Thunderbolt means serious I/O for UA’s DSP-based processing on the Apollo card – even on a lowly Mac mini. Image courtesy Universal Audio.

Universal Audio is first out of the gate with an audio interface add-on that uses Intel’s Thunderbolt bus, the high-performance, low-latency connectivity option on current iMacs, MacBook Pros and Airs, and Mac minis (though, conspicuously, not the ever-more-outdated Mac Pro).

The solution isn’t the most elegant – you need to add in an option card with an included tool – but once installed, Thunderbolt appears right in the box (see image below). And what can you do with all that extra bandwidth? On the Apollo, you get better performance even as you push the envelope with sample rates, and more instances of those DSP-hungry modeled effects and such. Perhaps most compellingly, you get to reduce latency, compared even to FireWire.

Apollo can also be one stop in a chain of Thunderbolt goodness, since there are two ports and bus power flows to downstream devices.

UA isn’t the only maker eyeing Thunderbolt. Apogee Electronics has promised its Symphony IO will get Thunderbolt, via the 64-channel Symphony 64 | Thunderbolt.

Notice that both these examples are extreme high-end, multiple-I/O devices. In audio, at least, Thunderbolt appears a niche product for the most bandwidth-hungry accessories. Video is another story; we’re seeing some impressive options from the likes of Black Magic Design that should make Thunderbolt a must-have for anyone doing video. But audio is not nearly as big a consumer of bandwidth, meaning for the vast majority of applications, you can expect USB – and USB2, not USB3 – will remain the standard. In fact, Apogee themselves felt obligated to post an FAQ explaining why USB2 is just fine for its (still-high-end) Quartet product:

Quartet’s bandwidth requirements are comparatively small next to high-resolution video peripherals, and are easily fulfilled by USB 2.0. The latency with USB 2.0 Audio is excellent – just 3.6ms (roundtrip) when recording in Logic at 96KHz/32-buffer. Plus the inclusion of Thunderbolt would increase Quartet’s cost significantly without adding a great deal of benefit.

See: Why doesn’t Quartet use Thunderbolt? [Apogee Knowledge Base]

Looking pleasingly like an audiophile stereo system, the Symphony I/O adds loads of ins and outs to the Mac. Count 64 channels on the forthcoming Thunderbolt option. Photo courtesy Apogee.

Substitute your audio interface of choice in that explanation, and the same argument holds.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction here. It’s not Thunderbolt that’s likely to be the odd man out in the new I/O options – it’s USB3. Thunderbolt seems the logical high-performance option, and it’s the one for which we’ve seen broad commitment from video and high-end audio vendors. That leaves USB2 as the logical solution for everything else. That could change over time, but I wouldn’t even be surprised if many USB3 devices were released as such only in name, providing performance and bandwidth similar to their USB2 counterparts. Check back here to see if I was correct.

Universal Audio Thunderbolt Option Card for Apollo

  • kent williams

    It amazes me that there are still single platform OSX gear and software. I always bought PC because I could build my own, and over the years the few pieces of Mac software I cared about came to Windows.

    I guess the Mac only thing comes into play in certain creative fields at the professional level, where everybody has a Mac, and they don’t mind paying the Apple Tax. And you either have to be a pro who can bill a lot of hours, or a rich dilletante to justify spending $3000 US on an Apollo. The rest of us will just have to soldier on with our cheap and cheerful gear…

    • Peter Kirn

      Don’t read too much into that. I expect Thunderbolt support will be something we see on the PC, too. And check out some of the mobile video options. Sorry, but the PC isn’t saving you any money or mobility when you look at some of the current Thunderbolt video capture solutions – we’re talking spending not much over a grand and being able to get HD capture on an entry-level MacBook Air, not $3000 accessories. Audio is a different animal, as I say.

    • James Henry

      Thunderbolt is already available on PC, even built-in on some motherboards so you don’t even have to buy an add-in card. Remember, Thunderbolt is not an Apple creation, it’s an Apple/Intel creation.

    • jyanisko

      I disagree. In order to build a PC that runs as smoothly as an out of the box mac, and has the same quality components as most macs do (I remember a couple of horror stories of underpowered graphics cards), you are going to spend close to the same amount on parts, and then have to put the machine together….tweak the OS to work as needed for audio applications…update drivers….tweak some more to make sure things are working, etc…

      Time better spent making music, or being with family, etc… in my opinion

    • jyanisko

      (I’m toying with the idea of a PC myself, to update my 2006 intel mac pro….but i keep finding that it doesn’t make sense……)

    • Peter Kirn

      This isn’t a Mac versus PC question. It’s who the vendors support. (Let’s not start a platform war on this thread, please.)

      There’s no reason not to expect Thunderbolt, an Intel standard, on PCs, just as with FireWire.

      Apple was there first, and it’s a far easier platform to support as a third party, and a lot of your customers for this kind of product are there, so of course the Mac is better supported.

    • James Henry

      Considering Apple charges ~$2000 for 64GB of ECC memory for a Mac Pro and you can get the same exact memory from Newegg for ~$600 I have to respectfully disagree. I built a system for ~$700, including monitor, that is equivalent to a $1,500 iMac. Plus my system price included an SSD and 8GB of RAM, both of which are costly upgrades that are not included in the iMac. Also, I purchased hardware that I knew was compatible with OSX so I can run it as a hackintosh and it took all of 2 hours to put the thing together.

  • Random Chance

    I for one welcome our new Thunderbolt overlords! No, seriously, I was enthusiastic about FireWire (yeah, not i.Link, not IEEE 1394) and now I am very curious as to what the future will hold in terms of low latency audio interfaces. For the moment, though, I’m still staying with my FireWire gear and wait until I see an economic reason to plug anything other than just a Display Port adapter into my MBP’s Thunderbolt port.

  • PaulDavisTheFirst

    Historical note: if the engineers-that-had-the-power had made PCI (or any of its variants) hot-pluggable, all of this nonsense with firewire and now thunderbolt wouldn’t have been necessary. We could get the same low latency that is possible with the best PCI devices by just plugging into an “external PCI” port.

    Alas, coulda-woulda-shoulda isn’t that helpful in the real world, and PCI was never hot pluggable in any usable way. I still wonder if/when thunderbolt will show up on non-apple hardware.

    • James Henry

      Thunderbolt IS an external PCI-e port. It is literally an extension of the PCI-e bus with the added benefit of being able to run DisplayPort over it as well.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Not the same extent that the “PCI Express Cable”, announced in June, is. Or apparently not, anyway. The PE Cable doesn’t require a thunderbolt chipset at both ends of the link, which could be a real plus for companies that already have mastered PCIe (i.e. almost all of them).

  • macha

    I would be interested in swapping my UAD 2 quad pci card for this interface if UAd would release 64 bit versions of it s plug ins. I ve invested a lot of money in these plug ins. Very disappointing I can only use them with 32 bit bridge. I find myself using other plug ins becuase of this hassle. Thinking about saying gooddbye yo UAD. Why not fisrt focus on updating the plug ins to 64 bit and then to hardware development? I think it is not custoimer friendly to be so late with the 64 bit port. Who needs thunderbolt when the plugs are still 32 bit?