Alistair McGhee checks out the world’s first bus-powered four-channel Thunderbolt interface from the new NYC-based manufacturer.
The death of the ISA bus, the lack of Windows 7 drivers and beer. All have taken out much-loved audio interfaces. With two of the three untimely demises down to obsolescence, buying outside the crowd takes a bit of courage, which punchy newcomers Resident Audio seem to have by the bucket.
The upstart firm out of New York City has launched not one but two affordable Thunderbolt-based audio interfaces. And boasting a design guru with a backstory at ESI, Resident may be new but there’s plenty of audio interface experience under the hood.
Now you can probably shake your cynical old head and reel off 20 reasons for ignoring Thunderbolt – but I’m going to be contrarian and cheer for the underdog. If Apple in cahoots with Intel can be called the underdog.
Why is Thunderbolt a good idea? Well, first because Thunderbolt is PCIe-configured for outside the box and that means cool things – big bandwidth, low latency and an adapter cable to your existing firewire interface is twenty quid. Pretty neat from the legacy perspective. Of course every new Mac, bar the new MacBook, that rolls off the line has a Thunderbolt port and much of our industry is OSX-centric. And as Thunderbolt is not just PCIe but also DisplayPort it doesn’t necessarily even add an extra port. Not last or least, the Thunderbolt power bus offers 18V and carries 10W of power.
What can you do with a mighty 10W of power? Well, Resident Audio can make a T4 interface with four mics amps – all with 48V phantom – and power them all down the interface cable and then throw one of them in with the T4. Now Resident’s silicon supremo (the enigmatically named ‘Chess’) claims that even with the extra electrons provided by Thunderbolt, Resident has had to implement some custom chip wizardry to get this to work. I suppose time will tell. At the moment Zoom’s TAC 2 seems to be the only bus-powered alternative, but offers only two mic amps.
Call me lazy but not having to plug in a wall wart makes me feel like a better person, so bus power is good news. The T4 is at the affordable end of the market and I wasn’t expecting the rather satisfying heft of the product in my hand. This is well made kit.
The front panel has four combi XLR/jack inputs (MIDI in and out round the back) with individual gain controls, some switches for selecting line or instrument inputs and a 48V phantom switch. There are also two more controls – the big one labelled monitor and a smaller knob for ‘input mix’. The T4 does need a driver on OSX and the software comes on a rather neato folding credit card-style USB stick. My Mac has Yosemite 10.10.2 and the install was painless.
Let’s start with inputs. Open your DAW (Reaper in my case) and select the T4 and you will have four inputs available for recording. The software panel has some metering for inputs and outputs and gain control for outputs. The panel also allows sample rate selection; buffersize is controlled by your DAW.
Each input knob has a wrap-around tri-colour LED (as does the input to mix control), which indicates signal level. It’s enough visual feedback to get you in the zone – use your DAW’s meters for fine grain adjustments. The mic amps are clean and capable of getting your audio goodness down. Against my Nagra LB using a Neumann KM 184, I thought the Resident was possibly a shade brighter and a tad thicker in the low mids. Moving to dynamics I tried SM58s and my SQN mixer. Again, the T4 did a fine job but was slightly noisier than the SQN. As you might expect, all in all high-quality sound.
At 44.1 and 24-bit I worked my way down the buffer sample size. The absolute bottom seems to be about 14 samples. At 16 samples I was able to record all four inputs and record a three-minute song without problems. This was into a clean EDL. Having got four tracks down, I was able to play them back with no processing or effects and record another four tracks. Reaper declares this latency to be round about 1ms, which we will take with a ladle of salt. But not too shabby. More complex EDLs are going to require an adjustment to the buffers. And with just the Thunderbolt connection, phantom to three Neumanns and an AKG wasn’t a problem, and often overlooked there was ample headphone drive.
And so on to outputs. You have five – four line level (with output three doubling as a second headphone output) and one headphone output. In stereo mode, your monitors are plugged into outputs one and two and the level is controlled by the monitor knob on the front panel – as is the volume to your headphones.
When you plug up all four outputs then you automatically engage multichannel output mode. Now the monitor knob controls the headphone levels while the line outputs are controlled from the software panel. In multichannel mode the input mix control feeds only the headphones, while in stereo mode it also mixes the inputs with the stereo line output. Confused? I kind of am too, but it all seems to work and keeps things clean and simple.
I like the T4 – it is an intriguing blend of high-quality sound and finish with functional and operational simplicity. There’s no digital I/O or word clock but the sound, convenience and usability make it a worthy flag bearer for Thunderbolt. And if you want that package cheaper and smaller and only need two mic inputs, then the T2 is a steal.
Alistair McGhee began audio life in Hi-Fi before joining the BBC as an audio engineer. After 10 years in radio and TV, he moved to production. When BBC Choice started, he pioneered personal digital production in television. Most recently, Alistair was assistant editor, BBC Radio Wales and has been helping the UN with broadcast operations in Juba.
Synthax Audio is the UK distributor for Resident Audio products.
Synthax Audio (UK) Ltd
Tel: +44 (0) 1727 821 870