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Wednesday
Feb222017

Turns Out, FireWire Ain’t Dead Yet

About six years ago I bought a first-class audio recording setup. I started with a Heil PR40 mic complete with a Heil desk boom and shock mount. I ran it through an Alesis iO2 USB interface to my late 2009 27” iMac running a retail copy of Logic Pro that I paid entirely too much for as it turns out. I initially tried the free version of Cubase that came with the iO2, but was never quite happy with either. Don’t get me wrong, the iO2 is a solid piece of kit, but one trip to a friend’s house equipped with an Apogee Duet and I wanted to go straight home and put my iO2 on Ebay. Apogee really does make the absolute best audio gear for the Mac. The DAC is superior with almost latency-free performance even at 96 kHz sample rate and the mic pre is the warmest, most natural I’ve ever heard. It, coupled with the Heil PR40 is the absolute best podcasting setup to be had at any price. My setup cost right at $1000. (Apogee Duet: $500, Heil PR40 with shockmount: $350, Heil desk mount mic boom: $100, XLR cables, pop filter, misc.: $50)

Last year I bought a new 5K iMac. Like always, I bought it directly from Apple’s web site with every hardware option. The one feature missing from that dream machine is a Firewire port. Yep, it seems Apple has sent firewire to the happy hunting ground right alongside the Superdrive. Consequently, I kept all my recording gear connected to my previous iMac. I didn’t want to spend another $600 for the new USB Duet model and I damn sure didn’t want to dig the iO2 out of the closet. Besides, the 2009 iMac with its Core i7 and SSD is still a very capable machine. Add my general laziness into the equation and my recording rig doesn’t move to my new iMac for nearly nine months.

One afternoon last week I came across an old LaCie firewire 800 drive as I was going through some stuff in my closet. I couldn’t even remember what capacity it was, much less what was on it. My curiosity led me to remember having bought a Thunderbolt-to-Firewire 800 adapter when I purchased my MacBook Pro in 2014. I dug it out of my laptop bag and plugged it into one of the Thunderbolt ports on my new iMac and powered up the LaCie drive. As it turns out, the drive was only 320 GB, but it mounted instantly and worked perfectly. This made me wonder if my other firewire gear would work as well. Next, I grabbed my old Sony Mini DV camcorder and (with the help of a couple of cables and adapters) it worked perfectly also. What did this tell me? It told me that 1.) Apple has managed to put an entire firewire 800 hardware interface into a 2 ½ inch adapter and 2.) macOS Sierra still contains all the firewire kexts (kernel extensions or “drivers” for you Windows heads) needed to make peripherals work. Armed with these revelations, I went and got my firewire Duet from my old iMac and connected it to the adapter on my new machine. I plugged a Shure SM58 mic into one of the Duet’s XLR ports and BOOM!. It worked perfectly! I opened the Sound applet in System Preferences and low and behold, the Duet was listed as both an input and output device. I didn’t install anything. It was just there and it worked beautifully. Next, I went to Apogee’s web site and downloaded “Maestro 2”, their software controller for the Duet. The site warned that Maestro 2 was only compatible with OS X 10.10 & 10.9 and that “higher versions of OS X are not tested”. Well, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I installed software with version disclaimers, so I downloaded and installed the latest version (2.10.2). The installer required a restart because it installs a hardware daemon, so I did. After the restart, I pushed the big button on the Duet and the daemon performed perfectly, putting an on-screen indicator for which input/output is selected and a volume progress bar. Perfecto! I opened Maestro 2 and fiddled with all the settings. Again, perfect. Every control and every indicator functioned nominally. 

 

Next came the “acid test”. I opened Logic Pro X and loaded my podcast project template. It fired up without complaint so I recorded a 90 second test using all the software tools I had built into the project, a slight flange, a compressor and an EQ. Again, everything worked just like it was supposed to. So now my audio gear is moved completely to my new iMac. Like almost everything else, Logic Pro X looks phenomenal on the 5K display and the iMac processes my two-step bounce/convert routine faster than I’ve ever experienced. Job done.

Even though Apple “officially” no longer supports the firewire interface standard, they’ve obviously left all the internals in macOS Sierra. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I still believe firewire is far superior to USB in many respects. The first being the duplex or bi-directional nature of the standard. The industry, however has moved on to full investment in USB. Today, USB has gotten so fast as to render the inherent superiority of firewire moot. Thank God Apple saw fit to build the Thunderbolt-to-firewire adapter. For $29 I’ve defrayed the cost of a new Duet and (for now anyway) I get to enjoy the full warm sound of my old firewire device.

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