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Building a Big Rig with the MOTU 896 Mk3
by TweakHeadz lab
There are a lot of audio interfaces to choose from these days. Many excellent values. This makes the choices difficult, even for the well researched studio creator. I hope this review gives you the information you need to make this choice. The MOTU 896Mk3 is a recent upgrade to MOTU's Firewire line. Previously, the unit was known as the 896HD. It is the most expensive of all of MOTU's Firewire interfaces, weighing in at $999 street. To go better than this you have to go to MOTU's PCI/PCIe interfaces that use "Audiowire" connected to the 424 card.
My rig consists of the 896mk3, and 828mk2, and ADA8000 and an Lucid AD9624. Can I get all the toys to play together? Read on.
Two Ways to Expand: I was excited about the 898mk3 because of its expansion options, which I think surpass anything else available among firewire interfaces. Expansion is possible through 1) daisy chaining more than 1 MOTU interface and creating an aggregate device on the Mac 2) using optional ADAT expanders from other manufacturers. Being the Tweak, I was set out to do both. At the end of this article I am going to let you know how it is working out.
Expansion possibilities through daisy chaining Motu says in their manual you can connect up to 4 MOTU FW units by daisy chaining. This is different from connecting by ADAT. When you daisy chain you connect the second Firewire unit to the first, and the third to the second, etc. Note how MOTU's Audio Setup (see the pic below) has a tab for each interface where you set the master/slave clock relationships. Motu does caution that the more interfaces you daisy chain, the greater the hit on your CPU's performance. Also note for any digital audio system to work there has to be a stable and steady clock at the helm. The more digital units you add the more you need to insure that your master clock is getting to every device.
By daisy chaining, you select one interface to be the clock master and the other(s) become the slaves. When you set up an aggregate device in the Apple Audio/MIDI Utility, and select that aggregate device as the driver inside your applications, all the i/o becomes available on all interfaces. Imagine the huge rig you can create daisy chaining 4 MOTU interfaces.
Expansion using ADAT expanders:
Expanding the 896mk3 using ADAT expanders the computer applications only see the 896's 28 in and outs. As before the word clocking relationships must be set with the 896 as the master and the others as slaves. I figured if I could not, for whatever reason, get the daisy chain method to work, I could fall back on expanding through ADAT with my older 828mk2 and my new Behringer ADA8000. Either way I would be satisfied.
Ins and Outs
The 896, like the 8pre has 8 mic/instrument preamps. That is about where the similarity ends. The 896 has two ADAT i/o ports that allows you to expand up to another 16 analog inputs (at 44.1 or 48 kHz sample rate), if you buy optional ADAT converters. You also get s/pdif coax in and out and AES/EBU in and out. The latter is like a more professional version of s/pdif, which uses special XLR data cables (that look exactly like Mic cables). Some 2 channel converters use AES/EBU, like my Lucid AD 96/24, so this was a plus for me. If you don't have plans to get gear with AES/EBU on them this is a feature you will never use.
Another thing to note about the inputs. These are Mic/Instrument level inputs impedance wise. There is no line level switch. There is a -20db pad in case your input is too hot. Fortunately many synths and other devices normally considered to be line level have some output adjustment. I have no problem connecting my Motif XS, Triton Rack or Fantom to these inputs, though I do have to knock down the output. Instrument level devices of course are no problem. You won't have trouble connecting a guitar or bass. But MOTU was not clear that there are no line inputs in its sales literature. This is effect means when you connect a line level device, the 896mk3 is applying gain to the input that is not needed. This can, speaking theortically, raise the noise floor of these inputs.
The Mic preamp itself seems different from the preamps on my older 828mk2. There is more gain on the 896 preamps. I can use my SM7b and SM57's just fine, without turning the knob to 100%. On my 828mk2 I used to have to turn the gain knob to 100% to use these mics. Right around 90% the SM7b comes in nice and clear. My first thought: Wow! Headroom! Yet as I turn up the gain past this point, I can hear the noise floor rush up, with a huge wash of hiss with artifacts of ground hum. Unplugging the mic and plugging it into my Great River, the noise and hum are not present even at the GR's most extreme setting. I bring this up to illustrate what should be expected. The 896 preamp can not get near a professional preamp. That last 10% of gain is not usable. That said, you should buy with confidence that these preamps will deliver with your dynamic and well as condenser mics. It was a close call, but I will give the preamp a pass. The sound of the 896 preamp is not bad at all. In fact I enjoy it so far. Its got a sweet coloration that interacts well with my Shure SM7b.
Converters: Lets go to the sound of the box. As soon as I plugged it in, I was impressed by the sound. This is not the old, slightly dark MOTU 828 sound. I hear some clarity that is quite similar to my Lucid ad converter. I was reminded of my Emu 1820M, which was more harsh sounding, and my 828mk2 which is darker. I've long completed my tests. AD conversion from mic to audio track and from synth to audio track were excellent. I doubt I could tell the difference between a live synth track and the audio recording. I did have some little tics in the sound on occasion, but I have to put that on that i have yet to achieve a stable clocking setup.
Installation. I wish I could tell you it was painless, but it was not on my new Mac pro. I could not get Cue Mix to work at all. When i tried to run Cue mix I was greeted with an alert saying Cue Mix could not run because it was in the trash. Ok, I tried for about an hour to uninstall the old and reinstall the new Cue mix and finally it just started working. Strange. This could have been due to the fact that i had the 828mk2 daisy chained up. Moral of the story, uninstall all the MOTU drivers and reinstall hem on one machine, then add the other.
Drivers. My Mac pro saw the 896mk3 right away. As soon as I booted after connecting the MOTU audio setup was on screen showing the inner settings of the unit. A quick run to the Mac's AUDIO/MIDI utility showed the device was there. I immediately defined and aggregate device with my older 828mk2. Not a problem. It was that fast, I went to Logic and verified the driver and the i/o that was available. it was all there. It took me a full day to get everything named. On thing that did not work was the get channel name feature in Logic. Logic can get the names from one device, but when two are connected Logic scrambles all the names up. I had to test the i/o by connecting something to it then looking for the signal activity in Logic, then, finally, properly naming the channel. I don't think that is a MOTU problem but a logic issue.
Build quality: The unit looks attractive in a rack. The knobs are not as close together as they were on the 828mk2, which was a relief, but they are the same size small knobs. There are two small toggle switches next to each gain control for the pad and phantom power. They are kind of stiff and not easy to move. Its bad when you start to think you are going to break the switch because you are using too much force. The back panel seemed to give a little when I was connecting tight RCA s/pdif cables. That was not a good feeling. The feeling for me, is that the build is not as good as my old Motu 828mk2.
Meters. The meters are the eye candy of the unit. They do the job, and good for verifying if you have everything hooked up and leveled properly. One issue with my unit was that one of the meter segment on the last meter did not work. Again I have to look at build quality here. But back to the meters, they are slow, and by my tests not accurate enough to depend upon. They give you an idea of the level. Its true that the 2nd set of 8 meters are programmable. But not individually. You have a choice between viewing all the ADAT A, all the ADAT B in or out, s/pdif and AES or the analog outs. You can't mix and match.
Cue Mix. i was excited about the new Cue mix and just set up my first configuration yesterday, which was me doing voice over on a project. I was able to tailor the headphone input from all the analog and digital sources connected and patch an internal return from a Logic bus that I put on every channel so I could monitor the already recorded audio and software instrument tracks as well. Worked well.
So far so good. The I added reverb and that worked perfectly. The reverb sounds OK. Then I started messing with the EQ and compressors/ and limiter. All the processors except reverb are recordable. MOTU explains in the manual that these processors have very little latency, comparable to those found on a digital mixer. I found that idea heartening. I was thinking, cool, there are plenty of times when I KNOW I want to compress going in. The controls were easy to grasp. There is a lot of range, however. In fact there is more range in the controls than the unit has as headroom. It was too easy to bring the noise floor up. This is not necessarily a fault with the unit, but perhaps with my sources. I have to troubleshoot my sources to see what is going on, but i am pretty sure its the MOTU's internal noise floor of the preamps. Personally, I am not so far impressed with the sound of the compression. I found that the limiter was useless. It simply added noise. I don't believe it is functioning properly. I still need to go back and make sure I am setting it up right, but i am pretty sure I am. The EQ did seem to work well. There are enough controls to but a very detailed curve on your incoming audio. I doubt I will ever use the compressor or EQ working on a Logic project. Bottom line for me is that I want the vocalist to hear their voice louder and with reverb in the cans without latency. For that use Cue mix will be fine.
So did i get it working? Of course. I am the Tweak. Yes, I have all the inputs from my 828mk2, ADA8000 and 896mk3 available in an aggregate device driver on my Mac pro. In order to make this work I had to set up a word clock distribution system using inexpensive adapters. I explain in detail how to do this in the guide article on word clock.
The sound is good. For the first time since I got rid of my 8 bus mixer, i have my favorite synth modules, groove box, samplers, and hardware effects online and have plenty of mics online and ready to record. I love being able to record and write music without calling up software instruments or connecting mics.
Ok, lets try to sum up. I am impressed with the main features--expandability, connectivity and sound. Really, 28 inputs out of the box if you include ADAT as 16. Get two Behringer ADA8000 units and you have 24 analog ins and outs, with the Behringers being able to do all your line level stuff. Total price for that system today is $1400. Try to beat it? Well. I'll tell you now, you can. The Firestudio has 8 pres and dual adat for $400 less. Add 2 ADA8000 and you are just under a grand. Even cheaper is the Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 which has 26 i/o compared to the 8986mk3 28. Perhaps the biggest competition comes from the MOTU 8pre. If all you need are preamps and you can do without coax s/pdif, give it a second look.
Going up the quality ladder, there is the RME fireface, which is probably a step up in quality, with fewer preamps though and slightly less i/o. For Mac Logic users there is the Apogee Ensemble, which while it may add converter and preamp quality above the 896Mk3 it has less i/o, restricted to 8 channel ADAT. And the price is 2x the 896mk3. Sitting right below these two powerhouse interfaces, the 896mk3 has them beat on i/o and beat or at least tied on ADAT expansion. It also has the benefits of being able to be daisy chained to any in a line of 5 MOTU firewire audio interfaces. Imagine a monster system of an 896mk3, an 828mk3, an 8pre, and an Ultralite. 34 analog (12 preamps) with 9 pairs of s/pdif available. That's HUGE! And nothing can touch that.
The flaws of the unit that I have may just be bad luck. I did not buy it at zZounds, but at a local store that said it was new, but you know how these things go. Stick with zZounds. When they do the open box thing, they tell you about it. However, the overall build of the unit gets low marks from me, the dead segment in the last meter is small but an irritant, and the noise floor of the preamp is perhaps a reminder that I am spoiled by good preamps.
May your mileage vary.
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