MOTU Ultralite - EMusician

MOTU Ultralite

It never ceases to amaze me how many different approaches there are to audio interfaces; now MOTU has decided that your portable interface really needs a hands-on mixer, not just a little applet — basically, it’s like a miniature version of those FireWire mixer/interfaces making the rounds. But that’s not all there is to the bus-powered Ultralite, so let’s take a closer look.
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MOTU has been at the interface game a long time, so it’s not surprising that the UltraLite has stable ASIO/WDM/MME support/GSIF/Core Audio drivers for Windows XP, Vista, and Mac OS X 10.3 or above. Although UltraLite obviously works with a bunch of hosts, MOTU includes their AudioDesk software (Mac only), which allows for recording, editing, mixing, and processing — it’s basically DP lite (and not really that lite, either).

There are several other features of note. The dual FireWire 400 ports allow connecting another FireWire device, and at 44.1/48kHz, you can daisy-chain up to four MOTU interfaces (three at 88.2/96; the UltraLite doesn’t do 192kHz, and frankly, I don’t care that it doesn’t). You can’t bus-power this many interfaces, so just use the included adapter. Also, there’s MIDI I/O (which I consider important), and while the case looks like plastic, it’s actually aluminum and very sturdy.

As to I/O, this is a 10 x 14 device (with S/PDIF and headphones counting as four of those outs). Don’t be thrown off by the single front-panel XLR/TRS input; there’s a second one on the back, and both have phantom power and a three-way pad switch (off, –18dB, –36d-B). Other I/O includes S/PDIF, six balanced/unbalanced TRS 1/4" ins, eight individual outs, and two main (stereo) outs.


The UltraLite’s “special sauce” is all about control built into the hardware, so you’re not dependent on doing everything in the computer (although you can use their CueMix applet as well, and even set up different mixes with it). Starting with the mic pres, you can record just about any level by tweaking the pad switches and the detented (1dB steps) trim controls; when combined with the input’s baseline gain, plus the three-way pad, there’s 42dB of total gain, 24 of which is adjustable in 1dB increments. But the Big Deal here is the built-in mixer, as accessed through page/cursor/value controls, with metering shown in a relatively expansive backlit LCD.

The UltraLite mixer provides four stereo mix buses; any of the inputs can be assigned to these buses, with panning, level, etc. In a nice touch, you can even copy and paste mix settings among buses. And while all these signals can show up in your computer, the plethora of hardware outs means that you can set up serious mix, cue mix, and headphone mix options. For example, when doing a concert recording, you could record into the computer and send the hardware outs simultaneously to a standalone hard disk recorder for backup . . . or send the outs to a monitor mixer.

Given the size, this isn’t something with faders where you’re going to be making big mix adjustments; the mixing capabilities are more for setting up a signal path “environment” you can tweak if needed. In this respect the LCD is helpful, as even in very bright light, you can make out what’s going on. In addition to being used for editing, the LCD also provides level metering.

The other big deal is that all of this is zero-latency mixing, whether you’re using the hardware in the mixer or the CueMix applet.


If you’re just sitting at home with a computer and want to lay down a couple tracks at a time, the UltraLite may be overkill — then again, having all those inputs (and MIDI, and the option for cue mixes) means you can have a lot of gear plugged in and ready to go, without having to re-patch. But its ruggedness and ability to stack additional units also makes it a natural for remote recording, and it’s a decent standalone, compact digital mixer — I could easily see this as a keyboard mixer for live use. Overall, the fine-sounding UltraLite seems designed for those who are willing to pay a bit more to get a significant amount of extra functionality; if you need that functionality, it’s a great choice.

Product type: Mobile or desktop 10-in/14-out FireWire 400 audio interface.

Target market: Desktop recording, field recording, and basic standalone digital mixing applications.

Strengths: Solid drivers on Mac and Windows, including Vista. Rugged. Syncs to SMPTE. Built-in mixer and gain/trim setting for the mic/instrument ins. Backlit LCD. Gold-plated connectors. MIDI I/O. CueMix applet and AudioDesk (Mac only) software. Bus-powered or use AC adapter.

Limitations: No ADAT light pipe I/O. Cramped control surface due to compact size.

Price: $595 list.