Apple's 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
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
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 (which we anticipate will happen by the summer of 2019), 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 27in 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 3.4 GHz model ships with a 1TB Fusion drive (a combination hard drive/SSD system). You can instead just go for faster flash storage, but at a cost (£630 for the same 1TB). Get the best you can afford.
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.
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 older models from 2017, while the other 13in and the 15in models were updated to new faster processors in July 2018.
The MacBook Pro starts at £1,249 for the entry-level non-touch bar model, and for some this model might be enough, but if you can stretch your budget the £1,749 13in MacBook with Touch Bar that will get you faster quad core processors, you could even leap up to £2,349 for the 15in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, which is a great choice - even without adding any upgrades as it's got a Core i7 6-core processor, 16GB RAM and a 256GB SSD.The 15in MacBook Pro models also benefit from separate graphics cards: in this case the Radeon Pro 555X.
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 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).
The cheapest option is the 3.6GHz quad-core i3, with a 128GB SSD. Bump up the RAM to 16 GB, for a grand total of £979.
Since Apple updated the mini in October 2018 we've been pleasantly surprised by just how good the new machine is. And it just so happens that Apple showed us a demo of someone using the mini to produce and record music.
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 - one of it's benefits is the fact that it offers whisper quiet operation which is important if you're doing recording and don't want fan noise in the background - but before you rush out to buy one, wait!
Apple has promised an update to the Mac Pro in 2019, and we expect to see more in June 2019 at WWDC.
For many musicians, the Mac Pro is likely to be 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 the 27-inch 5K 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.