Back in early November of last year, I got an early Christmas present for myself. Through some good negotiation, I acquired a new Apogee Ensemble (Thunderbolt) interface. Wow – some bit of kit.
By all reviews, I was getting some seriously great gear here. Heaps of I/O, guitar re-amping, talkback, full monitor controller (with 2 different volume controls for headphones – yay), better metering, and super low latency. It seemed like it was everything I wanted – plus my old silver Ensemble would soon be obsolete (thanks to the never-ending cycle of Apple upgrading OSX and companies not supporting it).
But I must admit that initially there was little joy to be had with this device. Unlike the reviews that I read, it was not a simple plug and play at all for me. Firstly, I had to run out to the shop and buy a separate Thunderbolt cable, because there wasn’t one supplied with the unit. This was such crap, and although I knew beforehand I had to do this, when you are forking out good money for an expensive device, you don’t want to fork out extra just to connect it to your computer. New devices are often about first impressions – and so far mine wasn’t good.
Then the firmware update stalled half way through the installation. I got a message saying “please disconnect the thunderbolt cable and reconnect” which I did repeatedly. The message never went away – forcing my computer to crash badly. Once I restarted the machine, I was surprised that all “seemed” well. I had sound going in and out and everything appeared ok.
But, when I took it home and tried to reconnect it all again, Maestro (the included software) would not recognize the device unless I completely shut down my Mac and restarted. This was seriously a pain for someone like me who unplugs his Mac all the time. It meant that every day when I got home, I couldn’t just plug my Thunderbolt cable in and get going. I had to completely shut it all down and restart. Fuming!!
Eventually the people at Apogee sent me an updated installer, which appeared to fix all of my issues. But seriously, something like this should be absolutely trouble free from getting it out of the box. I probably wouldn’t be so annoyed if it wasn’t for the fact that I had similar major issues when I bought my first silver Apogee Ensemble. With that unit, I went through 2 brand new machines until I had one that actually worked!!!
So with my technical issues out of the way, I finally could get a listen to the sound. And sorry to say initial impressions were under-whelming. There was something really unflattering about the top end. It appeared overly hyped when comparing it to the older Ensemble. I kept plugging and unplugging my old and new Ensemble, it really felt that there was more air and a smoother top end in the old model. The new model sounded like there was a boost around the 8-10KHz mark. Kicks that felt well-balanced now sounded like a beach ball hitting concrete. This boost had an adverse affect on my perception of bass as well. I felt like there wasn’t enough of it.
In order to combat these sonic issues (seriously considering returning the unit by now), I had to tweak my Genelec monitors to taper off some of the top end (there’s a handy switch at the back of my monitors that lets me do this). So now the 8-10KHz range felt more in check, though I still felt I needed bottom end nudge. However, I was suddenly losing all that lovely “air” (above 12KHz) that I love hearing.
So I’ve had it for a few months now. Why didn’t I return it? Well I figured that I needed a new interface anyway, so I persisted.
Do I like it? Actually – yes! Over time I have grown to really like the sound. When it operates at the higher sample rates such as 96KHz, it sounds really, really good. The air is back! I even tweaked my monitors again to return it to a flatter response. Maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to the tone, but it does now feel good to switch on some music and have a listen. I also really like the headphone amps. These are much better sounding and louder than the old Ensemble. This was important to me because I do a lot of mixing with headphones, and my headphones (Beyer Dynamic DT990 Pros) have a high impedance which makes them significantly quieter than other headphones.
The pre-amps. Sensational – crisp and clear. Recording acoustic guitar, vocals (what I mainly do at home) has been a smooth, beautiful ride.
I love the control! The dials feel exceptionally good, solid and robust. I love the functionality of the 4 buttons on the right of the device that let me customize the functions. I’ve set mine to activate talkback, clear meters, dim speakers and sum to mono.
I love the huge number of inputs and outputs. Such a joy to hook it up to my patchbay with lots of options available for me.
But the most amazing thing I love is the guitar inputs. These have such an absolutely superb sound. Plugging in my beloved Rickenbacker 360 brought the guitar to life. It really was awesome. The pre-amp was responsive, crisp without being brittle, warm without being muddy. Far out – truly one of the best “guitar inputs” I’ve ever heard. These blew the older model Ensemble out of the water, and also was much better than many amp modellers, and actual guitar amps I’ve tried. I have a dedicated guitar controller/interface (the Native Instruments Rig Kontrol 2), and have always been subconsciously frustrated at the sound of it. Now I had something in the Ensemble (Thunderbolt) that I would consider ripping out of the studio and using it on live gigs as the main A/D.
I have yet to try the re-amping functionality, but I know I will soon.
It has also yet to crash. Maestro is stable and easy to use – if you even want to use it all. I used to have it automatically loading every time I connected my machine to the Ensemble. Now I don’t even bother. I’ll only launch it when I need to.
So after some seriously flawed beginnings, me and the “Thunderbolt” are getting on fine. We’re friends and that relationship is growing.