I've written it before, and I'll say it again. If you want to purchase a Windows PC for professional audio work, you should have a professional audio integrator build your computer. The requirements of real-time media production can raise issues in the cross-compatibility of PC components, even with top-tier brands. The ADK Pro Audio Quad Pro Thunder workstation is a computer that is hand-assembled and tested for you by the experts at ADK Media Group, who specialize in building computers for audio and video use. You can customize your component choices via a web-based configurator, but ADK encourages you to call them and discuss your specific needs.
My Quad Pro Thunder features a motherboard with Thunderbolt connectivity. This is great news for audio users who want to take advantage of various interfaces and external DSP options. More on my Thunderbolt tests in a bit. Other key components I selected include a 4RU-height rackmount case, silent power supply, Intel i5 CPU, SSD system drive, fanless video card, and several useful software titles. I chose Windows 7 64-bit OEM for the OS, but Windows 8.1 is also available. While there is a fan built into the case, it only spins if the internal temperature reaches a threshold. In months of use, the system has not gotten hot enough to need the extra cooling.
In use, the machine is screaming fast and dead quiet. There are ample USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, but no eSATA ports accessible from the outside. Internally, I have four open SATA ports, and plenty of space for additional hard drives. It may take a while to unscrew the drive frame subassembly, but my confidence in the solid structure of the case overshadows this extra hassle.
About a month in, I had a Windows OS problem. It was 6 PM Eastern Time. Calling ADK, I got a human in two rings. With my permission, the tech was able to remotely log into my workstation, fix the issue, and walk me through the process. Total down time: less than 20 minutes. Try that with a big-box store! I had a second issue months later. The power supply failed. I had some initial communication issues with ADK, but they eventually overnighted a replacement. The new power supply is from a different manufacturer and has been working flawlessly ever since.
I mention the downtime with the Quad Pro Thunder because I had to use my backup PC while I waited for the replacement part. I had two revelations at this point. First, the backup machine sounds like a propeller plane in comparison to the ADK. The old box was also a purpose-built audio machine, and while quieter than our older Mac workstations, it couldn't compete with the ADK in terms of silence. Second, although my backup machine has a slightly-slower Intel i5 processor, it has a different motherboard and RAM complement. When I pulled up the project I was working on when my ADK died, I found that I didn't have the CPU resources to run the session on the backup PC. The ADK reported a CPU load of 18%, but the old audio computer was overtaxed at 102%. Clearly there is something to be said about optimizing a workstation for audio, beyond just choosing the right processor.
Having tested two Mac-only Thunderbolt interfaces in the past, I was excited to learn that the LT-TB Thunderbolt LSlot card is now available for Lynx HILO [Tape Op #90] and Aurora [#73] converters. We replaced the LT-HD Pro Tools interface cards in our Aurora 16-VT converters with the LT-TB cards, and
we were ready in minutes. (Your Aurora may require a firmware update to accept the LT-TB card. The included manual clearly explains how to do this.)
According to Lynx, the LT-TB can be used in a chain of up to six Aurora converters. That would be 96 analog channels plus 96 digital channels on one Thunderbolt port. Theoretically, a six-port workstation could handle 1,152 channels. Please note that the LT-TB has two Thunderbolt ports — not one, but two. Evidently, the designers at Lynx appreciate the fact that it's hard to daisy-chain devices when there is only one port. (Cough, cough. Some other manufacturers. Cough, cough.)
Connecting the Lynx Aurora converters to my PC via Thunderbolt, I loaded the Lynx drivers. For this step, Lynx provides a cool test suite and a step-by-step guide for PC users. After verifying all of the connections, open the Lynx Demo application and follow the steps outlined in the comprehensive manual. This is an absolute treat for someone who often has to play Whac-A-Mole to get audio devices to work with Windows. (Mac users are also provided with a step- by-step guide.)
I launched Digital Performer 8 to conduct some tests. (If you had read that sentence a few years ago, you would have thought it was an April Fool's joke. But that's the new world we have — cats and dogs living together.) Setting up 24 tracks to record at 24-bit, 96 kHz was no problem. I decided to play back 24 tracks and record another 24. No problem — the LT-TB-equipped Auroras handled the test without any problems. Location recordings would be a dream with a Thunderbolt-equipped laptop. Way to go Lynx.
While the Thunderbolt protocol is one of the newer kids on the block, its Intel parentage, PCIe lineage, and sheer bandwidth make it a low-risk, high-reward option in my book.
I applaud Lynx for the amount of time it must have taken to research, implement, and test the LT-TB for both Mac OS and Windows. If you are a current Aurora or HILO user, don't worry about the inevitable upgrade of your computer. As long as your new system has Thunderbolt, you can bring your Lynx converters with you in confidence.
A Windows computer is a tempting proposition for audio professionals for many reasons. Just ask the Europeans, who rely on Windows much more than their counterparts in the United States. With a multitude of component choices, vendors are needing to compete with more features and lower prices. That translates into big value for the consumers. However, this choice comes at a price. You cannot always guarantee your fast video card will work well with your fast motherboard when it comes to real-time media production. That off-the-shelf box might be the fastest gaming computer around, but the demands of audio and video professionals are different from those of the gaming community. ADK is a professional group of integrators. They eat, breathe, and drink this stuff. All day, every day. They stress test their machines, and they are available to support you if you need them. Call them at night (before 7 PM Eastern) and you get a human — and not just a generic tech-support person, but an audio computer person. If you want a fast, quiet, reliable Windows workstation, please check out ADK. I'm sure ADK has updated their component choices and released faster systems since I started working on this review. And I wouldn't be surprised if an even faster system was released since you started reading this review!