Which is the best Mac for making and editing music? We round up the best computing options for musicians. Updated, 2nd September 2013
What is the best Mac computer for making music? Apple Mac OS X computers are useful for composing, recording and editing music, and 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.)
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, so you get software like GarageBand and Logic Pro 9. 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.
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 high-end processors or the best graphics cards. 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. You also need good 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 we’d suggest USB 3.0 rather than Apple’s newer Thunderbolt connection (although both will work quite well). 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 available: the MacBook Pro and MacBook Pro with Retina display. The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at £999 and it goes all the way up to the £2,299 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 750GB or 1TB for an additional payment (between £80 to £160 depending on the model).
The MacBook Pro with Retina Display also has Apple’s new Flash memory as standard, which is an expensive option. You can configure the MacBook Pro up to 768GB of Flash storage but this costs a whopping £760.
So the 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 with 1.7GHz and 1.8GHz processors respectively. Each comes with 4GB RAM as standard (this is soldered to the board and cannot be upgraded).
The MacBook Air is not a good choice for musicians. There is one big drawback: the first is that like the MacBook Pro with Retina Display has Flash storage as standard, and starts at a meager 64GB. This is nowhere near enough for professional audio recording work. You can upgrade the Flash storage to 512 GB but this costs £400 extra on the 11-inch model and £240 on the 13-inch model.
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.
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. The entry level has a 500GB hard drive for just £499, whereas the higher-end model comes with a faster i7 processor and a 1TB drive as standard for £679 (as well as the option to go to a newer 1TB Fusion drive for an extra £200 – this offers the speed of Flash but with the storage of traditional hard drive).
See: Mac mini review
The great thing about the Mac mini is that it has four USB 3.0 sockets, as well as a Thunderbolt connection, a Firewire 800 connection 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 also makes it ideal for carrying in and out of recording studios (as long as you pack a small keyboard and display).
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 two types available: a 21-inch and 27-inch (from £1,099 to £1,699). All come with components fast enough to run audio software, and all pack a 1TB hard drive as standard. On each model this can be upgraded to the much faster Fusion Drive for an additional £200, and if you go for the 27-inch model you can upgrade the hard drive to a 3TB drive for an additional £120 (or £320 for a 3TB Fusion Drive).
See: iMac review
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 connection).
Mac Pro: Best music Mac for storage and power
The Mac Pro has traditionally been the go-to computer for all audio and video specialists working in Mac OS X.
Despite the high asking price, Apple’s desktop tower has a wealth of expansion options including four internal hard drive bays, which can be bought with 2TB drives in each for 8TB of storage in total. Although we’re promoting the idea of storage for music this is perhaps overkill for most musicians.
See: Mac Pro review
The system also has internal PCI Express slots for expansion. These are typically used to insert faster graphics cards, although Midi and audio cards can be purchased and integrated into the system. The internal connections are all being replaced with Apple’s newer Thunderbolt connection, which offers speeds so fast it matches an internal component.
And the current Mac Pro does not sport Thunderbolt connections, and although it has five USB connections they are the older USB 2.0 variety. It does, however, have two Digital audio in/out connections.
It’s always been considered odd that Apple’s top-spec computer doesn’t have the latest connectivity to match, but it’s a moot point in the UK because the device is no longer on sale over here (an EU directive prohibited it from going on sale recently.) We do expect a newer model of Mac Pro with faster connections and in line with EU regulations to go on sale later this year.
The other advantages of a Mac Pro - it’s amazing processor and huge RAM capacity - aren’t that important for musicians, so even if it was available in the UK your money would be better spent elsewhere.
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 don’t need to 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 would go for the high-end Mac mini (£679) with the 1TB drive and the fast i7 processor, but the cheaper Mac mini (£499) is a viable option if you combine it with a decent external hard drive such as the G-Technology 2TB G-Drive Professional (£169.95) or 4TB G-Drive Professional.
The entry-level MacBook Pro with a 750GB built-to-order internal drive (£1,079) is the one to get if you’re keen to invest in a notebook. 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. There are a few accessories you should think about getting.
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 speakers
If you’re serious about making music then you’ll need some good speakers. The best choice for the Mac is the stylish Harman Kardon SoundSticks III (£144.95) or the M Audio AV40 Studio Speakers (£109.95).
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.
Where to get your Mac for Music
Typically most people head to the Apple Store to pick up a new Mac. This is by no means a bad idea, but shopping around can get you a good deal. Read our guide to buying a refurbished Mac here if you’re on a budget.