First of all, a shout out to Bill Thompson, musician and engineer, for helping make some of the technical details understandable for me, but most of which I will not go into here as a Google search will lead you to much of it.
Before this year there have been a goodly number of audio interfaces in various price ranges available that were more than good enough in most ways, with good to excellent A to D and D to A converters, mic pres, and solid drivers. So let me say right off the bat if you have one of these, you may not care about the new Thunderbolt audio interfaces. Apart from the hardware, for composers working with large amounts of demanding sample libraries and software instruments, the ability to work at the lowest possible buffer size, and therefore the lowest possible MIDI latency, is a big deal.
According to all the benchmark tests I have seen, the audio interfaces that did this best were all PCI-e based. I myself use an RME PCI-e based audio interface and generally I work at a buffer size of 256. Lower buffer sizes increase the demands on your computer, so this of course is also dependent on how powerful your machine is and whether you are using slaves, but anyway lower is better.
For years, the next best choices were Firewire, especially Firewire 800. Because of the different ways Firewire and USB 2 transfer data, Firewire delivered superior performance.
Until it didn’t :) Companies, notably RME again, found away to optimize their drivers to the point where their USB devices actually performed with less latency than its Firewire counterparts and coming pretty damned close to PCI-e.
So once again, if you have an audio interface you are happy with, why ever change to one with a different protocol? The answer is because our computers are changing.
Firewire is slowly but surely going away, especially on the Mac. Since the introduction of USB 3 and Thunderbolt, both of which are faster, there simply is less demand for it and that is reflected on newer Macs and many PCs. PC manufacturers are moving to USB 3, while Apple is pushing Thunderbolt (called LightPeak on the PC) but hedging its bets by also including USB 3 ports.
PCI-e cards also seem to be going away, but more slowly on the PC than the Mac. If you buy a new Mac Pro, iMac, Mac Mini, or MacBook, none of them have PCI-e slots. I repeat, none of them.
So if you lust for a more powerful Mac but want to keep your PCI-e audio interface, as I did a couple of years ago, you must use a Thunderbolt enabled chassis, like those by Sonnet and Magma.
Or you can buy a new Thunderbolt or USB 3 or USB 2 audio interface. Except that there don’t seem to be any USB 3 interfaces yet, except for a MADI version by RME.
Many folks will tell you that USB 2 is just fine and these are unnecessary for most users and that is probably true. But guys like me who have been using a PCI-e audio interface, we simply don’t want to take a performance hit, even a tiny one. Indeed we want better performance. And what about users who are about to buy their first audio interface, or replace a broken one, or one whose performance they are not happy with?
For a long time, there were only a couple of Thunderbolt audio interfaces and they were very high end and expensive, like the offerings from Apogee and Avid, and the hybrid Thunderbolt/Firewire Universal Audio Apollo. These were simply not an option for many.
However, suddenly and splendidly, we are now seeing some new choices that are far more affordable with more on the way.
In the high-end market, in addition to the Apogee and Avid offerings, comes Lynx, with an updated version of their Aurora 8. They are well respected for the quality of their converters and are a viable choice for people in that price range.
At the other end of the spectrum is Zoom’s new Tac-2, listing for only $499 with a street price probably $100 lower. If you need a lot of inputs and outputs, this is not for you as like many of its quality non-Thunderbolt competitors in thus price range, it only has two inputs and one stereo output. However, if the past is an indicator, it will be very good sounding and even includes some FX.
Zoom crows that it is “More than twice as fast as USB 3.0—not to mention twenty times faster than USB 2.0 and twelve times faster than Firewire 800.”
Once again, many will say, “Who cares, USB 2 is more than fast enough.”
Fine, but is anyone going to argue that slower is better? My only reservation is that we do not have enough users to tell us if the driver is well written and reliable, but in my opinion this is one to keep an eye on if it is enough I/O for you.
More expensive but still affordable is the new Mark of the Unicorn 828x with a street price of $895.
It has a lot more I/O than the Tac-2 with 28 inputs and 30 outputs, 2 mic pres, ADAT, FX, etc. also has USB 2. MOTU’s 828 series audio interfaces are among the most popular and widely used because of the bang for buck factor and its drivers are solid.
I will now anger and annoy some MOTU fans (sorry, guys) by stating that in the past, I have not been a fan of this series of interfaces. I find that the converters and mic pres, while certainly not bad, are mediocre compared to those of even some lower priced units.
Clearly though, this will be a big seller in my opinion, just as their previous versions have been.
The talk of this year’s NAMM show however was the Apollo Twin. Everyone was buzzing about it. Unlike the other Apollos, it is Thunderbolt all the way (the older Apollos will have a firmware update soon to make them all Thunderbolt as well.)
Once again, if you need a lot of I/O, this might not be for you and a full blown Apollo probably is a better choice. However, it has 2 mic pres, and has a total of 4 analog in plus light-pipe, which will do 8 channels of ADAT. It also has two discrete stereo output paths, as it has 2 inputs and one stereo output. There are 2 versions, one with a UAD Solo for list price of $699 and one with a Duo for $899. It has excellent converters and pristine mic pres.
Fine, but so do many others, so why was there all the buzz? The UAD plug-ins! If you are a fan of them, as I am (be warned, they are like software rack cocaine) the ability to use them and even track through them without additional added latency, which only the Apollos provide, is the big deal. The Apollo driver had some issues at first, but now is considered solid. In a test with the first gen Apollo, I did have to raise my buffer sometimes but with Thunderbolt rather than Firewire connectivity, I expect that may not be the case.
My only complaint is that for me, even a Duo is not enough. I have a Quad PCI-e card in my Sonnet chassis and am thinking of selling it in favor of an Octo! But for those looking to get into the wonderful world of the UAD plug-ins, this is a no brainer in my opinion and I think they are going to sell a ton of them.
Once caveat: at this point it is Mac compatible only, but that will most likely change as (if) we see more PC motherboards that include Light Peak.