Thinking Small(er)

It has literally been one year now since I began my public ruminations in this magazine about my process of upgrading my composer’s rig. I have done this publicly because I am convinced that many composers, both experienced and upcoming, are facing similar circumstances: low budgets, wonderful but demanding new sample libraries, and virtual instruments, and OS updates.

If you read these three columns, you will find that I reached the conclusion that for me the answer was NOT a newer expensive Mac Pro but a PC slave. Also, I addressed the possible disappearance of the Mac Pro line, or at least a version of it without PCI-e slots and multiple bays because of the power of Thunderbolt, which in my opinion is a game changer.

So there I was, (reasonably) happily chugging along working with my aging 1st generation Mac Pro 2.66 Quad Core with my 960 i7 PC slave with no intention of changing anything for quite a while except adding more memory for the Mac and possibly a do-it-yourself processor upgrade that a friend of mine did on his identical machine. But because the older RAM is considerably more expensive than the newer, faster RAM, I was hesitant, as it did not perhaps make sense as an investment. So I thought I might just leave things as they were. After all, I rarely ran into processing power/RAM issues anymore.

Then (drum roll) Apple forced my hand! Apple released its new OS 10.8 known as Mountain Lion and it required being able to boot your machine into the 64 bit kernel, which my Mac could not do.

Personally, I am disappointed that with both Lion and Mountain lion, Apple seems to be all about iPad/iPhone/iCloud integration with no significant improvements for what pro audio guys do, but nonetheless as part of my living involves helping others with Logic Pro and writing columns like this about the technology, I need to be able to run the latest OS. Also my Mac Pro was losing resale value with every day that passed, so I decided that I had to do something.

I could have broken the piggy bank and bought another new Mac Pro or even a late model used one, any of which would smoke my present Mc Pro but the simple fact is that NONE of them have Thunderbolt or apparently will ever be able to add Thunderbolt with the speed benefits it provides as the busses are simply not fast enough. For me, that was a deal breaker, period.

We Americans are raised to “think big” and I am no exception but I realized I was going to have to think smaller this time around. The fastest Thunderbolt capable Mac available at the time I am writing this article is a 3.4 GHz Quad Core iMac i7 “Sandy Bridge.” An i7 with Thunderbolt iMac is only available with a 27” display and comes with a mouse and keyboard, as all iMacs do. It is sold for app. $2200 and after adding more third party RAM to bring it to at least 16 GB, adding AppleCare and tax, a Thunderbolt cable ,etc. we are talking about approximately $2700. I estimated (correctly) that I could sell my present Mac Pro for $1000, so about $1700 would do it and I thought, ok, I will do this.

Not so fast, geekyboy! For my audio interface I use an RME HDSPe-AIO, which is PCI-e and there are no PCI-e slots in an iMac. Also, I use a DSP card from Universal Audio for their plug-ins, which is also PCI-e and you will have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.

I could sell them and go to Thunderbolt solutions, and I probably will in the future, but presently there is no Thunderbolt audio interface on the market, and the two that will be available soon, the UAD Apollo (which would probably be a great solution as it replaces both the audio interface and the DSP card, but Thunderbolt is not yet available for it and will entail some extra cost) and Apogee Symphony, are very pricey. Firewire or USB solutions could work but would actually give me higher latency and lower track count performance than the PCI-e based stuff and I would have to sell my present stuff according to RME and UA, and after floating trial balloons, I reached the conclusion that I would take a financial bath with it.

So I decided to keep my 2 PCI-e cards and put them into a Sonnet Echo Express Pro Thunderbolt chassis.

This added, however, another $800 to my budget. Notwithstanding, if this were my only working machine, this would have been the smart move, and perhaps I may still ultimately regret not having gone this way. But as my PC slave actually does most of the heavy lifting for my work, I started wondering if there was a less expensive Mac that would do the job. I don’t need the iMac’s display because while it is beautiful, I am quite happy with my two present monitors. Nor do I need a mouse or keyboard.

That is when I decided to take a serious look at the Mac Mini server. It has a 2.7 Dual Core processor i7 “Sandy Bridge”. However, going deeper into the Apple store reveals that there is a Quad Core 2.0 available as well that you can see ion the picture at the beginning of the article. So, clock speed advantage or number of cores advantage? I went back and forth and finally talked to a friend who initially bought the 2.7 Dual Core and exchanged it for the 2.0 Quad Core and felt that overall it was more robust for using with Logic Pro, my DAW of choice (with Vienna Ensemble Pro as a secondary host on both my Mac and my PC).

In fact it turns out that the little beast can perform at clock speeds up to 2.9 using Turbo Boost.

Here’s why, according to Apple:

“Processor Speed: 2.0 GHz Processor Type: Core i7 (I7-2635QM)
Details: This model is powered by a 32 nm, 64-bit Intel Mobile Core i7 “Sandy Bridge” (I7-2635QM) processor which includes four independent processor “cores” on a single silicon chip. Each core has a dedicated 256k level 2 cache, shares 6 MB of level 3 cache, and has an integrated memory controller (dual channel).

This system also supports “Turbo Boost 2.0” — which “automatically increases the speed of the active cores” to improve performance when needed (up to 2.9 GHz for this model) — and “Hyper Threading” — which allows the system to recognize eight “virtual cores” or “threads.”

So that is what I bought, the 2.0 Quad Core Mac Mini server. I ordered it with 16 GB (even though the Apple site says 8 GB is the max, you can order itf rom an Apple reseller with16 GB)

It saved me at least a thousand smackeroos from going with the iMac. How is it all working? It is early days yet. But the increase in power from my pervious Mac is considerable. On that machine I could only open i.e. 18 instances of Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere and on this puppy I opened 30 and could have squeezed out a couple more.

Flies in the ointment:
1.It runs a little hot.

2.The Sonnet chassis’s fans are a little noisy, not awful but noticeable. I am exploring solutions to that that should help.

3.I am getting occasional crackles from VE Pro 5 on my PC slave that I did not notice before but I think that must be some software tweaking still required as I have more raw CPU power and it is the same audio interface.

4.If I leave my screensaver on for any long period of time, it freezes. Annoying but Apple is attempting to help me resolve that issue and actually, we don’t really need screensavers with LCD displays the way we did with CRTs.

5.I now have more Firewire hard drives daisy chained as there is not room in the Mac Mini for as many internal drives as I had in the Mac pro (4). So far however, I see no ill effects.

6.The Mac Mini has only 1 HDMI port and 1 Thunderbolt port. And I have 2 displays. However, as the Sonnet chassis has 2 Thunderbolt ports, and it was a simple matter to plug the my second display into the chassis with a VGA to Thunderbolt adapter.

The bottom line is that for less than the cost of a new Mac Pro without Thunderbolt, I have a robust Mac Mini with Thunderbolt and powerful PC slave based rig that leaves me poised for the future 3-5 years, which with computer based work is a lifetime.

Next up? Replace the drives with Thunderbolt SSDs when the prices come down and eventually, a Thunderbolt audio interface.

Is this the right solution for you? Maybe yes, maybe no, but I hope that you will find that the considerations I have raised in my personal technological journey will be helpful in whatever decisions or non-decisions you choose to make.


  • Rajiv
    September 10, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    Thank you for this write-up. Have you considered a hackintosh? I’m looking to build one with quadcore i7 and Thunderbolt for under $1000.

  • September 10, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    No because with a Hackintosh, Mac OS upgrades can be extremely difficult.

  • Jon
    September 23, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

    I find this article very interesting, however being an amateur composer (and hopefully one day professional), is not the use of an independent music machine more important in terms of cost?

    As surely the overall process involved in making music has not changed significantly in the past 5 years e.g. delay is still the same, string programs are still reasonably the same as they were five years ago, software programs such as logic pro 9 is not much different from logic 7.

    Of course I understand when writing music for a mainstream film, having up to date software is essential to match those used by the industry professionals like your self etc.

    But really all I’m wondering, is how important is updating to ‘the want to be professional’ of the future (as myself)? when a budget is not so easy to come by?


  • September 24, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    That is something only you can decide.

  • June 24, 2014 @ 9:51 pm

    Hi Jay
    I’m curious to know what your experience with this has been, now that we’ve fast forwarded 2 years into the future.
    Are you still satisfied with your Mac Mini/PC slave combo?
    Has it stood the test of time like you predicted?

    The reason I’m asking is because I’m currently weighing the options of upgrading my system and am leaning towards the same decision of a Mac Mini Server (now the 2.6GHz Quad Core) with a PC slave for my libraries. Would you still recommend this setup today?

    Thanks for chronicling your experiences with your rig, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts

  • June 25, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

    Yes and no. It worked great but I wanted more RAM on the Mac and so upgraded to an iMac, which also has a faster processor.

    But wither way, the iMac or Mac Mini for your DAW with a PC slave is still IMHO the most bang for buck.

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