Mac or Windows?
Okay. So you like to make music on your computer. Eventually, you are going to be in a position to drop some significant money into your computer rig. The first decision is Windows or Mac. For me, the key factor was how much time I would spend doing things that the operating system requires. Like installing and maintaining anti-malware software. Or re-installing every six months or so to refresh a system that has bogged itself down with cruft. Or dealing with BSODs and crashes all the time. These are NOT ways I want to spend my time! I want to spend my time making and promoting my music.
Of course, even today with the Mac rising in popularity, there is still more available on the Windows platform than on the Mac. But is it better or even as good? Increasingly, software developers are porting their products to the Mac platform, so this difference is diminishing. And while business users have largely preferred the Windows platform (for many good reasons), creative professionals have always embraced the Mac. Have you ever wondered why? Some just think artists are crazy and oddly elitist when it comes to their personal choices. Well… there might be some truth to that, but the truth is more rational. Those who write the best creative software prefer the Mac. It is just designed on the inside to do graphics, music and all the related math better. So creatives always lust after the latest great thing that shows up in the Mac catalog and largely ignore the wonderful world of Windows.
But I went with Mac for the simple reason that it just works. This is not as true today as in the past based on my recent experiences with the Mavericks OS and the new Logic Pro X DAW, but it is still a far cry from the tortures the Windows platform inflicts. So, unless you are deeply invested in Windows-based hardware and software, I say go with a Mac. For a capably equipped computer, you are going to spend about the same amount on either platform, but if you value your time (as you should), the small premium you may pay for a Mac will more than pay for itself.
But then you have to decide how to configure your Mac optimally for music production. I made some mistakes, and so I hope my mistakes will at least create benefits for anyone who happens upon this blog post. Configuring a MacBook Pro, an iMac or (lucky you) a Mac Pro means spending precious money on capabilities. You may be like 99% of us and have to decide how to get the most bang for your precious bucks. There are many tradeoffs to consider when configuring a computer for music production. Spend money to upgrade the CPU or the memory? Installing an SSD or Fusion Drive when your music software may include hundreds of gigabytes of sample data? Fast (and expensive) Thunderbolt add-ons or USB3?
CPU vs. RAM
This is the mistake I made. I bought and installed maximum RAM (memory) on my iMac 27″and bought the unit with the Intel Core i5 CPU. I would have been smarter to buy the Core i7 processor than the RAM. At 32GB of RAM, my software never even puts a little stress on memory. I have more than enough… even a surplus of unused memory. In the meantime, the software does not seem to make great use of this memory and there is no way I have found to make the software exploit the speed of abundant memory. Instead, the programs are constantly writing recovery versions to disk, and operations seem to be what we used to call “I/O Bound”. So memory does not add much of an advantage.
Most processing of music requires massive computational capability… that is, the ability to do math! My older MacBook Pro has an i7 CPU and is faster than my iMac when doing things in Logic Pro! It makes sense since the number-crunching is served better by the faster processor and memory has nothing to do with that. So, processing power is more important than memory when producing music.
Screen Size and Resolution
You can buy MacBook Pros with beautiful “retina displays” with high resolution. That’s great if you are doing photography or video, but really adds mostly cost to someone only doing music. What you will enjoy is a larger screen! You will spend hours and hours looking at rows of MIDI and audio tracks and still need space for various plug-ins and editing windows. This is tough to accomplish on a 15-inch screen. Bigger is definitely better when you can afford it. So, instead of high-resolution, consider getting a nice big external monitor (30 inches is great!) and enjoy the luxury of all that screen real estate. You will fill it up instantly. You should spend your money on size at standard resolution rather than on smaller screens at higher resolution. This is most applicable to MacBook Pro laptop users.
Disk space: Volume or Speed?
Actually, you will need a bit of both, but volume is most important. The data transfer speeds of a USB drive usually are limited by the read/write speed of a hard drive. So, rather than buying a very expensive Thunderbolt drive (like I did), buy a 7200 RPM USB3 drive for a fraction of the price. You will find that bouncing out uncompressed 24-bit resolution music files at a 92Kbs sample rate will fill up that 1TB drive much faster than you’d imagined. And, if you want your music to sound the best it can, this is the standard resolution for storing professional grade music. Some are even sampling at 192K to achieve even cleaner and more detailed digital recordings. So, you need disk capacity. Lots of it. If you are on a budget, don’t blow it on a 256GB SSD drive that will fill up before you know it. And certainly don’t waste your money on Thunderbolt drives for music. The incremental speed you might realize is not worth it for music. Even with its astounding I/O speeds, that Thunderbolt-enabled hard drive is only going to spin at 7200 RPM and never even approach getting the benefit of all that bandwidth and speed. Video production is another matter, but we are configuring for music production. While demanding, music production is not in the same universe as the demands video puts on data transfer rates. If you want to spend some real money, take up video production!
SSD is usefully fast when you store your samples and music libraries on a solid state drive. If you wind up using a sampler like Native Instruments’ Kontakt, you will save time waiting for the massive sample libraries to load into your project. Since Logic is I/O bound with its constant writing to disk, installing and running it on an SSD would make a big difference in your system’s responsiveness. But, SSD is expensive and not the most practical expenditure for producing music when you have so many other things to buy. Especially when you need a minimum 512GB SSD to house your sample libraries and music software!
Apple’s Fusion Drive is a great concept that is theoretically appealing to music producers, but it apparently is not ready for primetime if you read the horror stories from musicians who have made these drives part of their system. Eventually Apple will get all the bugs worked out. My advice? Just wait for that to happen.
So, to avoid making some of my mistakes:
1. Favor spending money on a faster CPU (like the Core i7) over spending money on tons of RAM. In music production, I have never seen a situation where even 16GB gets fully used.
2. Expect to buy a big monitor and avoid sinking money into smaller high-resolution displays (unless, of course, you are also doing video, photography or graphics work on the same machine).
3. Buy high-capacity USB3 drives instead of wasting money on more expensive Thunderbolt drives. (Eventually the price of Thunderbolt equipment will fall. When that happens, this advice could change as well.)
4. Buy an SSD drive if you can afford it and populate it with your I/O bound software and sample libraries.
5. Hold off on the Fusion Drive. It is not yet your friend.
The whole idea of creating music is to try whatever you want and not be constrained by your lack of system capabilities. Install all those plug-ins and libraries and then use them. Bounce out your music at high resolution so you can really evaluate how it is shaping up. Go ahead and spread your arrangement over 40 tracks or more without worrying whether your system can handle it. It will all add up to an embarrassing amount of money spent, but spending less might be the bigger mistake.
And, if you can afford to buy a Mac Pro, why the hell are you reading this?! Just enjoy your good fortune and buy whatever you like (ya bastards).