Today’s Laptop Recording Guerrilla has a stringent set of needs if he expects to excel in our ultra-competitive environment. Portability, durability, flexibility, worthy converters, headroom and latency are all areas where shortcomings can cost dearly. One of the most forward-thinking solutions I’ve seen lately for portable recording is the T4 Thunderbolt interface from Resident Audio: a device with solid fundamentals, numerous conveniences and a few shortcomings that leave room for improvement.
Long Island-based Resident Audio appears to have the only four input, bus-powered (no wall wart!) Thunderbolt-based interface on the market. It’s bus powered in that the T4 draws its 18V of operating power from the 10 watts available via Thunderbolt. That power (with some clever engineering) allows the use of 48V phantom power globally, across all four front-panel combo inputs. The T4 is compatible with both Mac and PC OS (tested here on a 2012 MacBook Pro with El Capitan OS 10.11.5), and Thunderbolt is its only interconnection method.
Such connection promises low latency (Resident Audio quotes around one millisecond of latency), ample throughput and, yes, a short 18-inch Thunderbolt cable is kindly provided. One single front-panel big knob controls monitoring levels for both headphones and line outs. A Mix control allows the blending of computer playback with direct input monitoring for zero-latency performance. Four configurable quarterinch TRS outputs and a quarter-inch headphone jack are back panel-mounted and serve multiple purposes, depending on operational mode.
In Stereo mode, both line outs and headphone out follow the Mix control and the big knob level, whilst output 3 acts as a second headphone out. In Multichannel mode (auto engaged once a plug is inserted into line output 4), the four line outs become mono with individual levels set via the T4’s control software app; users lose the secondary headphone out and only the headphone output follows the Mix and big knob controls.
The T4 earned my respect right out of the box with a solid feel, heft and a form factor that I deem “backpack-friendly.” Upon operating with bus power, applying phantom power and not sensing any power sag, I realized that this T4 could be a serious solution for hotel room/tour bus production needs.
Upon connecting three LDCs for some very light (yet dynamic) acoustic guitar fingerpicking, I cranked up input gain, watched the circular meters begin their multi-hued glow and heard the T4’s nice mic amps. In those, I found reasonably good headroom, low noise floor, a lack of harshness and full frequency response that accentuated low-mids just a touch.
Seeing as latency is my bane, I immediately compared direct input with computer playback: no discernible time delay. At 44.1 kHz with a buffer setting of 64 samples, the T4 sounded darn near instant, with a 32-sample buffer working just fine, too. In fact, I preferred monitoring through the computer as I could create an idealinput blend of my multiple mics and use plug-ins. How odd—I crave direct input monitoring on a plethora of devices that desperately need such a feature and then when I get it, I don’t need it!
The T4 is not perfect, however. One big problem is the big knob. It controls monitoring levels for both headphone and monitor outputs and that’s terribly inconvenient if you’re doing anything but working alone. The input gain knobs are too small, not knurled and slightly tapered; with them snugly positioned right between the combo inputs, only a child’s fingers could easily get around them. The Mix knob is even smaller and hard to grip, too. As happy as I am to see a Thunderbolt cable provided, 18 inches is just too short for a crowded desktop and a second connection would be useful, too. Front-panel headphone jacks and levels would be sweet as well.
For reference, here’s a cover of the Steely Dan classic “Any Major Dude” performed by Grey Revell, as recorded entirely with the T4 and a MacBook Pro: https://soundcloud.com/pro-audio-review-magazine/resident-audio-t4-records-any-major-dude-w-grey-revell .
Despite a few inconveniences, the T4 is an excellent choice for solo recordists and their mobile recordings. This isn’t a “studio” piece: it can’t be hardwired into a patchbay (due to the Multichannel mode); it doesn’t easily provide a separate engineer’s monitoring path; it doesn’t have precision metering; it doesn’t really offer an ergonomic design. Its multichannel mode and bus powering may actually make the T4 more advantageous for live use.
But four nice full-sounding preamps, solid build, convenient bus power and two ways of avoiding latency issues? That, my friends, makes it a winner. Finally, it’s street-priced at $249. Thus I say to novices, misers and dinosaurs alike, “It’s time to retire that old USB interface, get on the T4 Thunderbolt bandwagon and start enjoying latency-free work for the price of a cheap smartphone.”
And, for what it’s worth, I speak here, directly to Resident Audio: Please put two of those four combo jacks on the rear, two headphone jacks with levels up front, plump up the knobs, add a meter with a legend and another Thunderbolt connection. Call it the T4+, and we’ll all buy it at $400, rest assured.