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Apple developing FireWire audio interface for GarageBand

Exclusive - Apple may expand music inroads with new consumer oriented hardware device.

Apple Computer is expected to introduce a new audio interface for GarageBand users in the coming months. The analog FireWire audio device, the first product of its recently created iPod division, will allow users to directly record audio using any Mac and Apple’s GarageBand music studio application. According to reputable sources, the company is on track to begin manufacturing the device overseas next month.

The device, code-named 'Q97' or 'Asteroid,' has been under development at the company for the better part of the year. Typically referred to as a 'breakout box' in the music recording industry, the external audio device attaches to a computer and offers audio inputs and outputs for attaching instruments or other audio sources. Apple is reportedly building the device around GarageBand, its popular application for aspiring musicians.

According to sources, Asteroid will include two XLR/ TRS audio input connectors, two RCA analog output jacks, and a standard headphone jack. The device will draw power through a single FireWire 400 port and include a phantom on/off power switch.

In addition to the aforementioned specs, a more advanced version of the Asteroid device—recently seen floating around the Apple's Cupertino campus—sports an additional S/PDIF optical output port; however, it is unclear which version the company will ultimately send to manufacturing.

The new device was developed in part by portions of Apple's Germany-based Emagic subsidiary that have now become part of the iPod division. Leveraging the music device expertise of Emagic, the breakout box will sport a software-driven input gain control and a limiter circuit to automatically prevent audio clipping or distortion. Users will also be able to link together up to four of the devices to add support for additional instruments, microphones, or other audio sources.

Expected to debut in January, alongside a revised version of Apple's iLife digital lifestyle software suite, Asteroid will integrate with a new version of GarageBand, sources said. The GarageBand software update will deliver a simplified setup, recording and playback support for Asteroid, and input gain and mute controls.

The new version of GarageBand will also allow users to monitor Asteroid's operational states, including limiting, input level and output level. It will be capable of automatically detecting the presence of the Asteroid device and allow users to record from 2 mono channels on 2 tracks simultaneously, or through a single stereo channel.

Asteroid will require Mac OS X v10.2.8 or later, iLife ‘04 or later, and a computer with a built-in FireWire port. A forthcoming revision to the Mac OS X Sound Preference Pane will reportedly allow Asteroid to interface with Apple's Soundtrack, Logic, DVD Player, and other third party applications. Meanwhile, revised FireWire Audio sound drivers have already appeared in early versions of the company's Mac OS X 10.3.7 Update.

Sources in Asia report that Apple will outsource the manufacturing of Asteroid to AmTRAN, a Taiwanese TFT LCD display manufacturer. A deal signed between the two companies in June indicates that an initial production run of 10,000 units will take place between mid-December 2004 and early January 2005. Apple will likely announce Asteroid— under an unknown product name— during the second week of January at the annual Macworld San Francisco trade show.

The device will retail for approximately $129 - $149 and will aggressively target similar products such as M-Aduio's Mobile Pre and Edirol's UA-5 USB Digital Audio Capture device. But even at $149, Asteroid will represent one of the lowest priced FireWire breakout boxes on the market, selling for $250 less than M-Audio's more sophisticated FireWire 410 audio interface.

According to internal company estimates, sales of the device are projected to add approximately $3 million to Apple's bottom line each quarter.

NewOrder helped contribute to this report.