Which is the best Mac for making and editing music? We round up the best computing options for musicians. Updated, 30 October 2014.
What is the best Mac computer for making music? Apple Mac OS X computers are useful for composing, recording and editing music. Many musicians and producers depend on Mac hardware for their work.
They also tend to favour Apple's musical software packages: Logic Pro X is a popular powerhouse audio editing and MIDI sequencing program that's recently been updated; and GarageBand is a perennial favourite for creating the tunes, composing and recording.
Choosing a Mac for music
But choosing which Mac is the best computing option for a musician isn't easy: Apple creates a wide range of Mac OS X notebooks and desktop computers, at a range of prices (although few Macs could truly be called an ultra-budget option) and varying specs. But although all Apple Macs are great, some are better suited to making music than others. It can be a tough call for musicians to get the right Mac for their needs and budgets.
With this in mind we’ve created this guide to buying the best Mac for recording artists, musicians, singers, producers and composers. In this article we take a look at what a Mac requires to be truly great for recording and editing audio, and the features it's worth paying extra for. We then look closely at the range of Mac computers available, and the 'custom built to order' options available that make sense for musicians.
See: Audio reviews
We also look at some of the accessories, software and services available that make sense for keen Mac audio editing.
Making music on a Mac
Apple Mac computers are ideal for musicians. They are small and sleek and packed with the latest audio recording hardware. Apple is also adept at creating software and has a particular interest in the creative arts. GarageBand is particularly good for small bands and beginners, whereas Logic Pro is aimed at music industry professionals. Both pieces of software are highly regarded in the music industry. Both are available direct from the Mac App Store.
There's more to Macs than just Apple software. There is a wide range of alternatives to GarageBand such as Ableton, Reason and Cubase.
In the past we've mentioned that recording and editing audio isn't as intensive a process as other computing tasks (such as 3D design or video editing) so you don’t need to spend as much money on the best graphics cards.
Having said that, several Macworld musicians have pointed out that serious studio work can be processor intensive, especially if you are using professional plug-ins to software like Ableton. So don't underestimate the CPU requirement.
Recording hours of audio does, however, take up a lot of hard drive space. So you do need to make sure you Mac has plenty of storage space.
Many modern Macs (such as the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro) are shipping with small, Flash-based drives. These are ultra-fast, but don't have huge amounts of storage. Get a good external drive using a Thunderbolt connection to store your audio.
You also need a good supply of connections to add keyboards, MIDI interfaces, speakers, headphones and other instruments.
So getting the right Mac with all the right connections is vital for musicians.
You will need a Mac with plenty of USB connections to connect external Mics and Midi interfaces. And you will also probably want to max out the storage of the Mac. This can either be done by purchasing a Mac with a large internal hard drive, or by attaching a large external hard drive. It’s best to get an external hard drive with a fast connection, but for price/speed balance some people suggest USB 3.0 rather than Apple’s newer Thunderbolt connection (although both will work quite well). We think it's better to go for Thunderbolt for the storage to leave the USB 3.0 slots free for your accessories.
We’d steer clear of the slower USB 2.0 connection. It will work but it’s best to go for the faster technology now that it’s widespread.
Fortunately Apple has a good range of computers all with the required connections, and each one is capable of running both GarageBand and Logic. So technically you can use any Mac, but the real question is which Mac is the best one for you to record music on?
The Apple Mac range of computers
Apple has a range of computers that are all good for musicians, and each computer is capable of both recording audio (with the right accessories) and editing audio, using the right software.
But some Apple Macs are better than others at making music, and some Macs provide a lot of features that you are unlikely to make use of as a musician (but still end up paying for). So finding which Mac is best for music making also involves ruling out those Macs that aren’t good for making music.
MacBook Pro: Best music Mac for portable power
The MacBook Pro is Apple’s high-end laptop and blends a lot of power with some capable features. The latest model packs two USB 3.0 connections and two Thunderbolt connections, so it has enough sockets for you to add connections (you can purchase a Thunderbolt to Firewire connection if you want to use a Firewire device). It also has a Headphone and Microphone connection built-in as standard.
Because the MacBook Pro is a notebook it’s good for carrying in and out of the studio. Because musicians often record in a nomadic fashion it’s worth bearing this portability in mind, but this depends on circumstance (if you have your own studio then a notebook makes less sense than a desktop).
There are two types of MacBook Pro available: the MacBook Pro and MacBook Pro with Retina display. The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at £899 and it goes all the way up to the £1,999 for a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
The Retina Display costs a lot more and has a high resolution display which display text and graphics with crisp precision. While a nice feature it offers no real benefit for audio editing, so we’d avoid it and focus on the cheaper MacBook Pro.
The MacBook Pro comes with a traditional 500GB hard drive, which can be upgraded to 1TB for an additional payment of £40.
The MacBook Pro with Retina Display also has Apple’s new Flash memory as standard, which is an expensive option. You can configure some of the higher-end MacBook Pro with Retina Display (£1,399) models up to 1TB of Flash storage but this costs a whopping £400 extra.
So the entry-level MacBook Pro is the viable portable choice; not the MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
MacBook Air: Best music Mac for lightness
The MacBook Air is Apple’s entry-level laptop, and is a seriously light option. There are two types available, the 11-inch and 13-inch. Both now come with 1.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPUs and Intel HD Graphics 5000. The PCIe-based flash storage is fast, with 128GB or 256GB models as standard (and 512GB available as an optional extra - £240).
Each comes with 4GB RAM as standard and 8GB as an £80 optional extra (the RAM is soldered to the board and cannot be upgraded).
There are a few drawbacks: the 128GB of Flash storage isn't a huge amount for your files. However, it packs a Thunderbolt connection
See: MacBook Air review
Like the MacBook Pro it has two USB 3.0 ports and two Thunderbolt ports so it does have the appropriate connections. It also has the headphone and Microphone socket built in as standard. Flash storage is fast, but you don’t need that level of speed for audio recording. You would be better investing in space rather than speed. It's nice and light though, and great for carrying to and from sessions.
Mac mini: Best music Mac for price
The Mac mini is Apple’s entry-level desktop computer, and packs a huge amount of power into a small space. A recent update has dropped the price, and updated the innards.
The entry level has a 500GB hard drive for just £399, whereas the higher-end model comes with a faster 2.6GHz CPU, 8GB RAM and a 1TB drive as standard for £569. The high-end model has a 2.8GHz CPU and a 1TB Fusion Drive as standard.
See: Mac mini review
The great thing about the Mac mini is that it has four USB 3.0 sockets, as well as two Thunderbolt 2 connections, SDXC Card Slot, Gigabit Ethernet and a HDMI output socket; as well as Audio In and Audio Out connections. The downside is that you need to attach a keyboard, mouse, and monitor but these can be purchased separately or reused from an old Mac or PC.
It is, however, a small solution, which makes it ideal for carrying in and out of recording studios (as long as you pack a small keyboard and display).
It's also good value, but be careful of the new entry-level £399 model. This has a much slower processor than the mid- or top-end Mac minis. We'd suggest going for the mid-tier £569 model.
iMac: Best all-in-one solution for making music
The iMac is Apple’s standard desktop computer. It’s a classy all-in-one solution with the display and components packed into a single space.
There are three types available: a 21-inch, a 27-inch and the all-new 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K display.
Most come with components fast enough to run audio software, and all but the entry-level pack a 1TB hard drive as standard (with a 1TB Fusion Drive on the iMac with Retina 5K Display model).
Speaking of the Retina Display iMac, that screen is clearly overkill for making music. The Retina Display is beautiful to look at and ideal for video-making and graphic design, if you are an all-rounder you could perhaps justify it, but we think it's more financially prudent to stick to a cheaper model.
On each model the hard drive can be upgraded to the much faster Fusion Drive for an additional £160, and if you go for the 27-inch model you can upgrade the hard drive to a 3TB drive for an additional £120 (or £280 for a 3TB Fusion Drive).
The iMac is also maxed out with connections, packing four USB 3.0 sockets, two Thunderbolt socket, and a Headphone socket (but no separate Mic input connection).
Mac Pro: Best music Mac for connections and power
The Mac Pro has traditionally been the go-to computer for all audio and video specialists working in Mac OS X.
The all-new Mac Pro, with its small integrated design has thrown a curveball. It no longer offers a wealth of expansion options and has limited internal storage.
What the new Mac Pro offers is pure unadulterated speed. With it's 3.2GHz Quad-Core, or 3.5GHz 6-Core processor it's capable of number crunching at an incredible pace. And it's Dual AMD FirePro graphics card make it an incredible tool for 3D animators.
None of this is really important to music makers. While you certainly can record, and make music using a Mac Pro, it's processor and graphics card combination is overkill.
Having said that, the Mac Pro is a connection paradise. It has a Combined optical digital audio output/analog line out minijack, headphone minijack, HDMI 1.4 UltraHD port, 4 USB 3 connections, 6 Thunderbolt 2 connections and Dual Gigabit Ethernet. It's a great piece of kit for a professional studio.
See: Mac Pro review
Best Mac for making music: which Mac to get
It’s not the most obvious choice, but in terms of bang-for-buck we’d go with the Mac mini. You're unlikely need the power of the Mac Pro or the vast display of the iMac to get good results, and a Mac mini gives you enough power, enough input connections and leaves you with cash to spend on some all-important accessories. And to kit a Mac out ready for the studio you’ll need to invest in some of the options listed below.
We'd avoid the entry-level Mac mini because it's 1.4GHz processor is slow. We would go for the 2.6GHz Mac mini (£569) with its 1TB internal hard drive, 8GB RAM and 2.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU. We think the stock option is good to go.
The entry-level MacBook Pro (£899) with a 8GB Memory upgrade (+£80) and a 1TB built-to-order internal drive (+£40) is the one to get if you’re keen to invest in a notebook (total £1,019). Again, spend the cash you’ll save on good audio accessories.
The Mac mini offers all the connections you need, and plenty of power, in a small portable package and for a decent price. That's the one to get.
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.
See: Latest Audio Reviews
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.