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 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!
Beore we do, there’s something worth flagging up: over the next couple of years Apple intends to move its range of Macs from Intel processors to it’s own Silicon processors. This shouldn’t be a problem – but it could mean that apps you rely on need to be updated to run efficiently on the new machines (more on that below), so do keep it in mind.
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.
There is, however, some software – notably Apple’s own Logic Pro X and its enthusiast-focused cousin GarageBand – that is Mac-only. 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.
As we noted above, when Apple updates the Mac to run on the new Apple processors – known as Apple Silicon – some third parties may be slow to update their music apps. This shouldn’t mean that those apps won’t run on the new systems – Apple is including Rosetta 2 software to automatically convert apps for the new architecture – but you will experience some slow down in performance.
For that reason we suggest waiting until the apps you use are updated to run on the new Apple processors before buying a new Mac Silicon Mac, or buy a Apple Mac that uses an Intel processor.
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. Consider 16GB your minimum. This shouldn’t be difficult now that all MacBook Pro models (with the exception of the two entry-level models) come with 16GB RAM as standard. iMacs are still (shockingly) left with just 8GB as standard. You can of course add 16GB RAM to any model at the point of sale and we recommend that you do so.
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 now have 256GB 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 for your buck with a desktop machine.
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).
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.
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 portable Mac 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. Just bear in mind the fans can get loud, if you’re recording in the same room.
Apple doesn’t tend to update the entire MacBook Pro range in one go though and the different models are very different beasts – so keep in mind that all models are not equally good.
For example, we’d stear clear of the entry-level MacBook Pro models that are still using 8th generation Intel processors and still offer 8GB RAM as standard.
Newly updated for 2020 are the mid-range 13in MacBook Pro models, which gained new 10th-generation quad-core processors and 16GB RAM as standard. They still feature integrated graphics (the 16in models that we’ll mention next have discrete graphics).
If you need a more powerful graphics option then you could look at the 16in MacBook Pro or an external graphics card. The 16in MacBook Pro models were last updated in November 2019 so the processors are still 9th generation, but those processors are 6-core or 8-core, so there are many benefits to these more powerful Pros.
The 16in models are also considerably more expensive, starting at £2,399/£2,399 while the 13in models we are discussing here start at £1,799/$1,799.
If you are attacted to the 16in MacBook Pro due to the larger screen it’s worth noting that you could just plug in a separate display (or two) into your 13in.
Of course, all of the 16in MacBook Pros can be configured to include more RAM, larger storage, and even upgrade the graphics cards, so be sure to look at the options if you want the best machine Apple can offer.
That being said, the entire MacBook Pro range is decent depending on your budget and needs. Just note that the cheapest two 13in models only have two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Best Mac for musicians on a budget: Mac mini
It just so happens that Apple showed us a demo of someone using the Mac mini to produce and record music. So 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 cheapest option is the 3.6GHz quad-core i3, which since March 2020 has had a 256GB SSD (at launch it had just 128GB) at just £799/$799. Double the RAM to 16GB, for a grand total of £999.
This is the same mini that Apple introduced in October 2018, aside from the storage update. When Apple updated it in 2018 we were pleasantly surprised by just how good the machine is but we are a little disapointed that Apple hasn’t significantly updated it since – although doubling the storage is a big deal.
If funds are low, the Mac mini is a reasonably good choice for making music. Be mindful that with a Mac mini you’ll also need to buy a display, keyboard and mouse.
Read our Mac mini (2018) review.
Best studio Mac for musicians: iMac
The iMac is a great Mac for studio based musicians. We’d suggest that you exercise some caution though if you are buying an iMac. In August 2020 the 27in model was updated, but the 21.5in model has remained the same (with the only change in August 2020 being the inclusion of SSDs as standard).
It’s good news that the SSD is now standard across the iac range because it will bring the benefit of quieter operation as well as speed boosts to your workflow.
We expect that Apple will update the 21.5in iMac at some point in early 2021, and this could include the new Apple-made processor. You can read all about what we expect from the new iMac here.
If you don’t want to wait for new models then there are, of course, various iMac to choose from, but we should note straight away that you should avoid the cheapest option. The £1,049/$1,099 is a very old model with outdated specs like a dual-core 7th-gen Intel processor – it doesn’t even have a Retina display.
That means the iMac really starts at £1,249/$1,299 – for that you’ll get at least a quad-core 8th-gen Intel Core i3, Radeon Pro 555X and gorgeous 4K display. The inclusion of an SSD as standard since August 2020 is good news because it means that the Mac will appear much faster than it would have otherwise – but it does mean that you will only have 256GB storage at your fingertips, rather than 1TB… If you think you need more then you should upgrade the internal storage at point of sale, or consider buying an external hard drive.
The 21.5in screen size might not be enough so you can jump to the 27in 5K iMac which has also been update for 2020 with new hardware. It starts at £1,799/$1,799 and go up to £2,299/$2,299 (without optional extras). 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.
There is, of course, the iMac Pro if you’re happy to drop £4,999/$4,999 on one – at the least. Since Apple removed the older entry-level model from the line up, it’s got a 10-core Intel Xeon W processor, 32GB of RAM, 1TB of SSD storage and a Radeon Pro Vega 56 with 8GB of memory as standard. That should be plenty of power even if you’re doing more demanding work. However the iMac Pro hasn’t been updated since it launched in December 2017. Read our iMac Pro review for more information.
Depending on how much power and what size screen you need, the iMac is likely to be a great choice. Just don’t consider the cheapest model.
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.
The new Mac Pro started shipping in December 2019 and this machine is a beast. If you want, it can come with a 28-core Intel Xeon W, up to 1.5TB of DDR4 ECC memory and dual AMD Radeon Pro Vega II graphics cards.
This is overkill for most music production but if you want the most powerful machine possible – perhaps if you want to do other work with it too – then you’re looking right at it. You’ll at least know you won’t run out of power. You might, however, run out of money paying for the thing. It starts at an eye-watering $5,999.
You might want to find a second-hand or refurbished older Mac Pro for something cheaper.
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 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 purchase. Our pick of the bunch is the cheaper MacBook Pro 16in. It’s £2,399/$2,399 and has a decent set of specs without having to configure anything, although you might want to if you can afford it.
If that’s a bit out of your price range then the mid-range 13in models that now come with 16GB RAM as standard are pretty attractive options.
If you’re looking for a Mac that will simply stay put in a studio (bedroom or otherwise), then look to the iMac – but we suggest waiting until Apple updates it (we think it will soon). Once it’s been updated we expect that iMac will be powerful enough for the majority of music-making tasks, it also has a gorgeous display, and boasts enough connections for kit and expansion.
Bar the entry-level 21.5in model, any of Apple’s existing line-up will do, but we’d go for the 27in 5K model if your budget can stretch. The screen’s larger, of course, and you can can configure up to 64GB of RAM which is double the smaller model. The iMac Pro will likely be overkill for most people.