Thunderbolt: The future of Pro Tools

Whether you know it as Thunderbolt or Light Peak, a new communication protocol has arrived, and there’s no denying the fact that it will have a major impact on the audio industry over the next few years.

On the 24th February, Apple announced a new range of MacBook Pros which featured a brand new technology called Thunderbolt. Developed by Intel under the name Light Peak, it is an ultra-high bandwidth interface which can achieve transfer rates of up to 10 Gbps in both directions, and is touted to be capable of up to 100 Gbps. It combines PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies into a single stream, meaning that all manner of devices such as displays, hard drives, audio devices and video cameras can be connected to the same port. Most importantly, they can all be connected to one another and accessed at the same time.

Thunderbolt is certainly capable of – and possibly even destined to – replace existing Firewire and USB ports. At its core, Thunderbolt is an implementation of PCI Express, which is the core the I/O bus in modern computers and the format of the card slots inside a Mac Pro. The FireWire and USB ports are essentially PCI Express to FireWire/USB adapters, so creating an adapter to connect existing interfaces should be simple. But Thunderbolt sockets mean that technologies that used to rely on the card slots in tower computers now have a means to connect to a laptop. In the audio world, that’s very interesting news for Pro Tools.

Avid’s flagship audio system is the Pro Tools HD platform, and the key to its success is that it uses dedicated processing cards to handle all the mixing and processing duties. This dedicated processing, which comes courtesy of Accel cards, means a Pro Tools system can handle massive levels of processing that are simply unobtainable using your computer’s processor alone. But these DSP cards are PCI Express cards, and they require the slots of a tower computer such as a Mac Pro, meaning that a portable system wasn’t really on the cards. Until now.

Thunderbolt means that laptop users now have access to PCI Express technology, which means that Avid can potentially develop a version of the Pro Tools HD technology that can connect to a Thunderbolt port rather than the internal PCIe slots on a desktop machine. And guess what? While Intel’s development of the technology has only just made it into the mainstream, some developers have been working on applications for it for a while now. Apple is one. And Avid is another.

The video below is from IDF 2010, and shows Bridge technology being used in a laptop. The laptop is connected to a prototype Avid Pro Tools HD audio interface and the computer is running Pro Tools HD. And as you can see, there are no PCI Express cards in sight. Clearly Avid are taking Thunderbolt very seriously, and already have prototype Pro Tools HD hardware available. How long it will be before it reaches the market is anybody’s guess, but its a certainty that the future of the Pro Tools HD platform is Thunderbolt. I’d be surprised if we don’t see a new Thunderbolt-ready Pro Tools HD system that MacBook Pro users can hook up to by the end of summer.

To view the video, click on the thumbnail below. To pose a Pro Tools question to our audio experts, call 03332 409 306, email or leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you shortly.

Rob H
Rob H
Call us: 03332 409 306

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