As the winner of the 2007 TEC Award in Digital Audio Technology, the original Ensemble created by Apogee Electronics introduced the world to one of the finest digital audio interfaces. In the seven years that have passed since the product's initial release, Apogee's team of designers have been hard at work creating a follow-up, the Ensemble Thunderbolt.
"There’s an expectation that everyone is driving towards a very concrete goal," says Apogee's Director of Product Evangelism Roger Robindore of the brand's dedication to innovation. "There’s no place to hide if you’re not up to speed."
Upon the announcement of Apogee teaming with Waves Audio for a Ensemble-based plug-ins package, we chatted with Roger Robindore about the interface's improvements. Touching on the road traveled during the design process, Robindore tackles the thought behind each upgrade and the future of Apogee products.
Think back to when your team first created the original Ensemble. Where did you envision the product heading in the future and how different is it from where we actually are in 2015?
In 2006, during the development phase of the original Ensemble, we were all very excited about the potential of Firewire as the ideal audio interface connection. In the intervening years, it didn’t quite work out that way, as the world of Firewire peripherals became a bit like the “wild west,” and stability for all devices suffered. Thunderbolt, on the other hand, really has fulfilled its promise as the new ideal audio interface connection - vanishing latency, ultra-stable, low CPU load.
What’s the process of on-boarding new technology like Thunderbolt into an existing product like the Ensemble?
The only aspect shared between the original Ensemble and Ensemble Thunderbolt is the fundamental market position - the best all-in-one 1U studio interface. Beyond that, we started with a clean slate - virtually every component (A/D and D/A conversion, mic preamps, user interface) has been significantly updated. Because Thunderbolt has been conceived specifically for high bandwidth, low latency peripherals, it makes it easier to incorporate into a new product - the protocol never gets in the way.
Talk about the effort to reduce latency while increasing efficiency. What all does that process entail?
We spent a significant amount of time optimizing Ensemble’s Thunderbolt audio driver, which was done completely “in-house.” This entails months of pushing performance to the point of failure, optimizing the driver and firmware, then pushing a few steps further. We had set ourselves an internal goal for latency, and we exceeded it by a significant amount.
How has the Creative User Interface advanced since the first appearance of the Ensemble?
The Creative User Interface, introduced with the original Ensemble, is the concept that only the highest priority controls, those you reach for in every session, are present on the front panel. Lower priority controls may be relegated to our companion software app, Maestro.
The idea is that this streamlined approach keeps the operator in their creative mind when the sparks of inspiration fly. Keep in mind, this was at a time when other interfaces had to include EVERY control on their front panel - they didn’t have the advantage of software control of hardware parameters.
Now, in the intervening years, most interface manufacturers copied our approach, some blatantly. When developing Ensemble Thunderbolt, we actually moved back to adding a few more hardware controls. Ensemble Thunderbolt has a more densely populated front panel than any Apogee product for quite a while, but it’s still incredibly smooth to operate.
Apogee’s approach of simplicity and innovation seems pretty imperative to Ensemble’s successful design. How challenging is it to streamline a piece of hardware during the design process?
There’s no formula. Our product development team proposes a product with a set of features, we solicit feedback from a variety of partners, we draw from experience of previous products, we closely examine user feedback, and we revise and revise. Ultimately we find consensus on what features a product should include.
Is there anything that you would like to see on the next version of the Ensemble that didn’t make the cut with the Ensemble Thunderbolt?
The core group that makes up the product development team has been here for 10-15 years, and in all honesty, Ensemble has been one of the most satisfying products we’ve ever developed. The only feature that didn’t make it for the initial launch was support for multiple units, and that should be available in the next few months.
How do you envision the Apogee brand expanding in the future? Both product-wise and as a company?
Creating industry-leading digital audio hardware will always be at the heart of our activities. We’ll always be looking over the horizon at new technologies and how they apply to professional audio. Our strategic relationship with Sennheiser allows us to explore avenues in the world of audio-for-video with Sennheiser's worldwide reach. We’re also cooking up some strategic partnerships with others to be revealed in the future.