Mark Of The Unicorn were first to market with a multi-channel FireWire audio interface, the 828. Their new 896 adds 96kHz support among other features.
The FireWire protocol pioneered by Apple offers high data transfer rates as well as hot-plugging capability, making it ideal for attaching audio devices. However, there hasn't yet been the rush of launches that happened with USB and PCI, perhaps because of the lack of native FireWire sockets on Windows-based portables. So far only MOTU, who specialise in Mac-only software, have made any serious impression, first with their 828, and now the flagship 896.
Other manufacturers are out there, notably Metric Halo and Swissonic, but it's the 828 that is currently the solution of choice for those wishing to add multiple inputs and outputs to their FireWire-equipped computer. The 896 develops the concept of the 828 by increasing the connectivity and sample format options.
The 896 offers individual gain trim controls for the eight analogue inputs, with up to 40dB range, as well as individual phantom power switches, suggesting that this unit boasts more discrete mic preamp circuitry than the 828. Above these are the 10-segment meters, the first eight of which are for the analogue inputs. The next bank of eight meters is programmable, and the user can choose whether they display analogue output, ADAT input or ADAT outputs. Two further pairs of meters display main output level and the level at the AES-EBU digital output. The clock indicator LEDs show the currently selected sample rate; if the unit is waiting for external clock and no incoming clock source is detected, they flash to indicate this.
The 896's eight analogue inputs are all on the back panel, and use Neutrik combo connectors accepting either XLR or quarter-inch jack plugs. Each input has a three-way level switch for mic, line or 'fixed' level, and analogue-to-digital conversion is carried out using 24-bit, 64x oversampling converters. Above the inputs is a row of eight analogue outputs with XLR connectors, switchable between +4 and -10 dB levels. Digital-to-analogue conversion is taken care of by 24-bit, 128x oversampling converters. To the left of the analogue outputs are two XLR connectors for the AES-EBU input and output, which are equipped with a sample-rate converter so they can operate at different sample rates from the rest of the 896. There is also a pair of XLR connectors for the main outputs. Also on the back panel are the ADAT optical input and output, the nine-pin ADAT Sync D-type connector, word clock in and out and two FireWire sockets. This last feature is a welcome improvement over the single socket provided on the 828, and facilitates daisy-chaining up to four units (potentially achieving 72 inputs and outputs!).
At the time of writing, the 896 is supported on Macs under Mac OS 9 only, while PC owners can use ASIO, GSIF (GigaStudio) and WDM drivers under Windows 98, 2000 and XP. I tested the unit on a Mac. When using MOTU's Digital Performer software, 896 settings are controlled from the Configure Hardware Driver window; users of other software can find the same settings on the control panel added to Mac OS during installation, and a limited range of options is provided by the Control Strip extension. Along with these, the software installation adds a MOTU FireWire extension to your extensions folder and an ASIO driver to the ASIO folder of whichever software you choose. MOTU's AudioDesk workstation software is also included.
The control panel allows the user to choose clock source, sample rate (44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz) and a setting for 'samples per buffer' which can help to reduce latency if your computer is fast enough to cope with the increased data transfer rate which results from lowering it. Usefully, you can route the input and output of any software using Apple's Sound Manager through any of the 896's inputs and outputs, although this facility will only be available if you are using a sample rate of 44.1 or 48 kHz. You can also choose whether the ADAT inputs and outputs are enabled (disabling them can free up FireWire bandwidth) and whether any sample-rate conversion takes place at the AES-EBU input and output. Further options provide control of the programmable meters and the 'Cuemix' no-latency monitoring. Unlike the PCI-based 2408, which offers the facility to route any number of inputs to one output pair with latency reduced to 25 percent of the operating latency of the sequencing software in use, the 896's hardware monitoring only allows you to route one pair of inputs direct to one pair of outputs (with zero latency). One useful feature of this routable hardware audio-through is the ability to route the input to the computer for simultaneous effects processing, mixing the dry monitored signal with software effects.
Recording and working with 24-bit 96kHz audio files necessitates the use of a second hard drive if you wish to preserve the long-term integrity of your system disk, since they take up three times as much space as 16-bit 48kHz files. Tests with suitable drives such as the Lacie Studio Drive and Glyph M-Project demonstrate that the FireWire buss is easily able to record 18 simultaneous tracks at the highest sample rate and bit depth. Playback is a more complex issue, since the duration of the files and CPU plug-in load can affect performance. Without any plug-ins, for example, the Lacie Studio drive was able to run 27 continuous 24-bit 96kHz tracks in Logic Audio 4.8.1 using the ASIO driver.
The 896 was a breeze to connect and configure, appearing online as an available audio device each time it was plugged in. The mic preamps were especially impressive, with a sweet sound and a highly useable amount of available gain.
Initially I was a little sceptical about the possible market for the 896: MOTU already have the well-respected PCI-based 1296 which shares a lot of the same features, as well as the 828 which has the same number of inputs and outputs. However, several recent sessions where I have taken the 896, an iBook and a FireWire drive to the home of a performer, set up in three minutes and made recordings in state-of the-art sonic quality without the need for a mixer have been enough to convince me that this is a unique product, truly the 'studio in a box' that MOTU claim it to be.
Richard Evans, engineer at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios, was one of MOTU's first UK customers for the 896. I asked him how he was using it.
"I'm using it alongside a 32-voice Pro Tools 24 system, to provide me with more Logic tracks. Also, using its ADAT interface, I can effectively turn my almost-redundant ADAT machine into eight more +4dB balanced I/Os to my desk, and it means I get access to all the native Logic stuff (samplers, synths, plug-ins and so on) without having to shell out for Emagic System Bridge and the DSP Farms that are compatible with it. So there are tons of advantages to this system.
"The downside is that ASIO doesn't seem too keen on sharing the FireWire buss with TDM, so the extra tracks aren't as plentiful as I would have liked. All this is sidestepped if ASIO uses FireWire and TDM uses SCSI. I've only used the D-As so far and it sounds fantastic. I did a sync test between the TDM outs and 896 outs and it was perfectly-phase locked. I was amazed — in the past you were lucky to get that from multiple 888s. I'm using it at home at the minute while working on an interactive version of Peter Gabriel's next record, and it all seems to be working smoothly and was dead easy to get up and running."
- Brings 24 bit/96kHz capability to those working over FireWire.
- Wide range of inputs and outputs.
- ASIO drivers give full functionality in non-MOTU software.
- Simple setup routine and connection.
- Zero-latency monitoring only on one input pair at a time.
- Windows users may require a PCI FireWire adaptor.
The 896 provides connectivity and sonic quality which, in combination with a suitable laptop and control surface, offers a real alternative to the traditional computer-based studio.
- Apple iBook G3 600MHz and iMac G4 800MHz.
- Tested with: Emagic Logic Audio Platinum 4.8.1, MOTU Digital Performer 3.02.