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Review: Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt - EMusician

Review: Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt

Lots of Bandwidth and I/O, Little Latency
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Audio interfaces with Thunderbolt connectivity are all the rage these days because their wide bandwidth allows for very low latency, and high track counts and highsampling- rate recording that doesn’t stress your CPU. Apogee’s entrant in the Thunderbolt derby is the Ensemble Thunderbolt (Mac only), a redesigned version of its previously released Ensemble interface. The new design combines the power of Thunderbolt with Apogee’s highly regarded preamps and converters, as well as a generous selection of I/O, to create a powerful and expandable studio hub.

JACKS ARE WILD

The Ensemble Thunderbolt is a 30-in/34-out interface, offering a nice variety of both analog and digital I/O. It provides eight analog inputs with mic preamps, four of which utilize XLR/TRS combo jacks that accept mic, line, and instrument signals. Two balanced analog inserts are located on the back panel next to the first two combo jacks; their sends can also be used as preamp line-level outputs. The unit also offers pairs of front-panel guitar inputs and outputs, which I’ll talk about later.

The interface has two 1/4" TRS balanced monitor outputs, eight additional balanced analog outputs on a D-Sub 25-pin connector (breakout cable not included), and a pair of independent 1/4" stereo headphone outputs on the front panel, each with its own volume control.

It features quite a bit of digital I/O, as well. You get two pairs of optical inputs and outputs that handle 16 channels of 48 kHz ADAT signals or eight channels of S/MUX up to 96 kHz. A pair of coaxial S/PDIF jacks and Word Clock I/O are also included.

And then there are the stars of the show—two Thunderbolt 2 connectors. These not only connect the Ensemble to your computer, but they can handle a chain of Thunderbolt peripherals. And because it’s Thunderbolt 2, it will even support a 4K display.

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My only disappointment from an I/O standpoint is its lack of a MIDI port. Other Apogee interfaces, such as the Quartet and Duet, offer USB/MIDI inputs for connecting controllers. But this omission is hardly a deal breaker, since virtually every modern MIDI controller can be plugged directly into your computer through a USB port, but it would have helped round out the feature set.

UNDER CONTROL

Many of Ensemble Thunderbolt’s basic functions can be controlled from its front panel, although you need to use Apogee’s free Maestro 2 software to control the unit fully. The front panel includes large Input and Output knobs that sit on either side of the OLED display. The Input knob functions as a switch when pressed. The display provides level indicators and can also be used in conjunction with the Input and Output knobs for parameter selection, switching, and adjustment.

Ten Input Select buttons correspond to inputs 1 through 8 and guitar inputs 1 and 2; press one to control its corresponding channel with the Input knob. If you press and hold the Input knob, you’ll see the various channel options: input source; Soft Limit; Group, which lets you assign the channel to one of five groups whose input levels are linked; polarity reverse; 48V phantom power on/off; and High Pass Filter on/off. (These are not available on the guitar-input channels.) The Insert option, only available for channels 1 and 2, activates the return from the channel’s corresponding rear-panel insert.

Buttons labeled Assignable (A through D) comprise one of the unit’s handiest features. Each button can be assigned to control one of a variety of options, which are easily accessed from the Device Settings menu of the Maestro 2 software. Choices include Talkback on and off, Dim, Clear Meters, Sum to Mono, toggling one or both of the guitar inputs from software to thru, and more. You can even set the buttons to switch among speaker sets, assuming you have additional monitor pairs connected to outputs 3/4 and 5/6, both of which are accessed from the DSub connector on the back panel.

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MAESTRO, START THE MUSIC

Fig. 1. Maestro 2 software allows you to control all functions of the interface, including many that can’t be accessed from the hardware controls. All Apogee interfaces offer software control via Maestro software, and for a complex unit like Ensemble Thunderbolt, it’s an essential tool (see Figure 1). I found its implementation for Ensemble Thunderbolt to be powerful but not always intuitive. For instance, the input and output routing windows are not particularly user-friendly.

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Nonetheless, you can configure up to four different monitor mixes in Maestro 2, using Mixers 1 through 4—a powerful feature for large tracking sessions where alternate mixes are required. Maestro 2 also lets you toggle between hardware monitoring and software monitoring, if you want to eliminate latency while tracking. Because latency is so low with Ensemble, software monitoring is almost always an acceptable way to track, allowing you to monitor with plug-ins such as reverbs, guitar amp simulators, and so forth.

Maestro 2 was very stable when I was using Ensemble Thunderbolt, but if my computer went to sleep or if I unplugged the Thunderbolt cable, it crashed and I had to force-quit it. While that didn’t cause me any problems with my sessions, it was an annoyance.

GUITAR HEAVEN

The built-in guitar I/O in Ensemble Thunderbolt offers a number of welcome features for guitarists. First, these inputs sound great for DI recording. The inputs feature JFET circuitry and a “bootstrapping” circuit that Apogee touts as providing an “ultra-high impedance load” to your guitar’s signal for maximum authenticity of tone. And that’s not just marketing speak: The guitar inputs sound and feel better than any other guitar DI I’ve used before.

Another important aspect of the guitar I/O feature is that it lets you use the two outputs for reamping; as far as I’m aware, Ensemble Thunderbolt is the only interface with reamping outputs built in. You can reamp existing DI tracks, or simultaneously record a DI and amped tracks.

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LET ’ER RIP

I tested the Ensemble Thunderbolt over a couple of months, using it on my own sessions and during a multi-musician tracking session for an acoustic ensemble. Overall, I found its performance to be superb. For just about all the tracking I did, I was able to keep the buffer set at 64, enjoying virtually no latency in most cases. As a result, I rarely had to use Ensemble’s ample direct monitoring features.

Ensemble Thunderbolt works with any Core Audio DAW, and I tested it with several, including Apple Logic Pro X 10.1.1, Avid Pro Tools 11.3, and Ableton Live 9.17. Apogee has always had good integration with Logic, and Ensemble continues that tradition. In fact, some of the channel controls show up in Logic, including input level, phantom power on/off, highpass filter, polarity reverse, and input select (Mic, +4 dBu, -10dBV). Ensemble’s performance was also excellent while using Live.

Things weren’t quite as smooth when testing Ensemble Thunderbolt with Pro Tools under the Mavericks OS on my 2.6 GHz Intel Core i5 MacBook Pro. To put it to the test, I set the buffer to 64 during a 96 kHz tracking session, which Apogee said I should be able to do without a problem, but I got clicks and pops and had to raise the buffer to 256 to get clean audio. However, it may have been a glitch that was related to something in that session file, because I tried to re-create the problem on a new Pro Tools session, and couldn’t. In other Pro Tools tests, however, the transport stopped more than normal and gave me the dreaded “out of CPU” error message.

One of the advantages of Apogee's Thunderbolt driver is that its wide bandwidth stresses your computer’s processor less than what FireWire 800 or USB would do. I setup a session with 40 tracks and 120 plug-ins in Pro Tools at 44.1 kHz, and it used less than 50 percent of the available CPU power. That’s pretty impressive, considering I was recording on a laptop.

Another benefit of Ensemble Thunderbolt is that it features Apogee’s renowned converters and mic preamps, which performed excellently. My recordings were clean and present, and very realistic sounding, whether I was tracking vocals, acoustic instruments, or miked guitar amps.

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JOIN THE ENSEMBLE

Ensemble Thunderbolt represents a sizable investment compared to some other interfaces with similar I/O counts, but you get a lot for your money. This versatile piece of hardware could easily function as the sole piece of outboard gear in your studio, because it handles not just the functions of an audio interface with eight mic preamps, but also a monitor controller and a high-quality guitar DI and reamping box. When you factor in the vaunted Apogee sound quality, super low latency, Thunderbolt bandwidth, and the flexible and generous I/O, it starts to look like one heck of a deal.

STRENGTHS
High-quality converters and preamps. Plenty of I/O. Guitar interface can be used for reamping. Assignable front-panel buttons. Very low latency. Independent headphone outs. Built-in talkback mic and speaker switching.

LIMITATIONS
Mac only. Maestro 2 functionality not always intuitive. No MIDI connectivity. Analog outputs 3 through 8 require D-Sub breakout cable (not included).

$2,495
apogeedigital.com

Mike Levine is an editor, writer, and multi-instrumentalist who lives in the New York area.