MOTU have brought their expertise to bear on a new desktop audio interface, the Track 16.
Since Apogee introduced their Duet, the idea of a small yet highly specified desktop audio interface has caught on with other manufacturers. RME's Babyface showed that a compact and stylish box could also pack serious potential for expansion; thanks to the wonders of digital I/O, it can record up to 12 audio tracks simultaneously, yet it still fits comfortably into a largish coat pocket. The latest manufacturer to offer their take on this concept are Mark Of The Unicorn, whose Track 16 looks to be a direct competitor to the Babyface and to Apogee's Quartet.
The Track 16 itself is a smartly designed black box, about the size of a small but thick paperback book. The upper surface houses a large assignable rotary control, 10 buttons, and four pairs of LED ladder meters. One end proffers a single quarter-inch input for guitars, a stereo mini-jack line input socket, and a headphone output duplicated in both sizes. The other end houses optical sockets for ADAT In and Out, a standard square USB socket, and a Firewire socket; this is in the nine-pin format sometimes called Firewire 800, though the Track 16 is a Firewire 400 device. In the centre of these is a D-Sub connector through which the rest of the I/O reaches the Track 16.
The Track 16's additional I/O is accessed using a metre-long snake that's heavier than the Track 16 itself, and not always easy to arrange in the shape and position you want it. It terminates in a bundle of XLR, jack and other connectors, all of which are black; close inspection reveals moulded writing on the plastic barrels that tells you what each of them is, but as the writing is black too, it's far from obvious. I would have liked to see a more obvious labelling scheme — could the barrels have been different colours, for instance? As it is, I imagine that anyone buying a Track 16 will want to find a way to make it easier to distinguish the different cables at a glance, perhaps by adding tags to the cables.
The I/O available on the breakout cable includes a second high-impedance guitar input, a pair of balanced quarter-inch line inputs, a pair of mic preamps with digital gain control, four line outputs, and MIDI In and Out. There's also a power connector: the Track 16 can be bus-powered when connected via Firewire, but needs the included wall-wart power supply attached if you want it to work over USB, or if your computer's Firewire socket doesn't offer enough power. Annoyingly, the only Firewire cable that ships with the unit has nine-pin connectors at both ends, so if — like most PC owners — you only have a four-pin or six-pin socket on your computer, you'll need to buy another. As a consequence, I did most of my testing with USB. On the review model, incidentally, the cable's D-Sub connector slightly fouled the adjacent USB connector, pushing it sideways at a small angle. Nothing bad came of this during the review period, but I worry slightly about the long-term consequences.
During my tests I found I always needed to have the breakout cable attached — not only because I needed to attach the power supply, but because there are no line outputs on the unit itself. I imagine most people will likewise find they need the cable most of the time, but if you were, say, mixing on the move, and able to connect and power the Track 16 via Firewire, you could in principle run it as a headphones-only device sans breakout cable.
The 10 buttons have a rubbery feel, making them slightly reminiscent of the keys on a ZX Spectrum, except that they light up. The Power button has a blue LED, which lights continuously when all is well, but flashes if sync to an external clock is lost. So too does the Meters button, which switches three of the meters from monitoring input to output levels. One of the others is always lit in green, indicating that the assignable rotary control is performing that function, while the remainder light up red until pressed to select that function instead. These eight red/green buttons are logically arranged such that those in the top row select gain trim for the two mic inputs, the two guitar inputs and the line inputs, while the three on the lower row let you assign the rotary to the output level of either the main outs, the alternate (3/4) line outputs or the phones. In practice, I found the Track 16's rotary made an excellent monitor controller, but it seemed easier to adjust input gains on screen.
The Track 16 comes with the latest generation of MOTU's long-established CueMix FX utility, which allows you to set up low-latency monitor mixes, with EQ, reverb and compression courtesy of the Track 16's onboard DSP. It's been a while since I used a MOTU interface, and CueMix has come on in leaps and bounds in that time, to the point where it rivals RME's TotalMix FX for comprehensiveness, while still being very friendly and easy to use.
Its main window is divided into three tabbed pages. The first displays settings for all the input channels, including polarity switches and gain settings for the mic and guitar preamps. The gain range for the mic amps is 0 to +53 dB, and there's also a pad that can be engaged when an input is selected as the focus channel. The third page shows all the output channels; many interface utilities don't make output channels visible, and this display can be very helpful with troubleshooting. The centre page, meanwhile, is the actual mixer. Each of the three output pairs can have its own separate cue mix, with independent channel levels, EQ and reverb settings, and so on. The mic and guitar inputs each have a mono channel with pan control, while the remainder occupy stereo channels, with a pan control that can either set stereo width or balance; this could conceivably be awkward in situations where you want to record lots of independent mono signals through the ADAT inputs, but for the most part seems an acceptable compromise in the interests of keeping the on-screen channel count down.
The rightmost area displays either a neat metering panel, global settings such as the reverb parameters, or the six-band EQ or dynamics for the selected 'focus' channel. (I would have liked to be able to use the Track 16's buttons to select channels within CueMix, but this doesn't seem to be possible.) The EQ and dynamics are said to be 'analogue modelled', and do a more than adequate job, while the reverb is easily up to the task of providing a vocalist with some comfort ambience to aid pitching. It's a shame, though, that although you can store entire CueMix configurations, you can't save individual channel settings, nor presets for the EQ, dynamics and reverb.
CueMix FX is brimming with nice features, although some of them — such as the built-in talkback — are perhaps less relevant to the Track 16 than to MOTU's larger interfaces. I particularly liked the floating meter displays that can show a virtual oscilloscope, FFT spectrogram or a phase meter; the latter in particular is invaluable when you're setting up stereo mic arrays. There's also a handy guitar tuner, an M/S decoder, and the ability to send the output of the CueMix FX mixer into your DAW for recording, which could be used to record the rough mix you're giving to the performer during tracking. You can even trim the level of digital inputs, a feature I haven't seen elsewhere.
The main drawback I could detect is that there is no way to display DAW returns as channels within CueMix, nor adjust their level independently of the overall output level. It's also not possible to boost the level of input signals within CueMix, as the faders only attenuate. This means that if you want to overdub to a work-in-progress mix that's already quite loud, you will need to pull down the master fader within your DAW in order to make the input signals audible against the backing track. On several occasions while I was using it, I found myself having to switch repeatedly between Cubase and CueMix in order to satisfy musicians' requests for more of their input signal in the headphones.
As is often the case with Windows interfaces, buffer sizes and sync settings are made using a separate utility called MOTU Audio Console. The Track 16's Windows ASIO driver offers a choice of buffer sizes from 1024 samples all the way down to 64. However, there seems to be a non-documented safety buffer at work as well. Using Oblique Audio's Round Trip Latency utility and the Track 16's USB drivers, I measured the actual input-to-output latency as being just over 900 samples (20.5ms) with a 256-sample buffer size. At the largest 1024-sample setting I measured 3128 samples (70ms), while at the 128-sample setting, I recorded 522 samples of latency (11.9ms). This suggests that the true latency is almost twice what it theoretically should be at low buffer sizes — not an uncommon state of affairs. I got marginally better results when I tested the Track 16's Firewire drivers: 863 samples of latency (19.9ms) at a buffer size of 256 samples and 479 samples (10.9ms) at 128.
Perhaps as a result of this padding, the Track 16 performed well in Vin Curigliano's DAWbench test. I was able to run 90 instances of Tube-Tech's Classic Channel at the 256-sample setting, and 86 instances at the 128-sample setting. This was exactly the same on Firewire and USB. By comparison, Presonus's AudioBox VSL1818 would only let me run 56 instances at 256 samples, and wouldn't play back audio at all at 128 samples — but it should be remembered that the AudioBox's buffer settings are much more accurately reflected in the actual round-trip latency it achieves (15.6ms at 256 samples against the Track 16's 20.5ms).
My experiences of the Track 16 were mostly very positive, and from a practical point of view, my only real reservations concern the breakout cable. It's big, clumsy and inconvenient, and sufficiently heavy that it could easily drag the Track 16 off a table if it were allowed to do so. Given that most users are probably going to need to have this cable connected most of the time, I think it undermines the convenience of the 'desktop' format quite a bit.
That said, the Track 16 still places controls at your fingertips, and at least you don't have to reach around the back of a rack unit to plug anything in. It will certainly make a strong competitor to existing desktop interfaces, especially the RME Babyface. The latter's breakout cable is much less intrusive, and RME's driver support and low-latency operation are second to none; but in its favour, the Track 16 has a more comprehensive control surface with better hardware metering, plus the ability to interface via Firewire as well as USB 2, and what seemed to me a slightly pokier headphone amp. And while Apogee's Quartet offers more line outputs and more preamp gain, along with a neat touch-pad interface, it also costs a great deal more than either the Track 16 or the Babyface, and has no Windows drivers. Not having heard the Quartet, I can't say how the Track 16 compares, but I certainly had no complaints about its sound quality. I used the Track 16 to record several complex sessions without a hitch, and I'd be more than happy to use it again.