Time was music production required hiring a studio for the kind of money that would buy you a house. But time and technology moves fast. During the 1980s, there was a revolution in analogue home-recording kit; then the 1990s saw home computers gradually take over. Today, you can do everything from recording pop songs to mastering movie soundtracks on a Mac. But which Mac? That’s the question we’re here to answer!
Mac vs. PC for music production
Whether you choose a Mac or PC for music production is largely down to the platform you prefer and who you’re collaborating with. There’s little inherent advantage to using Macs, beyond familiarity with the system, and the general robustness of the hardware. There is, however, some software — notably Apple’s own Logic Pro X and its consumer cousin GarageBand — that is Mac-only.
GarageBand is essentially a toy, albeit a powerful one in the right hands. It’s fine for the odd bit of recording and play, but pros favour more flexible software. Logic Pro X remains popular for recording work, as do the cross-platform Cubase, Ableton Live and Pro Tools.
RAM and storage for music making on Macs
Music software is notoriously RAM-hungry. A lack of RAM becomes a serious bottleneck in any pro-level project. You’ll be able to run fewer instruments and fewer effects; you’ll spend more time rendering and less time doing things live. With the majority of Macs no longer allowing you to later upgrade RAM, buy what you can afford during purchase. Consider 16 GB your minimum.
Storage is also an issue. Hard drives can be a bottleneck due to their relatively low speed compared to SSDs, and they can be noisy. However, SSDs start out much smaller than hard drives, and are far more expensive. Entry-level Apple notebooks have 128 GB SSDs, but pro instrument and effects collections when installed can require hundreds of GB. So you must figure out what you’ll need, and how assets will be stored. (External drives can be fine for large sample libraries and the like, especially when connected using Thunderbolt, but you then need to determine how to take everything with you if you’re a musician who works with people in many different locations.)
Portability and connections in a Mac for music
Before buying a Mac you must decide whether you need it to be portable or not. If you’re always moving around, working with various musicians in different countries, a massive iMac won’t fit in your hand luggage. But if you’re a solo musician who only ever creates music in a home studio, you get more bang per buck with a desktop machine.
You also need to examine other kit you want to use. If you don’t have any — if all of your music-making happens inside a Mac — then this won’t be a concern, and in theory any Mac might do. But if you’ve a pile of audio interfaces, USB instruments, headphones, monitors, and other vital hardware, trying to get by with the new MacBook’s single USB-C port will drive you to despair. (We wouldn’t recommend the new MacBook for music anyway — it’s too underpowered; but you get the general point.)
Read: iMac versus MacBook Air
Processing power for making music on a Mac
High-end audio work can be extremely processor intensive, especially when using professional plug-ins and effects. If your demands are great, you’re going to need a Mac with fairly serious processing power. Ergo, whichever Mac you decide to buy, avoid low-end models that seem to lurk in the line-up to enable Apple to say ‘from’ and use a lower price-tag in marketing material.
There’s also the question of the GPU. Historically, recording and editing audio didn’t utilise many graphics card resources, unlike 3D design and video editing. Things are more complicated these days — some audio software is GPU-accelerated. In the main, though, added GPU clout is more of a factor should you require additional displays.
Best studio Mac for musicians: 27-inch iMac with Retina
When working in a studio, an iMac offers an affordable means of getting reasonably high-end kit, and the large display you’ll need when working with complex editing software. For music production, the i5 chips in Apple’s 5K iMac are sufficient, and you can upgrade RAM from the base 8 GB up to 32 GB whenever you like, avoiding Apple’s hefty RAM prices.
You need to be mindful of internal storage: the entry-level 3.2 GHz model ships with a 1 TB hard drive. Others in the line-up boast a Fusion Drive (a combination hard drive/SSD system). You can instead just go for faster flash storage, but at a cost (£560 for 1 TB). Get the best you can afford.
Connections-wise, you get four USB 3 ports and two Thunderbolt 2 ports. The latter is great for fast external storage, leaving the former for accessories and instruments. There’s a headphone jack, for when you’re not using monitors and/or an external interface for headphones.
Best portable Mac for musicians: MacBook Pro with Retina display
If you’re a musician on the road, avoid the MacBook (not powerful enough; only one connection port — and that’s USB-C), and the MacBook Air (not awful, but still lacking in screen space and power). The only Apple notebook really worth consideration for music-making is the MacBook Pro.
From a connectivity standpoint, you get two USB 3 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, and a headphone jack. The 13-inch and 15-inch models are both fairly light (1.58 and 2.04 kg, respectively); however, they differ in terms of power and display size. In the latter case, try to see your preferred software running, because that might make the decision for you. Regarding processing power, the i5s in the 13-inch MacBook Pro are sufficient, but the i7s in the 15-inch will give your notebook a longer lifespan.
Whichever model you get, go for the maximum amount of on-board storage (512 GB), and if you plump for the 13-inch model, bump up the RAM to 16 GB during purchase, because it cannot be upgraded later.
Read more about the Retina MacBook Pro here
Best Mac for musicians on a budget: Mac mini
If funds are low, the Mac mini is a reasonably good choice for making music. It’s small, quiet, and has similar connectivity to the iMac, along with an additional audio-in port (although musicians typically prefer using USB audio interfaces).
Even if you’re tight for funds, avoid the low-end 1.4 GHz model. The cheapest viable option is the 2.6 GHz i5, with a 1 TB hard drive. Bump up the RAM to 16 GB, for a grand total of £729. (Be mindful you’ll also need to buy a display, keyboard and mouse (or pointing device.)
Read our Mac mini reviews here.
Best Mac for musicians if money is no object: Mac Pro
If you’re made of money, by all means ignore our advice regarding the iMac and buy a Mac Pro. Even though Apple appears to have forgotten about its pro model (which sneaked out at the very end of 2013, with no updates since), it’s still hugely powerful and configurable, along with being whisper quiet.
Even the cheapest Mac Pro will set you back £2,499, but you’ll get 12 GB of RAM as standard, 256 GB of SSD storage (which, given that you’re Mr/Ms Moneybags, you may as well bump up to 1 TB), and excellent connectivity: four USB 3; six(!) Thunderbolt 2; Dual Gigabit Ethernet; HDMI 1.4 UltraHD; and audio-in and headphone jacks.
For many musicians, it’s overkill, of course, but for high-end projects, you’ll at least know you won’t run out of power. You might, however, run out of money paying for the thing.
Best Mac overall for making music
For us, the sweet spot is the iMac. It’s powerful enough for the majority of music-making tasks, has a gorgeous display, and boasts enough connections for kit and expansion. Bar the entry-level 21.5-inch model, any of Apple’s existing line-up will do, but we’d go for a Retina display and the 27-inch model. The screen’s larger — which you’ll love for everything from writing to mixing — and the RAM can be upgraded to a maximum of 32 GB whenever you like, versus the 16 GB maximum in the 21.5-inch model, which you must buy when purchasing the computer.
If you’re a mobile musician, go for the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Just be mindful the RAM maxes out at 16 GB (which on the 13-inch model must be upgraded during purchase), and you’ll almost certainly need to factor in the costs of an additional display for when you’re back in the studio and don’t fancy squinting at and scrolling on your notebook.
Apple Mac music accessories
If you’re going to make music on a Mac you’ll need to think of ways to connect your recording instruments to the machine.
Best Mic to go with your Mac
If you’re thinking of doing any decent audio recording then you’ll need a Mic. Some of the best ones we know are made by Blue, and if you’re really going to town you could consider the Blue Microphones Blueberry (£890). If that price seems somewhat overkill then the Blue Microphones Yeti (£190) or Spark Digital (£179) are popular choices for voice recording.
Best Mac Headset
There are a lot of reference headsets around, and all musicians have their favourites. But we’d be tempted to pick up a pair of Shure cans for our music endeavors. The Shure SRH440 (£109.99) offer good value and provide accurate reference audio.
Best Mac keyboard
Picking up a midi keyboard is a must for any serious Mac musician. It won’t just let you hit the right notes, but is useful for drums and any other notes you wish to put together. The M-Audio Axiom Pro 49 is a good choice (£259)
Best Mac guitar input
If you’re looking to hook up a guitar to your Mac then take a look at the Apogee GiO guitar interface (£279.95). Designed specifically for the Mac it enables you to plug in your guitar direct to GarageBand or Logic Pro and turn effects on or off with your feet.
Best USB audio input
If you want to connect your studio equipment to your Mac we’d suggest going with an M-Audio M-Track Plus (£139). It has versatile array of inputs with two audio channels and 16 channels of MIDI. If you’re a little more hardcore then the M-Track Quad has four audio inputs.
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