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Tips for Setting up 2020 MacMini in Rack
Old 27th June 2020
  #1
Tips for Setting up 2020 MacMini in Rack

I just got done with a ground up build. When it came time to plug in the noisy DAW that I had in the new building, my wife (can you believe it?) suggested, "why don't you just get a new one?" I had run SONAR since it was ProAudio, but I also use REAPER and have used Logic some on my laptop. I became a Mac person back in 2008, so I thought to myself that I should just move forward on Logic now.

To the point. I wanted something quiet and rackmountable. I also wanted to be able to continue using my RME RayDAT, as I have it nad two ADI-8DS converters that I have been happy with. I investigated methods for incorporating the RayDAT into a Mac studio. I didn't want to shell out the bucs for a MacPro. A company named Sonnet Technologies makes some nice PCIe breakout boxes as well. Then, I noticed that have something named the xMacMini Server. It allows you to mount a Mini with slots for two PCI cards, port replication, etc.

I went this route:
  1. 2020 MacMini i5/6-core 32GB RAM, 512GB SSD;
  2. Sonnet Tech. xMacMini Server (Thunderbolt 3 version);
  3. RME RayDAT w/Word Clock Module (WCM).

  • I wanted to retain the WCM, as I use an Antelope Isochrone OCX too.
  • I wanted to add 1-TB storage internal to the chassis.
  • I want quiet and neat installation.


There are some gotchas that needed to be worked out, and I thought I would share in the event somebody else goes down this path.
  1. WCM - Sonnet provides a mounting location for smaller daughter boards. They also provide two holes for BNC bulkhead couplers. For the WCM, However, it would be so far inside the chassis that I would need a 2-ft coax to connect the WCM to the bulkhead BNC connector. The ribbon cable that RME provides to connect the WCM is too short to reach the second expansion slot on the rear of the chassis. I ordered parts to go either route. I ultimately chose to use a longer ribbon cable and mount the WCM in the chassis where the WC cable would mount directly to it. This requires a 10-pin REVERSE ribbon cable. Of course I didn't know that off the bat, and I had to re-order a reverse cable.
  2. Video - Powering dual video-monitors from a MacMini with all the other things attached is also interesting. I have two 24" 1080 LED monitors. Being 1080, they only have HDMI. Thus, I bought one TB3-HDMI adapter and opted to plug the primary directly into the HDMI port replicator on the back of the xMac chassis. BAD....It worked, but I was getting drops, flickers, etc. Looking around, many folks mention that the internal Intel video in the Minis is not very good for this purpose. Great. I bought an external GPU breakout box from Sonnet too and outfitted it with a Radeon X850 that has twin HDMI and twin Displayport ports. I was psyched that this would work! The breakout box only comes with a 0.5m TB3 cable. Not great for a rack-mounted solution. In addition, it turns out that if using an eGPU, it needs to be directly connected to a TB3 port on the Mini itself. It shouldn't be connected in a daisy chain.Crap. I had to order a longer one. TB3 cables (active they are called) that can transfer up to 40Gbps are not expensive, especially when you add overnight shipping. Unrack the whole thing; insert the new cable; rerack and reconnect all the damn Toslink connectors. you get the point. Totally psyched again! Damn. It turns out that a MacMini is expecting its primary video display to be connected to its HDMI port. The external GPU is not recognized on boot. Thus, neither monitor came up with anything. In fact, they go back to sleep. I read somewhere else that you can boot by connecting first to the Mini, and after boot, reconnecting back to the eGPU. Great...behind the rack. It worked, and at least I can say I was able to run everything. However, the plug/unplug thing is not a suitable option. Thus, I had to order an HDMI emulator. It is a small device that plugs into an HDMI port to simulate a monitor during the boot process. They are used for headless remote connections. You will need one of these too.

So, if you are hoping to mount a MacMini in this regard, it is super quiet! Even the eGPU is inaudible. With all of the things I have done, it works great!

Pros:
  • Quiet
  • Fast
  • Sonnet Tech's Support
  • Build quality of the xMacMini Server

Cons:
  • Not much documentation about what you really need to do this successfully
  • Frustrating waiting on shipping

Sonnet makes nice quality components. Their documentation is pretty good. They have lists of PCIe cards that are compatible and tested. They do the same for the eGPU. Thus, I was able to by things that are compatible. Where it was difficult is that, because the possible combinations are so diverse, there is no blueprint for how to make sure you have everything you need from the get-go. Thus, it was pretty frustrating to take two steps forward and one back every few days. With ordering and shipping times, it took two solid weeks before I was done.

There is one last tidbit of knowledge I gained. In the U.S. there are some great vendors that ship same day and don't kill you for 2nd day or overnight. Digi-Key ships same day until 8 PM Central! Mouser has quick turnaround if you order in time. NewEgg was great and Markertek not bad either. Sonnet gets things out in about 24 hours after the order.

Final List:
  1. Sonnet Technologies xMacMini Server
  2. MacMini
  3. Sonnet 550 Breakout Box for eGPU
  4. AMD Radeon X850 by Asus
  5. Tripp-Lite 2m 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 cable
  6. Nevertech HDMI emulator
  7. (For RME with WCM) 12-inch, 10-pin REVERSE ribbon
  8. G-Technology 1TB SSD w/USB-C
  9. Compatible keyboard and mouse

Even if you don't have the same exact rig, I hope this help you to identify the things you need to take into consideration.

Cheers!
Old 27th June 2020
  #2
Let us know how that Sonnet EGPU performs! I gotta get one eventually for gaming purposes hehe. Was looking at Sonnet's specifically because of their old Mac friendly nature and their support.. The Razor's look rad, and I get the impression Akitio has already gone under, but Ill probably still go for the Sonnet just because..
Old 3 weeks ago
  #3
Lives for gear
 
infiniteposse's Avatar
 

That sounds like a beautiful setup. I'm curious why you didn't spend the extra money for the i7 since you really "went for it" with regards to the quality of the tech you've used. Regardless, I appreciate you documenting this process so thoroughly. It looks like I'll likely end up going MacMini for my next music machine, it's just a question of when. I'd not seen the used of the Sonnet server enclosure before and it has the potential to solve a lot of issues I'd been concerned about and cleaning up a lot of peripherals I'd imagined I might need.

Please report back on performance and satisfaction once you've had things up for a while. I'd also be curious to hear about your particular usage scenarios. VI's or more tracking oriented?

Take care.
Old 3 weeks ago
  #4
Quick Update.

There is only one issue that basically sucks for me. The Mini needs an HDMI monitor plugged into during boot up. I have to pull one of the cables from the eGPU and plug it into the back of the rackmount chassis' HDMI port. I tried using an emulator, but unfortunately the Mini alway wants to use it as the primary. Thus, it works to boot, and I get two Catalina screens on my monitors. However, neither of them is the primary, and thus I can't login.

It seems to be fine if I switch the cables for boot and then afterwards plug it back into the eGPU. It's a bit annoying, but it's not a deal-breaker.

The performance so far with my setup has been great. I'm using Logic Pro X, and I haven't yet run into anything. I haven't taxed it fully yet, but to date, I have not run into any issues with the HDSP or the eGPU. I was thinking that something would certainly not work, but so far, so good. The eGPU seemed to fix any weird issues I was having when trying to run two (video) monitors with a TB3-to-HDMI adapter.
Old 3 weeks ago
  #5
Quote:
I'm curious why you didn't spend the extra money for the i7 since you really "went for it" with regards to the quality of the tech you've used.
To be 100% honest....it's because I'm compulsive. I wanted to get it done, and the i7 wasn't available at the places I shop.

I was replacing a Q6600 quad core from (I think) 2008. I was using it to run SONAR Producer on Win 7 for the longest time. It had 7200 spinning drives (RAID 0) for audio files, and it seemed to keep up. It served me well for quite some time, but it was old and loud.

I compared the new 6-core i5 specs to those for the Q6600, and there was literally no comparison. The six core i5 even outperforms some of the last generation i7's. Thus I figured that the six cores, double the RAM (my old one had 16 GB) and SSDs for drives would be such an improvement over my last setup that I didn't need to go farther. So far, this has held true.

It's funny. I use VI generally when building a piece. For example, I'll create a drum track as a glorified click-track for timing. I'll often create a bass-track too just to have a foundation. As a song builds, I generally go back and replace them with physical instruments. I do tend to use the synth and piano sounds quite a bit. I've also included horn sections and choirs in the past, but most of my work is tracked audio.

My old Q6600 never really let me down, so I'm hopeful that this setup should perform even better. I'll update again after I get a 50+ track project going.

Thanks,
TB
Old 3 weeks ago
  #6
Yeah if you get the i7 they build it to order, you add another week or two to your order because you have to wait for Apple to build it. I was under the impression mine was coming straight from the factory itself, but I lucked out and ended up getting one directly from Adorama itself (Im guessing they stock the basic BTO model).. I guess sometimes they drop ship them to Adorama, sometimes they drop ship to you straight from China.
Old 3 weeks ago
  #7
I have that experience too ordering MacBook Pros. The one I'm typing on came from China as a custom build. My other one was in stock at Sweetwater.
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