Apples range of Macs is an obvious choice for those looking for a computer to make music with. The choice can be overwhelming though with everything from the Mac mini all the way up to a Mac Pro. We compare them all and explain which Mac is right for you.
There was a time when 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 when it comes to hardware, beyond familiarity with the system, and the general.
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 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. With the majority of Macs no longer allowing you to later upgrade RAM, buy what you can afford during purchase. Consider 16GB 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 128GB 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 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.
Processing power for music production 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.
Until the iMac range is refreshed, it's the MacBook Pro laptops that have the latest and greatest Intel 8th-gen processors.
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.
Best studio Mac for musicians: iMac 5K
When working in a studio, an iMac offers a relatively 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 8GB up to 32GB 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 1TB 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 (£630 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.
Prices for the 5K iMac start at £1,749 and go up to £2,249 (without optional extras) - configure your options through the Apple Store.
Best portable Mac for musicians: MacBook Pro
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. Just bear in mind the fans can get loud, if you're recording in the same room.
As of July 2018, Apple has refreshed the range so there are now six to choose from: four 13in models and two 15in models. The non-Touch Bar options are the older options and the 2015 model is now discontinued.
The MacBook Pro starts at £1,249 and for some this model might be enough, but if you can stretch your budget the £2,349 15in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is a great choice - even without adding any upgrades as it's got a Core i5, 16GB of RAM and 256GB SSD.
All the latest models have Intel 8th-gen processors and you can even configure up to a 2.9GHz 6-core Intel Core i9 if you feel the need and your bank balance can handle it.
Buying one of the new models will get you four Thunderbolt 3 ports making the laptop pretty versatile, although you might need the odd adapter.
Read more about the Retina MacBook Pro here
Read next: GarageBand for iPad & iPhone review
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 which is tempting at £479. The cheapest viable option is the 2.6 GHz i5, with a 1TB hard drive. Bump up the RAM to 16 GB, for a grand total of £859 - for an additional £180 you might want to also upgrade the 5400rpm hard drive to a 1TB Fusion Drive.
Even so, we'd avoid getting a Mac mini due to how old it is. You're better off stretching to the cheapest iMac at £1,049.
Be mindful that with a Mac mini 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 MacBook Pro 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.
That last thing is important if you're doing recording and don't want fan noise in the background.
Even the cheapest Mac Pro will set you back £2,999, but you’ll get 12GB of RAM as standard, 256GB 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.
Read Mac Pro review.
Best Mac overall for making music
It's hard to pick a single Mac to recommend to everyone but it is easy to give two options.
If you're looking for a Mac that will simply stay put in a studio (bedroom or otherwise), then look to the iMac 5K. 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 32GB whenever you like, versus the 16GB 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. Just be mindful of how much RAM you get as you'll need to upgrade when you purchse. Our pick of the bunch is the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
It's £2,349 and has a decent set of specs without having to configure anything, although you might want to if you can afford it.