Only a few years ago, most professional-grade audio interfaces were either rackmount “break-out” units or PCI soundcards that were simply upgrades to standard built-in soundcards. Now, it seems as if portable bus-powered interfaces are all the rage; one might even call them a rising standard. Yet few companies to date have released an interface quite as small and feature-rich, not to mention surprisingly inexpensive, as MOTU has with its aptly named UltraLite.
UltraLite is a bus- or adapter-powered FireWire audio interface for Mac, PC and stand-alone use, capable of as high as 24-bit/96 kHz audio recording. It holds 10 audio inputs, 14 audio outputs and MIDI I/O. Despite being compact and light (it occupies a half rackspace and weighs less than 4 pounds), UltraLite's aluminum-alloy chassis and all of its potentiometers and switches feel sturdy, and the various I/O make tight connections with their respective cable types. The package contains a sturdy 6-pin FireWire cable, removable rackmounting brackets, a combo driver CD and well-written manuals for the hardware and the MOTU CueMix software and the included AudioDesk DAW software. The unit's front panel features volume trim pots, dual 48V phantom-power switches and 3-way pad switches (off, -18 and -36 dB) for the two mic/instrument preamps. Also situated up front are one of two preamps (on combo XLR/TRS jacks), a ¼-inch headphone output with gain pot, three pots for control over general settings and the onboard CueMix DSP mixer, the Main Volume gain (which, like all other potentiometers found here, is stepped for precision) and a backlit LCD screen that, among other things, displays levels for virtually all analog and digital I/O.
UltraLite's rear panel boasts a cornucopia of I/O that is unusual for an interface of this size. Located here are the second combo mic/instrument input, 16 gold-plated TRS jacks that include the main outputs, eight individual outputs and six line-level inputs. Also available are stereo S/PDIF (coaxial) I/O, MIDI I/O, dual FireWire connectors (designed for daisy-chaining as many as three additional UltraLites or other peripherals) and a 9V-DC jack. Although UltraLite can be bus powered, an external power supply is included. That is useful because UltraLite can function as an interface or as a stand-alone digital mixer.
I tested UltraLite with a dual 2 GHz Apple Power Mac G5 connected to an external 160 GB FireWire hard drive and a 1.33 GHz Apple iBook G4. Both computers were running Apple's latest OS as of this writing, OS X Tiger (10.4.7), and my DAW workhorse of choice, Apple Logic Pro 7. To cover the gamut, I also tested the drivers on a Dell Inspiron 1100 Celeron/2.4 GHz laptop with Windows XP. Rather than using those on the included disk, I downloaded the latest drivers from MOTU's Website; 64-bit Windows drivers as well as standard Mac Power PC and Intel Mac Universal drivers are available. Installation on both platforms was a simple, trouble-free affair, though it was a bit slow on the Windows machine. In fairness, however, it's not a powerful laptop. Once plugged in and switched on, the LCD lit up and the MOTU Audio Setup application, which is responsible for basic tasks such as selecting sampling rate and default I/O channels, automatically launched. I retained the defaults and opened an almost-finished multitrack mix in Logic to test basic audio playback. The 24-bit/44.1 kHz, 33-track song piped through UltraLite's headphones and main outputs loud and clear. I don't typically like stepped volume pots, but UltraLite's are definitely an exception; a move of several steps causes a 1 dB change on the headphones and main outputs (at lower volumes, the number of steps gradually decreases). This level of accuracy was quite pleasing. I then cabled UltraLite's eight assignable analog outputs to my console and randomly reassigned the tracks in Logic to cover all 10 outputs. All of them worked simultaneously as expected and sounded nice and clear. I also tested each of UltraLite's outputs (as stereo pairs) concurrently; I found their volume and sound quality to be consistent.
Next, I ran a basic test of UltraLite's digital I/O by routing all tracks through the S/PDIF output, connecting that directly back into the input and dubbing the song. The result was a beautifully clean dub. Though the resulting volume was softer (by about 2-4 dB) than a direct offline bounce in Logic, that may have been because of a level boost in Logic. I ran a similar test on UltraLite's analog I/O; I reassigned all tracks to outputs 3-4, cabled those back to inputs 3-4 and dubbed down while monitoring on the mains. Here I experienced several bad runs, with terrible distortion ensuing while UltraLite's LED freaked out. I tried all kinds of cures to no avail. I was able to successfully perform this bounce test, however, with the iBook (though with fewer tracks due to the iBook's limitations). That gave me a hint that UltraLite itself was not to be blamed. Luckily, the MOTU tech support people were knowledgeable and prompt with their follow-ups. Through their assistance (as well as a battery of additional tests), I confirmed that the problems lay in FireWire bus limitations and not with UltraLite; I was streaming all tracks to and from the external FireWire drive. The MOTU folks pointed out some crannies in the manual that specifically warned about this. So I sidestepped the problem by bouncing to my local drive. The moral of the story is to read the whole manual, and don't jam too much data through your FireWire buses — especially when other devices share the bus. The final, successful dub was a crisp, clear mix, yet the volume was again softer compared with Logic's bounce.
UltraLite was clearly intended for live recording, so I recorded a guitar-vocal duet performance in an open-air setting using two condenser mics: an Audio-Technica AT2020 and an M-Audio Solaris. Each was cabled directly to one of UltraLite's preamps and positioned approximately 2.5 feet in front of each musician, midway between the guitar's sound hole and mouth. UltraLite's preamps displayed their muscle distinctively. I adjusted each mic's distance in order to use roughly the same gain on each preamp; an initial optimal setting for each mic was 0 dB. I adjusted that throughout the show to compensate for softer and louder songs, yet UltraLite's preamps had plenty of push; they start at 0 and provide 24 dB of additional gain, though unlike the outputs, their pots are stepped in 1 dB increments. The handy preamp pad switches weren't necessary in that case. Their 18 and 36 dB of padding make for a total gain range of 60 dB. Phantom power worked fine. The live recordings, though naturally not the quality of isolated miking, were excellent. Even though both mics were set up in cardioid fashion, crowd applause and background noise came through nicely between songs, showing off the abilities of UltraLite's preamps.
Aside from being a computer-based audio/MIDI interface, UltraLite is a robust stand-alone digital mixer as well, with various global controls and mix settings available via the hardware and the uncluttered, attractive MOTU CueMix Console software. Essentially, CueMix offers the real-time mixing of all (or any number) of its inputs to any user-appointed stereo output pair, including the headphones. Additionally, it includes four identical mix buses that are completely independent of one another (minus a few global controls, such as input phase-reverse). If, for example, you brought UltraLite to a gig and wanted to create a monitor mix for the musicians, a different front-of-house mix and a third mix to send to DAT, you could. CueMix can operate alongside host DAW programs or independently. The software's clear, concise user interface functions much like any standard console; each input channel includes input trim, pan, solo and mute buttons and a vertical volume fader with a corresponding level meter. There are some really nice bonuses, such as dynamic information that pops up as you scroll over each control, phase invert for each channel and even talkback and listenback capability with their own sophisticated controls. CueMix introduces absolutely no latency and is CPU independent. The hardware is capable of saving 16 CueMix presets, while the software can save and recall unlimited presets. It can be slaved to any Mackie HUI or compatible control surface. In short, CueMix is great stuff. Surprisingly, the one obvious console component that MOTU left out of the picture is EQ. Perhaps it will appear in a software/firmware upgrade in the future.
The vast majority of CueMix's features (neither talkback nor listenback, for example) can be manipulated directly from the Page, Cursor and Value pots available on UltraLite's front panel. The well-designed LCD is relatively straightforward if you're accustomed to the small screens commonly found on outboard sound modules and samplers, but reading the manual was helpful. If users have a choice, the software is definitely the way to go. Make a change on the hardware, and the software responds in real time, and vice versa. Overall, CueMix (especially the software) is a smart system, and aside from the lack of EQ, it can easily function as a stand-alone mixer. Of course, you'd want additional mic preamps for live scenarios.
UltraLite includes one more notable feature that would require an entirely separate review to adequately cover: AudioDesk Version 2, a DAW program. It is Mac OS X compatible only and installed (along with drivers) from a disk. The user interface is streamlined yet attractive, typical of MOTU. It isn't as powerful as its top-shelf Digital Performer, but for Mac users just entering the fray or even some experienced users, it delivers the goods: support for as high as 24-bit/192 kHz recording, unlimited track count, included plug-ins and support for MAS effects, audio editing, a full-featured mixer with as many as 64 stereo buses and plenty more. The one conspicuous thing AudioDesk lacks is MIDI tracks, though MIDI devices can be connected for synchronization purposes.
MOTU has come correct with UltraLite. At this price and size, it wields explosive power, both as an expandable interface and as a stand-alone digital mixer. The sound quality is superb, and along with a Mac or PC (with or without a DAW), UltraLite is smart and easy to learn. I would hesitate to use it with external hard drives connected to the same FireWire bus, but aside from that, it gets the go-ahead for mobile and studio use.
ULTRALITE > $595
Pros: Great sound. Plenty of headroom and preamp power. Nice price. Abundant I/O. Dual purpose as audio interface and digital mixer. Gold-plated connectors. Sturdy. Quality software.
Cons: CueMix is a bit cumbersome without a computer. Only two mic preamps. Screen may panic when FireWire limitations are overshot. AudioDesk software not PC-compatible.
Mac: G3/300 MHz; 256 MB RAM (512 MB recommended); OS X 10.3 or later; available FireWire port; 20 GB or larger hard drive
PC: Pentium/1 GHz; 256 MB RAM minimum (512 MB recommended); Windows XP; available FireWire port; 20 GB or larger hard drive