Life on the road

As a professional musician, I’ve spent a huge chunk of my working life on the road touring. I’m in my late 50s, so remember (or sort of remember) the time before mobile phones. A tour managers nightmare. Think herding cats - one tour manager I worked with even used to round us up at airports with a megaphone. Rock n roll.

Then came mobile phones, so no more excuses for sleeping in or being late for soundchecks. Mobiles were soon followed by laptop computers, and for musicians, a laptop was (and is) always an Apple Mac – not for any slavishness to zeitgeist or kudos, just because they were (and still are) the premier choice for music making.

As a budding music producer (it’s my day job now), the Apple laptop transformed my life. I could now work on projects on the road, mix gigs from the night before, edit instrumentals for local TV shows and radio stations and record on the road. Game changer. These days, as a producer, my mobile setup (with a MacBook Pro) is equally key.

Here’s one thing that I learned pretty quickly – the laptop on its own is a wonderful thing, but I really needed accessories to work more efficiently and to be self-sufficient in a hotel room in bumf••k nowhere.

Apple’s design ethic dictates that MacBook’s become ever sleeker and lighter with every generation – they’re now so thin you could slice bread with them. Or chop out….sorry….flashback.

This minimalist approach inevitably comes at the expense of limiting the number and variation of connectivity ports – so the word ‘accessory’ is a bit of a misnomer. Many accessories are really essentials. The checklist below is not industry specific to me, so your adoption of my suggestions really depends on where, how and what you intend using your new workhorse for.   

 

 

1. ‘There must be some kind of way out of here…’

So, you’ve got your new MacBook – the first thing you should look at is the connectivity. Newer models are exclusively USB C, and even with the max of four ports, you’re going to need to break free (sic).

My older (and very capable) refurbished 2014 MacBook Pro has two USB 3 and two thunderbolt ports. Not enough, in practice.

Your first consideration should be a hub or a docking station. I won’t go into product specific details here – you can find plenty of comparison/ review sites out there where you can check the specs for yourself - but you will need those extra ports. Consider which peripherals you will need (or already own), make a list for a ‘worst possible’ connection scenario – but read the rest of this blog first! Oh, and pay particular attention to the port types on your new MacBook, and select your hub or docking station accordingly.

2. Adaptors for older devices.

My studio is littered with drives and peripherals with every connection type in history – I have two USB hubs (a humungous one for the studio, and a portable one for the road) plus two docking stations. I probably have solutions that can connect anything to anything at this point. If, like me, you have older devices that only connect via carrier pigeon (Firewire 1, for example), get adaptors. They’re not expensive, and could save your bacon when you least expect it (‘now, where is that instrumental mix from 2004?’).

If your new MacBook Pro is USB-C only, get a couple of USB-C to USB adaptors - that way, you can fire any old USB device straight in. While you’re at it, get a USB-C to lightening cable. You may have an iPhone 12, but when a client shows up with an old iPhone. That way, you'll make a new friend.

3. Storage storage storage.

Whatever HD you have in that new MacBook of yours, it’s not going to be big enough. It just never is. I fix a lot of Macs for friends (and very often, my friends’ kids) – even if it’s someone who only ever emails and watches videos of cats falling off tables, space runs out and their computers grind to a halt with that ol’ spinning beachball of doom.

I have three Raid solutions here in the studio – each running 8TB of removable drives, and a plethora of USB drives for the road (many if them with legacy connections). In the past, I often used to make the mistake of underestimating the space that I'd need, so I'd suggest that if you’re buying a new portable ‘road’ drive, get double the storage that you think you’ll need. Buy the fastest drive that you can afford (SSD preferably), and make sure that the connectivity is good for your new machine.

Also – nag nag nag – make time to prune and archive data to your external drive regularly. Look after your machine and it’ll look after you.

4. ‘Flash – whoa-oh!’

A thumb drive is a no-brainer. I think that we’ve all got hundreds lying around gathering dust, but get something more modern and with your connectivity in mind. I have four currently on my keyring, ranging from 16gb to 256gb, great for picking up and transferring those files on the fly. One of my keyring drives has an emergency rescue OS on it that has saved my life more than once. Invaluable.

5. Life on the road Pt.2

Do yourself a favour and get a car USB charger with multiple ports. Yes, yes I know that modern cars have 1,2,3 or more USB ports – one on the dash, one near the coffee cup holder, one in the roof etc. – but when you’ve got a carful of people, you may soon be driving in a sea of spaghetti, all umbilically connected to numerous different ports.. A good old cigarette lighter USB adaptor takes care of it - make sure that it copes with USB-C and old style USB, and has at least three ports.

Someone (very kind) has just loaned me a Tesla, all singing and dancing with three USB ports. All USB-C. Useless for my trusty iPhone 8. Thank God it still has a fag port!

6. Have we got mice?

A good mouse is not an optional extra, in my humble opinion. A MacBook trackpad is a fantastic piece of tech, but doesn’t really cut the mustard.

Naming no names, but my weapon of choice has eight buttons, all assignable globally or on a per-application basis. It saves so much time. It’s ergonomically well designed too, so no hand cramping at the coalface, easy to work with on long sessions.

7. Wired for sound

I often marvel at how a MacBook Pro can sound anything other than a wasp in a jar, what with those tiny speakers, but let’s face it, we all expect more from our audio. Good quality earbuds are great, and save your co-travellers from listening to those aforementioned cat videos. If you’ve got deep pockets, Apples proprietary Air Pods are good, but TBH you can find some really good products out there a lot cheaper.

A good Bluetooth speaker would also be a great addition for party time.

8. Double vision

If video is your work (or passion), then you may consider a good quality portable second screen. There are some great (and very slim and lightweight) offerings out there.

Money money money!

I’ve undoubtedly left out many possible accessories in this list (a QI compatible wireless charging station, for instance), but I want to recommend what I consider to be the essentials.

Obviously, if you bought all of this and stuffed it into a carry-on bag with your new laptop, you may elicit some old-fashioned looks at airport security. Much of it, though, can be safely packed into hold luggage (but not the second screen – please, not the second screen!).

Once you’ve got to the end of this shopping list, you’ll have also racked up a dent in your wallet. However, as I’ve said, I think that you have to consider much of this list as essential and balance it with your selection of laptop in the first place. Consider your new MacBook and these essentials as one price tag.

As far as the laptop selection goes, my advice is never buy new. The depreciation just isn’t worth it. A good refurbished machine is a logical choice (it’s what I’ve always done). That way, you'll get more bang for your buck with that overall price tag.

 


Thinking of buying a MacBook Pro from new? Think different.

Apple are working hard to reduce their carbon footprint, but computer manufacture is notoriously carbon and rare earth heavy - not to mention the sumptuous packaging!

We all have a part to play in maintaining the environment we live in. By buying a refurbished MacBook or MacBook Pro, we are collectively reducing our carbon footprint and preserving the planet now and for our future generations. A good refurbished MacBook Pro is both a sound economic and ecological choice.

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