Thunderbolt has finally come of age on the PC and that’s mostly what I’ll be talking about. It’s caused a lot of confusion in the industry – to me as much as anyone – but the dust is starting to settle and everything is becoming clearer at last! In other news we have the continuing illuminated keyboard wars, ImageLine re-writes FL Studio Mobile for every platform, Unfiltered Audio give us an alarming amount of delay, Microsoft woo us with the Surface Studio and a nice big knob, IK Multimedia believe they’ve physically modelled the talent of a bass player, and we have some weird new MIDI controller from Joue. Throw in some updates on the what we’re doing at Molten and that sounds like plenty.
The video version is below – text follows after if you prefer to keep reading:
Thunderbolt on Windows has been one of those really annoying technologies that just refused to get off the ground. It’s been very much like the early days of Firewire. Firewire appeared on Apple Mac computers at the end of the last century and very quickly audio manufacturers took advantage of the technology and data bandwidth to create multi-channel, low latency audio interfaces. The PC world sort of snorted and ignored it and then occasionally added it as a surprise port on a laptop which then failed to work with firewire audio interfaces. While the audio manufacturers built interfaces to work with the Apple version of the technology PC makers were free to use whatever substandard version they liked – bad times. It eventually worked itself out on Windows just as Apple discontinued it. We’re in the same situation again. Apple added Thunderbolt to the Mac in 2011. It’s since been through a couple of iterations and is now, as Thunderbolt 3, the only port on the new MacBooks.
Over on Windows we’ve been struggling to get Thunderbolt 1 and 2 into existence and working. Part of the problem has been the lack of native Windows support – the other half of the problem has been the lack of Thunderbolt devices that run on Windows. I’ve had Thunderbolt 1 and 2 available on our systems for a couple of years but they’ve only been any good for running Firewire audio interfaces via an Apple TB to FW adapter. While Thunderbolt audio interfaces have been available they’ve not been supported on Windows.
To add to the big stinking pile of general confusion TB 3 arrived with the same physical port as USB 3.1 – now that has been becoming available on PC motherboards and laptops but only as USB3.1 – so although it looks like a TB3 port and is the same as a TB3 port unless it has TB3 technology behind it it will not support TB3 devices. Confused? You should be! To start with I was annoyed that USB3.1 and TB3 shared the same port, however, the port, known as USB-C is so awesome because it’s physically small and is reversible so you no longer have to go through the three tries to get a USB cable plugged in. So it’s a good choice of port and because it supports USB then it’s the only port we’ll ever need going forward – it’s simply that the TB support is often unclear. So although the whole Apple thing of using only USB-C ports is annoying for older gear needing adapters it does push the technology forward which is exactly what it needs to become more standardised.
So can you add Thunderbolt to your system? No, you cannot. It has to be built into the motherboard, the technology has to be baked into the chipset of the system – that’s what gives it the high performance and data throughput. It also comes with a high component cost which is why it’s only implemented on high-end motherboards. Motherboards by Asus, a very popular brand, throw in some more confusion by having TB as an option – it makes it appear as if there’s a TB card you can plug in – which there is but it’s only for Asus boards that have the TB port and technology built into the motherboard. You cannot use it on any other board.
Along with the USB-C port the other compelling advantage is the speed. Regular USB 3 which we all have runs at 5Gbps, USB 3.1 doubles that to 10Gbps. TB2 ups it again to 20Gbps and TB3 goes all the way to 40Gbps, so, you know, that’s pretty bloody awesome.
So why are we talking about this now? Well, there’s been a breakthrough in Windows and Thunderbolt. Hooray! I hear you say. Hooray indeed. Microsoft have been saying for some time that they’ve done the work to allow TB 3 to work natively in Windows – however this didn’t appear to change anything. But in the last month both Focusrite and Universal Audio have announced Windows drivers for their Thunderbolt interfaces – at last we have something fabulous to run on Thunderbolt. Now the key factor here is that it has to be Thunderbolt 3 – that is the support criteria. Even though the interfaces themselves are using TB1 and TB2 ports the TB support on Windows is only on TB3. I spoke to my friendly human at Microsoft and he said that the engineers wanted to put the work into the most future facing technology – and that meant TB3. What this means is that although TB1 and TB2 work in Windows – and I’ve had a Focusrite Clarett working fine on those ports – it does not have native Windows support. This is to do with resource balancing and hot plugging – TB3 has explicit support in Windows 10 so it will work flawlessly. That’s what the audio interface makers needed – they needed that assurance of compatibility and performance – and that’s what we’ve now got.
Now of course because the Clarett and Apollo range of interfaces have older TB1 and TB2 sockets on them you’ll have to get an adapter to make it work. Awesome! There are currently 3 that I’m aware of. There’s one from Startech for about £80 which I’ve tried and have here, one from Kanex which I cannot find available in the UK yet but goes for $99 in the US and there’s one from Apple themselves which is a steal at £29 – however there’s lots of unhappy people on the Apple website complaining that it didn’t really work for them. From what I can gather it looks like it’s unable to supply power. It’s not available in the UK until the end of November. So it looks like the Startech is what you need at the moment.
The final bit of annoyance with it all is that TB doesn’t show up in your Device Manager as anything useful until you plug in a TB device. It’s invisible and you never know if you’ve got it installed correctly or not. What you should know is that your system must support it at a motherboard level – there must be a TB port or an expansion card with a TB port on – you must have installed the TB software and when you plug something in for the first time you much approve its use by clicking on it in the TB software. It is designed to drive us all crazy but these things should get easier.
So that is it – hopefully this means that USB3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 will become the defacto standard of peripheral connection and we can get past all this mess with adapters and compatibility. It can run a pair of 5k screens, run power in both directions and is backwards compatible to all USB and even firewire gear with the right adapters. It could change the face of the I/O shield on the back of your PC forever. Let’s hope so.
I have a Focusrite Clarett 2Pre and I’ll be doing a full review of that running on Windows 10 very soon.
As you may be aware I am the foremost authority on backlit keyboard shortcut keyboards. First I did a review of an Editors Keys one, then Logic Keyboard sent me a competing keyboard that had a little light – then they sent me a properly backlit one which I did a review of a few weeks ago. Now Editors Keys are back telling me they have a version 2 that’s all singing and dancing with multiple shortcuts per key. Will this never end? They are not as far as I can tell available yet but I’m sure they’re awesome. Honestly I feel I’ve fulfilled my keyboard review obligations and really don’t have the time for any more. However, I would like to give away the ones I have in exchange for likes and cuddles. So if you’d like either the Editors Keys Studio One light up keyboard or the Logic Keyboard illuminated Pro Tools one then please do any of the following – like our Facebook page and comment under the facebook post of this video as to which one you’d like – follow us on Twitter and retweet and comment which one – or subscribe to the YouTube channel and comment again on which one you’d like. You are welcome to do all three – I’ll put your names in a hat at the end of the month and it’ll be a xmas preset for someone.
FL Studio Mobile 3
Image Line are amazing. They are innovative and exciting and boldly go where others fear to tread. They have a brand new version of their mobile music making app and they are making it available on everything. It will be on Android, iOS, Windows phone and Windows 10 as a proper universal app. It can also be run as a plugin inside desktop FL Studio which is completely bizarre. It’s a complete change from the pervious version. The last version was a bit toy-like and easily ignored, version 3 is a proper looking DAW – simple but not patronising. It has proper tracks of stuff, piano roll and step sequencing. It has a side panel with proper grown up parameters for the effects and synths included. I’ve played with it on the Surface and the latency is pretty darn good for using the onboard sound – it’s designed for touch and is the perfect app for Windows tablet music making. Should be available any day now.
Sandman Pro Unfiltered Audio
I love Unfiltered Audio plug-ins. Following on from the amazing Dent distortion comes the Sandman Pro delay plug-in. It features the same shouty interface, with lots going on and an immense modulation system of LFO’s that can be patching into anything from anywhere. It’s just lovely and an awful lot of fun. It’s $99 and worth every penny.
You probably saw the new Microsoft Surface Studio that was announced at the event back in October. Looks amazing, a real iMac killer of a machine. I would love to know how well it could run audio software. I did a video all about it so I won’t go on about it here – go check that out. I’ve also just got my hands on a Surface Book, lent to me from Microsoft, so I can finally see how capable it is of running music software. Check out the Surface Session videos on this channel for more on that. And also I’m looking forward to doing interesting things with the Surface Dial if it ever appears in the UK. In fact if you’re in the USA and would like to send me one then please get in touch.
IK Multimedia Modo Bass
IK Multimedia like to get a bit excitable about things and with their new Modo Bass instrument they seem to believe that they’ve invented physical modelling. Physical or acoustic modelling is where you build a computer model of how materials behave acoustically – how strings vibrate, how the body resonates and it’s able to produce very lifelike and also very editable sounds. They’ve modelled a dozen amazing bass guitars and you can tweak all sorts of things like string thickness, action, pickup position and so on. However, they also claim to have captured the performance of how the bass is played so it will sound like it’s being played by a master bass person and not just you plonking on your keyboard. What they’ve actually done is modelled the different ways the fingers or pick interact with the strings – so it sounds different with fingers, or slap or picked – which seems like a pretty obvious factor to me and is what you find in sample based instruments. I have no doubt that it sounds awesome although I’m not that sure that it was an area of virtual instruments that was particularly lacking. It retails for a whopping €359 but if you need to get that bass sound just so then this is the thing for you.
Joué pressure sensitive midi controller
Now here’s a weirdly wonderful MIDI controller coming out of France called Joue. It’s a tactile, modular and pressure sensitive piece of hardware that can be all sorts of things and generate all sorts of data. There’s the usual things like pads, knobs and XY controls but also more unusual things like the guitar fretboard and wobbly looking nipple things. It looks a lot like playdoh or the stuff that strawberry laces are made from. It’s modular so on the main board you can swap out different controllers depending on what you’re doing. It looks weird but oddly adorable. But havent we seen this before? Last year there was a Kickstarter campaign for something called Sensel Morph which provided a pressure sensitive surface on which you placed squashy collections of controls in a very similar way. I think all these things are wonderful – I love a bit of haptic feedback and the modular nature of the controls and the ability to access MPE control over your sounds. Will any of it actually appear? Dunno – the Joue is coming soon and the Sensel Morph has been on “pre-order” forever.
The Audio PC
Last month I mentioned the release of The Audio PC, a new website resource full of helpful and cool information about making music on computers – yeah well it’s still under construction and I’ll chip away at as and when I can. Sorry it’s taking longer than hoped but there’s only one of me. However our range of The Audio PC computers are available now and the large version is also fully Thunderbolt 3 compatible with Focusrite and Universal Audio interfaces – and any other TB interfaces for that matter. In case you didn’t know I built the PC that Focusrite did their driver development on – and we have that exact computer available as our high-end Studio Pro workstation.
It’s all about me this month. I’ve just started another project entitled “Molten Modular” with the intention of it being a series of articles and videos about my personal journey into modular synthesis. It’s hard going. Just when I think I can take the enormous step of choosing a case and buying a module I have a massive loss of confidence and can’t seem to cope with making that decision. I think it could make for an interesting series and journey of discovery but I’m really out there in unknown territory and I’m not sure I have the time to devote to it in order to understand the technology and terminology. I believe modular could be so much more accessible and I think I can unravel some of it and make it easier for people to take that step – but it’s hard – especially if you have a tiny budget and only want to take small steps. Maybe it’s too difficult – I don’t know. If this is something you’re interested in and would appreciate me looking into further then please encourage me in it – express your interest and I’ll see what I can do.
In the next couple of weeks I will be working on a review of the Clarett 2Pre, a review of Yeco controller software, I’ll be starting my testing of the Surface Book and hopefully early in December I’ll pump out a Molten Monthly with my stocking filler recommendations and best things of the year. In the meantime if you enjoy me talking about gear then you’ll find me over at gearnews.com every day writing about synths and software – it’s the only music technology news site you’ll ever need inbetween Molten Music Monthlies. Don’t forget to share and comment if you’d like to win one of those illuminated keyboards.