To Upgrade or To Not Upgrade?

The prospect of another ProTools upgrade has made me stop & think, and while it is very easy to complain about the inevitable evolution & associated redundancy of technology, I figured I might just put in writing a vague plan I have been thinking about for my next Mac. The ‘next’ aspect of it might well be six months or a year away as I have no immediate need to upgrade, but when the time comes I’d like a highly evolved solution to already be underway.

So first up do I actually need ProTools 11?
Not immediately & no time soon, sorry Avid. There is nothing compelling from what I’ve seen, the only motivator may well be a time constraint they will likely insist on to upgrade PT10+CPT to PT11HD. As it stands I own a PT10 HD2 rig that has done (& still does) sterling work, plus two PT10+CPT rigs – one on a Mac mini and one on my old laptop. The PT HD2 rig paid for itself long ago – I bought it just before we started 30 Days of Night, which means it has completed 14 feature films over a five year period, and a few of those were big, demanding films. So it doesn’t owe me anything but that sure as hell doesn’t mean I am going to junk it – it still works well, is loaded with a great set of plugins and reliably handles large track counts (192 tracks x 2 hour films in one super session) So it effectively is going to be sandboxed – no need for further upgrades…

But what has made me consider options is the comparison of behaviour between the rigs, the Mac Mini Server I bought last year is faster & snappier to use than the Mac Pro my HD2 rig is running on, and while that isn’t really a surprise given a few generations of CPU evolution have occurred, it has made me think hard about the merits of ever buying another Mac Pro Tower. I no longer need the PCI card slots because I won’t ever be buying Avid card based hardware, eventually/maybe I’ll get a thunderbolt based i/o but theres no rush for it either.

But more importantly what I need in my creative future has developed & diversified a LOT since I bought that HD2 rig. So what I need from a centralised Mac power house has started to take vague shape in my head, and it looks a lot less like a Tower and a lot more like this modular approach:


Imagine dedicating RAM, CPU & drives between specific tasks, which for me:

MacMini 1: ProTools HD + SoundMiner
MacMini 2: Ableton LIVE and/or ProTools HD w VSTIs/sample libraries,
MacMini 3: Video playback/editing/Photoshop/LightRoom/After Effects
MacMini 4: Database/admin/online machine

The advantage of a MacMini over a laptop for such things is that when the time comes to upgrade CPUs you don’t have to rebuy the screen every time. One of the parts of my old HD2 rig that will be carried into the future is the 30″ screen I use with it, which is one of the best investments I made, conceptually & in terms of productivity. So hanging off the quad mac Minis would likely be a pair of 30″ LCD screens, with the video playback Mac Mini feeding either a projector or a large viewing TV…..

The only potential problems with all this is the integration and achieving seamless switching between Mac Minis, as I would just want the two screens and one keyboard as the user interface. Screen switching could be handled by the monitors themselves, my 30″ screen has half a dozen inputs… plus a bit of VNC and virtual screen sharing… And sharing one keyboard between multiple Macs just involves USB switching, which is fairly straight forward….

I’ll keep researching this concept, but I think this is my future upgrade path, four Mac Minis will likely cost a lot less than a single Mac Pro Tower with the same amount of RAM & CPU, and the motherhship could be built up in steps as/when necessary…. Maybe I’ll reach the second MacMini and realise that is actually all I will ever need for syncronous/simultaneous work…

What I like most about this approach: there are no BIG purchases! Buying that HD2 rig back in the day was a mighty leap of faith & while it paid off, I sincerely doubt there is ever a reason to repeat the exercise ever again. And perhaps that concept is what is really hurting Avids share holders? I did all my the sound editing on my first feature film on a native ProTools system and got a great result. A dozen or more years later I will have gone full circle, and sooner or later will be back to an entirely native system!

Thoughts? Experiences working across multiple Macs? Obviously every dub stage is locking multiple Macs together but their purpose (& budget) are a little different to mine…

19 Responses to To Upgrade or To Not Upgrade?

  1. Ben Sinclair says:

    You may have seen this before but we have a few multi-mac systems using Teleport to share the keyboard and mouse over a network.
    It works particularly well across PT satellite systems.

  2. Larry Elliott says:

    Fascinating concept. I am thinking of two mac minis. One running windows for Pyramix and one running OSX for all the other stuff I use. A little confused about sharing screen mouse and keyboards at the moment.

  3. This is interesting. I’m not sure what you have for a monitor controller but the Dangerous Monitor ST can be expanded with rs232 control.

  4. I’ve been pondering about the very same issue. The new MacPro (assume that it is going to come) might be overkill and too expensive for me. Been watching those mac minis for a while, but some more user experience would be welcome. I mean how it handles big sessions, etc.
    If something is really interesting in the upcoming PT11, that is if it’s really that much more efficient so we don’t have to buy huge towers again for our work.

  5. Tim Walston says:

    Very interesting Idea. I’ve been thinking a lot about upgrades (or not) as well. I’m confused about your statement that you “… no longer need the PCI card slots because I won’t ever be buying Avid card based hardware”. Won’t you still need your HD2 cards? Or HDX, or Native… in any case, regardless of I/O you’ll need something. I’m sure I’m missing something…

    • tim says:

      My home PT rig is a Mac Pro Tower with an MBox Pro 3, no PCI cards just Pt10+ CTK – I can happily open sessions on it that I’ve been working on with my HD2 rig and dont notice any significant difference (I am not mixing or using a lot of plugins) – the same is even more true of the Mac Mini rig.
      I will keep the HD2 on the Mac Tower thats its already on, no upgrades for it. But it will eventually become a secondary rig, for playback..
      So this new MacMini based native system would run without any PCI cards = no need for a new Mac Pro Tower

  6. quantize says:

    just curious…are you suggesting replacing a mac pro with hd2 (no doubt doing serious dsp lifting) with a mini running plugins etc natively?!

    I’d be very curious as to how snappy it feels then

    As you say there are thunderbolt dsp options – notably the UAD Apollo series…

    Also i’m surprised nobody’s mention the Vienna ethernet option yet..
    we use it quite a bit, although juggling all the screen sharing gets a bit annoying sometimes.

    • tim says:

      Yes, I am suggesting replacing [HD2 Tower] with [multiple Mac Minis running PT HD Native on 2+ of them]

      And no I don’t use a lot of DSP in real time as I am not mixing in the box, all my sound editing & design goes to dub stage where they mix on Euphonix Series 5… So I print any processing thats essential to the design & do not run plugins live during predubs or final mix. By the time I have finished my final run thru before Predubs start, there are no plugins running at all…. Ditto for score – I print to stems all elements prior to premix

      • Also don’t forget that these little monsters are capable of handling huge track and plug-in count too. I just had to mix a live show on a MacBook Pro with i5 chip, the session comprised 120tracks, 40buses, 6ste fx and about 160 plugins including eq, comps, tape sims, etc. One single laptop could handle this with incredible stability and that was only a dual-core i5. A “big” mac mini can be a quad i7.

  7. leyton says:

    hey tim ive been thinking a kind of similar thing ( having a mini as a master and my MP as a slave via ethernet to run my libraries via VE pro).. one thing to KIM is that the mini has integrated graphics so your third machine for AE etc might be better as an imac, or a suped MBP
    ( obviously i know your first POC is audio, but i also know your photo bug is bitting hard ) ..

    • tim says:

      good points & that link is very interesting re GPU comparison, thanks!

      FWIW I started to set a Twixtor render going on my Mac Tower just before, render time = 3 hours, copied it over to my Mac mini, its been going half an hour & currently says ‘less than an hour’ – but that would be all CPU based, its just crunching numbers…

  8. ErikG says:

    Although I like the minis, they aren’t that great for expansion.
    You could perhaps even consider going hackintosh?
    Running a hackintosh isn’t at all hard or unreliable these days.

    • tim says:

      The whole point of abandoning the Mac Pro Tower is based on deciding I don’t need PCI expansion of any form…. so what ways do you mean re expansion?

      I wouldn’t consider trying a Hackintosh – I think that is for people who have plenty of free time & who actually enjoy assembling such things & making them work…

      • Erik Guldager says:

        A longish hackintosh response 🙂

        Yes, it used to be.

        Im not saying its for everyone. But a techy sound guy can do this easy.

        Today it’s actually less work and very likely is quite a bit less involved than what you are considering…

        I mean four computers. That would require slowing the response down by screen sharing or having a clunky KVM.
        Good KVMs are rarely cheap, and switching monitor inputs while simple and low cost is not really a very clever solution is it?
        A Mac mini maxes out at 16GB, that isn’t quite enough for serious 64 bit applications. Now I know you said you might not go there yet, but I assure you that you will eventually, as we all will. Both for photo and sound. 32bit is a dead end it does not have that much life left :-).

        I did setup my latest reincarnation in some ten minutes plus regular OSX install time. And that includes having it dual boot with Windows 7 with a start screen that lets me choose what OS to use (that install was there already.
        My machine while a bit old today (i7 920 at 3.9GHz with a measly 12GB RAM) starts up and shuts down faster than any of my 12 MacPro’s at work.

        But yes it still requires you to find (easy) and follow the suggested parts list for full compatibility.
        And you still have to be careful when doing standard apple software updating as that can occasionally break the boot sequence. But with care and not rushing until it has been tested for compatibility by the early adopters it works fine. And I do this anyway with both program and OS versions so its nothing new to me.

        I’m still not saying it’s THE solution. But it certainly is A solution that should not be dismissed just because it lacks the apple on the box.

        • Erik Guldager says:

          And yes, the old processor I have is really just a 2.66GHz processor, and yes if you want to do serious over clocking, you will have to spend some time geeking around. It runs fine at 3.9GHz and has ben for the last two years, its pretty much always on, and is no more crasch prone than real MacPro’s.

        • tim says:

          I agree it is an option, but definitely not for me.

  9. I have definitly thought about something like this myself.
    Switching could be done with just one device like this one: (just one with more outputs) That switches both hdmi and usb.

    After effects would surely like some nice gpu power though…

  10. Pingback: Some thoughts on the upcoming Pro Tools 11 | Tamas Dragon

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