The competition for your audio interface dollar is pretty heated these days, but MOTU’s latest – the Audio Express – packs a pretty impressive feature set for something costing US$449 list. It’s both a 6×6 audio interface and a mixer, with standalone mixer functionality so you can mix signals from the front-panel knobs without a computer attached. It also has connectivity features generally seen only in pricier, physically-larger boxes. MOTU tells CDM the quality is equal to their higher-end offerings, and other rivals in the $500-800 range.

MOTU winds up on my short list as far as hardware that makes happy audio interface owners. For now, we’ll just have to look at the Audio Express “on paper.” That looks like this:

  • 6×6 interface, 6×8 independent input/output channels.
  • Use either FireWire (with bus power, generally only if you’re on a Mac) or USB2 (without bus power).
  • Some nice monitoring options. Each output pair – main, line, S/PDIF, and phones – can have its own independent mix of six inputs, with or without your computer tracks. And naturally, that also lends itself to use by DJs and live electronic performers.
  • Two mic/guitar combo jacks: Hi-Z 1/4″ guitar input or XLR mic input with phantom power, 20dB pad, etc. (Often only one is a guitar jack, especially at this price.)
  • Balanced stereo inputs, balanced stereo outputs, 24-bit/96kHz S/PDIF digital.
  • Trim on the volume inputs is digitally-controlled analog, for approximately 1dB adjustments.
  • Front-panel mixing with LEDs for metering and dedicated volume knobs on each input.
  • Time code support, low jitter.
  • Connect your MIDI gear: sample-accurate MIDI on 1 in x 1 out.
  • Connect your analog gear: DC-coupled TRS outputs for software like MOTU’s own Volta.
  • Operate as a standalone mixer, no computer – just connect power.
  • Plug-and-play USB2 operation, plus 32-bit and 64-bit native drivers for Mac and Windows.

You can also rack-mount it as a half-rack unit, although I like the ability to toss something this small into a backpack or messenger bag to head to the gig.

To me, just having dedicated front-panel input knobs, decent-enough I/O, and standalone mixing on a box with good timing and audio quality is pretty nice. I have to say, I think the Audio Express could fill an ideal niche as a mid-range audio interface – it’s a crowded field if you get cheaper or if you get more expensive, but there isn’t much in the $400-500 budget that competes well with this. And for that reason, I’ll try to get one in for review. As commenters suggest, the real question is whether you spend a little extra on the additional I/O on MOTU’s UltraLite. But the UltraLite doesn’t have those convenient front-panel mixing knobs, and I’m not sure everyone necessarily needs DSP effects. I think it depends on your needs, and we’ll have to see what street may be on the Audio Express.

MOTU Audio Express Product Page

Also, judging from those product shots, it’ll look great on my clean, white, mirrored lab table next to my MacBook Pro. Boy, am I glad I got that off the set of THX 1138.

  • bar|none

    I'm a little confused by this offering. The Ultralite seems much better with all this plus 8×8 and built in DSP effects, mixing, monitoring, etc… for $549. I guess this is just an ultralite with a little fat cut off. I really think the ultralite is a great unit and it's worth the extra $100.

  • loopstationzebra

    I loves me some Motu. But only $100+ less than an UltraLite? Hmm. Interesting that they still aren't embracing USB MIDI ports…

  • Eneb

    That was exactly my thought. I could imagine this unit competing very well with similar spec'd units like Echo Audiofire 4, Focusrite Saffire 24, M-Audio Profire 610 etc., but only if the real street price would be in the similar range… otherwise I'd also spend the extra cash on the Ultralite. 

  • Peter Kirn

    Take a close look at the front panel, folks. The UltraLite is great, but a lot of us don't need the extra I/O or DSP effects. The Audio Express has dedicated LED meters and front-panel knobs for each input; the UltraLite doesn't. That makes the Audio Express more practical as a live interface and as a standalone mixer – and it's cheaper. So, obviously, it depends on your needs. Absolutely, I can see spending extra to get more I/O and DSP effects. But if you'd rather have knobs and meters – and otherwise the same interface – this is competitive. In fact, generally, I think you get a little more bang for your buck here at this mid-range price point from MOTU. Of course, if you spend more than $100 more, then your options expand.

  • Peter Kirn

    Also, waiting to see what the street is on this…

  • http://www.jeremah.co.uk Jonny Stutters

    If the front panel knobs are anything like the same size as those on the UltraLite then I wouldn't want to use them for anything more than last resort mix adjustments, they're very fiddly.

  • Peter Kirn

    Well, in fairness, none of these things is quite like having a mixer *with faders*…. 

  • http://chokingsun.com mosquito

    i've used the front panel on the 828 to mix on occasion. i'm not sure if i'll use it again even in a last resort. its a nice feature, but i'll get a throw away mixer instead.

    honestly it still angers me that with windows you can only use one of their audio interfaces but on a mac you can use multiples.

  • Eneb

    Honestly: Interface for DJ or Live – sure. But does really anyone use his/her interface as a live mixer? Especially a 6in-6out one?

  • Eneb

    Okay, slow response from my side :)

  • Peter Kirn

    @mosquito: Part of the reason there is because that's a built-in OS feature on Mac OS.

  • integer poet

    If/when you get your review unit, be sure to suss out the trade-off between installing and ignoring the bundled driver. What does one gain in exchange for installing third-party code into one's kernel? Or have they pushed audio drivers into userland these days?

  • welp

    holy smokes man, adjusting your levels with those lil knobbings on that tiny faceplate? like tradin your strat for a ukulele cause lugging around a guitars such a bitch.

  • poopoo

    There is quite a bit of cool half-width gear around (boss vf-1, a roland xv-20, roland gi-20). The trouble is you can't buy a half width racks.

  • Peter Kirn

    Well, if there's more interest in an UltraLite mk3 review, I can go that direction. They're similar otherwise. I still don't see any hardware with this particular feature set at this price point from competitors. I'm likewise curious about checking out what "plug and play" means.

  • http://www.inoutfest.org Flplsx

    @poopoo (heheheh)

    you can build a half-width rack!

    looks like a nice unit that'll appeal to some people. I'm personally happy with a 2 mono in/1 stereo out interface with MIDI I/O.

    I wish the Duet had MIDI I/O.

  • Peter Kirn

    I should know the answer to this since I've seen you use it, but which interface, Flplsx?

  • loopstationzebra

    I'm still not seeing the value here, sorry. Once you're into the $400+ range, you're gonna be looking at the Ultralite anyway.

    Peter, did you ever do a review on the Motu Micro Book?

  • http://noisepages.com/members/jamesmcn/ jamesmcn

    @peter an Audio Express vs. Ultralite review would be great, particularly for those of us who aren't intimately familiar with MOTUs product line.

    It would also be interesting to see how dedicated interfaces like these stack up against the synth integrated interfaces that come with the Virus TI, several Novation synths and the VSynth XT.

  • Ultralite kid

    dont ask me why but:

    both of my XLR inputs have broken on my Ultralite! they input audio fine, but those push pin's have become useless… they will not eject my front XLR and Ive been too busy to contact MOTU.

    otherwise.. i love that thing

  • Eneb

    +1 on the shootout!!!!

  • http://jaxlore.com Doc

    I want this. drewl drewl…they sound insanely good compared to pretty much all serato raktor outputs for djing and having some nice knobbys on the front!!!

  • http://www.drownerband.com Darren

    The most unfortunate company to have to deal with if something goes wrong. If you value tech support you might consider an RME. Just sayin'.

  • Electronic Face

    I think it's a great product for the price, but as others have stated, I'd rather spend a bit more for the Ultralite mk3 (and well, I did! JRR Ship had it on sale last week, $490, free shipping).

    While the frontpanel mixing knobs on the Audio Express are nice, and I don't care much for the DSP reverb on the Ultralite, its the extra inputs that really wins me over.

  • Peter Kirn

    Sounds like street will be under US$400, so about $150 cheaper than the UltraLite. They both look like capable options. I'll get more details on the comparison.

  • http://www.jeffreyjamesmusic.com jeffrey

    I don't get how this is better than all those 26 (give or take) channel interfaces out there. sure they're 100-200 bucks more but they have almost 4 times the i/o capability.

     (interfaces by m-audio, focusrite, presonus, ECHO, etc… )

  • http://www.jeffreyjamesmusic.com jeffrey

    also, i feel like every interface out there has an obvious design flaw. why can't a company just hit a home run? with this interface it's having the combo jacks in the back. what good is a combo jack if I have to dig in the back to switch it out? or else I'd have to make a custom snake/panel for it. 

  • tony

    someone comment this was going to compete with the profire 610, please the Motu is a crap out interface, Motu needs to get the head straight with the drivers instead making crap out made in china interfaces. I definitely would not put this sound card nor the ultralite with the Profire series of Motu lets put it this way in reliability M-audio interfaces are way better than MOTU Mark of the Bastardcorns

  • Electronic Face

    @jeffrey

    I don't think he's saying it's better than those interfaces. This is just something new, and you get some good features at a nice price. AFAIK most (all?) of the interfaces you listed don't offer USB. That would be a problem for me since my laptop sadly doesn't have firewire ports or even an ExpressCard slot to add firewire. Not everyone needs 26 channels, either.

    The MOTU Volta software is very awesome, and something (I don't think) MOTU's competitors offer. It doesn't come free with the interface, but it works because of the DC coupled TRS outputs. Maybe the other interfaces do offer DC coupled outputs, I'm really not sure, maybe someone else knows? From the MOTU Volta page-

    "Volta is a virtual instrument plug-in that turns your audio interface into a voltage control interface.

    Any hardware device with a control voltage (CV) input can be placed under precise digital control from your favorite audio workstation software. You can play and automate modulars, analog synths – even effects processors."

  • http://www.inoutfest.org Flplsx

    @peter i'm rockin an mbox 2. It does the job, but not especially well. I really dislike the converters and the pres are particularly, i dunno, scratchy or something. It gives digital it's bad name. On the plus side, it's leagues better than the built-in output on my macbook.

    Are there any D/A converters out there that are like USB sticks? I know Digidesign had one in the mbox2 line, but that can't be the only one to exist, can it?

  • http://chokingsun.com mosquito

    @peter kirn: oh i know that's why. i mean i could also complain about there extreme hatred of linux too but there really aren't a lot of people out there running their DAW on linux.

    its a "nice" interface, but in real world usage, i'm not so sure. i'm also wondering who the target user would be. i tend to agree with everyone else that the low number of inputs really don't make the front panel mixing all that intriguing.

  • anechoic

    @Mosquito: here are more people than you think running DAW's on Linux – and there will be more especially with Mixbus going for $79

    but I digress,

    @Peter: is this MOTU I/O Linux friendly?

  • http://www.resonantfilter.blogspot.com/ Lewis.72

    Looks great!  btw, Sweetwater has it listed at $395:

    http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/AudioExpre

  • Peter Kirn

    I'm curious about Linux compatibility, too; I'm waiting to find out more about class compliance, as that'd be one route, connecting via USB. I believe that some people had, on their own, worked on FireWire compatibility. Keep in mind that a lot of Linux development doesn't come from *any* of the vendors.

  • http://chokingsun.com mosquito

    @peter kirn: well we know motu won't provide support. i really wish more vendors would work with linux, but i know its not a profitable market for them.

    @anechoic: definitely more than i would expect, but i still think its pretty low.

    anyways, i just installed ubuntu on a dual 1ghz g4 (you know the wind tunnel one) as i refuse to run the mac os anymore and didn't have any os cd/dvds that would work. next up is seeing if my 828mk2 will work. i'm really hoping it will as i had no issues with anything else. in fact i was able to use my nexus one as its internet connection without doing a thing.

    otherwise this g4 is going to meet its official death unless someone can give it a home and the 828 will get sold.

  • http://www.channelrobot.com Lindon

    hmm, maybe OK for DJ mixing at a pinch but …no external clock interface write it off as a studio AD box (but what do you expect for $400..) . MOTU gear is OK I guess (no probs w/support from me..) right up to the day you send it to Black Lion Audio (whom I CANNOT say enough good things about)  whence $800 pieces of MOTU come back sounding like $3000 pieces from further up the market…I guess it's unlikely BLA will offer an upgrade for this so that writes it off completely for me…

  • vanceg

    I sure wish that RME and MOTU (and others) would open up the MIDI control of the Standalone Mixer features on their interfaces. Right now it's just too damn difficult to control the signal routing and levels on these interfaces using the front panel. I'd like to be controlling the "mixer" features that are built into these devices using and interface built in Touch OSC. RIght now I have an RME Fireface 400 set up with MIDI control of the input and levels from Touch OSC. But the number and selection of parameters I can control is very limited.

    I'm imagining using Touch OSC and a "Missing Link" (http://wifimidi.com/) to create a truly stand alone mixer using audio interfaces…but right now, the amount of control one has of the audio matrix levels and signal process that are built into these interfaces is pretty limited and fixed (no user assign features).

  • http://www.janklug.com Jan

    If "the quality is equal to their higher-end offerings" then I strongly advise against tossing it into a backpack ;)

    I bought my Ultralite with that idea in mind, and only 3 of the 7 knobs didn't break off yet. 

    You could ride a tour bus over the heavy-metal casing without causing harm, but the toy-quality of the knobs (same on 828mkII) doesn't even defy medium-strength telekinesis! 

  • http://noisepages.com/members/griotspeak/ TJ Usiyan

    @vanceg, i like the way you think.

  • http://exegesisonline.com nicnut

    I wish they would use firewire 800, on both this and the Ultralite ( which I use). My mac doesn't even have firewire 400. Is there a reason why they haven't done that?

  • http://rhythminmind.net Eric

    For this class/price range I think the Impact Twin has it beat.
    http://www.tcelectronic.com/impacttwin.asp

  • http://essentiallistening.co.uk eclectic reader

    The gap between Focusrite and RME is irrelevant, either $200 Saffire or $1200 Fireface, to hell with compromises in between.

  • http://kief.net/ Valis

    Personally not a fan of TC's drivers, though I think their pre's & Focusrite's are interesting.

    I like the babyface overall as well, but what I'd really like to see is a unit intended for doing submixes of internal & external gear together… meaning verb/delay/limiter on the OUTPUT with compressor/gate swappable between the hardware inputs/software outputs. Basically it would be nice to not need final processing & fx when utilizing software (Live etc) & external gear together. Routing things through live is nice but it's just an added burden…

  • http://www.igniteanoise.com RJ

    Anyone check out the MicroBook yet? Wondering how that compares, especially for live instrument processing on a gig.

  • Peter Kirn

    This thread – compensating for some personal opinions, of course – is winding up being more interesting than what I originally said. Please carry on. :0

  • http://driftpattern.com driftpattern

    i've run into quite a few people that have at least 1 faulty knob on their motu boxes. the target consumer of the audio express is obviously the mobile musician so why not surface-mount pots? these are probably the exact same pots found on the traveler – which has *slightly recessed pots and they still break. look closely at the knobs here. you know its just a matter of time…

  • http://driftpattern.com driftpattern

    …or encoders. same issue.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/arvidtp/ Arvid Tomayko-Peters

    I've been really happy with MOTU's drivers (I even have installed their betas on my performance machine with no problems) – they are a kernel extension, which is always a little scary, but they are well coded and have never caused a problem for me. Also they are the most consistently functional of any audio drivers I've ever used – on rare occasions they will stop working – usually having to do with sleeping/waking the mac – but i never have to restart the machine to get them to work again – usually just an unplug/replug and/or power cycle of the interface.

    What is less fantastic about the Ultralite mk3 hybrid (as compared to the original ultralite – which I also own) is that on older macs (ie an early 2008 macbook pro, macbook, and 2003 powerbook) the firewire bus powering does not work properly when the computer is on battery – which is most of the point of bus powering in my opinion, though maybe its less important now that there are so many passible and inexpensive dedicated field recorders on the market which are smaller to boot.

    Doing standalone mixing on the ultralite for anything more than two inputs is really annoying, so this Audio Express might be just a little less annoying – but still no immediate access to pan or simple EQ. Now don't get me wrong – my Ultralite fills all my mixing duties – I just do it with a laptop plugged in using cuemix.

    The Main Vol/Power button encoder broke on my original Ultralite – $75 to have MOTU fix it? Nope – I found the part on Mouser, took the thing apart and replaced it myself :) granted it was like a freaking puzzle to get apart.&nbsp ;http://www.motunation.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=11702#p217695

  • http://noisepages.com/members/arvidtp/ Arvid Tomayko-Peters

    previous should have read "like a freaking puzzle to get it apart and back together again"

  • in_harmzuay

    i have had my motu ultralite mk1 for a couple of years now, in and out of my messenger bag for jam sessions and gigs with no lasting problems though i agree that the pres are not the best they were much better then the m-audio interfaces i was using prior…and the tech support was much nicer then my friends experience with the korg support when his zero4 shit the bed.  i appreciate the I/O of the ultralite but have been looking at the microbook simply for added portability since ive found i don't really need 10×12 very often if at all

  • http://bubblescum.com Vaihe

    As a long time Ultra-Lite user on live gigs i will say that those knows in the front are completely un-usable. They are very hard to operate and very toy like. If you really are gonna use those i will bet that you will lose at least one knob per one live set.

    I don't think anyone would by this as a "mixer". It is just a cheaper option of UltraLite for people who don't need more io's. In that case there probably is cheaper options out there.

    I don't have MK3 of ultra-lite but i see the benefits of the DSP. I use UL as "mixer" and i patch synth and vocals in to it and use Live as FX prosessor. That gives Latency. DSP would give at least latency free eq/comp/verb.

  • http://audiocookbook.org John Keston

    Hmmm… Considering this to replace my aged FIreWire 410. Although I'd rather have another line-in pair than SPDIF. Seriously, who uses SPDIF anymore for anything other than legacy or archival purposes?

  • http://rhythminmind.net Eric

    SPDIF is still very much used. I use it to link devices/DAW's, clocking, external AD/DA, AC3 passthru, ect

  • http://www.tornsten.com/ martin törnsten

    @Flplsx

    "looks like a nice unit that’ll appeal to some people. I’m personally happy with a 2 mono in/1 stereo out interface with MIDI I/O. I wish the Duet had MIDI I/O."

    I think this baby would be perfect in your case:&nbsp ;http://www.rme-audio.de/en_products_babyface.php

  • http://regend.com Regend

    I'd be interested in this if I could get it for 350 to replace my ProFire 610. I like the ProFire 610 but MOTU stuff just sounds better to my ears.

  • Peter Kirn

    For those wanting Linux support, though, I don't believe it's yet available on the Babyface.

  • Jon Starr

    If it had Adat I/O instead of both Firewire and USB inputs I'd probably buy one.

  • http://www.bagger288.com/goldenmaster goldenmaster

    I just have to say for the record, I bought an Ultralite, which looks to be pretty similar with this, and it was a total lemon.  Not buying MOTU again myself.

  • http://regend.com Regend

    working at a national retailer…a lot of people brought back their MOTU units because they were lemons…i would suggest an exchange instead of going with another product though. i understand how people feel about things not working right out of the box, units that won't cooperate with a set up, etc. i always felt that the peopel buying the lower end units weren't using their DAWS as dedicated machines however. other factors in the operating system's use come into play, especially people using their DAWS on the internet.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Regend: What were the reported issues?

    "On the Internet…" — I couldn't disagree more. There are indeed many things that can adversely impact performance, but unless engaging in extremely reckless behavior on Windows, connecting to the Internet is not one of them. Having a dedicated machine can be a convenience, but I have no doubt that a properly-maintained machine that serves other tasks on any of the three operating systems can be multifunctional – and not only because I run a website. ;)

    Indeed, the most significant show-stopper audio performance issues I've seen on Windows have been related to misbehaving drivers and computer hardware, not The Internet. (And not, contrary to reports, things like spyware – not today, with modern security updates and browsers. The source of most DPC-related audio dropouts, for instance, is usually bad OEM hardware.)

  • Peter Kirn

    I'd even go one step further – I think it's no longer practical to operate a DAW on a machine that lacks an Internet connection, full stop. The Internet is everyone's primary connection to software updates and file sharing. Having updated drivers and software patches is more likely to make your machine run better.

    I'm sorry to rant, but it's time to dismiss what's basically computer music's old wive's tale. The only instance I can think of this being true is if you have an unpatched Windows XP machine running IE5 that you connect to the Internet in order to download porn. And yes, in that case, that'd be unwise.

  • http://essentiallistening.co.uk eclectic reader

    Yes, no, no, yes, but no, however yes.

    If you really truly think your software setup is perfect for your workflow, and that you're just done, truly done fishing for newer bullshit vintage emulating tape hiss virtual EQ knobs, then go ahead and disconnect.

    But really, you're not done at all.  It's a disease and we all suffer from it.  Each new release of Kontakt absolutely destroys my precious articulation scripts, I have to document what plugin versions I've used on a particular project file.  And yet I keep going, I put up with this shit.

    I just can't pretend that I'm on some static vintage magic music box.  I wish it was true but it just isn't.

  • Oliver Sumpton

    I've been looking heavily at picking up the new RME Babyface. Anyone have any cents on how MOTU converters stack up against the Babyface?

  • Andrey

    Hi. What converters in this device?

  • Stephan

    What about the preamps / AD-Converters ? No specs (dynamic range etc.) are listed on the MOTU-Site.
    I stay with the Firewire..