Logic Pro X 10.3 review: Apple's pro audio Mac app gains useful new features
Welcome to our review of Logic Pro X 10.3. You can read more about the existing feature set from Logic Pro X 10.1 and Logic Pro X in the second and third pages of this review.
Logic Pro is Apple's heavyweight music app, but in recent years the lines between it and GarageBand have become increasingly blurry as Apple tries to make it easier for GarageBand users to go Pro. Version 10.3 is the blurriest yet with a distinctly Garageband-y interface and some clever integration with the app on iOS, but there are some heavyweight new features for the pro users too.
This is a major update, designed to introduce an improved interface, useful new features and improvements to both performance and stability. The focus is on function, not goodies: if you've been hoping for Drummer to embrace some new genres or just some jazzy brushes we're afraid you're out of luck.
Logic Pro X 10.3 review: Interface
The most obvious change is that Logic Pro X is now prettier. The none-more-black Pro interface that works so well for photo and video is a bit of a headache for music, which doesn't need the contrast, so the lighter interface should be more pleasant during protracted sessions. It's flatter, too, and looks particularly good on a Retina display. If you're running an older Mac you might find the fonts a little indistinct; they certainly are on our 27-inch, non-Retina iMac.
Logic Pro X 10.3's interface in 'beginner's mode'
Let's not mention the fake woodgrain that appears at the far left and right of the window if you haven't enabled the Advanced Tools in preferences: the idea is to make GarageBand users feel at home, but thankfully it disappears when you switch into the Pro mode. That's supposed to happen by default when you upgrade (Advanced Tools are off by default with first-time installations), but in our case it didn't.
And here's Logic Pro X 10.3's interface in 'pro mode'
The changes aren't just cosmetic. Having automatic zoom buttons for both horizontal and vertical aspects - previously you only got vertical zoom - is a godsend on a laptop, reducing the size of the arrangement window when you pull up the Mixer, Smart Controls, Library, Browser or Editor and restoring it to its previous state when you close them again.
Other differences are more subtle. There are more colour shades for your tracks, addressing a minor but irritating omission in previous versions, and when you drag the edge of an audio or MIDI region you can see the bit you're removing in ghostly form until you commit to the change by letting go.
And in a nice time-saver, if you press Command when you click the duplicate track button it'll duplicate not just the current track's settings, but its content too.
There are some other little but useful improvements, including new key commands for moving the locators forwards or backwards one bar at a time, for creating a new arrangement marker, to close Track Stack folders and to apply Transform user presets. Once the muscle memory kicks in - or if you're like us, once you print the commands out in really big letters and stick them to the side of your screen - they'll help you to get things done more quickly without losing your focus.
Read next: Best Mac music apps
Logic Pro X 10.3 review: Touch Bar support
The Touch Bar in the MacBook Pro 2016 is the raison d'être for this update, and it's been integrated into Logic in a very straightforward way. You can use it to slide around the timeline, which is simplified in the Touch Bar so it's easy to select a particular region, and you can use it to adjust Smart Controls or play Touch Instruments such as piano or drum triggers. The Touch Bar's musical keyboard offers both piano keys and scale mode for controlling your software instruments.
It's multitouch and works fine, although you'd have to be a masochist to want to use it for anything more than creating a quick beat or figure.
Read more: How to use Touch Bar on MacBook Pro 2016
Logic Pro X 10.3 review: Selection-Based Processing
In addition to a revised Fade Tool that enables you to apply fades across multiple regions on multiple tracks, Logic Pro 10.3 introduces Selection-Based Processing. Rather than applying effects and/or plugins to an entire track, you can specify which combination should be used on a selected region or multiple regions.
That's particularly handy for vocal tracks: how many times have you had to EQ or effect an entire vocal track because of the odd unwanted plosive or sibilant in one specific bit?
There are plenty of creative possibilities too - for example you might want to apply an effect or group of effects at one point, then add them again at another, and another and another - but make sure you keep an un-processed version of the track(s) in case you change your mind later.
Logic Pro X 10.3 review: Track Alternatives
One of the frustrating things about composition and production is that there's often more than one way to arrange or perform a song, but keeping track of those different ways can be a pain. ProTools addresses this with its Playlist feature, and Logic Pro now offers a solution in the form of Track Alternatives.
Track Alternatives enables you to create multiple arrangements of the same track, so for example you might have three different candidates for the main melody or a couple of different ideas for how to edit an audio or MIDI region. No problem: just create the version you want to try as a Track Alternative and you can switch from version to version without having to change the underlying project.
Read next: Best Mac for musicians
Logic Pro X 10.3 review: iOS & GarageBand integration
If you're an artist or a podcaster rather than a producer, you'll love the way Logic 10.3 works with GarageBand on iOS. You can now share your Logic project on iCloud and access it from GarageBand iOS (2.2 or later). Logic flattens the project so that it's a single audio track, leaving plenty of room for you to add whatever you like in GarageBand. When you're back at the Mac and open your project in Logic Pro again, the new tracks are right there in your original, unflattened project - and in the right place, too.
If you've ever had a brilliant idea for a work in progress but only had your iPad to hand, or if you want to record an interview for your podcast but don't want to pack anything bigger than an iPhone, that's the kind of thing that'll make you do a happy dance.
Logic Pro X 10.3 review: The bits you can't see
We didn't come to version 10.3 with great enthusiasm, because 10.2 was a disaster for us: despite various updates and us ultimately reinstalling both macOS and Logic, it crashed constantly. Even something as simple as bouncing to MP3 would involve multiple crashes and quite a lot of swearing.
On that basis alone, 10.3 is a vast improvement: with 10.2 we'd become used to seeing the CPU and HD monitors hit the limits for no good reason, stuttering to a halt with the dreaded "disk too slow" error on projects that wouldn't tax an old iPhone, let alone a maxed-out Mac. That doesn't happen now, and projects that previously killed Logic within the first few notes no longer do so. It's faster to load and to quit too, and the infuriating gap between a project loading and Logic responding to keyboard, trackpad or mouse is noticeably shorter.
Apple's Logic Pro X 10.3 release notes detail some specific showstopping bugs that the 10.3 update has fixed, along with significant improvements to the already impressive Alchemy audio engine and to Flex Pitch. Under the hood you'll find the 32-bit summing engine upped to 64 bits, which Apple labels as High Precision Audio. Think of it like a kind of Retina for your ears: the extra bits mean more precise mixing of all your disparate audio sources, which is of particular relevance if you're working with projects intended for high-res audio formats.
The update also delivers support for up to 256 busses, genuine stereo panning and the ability to import Music XML. Software instruments can now trigger sidechained plugins - something that was previously limited to audio recordings only - and MIDI plugins can be used to control other plugin parameters, which should be enormously exciting for electronic and dance music producers.
Next page: Our review of Logic Pro X 10.1. Read on for more details of the existing feature set.