The Fast Track Ultra 8R occupies a single rack space and features a front panel adorned with controls and a rear one packed with connections. It offers eight simultaneous inputs and outputs, with hybrid XLR/line inputs offered for all eight channels round the back.
Additionally, two 'instrument' inputs are supplied for inputs 1 and 2, with these connections being made on the front panel and switches determining whether you'd like to use these in preference to the rear panel inputs.
To the right, phantom power buttons activate 48V for channels 1-4 and 5-8 separately, which is useful if you're recording with a mixture of condenser and dynamic microphones.
Lastly, there are two independent headphone ports, each with their own level controls. Usefully, the front panel also keeps you in visual contact with the connections you've made, with each input channel offering both signal 'present' and 'clip' LEDs.
At the back, in addition to the eight inputs, a 4 x 2 matrix of line level connections provides the eight outputs, while there is also a breakout cable which gives you connection to both the 8R's MIDI capabilities and its digital audio ports.
MIDI-wise, you're given single In and Out connectors, while digital I/O is provided via S/PDIF. The all-important USB connector resides next to the power supply input, while at the other end, the final connections are a pair of Inserts for channels 1 and 2. If you have a favourite compressor you like to record through, here's your chance to patch in.
One important thing to note is that the 8R is a USB 2.0 only device, so be warned that it's not for you pre-historic USB 1.1 types.
If you've kept abreast of M-Audio's recent audio interface development, it won't come as a surprise to learn that, alongside this comprehensive hardware spec there's a software brain to match.
The MX Core DSP technology provides a full virtual mixer which you can adapt and shape to suit your studio's requirements or the specifics of a particular session. Perhaps most importantly, this includes the option to add digital effects processing to the monitor mix while recording, foregoing the need to rely on your DAW software to provide this.
Of course, if you do want to use your DAW's own mixer environment to run your session, it's not a problem - simply install the driver, boot your software of choice and assign the inputs and outputs.
However, the alternative is to run the MX Core DSP software, which then lets you assign inputs and outputs, set up software monitor paths, choose the monitor reverb of your choice, as well as keeping tabs on signal flow and other parameters.
Everything is clearly laid out and we're not surprised M-Audio is exploiting this software on a whole range of its interfaces, as it works a treat. Effectively, it's possible to swell the number of input channels to 16, in that each of the eight physical inputs are represented by software channel strips, which in turn can feed a series of eight return channels. These can then be routed to the eight outputs.
This opens up a whole series of possibilities, with headphone auxiliary mixes and drum or vocal groupings among the most immediately obvious. What we particularly like is that you can really explore the possibilities here and know that you'll have your bases covered in even intensive recording sessions, without having to be constantly patching and re-patching your interface.
However, all of this would be meaningless if the interface itself didn't sound the business.
Sound and summary
The supplied Octane preamps sound bold, clear and ever so slightly warm without being too coloured - somehow better than much of the competition out there. What's more, the whole operation of the 8R is child's play - you'll be making quality recordings with it in no time.
M-Audio has a well-deserved reputation for building quality interfaces and the Fast Track 8R isn't going to do it any harm. It sounds clean, it offers plenty of flexibility and, compared to the other interfaces in the Fast Track family, it has I/O to burn.
Principally, the additional four XLR inputs and more rugged housing are the main differences between the 8R and the standard Fast Track Ultra. So, if you need an interface that will let you record drums one day and a vocal session the next, the 8R comes thoroughly recommended.