$595 MSRP, $549 street
by Craig Anderton
You have your big, multi-I/O interface for your studio. But you’re not about to take that out with your laptop for portable recording. And maybe you have a computer in a den or office, and sometimes you want to record something or at least hear better audio that the computer’s built-in options . . . but you don’t want a full studio setup. What’s the ideal interface?
Several manufacturers have tried to answer this question. Mackie’s Satellite (since discontinued) was designed for desktops, but you could take out the interface “pod” for basic I/O with a laptop—making it the first interface designed specifically to serve two different purposes, and adapt physically to those purposes. But the dominant answer was “buy two interfaces.” While you could easily find plenty of small, 2 x 2 interfaces, several manufacturers stepped up somewhat from that baseline. Apogee’s Duet was a high-quality, sleek interface that was at home with laptop setups but also could sit on office furniture next to your iMac (and yes, it was Mac-only, as is their new Quartet interface).
Similar slick, desktop-oriented interfaces appeared in the form of the Echo Electronics Echo 2, RME Babyface, and Focusrite Forte; Apogee started the cycle over with Duet2. So yes, the 2 x 2 interface has grown up, but pretty much stayed within its limits of being “the other interface” that wasn’t part of your full-blown setup. The Babyface stretched that paradigm, but Track16 stretches that paradigm further with more controls, more metering, more software, and more I/O, at a considerably lower price than the Babyface.
In fact the MOTU Track16 not only occupies the space between studio interfaces and a basic 2 x 2 interface, it straddles that space—there are enough capabilities for some fairly hefty I/O needs, yet the packaging allows using it as a portable, stylish interface for laptops or portable recording (and the rugged, all-metal case doesn’t hurt). It seems like the directive for Track16 was “more”—so let’s find out more.
Fig. 1 shows what you get with the package: The interface itself, breakout cable, AC adapter, USB cable, FireWire 9-pin cable, software disc, rubber feet, and comprehensive printed manual. The manual is also available as a PDF on the installer disc and MOTU's web site (a great way to find out more)—so if you're a happy user of the search function in electronic manuals, you're covered there as well.
Fig. 1: The Track16 package. The interface itself is at the center, and the package is encircled by the breakout cable. Clockwise from top: the AC adapter, FireWire cable, software disc, and USB cable. The manual is not shown (click to enlarge).
Track16 follows the existing paradigm in several ways: Large shiny main knob, limited onboard I/O, and multipin connector (in this case, a DB-25) for a breakout cable accommodating additional I/O. But differences compared to some competitors are notable. Track16 is somewhat larger and heavier than the competition, and eschews touch screen interfaces and OLEDs in favor of backlit, positive touch pushbuttons and four stereo 7-LED ladder meters.
Furthermore, Track16 works with Mac or Windows, and it’s not picky: for the Mac, Track16 works with G4 PowerPC CPUs (when was the last time you saw that?) up to the latest multicore processors, from OS X 10.5.8 onward (including 64-bit operation with 10.6 and 10.7). Windows support includes Windows Vista, 7, and 8 (32/64 bit for all). Unlike most other interfaces, it supports USB 2.0 or FireWire 400; the FireWire connector is the kind typically used with FW800—which is fine with me, as I feel it’s more robust.
I was going to take off some points for the massive breakout cable; the cable itself is well-constructed (I’d assume the shielding required to keep the analog signals clean contributes considerably to the bulkiness), but it seemed incongruous to have a petite interface matched with a linebacker of a breakout cable. However, MOTU now offers an optional-at-extra-cost breakout box (around $125; see Fig. 2). It connects via a custom DB-25 cable, and reduces cable clutter dramatically.
Fig. 2: The breakout box provides all the I/O of the breakout cable, but in a neater package.
Bus power is available only through FireWire, not from USB 2.0. In that case (or if your FireWire port is on the anemic side), you need to connect the included AC adapter—but you can connect power only through the breakout cable. So even if you don’t need the extra I/O, with USB 2.0 you’re still going to need to plug in the cable. (Interestingly, if you lose the included power supply, Track16 will run on any 9-18V power supply, positive or negative tip.)
The I/O built into the box itself is mostly basic. The front panel (Fig. 3) has a 1/4" instrument input, 1/8" stereo unbalanced line in, and paralleled stereo headphone outs—1/4" and 1/8". These default to mirroring the main outs, but can monitor any track pair. However, the headphone outs don’t have individual volume controls. This I/O by itself provides a high-quality headphone amp output for your computer, as well as the ability to record an instrument like guitar or stereo keyboard (with a 1/4" to 1/8" adapter).
Fig. 3: The Track16’s front-panel I/O.
However, the non-basic I/O is on the rear panel (Fig. 4): ADAT optical connectors that also work for optical S/PDIF. This is very cool, because if you have an octal preamp with ADAT out, you can record small acoustic ensembles with only the preamp and the Track16.
Fig. 4: The rear panel has the FireWire and USB interface connectors, DB-25 connector for the breakout cable, and ADAT or S/PDIF optical I/O.
For maximum I/O, you’ll need to use the breakout cable or breakout box. This is serious stuff that supplements, not replaces, the onboard I/O (Fig. 5): two XLR mic ins (with individual phantom power and -20dB pad, switchable from the Track16 itself or the CueMix software described later), two main and two line outs (both 1/4" balanced), a second guitar/instrument input, 1/4" balanced line inputs, the aforementioned power jack, and 5-pin MIDI in and out (excellent!). MIDI is carried along with audio over the USB or FireWire connection.
Fig. 5: The breakout cable’s connectors. These are the same connectors that are available on the optional breakout box.
All the analog I/O operates at 24 bits, up to 192kHz. The ADAT optical ports can do eight ADAT channels at 44.1/48kHz, or four channels of S/MUX I/O at 96kHz. Stereo S/PDIF is also available up to 96kHz. The optical in and out are independent, so the Track16 can also serve as a format converter (e.g., convert two ADAT tracks to S/PDIF).
A feature that won’t matter to most people but will be important to others is on-board SMPTE sync. Feed SMPTE into an analog in, and the Track16 knows what to do with it for any application, Mac or Windows, that supports SMPTE sync. It can also generate and re-generate SMPTE time code.
You can control quite a bit from the front panel, including preamp gain, output level, input bus level (with these three controlled by the big, shiny knob), what the meters monitor, channel mute/unmute, and power. The buttons are backlit, and change color based on function—green for currently selected, amber if not; the LED flashes if the signal is selected, but muted. However, you can also choose among six preset color schemes (e.g., you might prefer red instead of amber to indicate “not selected”).
It’s all very simple; for example if you want to control input trim, push the button that corresponds to the input, then turn the knob. The buttons have a positive feel, so you get tactile as well as visual feedback on when a function has been selected.
There are also LEDs marked P and V for each mic input, which stand for pad and phantom respectively. I assume V stands for volts, but just be careful not to assume that P stands for phantom.
The cross-platform CueMix software is not only a sophisticated router/mixer (with zero-latency monitoring via hardware), but controls DSP internal to the Track16 that offers per-input 7-band parametric EQ, dynamics (two types, available simultaneously), and reverb. It’s quite sophisticated and could justify its own review, but the bottom line is that it’s surprisingly full-functioned, and the DSP is not just a “nice” extra touch—it’s a very significant one.
MOTU gives a good summary of features on their web site, so rather than re-invent the wheel, if you want to know more about CueMix, this is a good place to start. And if you don’t want to know more about CueMix, maybe the following screen shots will change your mind.
Fig. 6 shows the inputs tab. Note that in addition to trim, phase, mono/stereo controls, and the like, there’s a reverb send control, a stage of always-accessible parametric EQ controls, and clicking on the EQ button opens up a six-stage parametric EQ (so you have 7 bands total); the graph shows the EQ response.
Fig. 6: And this is just the inputs tab . . .
Now check out the outputs tab (Fig. 7). The EQ is the same as for the inputs, and note that you can add EQ to ins, outs, or buses. In addition to six different bands, each band has five different response curves.
Fig. 7: The parametric is extremely flexible, and you can choose from EQing on the way in to your application, on the way out, or both.
Then there’s the dynamics (Fig. 8). The upper section is a standard compressor, while the lower one is an LA-2A emulation; you can use both if you want. The only limitation is that because these effects are digital, they can’t process the analog signal before it hits the converters. So, you can’t use the limiter to prevent rogue transients from overloading the A/D converters.
Fig. 8: Like the EQ, dynamics can be added to the ins, outs, or buses.
And there’s also reverb (Fig. 9), so when the singer says “can I have some reverb in the cans?” you can say “yes” without having to actually print the effects. It even sounds good.
Fig. 9: As if there wasn’t enough DSP, you get reverb too.
Although this is probably presented somewhat out of order, you can create and store various mixes of the inputs for each available bus (Fig. 10).
Fig. 10: The mixes come in very handy for stand-alone use, for example, if you’re running a solo act through a laptop and doing the routing/processing with CueMix.
And now, the off-the-hook coup de grâce: A suite of test and analysis gear (Fig. 11), including a triggered oscilloscope, FFT analyzer, spectrogram, X-Y plot, phase analyzer, and tuner.
Fig. 11: They didn’t really have to do this, but having this kind of analysis gear is a very cool addition.
You can even control CueMix remotely using a free iPad app. About the only limitation I found in CueMix is you can’t bring your DAW returns in as a separate channel, so you need to adjust the DAW return levels at the DAW itself. Also, it’s possible to run out of DSP, but unlikely; MOTU quotes at least one band of parametric EQ and compression on all channels (32 total, including ins and outs) at 48kHz.
The preceding does not cover all the features—not by a long shot—and I could write about CueMix for enough pages that everyone reading this would eventually fall asleep. But instead of doing that, let’s proceed to the conclusions . . . but not before mentioning that AudioDesk (a sort of “Digital Performer Lite” DAW that loads AU/MAS plug-ins and all that good stuff) is also part of the software bundle—as is a SMPTE Console applet for handling all the various SMPTE tasks. Oh, and of course there’s a utility for setting sample rates and such.
Frankly, I wasn’t that keen on reviewing “another interface.” Audio quality has reached a very high plateau unless you’re willing to pay a whole lot more, sound goes in, sound goes out, maybe you can do a few other things along the line . . . done. But MOTU caught me in a good mood that day, so when they asked if I wanted to review Track16, I said “yes.”
And I’m very glad I did. First, compared to similar interfaces, the price is compelling. Maybe Track16 doesn’t have slick touch screens, but it has substance—what’s more, it manages to be both utilitarian and slick at the same time. Granted, the breakout cable is like an overweight sister sitting next to the gorgeous model, but the breakout box solves that and even when you factor in the cost of the box, Track16 still remains extremely cost-effective. Besides, unless you're doing a lot of patching and re-patching, you can probably route the breakout cable so that it's relatively unobtrusive.
Then there’s the I/O. Lots of it. Adding a second guitar input was an obvious idea, yet so few do it; two guitars, or guitar and bass playing together, is not an uncommon scenario. Nor are you restricted to enabling phantom power for both mics or neither mic. The gain (53dB) is low for ribbons and low-level recording, but Track16 has no problem with condensers or dynamics used in standard recording contexts.
The cross-platform operation and relaxed system requirements are also a major plus—none of this “Mountain Lion only, sorry all of you with pre-mid 2008 Macs” or “sorry, we don’t support anything before Windows 7.” That said, though, I feel there are perhaps even more advantages to using Track16 with a Mac than with Windows. First, Windows machines don’t always have a FireWire port (and if it’s a laptop with a FireWire port, it probably can’t provide power) so if you have to use USB 2.0, you also have to use the breakout cable or box. It’s more likely a Mac will allow for bus power. Second, the Mac handles aggregation very well, so if you need more I/O than Track16 provides and don’t have an ADAT port-friendly expansion device, you can always aggregate Track16 with another interface (I tried it with an Avid Mbox Pro, and they coexisted very happily).
But you may need even need to worry about aggregation. as MOTU’s self-aggregating driver works with any of their FireWire or USB interfaces, even if daisy-chained with FireWire or using a FireWire or USB 2.0 hub. At first I thought this applied only to two Track16s, but I tested the Track16 with the original UltraLite and was both surprised and delighted that the pair worked fine together (and extra props for that kind of legacy support). Of course, it also works with newer interfaces, like the MicroBook II and UltraLite-mk3 interfaces.
Another factor on either platform is that in many desktop-based recording situations, Track16 will be all the interface you need—yet it’s small and convenient enough for mobile use (especially with the breakout box). And as if all these hardware and cost advantages weren’t enough, on top of all this MOTU folds in internal DSP with a mature, classy application to manage it all.
At this point, it would be only fair to point out any Track16 limitations I haven’t already mentioned. And if I could think of any, I would.
Let’s face it, there are a lot of great interfaces on the market, and quite a few of them hit home runs. But Track16 hits it out of the park, whether measured by specs, features, functionality, software bundle, DSP, or cost-effectiveness. MOTU really did their homework, and in the process, have produced an interface that’s not just for mobile or desktop studios, but does a thoroughly credible job in either application.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.