

      Are there any other audio interfaces that eschew mic preamps entirely? It would be nice to pay less for no built-in pres and then just buy something like the Presonus Blue Tube as a tube preamp.

    • admin

      Tristan, what's your budget?

      The Edirol UA-25 is a nice interface for around US$240. M-Audio's new Fast Track Pro also looks like a good interface for around $200, and includes headphone monitoring, as well. Mackie Spike, ditto, around $250.

      I've also heard good things about the Line 6 TonePort for around $130, which includes both an interface and guitar/vocal effects. This one is intriguing to me as apparently Line 6 have done a really good job reducing latency with the combination of their hardware and effects.

      For just line-in, your options are quite open, as it's usually the mic pres that involve the biggest sacrifice on cheaper models.

      What's your budget / what are you doing with it?

      I wish I'd tested more of the current generation of models, but I honestly haven't, especially with Alesis and Tapco having just joined the game.

    • martin

      Let's say 8 in/8 out line-in interface for under $500? Doable? Every one I've seen seems to be either really high-end or packed with mic pres.

      I'd be using it to bring in the audio from racked synths controlled by Logic (right now, just two and never at the same time, but I'd like to add more hardware to my setup). I can always buy a seperate tube preamp for my vocal mic and then run that through one of the line ins.

    • velocipede

      Other than the obvious differences visible from the outside, are there any significant differences between the UltraLite and Traveler?
      I see its 96 khz vs. 192 khz. I wonder if the performance is about the same otherwise.

    • admin

      Hi Martin,

      I think you're going to wind up with mic pres whether you want them or not, but since most of these devices have both 1/4" and mic XLR (or both on a combo jack), that really doesn't matter. And if you really must have your own mic pre, just go ahead and do that . . . kill the pres on the interface.

      If you don't want to exceed the $500 mark, and want 8 in . . . hmmm . . . take a look at the M-Audio FireWire 1814 ($500 street), Edirol FA-101 ($500, 10 in / 10 out), and the MOTU (for $50 over your budget, but possibly worth it). Alesis' iO | 26 has a street under $400 for 8-ins and has ADAT inputs (bonus!), though it's too new to know much about it.

      The problem is the 8 in; most budget interfaces are configured with fewer inputs. But this should give you some options.

      Alternatively, try to find an open box / refurb deal on something like an older 828.

    • tristan

      I don't plan on spending any more than 300.00. Preferably less though, because then I can get a better mic than what I have.

      What I'm planning on doing with it is sort of a tough question because that sort of thing can change. However, currently I'm using my Zoom PS-04 mainly as a preamp (and also occasionally for quick effects) to go to the Line In. I'm mainly recording electric and acoustic guitar to be mixed with electronic elements in Live.

      At this point all I really need is probably 2 in with decent mic pre's, but I might like to get an interface with more ins/outs incase I want to bring in more people or add some sort of outboard effect. MIDI would be nice for the future, but not necessary since something like the m-audio Uno can be bought.

      The interfaces you suggested, Peter, look good, but the thing I'm weary about is that they're USB. Latency?

      Also, does anyone know how good the mic pre's are on the Edirol UA-25, M-Audio Fast Track Pro, Mackie Spike, or Line 6 TonePort?

      Thanks for the help guys!

    • admin

      The units you mentioned are USB, but the ones I listed are FireWire. You'll find that bandwidth is more of an issue than latency; that's why the interfaces with more audio inputs and outputs are FireWire instead of USB. Latency at this point is more a function of drivers and the operating system. Latency is generally good enough, but be forewarned that for recording you'll want to monitor direct signal, not through the computer — otherwise you'll have latency issues on FireWire and USB alike.

      That said, personal experience with these would be most helpful. Anyone want to chime in? I've had pretty good luck with the Edirol stuff.

    • tremolux

      The MOTU seems like a good deal given their typical price range.

      I have an Echo AudioFire8 which roughly similar but larger and AC-powered (also rack-mountable). It goes for about $500 street but as an early adopter I paid $600 (and got a $100 pair of Sennheiser headphones thrown in).

      The 2 preamps on the AudioFire were an issue once I realized that my 4 sources were not line-level (stereo synth, guitar and bass amp direct-outs).

      I solved my immediate problem with an SMPro Audio PR-8 Mk II 8-channel preamp ($200 @ MF). It's a 2U unit but the inputs and controls are well-designed and placed. The pre-amps are subjectively better than on the AudioFire, and at the price it was a bargain. (I have not run into quality issues with the PR-8 that others have mentioned so have not had to fix it myself or mail it to Australia.)

      I, too, had considered the Presonus Firebox but saw user reviews complaining about noise, cheesy knobs, and the density of the front panel controls, so I gave it a pass.

    • virgil990

      "Now, if only my PC could hack bus power over FireWire like my Macs."

      From this final little statement am I to understand it that PC's are not able to bus power the Ultralite?

    • admin

      PCs are able to bus power the UltraLite, and any other FireWire interface, provided they have the right interface. But for some reason, a lot of PC laptops have 4-pin instead of the 6-pin FireWire connections standard on Mac. They require a different cable (or an adapter), and they don't carry power.

      PC desktops I've seen by and large do have the 6-pin jack.

      It's not a deal killer — the UltraLite has DC in — but I vastly prefer running off a FireWire cable to having to carry another dongle. (And unlike USB, bus power on FireWire is pretty reliable.)


    • jonyo

      I haven't used any of the more recent stuff from PResonus on my Mac, but I did buy one of their first forays into the audio interface world, the firestation I think it was called. I suspect it had a lot to do with their relience at that time on mLAN rather than normal firewire chipsets, but this was a total nightmare to try to get working reliably on my OSX Mac. Even when it did work, the cPU overhead was TERRIBLE. I eventually gave up and got a MOTU 828mkII, which has been abdolute perfection ever since. This may have no bearing on Presonus' newer products, assuming they've abandoned the whole mLAN thing, but I thought I throw my experience out there as a warning to any would-be Presonus buyers to TRY that sucker out thoroughly before dropping the cash…

      – JonYo

    • jujubee

      ….also looking into the motu ultralite for firewire recording to Sonar. You mentioned the need to monitor the signal "directly" when recording to avoid latency issues. If I'm overdubbing to drum tracks I've already recorded to Sonar on the PC, how do I monitor those tracks directly to avoid latency??

      Many Thanks

    • ColdPack

      I'd just record with the previously recorded drum track, then nudge the whole take to line up with the drum track.

      That's what I'd do.


    • Miah8000

      I just got one of these a couple of weeks ago and it is great. I had a m-audio 24/96 audiophile card in my dual G4 and had constant problems with it (permissions problems, un-installing/re-installing drivers etc…). This installed fine and the sound quality and midi are great. I am using it to tie in my hardware, eliminate the hardware sequencer problems, and hopefully, when I get a few extra bucks, I will be able to get a MacBook Pro so I can really start using DP 5.1, which I bought with it. The g4 doesn't like a lot of soft synths 🙁

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