Do I really need a brand new Mac for audio?
I’m an audio professional, and so demand high performance and minimum downtime from my Macs. Modern audio production all starts with capable and reliable computers. I have a static studio setup, and a mobile rig for my ‘on the road’ needs, and both of my rigs are built around refurbished machines.
Every fellow audio professional that I know shares a similar path to me – their computer setup has evolved around their changing needs and practices alongside the steady march of technology, and we’ve all come to rely more and more on working ‘in the box’. What follows will be ‘in my experience’, an inevitably personal take on the subject.
It may surprise you to learn that the last brand new Mac I bought was a Performa 6500 in 1998, to run midi alongside a dedicated digital audio workstation (a Korg VS1680). I’ve been through maybe 4 or 5 upgrades since then, all refurbished machines (and obviously ditched the old standalone recorder). It’s the same story for my laptops, culminating in my current refurbished MacBook Pro.
Apple or PC for Pro audio?
I’ll try to avoid the familiar battlefield of which platform is ‘better’! For pro users, one tends to stick to the platform you learned your craft on – even just changing from one set of shortcuts to another can be painful when there always seems to be a tight deadline looming.
There are certain hardware and software reasons why it can be strongly argued that Macs are superior machines – you can read more here. Most 3rd party software manufacturers, however, support both platforms, and a good PC will certainly get the job done.
Your choice of DAW
A DAW (digital audio workstation) forms the heart of your system. It’s your tape machine, mixing desk and editing software environment. Like the Apple vs. PC argument, many Pro audio users end up working with the DAW they started with. Although all Daws do much the same thing these days, the unlearning/ relearning process is just too time consuming when there’s work to be done and a living to be earned.
In the beginning, ProTools was the pro audio user’s weapon of choice. It simply sounded better than anything else (and had a price tag for the dedicated hardware to match!), but that gap has now arguably gone.
There are many DAWS on the market - notably Ableton, Cubase, Studio 1, Reason, FL Studio, Reaper to name but a few. They are all, along with ProTools, equally capable on Mac or PC. The exception is the very widely used Logic Pro, which is Apple only. Note the term ‘very widely used’, which is where we come to….
Audio professionals have to be flexible when it comes to DAW formats. Clients, writers, studios will often supply you with data and parts compiled in different software. The top DAW of choice in professional settings is still ProTools, with Logic and Ableton running second and third. A good 99% of projects that I receive will have been made on Macs in the first place. Walk into any half decent recording facility, it’ll be Macs running. Transferring files seamlessly back into your own working environment is crucial, so using a Mac for music professionally is simply a no brainer. It’s not about what is better, or any Apple snobbery – simply ease of collaboration.
Cost vs. performance
Everyone knows that Apple machines are more expensive than PCs, but by buying refurbished, they needn’t be. In the commercial world of computers, as with everything else, we are constantly persuaded that only the newest machine will be up to the job. That may have held water 15 years ago, when advances in technology seemed to be taking giant leaps with every generational release, but I’d argue that this just isn’t the case any more. An older refurbished MacBook Pro or Mac Desktop can suit your needs perfectly, and be way cheaper than buying brand new. As this is from my own experience, it may help to describe how I use my software and which Macs I use, before detailing key points to look for when buying a refurbished Mac.
How I use my Macs
I have a studio in SW London (from which I write this) - a control room and a live room overstuffed with instruments, mics, outboard etc. I’ve recorded everything from tracking sessions with singers to whole band setups (and everything in between) in here. I’ve done corporate jobs that are inevitably sample heavy, and mixed some very large (80 + track) projects. My key demand from my computers is that they have to not fall over on the job.
No two jobs are the same for me. I’m currently producing an album, making the soundtrack for a corporate online piece and finishing a library album of my own. I need my Macs to be able to be up for anything.
As an example, I had a session as producer in another studio in mid December 2020, miraculously just before the last lockdown. It was a full band session (drums/ bass/ guitars/ keys/ guide vocals). Each track generated 30 – 50 tracks of data + alternative takes. The studio was running ProTools on a modded MacPro tower. As we finished each track, I copied the multitrack ProTools sessions onto my MacBook Pro and imported them into Logic. As a result, I was up and working in Logic on my Mac desktop in my studio the day after I got back home.
My DAW of choice is Logic (as that’s what I started with way back when), but I also run ProTools out of necessity for compatibility (see above). I can transfer easily between the two DAWS in my sleep now (which I sometimes do!). My audio interfaces of choice are UAD Apollos – they sound great, and I really like some of their (admittedly expensive) plugins. I tend to try and stick to plugin suites that I know and love for their sound – I mainly use SoundToys, FabFilter, Waves, Slate Digital, Izotope, Celemony, Native Instruments as well as a good wedge of soft synths that I particularly like. Try not to bloat your system with every plugin under the sun – too much choice can be distracting. How many compressors do you really need?
I use a Mac desktop rather than an iMac in my studio - I really don’t want any fan noise (or all of my cabling and drives) in the room. I run it all on an eight year old trash can Mac Pro on OS Catalina (see system overview below). It’s a fantastic machine, has never run out of CPU and goes like stink – and, not being an iMac, it can be tucked away in a cupboard. I monitor on two 27” Apple Cinema Display screens (I got these refurbished, too). It’s a really workable setup, and I don’t need anything else for the foreseeable future.
My mobile setup is based around Mid 2014 i7 MacBook Pro, a UAD Apollo Twin and a presonus audio interface expander via ADAT lightpipes. I use it for mobile sessions, recording multitrack live shows, remote writing sessions, programming, everything really. I’ve run 32 track out live shows with no problem at all, as well as editing large projects. It runs very smoothly, and has never let me down (see system overview below).
Apple’s habit of continually changing their ports drives everyone mad. A brand new machine with USB C only may well leave all your other older hardware in the cold - or more accurately, will leave you purchasing connecting solutions and hubs. My ‘old’ Mac desktop is a dream in this respect: I run the system on a 512gb SSD, and my audio disks and sample libraries port in via thunderbolt from an 8tb RAID array. The UAD chain goes in via Thunderbolt, and my obsession with backing up is served by two other RAID arrays (one kept offsite). I have a USB hub plumbed in for all necessary iLoks etc.
My MacBook Pro is equally usable, having all the ‘older’ connections that I need:- I run it with a system SSD and an extra 2TB HD on board. If I’m working on something sample heavy, I have a 2tb USB disk loaded with my main sample libraries.
Improve your memory
It’s always worth having as much RAM as you can afford for music production – especially if your use is sample heavy. I’m maxed at 16gb on my MacBook Pro and 32gb on my Mac desktop, which unless you’re Hans Zimmer, is fine.
As well as your DAW of choice, there is the issue of plugins to consider. 15 or 20 years ago, you’d have to be really careful on your plugin selection – a CPU intensive reverb plugin, for example, could rinse your power. It just seems less of an issue now:- computers are simply more powerful, and 3rd party developers tend to be more careful with CPU usage. It’s also worth considering an audio I/O platform such as UAD, as their hardware carries the CPU load for their bespoke plugins.
So, which refurbished Mac should I buy?
If you’re looking at a mobile rig, it’s got to be a MacBook Pro every time. If you’re buying refurbished, make sure that you use a trusted seller for some sort of warranty. You’ll be looking for the best balance of processor power, RAM, connectivity and spend.
If you’re looking for a Mac desktop, I am a big fan of trash can Mac Pros – they’re highly underrated machines. You will, of course, need to factor in the cost of a screen (or two), but that won’t break the bank. iMacs are great machines too, but as I’ve said, I don’t want to share the room with my tape machine! A Mac mini may be a little underpowered for larger CPU heavy projects.
Remember what you're buying here - much as we all hate built in obsolescence, a computer is the very definition of the term. The good news is that Apple machines tend to hold their value well. You will inevitably be upgrading at some point, whatever you buy, so it's worth adopting the mindset of running maintenance.
This may seem strange (and totally unscientific), but I think a good rule of thumb when buying a refurbished machine is to always select something that is capable of running the latest macOS, then select the best spec that you can afford. That way, you'll have a machine that will give you a good number of years of service before you feel the need to upgrade. Note I use the word 'need' and not 'want'!
There are two golden rules that everyone working in pro audio observes:
- 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Never fall into the trap of believing that every piece of software that you use has to be the very latest version. I can't remember the last time I walked into a professional commercial facility and saw their Macs running the latest version of their chosen DAWS and favourite go to plugins. Work time is just too precious to risk it all falling over.
- Ditto with the macOS. Never, ever, upgrade to a new macOS until it's at least six months old. Running an audio system inevitably involves using the work of hundreds (or even thousands) of 3rd party developers. Apple tend to spring major OS upgrades on everyone, including the developers of your favourite plugins and non Apple DAWS. It's understandable, as Apple don't want untested 'beta' versions of an OS leaking into the public domain, but it can leave 3rd party developers playing catch up. Imagine that you're half way through mixing an album, and suddenly half of your reverbs and compressors don't work. Nightmare. Don't do it! When you do feel that you need to update, it's worth making a list of all the 3rd party softwrae that you use, and checking for cpompatability on developers' sites.
Refurbished MacBook Pros and Mac Desktops are more than equal to the demands of creating high end music successfully. Buy refurbished, and you may even have some money left over to spend on that mic or tasty preamp you’ve been lusting after!
Thinking of buying a MacBook Pro or Mac desktop 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 we are collectively reducing the overall technology carbon footprint and preserving the planet now and for our future generations. A good refurbished Mac is both a sound economic and ecological choice.