May 03

MOTU 896mk3 Audio Interface / Digital Mixer Review and Tips

I’ve been working with computer audio since the 80’s, and I’ve used a number of different little boxes to get audio from a microphone and instruments and into the computer – mostly on the Macintosh.

Mark of the Unicorn (aka MOTU) is a company that’s been around since those early days of Macintosh audio.  Their “Digital Performer” Mac-only DAW is still one of the most respected platforms in an increasingly crowded field.

I recently had the opportunity to upgrade from my M-Audio Profire 610 Firewire Audio Interface to a MOTU 896mk3 Audio Interface & Digital Mixer.

MOTU 896Mk3

The MOTU 896Mk3 - image ©MOTU

My frustration with the ProFire had a lot to do with interference – as I’ve posted before, it was very prone to picking up DVI interference from flat-panel monitors.

While I had been able to get by with the ProFire by using better cables and routing things carefully, I recently upgraded to a new flat-panel monitor which ran at a higher refresh rate.  Once again, the ProFire started picking up the whine, and nothing I could do would get rid of it.  The 896 has been absolutely silent on FireWire. No whine from the monitor, and no noise from guitar pickups or the USB connection for my Fretlight.

In addition, I was looking at being able to record acoustic drums, and the two microphone preamps on the ProFire just weren’t enough to be able to do that.  I did a great deal of research, and in the end chose the MOTU.

Here’s why:

  • 8 microphone preamps with built-in soft and hard limiting
  • 8 analog outputs, each with their own mix of all other inputs
  • 4 ADAT Digital I/O ports, for a total of 16 inputs and 16 outputs (more useful than you’d think…)
  • Extensive front-panel meters and controls
  • Full-19″ rack width, but only ~10″ deep, and only weighing ~ 4 lbs.
  • ADAT Ports can be used to connect another 8 mic preamps and MIDI I/O via a MOTO “8-Pre” box
  • Extremely well-reviewed and tested software and drivers, including many audio analysis tools
  • Firewire 800 I/O to the computer, so works on Mac and PC
  • Recommendation from my friend Brant (based on his pro-recording friend’s recommendation)

What’s missing compared to the ProFire (and other competitors):

  • MIDI I/O (I already have a separate M-Audio USB MIDI box, so this was easy)
  • “Octane” Mic-Preamps (896 mic pre’s are very flat, not as “nice out of the box” as the ProFire)
  • Lots of Software Returns

Dealing with “Flat” Microphone Preamps

The Octane Preamps on the ProFire sound very good for vocals out of the box. Their “natural” EQ is just very flattering.  The 896’s PreAmps are “flat”: they have no particular EQ response.  This is good, in that they are more flexible, but bad in that I’m still working on finding EQ settings in my DAW that recapture the “natural” magic of the Octane pre’s.  I’m still working on this…hopefully a full report later.  I will say that a bit of a boost in the midrange seems to help.  The preamps in the 896 don’t sound bad, they are just very transparent.  The Octane pre’s were part of my sound, the 896 pre’s don’t contribute one way or the other, they stay out of the way.

The gain knob for each preamp on the ProFire is notoriously frustrating though, since it’s a “tapered” potentiometer – the useful range is all within a couple degrees of the knob’s travel.  The 896’s knob seems to have a greater useful range, although it too tends to be smaller than I’d like.

Software Returns

Software returns are the ability to route audio from software on the computer into *inputs* on the device, so they can be mixed into the *outputs* of the device, just like the physical inputs to the device.  You can think of them as “virtual” inputs.  The are critical if you are crafting multiple monitor mixes that include software playback  or software instruments.

The 896 has one stereo return.  You can assign the audio from any output to the return.  However, in order to craft custom monitor mixes for multi-musician jamming and overdubbing, you typically need at least 8 returns.

Here’s my trick to add a bunch of software returns: I used a TOSLink Optical cable to connect the ADAT A Output jack into the ADAT A Input jack.  This automatically connects all 8 ADAT Digital Outputs on the to all 8 ADAT Digital Inputs – all with one cable.  Full digital, no generation loss.

I use the 896’s ADAT Outputs (which are easy to select in any DAW, in my case REAPER) as the outputs for my playback and digital instruments. The audio goes out through the ADAT A output jack, in through the ADAT A input jack, and appears on the ADAT A Inputs in the 896’s CueMix FX mixer software.  I can now mix these into the analog outputs of the 896 to create monitor mixes for each performer.

Example DAW Output Settings:

  • DAW Drum Mix Buss Track: ADAT Output 1
  • DAW Bass Mix Track: ADAT Output 2
  • DAW Rhythm Guitar Track: ADAT Output 3
  • DAW Lead Guitar Mix Track: ADAT Output 4
  • DAW Vocal Mix Track: ADAT Output 5
  • DAW Synth Track (Live and Playback): ADAT Output 6

Example Monitor Mixes In CueMix:

  • Vocalist Overdub/Jam Headphone Monitor Mix:
    • 60% Analog Input 1 (their mic input)
    • 10% ADAT Input 1 (Drum Mix Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 2 (Bass Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 3 (Rhythm Guitar Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 4 (Lead Guitar Track Playback)
  • Bassist Overdub/Jam Headphone Monitor Mix:
    • 60% Analog Input 2 (Bass Amp mic/DI)
    • 10% ADAT Input 1 (Drum Mix Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 5 (Vocal Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 3 (Rhythm Guitar Track Playback)
    • 10% ADAT Input 4 (Lead Guitar Track Playback)

If you are tracking new parts from scratch, you might not need playback, but you might have a click coming from the DAW for the drummer, or scratch drum tracks, or live synth from a virtual instrument.

Either way, this trick lets you route lots of channels of audio from software into the 896 and treat it just like any other input.

I also run a TOSLink cable (with a mini-TOSLink adapter) from the headphone jack of my Macbook Pro (which is secretly an optical port as well as an analog headphone port) into the ADAT B Input of the 896, so I can mix 2-channel audio from programs like Skype and iTunes that won’t let me select specific device output pairs.  Note that to use one of the ADAT inputs as a TOSLink input, you need to set it to “TOSLINK” mode (as opposed to “lightpipe” mode) using the “MOTU Audio Setup” application.

Going from XLR Outputs to Headphone Monitors

The 896’s analog audio outs, which we want to use as headphone monitor mixes, are XLR connectors.  These balanced connectors won’t go directly into headphones and you usually want to combine two of them to make a stereo headphone mix.  To do this, you need another box, and I chose the Behringer AMP800 mini headphone amp.  With some XLR to TRS cables, you can go from the analog outs on the 896 into the mix inputs on the AMP800, and create volume-controllable headphone jacks for your jammers and trackers to listen to.  Add a few long headphone extension cables like the ones from the JamHub, your favorite headphones, and you are in business!

The 896 does have two headphone outputs that you can mix to separately, so if you only ever have two people tracking or jamming, you don’t need this setup.

Other Changes

The ProFire had all TRS Analog I/O Jacks, while the 896 has all XLR Outputs (and dual TRS/XLR Analog Inputs), so I had to buy a couple of new cables, especially to connect to my Yamaha HS-50M / HS-10W studio monitor speakers.

I was also able to finally get rid of my ancient Behringer mixer, which had seen better days. There is a nice knob on the front of the 896 I can use to control the overall level of things, as well as input levels. I have everything running into the 896, so I can truly use it both as an audio interface as well as a digital mixer.

I have my POD X3 Live connected to Analog Inputs 7/8 from the ‘live’ outputs, and I have a S/PIDF cable running from the S/PDIF output of the X3 into the S/PDIF input of the 896. I did have to adjust the sample rate of the output of the X3 to match the 896 to avoid hearing anything but digital noise there.

To be honest, I don’t really like the sound of the S/PDIF output, and I typically run the “live” analog sound, and I use the CueMix software that comes with the 896 to mute/unmute the X3.  I could use the knobs on the front to turn it down when I’m not using it (it tends to have “guitar cable noise” if I don’t), but I like where I have them set for recording levels.  But it’s there, so if I ever need to use Analog 7/8 for something else (e.g. drum mics), I can still get the X3 audio into the mix.

Summary

I really like the 896mk3. It’s super-light, so even though it’s bigger than the ProFire, it uses a standard power cord (rather than ProFire’s giant wall-wart), so it’s similarly portable.

Its noise-free, and software-crash free (even under 64-bit Mac OS X).  More than any others, those are the two I have to have.

I was also able to get rid of the mixer from my setup.  I had to add the MIDI interface back in, but I only use it very rarely, so I’m not terribly concerned.

I was pretty frustrated with the lack of software returns until I figured out that ADAT loopback trick, but since I got that working it’s been just a dream.  The super-smarties at headphone.com helped get me on the right path of choosing a headphone amp, which was invaluable.

I do wish MOTU would add more software returns to this device, or even just let me virtually patch outs to ins in the mixer, rather than having to use a patch cable.  MIDI I/O would also be a great help for this device, as well as allowing the front-panel “main-out” headphone output to be routed separately from the monitor speakers.

I suspect I’ll eventually end up buying a MOTU 8-Pre to get the 8 extra microphone preamps (acoustic drums use a ton of mics), but that uses the same port that I’m using for my ADAT loopback.  However, I can chain it on the Firewire bus instead of running into the 896.  Since the Mac makes it easy to create virtual devices as aggregates of physical devices (using the Audio/MIDI Setup Control Panel), this is probably a viable option.

The front-panel knobs are very small, and can be a bit frustrating to grab in a hurry, although almost all of them can be tweaked virtually via Cuemix FX, so it’s not too big of a deal.  All the I/O except for the headphones is on the back, which it a bit annoying when regularly connecting and disconnecting mics for podcasting.  I typically just leave the mic cables connected to Analog 1 & 2, and have the cables neatly hanging from my desk nearby.

There are a number of features I’ll likely never use, such as AES/EBU I/O, and Word Clock I/O.  For the average home studio, it seems like MIDI I/O would be a better choice.

I’d also like to be able to use the modeled EQ, compression, reverb, and other onboard F/X from my DAW as plugins, rather than having to track with them in the signal path.

I’d buy it again based on the noiselessness and stability alone, and I hope that the tricks I’ve outlined here help you enjoy yours as much as I enjoy mine!

Apr 15

New Podcast – WTFAWD!

 Hey there –

  Brant Steen from the now-defunct “TrapCast”, and I from the now-defunct “Return to Northmoor” have created a new podcast on a wholly different topic.

  We both felt like we said what we had to say on the tabletop gaming front, and now we’re turning our attention to the world of web software development.

  Unlike Return to Northmoor, the new show “WTFAWD” is an uncensored, conversational take on very complex topics.

  The best part of the show is that Brant and I share a common passion for making things on the Internet, but are at two different places in our careers.  Brant just started his first “real” software job about a year ago, while I’m just a few months away from year 20 of mine.

 As you can imagine, this leads to some lively conversation as we compare stories from the frontlines of our very different worlds.

 We do share something interesting though – despite both of us working professionally as software developers, I got my undergraduate college degree in Russian Literature, Brant got his in Psychology.

 I was already working as a software developer in college to pay the bills – I finished my degree in 3.5 years working 20-40 hours a week fixing computers and writing software for my current employer…so there were a lot of things that fell by the wayside in my college life.  Happily employed, I never went on to get a computing degree, despite several attempts to muster the tolerance for BS required to do so.

 Brant however, got a Masters in computing, and is working on a Masters in Business Computing Administration, which is quite wise of him.

 So our perspectives are both from people with liberal arts backgrounds who went on to do computing full time, one with a lifetime of experience, and the other with a degree.

 We learn a lot from each other, and try to share what we’re learning with you in every episode.

 If you are curious about the title of the podcast – it’s an allusion to the question we ask ourselves at least every few hours doing web development – “What the foo are we doing?!”  We ask ourselves that a lot, and we thought we’d share our confusion and it’s resolution with you! 

 Check out the new show at http://wtfawd.com !

Mar 01

Studio Acoustic Treatment

When I first started podcasting, we were recoding up in our kitchen, which is a pretty large, open space.

However, since we use condenser-type microphones (which are very sensitive) we were picking up the neighbors’ dogs barking, lawns being mowed, kids jumping on trampolines, and so on.

Even once I learned to turn the gain way way down, and then normalize the audio later in REAPER, we would still get comments from listeners wondering why their neighbors were mowing their lawns at 2AM while they were listening to our show.

So we moved recording down to the basement, and froze with the furnace turned off so we didn’t have to hear the thunder of it running on all our recordings.

In the summer of 2009, I spent the summer finishing half of our basement into two bedrooms, one of which was to be the new recording studio.

It was quite a project, and I just kept thinking “It will be so nice to record in here once it’s well-lit and quiet and warm!”

So I cried a little when the first time we recorded in the new space it sounded like I was recording inside a submarine, and not in a cool Beatles way.  Worse than the lawnmower!

No matter how low I turned down the gain, it was still super-reverby.

For vocals in a song, that can be a good thing (Weird Al famously recorded “Another One Rides the Bus” in a college bathroom), but for spoken word where clarity is king, it was disaster.

So we recorded out in the unfinished part of the basement while I tried to figure out what to do.

First, I tried building panels using the Auralex foam that you can buy at most music shops.  Zzounds.com actually sells it by the square, so I bought about 15 of them and tried to use them in various ways to reduce the echo.

They didn’t help.  Made it worse in many ways.  I think that foam may be good for soundproofing, but it was utterly ineffective for me in reducing reflections (echo) in a 10’x12′ room.  I’ve seen people cover every surface in a room with the stuff, and they seem to be happy, but that wasn’t an option, as I didn’t want to record in a closet and couldn’t afford $3k worth of squares and nothing else in the room.

I noticed that many products marketed at reducing reflections for vocals were made of something else, which looked more like burlap membrane rather than foam.  Products like the Reflexion filter, which aren’t cheap, but actually (based on reviews) work.

However, that would mean talking into a black wall (assuming both hosts had one), and for podcasts, it works a lot better if there is eye contact for people in the room.

Not to mention that you’d have to buy more of them if you ever wanted to record more than two people, and you get “best results” if you put one both in front of, and behind the speaker.

I was starting to despair that I’d spend a good amount of time and money to build a warm cozy space to record in, only to never be able to use it. Perhaps that’s why musicians tend to do their best work when living in vans down by the river?

Anyway, I researched and researched, and eventually found RealTraps.

Same sort of membrane material as the Reflexion filter, but in steel-framed panels that you can place about a larger room, and then move about as you need.

But they are expensive. Even with the newly-available “BareTraps“, which are $125 each, enough to completely cover my room would be well over $2k.  But they seemed like the best option, so I went for it, and ordered a pair of the bass-frequency absorbing ones for the corners, and the “High Frequency” ones for the rest of the walls.

They work. I won’t lie, there is still echo in that room. I’ve just ordered four more to cover the other two corners and the backs of the doors, but even with the ones I have in there, which do NOT cover every surface, the reflections are so reduced that it actually feels a little weird to be in the room some times because it’s so quiet.

I have standard acoustic tiles in the ceiling right now, and a hardwood floor, neither of which is really helping the situation. So a large rug is next.

RealTraps makes ceiling tiles that I may eventually use to swap out the standard ones that I have, although I also might try just hanging more Baretraps from the ceiling…

Anyway, things are sounding better every day in the Rock Lab (as I’ve christened it), and I encourage you to try real membrane-based traps rather than just MORE FOAM!

Jul 20

Double Share!

If you like audio books, then I can’t help but recommend Nathan Lowell’s fantabuolous free series over on podiobooks.com (also available for free via iTunes).

The “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” stories, Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, and the just-released Double Share, chronicle the story of young Ishmael Wang, who chooses a life of sailing the stars by necessity and finds he has quite a knack for it.

He ends up joining the equivalent of the spacefaring merchant
marine, and his adventures trading and learning about life outside of
the sheltered university enclave in which he grew up are a delightful
exploration of economics, personal relationships, learning, and what
being competent really means.

The stories are interesting, poignant, and sweet.  There is very little “action”, no fights, battles, laser swords, or aliens.

The stories are about people, and how they adapt to new situations and how certain, special people can impact the lives of a lot of others.

Much like the Heinlein and Spider Robinson stories that use Science Fiction as a tool to highlight the foibles of humanity, Lowell’s stories are set in the far future, but could really take place just about anywhere.

Lowell’s exploration of co-ed spacefarers to be in the legacy of
authors who explore not only the future of technology, but the future
of human relationships.

That said, Lowell’s sci-fi setting is far from a blase backdrop.  Lowell smartly focuses on the microcosm of a single ship for the first three stories, letting us understand the world piece by piece and the ship travels from world to world.  It’s fascinating to learn about the economics of trade and stocks through the eyes of a spacefarer.  I suspect we’ll learn more about the world in the novels to come.

There is a spin off story as well, called South Coast.  This is a different story – and not really part of the “Share” series, although it is set in the same general mileu, and expands on one of the events from the “main” series.  It’s a good story as well, although I found that it took several episodes for me to really get in to it.  It is worth it in the end, though.

I will say that the stories are not for children…I think that the subject matter would both not catch their interest, and is a little racy in parts for most children.  I think a teen might enjoy them, however.

So if you have a long drive coming up (or even just a week of commuting), I highly recommend Nathan Lowell’s work, and I hope to see him at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention being held here in Denver!