Why Use Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces?
Weighing up the lesser-spotted connection protocol
Ah Thunderbolt. So mysterious. So hi-tech. But what do you do that my trusty USB connection can’t?
Thunderbolt is a hardware interface that allows the connection of external peripherals to a computer, just like USB… It offers much of the same functionality as a USB or a Firewire device, but has its own distinct specialities which may be of interest to studio owners. Before we delve into that though, let’s look back at the history of these (relatively) new methods of connection.
For home recording enthusiasts, the inception of the USB cable was a watershed moment. Old-school producers will hark back to days when using your computer to record meant physically un-building your PC tower and installing a specialist sound card. But with USB, everything became so much easier. It lent a genuine, straightforward ‘plug and play’ usability to hardware, and it’s ubiquity meant the low costs associated with it opened the floodgates for every hardware manufacturer to include it in their gear.
It continues to this day. Everything from audio interfaces to MIDI controllers, and from rackmount gear to guitar amps all use a pretty standard USB connection to transfer data from one place to another.
As with all technology, progress stands to change things. The typical USB connection you’ll use in your home studio is likely of the USB 2 type variety. This standard, which was actually launched nearly 20 years ago, is in the process of being usurped by USB 3. The differences between the two are reasonably significant, and it all comes down to the volume of data the connection can transfer, and the speed at which it can do it.
USB 2 is still, to this day, more than sufficient for the vast majority of studio gear. Without getting overly technical, a large percentage of the USB-capable peripherals you have around your studio were designed to run on USB 2, and the designers of said peripherals built them in such a way that normal operation wouldn’t ever put too much strain on the process.
More speed, more power
As with anything technological, innovation and progress brought with it the need to work with much larger file sizes and get them from one place to another far quicker than before. Native Instruments’ Komplete package is a good example of this, as it contains a vast number of plug-ins.
With this product, Native Instruments provide a dedicated external hard drive onto which the software is located. The processing power required to shift the data from the hard drive to the DAW necessitated that the provided drive was equipped with USB 3. Had it been running a USB 2 drive, Native was running the risk of users experiencing slow, jittery, latency-filled playing. Also, as more modern computers begin opting for USB 3 connections over its predecessor, this trend for faster, more efficient data transfer will continue. Which brings us nicely to Thunderbolt.
It’s worth saying that the Thunderbolt vs USB 3 divide does not boil down to a PC vs Mac bunfight. You can use both connection types of both platforms.
Leading the way with Thunderbolt are Focusrite, who offer a specialised range of Thunderbolt powered interfaces. Its Clarett range of interfaces come equipped with the latest in Thunderbolt technology, allowing users to capture insanely high quality audio. The Focusrite Clarett 2 Pre offers two ‘regular’ inputs to the front, with a further eight inputs available via digital optical cable to the rear. In this example, Thunderbolt makes the transfer and processing of 10 inputs simple. At the other end of the scale, the Focusrite Clarett 8 Pre offers 26 inputs, handling hugely complex recordings without breaking a sweat.
What Thunderbolt does is offer musicians the highest levels of data transfer speed on the market today. If you’re a recording novice, or if you don’t tend to use large sample libraries, then Thunderbolt likely isn’t worth the outlay.
If however you have a well established studio setup and are looking for ways to either increase the audio quality of your recordings, or you rely heavily on outboard gear but use a computer DAW as your hub, then Thunderbolt could be the right choice for you.