The Mac is an obvious candidate if you're looking for a computer to make music with. The choice can be overwhelming, though, with devices ranging from a few hundred pounds or dollars to thousands more than you might spend on a car. In this article we compare them all and explain which Mac is right for you: MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, Mac mini and Mac Pro.
There was a time when music production required hiring a studio. 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!
Before we do, there's something worth flagging up: Apple is in the middle of a transition as it moves its range of Macs from Intel processors to it's own ARM-based processors. The first M1-powered Macs have already appeared and have proven themselves to be even more powerful than many of the Intel-based Macs. We'll examine how well suited these new M1 Macs are to music production, and discuss Apple's plans for the next generation of Macs below.
Why use a Mac 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. However, there are a few reasons why musicians who choose to use Macs do so.
One reason is the simple fact that Macs are incredibly easy to use, so musicians don't get sidetracked trying to set things up or fixing problems.
Mac laptops are also slim and light, build quality superb and solid - a benefit if you are carrying them around to gigs as well as using them in a studio.
Best Mac configuration for music production
If you are going to make music with a Mac then there are a number of things that you need to consider. We'll run through each of these below to help you make your final decision of which is the best Mac for music production.
The software you use - your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) - is as important, arguably more important, than the computer you choose. Read our round up of the best music recording software for Mac.
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, Adobe Audition and Pro Tools.
As we noted above, Apple is on a two year trajectory to move its Macs from Intel to its own ARM-based processors. One of the concerns here is that it could mean that essential music recording software might not run on the new Macs. This is because software written for an Intel Mac needs to be converted to be understood by an M1-powered Mac.
Apple provides Rosetta 2 translation software for this purpose, and that should mean that the software you need to use will run on an M1 Mac even if a native version isn't available yet. It is possible that you will experience some slow downs in performance due to the translation going on behind the scenes though.
On that basis you will want to know if the software you need is ready for the M1. For now it's bad news: Cubase is not M1 optimised and crashes are being experienced with Rosetta; Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and Adobe Auditon all work with Rosetta, but aren't yet native. Check to see if the apps you need work with the M1-chip here.
Due to this situation, we suggest waiting until the apps you use are updated to run on the new Apple processors before buying an M1 Mac, or buy a Apple Mac that uses an Intel processor.
Obviously if you use Logic or GarageBand an M1 Mac will run those apps natively so you should have no difficulties.
Music software is notoriously hungry for memory. 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.
Consider 16GB your minimum. This shouldn't be difficult, all Macs and MacBooks can be equipped with 16GB RAM - and we recommend that you do configure your Mac with this much RAM or more. Note that for M1 Macs 16GB RAM is the absolute maximum - you can't add more RAM than that, and it is impossible to add more RAM later on.
The 27in iMac and 16in MacBook Pro can be equipped with a maximum of 128GB RAM and 64GB RAM respectively and may therefore be better choices if 16GB RAM sounds limiting to you. However, the as we said, 16GB RAM will probably be sufficient - indeed the RAM in an M1 Mac works more efficiently than the RAM in an Intel Mac as it can be accessed by both the graphics and processor cores whenever they need to. Apple calls this Unified Memory.
We anticipate that the next generation of Apple's processors will support more than 16GB RAM.
Storage is likely to an important factor in your decision. Luckily all Apple Macs use SSDs, which is a benefit because hard drives can be a bottleneck due to their relatively low speed compared to SSDs, and they can be noisy.
However, SSDs are far more expensive per GB than hard drives. Entry-level Apple notebooks have 256GB SSDs, but pro instrument and effects collections when installed can require hundreds of GB, and that's before you even start to add your own music files. So you probably want a minimum of 512GB SSD with your Mac.
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. Cloud storage might be a good option here: check our our Best Cloud Storage Services for Mac.
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 could get more bang for your buck with a desktop machine.
If you are studio based you may think that you need an iMac so that you can take advantage of the large display, but you can plug in an external display to any Mac, so even if you had a laptop Mac you could happily use it with a 30in screen when you are at your desk.
You also need to examine other kit you want to use. If you don't have any other kit (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 the two USB-C ports found on the MacBook Air and entry-level MacBook Pro models will drive you to despair. (In which case you might want a USB hub to use with your new 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.
That said, the current crop of entry-level Macs with their M1 Chips are proving to be quite formidable. The main thing holding them back is the lack of software support.
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 as some audio software is GPU-accelerated. It's also a factor should you require additional displays.
With Apple's M1 Macs offering 7 or 8-core GPUS that have already proven themselves superior to the Intel integrated graphics, if you think graphics will be an important factor in your decision the 16in MacBook Pro or 27in iMac, both of which come with discrete graphics cards might be the best choice right now.
Best MacBook for musicians: MacBook Pro
If you're a musician on the road, the only Apple notebook really worth consideration for music-making is the MacBook Pro. There are a number of MacBook Pro models to choose from and they are not created equally - but your specific needs will dictate which option is best for you.
The two entry-level MacBook Pro models use Apple's M1 processors. This may be an issue if you were planning on using software that isn't yet native on the M1 chip. They are also held back by the 8GB RAM as standard - although this can at least be updated to 16GB at point of sale.
However, if you are using Apple's music software the M1 MacBook Pro will be a great choice. Just note that the cheaperst two 13in models only have two Thunderbolt/USB C ports. We also suggest that you max out the RAM to 16GB and choose the model with 512GB SSD:
Here's the best prices on the M1 MacBook Pro with 512GB SSD (RRP: £1,499/$1,499) right now:
There are also two mid-range 13in MacBook Pro models, which gained new 10th-generation Intel quad-core processors and 16GB RAM as standard in the spring of 2020. They still feature integrated Intel graphics but you could use an external graphics processing unit with these Intel-based Macs if necessary. (Note that the M1 Macs will not support an eGPU.)
These are the best deals on the 2.0GHz 13in models, which normally start at £1,799/$1,799:
If you think that the 13in screen might be too small, or if you need a more powerful graphics option, you could look at the 16in MacBook Pro. The 16in MacBook Pro models were last updated in November 2019 so the processors are still 9th generation Intel, but the graphics cards are discrete and better than the M1 equivalents.
The 16in MacBook Pro can also be configured to include more RAM, larger storage, and even better graphics cards.
The 16in models are considerably more expensive though, starting at £2,399/£2,399. But you can potentially pick up a deal. Read our 16in MacBook Pro review.
MacBook Air for making music?
The MacBook Air is another Mac laptop that could be considered for your DAW. There is only an M1 MacBook Air, so if you want to use non-Apple software this wouldn't be suitable right now, but there aer a few benefits to the M1 MacBook Air.
- It has no fan so it should be silent - ideal if you are recording in the same room as the Mac.
- It's small and light - ideal for carrying around with you to gigs and studios.
The MacBook Air is a little less powerful than the MacBook Pro, but you can choose a model that meets our requirements of 512GB storage, and you can up the RAM to 16GB as we recommend. The 512GB MacBook Air costs £1,249/$1,249 from Apple. There is a cheaper £999/$999 model, but the GPU in that model is just 7-core rather than 8-core. The best deals right now are below:
Best Mac for musicians: Mac mini
A couple of years ago Apple showed us a demo of someone using the Mac mini to produce and record music. Why does Apple consider this a great Mac for making music?
It's small, quiet, and great connectivity options, along with an additional audio-in port (although musicians typically prefer using USB audio interfaces).
The Mac mini is currently available with the M1 chip and 256GB SSD for just £699/$699. There's also a 512GB model for £899/$899. Double the RAM to 16GB, for another £200/$200.
If funds are low, the Mac mini is a great choice for making music - as long as you are using Apple's own software, such as Logic Pro. Be mindful that with a Mac mini you'll also need to buy a display, keyboard and mouse.
Here are the best prices for that £899/$899 Mac mini:
Best studio Mac: iMac
We like the Mac mini, above, but what if you need something that has more RAM or better graphics, or if you are using software that isn't native on the M1 chip?
We think the iMac is a great Mac for studio based musicians, especially since SSDs are now standard across the iMac range, which will bring the benefit of quieter operation as well as speed boosts to your workflow. (Apple made the switch from Fusion Drives to SSDs in early 2020).
Apple updates the 21.5in iMac in May 2021. There is now a 24in iMac with M1 chip (read our 24in iMac review).
A few years ago the 21.5in iMac matched the larger 27in models in terms of specs, with discrete graphics and fast processors. The 24in iMac benefits from the M1 chip, and has an impressive new mic and speaker set up that may be beneficial to musicians, but we still prefer the Mac mini because you get a lot more for your money.
What the Mac mini doesn't include is a display. If you want your Mac to have a screen included then you can't do better than the 27in iMac with it's 5K Retina display, which will offer you lots of space for your mixing.
At the least you get a six-core Intel 10th-gen Core i5, a Radeon Pro 5300 and 256GB SSD. Connections-wise, you get four USB 3 ports and two Thunderbolt 3/USB Type C ports. The latter is great for fast external storage, leaving the former for accessories and instruments that use the legacy USB connector. There's a headphone jack, for when you're not using monitors and/or an external interface for headphones.
The 27in iMac starts at £1,799/$1,799 for the 256GB model, if you want the extra storage the 512GB iMac is £1,999/$1,999.
Depending on how much power and what size screen you need, the iMac is likely to be a great choice. However, you should be aware that Apple is likely to update the larger iMac at some point before the end of 2021, or in early 2022.