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New On-Location Digital Audio Venture Enabled By Mac Mini & Sonnet Expansion Systems

New venture Diablo Digital develops powerful, portable rack-mount solutions for on-location recording workflows

Noted front of house engineers Brad Madix and Greg Price have standardized on Sonnet Technologies Echo Express III and xMac mini Server Thunderbolt-to-PCIe 2.0 expansion systems for their new business venture, Diablo Digital.

Madix and Price are using the Sonnet systems in combination with the Apple Mac mini to create powerful, portable, scalable, and affordable rack-mount solutions for on-location audio recording workflows.

Both engineers have extensive résumés dating back to the 1970s, mixing sound for some of the biggest names in rock music. Madix has worked with Rush, Van Halen, Shakira, Def Leppard, and many more, and Price has worked with Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Kiss, and Aerosmith, among others.

For several years, both had been working on separate paths to develop a portable, rack-mount system that would integrate all necessary interfaces and peripherals for on-location music recording. Aside from being the source of live recording products, live multitrack recordings provide FOH engineers with a valuable tool for perfecting the mix on-location and making the most of limited rehearsal time at each venue. 

While earlier efforts included the less portable and more expensive Mac Pro computer, Madix and Price realized they could improve on the concept by leveraging the low cost and small footprint of the Mac mini. Working together, they built a new solution around Sonnet’s xMac mini Server, a Thunderbolt-to-PCIe 2.0 expansion system and 1U rack-mount enclosure that securely holds the Mac mini in place.

Brad Madix, FOH engineer for the 2013 Rush World Tour and co-owner of Diablo Digital, with the integrated recording solution using a Sonnet xMac mini Server and Echo Express III expansion chassis.

“With its Thunderbolt connectivity and onboard storage of up to 2 TB, the Mac mini can provide the server capabilities and computing power of a box many times larger, but at a cost many times lower,” says Madix. “Combined with the right expansion systems and peripherals, the Mac mini can be turned into a high-power multitrack recording system for live shows of any size. The xMac mini Server bridges the gap between the Mac Pro’s extensibility and the Mac mini’s portability and affordability, enabling us to rackmount a Mac mini where it can be easily cabled and extended with Thunderbolt connectivity.”

He adds, “I recently ran a 91-track, two-plus-hour stress test using the xMac mini Server and an Avid HD Native card connected to an Avid Omni interface. I was working in Pro Tools|HD with hundreds of plug-ins instantiated. Amazingly, the Mac mini handled it all with no issues and only 57 percent of CPU utilization.”

The xMac mini Server increases the Mac mini’s functionality by connecting two PCIe 2.0 expansion slots to the computer’s Thunderbolt port, with an additional port on the chassis for daisy-chaining to other Thunderbolt devices. Panel-mount cables inside the enclosure extend the Mac mini interfaces to the outside of the xMac Mini Server enclosure, enabling quick connection of USB 3.0, HDMI, and Gigabit Ethernet cables without the need to access the computer.

Diablo Digital’s custom mixing and recording system includes Avid Pro Tools|HD audio recording and editing software running on the Mac mini, with the xMac mini Server housing a Pro Tools|HD Native PCIe card for interfacing with the VENUE desk. A Sonnet Tempo SSD PCIe storage card in the second slot serves as a high-speed, reliable record drive. This means the new recording system is capable of capturing 64 tracks of HD audio content, more than enough for most musical acts. 

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For larger productions, the Diablo Digital team is including Sonnet’s Echo Express III-R 2U rack-mount Thunderbolt 2-to-PCIe card expansion chassis with the Sonnet RackMac mini rackmount enclosure for the Mac mini. The Avid-qualified Echo Express III-R offers phenomenal speed through support of 20 Gb/sec Thunderbolt 2 technology, and with a mounting depth of only 16 inches, provides the ideal component for interfacing the Pro Tools|HDX cards with the Mac mini. 

“Adding the Echo Express III-R, additional Avid cards, and built-in mobile rack storage enables us to record up to 128 tracks simultaneously, which means we can deliver a solution with the horsepower for even the most elaborate productions — and still at a cost that’s less than our original Mac Pro-based system,” Price notes. “Thanks to the possibilities afforded by the Sonnet Technologies and Avid gear working with the Mac mini, we saw an opportunity to build a business around providing Pro Tools recording systems to musical acts of all sizes. We really believe these systems will change the landscape of the music business.”

In the first quarter of this year alone, Diablo Digital has already supplied systems for the Rolling Stones, Kanye West/Jay Z, Eric Clapton, Justin Timberlake, Dierks Bentley, Black Sabbath, and other large tours, as well as for many smaller, budget-conscience acts. 

“Brad and Greg are two of the most prolific FOH engineers in the touring concert world. Now they’ve applied lessons learned from nearly 60 combined years of experience to offer a solution that can meet everyone’s needs, from the most discerning rock act performing in the largest arenas to the club band looking for an affordable way to professionally mix and record its live shows,” says Greg LaPorte, vice president of sales and marketing, Sonnet Technologies. “With our xMac mini Server and Echo Express III-R at their core, these new-generation FOH systems have changed the economics of high-end digital audio recording — putting it within the reach of virtually any musical act on tour, as well as indie recording studios and other groups with more limited budgets, such as houses of worship.” 

Sonnet Technologies