Session Notes - MOTU UltraLite Mk. III and Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6

August 26, 2012
In Use: Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 and MOTU Ultralite Mk. III Hybrid

Supplement to October 2012 Keyboard Audio Interface Roundup, by Marty Cutler

In mid July, I received a call from a jingle house I have been doing occasional sessions with. My last session was for a radio spot for Hardee’s fried bologna on a biscuit (mine is not to reason why). After a gruelling trip through New York City traffic, and an equally gruelling trip back to my home in northern New Jersey, I had resolved that I would try to steer clients towards conducting sessions remotely. After all, all I needed was a stereo reference track from the client, and I could pour the track into Digital Performer, set up my mics, open a track, and rock. That’s a lot better than dodging psychotic motorists and trying to unclench your hands in order to play.

Sure enough, the next call came, and I persuaded the clients to upload their tracks to my FTP site, promising I’d lay down some solid, in-the-pocket bluegrass banjo tracks. I set up a close mic pointed at the zone where the neck joins the banjo head, and another mic to get a room sound. About five minutes into setting up, I heard an onslaught of trucks and squealing brakes—all squealing to a halt, just outside my window; that day, the town had decided to re-pave the street.

Fortunately, my 2009 MacBook Pro still makes a fine mobile studio, and several small audio interfaces had arrived for review, so I set up shop in my wife’s office, situated in the back, and away from the noise. I didn’t have a lot of time, but I only needed something simple, with two mic inputs and sweet mic preamps, and not much else. Native Instruments’ Komplete Audio 6 had just arrived the day before, and although I hadn’t done much more than audition a couple of sequences and noodle around with my guitar synth, I liked what I heard, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Installing the driver and restarting took a few minutes. The session files were 24-bit, 48kHz stereo tracks I could drop into a track in Digital Performer 7.2.4.

The KA6 interface is designed to run exclusively on USB bus power, which was fine with me. Because I had to set up, working on the fly, chances were that I’d need to move the entire setup around in search of the best spot, and the fewer encumbrances with wires and wall warts, the better off I’d be. After a bit of trial and error, I found a sweet spot to record, and launched a Performer template I had already set up with a pair of consecutively numbered mono tracks. After selecting it as an interface in DP’s preferences, I routed the tracks to the two channels I set up.

Setting up levels for the mics was a tricky operation; banjos—particularly bluegrass banjo—are loud, so I used the time-honored method of adjusting the input gain knobs until the LEDs glowed red, then backing off. A few segments to warn me of imminent overload would have been nice, but I can always look at the software level meters.

I set the tempo to match the track description, armed the tracks and was rewarded with some very juicy, Earl-Scruggs-like tone—perhaps more so than most other recording setups I’ve used.

About a week later, I got a call to lay down tracks for another couple of tunes. Because I was in the middle of reviewing MOTU interfaces, the most sensible solution was the MOTU UltraLite Mk. III Hybrid, which can draw power from the FireWire bus. Setting the unit up was only a bit more involved; In order to monitor through headphones, I needed to take the extra step to ensure that the headphones were monitoring the outputs. You can program which channel the headphones audition, including S/PDIF input, and this is done in the MOTU Audio Setup applet, which you can set to launch whenever you connect a MOTU interface. Still, no sound! How soon I forget, in the heat of a session! The UltraLite’s Main Volume knob doubles as a power switch; press and hold, and the unit comes to life—no big deal, and actually a helpful feature if you don’t want the unit to draw power when not in use. Setting good input levels was easy, and I really appreciated the display—which immediately showed a horizontal fader for the selected input with a readout incremented in dB as you turn the knob.

Setup was minimal in Digital Performer, which immediately recognized the unit as the installed interface. As with Komplete Audio 6, the channels were immediately available, albeit lots more of ’em. The resulting tracks were intimately detailed, and delivered as much low-end and midrange juice as the KA6, with slightly less coloration coming from the MOTU box. If my recording needs were more complex—say, a few of extra musicians for a live bluegrass track, or a nice “courtesy” reverb whose results are heard in headphones but not printed to the track, the UltraLite would be the better choice, but both interfaces recorded professional-sounding tracks that delighted my clients.

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