Mark of the Unicorn 1296

May 1, 2001 12:00 PM, ROB SHROCK

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I've worked with Mark of the Unicorn devices for quite a while now. Back in 1999, I reviewed MOTU's original and wildly successful 2408 audio interface for Mix's sister magazine, Electronic Musician. Working extensively with MOTU's subsequent audio interfaces, I've recorded and mixed everything from commercial CD tracks to live theater music to soundtracks for film and TV, and I've found that the quality of MOTU's interfaces have always served me and my associates well.

However, I've been in some critical recording situations where either an interface with multiple balanced XLRs were required or we wanted to record at sampling rates higher than 48 kHz. Until recently, other hardware solutions were the only choice. MOTU's 1296 now provides these features, plus a lot more.

The 1296 provides 12 analog channels of inputs and outputs via XLR connectors operating at +4 dBu. AD/DA converters are 24-bit, “enhanced multibit,” 128-times oversampling, a third-generation step up from the converters used in previous MOTU interfaces. Two channels of AES/EBU are also available. Both wordclock I/O and an extra “AES Word In” allow the AES/EBU output to resolve independently to an external wordclock source (more on this later). Inputs and outputs for all 12 channels have 19-segment LED metering on the front panel for easy viewing.

The 1296 connects to the host computer via the PCI-324 card, which is included in the 1296 core system ($2,095). The 1296 interface is compatible with MOTU's other PCI-324 interfaces — including the 2408, 2408mkII, 1224, 308 and 24i — and can be purchased separately as an expansion I/O ($1,795) for those who already own a MOTU core system. Up to three interfaces in any combination can be connected to a single PCI card via Audio Wire connectors, which are a high-bandwidth, low-latency, 72-channel, bidirectional digital format developed by MOTU that employs the same socket components and cables as the 1394 (FireWire) protocol. Each PCI-324 card also provides an ADAT Sync In and an RS422 din-8 “Control Track” connector for interfacing with MOTU's Digital Timepiece for sample-accurate synchronization between ADATs, DA-88s and other digital devices. Multiple MOTU interfaces automatically resolve with each other via the PCI-324 card. Three 1296 interfaces provide 36 simultaneous channels of 24-bit, 96kHz audio I/O on a single PCI card.

The PCI-324 Console software controls routing of signal flow, sample rate, synchronization, buffering and monitor settings. In addition to being a perfect hardware fit for MOTU's Digital Performer, the 1296 ships with standard ASIO and Wave drivers for compatibility with third-party Mac and Windows audio software. Subject to the capability of the host software, the 1296 supports both 16- and 24-bit depths and can operate at 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96kHz sampling rates.

The 1296 core system also ships with AudioDesk, a full-featured audio workstation for Mac OS. Audio-Desk is basically Digital Performer without the MIDI features, and it is fully capable of professional recording and mixing.

SETUP

As with the original 2408, the initial setup of the 1296 could not be easier. The trickiest part of the whole process is installing the PCI-324 card. If you know how to install a PCI card in your computer, you're home free. A setup wizard on the installation CD helps you figure out the best way to set up connections by asking specific questions about your gear and making recommendations based on your answers. For those who already have a PCI-324 core system, it is still necessary to install the latest version of the software to allow proper configuration of the 1296.

The manual is well-written and provides both Mac and Windows versions in the same binding. The manual also provides explicit instructions for interfacing the 1296 with Digital Performer, AudioDesk, Cubase VST and Sound Manager.

Once the software is properly installed, you'll notice that you now have the options of 88.2- and 96kHz sampling rates in your host software. Choosing one of these higher sampling rates in the PCI-324 Console will automatically disable any other MOTU interfaces connected to the PCI-324 that operate only at 44.1 and 48 kHz, so be sure to also reassign the main monitor outputs to one of the 1296 pairs if you want to hear the stereo bus output of any previous sessions.

The Audio Wire cable provided is 15 feet long, which is the maximum length recommended by MOTU. This will likely be long enough for most users, but if you keep your CPUs in a remote location from your working position, you may have to assess your setup to ensure that you still have good visual contact with the front panel meters of the 1296.

I found the meters to be excellent and easily viewable from across an average-sized control room, so it's not necessary to have the 1296 located right next to you for normal operation. The meter scale ranges from -42 to -1 dB, with LEDs below -6 dB showing 3dB increments, while those above -6 show 1dB increments from -4 to -1 dB, allowing for fairly precise metering. There are two indicators for “overs”: The first LED lights up only momentarily, whereas if even a single sample reaches full scale, the second-level LED remains illuminated until cleared in the software. I would have liked a Front Panel button for manually clearing the “over” LEDs.

Both the clip timeout and peak/hold timeout of the meters can be set by the user to any duration from a few seconds to a few minutes to infinity. A separate display to the left of the meters indicates system clock rates, AES/EBU clock rates and whether any sample rate conversion is taking place.

FIRST USE

Both AudioDesk and Digital Performer automatically sense when the 1296 is active on the PCI card, allowing recording at the higher sampling rates. Because I have already been recording 24-bit at 48 kHz into Digital Performer via my 1224 interface for a while now, I was immediately interested in creating some new 24-bit recordings at 96 kHz.

For a lot of electronic-based recording (synths and samples), I can get by just fine with a single audio interface, needing only a few inputs and one or two pairs of outputs for monitoring; a single 1296 will work fine for many users who want to make the jump to recording and mixing at higher sampling rates. I have a tracking rack that contains a pair of Neve 1272 preamps and a few other goodies, which I usually run everything through on the way to the computer, so I connected the rack's XLR outputs to the 1296's first pair of inputs and wired four buses of my mixer to inputs 3 through 6 and monitored playback of Digital Performer through outputs 1 and 2.

A quick comparison between the 1296 and 1224 interfaces of recordings made at 48 kHz revealed no significant differences in quality, even though the 24-bit converters in each are a generation apart. However, I have always thought both the AD/DA converters in MOTU's audio interfaces have sounded great, including even the 20-bit converters in the original 2408.

After recording a basic track at both 48 kHz and 96 kHz with the 1296, comparisons between the two versions did reveal a qualitative difference. The 96kHz recording sounded a little more open overall — I wouldn't say that I heard more top end (which it actually contains), but I would say that I could “feel” a difference between the two, with the 96 kHz sounding a shade more “realistic.” The effect is cumulative, and the more tracks you add at 96 kHz, the more you notice the difference.

MOTU 1296 Specifications
Converters (AD/DA) 24-bit, 128-times oversampling
Analog I/O 12 inputs, 12 outputs; XLR +4 balanced
Digital I/O AES/EBU
Bit depths 16-bits, 24-bits
Sample rates 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz
Synchronization Wordclock I/O; AES Word In (independent of 1296 system)
Meters 19-segment (all I/O)
Dynamic range 117dB input; 116dB output
Weight 8 pounds, 14 oz.
Dimensions 19×8×3.5 inches
PCI-324 included with the core system
Audio Wire (3) 1394 (proprietary) I/O connectors
Control Track RS422 din-8 connector
ADAT 9-pin ADAT Sync In connector

Of course, your hard disk management becomes much more of an issue. Upping the bit depth from 16- to 24- bits adds 50% more to each sound file's size; doubling sampling rates from 48 to 96 kHz adds even more bulk. A three-minute song containing 18 front-to-back, 24-bit, 96kHz tracks takes roughly 1 GB of data to store. But the higher resolution sounds great, and three 1296 interfaces and a screamin' computer would allow for some incredibly affordable 36-track audiophile recording.

A HANDSHAKE CAN REVEAL A LOT

As I mentioned earlier, the 1296 contains some versatile synchronization and interfacing right out of the box. It can operate internally at double the wordclock input rate, while the AES/EBU output can be synched to an independent word rate. This allows the 1296 to sync to incoming wordclock at 48 kHz (such as from a digital mixer) while operating internally at 96 kHz, and at the same time providing an AES/EBU output synchronized to a DAT player at 44.1 kHz.

The 1296 also has built-in, real-time sample rate conversion, allowing the sample rate of an incoming AES/EBU signal to be converted to the sample rate at which the 1296 is currently running at. This means an incoming 44.1kHz signal can be converted to 96 kHz on-the-fly. How does the sample rate conversion sound? In a phrase — really, really good. As much as we all hate sample rate conversion, sometimes we have to do it; at least the 1296 does it well. Consider it a bonus.

The AES/EBU output can be set to mirror any pair of analog outputs, which remain simultaneously available. The AES/EBU output can also directly mirror any pair of 1296 inputs (and at a different sample rate, don't forget). Very cool features.

BIG BAND AUDITION

I was recently involved in arranging and recording two days of big band sessions in Los Angeles with some of the best players in town. The client requested that we deliver Pro Tools stem mixes, which we created as 16-bit Pro Tools sessions at 44.1 kHz. Although the stem mixes came out fine, the original masters had been recorded on a Studer 24-track machine at 15 ips with Dolby SR and had really sounded great. Something had definitely been lost in the translation between the original analog masters and the Pro Tools stems — mostly the “air” surrounding the band and the detail at soft volume levels. Because I was also going to create 2-track mixes of the sessions, I thought this would be a good opportunity to really put the 1296 to the test.

A few weeks later, I went into Luminous Sound in Dallas with the original 24-track masters, a computer setup running Digital Performer and the 1296. Setting up a desktop computer rig in the studio has never been my idea of fun, but within a few minutes we had the computer up and the 1296 patched: direct outputs split from the 24-track into the 1296 and the 1296 outputs straight into the console. Because I had only one 1296 for evaluation, each song transfer would take two passes, which wasn't a problem, as both the 24-track and the computer were resolved to house sync. A little tone matching between the 24-track and the computer, and we were in business.

I had previously created Digital Performer files for each tune at 24-bit, 88.2 kHz, which would potentially make for an easier sample rate conversion down to CD later. Rob Weschler, the chief engineer at Luminous, and I began our listening tests by comparing the direct outputs of the first 12 tracks of the analog master (rhythm section and trumpets) to the output of the 1296's converters as a simple patch-through: No difference in sound, whatsoever. Next, we recorded a pass into Digital Performer and compared it to the master: Again, no difference in sound, whatsoever.

All of the “air” surrounding the band that had been missing in the 16-bit stems was now just as present as on the original master. In fact, we could not tell the difference between the analog master and the 1296 output. After a second pass, all of the remaining tracks were now in the computer. After reducing the master fader in Digital Performer to prevent output clipping of the stereo bus (all of the faders in Digital Performer were still set to 0 dB), we verified that all of the tracks had made it across and happily moved on to the next song and repeated the process.

This was a recording of a live band (four-piece rhythm section, three trumpets, two trombones, four saxes and a bunch of mics), so the dynamic range was very wide on some songs and little to no compression had been used while recording the master. Some piano and horn intros and entrances were at a whisper level, and some big band swing sections really ripped. Never once did the 1296 clip or distort on input, while all of the really dynamic, low-level material retained its full detail and clarity. Those of you who have already made the jump from 16-bit to 20- or 24-bit digital recording already know the virtues of higher bit depths with dynamic material. In my case, I found that the pleasing detail and analog coloration from the 24-track master were perfectly preserved in the transfer process through the 1296. The result did not sound better or worse than the master — it sounded exactly the same.

CONCLUSIONS

The 1296 provides audiophile recording on host-based systems, bridging the gap that had previously existed between MOTU's other audio interfaces and the professional demanding sample rates higher than 48 kHz. The converters sound excellent, and the synchronization features solve several of the problems that occur when trying to resolve to different digital devices at the same time.

No, the 1296 does not record at 192 kHz; but I'm still not convinced that sampling rates above 96 kHz are worth the accompanying overhead, as long as the bit rates are high and the converters are good. In my tests, the 1296 output exactly what was put into it as far as I — or anyone else — could tell. MOTU has another winner. I'll buy this one and take a second, please.

Mark of the Unicorn Inc., 1280 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617/576-2760; fax 617/576-3609; www.motu.com.


Rob Shrock served as one of the music directors for the 72nd Academy Awards. He has recorded and/or performed with Burt Bacharach, Garth Brooks, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Faith Hill, Whitney Houston, Chrissie Hynde, Mikaila, ’N Sync, LeAnn Rimes, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Wynonna and a host of others.






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