USB3 vs Thunderbolt
For Years the only alternative to a USB or USB2 audio interface was a Firewire Interface. Consumer sound cards such as the Soundblaster range were never up to the task of doing multitrack recording and while cards designed for recording were available from companies such as M-Audio, Terratec and RME, they could never match the convenience of an accessory that could be plugged in as needed.
Today most PCs make do with audio and video outputs built into the motherboard. The soundcard market is now aimed at gamers and home cinema fans. USB2 interfaces by companies such as M-Audio, Focusrite, Universal Audio, Presonus, Apogee and MOTU have therefore become the most popular options for home recording on a PC.
Macs are not designed to use add on cards so interfaces have always been the way to go and as Thunderbolt ports are part of Apple’s architecture, Thunderbolt interfaces are guaranteed to work.
Thunderbolt ports are not that common on PCs and manufacturers have to work much harder to get Thunderbolt interfaces working with Windows 10. This is why most recording studios run Pro Tools on Macs but things could still change as PCs can still provide more processing power per buck.
How does this affect me? I now have a PC with a Thunderbolt 3 port but that has not helped much. For a start it only has PCIe slots so I was unable to install my trusted M-Audio Audiophile 2496 card as an interim measure. I did try some plain old USB2 interfaces by M-Audio and Focusrite but they had problems of their own and were not any better than my old PCI card. I really wanted a new Focusrite Clarett interface but the drivers for Windows were not ready so in the end I opted for a new PCIe card.
The card I went for is an RME HDSPe. It is installed in the computer so I can’t just unplug it and hook it up to a laptop but it is fast, works with Windows 10 and I can add extra channels when needed.
Why didn’t manufacturers go for the increased speed of USB3? For years they argued that ordinary USB2 was fast enough for audio and in a sense they were correct. USB3 interfaces are now appearing but RME is the only manufacturer that has managed to incorporate USB3 and Thunderbolt in the same interface and get USB3 to match the speed of Thunderbolt.
USB3 has now moved on to USB 3.1 but Thunderbolt has such a head start it could be a while before manufacturers dare to take their chances with any new standards.