A typical digital audio workstation (DAW)-based recording system offers amazing functionality and quality, but can seem almost infinitely complex. Every year, DAW manufacturers introduce even more features to cover an ever-expanding set of workflows, while hardware manufacturers accrete more and more features in an effort to distinguish their products. In the end, how much of this complexity does the user need, or even fully understand? Does complexity enhance workflow, or get in the way of your creative process?
At Apogee, we design our audio interfaces to integrate simply and seamlessly into the creative workflow, where users are empowered to master their studio like a finely-crafted instrument. Steve Jobs once said “simple can be harder than complex,” and we’ve adopted this idea as a central tenet of our product design. It takes a great deal of engineering effort to achieve simplicity, and our new Ensemble Thunderbolt represents the pinnacle of this approach. Two specific innovations—the Creative User Interface and our low-latency, high-efficiency Thunderbolt driver—are key aspects that make Ensemble such an effortless interface to use.
Since the first Ensemble was introduced in 2007, Apogee has refined what we call the Creative User Interface, a concept whereby the highest priority controls are accessible from multiple locations, while more infrequently used controls are found exclusively in our control software, Apogee Maestro. For example, the monitor speaker output level, a control that you’ll probably want immediate access to throughout your session, may be adjusted from Ensemble’s front panel, from Apogee Maestro software, from your Mac’s keyboard or several locations in the OS. On the other hand, the optical I/O format is controlled from Maestro—you can set this once, then close the software so it’s out of your way.
The new Ensemble represents the most refined expression of this concept. We’ve included just the right amount of control and display on the front panel to access everything you’ll want onhand during your session and show you the hardware’s current state.
Ensemble’s low-latency, high-efficiency Thunderbolt driver allows you to adopt a greatly simplified workflow that just isn’t possible with many other interfaces.
To work around latency (the throughput delay inherent to any digital audio system), most audio interfaces offer a low-latency mixer, whereby a direct signal path from hardware input to output is created, and playback from the DAW is mixed with this direct path. As is often the case, the workaround solves one problem but creates others. This has led many interface manufacturers to mold their latency workarounds into complete ecosystems, with full mixing functionality, routing and plug-ins, all independent of the user’s DAW session. With each new release, these ecosystems become more and more complex.
At Apogee, we’ve taken an alternate approach: We’ve spent a significant amount of time to reduce throughput latency and increase driver efficiency so the low-latency mixer isn’t needed. This greatly simplifies your workflow, as monitor mixes, headphone mixes, plug-in processing, virtual instruments and other settings are all controlled from one window— your DAW session.
When developing an audio driver, greater efficiency results in lower latency— the more efficient the driver, the lower internal “safety” buffers and DAW software buffers may be set without dropouts, resulting in lower latency. Ensemble’s Direct Memory Access (DMA) Engine, at the heart of the driver, includes innovations that increase efficiency and lower latency.
The DMA Engine, running on Ensemble’s FPGA logic chip, allows Ensemble to read and write digital audio data directly with your computer’s memory, with minimal intervention of the computer’s CPU. By reducing the driver’s load on the CPU, the CPU is freed up for things like plug-ins and virtual instruments. Now, DMA is available to any Thunderbolt peripheral, so the difference is how we’ve implemented the data transfer process—it’s been precisely customized for the way that OS X Core Audio reads and writes data to memory. As an example, Ensemble features a full, 32-bit digital audio playback path from DAW to DAC. Your DAW outputs 32-bit data, Core Audio writes the data to memory, and Ensemble’s DMA Engine reads it directly and transmits it to Ensemble’s 32-bit DAC with minimal processing. While improvements of audio quality offered by the 32-bit signal path remain uncovered here, the gains in efficiency are undeniable.
The driver’s high efficiency means that, given a specific session with its tracks, plug-ins and virtual instruments, you can set the DAW software buffer to a lower setting without encountering drop-outs. The driver’s low latency means that at a specific buffer setting, the throughput latency from mic to headphones will be lower than ever. Team these advantages with Ensemble’s Creative User Interface and you have an audio interface that seamlessly integrates into your working environment and encourages your creativity.
Roger Robindoré is apogee’s director of product evangelism.