By Jon Chappell
The M-Audio Fast Track is an audio/MIDI interface that can be powered by a USB cable or external power supply.
M-Audio is well-known for producing low-cost solutions for prosumer and professional recording applications, and the Fast Track Ultra is the latest evolution in the series of interfaces that started with the Fast Track and continued with the Fast Track Pro. The Fast Track Ultra improves upon its predecessors by offering more I/O (eight ins and outs total), a larger form factor with a correspondingly wider front panel, more versatile routing via a powerful software-based mixer/utility, and added functionality. As a bonus, the unit ships with Ableton Live Lite and a six-foot USB cable. M-Audio has made some well-placed enhancements in this iteration, including the ability to operate with either USB or AC power, monitoring with onboard effects over two independently controlled headphone outs, and high-resolution audio delivered over USB 2.0. Let’s see what else the compact and portable FTU has brought to the table.
The FTU is a USB 2.0 audio/MIDI interface with up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution and features eight inputs and eight outputs, four preamps, and onboard DSP for monitoring (though these effects can also be pressed into output service, if necessary). In addition to recording on all eight inputs simultaneously, you can run eight hardware inputs and eight software (DAW) returns through the onscreen mixer, using the onboard effects from M-Audio’s MX Core DSP engine.
The front panel is where you access the mic pres, via two XLR/TRS combo connectors and two XRL connectors (see Fig. 1). Four switches select between the front or rear jacks (which are TRS only), and each of the four front-panel jacks has its own dual-colored peak LED and gain control (placed over on the right side of the panel), which can be pulled out for -20 dB operation. Nice!
There are two headphone jacks, each with its own volume control, and a main output control (which is mapped to Outputs 1+2). Rounding out the front panel are four status LEDs for phantom power, AC power, MIDI in, and MIDI out activity. The panel is compact, but the controls and LEDs are quite readable, even from a distance and at odd angles. The rubber knobs are a little slick feeling, but the pots themselves have a nice heavy-duty resistance to them and resist the accidental bump, should you graze one accidentally while adjusting its neighbor. The unit is a sturdy plastic, and doesn’t feel lightweight or cheap, but I noticed a little flexing in one of the combo jacks when I withdrew a 1/4 cable where the fit was a little tight. So I brace the thumb of my other hand against the face when detaching the cable.
Fig. 1. The Fast Track Ultra’s front panel features lots of jacks, switches, and knobs, but all are well arranged and readable. Note that you can pull the four channel volume knobs out for -20dB operation.
Around the back are six TRS jacks for line-level inputs, six TRS outputs, two TRS insert jacks (tip=send, ring=return), S/PDIF I/O, MIDI I/O, switches for power and phantom power, a USB jack, and the DC power input (see Fig. 2). Though the FTU is touted as an 8x8 interface, to get all eight going simultaneously, two of those ins and outs must be derived from S/PDIF. So it’s really 6 analog (four mic/line and two line) + 2 digital (S/PDIF). For most purposes, especially in a mobile recording situation, this amounts to a six-in/six-out configuration, but it’s nice to have the digital I/O regardless. I wish M-Audio had put a stress-relief bar onto the back panel to prevent accidental unplugging of the power source, but it’s easy enough to find a workaround.
Fig. 2. The back panel gives clues to the FTU’s I/O: Six analog ins and outs plus two digital (S/PDIF). Also included are MIDI I/O, a USB jack, and two TRS inserts.
Its portable format, with narrow width and rounded corners, make it look like a truly portable, laptop recording solution. But the FTU requires external power for full functionality, operating in 4x4 mode when powered through the USB connector. And specifically, the bus-powerable 4x4 means analog inputs 1+2, analog outputs 1+2, and S/PDIF I/O. So for most situations, it effectively means stereo I/O (I can’t think of many situations where I’d be without AC power yet needing to record S/PDIF). But this is still plenty usable for the mobile recordist, who often needs only two channels of analog I/O at one time to capture audio. The size-to-function balance M-Audio has struck is a good one: the unit is small enough to take on the road (the M-Audio is the size of a paperback book) for stereo recording, yet it can ramp up to studio use when you get to a wall socket to take advantage of its 8x8 capabilities. And consider this: Because you may use the same mic on location as in the studio, going through the same preamp/interface can guarantee consistency and continuity.
One of the neat innovations M-Audio has included is the powerful software mixer and utility. You launch the mixer through your computer’s control panel (or a shortcut placed in the taskbar/dock), where it’s logically laid out functions in eight tabs, or page views (see Fig. 3).
Fig. 3. The software mixer controls the FTU from your computer and features controls for adjusting the volume, pan, send and return levels, and effects parameters. Each of the four tabs allows you to monitor and control the routing of the eight hardware inputs, along with eight returns from your DAW, and send those signals to the tab’s corresponding output pair.
The left bank of eight channels in each monitor tab corresponds to the six analog inputs and two S/PDIF digital inputs (which are hardwired to outputs 7/8). The eight channels to the right of that are DAW returns. Any of these 16 channels can be sent to any of the eight output busses by choosing the appropriate monitor tab for the desired output pair and setting the levels for the input and software return channels, respectively. So the mixer allows you to route any hardware input or DAW return to any output. Accessible through the tabs in the software window, you can create four independent monitor mixers for outputs 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8. You can use the mixer to create different mixes for each headphone out, and these in turn can be different from, or the same as, the main output.
If you think about it, this has more uses than just monitoring. Because the FTU puts high-quality, no-latency ambient effects on these monitor mixes, you could create an individual mix for, say, a band member who wants to hear the guitar more prominently, or for recording only the vocal parts to give to a replacement or substitute singer. You could actually use a headphone out as a sub or alternate mix directly—without going through the computer just to pick up some ambient treatment. It’s a good way to get a zero-latency, USB-powered mix. Pretty slick.
Back to monitoring, though, because the software mixer allows you to monitor any combination for sources from the hardware inputs in addition to the eight returns from your DAW, this effectively makes the FTU a 16x8 monitor mixer when used in conjunction with a DAW (either recording or tracking).
The Setting tab in the software mixer (see Fig. 4) shows how you apply effects to monitor outputs 1/2 and 3/4. The eight effects are Hall 1, Hall 2, Room 1, Room 2, Room 3, Plate, Delay, Echo. Each can be further tweaked with the Duration, Feedback, and Volume controls, providing a good amount of flexibility.
Fig. 4. The Settings tab is where you fashion your effects, with a choice of eight ambient algorithms (Rooms, Halls, Plate, Delay, and Echo) and Duration, Feedback, and Volume continuous controllers.
I had heard that the M-Audio version of Pro Tools can be unstable in Windows, and initially I had some trouble getting Pro Tools to run with the Fast Track Ultra on my system (Windows XP/SP2). Of course Pro Tools and M-Audio are both owned by the same company, so you wonder why this would be so. The further irony is that I got the FTU up and running instantly with Cubase with no problems whatsoever.
At first, it wasn’t so smooth with Pro Tools M-Powered, but after a couple of re-installs, I had the FTU working with both Pro Tools and Cubase with perfect stability. I could even switch between the applications with nary a hiccup. I just finished a big project where I had the FTU and Pro Tools M-Powered 7.4 open for two weeks, and I never experience one crash or glitch — even with programs running in the background. So chalk it up to growing pains, but I can say with confidence that you can trust mission-critical work to the Fast Track Ultra and Pro Tools M-Powered 7.4.
The Octane preamps worked well on both dynamic mics as well as my trusty Audio Technica AT4050, providing a sound that was clear, transparent, and low-noise enough to escape my detection and keep fatigue at bay — even over time. Direct, latency-free monitoring with versatile and clean-sounding effects really makes things easier when you have to monitor your own playing and that of a vocalist, and you don’t want to tax your CPU just to set up a workable monitor mix. With its stability, decent sound, and versatile monitor routing, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the Fast Track Ultra on any small to midsize recording project, either in a mobile situation, in the studio, or in a multi-environment project requiring both.
Power Requirements: Power is derived from either the host computer’s USB bus or from the included 5 VDC 2000 mA power supply.
Jon Chappell has written five books in the For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing), as well as The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill).