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Mark Lippett & XMOS

Mark Lippett is CEO of XMOS.Mark Lippett is CEO of XMOS.

Most audio interface designs are based around technology from British innovators XMOS. What makes the xcore platform so ubiquitous, and what does it mean for musicians?

Which manufacturer’s products are found in more studios than any other? Whatever the popularity of Shure microphones, Apple computers or Behringer synths, the crown almost certainly belongs to XMOS.

Whether it’s a portable laptop rig or a sophisticated multi‑channel setup, nearly all musicians and engineers rely on USB audio interfaces. Yet although there’s fierce competition between many well‑established manufacturers, most designs are based around the same family of platforms. Lift the lid on a USB interface, and its beating heart will most likely be an xcore chipset from XMOS.

How did one company come to be so central to all of our music‑making? CEO Mark Lippett fills in the back story. “We spun out of the University of Bristol in 2005 with a novel processor technology that was designed to deliver the sort of flexibility to software engineers that hardware engineers had become accustomed to in FPGA platforms. Our processor arrays can emulate all of the types of compute that you encounter in embedded systems, including AI, DSP, I/O and control.”

Mark Lippett: The thing that really sets us apart is that the underlying processor architecture is fast enough and reliable enough to implement hardware in software.

Hardware In Software

“The thing that really sets us apart is that the underlying processor architecture is fast enough and reliable enough to implement hardware in software,” explains Mark. “For example, we can implement SPDIF, ADAT, I squared S: all of those protocols are actually software libraries to us, not distinct pieces of hardware on the chip. So, by deploying different software builds, you can effectively create different system‑on‑chip designs on an existing semiconductor platform, using software alone. Our objective was to give the embedded software community an efficient way of deploying software onto platforms in order to create fully integrated bespoke solutions with a rapid time to market.

“When you have a somewhat, dare I say disruptive technology, you’re looking for market discontinuity — points of entry for the technology in the market. The one that we discovered very early on was USB audio. Apple were going to stop putting Firewire into MacBooks, and they said ‘You’re going to use USB audio from now on.’ And the peripherals industry said, ‘That’s all very well, but there isn’t a chipset for that.’ Seeing the opportunity, we built a solution internally using our applications engineering resources. And the rest is history.”

Bridge Building

The XMOS chipset performs the task that’s most fundamental to any audio interface: it serves as a bridge between the various audio input and output streams, and the USB data bus. “Essentially, there’s a collection of I/O protocols that need to talk to each other in a certain sort of segment — we’re very good at joining them together. They might be at different sample rates and require some interim processing for one reason or another, but we can connect those things together. You are then able to select which combinations you want just using software. So, insofar as your PCB will allow you to do so, you could effectively do runtime changes to the I/O protocols that you’re supporting.”

This is the key advantage XMOS has over rival technologies: the xcore chipset can easily be configured to cope with whatever I/O streams the interface designer wants to include, simply by loading the appropriate software onto it. If no such product was available, interface manufacturers would have to cobble together multiple hardware chips each dedicated to one individual function, such as sample‑rate converters and ADAT transceivers, or employ field‑programmable gate array (FPGA) chips. FPGAs are similarly versatile and are used by some high‑profile manufacturers, but the barrier to entry is high as they are expensive and require specialist programming skills. By contrast, any software programmer with a knowledge of C or C++ can take advantage of XMOS’s library code.

“It’s a sort of chicken and egg situation,” says Mark. “When the company was founded back in 2005, FPGA hardware platforms were becoming higher and higher performance and more and more expensive. They were chasing communications applications and, consequently, people in the embedded space and the consumer space couldn’t afford them. And then there was no point in having an FPGA engineer on the staff, so FPGA engineers disappeared and now they can no longer program FPGAs. It was almost a self‑fulfilling prophecy that FPGAs were not that accessible in that part of the industry. The other way of looking at it is there’s probably 100 times more software programmers than hardware programmers. So if you want to make a very empowering creative platform available, make it available to the biggest community of creative engineers.”


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