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MOTU 896HD FireWire Audio Interface

I have used MOTU sequencing and digital audio software since 1986, and MOTU hardware ever since the company introduced their original 2408 in 1998. I have found their products to be an incredibly stable combination and thus, when I was shown a prototype 896HD at last year's AES conference, my mouth fell open.

I have used MOTU sequencing and digital audio software since 1986, and MOTU hardware ever since the company introduced their original 2408 in 1998. I have found their products to be an incredibly stable combination and thus, when I was shown a prototype 896HD at last year’s AES conference, my mouth fell open. It appeared to be everything I needed for my remote recordings — all packaged within a single unit! Unfortunately, it was not available in time for a big two-week session I had in Paris last November, but when I finally received one in early 2004, I set it up immediately in my studio, and have used it almost every day since then.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, live sound

Key Features: Eight mic preamps; up to 192 kHz; analog I/O, eight channels of ADAT digital I/O, stereo AES/EBU I/O with sample rate conversion; total of 18 in/22 out; separate main and headphone outs

Price: $995

Contact: MOTU at 617-576-2760, Web Site.


+ MOTU’s best-sounding converters yet

+ Smooth and quiet mic preamps

+ Very flexible and expandable

+ Works seamlessly with MOTU software, including the included
“AudioDesk 2.0 (Mac)


– “Single wire” AES/EBU I/O only goes up to 96 kHz

The Score: This is the Rolls-Royce of “does everything” FireWire digital audio interfaces.

The 896HD ($995) has so many features, I can’t think of very many which I might consider “missing.” It’s a two rack-space unit, but is only six inches deep. Rear panel first: eight balanced “multipurpose” Neutrik combo connectors for any analog input source one could possibly throw at it: 1/4-inch or XLR, mic or line level.There are even eight little three-position switches, allowing each input to handle “+4 dBm” line level — either adjustable (via front panel trimmers) or fixed, or mic level — also adjustable on the front panel. Above these eight are eight XLR balanced outputs, capable of handling 24-bit, 192 kHz digital audio from the computer (Mac or PC). Each output XLR is flanked by a +4/-10 level setup switch.

Over on the left one found a pair of XLRs dedicated to AES/EBU I/O and a set of male XLRs for the separate main (stereo) analog outputs. Beneath these connectors one finds a DB9 connector for sample-accurate ADAT sync, a pair of TOSlink/ADAT optical I/O, a pair of BNCs for word clock I/O, two standard 1394 FireWire ports and the obligatory I.E.C. power connector, which is switchable between 110 and 220VAC operation.

The front panel is pretty cool looking. It contains 22 vertical LED ladder displays — eight for input, eight “programmable” to read analog output, ADAT input, or ADAT output, two for the main stereo out, and two which can read AES/EBU — either input or output. The last two LED ladders give confirmation readouts of various clock and sample rate (with/without conversion) scenarios. There are individual phantom power switches for each mic input, and each input also features the previous mentioned level control trimmer, which affects mic level or line level (as long as the latter is not in the “+4 dBM calibrated” position).

Over on the right are two knobs dedicated to adjusting monitor level and “volume,” with a 1/4-inch headphone jack next to them. The volume pot can control just the main output level — or also simultaneously — the headphone level, since there is a little toggle switch next to it that selects either possibility. It is in software, of course, where the user can select exactly what input or output is “monitored” and, thus, which pair of channels’ levels are controlled by the “monitor” pot. There’s also a footswitch jack, intended for use in hands-free punch-in/punch-out scenarios.

Speaking of software, one can add additional send/return loops using the 896HD’s CueMix DSP onboard mixing feature, a flexible DSP-driven 18-input/8-bus mixing and monitoring matrix which eliminates the need for an external mixer or patchbay. It operates with virtually no monitoring latency or processor drain on one’s computer.

One can also program the 896HD at one’s studio using the included CueMix Console software, and then take the 896HD on the road for mixing and monitoring without a computer. It remembers snapshots of four stereo bus setups. Bus levels can be adjusted without the computer by using the front panel Monitor Level knob, and one bus can also be sent back to the computer and recorded right along with everything else. Is this cool, or what?

In Use

Suffice it to say that, over the past six months, I’ve used my 896HD for just about all its intended uses, as well as for some “work-arounds” I was able to invent due to its extreme flexibility. I’ve used it mainly with my G4 Mac PowerBook, although I have also connected it to the “big MOTU system” (with its multiple PCI interfaces) attached to my desktop dual-processor Mac. In this article, I’ll just talk about the last gig I did with it, since my MOTU 896HD was basically the hub of a very involved live recording setup.

My job was to record the six evening concerts at “Groove Camp,” a multinational fiddle/acoustic/step-dance camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos. My buddy, engineer Dan Richardson, handled the PA, while I had a completely separate setup for the multitrack recordings. Well, not completely — over the week, Dan gradually, and lovingly, mounted most of my fancy Neumann, Schoeps, Gefell, etc. mics onto his own stands — just an inch or two from his PA mics — so that the stage wouldn’t look as much like an old fashioned press conference!

I recorded 16 tracks at 44.1 kHz, live to my little 12-inch PowerBook (supplemented by a 180GB Glyph GT 051 removable hard drive). Eight tracks came from the eight mic preamps in the MOTU 896HD, while the other eight came from the AES/EBU direct outs from my Crane Song Spider mixer, converted to ADAT ODI format by my trusty old Spectral Translator Plus, whose TOSlink output fed the 896HD’s ADAT input. I was able to monitor all sixteen inputs on the 896HD’s meters, as well as via a stereo headphone mix output — which I also, on some nights, recorded as well right onto the PowerBook, to facilitate burning rough mix CDs for some of Groove Camp’s famous performers/faculty members.

The mic preamps in the 896HD sounded just fine alongside the super-expensive ones in my Crane Song Spider. I used MOTU’s AudioDesk 2.02 for the recording software, and CueMix Console for the (no latency) monitoring — a much more elegant solution than setting up separate monitor busses within AudioDesk. As the mics often moved around a bit during the performances (as various musicians came up to sit in and subsequently left the stage), it was very convenient to be able to monitor (and trim) mic levels on the front panel of the 896HD. I also appreciated its separate phantom power switches, as I used a combination of Neumann and Schoeps tube mics (and a couple of beyerdynamic M500 ribbons), along with modern solid state condenser units from Gefell and M-Audio.

The bottom line is that the MOTU 896HD fit perfectly into my high-end remote recording setup and — if I had not needed those extra eight channels from the Crane Song/Spectral combination — could have easily ended up as the entire front end. And, oh, it would have made my installation in Paris last November so much simpler!


This is the first piece of “MI” gear that I would be happy to use — all by itself — on my most high-budget, professional classical recording gigs. It sounds great, integrates perfectly with MOTU’s Digital Performer and AudioDesk software, is extremely flexible, and manages to do it all in a pretty small box. Very highly recommended!