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MOTU 828 (MAC/WIN)

November 1, 2001
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Until recently, MOTU's popular line of audio interfaces — the 2408, 1224, 308, 24i, and 1296 — all connected to a host computer through MOTU's PCI-324 card. The 828, MOTU's newest interface, connects directly to an IEEE 1394 FireWire port on a Mac or a Windows-compatible PC (see Fig. 1). The 828 makes high-speed, high-quality multitrack hard-disk recording possible for computers without PCI expansion slots.

The 828 offers eight channels of analog I/O, eight channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, stereo S/PDIF I/O, ADAT sync, zero-latency monitoring, and two phantom-powered mic preamps. For smaller recording systems, especially portable laptop setups, the 828 may be the perfect solution for getting 24-bit audio into and out of your computer.

STUDIO IN A RACK

The 828's rear panel includes two balanced mic/line inputs with Neutrik combo (XLR and ¼-inch) jacks; six balanced ¼-inch line inputs; eight balanced ¼-inch line output jacks, two balanced ¼-inch main output jacks, and a ¼-inch footswitch jack (see Fig. 2). All of the analog I/O operates at +4 dBu. A single front-panel switch turns on phantom power for the mic preamps.

The output of channels 1 and 2 is mirrored on the main outputs: a front-panel Volume knob controls their level as well as the headphone output. Front-panel input trim knobs give you independent level setting for channels 1 and 2 and level setting in pairs for line inputs 3 through 8. The 828 has 24-bit converters throughout.

In addition to the analog I/O, the 828 provides two channels of S/PDIF input and output on RCA and optical connectors. You can also configure the optical connectors for 8-channel ADAT Lightpipe I/O. An ADAT sync-in jack lets you synchronize the 828 to ADAT-compatible devices with sample accuracy. All 18 inputs and outputs — 8 analog, 8 Lightpipe, and 2 S/PDIF RCA — are simultaneously active.

From a hardware perspective, the 828 is well constructed. The analog connectors are gold plated and feel solid and snug; the plugs won't slip out of their jacks as they do on some inexpensive USB audio interfaces I've seen. The front-panel trim knobs on my review unit were a little rough and inconsistent, but they smoothed out a bit with use.

Like the 2408 line of MOTU interfaces, the 828 has an internal power supply, which is great but adds a little more weight to the unit. Overall, the 828 should fare perfectly well in any studio installation, and I suspect that it will also travel well in road cases handled by commercial airlines.

IT'S A SETUP

Installing and configuring the 828's software was a snap on the Macintosh. The 828 CD-ROM contains Mac and Windows installers and loads the necessary extensions, drivers, and control panels for proper operation. To connect the 828 to the host computer, simply route the included 15-foot FireWire cable from the computer to the 828 interface.

The 828's software control panel looks much like the Configure Hardware Driver dialog box used with other MOTU audio interfaces. Use the pull-down menus to set the sampling rate, clock source, sample buffer, optical input and output type, main analog-output pair, and analog-input monitor channels. You can also program the functionality of the footswitch jack; it is usually set to toggle Record on and off, which is handy for manually punching in and out. On the Macintosh, the 828 software installs a Control Strip module that allows immediate access to the 828's control-panel settings from anywhere on your computer.

The 828's control panel also provides access to CueMix Plus, which lets you mix the signal going into any analog input with the main outputs in real time. The monitoring latency of CueMix Plus is lower than the original CueMix that came with earlier MOTU audio interfaces. A dedicated monitor-level knob balances the selected live input with the main outputs, and the main Volume knob controls the summed signal.

The 828 comes with the Mac-only AudioDesk, a software package that's a full-featured digital audio workstation. AudioDesk is essentially Digital Performer 2.4 without the MIDI features and includes all of the MOTU Audio System (MAS) plug-ins that ship with Digital Performer 2.4. You can use additional third-party MAS and VST plug-ins in AudioDesk, though VST plug-ins require an additional shell application such as Cycling '74 Pluggo or Audio Ease VST Wrapper. For Mac users who don't use MIDI in their projects, AudioDesk could very well be all the recording software they need.

In addition to providing full integration with Digital Performer, the 828 comes with ASIO drivers for Windows and the Mac, a Sound Manager driver for the Mac, and WDM drivers for Windows. Those drivers allow recording, editing, and mixing using virtually any audio software on either computer platform.

QUIET, I'M WORKING!

In the midst of writing this review, I faced a very busy weekend. I was scheduled to perform two Burt Bacharach concerts in Tulsa. I also needed to sequence 30 minutes of music for a Six Flags over Texas show and record it as audio files for a Monday morning vocal session. After a quick check of the 828's basic functionality at home, I left on Friday with the 828, my PowerBook G3/400 MHz, a Roland XV-5080 sound module, a CD-ROM drive, my sample library, a pair of small powered monitors, and a Roland XP-30 to use as a controller. I crossed my fingers and headed for Tulsa.

Setting up the whole rig was a cinch; the hardest part was rearranging my hotel room's furniture to accommodate the cabling. Because I had eight songs to sequence and record during the weekend, I decided to print tracks immediately after completing each song while it was still fresh in my mind. That way, I would know early on if there would be any problems recording audio files with my setup.

Because the XV-5080 has an RCA S/PDIF output, I elected to record into MOTU Digital Performer 2.72 using the 828's S/PDIF input. However, the 828 does not let you assign any digital inputs to the independent monitor pair, which only work with the analog inputs. That's understandable, as digital monitoring would require an additional pair of D/A converters to allow the S/PDIF input to show up at the analog mix circuitry. I simply used two ¼-inch cables and connected the XV-5080's analog outputs to the 828's analog inputs. That let me monitor the XV-5080 through the 828 as I sequenced. Another option would have been to monitor the S/PDIF input through Digital Performer by setting the Input Monitoring mode to “Monitor record-enabled tracks through effects.”

Before recording the XV-5080 outputs, I changed Digital Performer's clock source from internal to S/PDIF input. That made the 828 synchronize perfectly to the XV-5080's digital output, resulting in clean, glitch-free audio.

During the next three days, I successfully sequenced the MIDI tracks and recorded them as audio files without even a hiccup from the 828. I finished with enough time left over to tweak the Digital Performer tracks to a finer level by time-shifting parts, adding compression and EQ, and so on before the vocal and mix sessions. I was astounded at what I was able to do with such a small amount of gear while I sat in a hotel room during a weekend.

ROUND TWO

A couple of weeks later, I called the 828 back into action. I was working on a second show for Six Flags, but this one involved writing music using Coda Finale and conducting an ensemble of string, brass, and woodwinds. After two days of recording the rhythm section first and then recording the orchestra, the mix engineer, the producer, and I launched into the dreaded all-night mixing session. So what does that have to do with the 828?

The problem was that the show's opening was moved up two days. That meant that the mixes had to be completed the night of the orchestra date. I still needed to overdub timpani, orchestra bells, vibes, xylophone, and a few synth textures, which I originally planned to do the following day at my studio. Luckily, I had stereo submixes of the rhythm section from the day before imbedded in my original click-track sequence files. So once again, I powered up the PowerBook, the XV-5080, and the 828.

While the engineer and producer built up the main mixes in Studio A, I set up my portable rig in the producer's suite. Using my sample library, I began overdubbing MIDI parts and immediately recording them as audio files through the 828. Using an Ethernet connection between Studio A and my laptop, the three of us created an assembly line of new audio tracks and finished the mixes around midnight. I couldn't have done it without the 828.

Again, I was amazed that a setup that small could perform so well. The 828 packs a lot of power into a single rackspace, allowing for professional results with a desktop computer in the studio and with a laptop computer in the field. For a truly portable MIDI setup, a three- or four-space rack could house an 828 with a sampler or synthesizer. For on-the-go audio recording, an 828 with a custom preamp and an equalizer or compressor could fit in an equally small rack yet deliver world-class performance virtually anywhere that you can find electricity.

Because my first two projects involved recording only through the digital inputs of the 828, I later tested the analog inputs by recording a handful of MIDI tracks straight into the unit. Six of the 828's inputs are only ¼-inch, but channels 1 and 2 sport Neutrik combo jacks. Because those two channels are phantom-powered, you can connect any pair of microphones directly to the 828 without additional hardware (except mic cables).

The mic preamps don't sound bad, either. They're not as quiet as high-priced studio preamps, but they sound better than the preamps in most mid-level mixers and even as good as some standalone preamps.

The ¼-inch inputs have a wide range of available gain, letting them accommodate almost any signal level. The input trims are linked in pairs, so raising the gain of channel 5 also affects 6 and so on, but that shouldn't be a problem. The 828's line-level inputs sound great and match the level of audio quality found in MOTU's other interfaces.

WISH LIST

In a perfect world, I would like the ability to switch the outputs on the 828 to — 10 dB operation for semipro studio setups. Because I don't always work with stereo inputs, it would be nice to have independent input trims for each channel rather than being locked to pairs for channels 3 through 8. I also wish I could set the digital inputs — better yet, all inputs simultaneously — to the no-latency monitoring output instead of being limited to a single analog input or pair.

However, individual input trims for each channel would mean more knobs, and monitoring the digital inputs would mean more D/A converters. Fulfilling any of my wish list would necessarily result in a more expensive audio interface. For the price, you really can't beat the 828's feature set.

THE INTERFACE AGE

The MOTU 828 is an excellent audio interface for pros and for novices. It's easy to use, the analog I/O sounds great, the digital I/O is versatile, and the monitoring features solve many problems associated with host-based computer recording. It works great in setups that don't require more than eight simultaneous inputs. Moreover, by press time, MOTU's Web site will offer new drivers that let you use multiple 828s with a single computer using a FireWire hub.

The 828 is a great solution for those who need to do professional recording on a laptop or a computer without PCI slots, such as the Apple iMac. Among affordable audio I/O devices, it may be the single most flexible unit available for laptops. I'm sure you'll be seeing plenty of MOTU 828 interfaces in studios and on the road.

828 Specifications
Analog Mic/Line Inputs (2) Neutrik combo XLR and ¼" with preamps and phantom power
Analog Line Inputs (6) balanced ¼" (+4 dBu)
Analog Line Outputs (8) balanced ¼" (+4 dBu)
Main Analog Outputs (2) balanced ¼" (+4 dBu)
Digital I/O (1) optical in (Lightpipe or S/PDIF); (1) RCA in (S/PDIF);
(1) optical out (Lightpipe or S/PDIF); (1) RCA out (S/PDIF)
A/D Converters 24-bit, 64× oversampling
D/A Converters 24-bit, 128× oversampling
Sampling Rates 44.1, 48 kHz
Sync (1) 9-pin ADAT in
FireWire (1) IEEE 1394 port
Footswitch (1) ¼" TS, software programmable
Headphones (1) ¼" TRS stereo
Power Supply internal; IEC connector
Dimensions 1U × 5" (D)
Weight 3.75 lb.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Mark of the Unicorn
828
computer audio interface
$795

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 5.0
AUDIO QUALITY 4.5
VALUE 5.0

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Connects directly to FireWire-equipped computer without additional hardware cards. Eighteen simultaneous channels of 24-bit analog and digital I/O. Balanced +4 dBu operation. Accommodates a wide range of signal levels. Zero-latency monitoring of any analog input or pair. S/PDIF, ADAT Lightpipe, and ADAT sync. Two phantom-powered mic preamps. Easy setup.

CONS: No word clock. Outputs cannot be switched to — 10 dBu operation. Doesn't support sampling rates higher than 48 kHz.

Manufacturer

Mark of the Unicorn
tel. (617) 576-3066
e-mail techsupport@motu.com
Web www.motu.com

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