Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Utenzil vs. the MOTU Ultralite

I found myself wanting a new combined Audio/MIDI interface with high quality. I'd seen the MOTU Ultralite used by several others very successfully, and had read good things about it in general. I was strongly considering the RME Fireface 400 which has recently come out and which has a great feature set, but the price is too high.

I currently use an Echo Indigo I/O, a small mixer, an M-Audio 1x1 USB MIDI or map USB/HID to MIDI. This has been an extremely reliable, good sounding setup for playback and improvisation. But the Echo Indigo only has 1 pair or L/R audio inputs and one pair of L/R audio outputs.

The MOTU sounds great, I'm happy. I adjust it to 96000 sampling, it sounds wonderful. However, it chokes on some of my more elaborate sets. I mess about with settings, increase buffer. Still choking on sets the Echo handled effortlessly. I am saddened. I set it down to 44.1, it's *still* dropping out, CPU spiking, more adjustments, I am greatly saddened. I notice that in MME mode, the little plasma gauges on the front indicate levels. In ASIO mode, they do not-- I'm starting to get pissed off. It still sounds great on minimal sets, but can't handle ones where I'm running MIDI into 3 or 4 multiple tracks at the same time I'm using 4-5 tracks of audio along with some other stuff. These 'elaborate sets' are between 10-16 tracks, really not all that much-- most of the CPU is being used by softsynths.

I download the latest driver from MOTU (a HUGE download). No real difference. I deinstall them.

Somewhere in there, I realize that everyone I've seen using the MOTU Ultralite was using a Mac. Hmm. Firewire was, traditionally, a "Mac thing". I post on the Ableton forum asking if anyone else using Windows has had similar problems. Some interesting information: Windows XP SP2 did something intentionally less well with the firewire port settings that SP1 did, because it looks like Microsoft had not fully defined what they were going to do with 1394b:
here is the page not containing their sincere apology.

I am not positive I have a Firewire 1394a or 1394b capable port, so I download this patch and install it. MOTU's tech support site recommends removing SP2 (!). Thats silly (however, the recommendation does slightly predate the patch).

I reinstall the latest drivers from MOTU. Eh, mebbe some difference now, maybe not. There is a firmware download on the MOTU site, for the Traveler-- does it also apply to Ultralite? Dunno. I emailed support at MOTU somewhere in there and asked them, no reply. I download it and try to apply it. Part of the instructions for applying it refer to pressing two buttons on the MOTU at once. The firmware update does not 'take', so it is in fact traveller specific. However, pushing the two buttons causes the unit's LED display to prompt 'do you want to reset to factory defaults?". I say "Yes". It asks "are you sure?" I say yes, because "f*ck you" was not an option.

It blinks, and resets to 48000/24bit sampling. There is a crackling sound, uh oh. I power it down, reboot, power it back up, restart, load a set.

It sounds wonderful again. I load some of the sets it had problems with. Not having those problems anymore. It does use more CPU, however (FW speed vs. Echo's PCIMCIA speed, also) so some of the larger sets are a little dicey. What it looks like is I'll be fine with 48000 sampling for playback, which does sound great because the converters are so good, and will be able to record individual audio in at 96000, which is good.

But still not ideally optimal, and not yet feeling as solid as my earler (far lighter, less expensive albeit much less flexible and still good-sounding) setup. Latency is not so good, 40+ ms. But for some reason I have a good feeling about it, I think because it lets me hear more in each sound, I will be able to explore 'in between' sounds better.

[edit] a;l of this transpired over several dis-contiguous days, so the story line is condensed, all in all, an aspect of the "adventure", I look forward to working more with the Ultralite interface.