Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) has an enviable position among manufacturers of computer audio interfaces. The 828 FireWire interface (reviewed in the November 2001 EM) has been a major hit, thanks to its winning combination of features, performance, and portability. MOTU has taken the 828 to another level with the 896, adding high sampling rates, deluxe metering, eight mic preamps, professional connectors, switchable and trimmed levels, and built-in sampling-rate conversion. The 896 adds a bundle of value to a winning design concept.
It's difficult to discuss the 896 without referring to the 828. Both audio interfaces have eight analog channels in and out at 24 bits, eight channels of optical Lightpipe I/O, stereo digital coaxial I/O, direct monitoring, and a programmable footswitch jack. They also include MOTU AudioDesk DAW software.
Beyond those details, the 896 diverges from the 828 with additional features and capabilities. The 896 doubles the 828's sampling rates, operating at 44.1, 48, 88.2, or 96 kHz. Instead of two LEDs per channel to indicate level, the 896 has slick ten-segment meters (see Fig. 1).
Rather than -10 dBu fixed level inputs on ¼-inch phone jacks and two channels of mic preamplification, the 896 has preamps on all analog inputs, as well as individually switchable input and output levels at +4 or -10 dBu that are fixed or individually trimmed. The 896 also has switchable phantom power on all eight mic inputs. All analog inputs are combination XLR and ¼-inch jacks, and all analog outputs are XLR jacks (see Fig. 2).
The 896 provides AES3 digital audio I/O on a pair of XLR connectors, with real-time sampling-rate conversion options and word-clock in and out. The 896 also gives you two FireWire connectors for daisy-chaining multiple units without a separate hub.
Compared with the 828, the 896 offers a lot of value for the price difference. Does it have any downsides? If you trot around with your laptop and converter in a shoulder bag, the size and weight of the 896 might be a consideration. The unit measures 2U high, whereas the 828 is 1U. The 896 is also two inches deeper and weighs significantly more than the 828. Furthermore, XLR outputs might not be the most convenient for you.
UP AND RUNNING
Installing the 896 was easy, with drivers for Macintosh OS 8 and 9 and Windows 2000, ME, and XP. (OS X drivers should be available by the time you read this.) I used the device exclusively on a Mac G4 with OS 9.2. MOTU includes a Mac control panel and an equivalent console for Windows to control hardware settings. I immediately put the 896 to work with AudioDesk and other applications.
The manual is well designed, with critical information concentrated near the front, making it easy to get under way. Detailed explanations in the text are clearly written and illustrated.
I used the 896 for studio and location recording and in live performance. In all situations, the unit performed flawlessly and reliably and was a very clean audio converter at all sampling rates.
What's it like to record at 96 kHz? It's much like recording at lower rates, except that disk space disappears more quickly. Depending on your input source, you may or may not realize much improvement in audio quality. If you record standard-rate digital synthesizers and samplers at 96 kHz, you might not hear any difference at all. Recording acoustic sources is another matter; with good miking, 96 kHz recording captures transients and spatial information that would be lost at 44.1 or 48 kHz. The differences can be subtle, but you'll hear them. The 96 kHz rate more accurately captures the octave of frequencies between 10 and 20 kHz, which is where most spatial information lies. If acoustic recording is your thing, 96 kHz is the way to go.
High-rate recording does have costs, however. Besides disk space, you lose channels of processing and access to specific interface features. Securing the benefits of high-rate recording requires that you pay careful attention to the total recording chain.
The more I worked with the 896, the more I realized that the 96 kHz sampling rate is just one of its many advantages. The input and output metering is to die for. With programmable peak-hold and clip-hold times, you can see all your levels at a glance. If superior metering were the only difference between the 896 and the 828, I would still consider the 896 worth the money.
For recording with several microphones, the availability of eight preamps with input trim and switchable phantom power makes for a tight system. The 896's preamps are quiet and more than adequate for standard recording. For true audiophile recording, though, you might still want to consider investing in high-end outboard preamps.
According to MOTU, you can run as many as four 896s on a single FireWire connection. Operating at 96 kHz, though, the number drops to two units. If you have multiple FireWire interfaces on your computer, you can connect additional units, but you could run out of bandwidth on the motherboard — caveat connector.
ADAT Lightpipe digital I/O is a popular and useful feature on both the 828 and 896. If you have one of the gazillion ADAT units in the field, you can use the 896's Lightpipe capabilities to add eight channels of audio conversion. There's a catch, though: Lightpipe I/O is limited to 48 kHz, and if you're running at 96 kHz, Lightpipe is disabled.
In contrast to the 828's S/PDIF, the 896 updates coaxial digital I/O to AES3 on XLR connectors, operating at rates as high as 96 kHz, including sampling-rate conversion. The 896 also has word clock I/O for resolving disparate devices to a common sample clock; that's a great feature for professional users.
THE SOFT MACHINE
The AudioDesk application (for Mac only) is killer when you consider that it's free with the interface. The application can record, edit, and mix multiple channels at 96 kHz with 24-bit resolution. AudioDesk provides MIDI machine control but no MIDI sequencer features. The application and its manual haven't been updated in a very long time, though. Owners of AudioDesk can upgrade to the most recent version of Digital Performer for $395.
AudioDesk worked well for me, but I found an undocumented anomaly. While recording a live show at 96 kHz, I set the application to record and let it run. About two hours in, I noticed that recording had stopped, with a bogus message that disk space had run out. Examining file sizes, I found that they were exactly 2 GB. AudioDesk apparently enforces the pre — OS 9 file-size restriction of a 2 GB maximum. I restarted recording with a new file name, and the system continued as if nothing had happened. However, I did lose several minutes of the show. For live recording with AudioDesk, bear in mind that attempts to record continuously for long periods can terminate without warning. If you need longer recording times, you can always upgrade to Digital Performer, which has no file-size restrictions.
BOX LIKE A ROCK
The 896 is solidly built, with a durable, attractively finished metal case and front panel. When I opened the case, I could see that the unit is designed and built to high standards, with careful attention to isolation between digital and analog elements and ample ground plane. Another plus is that the heavy-duty power supply has a low-emission toroidal transformer.
I am impressed that MOTU is able to sell the 896 for such a remarkably low price. Multiple circuit boards are densely packed with high-quality components. The mechanical construction is excellent, with plenty of screws tying circuit boards rigidly to one another and to the case. The unit is a testimony to the competitiveness of American manufacturing, as well as a credit to MOTU.
I had the opportunity to measure the 896's audio characteristics using a PrismSound dScope Series III measuring station. The device easily met the manufacturer's claimed performance of a 109 dB dynamic range, and it performs quite respectably in standard measures of total harmonic distortion and noise, as well as frequency response.
THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
The MOTU 896 is a grrreat audio interface with solid features, and it's a tremendous value for the price. For almost any audio application, it's a true winner. Audio quality is impeccable, software drivers work dependably, and the hardware is built for long-term performance and reliability. The included AudioDesk application is a little weak compared with higher-end workstation applications, but considering that it's free, who's complaining?
Is the 896 ideal for your needs? It's relatively bulky and heavy compared with the 828, so it might not be if portable laptop production is your thing. Apart from that, I urge you to take a serious look at the MOTU 896 for all your high-end production and recording needs.
Gary S. Hallinvented the infinite audio delay in 1979, the prototype of which is still in testing. So far, nothing that's gone in has come out. This is good.
Analog Inputs(8) balanced Neutrik combo XLR and ¼" TRS (+4/-10 dBu — switchable, with trim)Analog Outputs(2) balanced XLR main outs (+4/-10 dBu — switchable, with level control); (8) balanced XLR line outs (+4/-10 dBu — switchable); (1) ¼" TRS stereo headphone outDigital I/O(1) ADAT optical in; (1) ADAT optical out; (1) AES3 coaxial XLR in; (1) AES3 coaxial XLR outSync I/O(1) word clock BNC in; (1) word clock BNC out; (1) 9-pin ADAT inFireWire(2) IEEE 1394 portsPhantom Power48V, switchable for each analog inputSampling Rates44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHzA/D Converters24-bit, 64× oversamplingD/A Converters24-bit, 128× oversamplingFootswitch Jack(1) ¼" TS, software programmablePower SupplyInternal; IEC connectorDimensions2U × 7" (D)Weight7 lb.
Mark of the Unicorn
FireWire audio interface
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE5.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: High-quality audio conversion. 96 kHz sampling rate. Plenty of I/O with pro-level connections. Built-in mic preamps. Phantom power switchable per channel. Excellent level metering. Word clock in and out. Easily expandable.
CONS: XLR outputs inconvenient for interfacing to ¼-inch phone plugs.