Sure. The MOTU Ultralite MK-3 Hybrid interface has been around a long time. Years. Why review it this late in the game? Let’s discover why this venerable audio interface is still a MAJOR contender for great sounding audio for media creators and why MOTU still offers it.
You gotta have an audio interface. Period. Doesn’t matter if you’re an editor who never does audio beyond the timeline or a
podcaster, if you’re relying on the bozo audio card (or worse – the 3.5mm jack on you mac) you’re not getting a good representation of what you’re putting out. If you’re recording, then you’re ABSOLUTELY not getting good fidelity. And while you may not notice it (because you’re listening on cheap speakers), by the time you’ve processed your audio and compressed it and then uploaded to your streaming server/client (which compresses again) it makes a BIG difference.
If you’re mixing in surround (which every media creative should be – check this article to see why), then you MUST have an interface which not only has enough outputs, but also has a physical volume knob which allows you control all of the output channels at once. It’s critical to be able to do this, because once you have your speakers tuned, you don’t want to have to turn six different knobs/sliders to change the volume – and it’s a REAL drag if something happens where you get an accidental feedback loop and you can’t turn your speakers down with a quick twist.
Lastly, if you’re doing any kind of ADR/VO work, in order to route the audio to your talent you must have the ability to digitally route the audio without going through the computer so there is no latency. What is latency? The time it takes from the moment the sound comes out of your microphone to the time that same sound comes out of your speakers/headphones. The delay depends on a number of factors – but it’ll suffice to say that you want none of it. And it requires you to have an interface which has the capability of doing internal routing so your talent doesn’t say something like “I’m hearing myself in an echo…” Bad. Now, programs like Pro Tools will happily do this for you if you own their proprietary hardware – for a cool $5,000.
Bottom line, you gotta have an audio interface that’ll do surround. Got it? Good.
Why Are We Talking About Old Gear?
I’ve been using the Mark of the Unicorn – MOTU Ultralite MK 3 Hybrid for years. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I started my MIDI sequencing career in their “Performer” program – long before it was it’s current iteration of “Digital Performer” as a DAW. I’ve been familiar with MOTU products for some time, and when the Ultralite came out, I snatched it up quickly seeing it’s incredibly inexpensive high-level value.
Since then, with the exception of a box from Roland, there isn’t another interface which does what we media creators need – not even close – for the same kind of money. What are the bits which the Ultralite has that we need? Glad you asked.
- 8 1/4″ TRS Ins and outs. – thus able to support up to 7.1 surround.
- 2 Combo 1/4″/XLR jacks with reasonably passive pre amps and a steady clock.
- The ability to control all of those 8 outputs from a single volume knob on the front panel.
- The ability to do latency-free routing for VO/ADR/Recording
- 192 kHz recording (not just 96k).
- Strong drivers for mac & PC which works flawlessly with Logic, Pro Tools, Audition, Nuendo, Cuebase and just about every DAW for either system…and constantly updated drivers.
- MIDI IN & OUT which is especially critical for doing keybaord-generated foley/sfx (coming soon in the Cinema Sound Store).
- Headphone output which doesn’t kill off any other outputs.
- Small, portable size which doesn’t require rack mounting.
Of course, there’s a lot of other features this little thing has including S/PDIF in/out, built in effects and mixing, but as creators we’re not as interested in those bits. These 9 attributes should be the gold-standard for anyone in post production or even editing/production to weigh an audio interface. You can be missing a couple of these, but you CAN’T miss these:
- 8 balanced channels out (TRS/XLR)
- At least 1 XLR in with reasonable preamps and good clock
- Volume knob for all outputs-at-once
- Strong drivers which support your DAWs and system.
- Headphone output which doesn’t kill of any other outputs.
Missing any of these? Move on.
With the Ultralite MK-3 Hybrid, you’ve got ’em all, plus some great adds for a price ($550) which brings a great value. You’ll
also find that the overall sound of this small unit is wonderful and flat. Why? Well, having a solid clock is critical in the world of Digital to Analog Conversion. Because this unit can do 192 kHz, it’s clock system is unusually robust – doubly what a 96kHz system would be. As a result, when you work in the nominal 48kHz clock speed, you’ll experience a clocking integrity you won’t find on most systems 10 X the price. This is one of the great benefits of MOTU products: excellent clocking. You may not have Focusrite pre amps or some other high-brand pre amp analog input, but when it comes to digital reproduction, I’d rather have a perfect clock than a perfect preamp. And so should you. They had to cut corners somewhere, and the preamps aren’t the best in the West by any means, but they are quiet and colorless…and blended with their clock system, you’re not going to be disappointed. Besides, if you want better preamps, just spend the other $4,000 you would have spend for a Pro Tools system on some killer preamps.
Your Audio Interface As Your On Set Recorder
Say what?!? “I can have an audio interface be a recorder!?” Well, yes. Well not exactly. You know the deal: the Zoom F8 has timecode sync and record 8 channels at 192kHz for $999. But did you know that with Adobe Audition – or any other DAW for that matter – and a MOTU Ultralite MK-3 Hybrid you can do the same thing – yeah – for like half that price…AND have the tracks already in a DAW?
Take the LTC timecode analog audio output from any timecode generator and run it into any input on your Ultralite – tell the Ultratlite which channel it’s receiving timecode on and – BAM – that ultralite locks your DAW and your audio files to time. It’s another reason why the clock in the Ultralite – and most MOTU products – MUST be good, because it has to lock to SMPTE – which is NOTORIOUSLY horrible sync. Yeah. 23.976 sync references per second vs. 48,000? Yeah. Horrible. But the MOTU clock does an EXCELLENT job of parsing these confusing and difficult audio issues using it’s proprietary Direct Digital Synthesis® (DDS) system. So Dope. I’ll be doing a video about this in a few weeks.
Of course, like with all MOTU boxes, you can expand to another Ultralite if you need more channels – or indeed any MOTU box for a near unlimited amount of I/O. What’s really cool about the Ultralite MK-3 is that it connects via firewire or USB 2.0. Yeah. 2.0. Which means that those old ports on your 2012 Mac Pro you don’t want to use because they’re so slow – you can use happily! In fact, we find that the Ultralite MK-3 doesn’t like plugging into USB 3.x. And certainly do not attempt to take the Firewire 400 cable into an 800 variant. That also won’t work.
Why not the Ultralite MK 4? It’s Newer!
Well, you could. The MOTU Ultralite MK-4 Hybrid only $50 more! And you get all the same things you get with the MK 3 – AND you get ADAT lightpipe I/O
8X8, mobile app control of the entire system – which is even cooler if a handy volume knob is critical, and you get some really cool built-in effects which are cooler and more useful in a musical realm than those in the MK 3. And for $50, why not? But if $50 more is going to break your bank, then the MK 3 is MORE than enough to fit your bill of the audio interface that you need to get the surround mixing/production audio interface you want.
The Final Result
This thing is great. And it receives a 120 CS Rating. It’s fidelity is quite good, and although it has some amazing mixing capabilities, accessing the basic functions of the device from small knobs is a bit of a drag. However, it’s value for what it can do is unsurpassed by anything we’ve seen – especially for media creatives.
Be sure to check out our articles on Surround Sound here:
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