If you think computers aren’t advancing for audio, you haven’t been paying attention to connectivity. The latest generation of OSes, computer architectures, and audio interfaces can combine to give you lower latency and easier connectivity. They can even connect over long distances and networks. MOTU and RME this month unveiled cross-platform Thunderbolt support that works on Windows – and MOTU have been focused on connectivity in a series of updates.

Thunderbolt arrives. Let’s skip all the normal technical details of different buses and specifications and throughput numbers. The point of Thunderbolt is, it works really well. It works well enough in audio applications that you can finally stop worrying about it. You can plug and hot-plug audio interfaces and expect good performance. Mac users with one of a handful of Thunderbolt interfaces have known this for some time, but now Thunderbolt is becoming widespread on Windows. And that means more interfaces for everyone – and more cross-platform compatibility.

The best news so far came at Musikmesse this month. MOTU, who have deepened their specialization in interfaces of late for both audio and visual applications, announced they’re bringing Thunderbolt support to Windows with their latest ASIO drivers.

MOTU runs on a unified driver model, so this update impacts a lot of different interfaces and multiple architectures at once. Thanks to improvements in Windows, as well as on the PC in general, MOTU says the drivers include enhanced performance all around. So even if you’re still on USB, you get what they say is “best-in-classs” round-trip latency. That’s consistent with what I’ve heard from Windows audio developers. (And yes, the likes of Cakewalk, who have stood by this OS so long, as seeing that patience pay off.)

8M-iso-rear-right

That’s good for everybody, but of course the big news is Thunderbolt support. With some great new machines shipping with Thunderbolt onboard, you can now take advantage of that architecture. So, for instance, you can connect something like the 1248, 16A, 8M or 112D (massively multichannel, AV-friendly boxes) and get up to 128 channels of simultaneous input and output. That’s overkill for a lot of music applications, but on the other hand, you also get hot-swappable, low-latency performance if you just want to use those interfaces to connect to your studio.

By the way, back on the Mac, there’s another story, called AVB/TSN. MOTU added that to these same interfaces in an update the company shipped for free in March.

What’s AVB/TSN? Well, here, it allows you to connect those same MOTU audio interfaces via a standard Ethernet cable (CAT-5e or CAT-6). And that means you can run cabling up to 100 meters while streaming 64 channels. For venues and other similar applications, this is huge. You need El Capitan OS X 10.11, but this might be a reason to upgrade.

Another set of updates from MOTU includes free, powerful mixing and processing tools for their interfaces. This UI is actually running over the Web, not in native software - which is ideal for long cable runs and networked interfaces. Image: MOTU.

Another set of updates from MOTU includes free, powerful mixing and processing tools for their interfaces. This UI is actually running over the Web, not in native software – which is ideal for long cable runs and networked interfaces. Image: MOTU.

So, in review, MOTU now lets you hot-swap their popular interfaces between Mac and PCs with Thunderbolt, has made USB work better on Windows, and has made long Ethernet runs possible on the Mac.

Also, those interfaces have seen a steady stream of updates, including preamp remote controls over a network (useful with those long cable runs), a graphic EQ and compressor, SMPTE support, LTC to MIDI time code conversion, a plug-in that generates SMPTE over a network, authentication over a network, and more.

In short, if you had at some point wondered what happened to MOTU and DP, here’s your answer (in case it wasn’t already clear). They’ve quietly become the singular vendor that excels in connectivity, networking, and audiovisual applications, in niches others don’t touch. There was a time when it seemed like Apple would go after those sorts of applications with Final Cut and Logic, but these days, Apple just gives you the computer and the OS and leaves these high-end niches to their third parties.

All this stuff in one place:
http://www.motu.com/nextgenaudio

RME_Fireface-UFX+_Perspective-2

Germany’s RME is another trusted and enduring name in this market, now turning 20 years old. And they’re also providing evidence that Thunderbolt pro audio has arrived.

RME finally has their own first Thunderbolt interface, and it’s supporting both Windows and Mac OS X out of the box. With both hot-pluggable USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt onboard, you can more or less connect it to anything; there’s also optional ARC USB remote control.

Just as MOTU has its adherents, so too RME has won fans for its low-latency hardware and drivers. And the UFX+ is now up to 188 channels, MADI I/O, easy recording (via what they call Direct USB Recording), DSP for latency-free routing, and a ton of I/O connections – even including MIDI DIN.

The box is so new their website isn’t even updated yet. (Right now I see only the original UFX.)

But with RME and MOTU onboard, I suspect we’ll have a lot of happy audio users.

Let us know if you’re interested specifically in any of these boxes and what questions you may have about connectivity and OSes, drivers, and the like, and I’ll see if we can get more information from the vendors.

  • bathyscaaf

    I’d like to know if RME is planning on making an ultra-compact half-rack version of their Thunderbolt interface, and which versions of Thunderbolt these interfaces are compatible with — will plain Thunderbolt work, or are we talking Thunderbolt 2 or 3?

  • I’m here for the headline – I thought that inter-app audio might have advanced on Mac. Soundflower is working well enough for me, but I’m annoyed that inter-app audio is so much better on iOS!

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Consider trying JackOSX on OS X. It can everything that AudioBus does, and quite a bit more again. It isn’t as pretty as audiobus, but that’s partly because JACK itself doesn’t have or need a GUI at all.

      Audio? Check. MIDI ? Check. Any number of channels? Check. Anywhere to anywhere routing? Check. N:N, 1:N and N:1 routing? Check. Transport sync? Check (for apps that know about JACK). Tempo/Meter sync? Check (for apps that know about JACK). Use with apps that don’t know jack about JACK? Check. Zero latency impact? Check. Zero cost? Check.

      • Thanks for jumping in @PaulDavisTheFirst:disqus , and thanks for all the work you do (the first track I put out was built in Ardour on debian!). I’ll give it another go.

      • Arvid Tomayko-Peters

        Another +1 for Jack for studio work. It’s just a shame no one has jumped in and given it a nicer UI and better setup recallability. I find Jack a little too tricky/touchy to want to deal with when I get on stage after rushing to setting up all my gear, etc – and I’m someone who does most of my live work with my own max patches, so no stranger to testing things over and over before performing. Maybe I should give Jack another shot for live work because it is fundamentally so cool, but I’ve been burned before – eg glitches in live audio at CPU usage levels/doing things that would not have had glitches were I connected directly to the CoreAudio driver.

        Also, I’ve used one of the new MOTU audio interfaces and they have a routing matrix that allows you to route not only analog, digital and AVB audio streams to and from the computer, but also the audio from the computer back to itself any way you could imagine. MOTU interfaces have had a stereo bus that does this for a long time (and you can physically loopback the SPDIF for a 2nd digital stereo bus – this is what I do in my performance rig to send audio from Mainstage to Max and then to record their outputs separately) but with the MOTU AVB interfaces your routing options are massive (and a little overwhelming – there must be a better way to do that matrix UI that is not so confusing, but I don’t know what it is…).

      • Arvid Tomayko-Peters

        Oh yeah – i forgot – patchage is a pretty cool Jack UI: http://drobilla.net/software/patchage/

  • Will

    Would love to see one of these two makers with a serious iOS compatible entry.

    • kingmetal

      ALL the current AVB line of MOTU interfaces work great with iOS – both for audio and MIDI. You can specify the number of audio channels that the device presents over the USB bus as well, and since all the new routing/mixing software is just a web-server on the device you literally never need to use a “real computer” to access all the crazy power these devices have.

      I’m currently using a MOTU Ultralite AVB on iOS. I only expose two channels to the USB interface because I’m doing basic stereo recording, but I’m able to have an incredible amount of routing flexibility but have my workflow be as simple as “plug in iPhone / iPad and click “record” when I’m ready to print what I’m doing. If I wanted to multi-track, that would be easy – and like I said, the MIDI interface is available to the system as well.

      The USB interface only supports 24 channels @ 192khz, but does 64 @ 48khz, and you can pull in audio from any other device on the AVB network and route them to the USB output of any of the AVB audio interfaces.

      I don’t mean to come off as a fanboy, but I love flexibility and the new MOTU interfaces have given me a lot to geek out on. I have no experience with RME stuff, I know it’s very high quality, so it may do all this as well – but I’ve been running MOTU gear almost exclusively as audio interfaces for the last 15 years (98% on PC!).

      • Will

        Thank you both. I forgot all about the ATB line having a web based interface (so it works on iOS). And incorrectly assumed the “Fire”face remained Firewire only.

        > The USB interface only supports 24 channels @ 192khz, but does 64 @ 48khz, and you can pull in audio from any other device on the AVB network and route them to the USB output of any of the AVB audio interfaces.

        Can you go iOS device to iOS device like the iConnectivity boxes?

        Also, do you run it directly into your iPad or via a hub?

    • bathyscaaf

      RME’s current lineup includes USB class compliant interfaces which work with IOS.
      Search for the Class Compliant Mode section:
      http://www.rme-audio.de/en/products/fireface_ucx.php

  • chaircrusher

    Enquiring minds want to know:

    0) What PC motherboard Thunderbolt ports have been tested with Window?
    1) What Windows Thunderbolt add-on cards have been tested and found to work?

    BTW still upset over awful Windows support provided by MOTU 18 years ago.

  • Freeks

    What’s up with single TB ports? TB hubs are pretty expensive.

  • alamilla

    I would also like to see a half rack (read: compact) interface utilising Thunderbolt 3 that is compatible with both Windows and OS X.

    For those asking, Thunderbolt 3 is backwards compatible with all previous versions and the Thunderbolt Technology website lists most compatible motherboards, PCIe cards, laptops, etc.

    https://thunderbolttechnology.net/products

  • Robin Parmar

    RME over MOTU on Windows any day of the week. “Works as it should” versus “This thing never did test out properly, but you marketed it anyway?” Of course times may have changed, but old wounds heal slowly. 🙂

  • Graham Spice

    I think we should always be looking at new ways to compare the myriad of audio interfaces available. Thanks!