Thunderbolt, Flash Forward To The Future

thunder1So what’s the scoop on the new Pro Tools|HD Native Thunderbolt interface and PCIe card? Brace yourselves because the future is coming and it’s coming quick. It has been a long time since we have really seen something new in the computing world that can be considered a “next step”. It’s been many years since USB and FireWire burst on the scene and allowed easier connectivity of various peripheral devices such as printers, hard drive, audio interface, midi controller, etc... We are on the cusp of the next great innovation that is about to be unleashed on our collective computing experience, Thunderbolt.

Developed by Intel, Thunderbolt (also known as Light Peak) is an ultra high speed connection technology that combines PCI bandwidth along with DisplayPort technology. There is no comparison to USB or FireWire, as it is not a continuation of an existing technology. We are looking at the new standard that can replace all of our current connectors.

USB (1.0, 2.0, 3.0) FireWire (400, 800) have essentially reached their effective lifespan in that they can’t be made to do any more than they currently do. Intel, along with Apple, have developed a truly remarkable new technology many of you don’t even know you have. Starting in 2011 Apple, Sony, and other manufacturers started shipping computers with this new technology and there has been much buzz in the audio industry about potential new devices we could utilize with this new technology.

thunder2Aside from just being a connection that transmits data messages, Thunderbolt also has the ability to send audio, video, and power over a single connection! We will be able to hook up multiple devices to our computer, provide power to them,get the video image on a monitor along with audio all over a single type of cable.

We in the audio community have been teased by this new technology starting last year when Magma announced they would create a Thunderbolt to PCIe expansion chassis, allowing up to three PCIe cards to be added to a laptop or iMac.

Traditionally, one of the biggest advantages to hi-performance HD systems is that there is almost no latency in the audio signal due to the special PCIe cards connect directly to the motherboard of a desktop computer. So, for people who wanted to use a laptop, there was no way to get HD level performance until now. Avid has just introduced the first HD system based on Thunderbolt connectivity. HD Native Thunderbolt gives users the best of both worlds, simple connectivity, HD speed and performance and portability.

Just as with the regular PCIe based HD Native system, they are connected to Avid HD series audio interfaces allowing up to 64 simultaneous channels of input/output. The system consists of two items, the HD Native breakout box that connects to your computer via Thunderbolt cable and HD Audio Interface (HD I/O, HD OMNI, etc...). The unit also features a Serial Port connector allowing you to use a SYNC I/O. This will be especially useful for anybody doing post production or where synchronization is necessary.

thunder3With this product, we are witnessing the first in what will surely be a long line of products over the coming years. I for one welcome this future and am very excited to see the technology evolve and continue to shape our industry.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from clients using traditional “old fashioned” USB or FireWire audio interfaces is the latency of the audio signal when they are recording. There are some inherent technical issues that prevent those technologies from being any faster than they currently are, no matter what brand or how “hi-end” your USB audio interface is, it will never overcome the latency issue- there is simply not enough bandwidth in the connection. Thunderbolt not only has multiple connection uses, the bandwidth is rated at 10Gb/s- as fast as the PCI cards connected to a computer motherboard.

This extreme speed, plus the automatic latency compensation of the Avid HD audio interfaces, makes for connection speed over 4 times faster than USB of FireWire.

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