Photo courtesy of Apple.

Those of you in the market for a new MacBook Pro are no doubt already tuned into the product news. So let’s talk about what isn’t changed on the new MacBook line, because it’s a good thing.

  • You still get FireWire 800 ports on all models, including the entry-level 13″ machine.
  • ExpressCard is still standard on the 17″ MacBook Pro.
  • Your dongles for video adapters still work.

I’m researching implications for audio of the new Thunderbolt connection. My guess is it’s a little too early to say; 10 GBps storage sounds fantastic, but it’s far beyond the needs of all but the craziest audio applications. (That is, fast FireWire and USB drives work really well already.)

Where you’ll see it in audio is likely two places: one, more high-performance audio I/O, and two, clearing the bottleneck with DSP chips that has long plagued external hardware DSP. The latter is maybe a bit ironic as we look at ongoing performance gains from GPUs and integrated architectures there, but it’s no accident that Universal Audio and Avid are excited about it, as they have DSP products. And enthusiasm from Avid and Apogee means you can expect to see high-end audio with lots of I/O for this format. See the Intel technology page. As for specifics, we’ll be watching.

For adoption, this is certainly big news. Thunderbolt faced a chicken and egg problem; Apple is the 800-lb chicken.

The short version of the other specs: these machines are faster. Again, though, current audio applications run pretty well on the previous machines; I’m pleased to say we’re now in a place where people aren’t red-lining their CPU every day.

In fact, for those reasons, if you want a bargain on a MacBook Pro for audio work, now could be a great time to pick up a closeout on the old machine. On the audio side, the new models are largely appealing because their Thunderbolt port ensures future-proofing for whatever comes next – without having to give up the I/O on the previous models.

More discussion on the Motion side, focusing, naturally, on what we know about the graphics chips:
MacBook Pro Revision Updates GPU, adds Thunderbolt, but No New Display Dongles (Phew)

And yes, you have choices in this competitive marketplace, including PCs. But there you go – anyone who thought we’d see a step backward in I/O today can now exhale. And anyone looking for greater architecture performance, your machines have arrived. And anyone saying that laptops aren’t still awesome and improving in the age of low-end mobile and tablets? You’re just kinda all-around wrong. As for tomorrow, well, who knows, who knows…

  • digid

    To my surprise, I find that Ableton Live and a host of plug-ins will perform amazingly well on my 11" MacBook Air with 4GB RAM and a 128GB SSD.

    Of course, my 15" i5 MBP (previous generation to this one) *is* faster, but in terms of what can be done without reaching the point where you tear out all your hear, the MBA is a lovely piece of machinery.

  • Peter Kirn

    @digid: Yeah, absolutely. Any of the current (or now previous) MB line is really quite capable. My only gripe with the Air is the lack of I/O, FireWire, which can easily justify upgrading to the 13". 

    It's interesting, as amazing as Thunderbolt is, I think for audio we're now for the first time really talking primarily about the high end as far as applications. That shows some maturity to computer architectures.

  • On the Thunderbolt specs page of the Intel site, there are some testimonials that suggest Audio people are on the case.

    "Thunderbolt technology is connectivity without compromise and will enable the full promise of Symphony I/O, Apogee's professional digital audio recording platform."
    – Betty Bennett, CEO, Apogee

    "We are very excited by the capabilities of Thunderbolt technology. To have two 10Gbps, bi-directional, multi-protocol channels in a single cable is a great step forward for high performance audio and video solutions."
    – Max Gutnik, Sr. Director, Product Management, Avid Technology

    "Technology like this only happens about once a decade. We are thrilled about the performance and simplicity Thunderbolt technology will bring to our award-winning UAD Powered Plug-Ins platform."
    – Bill Putnam, CEO, Universal Audio

  • Peter Kirn

    @Bjorn: Yep, revised my hastily-written article above a few minutes ago. So, I'd say it's likely most relevant to devices with lots of I/O, or – and this is where we've really had a bottleneck – external DSP.

    Also, being able to get 10GBps is going to be huge for anyone doing lots and lots and lots of multichannel tracking. I talked to someone who had something like a 100-track set for an orchestra. Why they felt the need to mic each instrument individually, and whether that really aids the recording, I don't know, but people do some crazy things.

  • digid

    Wow did I really write "tear out all my HEAR"?! Clever pun, surely, but that should say "tear out all my hair" …

    Back to our regularly scheduled debate.

  • dyscode

    I googled some and the intel HD3000 is still mostly on par or slightly better than the nVidia 320M. Though on the side drivers could be much improved. And Speed also depends on the CPU speed.

    So the 13" 2.7GHz model seem quite a steal, at least in Japan and the US.

    I am going to buy a new MBP 13" in October, maybe I can get a discount on the now current model 😉 then I guess I´d be most happy for all I need.

  • Leslie

    Finally interface to them all 🙂

  • A 10GB/sec interface on a laptop is only useful for compatibility purposes. You can't stream data to a single disk at 1Gb/sec much less 10Gb/sec.

    The guy who wants to individually mic an entire orchestra is going to need a fairly big and sophisticated storage solution to go along with his massive audio interface. Instead of something like RAID, you will need a disc interface that tracks incoming IO streams and allocates them to new platters as the existing streams exceed the bandwidth of a given disk. Playback will be even more interesting, because the user might choose to stream 100 tracks from a single platter. Heat and noise are also going to be big issues.

  • These new specs look great.  I'm very interested in Thunderbolt (LightPeak sounds better!)…  Not as much for audio in/out but for external storage of massive orchestral patches, etc.  I do wish they had improved on the SSD storage capacity.  Imagine the 17 with 2TB, Quiet & quick.  It'll be interesting to see the reviews, especially in respect to how much heat is generated by the i7 quad core. 

  • asdf

    @jamesmcn: SSDs.

    and… one thing at a time. this is obviously a giant leap forward for many people.. who aren't tracking 100 mics..

  • Tim

    Before I get one of these puppies, I am curious if anyone has an opinion on 5400rpm vs. 7200rpm HD debate.  Sure, 7200 will help when doing audio stuff but are the benefits outweighed by extra noise and decreased battery life? Also, any info out there on how one might use this thunderbolt port for connecting peripherals and external displays at the same time.  New song: Quad-Core! Why get one when you can get Four!

  • flip

    @Tim, go SSD.  I have a MacBook Air that has an SSD drive and it's lightning fast and runs very cool.  SSD is much faster than 5400 and 7200rpm drives.  Most importantly, no noise and increased battery time too.

  • Christian K

    Looks great!

    My only concern is how long will it take to clear out the stock of flawed Sandy Bridge Chips that Intel has shipped to OEM's, etc.

  • Tim

    @flip – thanks – interesting idea.  I was resistant of the SSD because while read speeds will certainly be faster, won't write speeds be slower?  no good for multitrack recording.  but maybe i am mistaken. thoughts anyone?

  • Peter Kirn

    @jamesmcn: Right – but I imagine we will see RAIDs attached via that interface, etc. And you can do really long cable runs with Thunderbolt; that was one of the features they were touting. Of course, I don't know why you'd then connect a 13" laptop at the other end. So that's where the DSP stuff sounds interesting to me. 

    Waiting to hear back from the engineers. I think unlike FireWire, you're not going to buy these machines for the Thunderbolt connection in most instances, not any time in the near future. But you could buy them for improved performance.

    And I would echo what others are saying about SSDs. If you could, say, find a closeout on the previous model, it'd be worth putting a couple hundred dollars of your budget into the SSD. Hard disks, not CPU, are increasingly the bottleneck, and the stock Apple drives are just not very good.

  • asdf

    heat SUCKS. i have a 17" dual 2.33 core 2 duo & when doing music stuff i need to keep a casserole dish full of ice under it. if i don't it just craps its pants & dies. i thought my hard drive was bad until i realized the heat was shutting it down. otherwise, the machine itself doesn't seem slow or old, even though it's 4 years old.

  • Dustinw


    I agree, with respect to disk IO, but another big thing is improved latency. Hook up a firewire digital mixer, and the latency is too great to apply VST-type effects in real time, but with a thunderbolt connector the latency should be much lower and see improved capabilities over firewire even if you're still only working with 16 or 24 channels between the computer and mixer. 

    See Intel's tech docs:• A highly efficient, low-overhead packet format with flexible QoS support that allows multiplexing of bursty PCI Express transactions with isochronous DisplayPort communication on the same link.• A symmetric architecture that supports flexible topologies (star, tree, daisy chaining, etc.) and enables peer-to-peer communication (via software) between devices.• A novel time synchronization protocol that allows all the Thunderbolt products connected in a domain to synchronize their time within 8ns of each other 

  • Peter Kirn

    Nope, that's right. There's some serious theoretical potential here, and latency reduction could be a big advantage. Could also be an interesting new way of networking together multiple machines. Unfortunately, seems we're some time away from talking about real-world applications, though, so investing in the MBP with this adapter is mainly about future-proofing. Of course, you don't have to give anything up to do that, though, so – bonus!

  • anonymous coward

    ASDF, if your computer is overheating it is a sign of some sort of malfunction. You can verify if it truly is a over-temp by opening the Console and seeing the shut down reports. In normal, even heavy usage these machine don't overheat when all is right in the world. It could be something as simple as too much/too little thermal past. (I mean simple as in not needing to replace the mlb, but not a repair most people can do on their own)  Or you could have a failed fan. (there are two) It would be worth taking to the Genius Bar to have them look at it, assuming you live near one. Even at 4 years (out of warrantee) they will look at it for free. 

  • bliss

    @Christian K

    The new MPBs were not affected by the previously flawed Intel Couger Point chipset, which accompanied the new Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs. At least the claim was that the impact was "largely immaterial". And while Apple did receive shipments of some of those flawed chipsets, it had yet to build them into any systems available to consumers at the time Intel discovered the flaw.

    You have nothing to worry about if you were planning on buying a new MBP even today. Your system would work as you, Apple and Intel would expect it to.

    Source: Intel error pinches Apple's MacBook Pro updates but delays minor

  • Peter Kirn

    @bliss: Yes, and I will add as a rule – heck, having *personally* gotten to experience some of the worst exceptions in the past 20 years of Apple products – Apple's conservative product lineup can mean higher reliability, even when using stock PC parts. It's one reason I tend to recommend certain vendors even if you're looking at the PC side.

    But yes, I can also confirm what's been reported here, based on what I understand about those flaws. Worked out as a nice windfall for Apple, as it sounds like they cleared out inventory of the previous model as a result of the delays. That or else that was the timetable planned all along, which is also possible.

  • digid

    So SSD is good to go for audio these days?

    I am considering one for my MBP 15" i5, but keep hearing things like "they will become slower after such and such period of time", and "Macs don't support trim" etc. etc.

    Perhaps an article on the topic would be nice, Peter? 😉

  • Peter Kirn

    @digi: Yeah, SSDs are looking great for audio, but I agree, an article and some proper research are in order!

  • Christian K

    Another benefit of SSD is you don't have to worry about drive heads.

    A friend of mine was recording a one of my shows, thru his macbook & a motu 828 mk2. The recording kept dropping out because the bass bins under the stage were causing the hard drive to lock into place, thinking it was an impact. .

  • Peter Kirn

    Yeah, absolutely – better performance, lower failure rate. And they address bottlenecks you see every day, like app loading, sample loading…

    I think the winner right now is a small SSD as your main drive for your active live set and apps and system, and then a larger but also-quick drive in the optical bay, with the optical drive external at home for loading software and listening to (and ripping) CDs.

  • The new MacBook Pro looks very nice, though the incorporation of the Mini DisplayPort within the Thunderbolt port leaves me wondering if there would be a significant impact upon I/O performance if you were to say attach an external HDD and utilise the video out functionality or if that is indeed possible to utilise two different devices at once as I've not yet looked at all the documentation.

    I probably won't be picking one up this time around, maybe with the next redesign, though I really do hope that FireWire800 remains as I've invested a lot into FireWire devices.

  • "…though, current audio applications run pretty well on the previous machines; I’m pleased to say we’re now in a place where people aren’t red-lining their CPU every day."

    I actually think that quad-core MBPs are a pretty big deal. Despite the flurry of development activity surrounding mobile devices, there are many yet-to-be-implemented possibilities for music software that can leverage large increases in processing power.

  • Derek D

    @Hammy I would think at 10GBps, it could handle both an external HDD and video output, especially if they were demonstrating steaming four separate 1080p videos at one time with the port. My question is sort of along the same lines though, are these devices being daisy chained, a breakout cable, or something else?

  • remix

    Wow,  I want that I/O on my Mac Pro!

    Ps be careful if you install lion it hide my library folder and presets.  lucky it was my machine for experiments.

  • cocteau

    Love CDM, and have already ordered my new MBP – but is really is NOT 10 GBps ( Bytes per second ) but 10 Gbps ( bits per second ) … I for one welcome the new overlords …

  • Tom

    If you want to run an SSD the best set up at the moment is probably to have a SSD internal and an external to record to(for laptops,preferably firewire). Then this way you aren't taxing the same bus. While this probably isn't a problem for the new interface, it will be interesting once you start daisy chaining devices, especially a monitor at the end of the chain. But i hope you won't have to have a huge chain of devices coming out of the side of our computers. Interestingly is that AGP 8x had 17Gbps available for bandwidth,almost double thunderbolt.

  • loopstationzebra

    Let's not forget the fact that these MBP are pretty much TWICE as powerful as anything prior….

  • All this new tech and the opportunities afforded by it are great but I'm my primary response today is relief that the Firewire port remains.

    Having to repurchase multi-channel I/O (or maintain increasingly outdated laptop hardware) just because the machines have incompatible cables & interface chips would have given me a serious case of the grumbles.

  • Random Chance

    Good thing that Apple did not do anything stupid with this update. I'm certainly relieved. Have been thinking about SSD too, but there are two things that make me reconsider: price per MB, small overall size (I don't want to think too hard about installing another sample library or big applications), and the problem with securely erasing an SSD. The second concern might not be in order if Apple chose SSDs that correctly implement erasing the whole memory and that's handed through to the OS in a sensible manner.

  • warriorline

    ah man. i JUST bought a new 27" imac to be the centerpiece of my studio like 3 months ago. and no thunderbolt means already out of date. booooo

  • Charlie Lesoine

    Yeah I just got a brand new 13" MacBook pro on the 14th offer. Suuuuuuuuper pissed.

  • @Tim:  Well, Peter is right on the money…  The real bottleneck these days is often your hard drive.  Especially if it's more than half full (I'm an optimist).  A few months back, I bought a MacBook air as a travel computer.  It's the 13 with SSD and 4GB SDRAM.  The first thing you notice is that it runs silent, which is great for recording.  Second is how it doesn't roast your nuts if you're watching 1080p video.  The thing I still haven't gotten used to is how fast the boot time is.  
    I've been waiting for SSD to take off for almost a decade.  The capacity/size isn't good enough yet for my music studio, but it could get there in a few years.  If a Mac Pro comes out that has 8-10TB of SSD without paying an extra $24k, I'll be pretty happy.     

  • @peter you will be able to do really long runs over optical cables. While it is theoretically possible to run 10Gig Ethernet over copper, network engineers shy away because it is unreliable and difficult to debug. I'd expect the same with Thunderbolt over copper.

    It will be very interesting to see how a consumer 10gb bus impacts the networking world, though. If you want to turn on the 10gb port on your Cisco switch, you need an X2 transceiver that costs $500 – $2500 per-port. Optical cables aren't exactly cheap or easy to deal with, but they should be a lot less expensive per-meter than 10gig capable copper links. With Thunderbolt in the consumer space, volume will ramp up on components like lasers and interface chips.

    It probably won't be long (3-5 years) before you can buy an 8-port 10gig Ethernet switch for $200 rather than the $12,000 you need to pay for an 8-port 10gig Cisco 4900M today.

    @Dustinw I agree, latency is probably the killer app for Thunderbolt. The number of sites that need to stream 9,448 channels of 24/44.1k is probably small (10,000,000 / 24 / 44.1), and it is going to be a long time before we've got hardware that can actually saturate the capacity of a Thunderbolt link.

  • @dustinw and @jamesmcn: thunderbolt doesn't address latency at all. In fact, @jamesmcn, I think you're a bit confused about what audio latency is – it has no relationship to the bandwidth of a link.

    Firewire is perfectly capable of delivering latency so low that the CPU will have a hard time keeping up with it, but most drivers don't permit this to be done (hint: where there is Linux support for a firewire audio device, its latency is invariably lower than its OS X or Windows equivalent).

    Thunderbolt is about bandwidth, not latency. The specs about clocking concern syncing the clocks used to run the protocol, and don't reflect anything related to the kind of audio latency you'll see.

    The primary issue with latency on general purpose CPUs and OSs does NOT come from the hardware involved, but rather from the OS design, the nature of block structured audio software, and the bus transfer technology. Thunderbolt *might* help reduce the latter issue, but given that you get down to 16 sample latency already, its not clear to me that Thunderbolt is really going to make much difference for audio latency.

  • @PaulDavis good point. It is worth noting that regardless of the OS, bandwidth doesn't tell you anything about latency*. The signaling rate of a given transport does give you a lower limit for the latency that can be supported by that particular piece of hardware. You are correct in noting that the maximal time slice provided by the operating system will be the actual lower limit on latency.

    This could provide some interesting opportunities for both Linux audio workstations as well as embedded hardware solutions running real-time or pseudo-real-time kernels.

    * A fully-utilized 10Gbit/s link can transport 10.8 TBytes of data in 24 hours. You can also load, ship via 747 and unload six 2TB disks in those same 24 hours. The bandwidth of each transport is roughly the same, but only one is going to be useful for recording audio in real time.

  • My math is off – the 10Gb link would transmit ~100Tbytes. So you'd need to load 25 2tb disks on your jet.

  • @jamesmcn: no, that still isn't correct. but a CDM comment stream isn't really the right place to explain this.

    linux is already used in embedded systems for audio by Korg, Harrison, Hartmann and others.

  • MrNoisy

    Thunderbolt or not, I'll be excited when they make a newer Mac Book that lasts more than 3 years and doesn't have an outrageous price tag. Too bad that'll never happen.

  • vanceg

    @MrNoisy: What do you mean by a "macbook that lasts more than 3 years". My current Macbook has lasted 4 years and is still going strong. I assume you mean "won't be superseded by a new model within three years". The only reason I can see for wanting this would be that it might indicate that Apple was crating machines which would be supported for a longer time… and it appears that my 4 year old MacBook will be supported by the next major OS release at least…so… I may end up getting 7+ years out of this machine. I'm feeling like that's a pretty good run.

  • Peter Kirn

    Yes, Apple's desktop fates are tied to the PC industry – and it goes both ways. Apple obviously works closely with folks like Intel and has a direct impact on what ships to "PC" competitors, blurring lines that were relevant in the 90s and 80s but are less so today. So I don't see Apples as being any quicker to become obsolete than anyone else. The OS is a variable, to be sure, and it looks like Apple will drop compatibility with 32-bit Intel chips with Lion. But you don't have to get every upgrade, and Apple's hardware also runs Windows and Linux. So, I'd say the life of the gear might actually be higher with things like the unibody casing and high-quality components – and if you're able to upgrade in a way that helps you maximize your investment, which is a non-Apple issue.

  • Tony

    I think that the author hasn't thought through the comment about "far beyond the needs of all but the craziest audio applications". I am a Film/TV composer running a 1 year old iMac with the i5 processor. I used several plug-ins from companies like Spectrasonics, Waves, and Native Instruments. With only a moderate track count, and enough plug-ins to create a professional sounding mix, I am daily bumping up against the limits of my hardware. "I’m pleased to say we’re now in a place where people aren’t red-lining their CPU every day." Speak for yourself. IMHO, Thunderbolt is badly needed and will finally allow the desktop composer the necessary power to create professional level mixes economically and profitably.

  • @Tony:  Funny, I got an iMac (i7 quad, 16GB SDRAM) last year because it was outperforming the Mac Pro line at the time.  I have the whole gamut of the plugs you just mentioned and haven't hit any walls, even with a massive amount of East West orchestral samples in play.  However, East West just released "Hollywood Strings" which I've heard is a beast on the CPU, RAM, hard drives…  It sounds awesome, but I have a feeling that when I get it I'll be freezing tracks in Logic again.

  • stellan0r

    I wonder why UAD just released the FireWire Version of UAD-2 cards when now there is Thunderbolt/Light Peak. They must have known about that before, as there testimonial on Intel's website proves 😉

  • @tony: thunderbolt isn't going to help you much at all. you presumably need fast disk i/o and lots of CPU cycles. thunderbolt has nothing to do with either of these. it might appear to be somehow related to disk i/o, but the limits on disk i/o at present don't come from the transfer protocol (SATA, etc) but from the maximum streaming rate of the drive(s). The industry decided long ago that RAID was the answer to this kind of problem. The one contribution that thunderbolt could have is as a connector to a RAID-0 array with more disks than would currently be possible (because they would saturate an eSATA or other similar link protocol/hardware). however that assumes technology at both ends of the link that can handle much higher streaming rates, which at present is an open question. it exists but since its most used by highend webservers and compute farms, its not priced for typical audio technology users.

    thunderbolt has nothing to do with computing power at all, and so its not going to affect your ability to run compute-heavy plugins.

  • Tony

    @Paul: In my case, I use an RME Fireface 800 interface. Having looked at the newly released UAD-2 Satellite Firewire DSP Accelerator, I cannot risk daisy chaining both since I require all of the Firewire 800 bandwidth for my I/O. My case for Thunderbolt is that one will be able to offload DSP processing to another device (like whatever UAD or Avid will come up with), run and I/O, and utilize additional disks without running into the bottlenecks that I currently experience, leaving the CPU to handle the menial tasks of  track count. 

    Therefore, I really do believe that Thunderbolt is going to be a game-changer to professional audio, and it most definitely will affect my ability to run compute-heavy plug-ins. Lots of them.

  • at

    On the subject of UA being excited about ThunderBolt – well maybe ThunderBolt native UAD Satellites may appear, but isn't the idea that with a special breakout box the ThunderBolt port can act as FireWire 400/800, USB 1,2,3…whatever you want! Exciting possibilities. These are the first Mac laptops I've seen that actually would make me consider upgrading my 'old' MacBook. But it's only two and still going like a trooper.

  • Charles

    @ Paul: As Tony points out you're overlooking the FW800 bottleneck. The problem with the previous generation of MBPs was that only the 17" had the ability to add an eSATA card, which meant on the 15", external disk access (RAID) and video and/or audio I/O had to share a single Firewire 800 bus. The 17" handled this better, but if you wanted to use UAD's DSP you ran into the same problem. Thunderbolt should be able to handle outboard DSP plus a fast RAID, and still leave the FW800 port for legacy interfaces.

  • The real application for thunderbolt for DJs and musicians in the short term will be providing the bus for multiple firewire/USB/etc devices without additional power and with less latency. I mean yeah fast disk transfer will be nice but as others pointed out it's not like that's the big bottleneck. But folks performing with 5-10 midi controllers at a time, or wanting to connect several different devices (monitors, drives, whatever else) to a mobile workstation will be pleased I think.

  • Peter Kirn

    Yes, I think the easiest way to look at this is that it's an additional dedicated bus. Latency isn't the question, but the ability to run a FW800 device *and* a Thunderbolt device seems like it should assist certain (though not all) setups. 

    @Charles: I wouldn't yet call FW800 "legacy," given that – for your UA example – we're only now seeing a *new* product beginning to ship, and Thunderbolt currently isn't supported by anything yet. 😉 

  • rich-o

    @proben, the spec only allows for 10W power which is less then firewire (but more then USB) so you're probably not going to be using multiple devices without needing an extra power cord somewhere along the line. On the other hand there's less chance you'll blow something up hotplugging I guess.
    When (if) the optical revision happens, there will be no bus power at all, but we'll gain isolation which is probably a bigger deal from an audio point of view.

  • Charles

    @ Peter: yeah, I only meant "legacy" in the sense that people who currently have FW interfaces (like me) wouldn't need to replace them or use an adapter. I'm happy about that.

  • More Full Article : Thunderbolt: What You Need to Know

  • I also got the impression when reading about it that theoretical latency and sync time was reduced to mere nano seconds and that many have been viewing the latency of the actual FireWire standard as a bottle neck. FireWire audio has never been suitable for direct monitoring from what I've seen. For that a PCI card has been required. And since thunderbolt basically is PCI Express, (right?) I think perhaps we could expect professional external peripherals with performance so far only available in internal PCI cards.