macpro

It looks like a machine from the future.

It is a machine you’ll only be able to get in the future. And it may be further off before we really see music applications that reach its full potential.

But it does paint a picture of a music machine that’s futuristic, and it isn’t so far off any more.

Apple today made its Mac Pro tower available – sort of. It seems the massively-custom machine is taking some time to ramp up production, as delivery dates quickly slid to February for all but the first to preorder.

But, while the Mac Pro has a hefty price to match its hefty performance, this machine really does look like a monster. For all of the griping from the community, the whole point of the Mac Pro is a move from internal storage and cards to high performance external devices. The core of the Mac Pro is massively powerful, and then you can add accessories via high-performance buses like Thunderbolt 2.

In audio, the main advantage should be mixing performance with mobility. A Mac Pro you can toss in a backpack, but with some of the greatest performance potential anywhere. Internal flash storage delivers lightening-quick load, read, and write times for audio projects of any size, and the six (!) Thunderbolt 2 ports mean potential in low-latency multi-channel audio we haven’t even imagined yet.

The US$2999 “entry-level” model is already a hefty machine, with 3.7GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5 processor and 12GB of 1866MHz DDR3 ECC memory. (Now, admittedly, you’re likely to be happier with the pricing if you’re buying the US-assembled machine in North America; Europe, for instance, does appear to pay an additional premium beyond just VAT at 2.999€.)

If you have a bunch of PCI cards you’re happy with that you want to migrate, then the Mac Pro is a non-starter, it’s true. But if you were building a new studio machine and outboard rig, it’s clear that this is the machine to drool over.

Anyway, I don’t think that the lack of slots is really the issue with the Pro. I think the Mac Pro’s competition will remain other Macs. The problem is, for 90% of the audio projects out there, something like a Mac mini will do just fine. There are even some nice external flash drives for storage that, while falling short of internal drives, still deliver reasonable performance. And even the Mac mini now includes a Thunderbolt port that can work nicely with something like a Universal Audio Apollo multichannel interface, one of a handful of audio devices that now use the throughput for DSP and sound. (That interface performs fairly well even via FW800.)

Of course, once you start doing things like video or intensive graphics, the game changes, so I will take a closer look at the Mac Pro in part on Create Digital Motion.

But I would still expect the Mac Pro to be a powerful choice for the other 10% of users, people who are considering pushing the envelope and investing in a machine that will exceed their performance needs for some time. That’s the feedback we did get from readers, even among others angrily protesting the lack of PCI slots. And while we’ll have to wait a little longer, I think the Mac Pro may make some people very happy, indeed. Expect more criticism, but for the handful of people who do genuinely want a Mac Pro, 2014 is looking like an interesting year.

Photo courtesy Apple.

Update: Universal Audio Compatibility

Speaking of Universal Audio, they’re also the first vendor to talk about compatibility with the new Mac Pros. Because these new Apple computers have a new PCIe architecture, it seems UA’s Thunderbolt devices will require a firmware update for full compatibility, promised for “early 2014.” (Unfortunately, I think I may have a review unit from Apple sooner than that, meaning I’ll have to work out what exactly I can test with.)

Compatible next year: Apollo/Apollo 16 interfaces, UAD-2 Satellites, and the UAD-2 OCTO (once you add a PCI expansion bay to the Octo, that is) “will be fully qualified to work with the new Mac Pros over Thunderbolt via a UA firmware update in early 2014.”

Incompatible: UAD-2 SOLO, DUO, and QUAD PCIe cards – apparently even with the chassis.

This I expect says something about the compatibility picture for other devices, as well.

It’s hard to imagine many audio users being early adopters of the Mac Pro, at least not exclusively. Waiting a while should see more advantages in terms of external audio hardware compatibility; waiting for the next generation could mean picking up the first-generation Mac Pros on the cheap.

  • chaircrusher

    Everyone who actually makes a living out of music and/or studio work will buy the new Mac Pro. All the rest of us schmucks will stick with PCs or buy the old Aluminum Mac Pros used.

    Fact is if you can’t make music on an 2010 vintage quad core Mac Pro, you don’t deserve a new SpaceAlienTrashCan Mac Pro.

    • Greg Lőrincz

      “Fact is if you can’t make music on an 2010 vintage quad core Mac Pro, you don’t deserve a new SpaceAlienTrashCan Mac Pro.”

      Indeed.

    • SaintMarx

      If you can make music on the 2010 “vintage” (!), then why buy the trashcan?

  • McF

    The problem I have with these machines from an audio perspective is that they force you to pay 4 figures for high end video cards that are completely unnecessary. Where is the $2k version with “on-board” video? That would be great.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I think to the extent the video cards are unnecessary, you’re probably fine with a lesser machine, full stop.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Err, so wait. I want 8 cores and 32GB of RAM but don’t really need a high end video card … so I should stick with a Mac Mini ?

    • Aaron Zilch

      I don’t know… I don’t do much video but I’d like to put The Drop on every track in my mix on 8x oversampled mode….

  • Martin Wheeler

    I’m not a hater, ( though maybe a griper ;-) ) and I will undoubtedly end up buying some version of this machine, because not buying one won’t be an option. but how much of a “monster ‘ this actually will be for _audio_ doesn’t seem too clear to me yet … the “old” MacPros had 4 hard drive bays, which was never close to being enough for me, the new one has … none, and AFAIK the _generalist_ benchmarks we have seen so far point to the CPU actually not being that much faster than the last generation … so, as I understand it, until DAWs and plug-ins start shifting some of the processing to the GPUs (where that is possible) … well, for audio it’s not really a monster at all, no ? for video, sure, but …

    • Chris Muir

      If your old MacPro’s four drive bays weren’t enough, that seems to validate the approach of making almost all storage external. Personally, I like the model of all storage being external, other than the boot/app/swap drive. There are a variety of USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt multi-drive enclosures which you can treat as JBOD, so that you can use your old drives much like you’re using them now.

      As far as processor speed goes, it looks to me like the new MacPro has jumped a increment with respect to cores (e.g. new 8-core is as fast as old 12-core)

      In my studio I’m replacing a liquid cooled G5, so it’s going to be a little faster :-) Plus, my G5 has just started leaking coolant.

    • Martin Wheeler

      yeah, as I said, it’s apparently a bit faster than the last generation of models ( as always) but as we all know Apple are using the same processors as everyone else, so unfortunately there doesn’t _seem_ to be anything particularly ‘monster’ about it in that respect ( for _audio_ use … and of course I sincerely hope that I am proved wrong there) … and in these times of terabyte sample libraries, you might find that you are in a minority, at least amongst DAW users, if you really prefer not having the option of multiple internal hard drives / SSDs … but different strokes …

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      GPUs continue to be really powerful processors but latency continues to be an issue. The graphics pipeline continues to have very different needs than audio. GPU for offline processing of audio will be incredibly powerful and fast, but for realtime (“streaming”) processing, not so much until or unless the GPU makers decide that latency matters.

    • John Kennedy

      is video latency really this big an issue? i’m ignorant but it seems like leveraging massively powerful GPUs/OpenCL to process audio streams (especially where graphics/video needs are minimal) is not a prohibitive stretch. also, if audio was so much more intensive, than why is it video/graphics that necessitate separate and dedicated processing? (i “know” – massive streams of stereo audio is not the norm. still, video requires much more power to manipulate, so…)

      at any rate, you would have to be pushing Absolutely Ridiculous amounts of audio data to necessitate processors this fast. RAM and SSD and bus speed all assist, (and once again, and always, i’m ignorant) but it seems like those 3 things would be bottlenecking before the processors themselves. yeah, the dream might be to mix down yer giant electro-acoustic orchestra synth sample monstrosity live, w/o having to pre-render any audio, but how much can you actually mix live anyway?

      these machines are obviously designed for hardcore video/visualization, scientific simulation, etc. Large audio post houses mixing movie soundtracks….

      i love the size/portability of it, not crazy about the design, external (and networked) storage makes more sense, especially when you’re talking about huge amounts of data

      it will just be several years before the low-end model seems like a reasonable option for the composer/producer/audio enthusiast

      the mac mini will continue to get more powerful (or it should). hell, i keep thinking that an iPadPro will surface with useful/fast I/O (of course it will eventually).

      to do intense, large-scale live audio/video, this machine is a great little monster and i’m sure it will get some use on the concert circuit

      i can’t afford it, but it doesn’t really matter cuz i don’t need it. for live A/V i’ve been getting good use of a 2011 spec’d out Macbook Pro with a big SSD (i’ll add a 2nd SSD to the dvd slot when i really need it), so far i can push/perform all the video/audio that i as a performer can handle live with negligible latency

      of course there are OTHERS who require far more

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      I think you’ve misunderstood. The problem, such as it is, with GPUs is not that they can’t process data. It is that they can’t process data in very small chunks and pass it back and forth to the CPU fast enough to be used in situations where very low (audio) latency is required.

      Imagine you want to move your convolution reverb onto the GPU and run it as a realtime (“streaming”) effect. Every few milliseconds, the CPU needs to hand some samples to the GPU and get the same number of samples back (processed by the reverb).

      GPUs are not designed for this sort of thing. That may change. Right now they are still very good if you want to do a computationally expensive processing of audio “offline” (i.e. non-streaming). But that’s an entirely different design space and workflow.

    • John Kennedy

      hola Paul. thanks for explaining that. i admit: i don’t understand how a GPU could be good at decoding/processing/tweaking multiple streams of video and mixing/blending this video with sprite graphics generated/calculated on the fly all at the same time for a VJ performance, but have trouble calculating a reverb in real time. i’m really curious so if it’s not too much trouble, i’d appreciate a more detailed description of what’s going on in a GPU (and with audio and video) that makes one task possible and the other not. thanks

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Consider a single screen’s worth of video. Lets make it a 1620×1200 screen. Lets assume for the sake of argument 4 bytes per pixel. That is about 7.5MB. a GPU, along with its connection to the bus and CPU, is designed for processing that order of magnitude of data, approximately once every 1/20th-1/100th of a second.

      Contrast this with processing a channel of audio data at very low latency: possibly 256 bytes of data every millisecond or so.

      The designs you would use to optimize one of those tasks looks pretty different than the one you would use for the other. GPUs are optimized for things closer to my first example than my second (though obviously the real world is somewhere in between).

      When it comes to realtime computation, there is brute power (which GPUs have plenty of) and then there is the deadline(s). Moving the data to the GPU, processing it and getting it back in time … video typically involves (a lot) more data and much more relaxed timing. So they offer gobs of power for things where timing doesn’t matter (e.g. applying really sophisticated timestretching algorithms “offline”), but are less useful when you’re asking them to do things very, very quickly.

  • papernoise

    The biggest WTF of the year.

  • bram

    “For all of the griping from the community, the whole point of the Mac
    Pro is a move from internal storage and cards to high performance
    external devices. The core of the Mac Pro is massively powerful, and
    then you can add accessories via high-performance buses like Thunderbolt
    2.”

    Still apologizing for Apple.
    The core of the old macpro was massively powerful, and then you could add accesories via high-performance busses like pci.
    This is a design fuckup, and you don’t want to know. How about a flat top, so you can put your expansions on there. How about a rack mountable form. How about a true rack mount chassis. Instead, they chose to make it round. Why? I think we all know why.

    “In audio, the main advantage should be mixing performance with
    mobility. A Mac Pro you can toss in a backpack, but with some of the
    greatest performance potential anywhere.”
    Indeed. The old mac pro isn’t the most mobile computer ever. It’s not supposed to be though.
    My point being: mobility isn’t a factor in this debate. If apple came out with new macbook pro’s that blew my socks off, I would cheer them on. Mobile recording is done with laptops, or with rackmounted computers on wheels, which are thrown in cars. A desktop computer isn’t mobile, unless we can have foldable lcd screens any time soon.

    Everyone who is going to buy this thing, is going to buy this thing. Calling legitimate concerns and honest criticisms ‘gripes’: not nice.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      I’m not apologizing for Apple. I don’t think we need PCIe *slots* in a machine in this day and age, either.

      Desktop computers are mobile, in that they are moved, quite frequently, including by audio customers. I think it is a factor. The lack of mobility of displays doesn’t mean having a more portable desktop to go with the display you’re lugging isn’t still a potential advantage – not to mention the fact that then the whole machine takes up less space.

      And, that design isn’t just aesthetic. It’s an expression of what makes the cooling work – which also keep this machine quieter, which is also good for audio applications.

      Now, is it a disadvantage that this is a round trash can that lacks any flat edges? Uh… yes. I do think, though, that some clever accessory maker will sort that out for those who want it. And it’s important noting that this machine is really, really small, to the extent that you might not care whether you can rack-mount it.

      This isn’t a review. I’ll write one when I get one. But, I’m sorry, we’ve already been around these criticisms before on this site, and the problem is, I think on balance for anyone investing in new hardware, I think this design is likely to be a winner.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      I think we do do want PCI slots inside machines that are intended to be desktop “class”. Even their “quite frequent” mobility argues in favor of this – who wants to move N pieces of gear when you can move just one.

      This whole idea of the computer as a cable-plugging hub … I can see a few workflows where it will be really useful, but in general, it seems to cater way to much to the same crowd that (suprisingly) Linux does – tinkerers – and leaves the set-and-forget crowd with at least one foot out the door.

    • Greg Lőrincz

      I never needed PCI in my life. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever used one. I understand those who invested in expensive PCI stuff but time goes on and the old technology should be replaced with faster, more reliable ones such as Thunderbolt.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Thunderbolt basically is PCI, but just migrated to an external port. It is the type of connector that some of us have wanted for years. That desire was thwarted by PCI’s issues with hot-plugging. Thunderbolt basically solves those issues and allows an external device to sit directly on the bus (well, to the extent that anything really sits directly on the bus in a modern computer).

      Thunderbolt is not faster or more reliable an old-school PCI card. And in the same vein, my 13 year old RME Hammerfall card (which is a PCI card) is still as good (if not better) than most audio interfaces you could buy today. What Thunderbolt provides is pluggability with speed, whereas older options have required a bit of a choice between those two (i.e. PCI: speed/bandwidth, but no pluggability, USB: pluggability but not as much speed/bandwidth)

      Unfortunately, Thunderbolt is still under Apple lock and key for now.

  • slee

    high end studios will buy these, but for the rest of us a mini, imac or macbook pro is more than enough. they are built more for video professionals anyway.

    and re: ” And even the Mac mini now includes a Thunderbolt port that can work nicely with something like a Universal Audio Apollo multichannel interface”

    You hit the nail on the head there. i bought a mac mini for a media center but once i plugged it into my Apollo, it never left my studio and now has become my main computer for making & mixing music on.

  • Expdog

    Hit the nail on the head Peter. External Thunderbolt PCIe chassis are also showing up. UAD Octo is unfortunately the only compatible PCIe UAD card for the Mac Pro though. I saw a demo of someone who powered a Macbook Air with an external PCIe GPU over Thunderbolt. It’s only a matter of time before this is a norm. If devices can be boosted this way, I can’t see why people won’t eventually get a Mac Pro, iMac, MBAir/Pro or Mac Mini with external PCIe GPUs, DSP in chassis cases. I wouldn’t be surprised to see pro products discretely being housed in 1u rack-mount chassis too. It’s just my imagination, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all machines could hook up to a Thunderbolt PCIe chassis. Perhaps even a future iPad…

  • Roger Braithwaite

    Anyone that says this thing isn’t powerful enough is an idiot. There is a tiny tiny fraction of mac pro audio users who need the very fastest machines because they are running multiple instances of orchestral plugins on hundreds of tracks simultaneously, a la Hans Zimmer, but for all the other audio users, the existing Mac Pro’s were already fast enough. Hell, a Mac Mini is fast enough if your day to day work is tracking audio and throwing a handful of plugins onto a project. If you look at the speed of storage on this new pedal bin Mac Pro, it’s acheiving around 900mb/s reads and writes, and of course could achieve almost as good scores via the external Thunderbolt 2 attached to arrays.

    The bigger questions for me relate to decent Thunderbolt audio interfaces, despite the existence of stuff like RME’s low latency USB2 interfaces i’m not as convinced as I would be if you could place the audio interface directly onto the pcie buss like tower mac pros or via thunderbolt.

    However speaking as an owner of a 6 core most-recent-version Mac Pro, I will not miss PCI-E cards, they are simply an extension of an already out of date, awkward legacy format, just as awful 30-screw ATX towers are too. Also, there is a fundamental storage limitation on the existing Mac Pro, at best you can plonk 4 x 4tb disks inside the machine with all the associated local noise and vibration.

    Ideally you’d be able to score a Thunderbolt audio interface, and run a long Thunderbolt cable to a quiet spot or machine room containing as much storage as you need. Having a smaller literally desktop format for the new Mac Pro means you can keep it closer, quieter, easy to plug usb/tbolt devices into, to power on and off, to not require long sketchy usb extensions for keyboards etc.

    There’s a lot spoken about the lack of expandability, but I’ll reiterate what I’ve heard said before, we’re conditioned into this idea that you buy a computer to tweak and rebuild over a few years because they usually are fundamentally inadequate in some way, and not really designed to do the kinds of things creative people need like music production, graphics, video etc – but if you can get something that is already capable and not needing tweaking to make it ‘just usable’ then why have an interest in altering or expanding it? Get the right spec when you buy it today and get on with what it’s for, doing your work, making stuff.

    It’s just a pity that we have the usual apple tax on these things doubling what they could cost, but then I’m sure if HP or Dell made this it’d be 3 times the size, look like shit and come laden with 80 things in the system tray like McAfee and trial apps. And I would agree that there really should be a simpler version with a cheaper GPU because for audio work you could get away with a $100 GPU in the machine, and Apple are forcing pro audio customers to buy into a ridiculous graphics subsystem they likely won’t ever make use of.

    • Greg Lőrincz

      “Anyone that says this thing isn’t powerful enough is an idiot” Not only and idiot but should be barred from making any multimedia content.

    • bram

      “Anyone that says this thing isn’t powerful enough is an idiot. (…) I will not miss PCI-E cards, they are simply an extension of an already out of date, awkward legacy format”

      anyone that think thunderbolt will not just carry the same signals pci has been doing internally is an idiot.
      so the question remains, why is internal storage and expansion such a bad idea? it wasn’t, and isn’t. the new mac pro happened because apple did not find a technical solution to the heat problem.

  • Hopetown Sound

    The problem is not that Apple nixed the PCI slots, its that UA is making us buy them at all. The whole idea with this machine is that its so Goddam fast that you dont need extra DSP. UA is just clinging to their chips as the most expensive copy protection ever. Its also a revenue stream. But its screwing us as consumers. The answer is simply thar UA has to go Native.

    I have plans to add this machine and a PTHD Native/Thunderbolt system this year. UA is the only thing standing in my way, and the could end this issue in a heartbeat.

  • Graham Spice

    January NAMM would be a GREAT time for UAD to release the Octo Apollo with Thunderbolt 2. Just a spectacularly perfect time.

    There must be others like me on the sidelines waiting for this device to be released. Until then, I have my UAD Octo installed in the most current/old Mac Pro and use a Lynx Aurora 16 with AES PCI card. I don’t like the idea of buying a PCI chassis and hope not to have to do that.

    I would love to move my computer further away from my studio. Most current Thunderbolt storage devices top out at 800 – 900MB/s, Thunderbolt 2 should raise that to around 1500MB/s. That sounds good but probably not necessary for audio. Tbolt 2 is fully backward compatible, so I can use the same cables and connectors. Now how much was that 100ft optical Tbolt cable again? Ugh :(

    http://store.apple.com/us/product/HE125VC/A/thunderbolt-33-ft10-m-optical-cable-by-corning

  • Robin Parmar

    None of the arguments for this thing make any sense.

    1. Cooling. What, the old Macs weren’t cool and quiet enough?

    2. External storage. What’s wrong with having internal AND external? Since when is taking AWAY choice a good thing? Oh, yeah. Apple. I forgot.

    3. Superiority of Thunderbolt. It’s a snazzy marketing term, guys. Move one.

    Having a single device with everything in the box certainly advantages to having TWO devices. First, it’s easier to carry. Second, it optimises power — one plug, one power supply. Put some drive bays, slots, and a handle on this thing and it would be a lot handier.

    This computer is less versatile than what came before. The fact that it’s more powerful is irrelevant, since a well-designed computer could have the same processor.

    I am not an Apple fan, and they keep making over-priced devices to ensure I don’t have to change my mind. That’s nice of them.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      If that’s your view of these metrics, I can see why it wouldn’t make sense. But there’s some logic behind this.

      1. Cooling/noise: The standard dual GPUs and new cores on the Mac Pro generate more heat. But this arrangement yields *substantially* less noise – like 12-17dB, which is below the noise floor of the room they’re likely operating in. Previous Mac Pros were often put in noise-isolating cabinets and the like. Don’t know the noise measurement, but some are in fact *pretty loud*.

      2. Taking away internal storage is a good thing if it yields a case design that can be cooled with a single fan (or idle without one), because it produces less noise. See item #1.

      3. Thunderbolt is a snazzy marketing term that means lower-latency audio and greater throughput for external devices. It’s less relevant to audio, but the latency issue is non-trivial as hardware vendors support it. It’s very relevant to video, for 4K.

      This machine is less versatile than what came before only if you don’t care about computation performance, graphics performance, latency, expansion, or noise.

    • Robin Parmar

      Thunderbolt will result in less latency than a PCI bus RME card? Is there any evidence for this? (Because I’d be interested.)

      The heat and sound issues were solved long ago. Studios I have been in don’t use enclosures so much for noise as convenience. Of course this depends on whether the control room is doubling as a studio floor. I haven’t hung out in 4K video suites, so I don’t know what they do. (Of course that’s a sliver of a market.)

      Removing the culprits from the computer to a second device only moves the problem from one place to another. Yes, this means that Apple can report the computer itself is quieter. But what about the stack of hard drives? I have about 12TB in my computer and don’t see the logic in paying twice for a case, cooling, power, and bus. This Apple model means basically buying TWO computers, each of which does half a job.

      Anyway, that’s all from me on this topic. ;-)

  • Mikey O’Connor

    Sorry to revisit this elderly thread — I just came across it. Peter, I’m *really* looking forward to your review. Here’s a request — can you do some performance benchmarking along the way?

    I’ve gotten myself into a workflow that is just barely sustainable on my mid-2012 MacBook Pro. I was hoping the late-2013 MBP refresh was going to give me enough of a boost, but it’s looking like the increase is pretty marginal. So my eye turns to the new Mac Pro. There are lots of performance comparisons out on the ‘net, but they’re not music-focused — I’m hoping you’ll be able to shed some light on that.

  • SaintMarx

    “A Mac Pro you can toss in a backpack…”
    Why would one do such a thing? Also, have you checked the weight?
    If you want portability, get a MacBook Pro. Performance on the latest is extremely high.

  • Ardent

    I use virtual instruments, and I keep crashing my iMac. I’m seriously thinking of getting the new MacPro. Any thoughts?