With two market-leading Firewire audio interfaces already part of the MOTU stable, where does the new mobile recording-oriented Traveler find its natural home?
MOTU have been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the IEEE1394 Firewire protocol for audio use, and their original 828 (Mk I) interface is still a sought-after and useful tool for studio-based and mobile sound recordists alike. Firewire has proved itself to be a flexible and reliable platform for audio, capable of handling multiple channels of high sample-rate audio, and proving to be the perfect solution for laptop users who want or need to steer clear of USB.
Time has moved on since the original 828 came out, though, and whilst MOTU's current 828 MkII and 896HD interfaces are both attractive, prospective Firewire interface buyers have plenty of other models to choose from. Where does the Traveler fit in to all this, and what does it have to offer?
On the face of it, the Traveler is quite similar to the MOTU 828 MkII, reviewed in the July 2004 issue of SOS, in that it's a multi-channel interface with eight analogue inputs and outputs, ADAT and S/PDIF digital audio connections, plus MIDI In and Out and SMPTE sync facilities, but it differs in a few important ways. The Traveler can operate at sample rates up to 192kHz, has AES-EBU digital I/O, and the four mic/guitar inputs (the 828MkII only has two) are mounted on the rear panel. Additionally, the gains for these inputs are digitally controlled — MOTU calls them Digital Precision Trims. The other big change is that the Traveler has no IEC mains power inlet — instead it can be powered by DC adaptor, battery pack (via a standard four-pin XLR connector), or via the Firewire connection itself. And this is not the only change that makes the Traveler more suited to mobile use...
The Traveler can be powered solely by the Firewire connection to the host computer, but only if a six-pin Firewire connector is used at the computer end — miniature four-pin connectors won't work. Used this way with an Apple 1GHz G4 Powerbook, the Traveler gave me a very respectable two and a quarter hours of use before my Powerbook battery ran down, and this was with none of the laptop's energy-saving options enabled.
Obviously the Traveler can run all day long if the host computer is plugged into the mains, but for more flexibility on the road two additional powering options are available. First, any mains power adaptor can be used so long as it provides between eight and 18V with sufficient current — 1.33A is needed for a 9V supply, but the Traveler isn't fussy about whether tip connections are wired positive or negative. Second, the battery packs commonly used in film and TV circles can be pressed into service via the four-pin XLR socket on the side of the Traveler. Any can be used as long as they supply between 10 and 18V, and 12W — names to look out for in the UK include Hawkwood and PAG, though US suppliers such as www.bhphotovideo.com often have deals on brands such as Bescor.
From just seeing the box the Traveler comes in, you know it's a lot more compact than other 19-inch rack-based interfaces. It's still a 1U height, and, at 25cm, reasonably deep, but the Traveler's width is only 37.5cm. Not coincidentally, this puts it at about the same size as an average 15-inch screen laptop. It's not pocketable by any means, but capable of fitting in a laptop or other similarly sized bag. At 1.8kg it's surprisingly light, and its case, with friendly rounded corners and edges, is manufactured not from plastic but a more confidence-inspiring aluminium alloy. I was relieved to see, too, that most of the rear-panel audio sockets are case-mounted, so 'enthusiastic' plugging in won't stress the Traveler's weaker internal components.
The front panel is made from the same alloy, and the controls have a good, solid feel to them. I did notice that pressing the rightmost knobs caused a slight inward movement of the LCD unit, but further investigation revealed that this was nothing serious. As with any other audio equipment, users should probably be wary of allowing any real force to be applied to the front-panel knobs while the Traveler is being transported. If you did have a particularly tough life lined up for the Traveler you'd probably be advised, anyway, to use the 19-inch rack 'ears' that MOTU supply, and mount it in a heavy-duty case. During the test period I was happy to be fairly 'robust' with the Traveler, and it handled everything I threw at it (not literally, I hasten to add!) with no trouble at all.
For what is a compact unit, the Traveler packs in a lot of connectivity. To begin with the rear panel has four Neutrik combo XLR/quarter-inch sockets, catering for mic, guitar and line inputs. There are four additional line-level inputs on quarter-inch sockets, switchable in pairs (again via the front panel) between -10dBV and +4dBu operating levels. These have no gain stages other than an optional 6dB 'boost' which is achieved in software, not as genuine 'electrical' gain. Analogue outputs are on eight quarter-inch sockets fixed at +4dBu. It's good to see that the spacing of all the quarter-inch sockets is wide enough to allow the use of chunky Neutrik jacks, something which causes problems on the 828 MkII.
As for digital connections, the Traveler has eight-channel ADAT 'lightpipe' in and out, although the optical sockets used for these can be switched, independently, for optical S/PDIF (TOSlink) usage instead. S/PDIF signals are otherwise catered for on dedicated RCA sockets, but it's not possible to use these and optical S/PDIF simultaneously. TOSLink gets priority if you try. The pair of male and female XLR sockets for connecting AES-EBU devices are unaffected by S/PDIF settings.
All the digital connections can handle 24-bit signals at 44.1 or 48kHz sampling rates without restriction; in fact the AES-EBU and S/PDIF can handle 88.2 and 96kHz as well, but at these '2x' sample rates only four channels of ADAT input and output are possible. At the '4x' 176.4 and 192kHz sample rates, the Traveler's digital connections are disabled.
Rounding off the Traveler's connections are word clock in and out on BNC connectors, a nine-pin ADAT sync socket, a pair of Firewire sockets, and on the right-hand panel, a pair of MIDI sockets (In and Out), a four-pin XLR power pack input, and the DC power socket.
Moving round to the front panel, there's a slim rocker-type power switch, four 48V phantom switches and endless encoder-type gain knobs for inputs 1 to 4, and six additional endless knobs for working with the Traveler's Cuemix Plus monitoring and stand-alone functions. The headphone socket can be set up to 'mirror' any output pair but can just as easily be configured as an additional, independent pair of outputs. The accompanying Volume knob allows you to independently adjust volume for headphones and the Traveler's main output pair — a great feature. Display duties are taken care of by a bright 2x16-character backlit LCD and, to its right, there's a panel of LEDs showing input levels and output activity for the analogue, S/PDIF and AES connections, ADAT and MIDI activity, and SMPTE and clock status.
All in all, the Traveler is an exceptionally well-equipped interface, and with the exception of the shared ADAT/TOSlink optical connectors, there are no real catches with input- or output-channel provision — it looks like you get 20 inputs and 22 outputs, and that's just what you do get.
Just as impressive, if not more so, are some of the Traveler's 'under the hood' features. The Cuemix Plus system allows four independent monitor mixes of all 20 inputs to be set up on any four pairs of outputs, at the same time as recording if necessary. The obvious application for this is indeed setting up headphone or foldback mixes whilst tracking, but it also effectively turns the Traveler into a digital mixer (20:6:2, I suppose), albeit one with an unconventional set of controls, and no EQ, inserts or auxes. Never the less, for classical and live sound recordists the Traveler can simultaneously fulfil conventional audio interface duties for an attached laptop as well as supplying a 'safety' mix to a two-track recorder, which would remain unaffected in the case of a computer crash. What's more, Cuemix Plus is configurable from software (more on this later) and from the Traveler's front panel, so genuine 'stand-alone' operation is certainly possible.
For users in the audio-visual field who work with timecode, the Traveler can both sync to and generate SMPTE using its analogue connections. This feature is configured with the bundled Firewire SMPTE Console software, and is easy to work with whilst providing a sophisticated implementation including freewheel and regeneration options.
The Traveler inspires confidence from the moment you take it out of the box. The construction quality is excellent, and all sockets and controls have a nice solid feel. Setting up and software installation is very straightforward and it's quite a liberating moment when you power up a laptop-based system for the first time and realise there's not a mains lead in sight. Switching on the Traveler causes the LCD to display a brief 'splash' screen reminding you that, yes, you're using a MOTU Traveler, and also showing the firmware version in use (mine was v1.04). After that, the display switches to a 'Mix Bus' screen that gives a simple visual representation of the current Cuemix Plus settings for a single pair of audio outputs. This is the way the Traveler appears for the vast majority of the time during use, so if you buy one you'd better learn to like it!
Using the supplied software, nearly every feature of the Traveler can be controlled from a connected computer — only phantom, main power, and main/phones output level can't be — but as I mentioned earlier, there is extensive 'stand-alone' provision too. This includes basic setup functions, such as sample rate, optical mode and display options, but also encompasses all aspects of the Cuemix Plus internal mixing environment. It would be much too tedious to go into detail about this, but despite good visual feedback from the LCD, I did find the front-panel operation of the Traveler a little non-intuitive sometimes.
For example, there's one knob marked 'Mix Bus' and another marked 'Mix', and they do quite different things under different conditions. Similarly, 'Select' often changes the value of a parameter, and yet there's a 'Value' knob as well! What can really get you, though, is that every knob can also be pushed like a switch. This is confusing because sometimes doing this accesses a crucial function, sometimes it's a trivial shortcut, and sometimes it does nothing at all. I don't want to give the impression that the Traveler is hard to use or that its software is confusing — far from it — but new owners should probably set aside a little time to get used to things before using the Traveler at an important gig.
Something I have no complaints about is the front-panel volume knob. As mentioned already, this performs two roles (it's switchable by pushing the knob) in adjusting headphone volume and the level of the output sent to analogue outs 1 and 2, to which you'll probably have your monitors connected. In one fell swoop, this knob might do away with the need for a dedicated monitor controller, especially when you take into account Cuemix Plus's talkback and listenback facilities. I couldn't help wondering whether MOTU might be able to provide an option for the volume knob to control the output level of Analogue outs 1-6, thereby allowing the Traveler to act as a volume control for a surround setup. That really would be a money-saver for people working in that field.
The Traveler ships with Core Audio drivers for Mac OS X (10.2 or later) and WDM, ASIO2 and GSIF2 drivers for Windows ME, 2000, and XP. Users of both platforms also get appropriate MIDI drivers as well as MOTU's Firewire Audio Console, Firewire Cuemix Console and Firewire SMPTE Console applications. Together these take care of all aspects of the Traveler's basic configuration, zero-latency monitoring and timecode synchronisation abilities respectively, and are all robust and easy to use.
Mac users additionally get a freebie audio recording application, Audiodesk, which is a very capable cut-down version of MOTU's flagship Digital Performer software. Audiodesk lacks any MIDI support, but it does come bundled with a healthy selection of MAS (MOTU Audio System) plug-ins and is a useful, solid application that may well satisfy all the needs of some users.
If you already own one of the main sequencing packages, the printed Traveler manual includes information on how to set it up with your new audio interface. For Mac, there are sections on Digital Performer and Logic, and for PC Cubase, Nuendo and Sonar.
The Traveler's 64x oversampling A-D and 128x oversampling D-A converters support sample rates up to 192kHz, at 24-bit resolution. Aside from that, MOTU don't publish any specifications or measurements for either the converters or the analogue I/O. Whilst that may make it harder for prospective purchasers to make a comparison between the Traveler and other similar interfaces, the on-paper specs for virtually all modern audio interfaces and digital mixers are so good, and so broadly similar, as to make comparison almost meaningless. In any case, it's always the subjective 'feel' factor that is much more important to end users, and it's that that I'll focus on here.
The Traveler's four mic preamps are equipped with MOTU's new Digital Precision Trims, which allow gain to be set precisely, in 1dB increments, and even to be stored as part of a Cuemix Console preset for later recall. To get an idea of their quality, I compared them to two other mic preamps I own: the SPL Goldmike MkI valve/transistor hybrid, and an M Audio DMP2. The DMP2 is of similar quality to the VLZ Pro preamps used in older Mackie mixers but offers more gain, whilst the Goldmike is often considered to be one of the best preamps on the market short of really big-money models.
To cut a long story short, the Traveler mic pres are excellent. They're more fluid-sounding than the DMP2, especially at higher frequencies, but leaner too, with more transparent low-mids. Putting them up against the Goldmike, I was a little shocked to hear how similar the two units sounded, and it was only with quite careful and detailed listening that a little congestion in the Traveler's upper mids and a slightly 'colder' overall balance became apparent. I'd have no hesitation whatsoever in using the Traveler mic preamps for almost any application — they return a colourful, involving sound with bags of detail and a convincing musicality. I was also surprised to discover that a whopping 73dB of gain is on offer — this is just what's needed for low-output dynamic and ribbon mics, and compares favourably with the 60dB on offer from a Mackie Onyx preamp, for example. The gain comes without a noise penalty, too. As someone who works with classical musicians a lot, using small diaphragm mics in fairly distant locations, I was delighted to discover that even with maximum gain dialled in, the sound remained transparent and fluid, and with an impressively low noise floor. Compared to the Goldmike's maximum 72dB of gain there was nothing to choose between the two in this respect.
I also checked out DI'd electric bass into one of the Traveler's mic pres with its 20dB pad engaged. As expected, the sound was lively, articulate and reassuringly 'ballsy' without being obviously coloured. An external DI box may increase your tone options, but the Traveler does a great basic job by itself.
As for A-D conversion quality, this again comes over as being excellent. Listening critically to very low-level recordings made on a Tascam DA20 MkII DAT machine using its own converters, and then the Traveler's (routed using Cuemix Plus to the S/PDIF outputs) the difference was pronounced, with the Traveler being apparently quieter, smoother and more detailed, and the Tascam rather 'fuzzy' by comparison. I also briefly fired up a dbx 386, a valve mic preamp which has a rather nice A-D stage, and other than a hint of difference in high-frequency detail, which I couldn't say was better or worse, the two sounded exactly the same. It's possible that very slight gains in detail may be possible using outboard A-D conversion, like that offered by the likes of Apogee's Rosetta, but there's nothing shabby about the sound of the Traveler.
Comparing the effect of the Traveler's different sample rates, there is some difference between the 1x, 2x and 4x rates, but not much! I made recordings of an authentic copy of a Flemish harpsichord (an acid test for treble resolution and clarity) at all the available sample rates, and then played them back to a group of five listeners who were told that something had changed, but not what. Everyone noticed the difference between the 44.1 and 192kHz rates, but only one between 44.1 and 96kHz. The 192kHz recording was described as being more 'stable' and authoritative, but interestingly, detail and smoothness were not mentioned. This corresponds broadly with my own observations, that high sample rates can make a difference, but not always in ways you'd expect.
In the time I had with the Traveler whilst writing this review, I tried to build a balanced picture of its strengths and weaknesses, and I can honestly say that while there's lots to like, I could find almost nothing to criticise! I've mentioned the rather quirky front-panel operation, and I suppose I'd prefer it if the input-level meters had more resolution than is offered by their four LEDs, but as for genuine drawbacks I could only find one. It's this, and it's pretty inconsequential: at the 4x sample rates of 176 and 192kHz, certain restrictions come into play over and above the disabling of all the digital I/O. The headphone output level control still works, but the headphone outputs themselves cease to be available as a separate entity in any software other than the Firewire Cuemix Console. On my review unit, too, the main output level control was bypassed, so that any 4x sample rate audio was played back over the monitor speakers at full volume. No sooner had I mentioned this to MOTU, though, they announced a new firmware revision, v1.05, which promised to fix the problem.
Having owned several MOTU Firewire and PCI interfaces over the years, I wasn't expecting the Traveler to offer very much more than I'd grown used to. Nothing could be further from the truth, though — MOTU have equipped the Traveler with such an extensive and well-balanced feature set, implemented for the most part with great elegance, that it is a genuine pleasure to work with and to have around in the studio. The Cuemix Plus monitoring makes mixerless setups a reality, not just a possibility, and has benefits in the studio and on the road for users working in a variety of different areas. The Digital Precision Trims are wonderful, especially together with the four great-sounding mic preamps and bags of available gain. And I very much appreciate the multitude of digital connections on offer, negating the need for any external format converters. It's quite some package, and the portability and flexible powering options are the icing on the cake.
Of course, the Firewire audio interface market is somewhat more crowded nowadays than it once was. The Traveler shares a broadly similar feature set with RME's Fireface, the Presonus Firepod, Tascam's FW1804, and perhaps its closest competitor, Metric Halo's Mobile I/O. MOTU appear to have been careful, though, to give the Traveler some distinctive features that not all the others can match — genuine stand-alone operation, the excellent mic preamps and digital gain controls, flexible powering options, the extensive Cuemix Plus monitoring facilities, and of course genuine portability. The Traveler also plays well with additional MOTU Firewire and PCI interfaces should you ever need to up the total number of inputs and outputs available on your setup. Its software is also not particularly biased towards Mac or PC — both are equally well supported, with the exception that Mac users additionally get access to Audiodesk. If all these are features that are important to you, then the Traveler presents itself as the stand-out choice. By any standards, it's a hugely capable, great-sounding and brilliantly conceived product which will not disappoint.