I got into recording a while ago, my first interface being an original MOTU 828. That thing works great. However, it is not supported in ProTools, and I kind of want to start using ProTools more. Plus, I want to move it to my home studio to hopefully make it easier to record virtual tracks by connecting my PC and Mac together via the ADAT outputs of the 828. Anyhow, M-Audio came out with a diminutive new little recording box that works with ProTools M-Powered, and supposedly has excellent microphone preamps as well. This box would be their new USB2 Fast Track Ultra interface.
Physically, the Fast Track Ultra is 10″ x 1 3/4″ x 5″ish. It does not come with any way to mount it in a rack. I think M-Audio positioned ProFire 2626 Interface for rack duty. They seem to share a lot of the same features. The Fast Track Ultra can be bus powered, which limits the amount of inputs and outputs to four each. It can also, interestingly, be run as a USB 1.1 device, which hobbles the device to a maxium of 48Khz and two inputs and two outputs.
The Software included with the Fast Track Ultra is Live 6 M-Audio Enhanced. I believe this comes with pretty much all their hardware audio devices (it came with the Project Mix I/O as well). The drivers disc I received was a little messed up. The disk, on my mac, opened up to a file that was a Disk image of what the disk was supposed to be. Kind of strange. To be safe, I downloaded the current drivers off the M-Audio site. The installer puts a little thing in your system preferences area that is the mixer/settings for the device. I am not a huge fan of it, as it doesn’t really seem to do much. And, if you want it to run iTunes or other audio from your Mac, it comes out of outputs 1 & 2, and that includes the mic if it is plugged in to Mic input 1. The Mixer Software Panel thingy doesn’t seem to do anything about rerouting the Mac’s output to a different set of outputs, or anything. Not really even sure why they have this mixing software.
Recording. This box does NOT, as of this writing, work with ProTools M-Powered. M-Audio’s tech support said it will be supported in the next update (and hopefully 10.5 support??). Whenever that is. You can record up to 96Khz on this little guy, however, you do get some latency. I never had any issues with latency with my 828. In fact, I could set the buffer to like 1024 in Digital Performer (DP), and I had no latency with recording the Mic 1 input (you could only get one mic input or two stereo lines zero latency on the 828) and having DP play other tracks. The Fast Track Ultra is different. Not sure about the DSP chip that is supposed to provide low latency like they advertise, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. Setting the buffer higher than 256 resulted in noticeable latency. I currently have DP’s buffer set to 128, and the latency is there a little, but it isn’t terribly noticeable. I also had to run a line out of the headphone jack back to my headphone mixer/amp to further help with the latency. At least, I think it helped. I do get some strange little error things for Digital Performer that I would NEVER get with the 828. It does, every now and then, come up with a warning messages about the computer being to slow or something. The processor is hardly registering any activity, so, I don’t know why it does that.
The Preamps. M-Audio is advertising that the Fast Track Ultra has their Octane technology in the preamps. Are they better than the 828’s? That is hard to say. I use two microphones mainly to record. An AKG C414 ULS and a AKG C414 EB. I’d say that the sound I get from recording on the Fast Track Ultra is not as muffled as the 828. Or, rather, the 828 sounds muffled compared to the Fast Track Ultra. Plus, bumping the range up to 96Khz, recordings sound a little be better. It really isn’t a ‘night and day’ thing though.
The verdict. It is hard to say with this box. On the one hand, it is cheap, and is capable of making some good sounding recordings. On the other hand, the included mixing software preference panel seems totally useless, and the DSP chip……is it even working? Plus, latency…..a word I really haven’t had to use when using the 828. For $350 or so, is it worth buying? Yes, if you plan on using ProTools M-Powered. If you are going to use it with something else, there are a lot of choices this year, so, you might want to look at offerings from other companies. MOTU’s UltraLight would be one such device. But it is nearly double the price of the Fast Track Ultra. That is not to say that the Fast Track Ultra isn’t a good device. It just seems a little quirky, lacks ProTools M-Powered support, and the drivers and mixing software seem a little rough. Perhaps future revisions in the software will fix this. I’d give it an 7 out of 10. Its a good value, but has some rough edges that need to be ironed out.
UPDATE 1/26/08 by E: After some investigating, it seems that MOTU hardware boxes can, through MOTU’s Digital Performer, take advantage of zero latency monitoring via hardware. So, that is why the 828 has no latency issues. Hopefully, something like this will be available in ProTools M-Powered when it gets updated to support the Fast Track Ultra.
UPDATE 2/3/08 by E: Having done some more recordings with the box, it does sound a lot better than the MOTU 828 I had. The preamps are clear and crisp compared to the 828. True, the monitoring things is a pain, but with a buffer setting at 128 at 48Khz, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Even at 96Khz it works well.