I originally wrote this review April 12, 2007. I still use one of these from time to time on travel recordings… Good stuff, still supported by even the latest Mac OS and Windows… still going strong!
M-Audio MobilePre USB Guitar/Microphone Recording Interface and Mic Pre Review
Tons of people now own computers that are capable of recording music. Processors, hard drives, and RAM are now sufficient to (at least) record music and store it on their disks. Macintoshes with OSX now ship with GarageBand – an excellent means of recording – simple, effective, and transparent (it doesn’t get in the way of the creative process).
The market has become filled with recording interfaces for personal computers. There are some that are ultra-basic and well-suited for jamming along with your favorite music. There are also some that are very high-end, with huge mixer interfaces and large numbers of instrument/mic inputs.
What do you do if you want to record one or two instruments/mics at a time? What if your budget is tight, and you want to get started with making music, voice, or sound effect recordings? I’ve found the MobilePre USB from M-Audio to be an excellent starting point. Although I have more advanced recording equipment and gear, I still keep my MobilePre around to do clean-channel acoustic recordings and to do on-the-go recordings.
You can see more about the M-Audio Mobile Pre (now V2!) here at zZounds.com – Still a bargain 5 years later!
Bear in mind that I could write an entire book on using the MobilePre in the recording process, along with its nuances, its quirks, its strengths, and its weaknesses. But I will keep this review in the realm of just that – a review (not a how-to). Perhaps, I’ll have some time someday to write a user-friendly “how to” on making recordings with the MobilePre… Things are so hectic that I don’t usually have enough time to write a book or tutorial, though…
Quick Opinion: The M-Audio USB MobilePre is a superior and excellent choice for simple/beginner computer-based recording and for computer-based recording on-the-go. Throw this box in your laptop bag with an A-B USB cable, grab your instrument(s) and mic(s) and go. You can record sitting on the porch of a vacation room. You can record that fleeting idea sitting in the hotel room on a business or vacation trip. When one part of the house gets noisy, grab your bits and go to another part of the house. The MobilePre is simple and extremely portable.
It has two input channels, headphone out, stereo mini-plug out, L/R 1/4″ out, stereo mini-plug in, and a single USB cable port. It is powered by the USB connection. It weighs less than a stack of CDs. It is clean, class-compliant, and has a wide range of drivers and freebie (“starter” or “limited”) recording software options. The M-Audio MobilePre is an excellent basic/beginner/mobile choice.
What’s not to like? Go get one. They’re a perfect reliable tool for everyday use.
Usability: Recording interfaces are not always as simple-to-use and elegant as the MobilePre. Really. It’s that simple.
There is one 1/4 unbalanced instrument input port on the front (Unbalanced 1/4? What’s that? It’s the basic mono plug guitar/bass instrument cable type of input you use to plug your instrument into an amplifier – in use for guitars, basses, keyboards, some types of microphones, and more.). The front port is the left channel input for 1/4. The right channel 1/4 input is in the back of the device, as are both the left- and right-channel XLR (XLR? What’s that? It’s the big-diameter, three-pin cable type that is most associated with microphones, but is sometimes used with specially-quipped guitars, amplifier interfaces, and more. Most often, though, most folks will use XLR ports to hook up a mic.) It is kind of weird to have one 1/4 port in the front, and the rest in the back, but it ends up being no big deal after you use the MobilePre for a while. You fall in love with the little box, and the quirky front input becomes second nature.
The left- and right-channel level knobs are easy to use and marked intuitively with a silver pointer ridge. The headphone output level knob is simple, too. I like the little blue light on the front of the MobilePre – it lets me know that the box is active, hooked up, and powered on its USB connection.
You get little green blips on the front panel when sound input is going in to the channels (one each for left and right). The green blip gets brighter as the signal gets stronger. Similarly, you get red blips when your signal is too strong (sometimes called “clipping”). The stronger the clip, the redder the light. When I’m using my MobilePre, I try to let my computer software input meters do their job for me, but it is nice to have the signal strength lights on the front of the MobilePre for when you’re not staring at the computer screen.
The rest of the MobilePre box is simple. Standard input/output ports… all are clearly marked, and the 48v phantom microphone button is simple to use. It is light, easy, and intuitive (if you’re already familiar with the ports). If you’re a complete newbie to recording, devices, and ports, the MobilePre is a comfortable, hard-to-mess-up box with which you can learn.
Compatibility: The M-Audio MobilePre is “class compliant” with some computer operating systems, including Mac OSX. I most often use Mac OSX, and I’ve always been able to plug in the MobilePre and rip sounds into GarageBand or Logic in no time at all. The MobilePre works with almost every major computer operating system in the consumer market. Sorry Linux and Solaris fans – I’m not aware of an official M-Audio driver for those platforms.
I won’t go into a list of what platforms are supported, because it changes more often than this review will. You can see the currently-supported driver list here: http://www.m-audio.com/index.php?do=support.drivers (opens new window). Bear in mind that as of this writing, Vista is not supported, and Windows XP Media Center is not supported. This may change – check with the M-Audio site.
One important point: the MoblePre works flawlessly and effortlessly with Apple’s GarageBand software (part of iLife), and with Apple’s Logic Express and Logic Pro software packages. I’ve never had the first fit, glitch, or issue with my MobilePre in GarageBand 2.0, 3.0, and Logic Express 7.1. NOT ONE. That’s cool. If you’ve got a Mac, and want to record music, words, podcasts, or other sound-based things, the MobilePre is an awesome place to start out.
Note that my MobilePre is a different color than the factory images:
Features: The M-Audio MobilePre USB interface has excellent features, better than average – and very good considering its price range. The MobilePre has one mic channel with phantom power – remember that both mic inputs don’t support 48v phantom power. It is VERY important to realize that not all budget computer sound interfaces have phantom power (Phantom Power? That’s where the microphone preamp, in this case the MobilePre, provides a little juice to condenser microphones or other mic-like devices.)
Its two-port (two-channel, left/right) design means that you can have two mics recording at the same time, or perhaps an electric bass and an electric guitar, or combinations of both. You can record real two-channel stereo with the MobilePre. (Bear in mind that there are actually four inputs – but only one left and one right can work at the same time.)
Bundled Software (at the time of my purchase) included Live Lite 4 and Reason Adapted (a lite version of Reason). These pieces of software were compatible with both the Windows PCs and Macs in my house. These two programs let you record sound, layer sound, blend, edit, and mix. Both programs are “starter” programs – that is, they are not the full-retail commercial versions of Live and Reason. Some features are not available in the “lite” versions, and certain limitations are in place. If your recording needs outgrow these starter programs, you can purchase upgrades from these starter packages at a reduced rate.
Sound: Clean. Quiet. No bones about it. The M-Audio MobilePre USB box captures as good a sound as you can muster. Of course – your experience, your wiring, recording environment, and recording gear have a great deal to do with the quality of your recording. However, this device adds NOTHING to your recording. It is very clean.
Downside? It doesn’t really have a lot of “oomph” for recordings… if you want brilliant acoustic sound, you should add a tube mic preamp between the mic and the Mobile-Pre… this also solves the “only one phantom power” thing…
For my acoustic recordings, either voice or instrument (acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, etc.), I use a nice tube pre-amp to warm up the sound. The MobilePre is very, very clean on acoustic inputs, but is very, very quiet. Sometimes it’s nice to add some warmth and punch to your acoustic recordings. I’ll try to write about that another day. If you’d like questions answered, some basic advice, or have questions, post a contact question to me and I’d be glad to try to help.
Value: The MobilePre USB interface is a bargain. I think it is worth more than it sells for (street price), but I think it is intelligent to market it in the $150 range… (marketing: maybe run occasional $129 “special sales”?)
You can spend $99 to $699 for basic computer recording interfaces – but no single one of them can compete with the features, number of ports, extreme light weight, durability, and overall compatibility of the MobilePre.
I have been asked a great many times about my opinions of starter/beginning recording devices. It is rare that I don’t recommend the M-Audio MobilePre. Even more interesting, I’ve found that folks keep their MobilePres and still use them after they become more advanced at their craft, and after they’ve bought more advanced and expensive equipment. I have more than one interface, and I’m still using my MobilePre for certain acoustic things and for travel.
Wishes: I think that it should be very clear in packaging, or more importantly, web site data, what computer operating systems are NOT supported at the time of purchase, or at least give folks a super-simplified means of looking up compatibility before they purchase.
I like VU Meters. They’re cool and they make me remember the days of old tube stereos – VU meters would be nice. But, since the MobilePre is so inexpensive and so lightweight, I guess VU meters can be left out. Perhaps a “MobilePre Pro” that would give us all back access, lit VU meters, and dual phantom power (one for both left and right)? M-Audio, are you listening? 🙂