If you, like me, have recently moved to the Thunderbolt computer interface platform, these two products may be of interest to you. I recently sold my Avid TDM hardware in favor of a Universal Audio Apollo platform. In my opinion, Apollo is the first real contender to displacing the Avid hardware DSP platform, but that's for another review. My first Apollo rig was a borrowed Apollo 16 [Tape Op #99] that I connected to my MacBook laptop running Pro Tools 10. It worked great for a remote gig I did, and I subsequently used it at home where I do the layout for Tape Op in my home office. Needing more screen real-estate, I had to connect an external display to my MacBook via Thunderbolt. Because the Apollo 16 has two Thunderbolt ports, I could daisy-chain my display off that. The only slightly wonky aspect was that I had to power up the Apollo for the MacBook to recognize the external display, even if I didn't need the Apollo's audio I/O or DSP. I also didn't need a 16×16 interface in my small home-office taking up space, and the Apollo 16 was a bit short on home-studio features like mic preamps, and headphone jacks, so I moved over to the Apollo Twin [#101]. The Twin is an amazing interface for use at home, but it only has one Thunderbolt port. How was I going to hook up my external display? I figured if anyone would know, it would be Andy Hong, so I emailed him and he wrote back about 20 minutes later.
"Check out the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station; it has two Thunderbolt ports and one HDMI port. Use an HDMI-DVI cable to drive your display, and use the available Thunderbolt port to connect your Apollo. Note that there is a similar device with the same form-factor made by StarTech. If you read Amazon reviews of the StarTech, several buyers said they had problems with it, but not the CalDigit. Also, the CalDigit can drive a higher-resolution display through its HDMI port than the StarTech can." So, I followed the Gear Geek's advice, and of course, he was right. Everything works perfectly, and I have a few extra USB 3.0 ports, and an Ethernet port to boot, which never hurts. The CalDigit cost me about $200, which was a bit of a drag, as buying a hub is never as much fun as buying a mic, and a mic will last much longer. But, that's the price for living on the cutting edge of the Thunderbolt world.
When I upgraded my old TDM rig at The Dock to an Apollo 16, I realized $200 is about the minimum you're going to spend on Thunderbolt peripherals that you thought you didn't need to buy. I purchased a new iMac to interface with the Apollo. In our smallish studio, the monitor is directly in front of the console and the patchbay, with space for our converters immediately to the right. I can easily touch everything without stretching my arms very far. I was stoked to replace our Magma expansion chassis, Digidesign 192 I/O, and two Apogee Rosetta [Tape Op #20] converters (eight rack spaces total) with the 1RU-height Apollo 16. What I didn't realize is that the longest Thunderbolt cable made of copper is 9.5 ft. That turned out to be 6'' shorter than I needed, no matter how I routed the cable around our studio furniture and racks. 6 inches!! If the ports had been on the other side of the Apollo, the cable would have just barely made it. To add insult to injury, this too- goddamn-short cable was $50. For one frigging 9.5 ft cable! There is a special place in hell reserved for companies that charge a small fortune for short, hard to find cables. Okay, enough ranting - I needed to find a longer cable. After a bit more research, I learned that you can buy optical Thunderbolt cables. The added benefit of these is that they can be hundreds of feet long. The drawback is that they don't provide bus power. The next size up, an 18 ft optical Thunderbolt cable, was $180! At this price, I realized I could buy another hub, stick it halfway between the two pieces of gear 6 ft away from each other, and gain additional connectivity in the process.
At this point, I started browsing on the Monoprice site. I love Monoprice for their super-cheap, super-sturdy cables and adapters. The previous time I checked, they'd been pretty barren in the Thunderbolt department, but since then, they've added some shorter cables and a nice looking Thunderbolt hub that lacked the HDMI and Ethernet ports of the CalDigit, but added FireWire 800 and eSATA ports. As so many sessions still arrive on portable FireWire drives, this seemed like a much better solution than an overpriced optical cable, so I placed an order for the 10946 MP Thunder Dock and some more cabling for our new rig. When the Thunder Dock showed up, I put it halfway between the computer and the Apollo, and it immediately solved our cabling issues and worked perfectly. I also tested it using its FW800 port to play back and record audio from external drives, and that worked perfectly as well. When recording the Apollo's maximum of 16 tracks to the iMac's internal drive, disk and CPU usage in Pro Tools was less than 2% - a pretty impressive figure! Next, I opened up a very dense session with 40 tracks and lots of plug-ins (both native RTAS and DSP-driven UAD), and I added 16 new tracks and put them all into record. Using an external FW800 drive connected to the Thunder Dock, disk and CPU usage jumped to 20% in playback and 30% with the tracks in record - still pretty acceptable for a native system. I then copied that session over to a new Thunderbolt drive, and usage went way down to 5% in playback and 10% in record. While the Thunder Dock will enable us to use older FW800 drives with our new system (the iMac does not have a FireWire port), it's clear that the Thunderbolt protocol is the faster and more efficient way forward.
(Thunderbolt Station, $199; www.caldigit.com; MP Thunder Dock, $250; www.monoprice.com)