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Lightning Quick! Why Thunderbolt will be the I/O of Choice for Digital Musicians and Video Artists.

Rounik Sethi on Mar 03, 2011 in Audio Hardware 5 comments

Hands-up who wants low-latency and high performance multi-track audio recording on their Mac? Me too... as well as almost every Computer musician I've ever met! Until now Firewire and USB 2.0 have bee

Hands-up who wants low-latency and high performance multi-track audio recording on their Mac? Me too... as well as almost every Computer musician I've ever met! Until now Firewire and USB 2.0 have been the most popular connectivity options for most audio and video Prosumer hardware, but with the release of USB 3.0, which appears pretty decent, it looked like the next chapter in I/O had been written. I'll be honest. I'd been confused as to the lack of USB 3.0 ports in the latest Mac's... But I finally understand the reasons for that now. The future I/O of the Digital Music Studio has arrived... and it's not USB 3.0!

If you've been hiding under a rock this past week, you may have missed the much anticipated MacBook Pro announcement from Apple (24th February 2011). Along with the powerful Quad-Core Sandy Bridge i7 processor, a new Input/Output technology was unveiled with much fan fare. Widely tipped to replace Firewire, it's official name, Thunderbolt, was finally revealed. Instead of merely replacing Firewire and being a run-of-the-mill competitor for USB 3.0, Thunderbolt looks set to completely redefine the I/O landscape for Audio and Video professionals and their peripherals for many years to come.

Being Well-Connected

In my opinion, the thing about I/O connectivity for digital musicians has always been three-fold. Let me explain. First, I'm always looking for audio interfaces with optimum performance, leading to lower latency when recording and a large throughput for recording more simultaneous audio inputs (multi-track recording).

Second, it's all about compatibility. PCI-Express has been the choice for many Pro's in the Audio and Video fields for connecting interfaces, DSP cards, etc. Since 2008 if you wanted to buy a portable Mac setup with high-speed connectivity, the 17" was the only option. Then there's the familiar story of trying to plug in your Firewire audio interface to your friend's PC or an older/newer Mac which doesn't share the same ports. No fun!

Thirdly, and finally, no digital musician wants a plethora of wires and cables dangling everywhere. Safety hazard? Possibly -- but, it certainly takes away from the portability factor of my MacBook Pro. It's common on my MacBook Pro that the DisplayPort is connected to an external monitor, two USB ports are feeding my MIDI Controller, Mac Keyboard and Magic Mouse, a Firewire 800 is used for an external hard drive to record to and my trusty Apogee Duet is connected to my remaining Firewire 400 port... and I haven't mentioned the PCI-Express slot yet!

Wouldn't it be great if there was one port that could connect all my hardware devices to my Mac with enough bandwidth for multiple high-performance devices and support for existing I/O standards? Read on!

One Connection to Rule Them All

Designed by Intel in collaboration with Apple, Thunderbolt (code named Light Peak during production), is based on Intel's high performance PCI Express technology and Apple's DisplayPort. In fact you can plug in your Mini DisplayPort directly into a Thunderbolt port!

Thunderbolt provides a staggering 10 Gbps in both directions.  Here is a breakdown of performance across different I/O technologies taken from Apple's website:

  • USB 2.0 = 480 Mbps
  • Firewire 800 = 800 Mbps
  • Express Card = 2.5 Gbps
  • USB 3.0 = 5 Gbps
  • Thunderbolt = 10 Gbps (in both In and Out directions!)

The figures speak for themselves.But to give this a real-world example, High Definition video (I'm talking GB's of data here) can be transferred over Thunderbolt in a seconds. DisplayPort can power a 1080p resolution display and multiple audio channels too with ease.

Lacie's Little Big Disk with Thunderbolt connectivity. Due Summer 2011.

High performance? Without a doubt. With this much throughput Thunderbolt has the bandwidth to daisy-chain multiple high-speed devices. For example, you could potentially connect a couple of audio interfaces, several high performance hard disks and an Apple Cinema Display. No hub required -- one port/cable connected to your Mac, all other devices connected through each other and 10Gbps is not shared but through the same connector you can achieve 10Gbps in both directions!

It doesn't stop there as Thunderbolt will apparently provide 10 watts of power to connected peripherals for Bus power, which makes a MacBook Pro in the field a worthy substitute when capturing multiple streams of audio or video editing to a Desktop machine. Imagine the quality and the blistering multi-track recording performance on any Mac equipped with Thunderbolt connected to an Apogee Symphony for example? Mind-blowing.

So, You've got a Thunderbolt Port in your Mac... What Next?

It's plain to me, that Thunderbolt is the future I/O solution. However, we'll need a little patience as, to date, there are no Thunderbolt hard drives, audio interfaces or video capture devices available. This will change soon with companies like Lacie and Apogee both gearing up to provide Thunderbolt compatible Hard Disks and audio interfaces respectively. When a company like Apogee get excited about a new I/O standard, amongst many others audio people I take note.

Director of Marketing Sean McArthur at Apogee has this to say about Thunderbolt, "Intel's Thunderbolt technology on the Mac marks the end of difficult choices and the beginning of unlimited performance," he continues, "In the near future, Thunderbolt will take the confusion out of choosing a professional connectivity standard for audio production." McArthur continues, "Too often we have seen our customers frustrated by the options: Should I go with USB 3, FireWire 800, PCI cards and when is that LightPeak thing coming? Now we know, as manufacturers and customers, where we are headed."

Thunderbolt can be incoroprated into Apogee's Symphony I/O without being redesigned

The MacBook Pro has long promised portability and power for the Audio and Video crowd, which has often been compromised by processor power, connectivity bandwidth and battery life. Now, thanks to Intel's Quad-Core Sandy Bridge i7 portable processors, Thunderbolt and Apple's advancements in the field of long-life batteries, this promise is set to become reality. These are exciting times for digital musicians - what do you think?

Rounik is the Executive Editor for AskAudioMag.com & the quarterly print magazine by the same name. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic (and a self-confessed Mac fanatic) he's taught teachers, professional musicians and hobbyists how to get the best out of Apple's creative software. He is a Visiting lecturer at Bath Spa Univers... Read More

Discussion

Peter Schwartz
First of all, thanks for providing such a great overview of what this technology has to offer. And the idea of lower latency is fantastic. But latency is, per the best of my understanding, a necessary byproduct (if you will) of the fact that live audio can't be processed instantly in digital systems as can analog audio in analog systems. So while better thruput from storage devices is undoubted a welcome thing, I doubt that it's going to change the landscape in terms of latency reduction anytime in the near future. That's a processor speed thing. If our computers were able to process audio at twice the speed they can now, our latency numbers would be halved.

I'm also not so crazy about the idea of having everything connected with "one cable". Cables are a good thing. It allows systems to be modular, so when a component goes down it can be repaired or replaced without affecting the rest of the system.

Re this being exiting times for musicians (and probably also people involved in film, video and graphic arts) I think the most exiting thing that any musician can do is to further educate themselves on aspects of music, MIDI, and digital audio processes and let the technology serve *that*
Rounik
Hey Peter,

True... but remember this extra bandwidth of Thunderbolt can be utilised by storage devices as well as audio interfaces... Let's wait and see what magic companies like Apogee can weave... :)

Ha! I should've known you'd be fond of multiple cables... But it's a good point you make. The beauty of daisy chaining is you can simply remove the offending device from the chain and connect the rest in serial as before... but your point stands on finding out which device it is that has "gone down"...

Sure, I mentioned film and video people too... oh, ok I must've edited that out... OK well Thunderbolt's benefits applies also particularly to film and video creatives - but I still think this tech is a game changer for studio engineers and computer musicians (portable and studio based). I believe the technology will help musicians to focus on the important things (making music!) with fewer interruptions. Let's see how this pans out, now Quad-Cores have made their way into the MacBook Pro line and Thunderbolt looks very promising...
Adam
Way to call it Rounik! And yes, this is exciting times for digital musicians.
Gary Hiebner
This is very exciting. I am very interested to see what Thunderbolt products the audio companies release.

And with regards to storage, this is a huge jump over Firewire.
Mojave
WOW!