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Review: MOTU AudioExpress dual Firewire/USB audio interface

I’ve been using the MOTU Audio Express for several months, mostly on small projects, including some paid tracking work. The short version is that it’s a great piece of equipment: sturdy, very good preamps, and it works nearly out of the box. I recommend it.

If you need to track with more than a couple of mics at a time, look elsewhere, but that’s not its intended use. If the hardware interface is important to you, take a hard look at how the knobs and switches on the front panel are laid out before buying. 

The MOTU Audio Express is a 4-in, 4-out dual Firewire400/USB2 interface. It works fine on my mac with CoreAudio, and Logic recognizes it on sight. The unit is rack-mountable, as a half-rack, single-space unit. It’s not built as solidly as, say, a Mackie board, but it’s sturdy and would probably take a fall. 

Why I bought it: 

I was under the gun: My G5 iMac-based system and Firewire interface had both died, causing me to postpone a session with a paying client. I assembled the new system - the new Mac, the new interface - in a week or two. 

When I got the Audio Express, the drivers were brand new. And I found a bug in the hardware: The level knob for the monitors didn’t actually work. After poring over the manual (which is pretty well-written), I finally called MOTU. Not only did they know about the bug, they told me they’d have an updated driver soon. They came through, and send me the driver within a day or two, in plenty of time for my client’s tracking session. 

Performance: 

The unit performed beautifully. The preamps sound great, with very little noise. 

While I’m finding the two-preamp limitation to be a problem, that’s because my needs have changed. I’ve ordered a larger interface for live work, but I intend to keep using the MOTU for overdubs and small sessions. 

Latency over Firewire is nonexistent, as one would expect; this is not the case so much with USB2 (again, as expected). 

Front Panel:

Front

The hardware interface isn’t great. All the knobs do double, sometimes triple-duty, and it’s hard to tell at a glance what does what. But that’s not as big of a deal as one might think, since you can control all functions with MOTU’s CueMix software, which is easy to use. 

There’s a single headphone jack, so if you have multiple musicians you’ll need n external headphone amplifier. 

Dual Firewire/USB Interface: 

I was worried that the dual interface would complicate the device and cause other problems, but that turned out to be groundless. MOTU came out with the first dual-interface units years ago, and they’ve obviously had time to perfect this technology. 

The standard for IEEE 1394 (Firewire) states that the interface is hot-pluggable, which means that you should be able to plug in or unplug Firewire devices from a computer at any time. However, most audio interfaces require that you shut the computer off. I learned my lesson with the M-Audio firewire unit after frying the motherboard: DO NOT HOT-PLUG FIREWIRE INTERFACES. This problem in obviously not unique to MOTU, and perhaps it’s not fair to hold this against them, but it irks me that something so fundamental to the standard is not implementes by manufacturers.  

Fortunately, the shorter boot time of the newer Macs makes this less of a big deal than one might think. 

I thought I’d use the USB interface more than I do, assuming I’d just plug it into USB when I wanted to do a mixing or editing session. However, this Macbook boots up so much faster than rebooting isn’t much of an issue. (Also, the USB interface requires you use a power brick, which is usually buried in a drawer.)

Audio Connections: 

Back

I’ve used all four audio ins at once, and it works well. The MIDI interface is good, although there is a more noticeable delay than there was in my FW410. If I recorded more MIDI stuff than I do, this would be a problem. (I generally compensate by recording the MIDI data and an audio track simultaneously, for monitoring purposes, then trashing the audio data.) 

S/PDIF - I haven’t used it, so can’t comment. 

Phantom Power:

It works fine. The rear XLRs have locking clips that hold the connectors in, a very nice feature I wish more boards had. The front panel, a little small, makes it not as easy to see at a glance if phantom is on or not as I’d like. 

Jacks

Conclusion:

If I were doing this all over, would I go for a larger unit? Maybe. I move my rig a lot, and this one fits in a backpack. The MOTU Audio Express is a nice portable interface with pro-quality preamps. 

Filed under audio firewire usb macintosh mac music recording studio logic garageband