Try a little thought experiment. In one column, write down everything you want in an audio interface. You probably come up with things like physical controls, proper meters so you can see levels, and lots of ins and outs (including digital and MIDI).

Now, in another column, describe what you want it to look like. (You can draw a picture.)

There are interfaces that will satisfy the whole wish list of the first category. But very often, they come in a big, hulking rack-mount case – actually perfectly ideal for dedicated studios or people who tour with a truck, but not so great for home studios or people who tour in a backpack.

That’s why Track16 from MOTU finally looks worth noticing. With so many audio interfaces fairly similar, this one really is an uncommon combination of almost every feature you’d want with a small design.

Looks-wise, it bears an unmistakable similarity to Apogee’s Duet – which, at least in the Duet2 revision, recently added meters and some I/O. And, for some people with simple recording and I/O needs, the Duet2 will be just fine. But as far as Track16′s specs, it’s like someone wrote down a wish list of everything you’d ever try to get out of an interface.

Have a look:

  • 16 ins, 14 outs total (including the digital I/O, of course).
  • Two mics, individual preamps.
  • Two Hi-Z guitar inputs.
  • Two line inputs.
  • Four main outputs – and the two main outs are balanced. Set up a separate monitoring pair, quad sound, whatever.
  • Two headphone jacks, with independent volume. (They can mirror any output pair, so you can also set them up as a cue out, click out, etc.)
  • MIDI in and out. (Too often missing on some recent interfaces – including the Apogee and Propellerhead boxes I’ve been eyeing lately.)
  • Optical in and out. (Supports ADAT, SMUX, TOSLink, for up to 8 channels and 96 kHz sample rate, depending on configuration.)
  • Runs bus-powered with FireWire800.
  • Also runs USB 2.0. (Requires external power.)
  • Push-button access to inputs. I like this feature on the Propellerhead Balance – now you get it with a more generous I/O setup.
  • Mac OS X, Windows 7 support, WDM, ASIO, Core Audio, Lion, etc.
  • Aluminum chassis.
  • SMPTE support.
  • Metering.

If you don’t like the spaghetti of breakout cables, you have the option of a breakout box, pictured below.

You also get some extras – analysis tools and oscilloscope, tuner, DSP-based mixing with modeled EQ, reverb, compression. In other words, it can double as a mixer without having to lug additional gear. There’s even support for wireless control via TouchOSC on an iPad.

It’s a niche question, but some readers have complained about the lack of Linux support, to which I say, MOTU, if you can spare one test unit, I can even give you the names of people who would write drivers. And there’s a precedent for doing such things without taking on an additional support burden.

But other than that, this generally looks like the most powerful compact interface we’ve seen yet. You can spot it at:
http://www.motu.com/products/motuaudio/track16/

The Track16 looks more like the Apogee, but the closest competition feature-wise is clearly the RME Babyface. And yes, we’ll have to line up the three of them and compare soon.

Updated: Pricing, More Details

List price is US$595. Availability soon. (More on European pricing/availability when I hear it.)

Also, MOTU gives us the first scoop on some details:

Track16 has the same guts as a MOTU UltraLite-mk3 or 828mk3, so it has all the usual CueMix FX features, including reverb and the LA-2A modeling. There have been some questions about drivers, latency, etc. on the forums, so the answer is: expect the same performance as our current line of mk3 hybrid interfaces.

The top row of buttons are inputs. The bottom row are outputs. Press the button corresponding to the input or output you want to control. OK, that’s all pretty obvious. For inputs, you are controlling input trim. For outputs, volume. However, you can also control CueMix bus input level by pressing both the input and the desired output bus. For example, if you want to control the mix bus volume for the 2nd guitar input for the line outputs mix bus, press GUITAR 2 and LINE OUT. They both highlight and you are now controlling CueMix bus fader for that input.

The LEDs are backlit, which can be especially helpful in dark studios or stage environments. From the factory, the bottons glow amber, except for the currently selected input or output, which glows bright green. BUT, there are other color schemes available. Just press and hold the METERs button for two seconds, and now it flashes. While flashing, push it repeatedly to cycle month six different color schemes, each with a different color for the inactive/active states. Different color combinations include green/amber, amber/green, red/amber, amber/red, red/green, green/red, etc. In each case, the active color is bright and the inactive color is dim.

  • http://twitter.com/miguelmarcos miguelmarcos

    It does look damned fine. One bummer: Why not USB 3 at this point in time?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Funny, was having this conversation about storage with someone else.

      There’s really no advantage to using the faster bus if you don’t use the added bandwidth. It’s as simple as that. It makes more sense to use the more mature, more compatible thing for now unless there’s some reason you actually need the newer port – and right now, you probably don’t.

      Plus, my suspicion is with things like Thunderbolt we’ll just see breakouts to what you need.

    • http://twitter.com/miguelmarcos miguelmarcos

      USB 3 is fully backward compatible, though, so you could use it now with any USB-2 or 1-enabled device. I saw a review elsewhere of the RME Fireface UCX (which is higher-end than the Track16) and it comes with USB 3.

      Thunderbolt is quite nice. I found out a couple of days ago that Apple’s Thunderbolt enabled Cinema Display connects to a Mac with a single Thunderbolt cable; on the display side there are Firewire, Ethernet and USB (2) connections. Nice.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Right, exactly. USB 3 is backwards-compatible, so if you have a USB 2 device like this one, you’ll be perfectly fine. And something with more I/O like the Fireface UCX uses USB 3, whereas this more modest complement of I/O is perfectly fine in USB 2. It wouldn’t make sense to invest in a USB 3 chipset and driver support for it when it’s bandwidth you don’t need – and MOTU notes that the guts of this are shared with other MOTU interfaces.

  • http://twitter.com/a_w_young a_w_young

    Can’t say I’m a fan.

    Also, USB only?
    Not a fan indeed.

    • papernoise

      it clearly states: 
      Runs bus-powered with FireWire800.

  • papernoise

    one thing that I find always quite irritating is when I read 16 ins, but in the end I find out only 2 of those 16 are really relevant for me. I mean, since I only use synths, don’t do much voice recording and don’t have any digital gear, I end up using only two of those 16… which makes this thing look a lot less interesting.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Wait, you still have two dedicated mic ins and two line ins. So that’s four right there, two already with preamps and phantom power. What are you doing, exactly, that you want 16 simultaneous ins but don’t want to use digital to record it?

    • papernoise

      Oh I’ve seen it has an additional stereo input jack… still it’s not that need 16 channels, 8 line ins would be enough, but that’s not the point. The thing is just that I don’t like the way these things are marketed.
      Of course these things need to have something for everybody, Hi-Z inputs for the guitar player, ADAT for the studio guy and so on. But only few will ever use all those 16 inputs. So for example for me this sounded good because I though “nice compact interface with lots of ins” but then had to find out that I would actually only be using 4 of those (sometimes maybe 6)… if I don’t want to have to buy additional gear (like some digital outboard) which makes it a lot less interesting, does not replace my analogue mixer and does not really provide much more than the Audio Komplete 6 I already have (except firewire maybe).

    • John s

      It doesn’t say anything in the spec about utilising the guitar & mic inputs for line/synth input. I wonder if it is possible?

  • Tim Thompson

    This looks like a super handy device. MOTU is not prone to skimp on features. My only holdup would be that four analog outs is tight in terms of providing the flexibility that I would want in a portable interface. Six would be better. It’s not a deal breaker. but it would make me think twice before being one of the first kids on the block with one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ted.pallas TJ Pallas

    This is great – MOTU’s boxes are generally pretty good at being interfaces, when they turn on.  I’m glad this is USB – FireWire interfaces can be jerks a lot of the time – I think a lot of them clock to the FW bus, which can sometimes be problematic.

    I’m a bit bummed the breakout box doesn’t have an input for every input, but I can get over that…this would be a real powerhouse if someone can make me a cheap box I can plug in to that ADAT…

  • squirrel squirrel squirrel

    There’s even support for wireless control via TouchOSC on an iPad.

    Any more info on this?  I really hope this is being built into CueMixFX.  I’d love to be able to control the compressors, EQs, and reverb on my Ultralite via OSC.

  • Pulse

    (clearly an answer to propellerhead too)
    I would love to have such a big knob control attached to my ultralite…  its front panel is a pain in the ass with my big fingers…  so yes, finally control support (other than mackie) for cuemix FX sounds more than sweet

  • Chili

    I like the idea of leaving the breakout box in the studio and using the cable for gigs. It’s nice to see a unit that rivals the duet. Personally I’d like to see a thunderbolt unit like the UAD but in this form factor. That way I can justify the $$ I spent on my MacBook. Lol

  • N/A

    Totally sick of seeing (18 I/O) or (20 I/O) only to find out it’s 16 over ADAT and 2 over SPDIF with a measly 2 analog I/O…

    It should be a standard to say 2 I/O + ADAT, or 8 I/O + ADAT.

    My UFX should be labeled 12 I/O, 2XADAT, AES/EBU (if we lived in an ideal audio world)

    This MOTU unit is cool, but it’s MOTU.  Flakey drivers, mediocre components… I’ll say they hit the right price point though and the layout is decent.

  • BassTooth

    i’ve been looking for a compact unit like this… one of biggest concerns is a dedicated headphone output for cue. can anybody recommend similar units? $600 is doable.

    • Luisreyesdj

      It does has headphone out. You can’t see it on the pic above but if you go to the main site you can clearly see it http://www.motu.com/products/motuaudio/track16/

  • ALTZ

    I am wondering one day, there will be a pocket-size interface with UAD DSP in it, a pocket size version of the UA’s Apollo. Apogee doing the interface part and UA doing the UAD part. With that exclusivity, that will beat the RME and MOTU.

    The funny and interesting thing about interfaces is that somehow, to me, there are now nearly perfection. Sound quality is no longer expensive to pay for. Recent design in interfaces mostly focus on portability and extra features. As long as we all becoming a laptop music maker, travelling around and gigging, a interface nearly become an “instrument” for computer musician rather than producers or professional engineer.

    However, over the years, I am not a big fan of the “all in one” solution. Yes, the UAD Apollo is nice and handy but I still like the idea of “one function per device”, the modular form. Master Clock running along with separated A/D and D/A converters? One has to be mad to do it in a remote gig or recording. The thing I worried about the future of interfaces or electronic instruments is that developers trying to squeeze and combine as much as features and functions in one unit, the “all in one” solution, but at the end of the day, the more functions and complexity it has, the more likely problems and errors gonna happen. Just like the situation of smartphone, dialing a call on a simple mobile phone is faster than a smartphone. Yes, maybe DSP will be soon powerful to everything well. Who knows.

  • Loopstationzebra2

    No direct iOS port? ffs.

  • Matt

    Thunderbolt option available in the future?

  • Vanceg

    Hmm.  Looks interesting. I’d still like more than 4 analog outputs… but I do love that it has ADAT i/o.  The only other super small interface with ADAT i/o is RME’s series based off the Fireface 400.  I still think the RME have a larger collection of I/O than this MOTU. And the RME has the ability to be controlled via OSC or MIDI using an iPAD. And has the ability to be used as a stand alone mixer.  The RME doesn’t have level meters, though.   Personally I still find my Fireface 400 to be the near perfect super-tiny, high i/o count interface.  I think if this MOTU had Thurnderbolt and at least 6 balanced line in and out…. I might switch as I do like having meters and it looks like controlling the system as a standalone mixer will be much easier on the MOTU. 

  • vanceg

    Can I connect this directly to an iPAD and have multichannel iPad I/O like I can with the RME UCX?  Anyone heard news on this?  Did I miss it in this info in this announcement?

  • Burr

    I hate when interfaces state on the damn box that I have to use an input for “guitar”, it even has a labeled button for it (although, on this product it really seems you’re supposed to use guitar for them…on most interfaces you can use the Hi-Z inputs with any source)

    I also was disappointed that it only has 2 preamp XLRs and 2 line-ins. You insert two stereo channel synths and you’re done.

    Looks damn cool, though. 

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      This is largely to make it friendlier to guitarists. Of course, you can use the Hi-Z inputs with other sources (and instruments other than guitar benefit from Hi-Z)

      Don’t take it personally. ;)

  • celeriak

    no usb bus power. damn, looks good apart from that

  • Aaron

    I dont own 2 guitars, can I still use this?

    :P