Mobile Studio… Maybe
Is the truly mobile studio finally a reality?
As I sit here writing this I am waiting for delivery of my latest purchase: a 17” Macbook Pro. I have been tempted to get a Mac laptop for a while now but when I saw the announcement of this new generation of laptops from Apple it finally convinced me to take the plunge. I was actually staggered when I saw the “benchmark” figures for these machines because, on paper at least, the CPU benchmarks are as near as makes no difference identical to my 3 year old 8 core Mac Pro. Of course, I understand that technology is progressing at an alarming rate but this was definitely a surprise to me.
When I work on my Mac Pro I rarely go over 50% CPU usage on even the most plugin-intensive tracks that I am working on. What this means in real terms is that I would be able to transfer any of the projects that I have been working on with my Mac Pro and load them on to the new laptop and not be pushing it to its limits. This was a crucial thing for me because when I had been thinking about getting a laptop the one thing that I didn’t want was to buy a computer which would be underpowered for what I need from day one. This new Mac Pro seemed more than capable in that respect.
Another traditionally “limiting” factor for laptop users is the speed of the hard drive for playing back multiple audio tracks. Even a fast Firewire external drive can suffer from bottlenecks with data when attempting to play multiple audio tracks. The latest Macbook Pro laptops are (as far as I know) the first in the world to be fitted with the new Thunderbolt interface. This allows for two simultaneous, bi-directional connections of up to 10 gigabits per second…each! Yes, that’s right, in theory, one Thunderbolt port has a total data bandwidth of 40 gigabits per second. Of course, as it is brand new technology there are no devices actually available yet which use Thunderbolt but hard drive makers Lacie have already announced their first product. This new hard drive will use dual SSD drives and is rumoured to offer write speeds of over 400MB per second. To put this in context that is equivalent to over 1500 mono tracks of 24 bit, 96KHz audio.
So raw processing power and hard drive speed aren’t an issue but I also have a Universal Audio UAD-2 card and there is no option to use PCI Express cards in a laptop. Recently, however, Universal Audio announced a Firewire version of the UAD-2 card which means that the UAD-2 platform is now available to laptop users in a very convenient manner. In terms of soundcards I use an Apogee Duet/One combination and both of these can be used on the laptop owing to their Firewire/USB interfaces.
So what does all of this mean? Well, I could put together a system which has all of the power and speed of my current Mac Pro-based rig which could easily be carried around on my shoulder. If I were to allow a little more space and look at one of those small wheeled suitcases I could probably include a small MIDI controller keyboard and my headphones and headphone amp as well. All that I would be lacking are the 30” screen and the monitors that I have in my studio. Given the fact that all of this could be carried around in a case measuring about 18” by 24” by 10” I think that this is a fair compromise. If you wanted to up the game a little further you could probably get a slightly larger case and throw in a decent condenser mic and small preamp as well.
The reality is that, finally, in 2011 we have the possibility to have a truly portable studio and I for one think that this can only be a good thing. The only real limitation comes from how many tracks you can record at once but even that could easily be expanded and not take up a huge amount more space. I think that this really has changed things and it will be interesting to see what people make of the possibilities.
Simon Langford, author of The Remix Manual is a professional music producer and remixer, with close to ten years of experience. He has worked on over 300 remixes, and has had tracks of his own in the UK National Top 20 Singles Chart and the US Billboard Dance Chart. Simon has remixed artists including Rihanna, Robbie Williams, Sugababes, INXS, and many more. He has written a series of articles for Sound on Sound magazine on remixing.
Photo from Flickr