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The End of the Tower?

No, not Tower Records (we already went through that), but the computer configuration that has served us well for decades—the tower.

No, not Tower Records (we already went through that), but the computer configuration that has served us well for decades—the tower. Whether vertically, or on its side in more of a server configuration, the flexibility of being able to add and remove components to customize a computer has always been crucial to pro audio/video needs.

A tower brought two big advantages: Internal cards that hooked directly to a computer’s main data bus gave higher performance than peripherals that had to go through additional software layers (on the downside, bus protocols have a limited life span, and it’s difficult to create peripherals designed to handle older cards). Still, whether for audio interfaces or graphics, cards offered a performance advantage. The other big tower advantage was custom storage flexibility, thanks to drive bays. Sure, you could fill it with hard drives, but I once had a tower with two CD-ROM drives specifically for working with sample libraries. When DVD-ROM drives appeared, you simply replaced the CD-ROM drive. Easy.

Strip away cards and storage, and you’re left with a processor, memory, power supply and ports. Add a system drive back in, though, and that basically describes the latest iMacs (and the new MacBook Air, too). It used to be an iMac was the perfect computer for a hair salon—it looked cool, didn’t take up much space, as it was basically a monitor, and any lack of power wasn’t a big issue for running spreadsheets and calendars. You wouldn’t think of using one for pro audio or video, but that’s not the case anymore. An iMac is competitive with the Mac Pro towers in terms of performance, especially if you trick out the iMac with more RAM. (Granted, the iMac tops out at 16 GB, compared to the Mac Pro’s theoretical 64 GB, but we all know where memory trends are going.)

The iMac recognizes that connectivity is rapidly becoming more important than the previous benchmarks by which we measured computers. After all, the most important component in your computer is data—and in the last few decades, there’s been a data explosion.

Software updates have hit multiple gigabytes. Companies are bypassing physical media for sample libraries in favor of digital downloads (speaking of which, when will record companies get the memo? But I digress). Video has graduated to data-sucking HD, while still images have gone from a few megapixels to 10, 15, even 20 megapixels. And while audio never did go to 24/96 kHz surround, most engineers switched from 16- to 24-bit recording, and some record in 96 or 88.2 kHz “just in case.”

We’ve previously covered highspeed data transfer protocols like Thunderbolt and USB 3.0; it’s currently not certain which will come out on top. But regardless of who wins the connectivity standards war (personally I think they’ll coexist, much like USB 2.0 did for consumers and FireWire for high-end video and graphics), Thunderbolt-equipped computers give us a preview of where computers are going, and it’s all about the data.

Even with multi-terabyte hard drives, there likely aren’t enough bays in your tower to cover your data storage needs. Storage systems need to be external, easily interchangeable, and most importantly, able to transfer data fast. This isn’t just about data-intensive projects, but backup; for serious studio workflow, we can’t wait for hours to move data around. I also expect that before long, computers won’t even have a standard hard drive for the operating system, but throw in an SSD and leave it at that. Already, programs with large libraries—which used to default to just storing everything on your system drive with the program— are asking you to specify the drive where you want to install the library.

Because of quantum improvements in peripherals, the advantages that towers offered become less relevant as connectivity becomes faster. Compared to a PCI audio interface card, USB 2.0 or FireWire is more convenient, with a minimal performance hit compared to an internal card. What’s more, when a card protocol dies, it never returns, whereas Thunderbolt proponents are talking about FireWire and USB adapters.

What does this all mean to the pro studio? Faster workflow, thanks to moving data faster. And forget the noisy towers sitting in a soundproof enclosure or machine room: You’ll just run a cable to where your hard drives live. Then again, you’ll probably save projects to external solid-state drives, and turn on the noisy, “spinning platters” hard drives only to do backup, which will take minutes instead ovf hours. The computer itself will take up little space, with the emphasis being on the display (like an iMac).

Increasingly, the physical computer will fade into the background, as the data it carries moves to the forefront. And with today’s data-intensive projects, that’s a change for the good.

Craig Anderton is executive editor of Electronic Musician magazine and editor in chief of