Here we are, a good number of years into the digital audio-production “revolution,” and there are a whole lot of options available for the computer-based recording studio. From the bargain-basement, low-budget basic setup to the ultrahigh-end, supertricked-out rig, the competition for our dollars has increased exponentially, with manufacturers inventing and providing us with what seems to be an endless supply of options. With apologies to Karl Marx, capitalism has provided the fuel that has kept many studios well-equipped and my bank account on the empty side.
When it comes to innovative products in the audio-production arena, one of the oldest and best-seasoned players is MOTU. When starting to work on this review, I checked out MOTU's Website and was reminded that the company's been at it for well more than 20 years. That is a respectable track record in an extremely fickle business that's prone to volatile upturns and downturns. That fact, as well as some good experiences of my own with MOTU gear a few years back, made me feel pretty good about reviewing the 8pre FireWire interface.
At a $595 list price, the 8pre is targeting the mid- to low-budget studio setup. At the basic level, the 8pre is a 16-input, 12-output FireWire 24-bit/96 kHz interface for Mac or Windows. It can work either as a stand-alone interface or as an expander to a current system, allowing you to add its preamps and other functionality to your current system. As is the case with a lot of MOTU gear, this box is packed to the gills with features and functionality.
As the name implies, the 8pre features eight microphone preamps. You can connect as many as eight mics at one time or mix and match with line-level input devices such as guitars, synths, turntables, drum machines or any other analog input signals. All eight input connectors are XLR/TRS combo jacks, which allow for mixing and matching XLR and ¼-inch TRS; of course, using combo jacks saves real estate on the back panel as well. There are separate TRS main outputs on the back and a front-panel headphone jack, each with an independent volume control.
The 8pre comes with MIDI I/O ports, making it quick and easy to connect a MIDI controller or sound module to the unit without the need for a separate interface. The MIDI I/O is sample-accurate with supporting software. There are drivers available for Mac and PC, including ASIO, WDM, WAV, GSIF, Core Audio and Core MIDI. As is the case with many of the native interfaces on the market today, the 8pre supports all of the popular Mac and PC audio software programs and boasts 100-percent compatibility with all host-based effects processing in today's popular audio programs. The 8pre also has SMPTE timecode sync and generation capabilities.
Front-panel metering consists of five-segment meters for each of the analog channel inputs. There are also status lights to show the present sampling rate and to show Interface or Converter modes. The metering is a bit cluttered; the space allotted to the meter and status lights is about 3-by-1.5 inches. But given the space remaining after laying out the eight channels of controls for the mic preamps — including trim-control knobs, phantom-power switches and -20 dB pad switches for each channel — that is not surprising. This is a trade-off that I was thinking about a lot when using the 8pre: Other one-rackspace interfaces I've used have all or at least some of the mic-input controls accessible only via software, leaving more room on the front panel for metering. However, having the tactile and tweakable knobs of the 8pre laid out across the front is very cool, especially because I tend to view input metering within the host application.
In addition to the I/O function, the 8pre can be used as an 8-channel A/D converter via the ADAT optical Lightpipe connectors located on the back. You can connect the 8pre to a MOTU 828, 896, Traveler or another 8pre to add the eight preamps on the unit to your system. You can also daisy-chain as many as four units on a single FireWire bus without using a hub.
CUE MY MIX: NO-LATENCY MONITORING
A typical and necessary feature for native I/O units on the market today is the ability to monitor with no or very low latency to allow for usable — and hopefully flexible — headphone-routing options. Some of the first native interfaces I used as recently as a couple of years ago had pretty dismal options for providing even the most rudimentary headphone mix. Buggy software and unimplemented features were prevalent.
Now that the technology has progressed, powerful low-latency monitoring is an important and integral part of the package. In a quick survey I did via e-mail leading up to this review, I asked a group of engineer and musician colleagues how important the monitoring component of an interface was in influencing the decision to purchase, and the results were clear: very important.
I've used several of the native I/O monitoring options bundled with their respective hardware devices during the past year or so, including Apogee Maestro with the FireWire-based Ensemble, Metric Halo Labs MIO Console with the Mobile I/O and RME Totalmix with the Fireface 800. Each of these options have their strengths and weaknesses, and comparatively, MOTU CueMix is flexible, easy-to-use and highly stable.
As is the case with all MOTU I/O products, the 8pre allows for DSP-based digital mixing and monitoring for all 16 inputs via the CueMix application, which is basically MOTU's mixer front end for the 8pre. You can connect mics, guitars, line-level devices and effects processors and monitor everything from the 8pre's main outs or headphone jack with no latency and without the need for a separate mixer. As many as four separate stereo monitor mixes can be assigned to any of the digital or analog output pairs. One scenario would be to set up separate monitor mixes for the main outs and headphone outs, while two additional stereo buses could be used for send/return loops to a digital mixer. Each mix can support all 16 inputs (eight XLR/TRS analog and eight ADAT optical digital). You can also add send and return loops for outboard gear with no latency. The options are plentiful.
One feature within CueMix that seems odd but that I'm sure some are putting to good use is CueMix Bounce Back. That lets you route one of the four CueMix DSP mixes back to the computer and allows you to record an entire mix — including monitored inputs — back into the computer.
The CueMix Console also has Talkback and Listenback buttons. Talkback is based on features found in a traditional analog-based control room and allows an engineer in the control room to dim all audio and talk to musicians in the live room. Listenback is just the opposite and allows musicians to talk to the control room. For Talkback, you can set up a dedicated mic in your control room and connect it to a mic input on your 8pre. For Listenback, you can set up a dedicated Listenback mic in the live room for the musicians and connect it to another mic input. This very handy feature shows up in other monitoring applications, but MOTU CueMix implements it elegantly.
RACK IT UP
I ran the 8pre through its paces using Logic on a pair of Macs: a Power Mac dual G5 and a MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo. I own two other FireWire interfaces that get a lot of use on the same machines — the Ensemble and the Mobile I/O — and it's interesting to compare features, converters and preamps. The Ensemble and Mobile I/O are both substantially pricier units, so it's like comparing apples with oranges to a degree. But comparing these units highlighted the 8pre's value for the cash.
The converters on the 8pre sound nice, clean and relatively uncolored. The overall sound is not nearly as creamy when compared with the Mobile I/O but comes a bit closer compared with the Ensemble. The clarity in the highs is significantly more defined with both of the pricier units, and the lows are more solid and beefier as well. That being said, the 8pre converters sound good. I recorded and mixed a quick tune with instrumentation that filled out the spectrum (bass guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and two layers of synth). To check each element's sound on its own merit, I mixed the song out without using any plug-ins — no EQ or dynamics at all — and the resulting tune's individual elements were clear and well-defined within the mix.
The sound of the preamps on the 8pre are transparent — MOTU uses the term “crystal clear” to describe the preamps, and that is the perfect verbiage. The preamps on both of the other units are pretty clean-sounding as well, and that is to be expected from multiple channels of a chip-based transformerless preamp crammed into a one-rackspace unit. My one complaint with the preamps is that the 8pre had a bit of trouble driving a Royer 121 ribbon mic, which by design needs a lot of gain to work, but this is a problem I also have with the Mobile I/O (but not with the Ensemble).
At this stage in the evolution of digital audio converters, a lot of what makes a converter/preamp combo box sound the way it does comes down to variations on a theme and how manufacturers work with the three major components of the unit: the converter, the clock of the device and the preamps. MOTU has always worked well with these variations, and the 8pre is no different.
The 8pre is a combo box that is so packed with added features that the old chestnut “Swiss Army knife” might be a perfect description. With its flexible software-monitoring component, you have a very affordable and powerful package. The competition is fierce among all the native converter options available today. Dollar for dollar, the MOTU 8pre is a strong contender.
8PRE > $595
Pros: Excellent preamp and converter quality for the price. Versatile and easy-to-use CueMix mixing and monitoring software. Generous hardware controls per channel.
Cons: Cramped front-panel metering section.
Mac: OS 9 or OS X; FW 400 port
PC: Windows; FW 400 port