Thunderbolt connections (namely Thunderbolt 3) are quickly becoming the gold standard in audio interface data transfer.
They're just so much faster than a USB connection and even Firewire (which is still largely compatible with Thunderbolt ports, given the correct adapter) meaning the Thunderbolt interfaces that exist now will continue to grow in popularity, while more will hit the market in the near future.
As we look through some of these interfaces, Apple computers will be our assumption and our context.
While certain PC motherboards and add-in cards do support a Thunderbolt connection, the lion's share of users default to a Mac pairing, since Apple has been shipping their computers with a Thunderbolt port since early 2011.
The pairing of a Thunderbolt audio interface and a Mac computer has quickly become one of the music industry's most popular technical couplings, providing users with the following benefits:
- 20 - 40 GB of transfer speed
- Combination of PCIExpress, DisplayPort and DC power
- Protocol compatible with old Firewire devices
- Extremely low latency
Thunderbolt truly does it all, from the bedroom YouTuber, all the way to the professional audio engineer.
We'll look at the industry's best Thunderbolt audio interfaces within a wide range of prices.
Here are a few features we'll keep an eye on:
- Onboard DSP (effects processing)
- Number of inputs/outputs
- TRS inputs (for guitar, of course)
- Monitor and headphone outputs
We'll cover the following interfaces:
Focusrite's Clarett series has four different Thunderbolt audio interfaces to choose from, accommodating a wide range of situations and input needs.
Here's a list of each iteration with corresponding i/o:
- Clarett 2Pre: 2 inputs and 4 line level outputs
- Clarett 4Pre: 4 Inputs and 4 line outputs
- Clarett 8Pre: 8 inputs and 8 line level outputs
- Clarett 8PreX: 16 inputs (back panel) plus 2 TRS (front panel) and 8 line level outputs
The difference between each product is primarily a matter of scope, meaning that those who need a larger recording capacity (studios and professional environments) will want to opt for Clarett models that support more i/o.
Do you need to record drum kits (with each element mic'd individually) a lot of vocalists or perhaps several layers of guitar?
In that environment, you might want to opt for something larger, like the 8Pre or 8PreX.
For example, the Clarett 8PreX boasts eight mic inputs on the back of the unit.
Eight mic inputs on the back of the Focusrite Clarett 8PreX. (View Larger Image)
This is obviously going to be more useful and applicable for a professional recording studio where you might need to track a lot of different channels at once.
A typical setup could look something like this:
Diagram of a possible Clarett 8PreX setup. | View Larger Image
Additional diagram of a possible Clarett 8PreX setup. | View Larger Image
From these graphics it's easy to see how so many inputs and outputs can be quickly used up.
What if I just want a small and simple setup?
On the other end of the spectrum, the Clarett 2Pre caters to much smaller environments with two mic/line inputs and a headphone monitoring system, all on the front panel.
Focusrite Clarett 2Pre Thunderbolt audio interface. (View Larger Image)
Those multi-purpose inputs on the front panel can handle either microphones or TRS instrument cables, ideal for garden-variety one or two person recording gigs.
All the software and eight additional digital channels are also included.
A recording setup might look something like this:
The Clarett 4Pre setup on a desktop. | Image via Focusrite
Instead of a rackmount unit, the smaller 2Pre and 4Pre are made to sit on a desktop, like the image above.
Even with the limited outputs and inputs, you still get many of the same features that we see in the larger units, for a fraction of the price. For those who don't need a complex or multi-facited recording setup, these smaller options are ideal.
Here's a behind the scenes look at the Clarett 2Pre in a similar scenario.
Lower latency, software, extra headroom, digital conversion, low noise and even the iOS app are all still included.
The 4Pre is a nice balance of both extremes, with a few extra inputs even as it retains a smaller desktop-friendly size and cheaper price tag.
It'll be the most optimal version of the Clarett for most basic recording situations.
Cheaper USB alternative?
Focusrite's Scarlett range, with its USB connection, is far cheaper.
The interface on the front panel is slightly different, replacing the two multi-purpose inputs with a single mic and TRS jack.
It "feels" cheaper than the Clarett, but in fairness, you'd expect as much when a $400 price difference is in play.
Thunderbolt isn't cheap.
Of the entire Focusrite Thunderbolt and USB series, the Clarret 4Pre is our favorite.
Clarett 4Pre Connectivity
- TRS: 4 total (Four mic/TRS combos)
- Mic: 4 total (Four mic/TRS combos)
- Monitors: 4 Line Level Outputs
- Reamp: n/a
- Headphone monitors: Up to two
The Apollo Twin is small, designed for desktops and small studio spaces in a perfectly square shape, a far cry from its older rackmounted sibling.
With the smaller size, inputs are limited to one TRS jack on the front and two multi-function inputs on the back panel. This is enough for a simple setup with one or two instruments.
One of Universal Audio's flagship features is its simulated analog tone, meant to replicate some of the company's classic analog recording equipment.
This comes in the form of plug-ins (they work with all major DAWs) that give you more of an authentic analog recording experience. Fans of tube preamps, vocal limiting and vintage recording gear will be particularly pleased with this feature.
Simulate vintage recording gear with the Apollo Twin. | Image via Universal Audio
The analog to digital conversion and emulation are the primary attractions involved with this particular Thunderbolt audio interface.
This short promo video gives us a cool look at those features in use and the context of the Apollo Twin.
Other Notable Features of the Apollo Twin
With the Thunderbolt connection latency is practically non-existent.
That same Thunderbolt connection can be used to cascade devices as your studio needs grow, allowing you to use the MKII with larger Universal Audio interfaces like the Apollo 8.
A multi-unit Thunderbolt connection would look something like this:
Connecting multiple Thunderbolt audio interfaces to the same computer. (View Larger Image)
In this scenario you'd have multiple units where one interface serves as the "monitor unit" and the rest serve as "expander units." This means you can expand your studio with nicer equipment, while not losing the inputs you've already paid for in small devices like the Applo Twin.
The newer version also supports improved monitoring controls, with the following features:
- Talkback to artists
- Dedicated monitor controls
- Speaker switching
The Unison software provides a wealth of guitar and bass amp emulation technology, adding further to its vintage gear credentials.
A cheaper USB alternative?
At $720, the Twin MKII is far from budget-friendly.
However, if you don't need the professional edge or the Thunderbolt connection, a cheaper alternative might be the Steinberg URMKII, hovering around $125.
It's only two channels, but for smaller recording environments or solo work, it'll do the job.
Who is the ideal buyer?
At over $700 retail, Apollo Twin MKII is one of the more expensive desktop audio interfaces available, as it's heavily-loaded with professional recording features.
In that respect, it's most ideal for small studios that are just starting out and plan to expand to devices with more i/o capability that can be daisy-chained with the MKII, if and when they're added to the fray.
Those without ambition for expanding their studio capabilities will still be well-served by the MKII on its own.
Apollo Twin MKII Connectivity
- TRS: 3 total (One TRS input on front panel and two mic/TRS combos on back panel)
- Mic: 2 total (Two mic/TRS combos)
- Monitors: Up to 2
- Reamp: n/a
- Headphone monitors: One
As we get into Universal Audio's high-end Thunderbolt audio interfaces, their good standing in the recording industry market is quickly apparent.
The Apollo 8P is one of the standard-bearers when it comes to professional recording, giving you all the perks we saw in the Apollo Twin, along with a slew of additional flexibility and expanded i/o.
Buying a unit like this is a truly an investment, though you can be certain it will give your studio, or your own production, an air of professionalism that can't be obtained with smaller devices.
Here are a few producers and artists who use the Apollo series:
- Fab Dupont (Jennifer Lopez, Shakira)
- Dan Auerbach
- Mick Guzauski (Daft Punk, Eric Clapton)
- Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, Fun)
- Dave Pensado (Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5)
- Tony Platt (AC/DC, Buddy Guy)
As you can see, this unit (and several iterations of it) are extremely popular within the professional audio engineering community.
Here is a quick list of the lineup in the Apollo 8 series:
There's also a Firewire version, which we won't delve into here, since this article is focused on Thunderbolt audio interfaces.
The four listed are all Thunderbolt 2 devices, while differences between each one are largely a matter of i/o numbers. However, keep in mind that the Apollo 8 Duo and Quad version is simply referring to processor type.
Otherwise, the Quad and Duo are the exact same unit.
Thus, you're primarily dealing with two different options: The 8 and 8P
Here's a brief comparison chart:
Universal Audio Apollo 8 and 8P Comparison Chart
UAD-2 QUAD or DUO Core
Microphone preamps: 4
Total Inputs: 6 (two Hi-z)
Outputs: 8 (10 including monitor outs)
$1999 - $2499
UAD-2 QUAD Core
Microphone preamps: 8
Total Inputs: 10 (two Hi-z)
Outputs: 6 (Eight including monitor outs)
Back panel of Apollo 8
Back panel of Apollo 8P
It's mostly a matter of how many microphone inputs and preamps you need at your disposal. The 8P has eight mic/line ins, while the 8 Duo and Quad both have four, which is still enough for most recording situations.
On both units you have the two extra Hi-z instrument inputs on the front panel.
Once again, extra mic preamps could be helpful for something like recording a drumset or handling a larger number of vocalists.
Notable Features of the Apollo 8 Thunderbolt Audio Interface
Whether you're looking at the 8 or 8P models, there are a number of noteworthy features that are present in both versions.
First, the Thunderbolt 2 connections go two ways, allowing you to hook multiple units together, as you noticed in the graphic we showed you with the Twin MKII.
Cascading connection of multiple Apollo 8 rackmount units. | Image via Universal Audio
Tons of UAD plugins are also available for additional purchase, along with the same preamp and analog emulations we mentioned with the Twin MKII.
Dual headphone monitors, each with its own preamp, are also included on the front panel.
If you need something that's at the top of the food chain, the Apollo 8 series gets you there pretty quickly.
It's a big investment, but not a bad value considering the quality of product you're getting in return. If you need a ton of mic preamps, we would advise grabbing two of the 8Ps and then daisy-chaining them together.
Apollo 8P Connectivity
- TRS: 10 total (Two Hi-z inputs on front panel and eight mic/TRS combos)
- Mic: 8 total (Eight mic/TRS combos)
- Monitors: Up to 2
- Reamp: n/a
- Headphone monitors: Up to 2
Antelope Audio Orion Studio, Zen Tour & Goliath
The Orion 32 HD supports a USB 3 connection, but doesn't have a Thunderbolt port, which is why we've left it off of this list.
Same with the Zen Studio.
However, the following three interfaces all support a Thunderbolt connection:
Unlike the Apollo 8 series, there are more discrepancies between these products, both in terms of aesthetics and features. However, they're all still firmly on the higher end of the Thunderbolt audio interface spectrum.
Even the smaller Zen Tour is professional-grade recording gear.
Let's take a closer look at the functionality and usefulness of each device.
The front panel of the Orion includes two preamp and two headphone outputs, along with four mic inputs, which can be added to the eight you'll see on the back of the device.
That gives you a total of 12 microphone and line inputs on one rack unit, one of the larger numbers you'll see without a cascading connection.
On the back of the unit you've got four total monitor outputs and the Thunderbolt connection. Antelope throws in a high-speed USB connection as well.
Let's get into some details.
Orion Studio Connectivity
As we've already mentioned, there is a ton of connectivity with this device with mic preamps installed on both the front and back panel.
ProTools Experts takes us through each section.
Front Mic/TRS Preamps
Mic preamps on the front panel of the Antelope Audio Orion. | Image via ProTools Expert
As we're used to seeing by now, these inputs are all multi-purpose, providing a class-A preamp for either a microphone, Hi-Z instrument or line-level device.
Monitor Outs and 12 Mic Preamps
Monitors outs and mic preamps on the back of the Antelope Audio Orion. | Image via ProTools Expert
Here you can see the four monitor outputs, along with the last of 12 mic preamps when you combine the front and back panel.
Orion Studio Control
While the interface can control most of the unit's functionality, it can all be handled via the Orion Studio app, which is similar to what we see with the Zen Tour.
While the app will likely be your favored control method, it's worth keeping the unit close by since the talkback mic is actually built into the front panel. Here's a quick look at the other control options you have from the physical unit.
Front Panel Control
Control options on the front panel of the Antelope Audio Orion. | Image via ProTools Expert
As with the Zen Tour, you can cycle through the different inputs and control levels for each one.
The large knob responds both as a spinner and push button, with additional buttons on the right side of the LED display. Together, these allow you to cycle through a litany of features, even without a touch screen.
Mac and Windows Software
Software for the Antelope Audio Orion. | Image via ProTools Expert
The only thing we don't like about the software is that the learning curve is somewhat steep. At the same time, it's likely you'll be using the Orion Studio with a fairly stable background in audio engineering.
We do recommend spending some time getting to know the software in a sort of "sandbox" mode before you get into any serious production.
Even just an hour or so of familiarizing yourself with the interface will give you a nice head start.
Once you're using it, the control at your fingertips is nearly endless and includes a wealth of effects, emulations and amp models that are tons of fun to play around with.
Orion Studio Connectivity
- TRS: 12 total (12 mic/TRS combos)
- Mic: 12 total (12 mic/TRS combos)
- Monitors: Up to 4
- Reamp: Up to 2
- Headphone monitors: Up to 2
As far as small Thunderbolt audio interfaces go, the Zen Tour might be one of the most complete and powerful units we've ever seen.
Even though it's billed as a "portable" solution, the Zen Tour has no trouble fitting in as a professional-grade recording solution. Professional studios and large-scale recording projects are not outside of its scope.
The connectivity is substantial for such a small box.
Back panel of the Antelope Audio Zen Tour. (View Larger Image)
This review by Pro Tools Expert takes you through some of the finer details.
Here are a few highlights:
Zen Tour Connectivity
Two re-amp outputs
R1 and R2 "re-amp" outputs. | Image via ProTools Expert
The two reamp outputs allow you to send a "load balanced" output to an external amplifier, where load balanced simply means you don't have to mess around with levels.
Four DI guitar or instrument inputs (TRS)
Four DI instrument inputs on the front of the Zen Tour. | Image via ProTools Expert
Having four DI guitar (Hi-z) inputs on such a small box is fairly remarkable. Moreover, these can be switched over to line-level inputs for keyboards, iPads or something to run a backing track.
Combo TRS and Mic Inputs with Monitors Outs
Microphone and monitor ports on the back of the Zen Tour. | Image via ProTools Expert
A1 through A4 inputs on the back panel are combination mic and TRS inputs, while you're also provided with two pairs of stereo outputs for up to four external monitors.
Zen Tour Control
In addition to having a lot of connectivity, the Zen Tour finishing strong with an incredible amount of control on an otherwise simple-looking interface. As you'll see from some of the video highlights, most of this control comes via touch screen.
Here are a few things we really like.
Talkback controls on the Antelope Audio Zen Tour. | Image via ProTools Expert
Press the microphone button (mic is built in to the unit) and then use the touch screen to speak into either set of headphones or the monitors themselves.
Gain button on the Antelope Audio Zen Tour. | Image via ProTools Expert
This button allows you to cycle through your inputs and controls the levels for each one, via the large wheel on the front of the unit.
Zen Tour App
Zen Tour app for iOS and Android. | Image via ProTools Expert
If you don't totally dig the smaller touch screen and having to cycle through inputs via the gain button, you can use the Zen Tour app to control all your inputs and levels via your iPad, iPhone or Android device.
You can see on the app's interface that the front and rear inputs are easily distinguished and can be control with a simple swipe of the finger.
Hi-z instruments are on the top and microphones are on the bottom.
The Zen Tour Overall
The Zen Tour is designed more like Universal Audio's Twin box, as it's intended to be more portable and ideal for desktops or smaller studio spaces.
Still, the Zen Tour matches a number of pro-quality specs of more expensive Antelope Audio interfaces, including sample rate, two stereo monitors outs, two stereo headphones outs and eight total inputs.
For smaller studios that need professional-level recording the Zen Tour gives you a physically smaller box that still functions like a high-dollar recording studio would demand.
Zen Tour Connectivity
- TRS: 8 total (Four Hi-z on front panel plus four mic/TRS combos)
- Mic: 4 total (four mic/TRS combos)
- Monitors: Up to 4
- Reamp: Up to 2
- Headphone monitors: Up to 2
The Goliath is well-named, as it boasts one of the most accomodating connectivity interfaces with 16 line/mic preamps on the back panel and additional instrument intputs (Hi-Z) on the front.
Both Thunderbolt and high-speed USB connections are supported, along with dual headphone outputs and a talkback button.
In terms of features, it makes a strong case to be the best and most connective Thunderbolt audio interface to date.
Back panel of the Antelope Audio Goliath. (View Larger Image)
There's no question that it's scope and market is higher-end professional recording environments. For any outfit looking to accommodate a lot of instruments, vocalists or perhaps mic a large drumset, the Goliath makes it easy in one unit.
Antelope Audio Goliath Connections
While there are a lot of inputs on the device that make it look a bit ominous, the physical setup is fairly basic and easy to understand.
Connections for the Antelope Audio Goliath. | Image via Antelope Audio
Once you've installed the software, you'll need to take some time and get familiar with the software's interface.
Watching the video linked beneath the above photo is a good starting point.
It takes you through all the basics.
The most useful part of the application is the preamp control panel, which allows you to manage everything that's plugged into the Goliath at any given time. You can also use this part of the application to apply effects, amp models and other signal processing tasks to each individual preamp.
The preamp control panel. | Image via Antelope Audio
You'll also want to keep in mind that each input has three different modes that should be selected based on what's plugged into each one.
- "Mic" for microphones
- "Line" for line level instruments like keyboards
- "Hi-z" for high impedance instruments (usually guitar and bass)
The input mode selection on one of the Goliath preamp channels. | Image via Antelope Audio
As you can easily tell, everything about the Goliath is designed for large-scale projects and professional-level music production.
In that regard we wouldn't recommend it outside of that context.
However, for anyone who runs a physical recording studio with paying clients, the Goliath is going to give you more power, flexibility and credibility than just about anything else on the market.
If you really want to invest in your business, buy confidently.
- TRS: 20 total (Four front TRS jacks and 16 mic/TRS combos)
- Mic: 16 total (16 mic/TRS combos)
- Monitors: Up to 2
- Reamp: Up to 2
- Headphone monitors: Up to 2
Antelope Audio Options
As you might have gathered by now, microphone and line inputs tend to be the big ticket feature when assessing audio interface costs. Upgrading them is usually the feature requiring the most money.
Choosing between a list like this should primarily depend on that number, how many inputs you need now and how many you expect to need in the future.
For example, if you're a smaller studio and you intend to expand your connectivity capabilities to facilitate a wider variety of clientele, the larger interface that can handle more mics and instruments is the way to go.
An exact count of what you'll need will vary depending on your situation.
Figuring this out ahead of time will give you some perspective on what you should expect to pay.
For anything that resembles a professional-grade recording environment, $2000 is not a big expenditure. Assume that you'll need to spend some money to get up and running and to be accommodating to all potential clients.
This will hold true, whether you're buying from Antelope or not.
Only Mac users?
As mentioned earlier in the article, you can find PCs with Thunderbolt-compatible cards built into their motherboard or included as an add-on video/audio card.
These are still fairly uncommon (and in many cases expensive) which is why we don't recommend going through the trouble of configuring a PC to work with a Thunderbolt connection, when most Macs come ready for the job.
This is part of the reason that Macbooks and Apple products continue to be a staple of the music-production community.
We would advise PC users to go with a USB audio interface.
Keep in mind that with the Antelope Audio units, they all come with both Thunderbolt and USB compatibility.
USB 3.0 is still going to give you a decent enough connection speed that you won't notice any major issues.
Have thoughts, questions or contributions to the material?
Leave it in the comments section or find us on Twitter, @guitarchalk. If you have pictures of your Thunderbolt audio interface setup, email them to us and we'll consider using them in this article as example graphics.
Thanks for reading.
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Sources and Works Cited
"Apple - Press Info - Apple Updates MacBook Pro with Next Generation Processors, Graphics & Thunderbolt I/O Technology." Apple - Press Info - Apple Updates MacBook Pro with Next Generation Processors, Graphics & Thunderbolt I/O Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
"Intel Announces Thunderbolt." VR-Zone. N.p., 25 Feb. 2011. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
"Thunderbolt 3." Apple. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
"Article Section List." Sound on Sound. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
"Apollo Twin Multi-Unit Cascading." Universal Audio Support Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Christiaan008