The 2018 Macintosh Audio Kerfuffle

So I’ve caught little bits and bobs of this over The Interwebz® for the past few months, but Peter Kirn over at CDM brought it to the forefront earlier this week.

Some additional info I hadn’t seen, but unfortunately certainly full of questionable advice IMO.

As usual, the Commentariat is jam-packed with FUD, so tread cautiously if you decide to peruse them…

So I read this with a healthy dose of ‘yeah, probably an issue for a few people but this can’t be worth all the garbage people are saying here’ as is usual with most of these reports of chaos, gloom, doom, and throngs of Internetizens sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches. Never content to just follow the herd, I decided to find out as best I could for myself.

As a reminder, I work at EduCorp® and we send thousands of MacBook Pros out every year.  An issue like this would certainly show up by now, since these models were released in Fall of last year. Since I teach in an audio program and am also one of the resident Neighborhood Mac Gurus®, I would certainly be one of the first to know. So far – nothing. I will also mention that we just tested a room full of audio gear returns from students, and there were quite a few defective products (although it’s a small fraction of what what is sent out) and a surprisingly large number that still functioned properly. Which is a gentle reminder that just because you can’t figure out why it’s not working doesn’t mean it’s defective. But they are students, and still novices, so we can overlook such things. For people who consider themselves ‘Professionals’ the bar is much higher. Just repeating the echo in the chamber doesn’t cut it.

So it it BS? Actually, no. But there are caveats as usual with stories like these.

Is it worth looking into and reporting about? Most certainly, but within reason and sanity and freakin’ common sense please.

Is it worth all the vitriol being hurled at Apple? If you want Web Traffic, yes.

It is panic time? Are you serious?

With that, on to the testing.

Since my computers are several years old and aren’t affected by this issue (I tested them with the procedure below) and no one in my office has the latest MBP, we contacted our Tech Department to get one. They were super helpful as always, and big thanks to everyone involved.

I grabbed every USB audio interface I could find laying around – a Focusrite 2i4 (2nd Gen model), a Yamaha AG-06, and my cheapo-backup Behringer UCA222. All are Class Compliant USB 2 audio interfaces in line with the ones causing issues in the reports. Thunderbolt audio interfaces seem to be working fine according to reports, so it wasn’t tested here. USB-C connected interfaces were also not mentioned as a culprit in my research, but I don’t have one to test anyway so it was also skipped.

We found one of the USB-C hubs that our students get. I brought my Apple USB-C to USB adapter and an Anker USB-C to USB cable I recently purchased to cover multiple cable and connection types. With all that assembled, we headed over to Techland to run everything through its paces.

The MacBook Pro was a 15” 2018 model (Macintosh 15,1) with 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB SSD. It had the latest T2  chip that many thing might be the crux of the issue. It was a ‘clean install’ with the latest officially released OS (10.14.3) and had Logic Pro and Pro Tools installed. Opening Logic confirmed it has never been launched before, and the Apple Loop library had yet to be indexed (yet another sign of a fresh installation). It was pretty much one you would walk out of an Apple Store with or have shipped from The Mothership®. Excellent. 🙂

We tested all three USB audio interfaces using the USB hub (a Belkin USB-C 4-port), the Apple USB-C to USB adapter, and the Anker USB-C cable. The only exception was the Behringer. Since it has a non-removable USB cable attached, we could only test it with the Belkin hub and Apple adaptor. All three interfaces are Bus-powered, so no external power supply was needed.

We started by playing back audio from Logic Pro. As an Apple Product it might be the least susceptible to this, so we tried it first. 

In my research, it was recommended to play back audio while toggling the ‘Set date and time automatically’ checkbox (In the Date and Time panel of System Preferences) repeatedly to demonstrate the audio issues. We also ensured that the machine was connected to the Internet, both wired (via an Apple USB-C to Ethernet adapter) and wireless via the company network, so the Network Time Server (time.apple.com) could connect properly.

Once we started playback and toggled the checkbox, there was indeed audio crackling and glitching from all of the audio interfaces every time it was turned on and back off again. It was easily heard by everyone and repeatable regardless of audio interface, connection type, or Thunderbolt port used on the Mac.

The Behringer was (surprisingly) the only one that didn’t glitch as much, or even at all when used with the Apple adapter when I listened to it. Odd.

We stopped there. I debated actually recording something into the Mac for a long period of time, but I didn’t bring a mic, XLR cable, or any interconnects to record from another source. Besides, we had proved it was happening and my boss said he had an upcoming meeting with Focusrite – they have the resources to check even more thoroughly than we did and move this up the food chain with better data if they find what we did.

Everyone that did the test yesterday is an audio engineer and educator – not a programmer or a systems engineer. We discussed our opinions on what it might be, but don’t have a definitive answer why or a solution to offer to resolve the problem(s). All we can tell you is that in our professional opinions is that it exists, it’s reproducible, it’s been reported as an issue, and will also be brought up to a manufacturer with much more experience with this than we have. We also agreed that it will get fixed.

And that’s about it – which is why I find CDM’s ‘advice’ in their article rather unnerving, because I was not aware they are computer programmers or systems engineers – I just thought they were musicians and bloggers…

Their take:

 

 

 

1. Mac users on older machines should postpone upgrading.
2. Mac users in the market purchasing a new machine right now should consider a comparable Windows machine.
3. Users stuck with these models should use a Thunderbolt 3 audio interface, adapter, or hub, or attempt to return the computer in favor of an older Mac or new PC.

 

 

 

The first is a valid option, and the only one as far as I’m concerned. If you are using a machine that is doing what you need, there is absolutely no reason to upgrade – period. This is why my computers are older models – they still do what I need them to do.

Number two is an overreactive ‘burn everything down and start over’ analogy. Learning a new computing system, new operating system, and quite possibly a new audio paradigm (DAW, plugins, etc.) is probably going to stop your workflow dead in its tracks while you ramp up your skillset. Let’s also not forget that Windows is hardly bug-free, and the hardware it runs on can be a Pandora’s Box of technical issues too. Nothing invented by humans is perfect.

 

The third ‘solution’ is just a mess. What if you dropped all your cash on the computer and don’t have any left for an upgraded interface? Adaptors or hubs might not make any difference – as our little test showed. Buying older computers has its own pitfalls and issues too you know… 

(JPEG of Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard facepalming here please)

And then there’s this: CDM reports that iPad Pros are affected in the article too.

In my tests yesterday I’m pretty damn certain that it is not.

To be absolutely clear, when I first got the iPad Pro late last year, I did have some issues with the USB-C headphone adaptor killing the Wi-Fi signal (although the audio continued to work perfectly). This was fixed in a Software Update around December. I have had zero issues with it ever since – audio or otherwise – and it use it every single day.

 

So yesterday I fired up AUM on the iPad and recorded audio from a AKG condenser mic (so phantom power is used on the interface – extra current draw) though a bus-powered Focusrite 2i4 audio interface for just over 20 minutes with no glitches or audio issues. I then loaded AUM with multiple AUv3 and IAA instruments, MIDI plugins and FX (getting the CPU usage up to around 80%) and let it run for over two hours – again, no glitches or artifacts whatsoever. I recorded more audio from the mic after that just to see if pushing the CPU might affect things. Again, it recorded and played back perfectly. So if there’s an issue with audio on the iPad Pro I’m not hearing it at all.

I might have a ‘good one’, but more likely it got fixed in a Software Update and I just didn’t notice it. 

This latest ‘kerfuffle’ will get fixed too.

In the mean time, avoid the Dogpile of ‘Apple is Doomed’ nonsense. Don’t think Apple cares about the Music Makers? Open the App Store and check the Top Paid Music Apps:

App store LPX

Logic Pro X, djay Pro, MainStage…

This is a big part of Apple’s Ecosystem, and I can tell you firsthand it means a lot to them

And if you have issues they want to know about them, so they can be remedied.

Document your problems, report them, and keep doing it until they fix them.

Lastly, If you are ‘stuck’ with a 2018 MBP, MBA, or Mini that has this problem, I hope you find a workaround until then. We’ve found workarounds for countless audio problems up to this point, and guarantee we will in the future – regardless of platform. It’s what we do. 🙂

If you decide to jump ship and move to another platform, then I bid you good luck. But remember, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.

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