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electronic MUSICIAN

MOTU UltraLite

By Rusty Cutchin | January 1, 2007

FIG. 1: The MOTU UltraLite''s unique features include independent 3-way pad switches and phantom power on mic channels, as well as four active and assignable monitor mixes.

The MOTU UltraLite is a half-rack-width, 24-bit, 96 kHz FireWire audio-and-MIDI interface. It's equipped with the company's CueMix DSP feature, which allows the unit to function as a standalone digital mixer. The bus-powered UltraLite can be used with a laptop or desktop computer without its included 9V DC adapter. (You need the adapter if you want to use the unit without a computer or daisy-chain other UltraLites on one FireWire bus.) The UltraLite works with Power Macs (Mac OS X 10.3 or later), Intel Macs (OS X 10.4 or later), or PCs (Windows XP), and with software that supports standard WDM, ASIO, or Core Audio drivers.

Packed in a sturdy, slim aluminum-alloy case that sits solidly on a tabletop or in a half rackmount, the UltraLite (see Fig. 1) features eight analog inputs and ten TRS outputs along with stereo S/PDIF I/O. Inputs 1 and 2 are on ¼-inch/XLR combo connectors, and the mic preamps come with independent trim controls and switches for phantom power and pad. MOTU includes two software applications with the UltraLite: CueMix Console for configuring routing and monitor levels; and AudioDesk, a recording application that offers Digital Performer-style audio features but no MIDI sequencing.

Dialing Up

Accessing the UltraLite's parameters from its front panel requires a bit of knob twisting. Knobs labeled Page Setup, Cursor, Value, and Main Volume compose the Mixer section. You press the knobs to activate various controls (the Main Volume knob also powers up the unit) and turn them to change values. A wide and readable LCD shows parameters, values, and levels. The front panel also houses a headphone jack with its own volume control.

The rear panel (see Fig. 2) hosts MIDI and S/PDIF in and out connectors along with dual FireWire ports. Having the second FireWire port allows more UltraLites (or MOTU's Traveler, 828, or 896 units) to be connected. (MOTU recommends using the power supply if more than one UltraLite is running on the same FireWire bus.) I/O includes eight output jacks, six line inputs, and the L-R main output pair, all on balanced ¼-inch TRS jacks. The combo connector for the second mic/instrument input rounds out the rear panel.

FIG. 2: The UltraLite''s extensive I/O includes ten analog outputs and S/PDIF, MIDI, and dual FireWire ports.

Three-way mini toggle switches on the front allow pad settings of -36, -18, and 0 dB for each of the two combo inputs. The Trim knobs provide 24 dB of gain in 1 dB increments for a total gain range of 60 dB. The UltraLite can also read and generate SMPTE timecode to or from any analog input or output, respectively. The synchronization features are cross-platform and compatible with any sequencer that supports the ASIO 2 sample-accurate sync protocol. The UltraLite's built-in 8-bus mixer enables low-latency monitoring of multiple inputs through the unit's main outputs, headphone jack, or any other output, with no processor drain.

The included CueMix Console software (see Fig. 3) can control levels, including talkback and listen-back, just like a conventional mixer. When no computer is present, you can still control CueMix features directly from the UltraLite's front panel. Once parameters are set, the backlit LCD shows 8-segment level meters for all inputs and outputs simultaneously.

Monitor Choices

The UltraLite gives you plenty of monitoring and routing choices. Its latency is negligible — about the same as a digital mixer — so you can monitor several input sources while recording without taxing your computer's processor.

Even better, the UltraLite provides four completely independent mixes at any time. You could send these in stereo to the eight outputs for four separate headphone mixes while recording. You can set those up with the UltraLite's front panel or use CueMix Console to adjust levels, panning, and mute/solo settings onscreen. The input trim range is 24 dB on the mic inputs and 18 dB for the TRS and S/PDIF inputs. You can also adjust trim and even phase inversion for each input, but those settings apply across all four mixes.

I appreciated some of the UltraLite's convenience features when using the front-panel controls. When you've selected one of the level parameters to mute a particular channel, you simply press the Value knob, and the channel is instantly muted. With a computer, you can simply mute the channel graphically within CueMix Console.

The CueMix Console window lets you give each of the four mixes a unique name. (Because of size constraints, those names don't show up on the UltraLite display; it just says Mix1, Mix2, and so on.) The output-bus bar displays the destination to which your currently selected mix is being routed. When you click on it, a drop-down menu shows you the routing for all four mixes and lets you make changes.

FIG. 3: The CueMix Console software allows easy routing, mix recall, and file management, much of which can also be accomplished from the UltraLite''s front-panel controls.

In CueMix Console, you're informed of the unit's status by the main display at the top of the window. The helpful messages in this window tell you not only the options for your current cursor position, but also what you can do with various modifier keys — for example, holding the Command key to apply an action on one input to its stereo mate.

Mixes can be saved in the UltraLite or in the computer, and you can copy settings from one mix to another. You simply select the desired mix, select Copy, pick another mix, and select Paste. There's no warning screen when you do this, so think before you paste. (But of course you will have already saved that pasted-over mix, right?)

You also get a master mute button in CueMix Console, along with buttons to control the unit's talkback features. You can use the UltraLite's mic inputs to set up talkback and listen-back mics, and then route those mics' signals to outputs that feed a headphone distribution amp. Audio is dimmed when you press the Talkback or Listenback buttons in the CueMix Console window, and a third Link button keeps both active with audio dimmed.

You can assign any of the UltraLite's individual outs, main outs, or the S/PDIF output to the headphone output, or you can select Follow Active Mix in CueMix's Phones menu. That will place whichever of the four mixes you've selected squarely in your cans.

Portable Precision

I did most of my UltraLite testing on a dual-processor Power Mac G5 running MOTU Digital Performer 4.52 under Mac OS X 10.4.7. As you might expect, DP and the MOTU Audio Setup 1.4.1 utility integrated seamlessly with the UltraLite and CueMix Console.

After navigating the UltraLite's menu hierarchy from the unit's front panel, I concluded that the system would work well with, say, a live singer-songwriter using two mics or a stereo pair configuration in a club or other space where a computer was not available. Because of the UltraLite's versatility, it would be a cinch to take a vocal and guitar mic into its two mic inputs and assign one mix to the headphone output, another to the house, and another to a standalone recorder like a CD-R, with enough inputs left over to handle a guitar processor, a bass, and even a drum mixer. The UltraLite's audio quality is great, and its mic pres are more than adequate and provide lots of headroom and gain.

The unit's basic MIDI implementation does the job. The UltraLite appeared immediately in Audio MIDI Setup and established communication with my Roland Fantom keyboard. Users of non-MOTU applications should have no trouble configuring the UltraLite to run with their software. The clear, concise manual describes setups for other applications.

With a computer and a digital audio sequencing application, the UltraLite is really in its element. It's a useful and cool front end. You can even name your inputs. The combination of MOTU's well-designed hardware and compatible software sets a high standard for compact FireWire setups. Details like +4 dB operation and the ability to easily route mixed audio back to the computer make the UltraLite a pro-quality device in a budget-priced package.

It Ain't Heavy

MOTU's UltraLite packs a lot of punch for its size, in terms of features and audio quality. Although it won't take the place of a high-end analog mic pre, mixer, or converter, its size and all-in-one nature make it an excellent choice in both personal-studio and mobile-recording scenarios.

The system sounds great and is expandable. With AudioDesk and CueMix Console included, it offers almost every feature a computer-based recordist could need, and throws in SMPTE, talkback, and four stereo buses. With MOTU's software, the system operates seamlessly, and the clear, well-written manual provides detailed instructions for use with other Core Audio software and with Windows software, including ASIO (Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo), WDM (Cakewalk Sonar), and GSIF (Tascam GigaStudio) applications. The UltraLite package is a great choice if you're looking for a pro-quality compact FireWire recording system, and the included software makes it especially attractive.


Rusty Cutchin is a former EM editor and a producer, engineer, and music journalist in the New York City area.

GUIDE TO EM METERS

5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology

4 = Clearly above average; very desirable

3 = Good; meets expectations

2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable

1 = Unacceptably flawed

Specifications tables for EM reviews can be found at www.emusician.com/specs.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

MOTU
UltraLite

FireWire audio/MIDI interface
$549

FEATURES 4
EASE OF USE 4
AUDIO QUALITY 4
VALUE 4

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Excellent sound. Can be used as standalone audio mixer. Can store four distinct mixes. Extensive I/O capabilities. Independent phantom power and 3-way selectable pads on mic channels.

CONS: Small knobs.

MANUFACTURER

MOTU
www.motu.com

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