MOTU 828mkII

FireWire-based audio, MIDI, & the kitchen sync

MOTU made computer-recording history with their original 828. For just $795, 18-channel audio I/O was available in a 1U FireWire box. Mac or PC, no card required — just one convenient FireWire connection to your tower or laptop.

Today, for the same price, MOTU is offering the second-generation 828: the 828mkII. It packs a whopping load of improvements and additions, and is housed in the same tank-tough casing as MOTU’s popular new 2408mk3. There are so many features jammed into this new 1U rack, it’s going to be a challenge covering it all in this space. So let’s get right to the highlights. . . .

A box of many hats, the 828mkII is an analog/digital audio interface, MIDI interface, multi-format synchronizer, and mixer. One FireWire cable from the unit to your Mac or PC and you’re in business.

Ready to go mixerless? The 828mkII is up to the task, thanks to its 20-input/8-bus CueMix DSP mixing and monitoring matrix. Plug a modest-sized studio’s worth of gear into this box — from instruments and mics to effects processors and more. Then, when it comes time to record, you can monitor your performances latency-free through the mkII’s main outs, headphone out, or any designated output pair. The built-in CueMix DSP engine zaps delay dead, and gives you zero latency for monitoring live signals. Note that this has no bearing on latency within the host program, however. In other words, playing software synths won’t benefit. You’ll still have to deal with sample buffer settings, and whatever latency this introduces.

For producers on the go, the mkII can be programmed and operated entirely from its front panel — no computer required. Every parameter can be accessed from the front-panel knobs and backlit LCD: input level (+4/–10) and gain, panning, stereo pair grouping, mix output assignment, and more. You can create and save mix setups, with independent submixes for the main outs, headphone out, and designated monitor outs. Route inputs to any output pair, assign inputs as returns — flexibility is the name of the game. There’s no channel sharing on the 828mkII; all 20 inputs and 22 outputs are handled as separate pipelines. Nice.

Connected to the host computer, the mkII can also be controlled by the included CueMix Console software for Mac and PC (see screenshot, page 64). This slick mini app gives you full onscreen control over the front-panel hardware parameters. As you move faders onscreen, for example, the mini faders on the mkII’s display update in real-time along with your computer moves. Another standalone mini app, MOTU SMPTE Console, provides an onscreen toolkit for striping and regenerating timecode from the 828mkII. MOTU is quick to tout the 828mkII as “the first FireWire audio interface to provide onboard SMPTE timecode sync features.” Tout-worthy indeed.

For more 828mkII basics, refer to the Coming Attractions profile in our August 2003 issue (page 80).

First impressions: This is one solidly built box! Rugged, heavy-duty construction. Software installation was quick and painless, and the unit worked beautifully with everything I threw at it: DP4, Logic 6, Reason 2.5, iTunes, Quicktime, and more.

Sound quality: Happy to say that the unit scored high marks in this category. The line inputs delivered clean, clear results, as did the mic preamps. Love those gold-plated 1/4" inputs around back, and the combo Neutrik inputs on front, with dedicated trim controls, and phantom on/off switches. I recorded a variety of vocals, synths, and live percussion through the unit, and was pleased on all counts. With vocals recorded directly though the 828mkII’s mic preamps, it captured every nuance accurately and pristinely. But if you’re looking for color, you’ll want to consider adding a tube warmer or other tone-shaping device (be it hardware or software). As is, the 828mkII can be considered an “invisible partner.” Not a bad thing at all — in fact it’s ideal. But having combination tube/solid-state mic preamps (a la Presonus FireStation) would sure be sweet.

Frequent visits to [an independent MOTU user’s group forum] revealed that the majority of forum posts were also in favor of the sound of the 828mkII’s preamps and converters. Some excerpts: “The preamps on the new units sound much better than before.” “The preamps have more depth than the original 828.” “The mkII sounds great; much better than the old 828.”

CueMix: The supplied CueMix software made setting up mixes a breeze, and it was nice to be able to control the components of my studio without a host app running.

MIDI: Using the 828mkII with DP4 was a trouble-free, smooth experience. Well, except for one glitch: I had problems sending sys-ex patch files to my Waldorf MicroQ synth. MOTU is looking into the cause of this. Otherwise, my all-MOTU audio/MIDI sessions were frustration-free.

Complaints/wishes: Not many. There’s no RCA analog I/O on the 828mkII as on the Digi 002 Rack, so if you plan to connect RCA-based devices such as CD players, you’ll need adapters. A bit more annoying, but still relatively minor, is the location of the 828mkII’s headphone jack, which is in a less-convenient position than MOTU’s 2408mk3 or Digidesign’s Digi 002R, for example. Rather than on the far left or right side of the module, the mkII’s headphone jack is closer to the middle, where the cable can obscure other modules in your rack. The most substantial gripe, though, is that MIDI I/O doesn’t work under OS 9, which is significant for MIDI users who haven’t upgraded to OS X yet. Then again, those still on OS 9 will need to consider upgrading sooner than later, or risk being left in the dust.

More than just solid performance at a nice price, the 828mkII offers near-atomic bang for the buck. Don’t let its slim size fool you — this is one powerhouse product, and with a deceivingly low price that will likely lure a contingent of budget-conscious buyers who may only use a fraction of its features. But no matter the depth of use — whether for audio, MIDI, digital, sync, or all of the above — the 828mkII is bound to please.

As a FireWire computer companion, the mkII is unsurpassed in its price range. What sweetens the deal even more is its ability to work untethered from a computer. The standalone programmability and performance of this box are fantastic. Navigating menus using the mini knobs in conjunction with an LCD clearly it isn’t as elegant as a full-blown mixer, where every parameter is within easy fingers’ reach. But once you learn your way around the mkII’s functions, and program a few of your own mix templates, you’ll be flying solo in no time. The included CueMix Console mini app makes programming all the easier.

There are other multi-faceted FireWire I/O racks on the market worth investigating: Presonus’s Firestation ($999) and Digidesign’s 002 Rack ($1,295) to name two. The Firestation is a gorgeous unit, with combination tube/solid-state mic preamps, but it’s currently priced higher than the 828mkII, has fewer channels, tops out at 48 kHz, and lacks SMPTE I/O. Digi 002R, the highest priced of the three, includes a free version of Pro Tools 6 software and has two more mic preamps than the others, but it lacks sync, front-panel metering, and the standalone mixing abilities of the 828mkII. All factors taken into account, the 828mkII offers the most features and versatility of any FireWire rack unit in its price range and beyond. High marks for MOTU.