Review: Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt
How was Apogee going to make its audio interfaces any better? By doing what it always does; ushering in the next generation of technology.
Apogee is certainly not a company to sit about on its collective hands, or rest on its laurels. That said, with the quality of Apogee product already in the market, it could feasibly do so for a quite a while to come. Yet that doesn’t curtail the company’s relentless improvement of its digital audio offerings.
Apogee has been at the forefront of digital audio conversion since the very beginnings of the format, having been founded by Australian Bruce Jackson back in 1985, along with Christof Heidelberger and Soundcraft USA president, Betty Bennett. For many years, Apogee DACs and ADCs were the bastion of the professional sphere, with devices aimed at the upper echelon of the recording and mastering world. Yet from 2007, with the release of an audio interface aimed at the project studio market, the Firewire-based Ensemble interface brought top-shelf Apogee audio conversion to a far wider audience.
At the time I had the pleasure of auditioning and reviewing the original Ensemble, and as some may recall, opened a mini can of worms when in 2007 I described the Ensemble’s D/A conversion as “cuddly”. Well, let me assure you, the newly-minted Ensemble Thunderbolt is even cuddlier; it will be met by all and sundry with wide open arms.
It’s now eight years down the track, and Apogee’s continuation of the Ensemble heritage is quite a remarkable evolution. Gone is the original unit’s Firewire connectivity, supplanted by the wider, faster, and vastly more versatile Thunderbolt connectivity (Thunderbolt 2 provides 20Gb/s compared to Firewire 400’s paltry 0.4Gb/s — that’s 50 times the bandwidth). This fact alone leaves the Ensemble steadfastly within the realm of Apple computers — a strategy Apogee is more than comfortable with, having renounced development for Microsoft operating systems during early 2009.
Physically, the new Ensemble Thunderbolt is one of the sturdiest pieces of audio gear you’ll come across. The casing is constructed of 2mm thick steel. There’s not a scrap of aluminium to be seen here. Equally reassuring is the fact all the I/O ports are firmly bolted or screwed into the chassis, so there’ll be no fear of bending and damaging connectors held to the board by way of solder connection alone. Plus, in somewhat of a recent departure for Apogee, the Ensemble is black. Perhaps this is, in part, consistent with the rebadging game going on between Apogee and Avid (such as the Avid Duet and Quartet), or maybe it’s simply time for a new look and a move away from aping the old Mac Pro/Apple aesthetic. Either way, the blacker the better as far as I’m concerned.
EYE OH, EYE OH
The Ensemble’s I/O quotient is bountiful, and includes eight of Apogee’s high gain (75dB) mic preamps. The preamps incorporate Apogee’s Soft Limit clipping protection and saturation, 48V phantom power, and high-pass filters. All these features are switchable via software, or you can toggle through the input controls after holding the input button down for three seconds. And for the record, phantom power is switchable for individual channels. Connection to the majority of the I/O is via the rear, with the first four inputs being combo inputs for both XLR or jacks. The remaining four mic inputs are dedicated XLR inputs. Inputs 1 and 2 include inserts. These are set up with the useful arrangement of separate jacks for in and out as opposed to a single TRS jack. Outputs 1 and 2 are presented as balanced jack outputs with the remaining eight balanced analogue outputs presented via a 25-pin D-sub connector.
A further 16 I/O points are available via four TosLink/ADAT optical connectors, which can be configured for S/PDIF or S/MUX for 96k operation (fine for I/O expansion, or indeed, incorporating digital effects or instruments). Alongside the optical ports are coaxial S/PDIF in and out, wordclock in and out, and two Thunderbolt 2 ports. All up you’re looking at 30 x 34 I/O points (including the two quite loud and independently-controlled headphone outputs). Access to the entire I/O quotient will, of course, require additional ADAT interfaces, which leads me to wonder if Apogee has plans for a single rack unit, eight channel ADAT I/O unit (please oh pretty please, Apogee?).
NEED TO KNOW
OH(m) THE IMPEDANCE!
Out front are two additional high impedance instrument inputs. These incorporate Class A JFET circuitry for more pleasing harmonic character when recording guitar and bass. JFET circuits are extremely high impedance and are voltage-controlled rather than current-controlled like a solid-state transistor. Consequently a JFET circuit offers some attributes which are similar to vacuum tubes in the form of those additional harmonics we all love on guitars. What’s exciting about this section are the two additional instrument outputs. These are provided for re-amping duties, or indeed, strapping high impedance stomp-box effects across a track. Top marks Apogee – a creative gold mine built right into the interface.
I’ve seen many an audio interface, and nothing else can pull this trick with the correct impedance matching. Hence the market in outboard ‘re-amping’ devices to match line level interface I/Os with amplifiers and instruments. I’d recently re-built my pedalboard with a pile of 1980-ish stompboxes and had a grand ol’ time running all sorts through pedals. Drums through a Morley wah, vocals through a RAT pedal. Brilliant. An utterly exceptional feature thanks Apogee.
Top marks Apogee – a creative gold mine built right into the interface
Visual feedback such as metering and headphone output levels is delivered via OLED displays, or of course, via the downloadable Maestro 2 control panel software. Speaking of software, you’ll need to be running a minimum of version 10.9.3 of OSX (aka Mavericks). But more on that in a moment while we peruse the Ensemble’s front panel.
OLEDs certainly look set to be the next regime in metering. And while most will agree they look fantastic in their 21st-century sci-fi splendour, I can’t help feel they’re a tad dim. Sure, the higher resolution is wonderful, but I’d prefer to see them from a distance in a lit room. I’ve yet to see a device with OLEDs that includes a brightness control and the Ensemble is no exception.
Anyhow, putting that single gripe aside, straddling either side of the OLEDs are large detented potentiometers. The left side pot adjusts the selected input’s gain, and the right side pot adjusts monitoring level. A push on the right pot will mute or un-mute the main outputs, and a push on the left pot scrolls through the 10 primary input channels (1 through to 8 and the two guitar channels). To the left of the input level pot are dedicated backlit buttons for quickly selecting input channels for adjustment. Off to the right are four assignable buttons which can be assigned via the Maestro 2 application for dozens of functions. These can include options such as clearing meter peaks, through to toggling the guitar channel outputs from the DAW software or the guitar inputs.
What’s interesting is the ability to assign a button to engage talkback via the built-in front panel microphone. The talkback destination can be set to go to either or both of the headphone outputs, and Outputs 9–10. That’s right, the Ensemble Thunderbolt entirely negates the need for an external monitoring and speaker selection device. This ensures you’re hearing every skerrick of sonic goodness from the Ensemble without sullying the fidelity with an inferior monitoring unit. You can even assign outputs to three sets of monitors and choose to use an external mic for talkback. Absolute gold. Interestingly, the built-in talkback mic can also be routed to a channel and therefore its output is recordable (handy in a creative sense perhaps, but definitely useful for keeping Hansard records of each and every session).
THE ROUND TRIP
For decades, one of the more unfortunate aspects of CPU-based ‘native’ recording interfaces has been the issue of latency — ie. the delay experienced between the source material and the monitoring of that signal from a DAW via the studio monitors. When recording live performances this isn’t a huge issue, however, when it comes time to add overdubs, every millisecond of processing delay adds up. If the vocalist is hearing their voice some milliseconds after they sing, it can completely destroy a performance.
Years ago there were a couple of ways to get around this issue: either have your interface set for ‘direct monitoring’ (whereby the performer’s signal was monitored directly from the interface rather then via the DAW and its inherent processing lag), then adjust your recorded track to put it back in sync with the multi-tracked parts; or spend thousands of dollars on DSP-assisted recording interfaces such as Digidesign/Avid Pro Tools hardware. For the majority, the latter option was fiscally untenable, and direct monitoring and adjustment was the only choice.
Since then, CPU processing speeds have increased dramatically, along with the number of processing cores in a CPU, and wider processing buses such as PCIe, and now Thunderbolt. This has allowed latency figures to lower considerably. But go back 10 years and it was common to experience 5–8ms of delay between performance and monitoring. Apogee has made inroads into alleviating the latency headache, and made huge headway with its Symphony PCI and PCIe card-based systems. Apogee’s card-based platforms, combined with multi-core, high-speed processors do make latency an almost negligible consideration. Where Apogee’s technology gains its edge is when running at higher resolution sample rates such as 88.2 and 96k.
The new Ensemble with its Thunderbolt 2 connectivity competes side-by-side with DSP-assisted systems. At a low buffer setting of 32 samples in Logic ProX and running at 96k, Logic reported a round trip delay of a paltry 1.1 milliseconds. That’s a minuscule delay, and one which would never leave a performer feeling as if their monitoring could be slightly out of whack when listening via the DAW rather than directly monitoring from the interface. What this means for the engineer/operator is there’s no longer the need to reorganise patch and routing setups between tracking and overdubbing situations. It’s firstly a time-saver, and secondly, there’s less of a tendency to find tracks out of alignment when it comes time to mix.
Apogee has upped the ante yet again, with a definitive upgrade from more affordable units such as the Duet and Quartet. The Ensemble incorporates an ESS Sabre32 32-bit Hyperstream DAC with “Time Domain Jitter Eliminator”. What’s all that mean? It’s a new generation of audio digitising, that’s what! And while the Ensemble doesn’t quite outshine Apogee’s flagship Symphony I/O, it comes extremely close in specification. The Ensemble pulls a THD+N spec of -114dB (at 96k) and a dynamic range of 123dB for its D/A, while the Symphony I/O manages -117dB and a dynamic range of 129dB. There’s really not a lot in it. The resulting sonics are something to behold, with Apogee’s usual smooth and crisp high frequency reproduction, but with a bottom end that’s simply glorious. You’ve never heard your kicks captured and replayed like this before. Well, certainly not at this price. All in all, you’re going to have to look hard to find an interface which offers all the Ensemble can. Not at a price like this. Truly, yet another watershed release for Apogee, and as I mention, to be met wholeheartedly with open arms. There’s one thing which could make the Ensemble Thunderbolt better — a set of eight Apogee preamps ready to patch straight into the unit. Come on Apogee…