Remember the FireWire standard? That collaboration between Sony, Apple and IBM promised a fast, efficient, daisy-chainable serial bus to replace the sketchy SCSI interface. Yet after the standard was ratified, it fell victim to company politics. (For the story behind FireWire’s rise and fall, Ars Technica dished the details in “The Tragedy of FireWire: Collaborative Tech Torpedoed by Corporations.”)
Despite the behind-the-scenes machinations, the audio industry embraced FireWire for audio interfaces, mixers, DSP cards and more. FireWire also found a home transferring data with video cameras. High-end pro studios were built around FireWire-based hardware because it was fast, did the job, and was superior to USB’s functionality at that time.
Nonetheless, technology marches on, and FireWire faded. About a decade ago, Apple stopped putting FireWire ports on its computers in favor of Thunderbolt, while assuring users that Thunderbolt would be backward-compatible with FireWire. Well, until it wasn’t. Or maybe it is. Or maybe it is sometimes.
According to Internet rumors, Apple removed FireWire drivers for Core Audio, and this can be an issue for those wanting to upgrade to macOS Sonoma.
BUT IT KINDA STILL WORKS…
Universal Audio makes clear that its UAD-2 Satellite FireWire devices are not compatible with Sonoma. Neither are connections via Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapters. PreSonus says that if you want to use their 1394 products as audio interfaces (e.g., the StudioLive AI Series mixers and StudioLive Classic), don’t update your macOS. Some RME users report that their FireWire interfaces work fine, some use patches to regain FireWire compatibility, and still others have difficulty getting their interfaces to talk over FireWire.
Granted, technology-based products are not like vintage guitars with unlimited lifespans. FireWire had a good run—but let’s remember that FireWire audio interfaces still work. It’s not like they dematerialize upon power-up. If you can’t use them with an updated Mac, that’s not the audio interface’s fault. Trust your ears, and keep in mind that the audio performance of an older interface may still be far more than adequate.
Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: e-waste. It’s estimated that 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated each year. During the two days I wrote this column, 200,000 tons of e-waste were generated.
This is a huge problem, primarily due to the toxic materials in much electronic gear. Put the waste in a landfill, and it’s only a matter of time before the soil or groundwater becomes contaminated. Or, burn the gear and create exciting, creative new forms of air pollution.
Don’t think I’m an Apple-basher because I led off with FireWire. According to Computer World, it’s estimated that more than half of the existing Windows machines can’t upgrade to Windows 11 due to new hardware requirements. That’s a flood of potential e-waste.
The audio industry is a tiny part of the problem, but we are part of it. What can we do?
IF WE PLAY OUR CARDS RIGHT…
Consumer pressure can work. Microsoft has dialed back its position of no more Windows 10 security updates after 2025, and security patches will be available by subscription after the Death Date. Since some people report getting FireWire devices to work with macOS Sonoma, maybe we can pressure Apple to come up with a use-at-your-own-risk patch for FireWire compatibility. (As of press time, Apple has not responded to a request for comment.) Also, some people don’t want the latest and greatest. They’ve frozen their systems at OS X or Windows 7 or whatever because what they have works. They don’t want to deal with updating, and they don’t go online with their systems so they don’t care about security. They’re happy to buy last decade’s high-end products for cheap.
Let’s cast a wider net. I assume we’d all like to see more people making and enjoying music. It’s good for the soul, good for the brain, and it expands the music-based economy on which we all depend. Perhaps there’s a way to turn a problem into an opportunity.
School arts programs are notoriously underfunded. An old computer is a perfect match for an old audio interface. What you can do with older computers and software is certainly enough for students to start learning about computer-based musical tools. A lot of free software can run on older computers, too. Churches also need audio equipment, as do music teachers.
So, how do we get still viable music hardware to those who need it? That’s a (very) tough question, but tax laws still allow for charitable contributions. Perhaps music retailers, working through an organization like NAMM or in conjunction with computer companies, could put together a framework to make this happen.
Pie in the sky? Probably—but maybe someday people will pay more attention to the consequences of their actions and see the benefit of growing the industry, improving music education, and reducing toxic waste, all while paying less in taxes along the way.
Could it happen? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t bet against it either. In the 1980s, Steve Jobs donated 9,000 computers to California schools. A story about it in Medium called the initiative a “tax and marketing coup” that created a generation of users and made Jobs look like a hero. Microsoft has several initiatives that support education. Let’s hope those kinds of ideas get a refresh.