Updated January 2012: What’s the best MacBook for making music? Is it the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air? What size is best? 11 inch, 13 inch, 15 inch or 17 inch?
If your planning to buy a Mac laptop for music, there’s some links at the end of the article where you can save some money.
Which MacBook for Making Music? Things to Consider
Here are questions to consider to see which would be the best MacBook music rig:
- Do you want a new or secondhand Mac Book?
- Do you want the “best possible setup” (you’re happy to spend a lot) or a “good enough setup” (spend just enough money to get the job done)?
- Do you know what music software you’ll use? (e.g. Logic, ProTools, Cubase, Live, GarageBand, Reaktor, Kontakt, Traktor, Reason, Sibelius, Vienna Symphonic Library)
- Do you have any existing instrument or sample libraries?
If so, how big are they?
- Will the Mac always be used in a portable music setup, or mostly in one place?
To set the scene for your purchase, you may want consider the different ways you might use your Mac to create music, and in what settings:
- Will you be recording real instruments? Does you sound interface use USB or Firewire? (MacBook Pro models all have Firewire. MacBook Air models don’t have Firewire.)
- Will you be using the Mac at home, in a studio or at gigs? (If you’re moving around, smaller MacBooks are more convenient.)
- Will you be using pre-recorded samples or loops? Will you be loading sampled instruments, e.g. Galaxy Steinway piano? (MacBook’s hard disks will generally be big enough to swallow lots of sample and instrument libraries. MacBook Airs have faster but smaller capacity flash storage – a consideration if you have a large amount of music tracks, software and samples.
- Will you be using any special hardware, e.g. the Guitar Rig pedal. (Is your hardware compatible with Mac OS X Lion on new Macs?)
- Will you be scoring music? Will you need to print sheet music? (Is your software compatible with Mac OS X Lion?)
- Will you be using the Mac to play live? Might you do some live DJ’ing, mixing and beat matching (e.g. using Acid)? (Is your MacBook big enough for the screen to be useable, but small enough to be easy to carry around?)
- Will you be making soundtracks? (If so, you’ll probably want a bigger screen to make room for the video track.)
My friend’s answer to these questions were:
I’m looking to use Ableton, with a portable set up and about 30GB worth of sounds/synths. I guess I would like bang for buck as opposed to spending for no reason, but if it’s worth it I will get it. Something that I would use live but I also travel a lot, so portability is important.
Here’s the good news. All Macs are great for music.
All the MacBooks are Good
All the current model MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models are good for making music.
So, really it’s a choice between:
- MacBook Air – 11 inch
- MacBook Air – 13 inch
- MacBook Pro – 13 inch
- MacBook Pro – 15 inch
- MacBook Pro – 17 inch
Let’s look at choosing between MacBook sizes first of all.
Choosing Between MacBook Air and MacBook Pro Sizes
In choosing between the sizes, there’s a trade off between three factors.
No. 1: How Big a Screen Do You Need for Making Music with Your Mac “On the Road”?
When making music, it’s great to have a big screen, so you can see and get straight to all your tracks and virtual instruments.
You’ll probably find the smaller screen MacBooks (MacBook Air 11″, MacBook Air 13″, MacBook Pro 13″) cramped for making music. They’ll be lots of scrolling and shuffling windows around.
You might be okay with a smaller screen if you’ve just recording a few live instruments or if your patient.
The 15 inch MacBook Pro screen is workable, and 17 inch MacBook Pro screen is good.
You don’t necessarily need a big screen on the laptop. If you’re mostly making music in one place, I’d recommend buy a 23 inch external thin HD screen for $170 that’s great to work off. (I have one! – cheap HD display for MacBook Air.)
No. 2: How Much Weight are You Prepared to Lug Around?
The 17 inch is a lot to lug around. I would not recommend travelling with it unless you really, really want a big screen.
I’ve travelled with a 15 inch every day for a year. I’m over it! It’s just big enough to be awkward.
If you can cope with the smaller screen, and you can get to a big screen when you want to work quickly, the 13 inch will be by far the best to travel with. It won’t take over your entire backpack!
No. 3: Do You Need the Power of a Quad Core CPU Versus a Dual Core CPU for Making Music?
The 13 inch MacBook Pro has two CPU cores. The 15 and 17 inch models have four CPU cores. This means that a 15 inch or 17 inch can handle roughly twice as many tracks as the 13 inch, before you need tricks like “freezing” or “bouncing” tracks to disk.
Still the 13 inch will handle a bunch of tracks. It will handle a bunch of virtual instruments, samples and recorded vocals and live instruments.
If you’re doing massive arrangements with 60 tracks and giant orchestral libraries with heaps of effects like convolution reverb, you’d really appreciate the quad core models (15 and 17 inch). Otherwise, you may not even notice the difference in power between a dual core and quad core.
No. 4: The Current MacBook Pro Models, and the Larger Screen MacBook Models May Be Quieter
Macs get hot from thinking hard, for example when playing back a 20 track music project with lots of virtual instruments and effects. When this happens, the fan runs to keep the processor from overheating. The harder the Mac works, the hotter it gets, and the faster the fan runs to compensate. The faster the fan runs the more noise the fan makes.
Since the heat also passively dissipates to the MacBook Air’s case, larger Macs may be able to sink more heat into the metal shell before the fan is seriously needed.
The current MacBook Air (the model released mid-2011) has a reputation of being a bit of a hot head. This may be because its the first generation of a processor technology from Intel that combines a Core i5 or i7 processor, with a graphics processor (HD3000 graphics) on one silicon chip. In the Pro, the processors are still on two separate chips, which may spread out the heat. Reports are the MacBook Air can get hot fast, even under moderate load. That means fan noise.
There is a fair bit of conjecture here: it hasn’t been measured, tested and proven that the Pro stays quieter longer than the Air. It hasn’t been proven that the smaller MacBooks need to fan earlier. I could be wrong.
I thought it’s better I mention it, as I have had a lot of people whinging about fan noise for the current model MacBook Air.
Best MacBook for Music – The Simple Answer
The “safe bet” for a MacBook Pro for easily-portable music production is a 15 inch MacBook Pro. The screen will be big enough, if not roomy, to work with. It’s okay to carry around. It’s got a quad core processor, so the technology is never likely to slow down your creativity – with a quad core you can have music projects with many, many tracks, virtual instruments and effects.
If you want really portable, and (i) if you can work off a big screen where you mainly create music, and (ii) if an 11 inch or 13 inch isn’t too small for you to create you’re out and about, and (iii) if you don’t have massively complicated music projects, you will probably fall in love with a MacBook Air 11″, MacBook Air 13″, or MacBook Pro 13″.
The MacBook Air is thinner, lighter, more portable than the MacBook Pro and has flash storage instead of hard disk. The flash storage (or solid state disk – SSD) is much faster than a hard disk, which is great for loading virtual instruments and music projects quickly. The downsize is flash storage is relatively expensive, so typical flash storage capacities are much less than hard disks. MacBook Air’s don’t have a built in DVD drive. If your music software comes on DVD, you’ll need to buy an external DVD drive from Apple ($79). You can read more about choosing a MacBook Air 11 vs 13.
If you want a big work space, don’t want to ever use an external monitor, and don’t care about lugging around a giant laptop, the MacBook Pro 17 inch is a amazing laptop for creativity. (It’s so wide, you can see your music tracks really well. It’s also great for doing video in the field, but that’s another story…)
The base models for all MacBook Pro sizes would serve your requirements well. For the MacBook Air’s, don’t buy the entry level model with 2GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage. This will not be enough RAM or storage for most people making music with their Mac. All the other MacBook Air models have 4GB of RAM (good), with 128GB or 256GB of flash storage. If you don’t have a lot of music libraries you could get away with 128GB. If you’re a heavy user with lots of software, samples and virtual instruments, go for the 256GB. The cheaper i5 MacBook Air models have plenty of power for music; you can compare i7 vs i5 MacBook Air models here.
MacBook Air for a Music Production Setup?
You can use a MacBook Air for music. This is incredibly sexy, because the MacBook Air 11 inch weighs only one kilo. I throw a music keyboard, the Air and some portable speakers in a courier bag, and the Air handles a sample Fender Rhodes piano and a high-end sampled piano (Galaxy Steinway) in its stride.
I have the previous model MacBook Air, a late 2010 model, which has a more sluggish processor than the current model (a Core 2 Duo vs a Core i5 or i7), which has the advantage that it doesn’t get hot easily, so I haven’t gotten fan noise from just playing live. You may not want to use a late-2010 MacBook Air for serious multi-track music; it could struggle with a lot of tracks and effects. (Still you could freeze tracks to disk pretty easily.)
The MacBook Air 2011 / 2012 models (released 20 July 2011) have Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, making them up to 2.5 times faster than the previous models. A MacBook Pro 13 and a MacBook Air 13 have about the same music processing power. The MacBook Pro 15 & 17 have about double the music processing power of the 13 inch Air & Pro.
The i5 and i7 processors in the new MacBook Airs make them amazing for portable music! I never want to carry a MacBook Pro again. I can barely feel the weight of the MacBook Air in my backpack.
The MacBook Air has only two USB slots, so it can run an external music audio interface and a USB music keyboard at the same time.
If you won’t use an external monitor, the 13 inch Air would generally be a better choice than the 11 inch so you have enough “screen real estate” to work on your music.
Remember the caveat: Some people are complaining about fan noise from the current model MacBook Air.
Back to the MacBook Pro
All MacBook Pros come with at least 4GB of memory, which is great for music production. Typically only complex music projects, for example projects with many sampled instruments, would benefit from upgrading to 8GB of memory.
Most professional music producers end up with a lot of virtual instruments and sample libraries, as well as a big iTunes library of music. If this could be you, you may want to get the hard disk upgraded to the biggest size.
If you’re a speed freak (like me), and you love your music projects and virtual instruments to load very quickly, a solid state disk (SSD) is wonderful. As SSDs have no moving parts, they can get to samples in virtual instruments much faster, so an SSD can support more sampled instruments. SSDs are still quite expensive, particularly if you buy them as a factory option from Apple, instead of aftermarket. They also typically have lower storage capacities than hard disks. Think of an SSD as a high-end or luxury option for a music rig.
Is Your Music Software OS X Lion Compatible?
New Macs all come with OSX Lion, which is relatively new. Not all music software has been updated to be fully compatible with Lion yet. Check the music software’s website or Google for up-to-date information on compatible. For example, you can Google “propellerheads reason lion compatible” to find a webpage to answer if Reason is compatible with Lion.
If you’re buying a new Mac, make sure your music software runs properly on OS X Lion.
If you’d like to save money on new MacBooks, check out the prices here:
- MacBook Pro and other MacBook models, new and used
- 13 inch MacBook Air
- 11 inch MacBook Air
Look out for Mac laptops with free shipping.
- For travel get a small and light external two channel audio interface to connect mics or instruments. (Or four channel, if you need it.)
- High end audio interfaces tend to use Firewire instead of USB. I’ve found Firewire interfaces to be more reliable and responsive than USB. There are posts on the net to back this up like this one. Apparently USB has been getting better over the years. If you buy a MacBook Pro, you’re in luck, because the MacBook Pro has both USB ports and a Firewire port, so you’ve got the option if you need it. (The MacBook Air doesn’t have a Firewire port built in. There’s plans for a 3rd party Firewire interface using the Thunderbolt port.) Firewire sound interfaces will typically only be relevant if you want to record 8+ tracks at once, or if you want super high quality recording or if you’ve got concert pianist like sensitivity to how quickly sounds play when you press keys.
- I love Presonus audio interfaces. I have one of their eight channel interfaces. They’re famous for having great mic preamps. Not cheap, but great quality.
- Rode Mic are an Australian microphone company who make very good quality mics at a great price. Registered mics get a ten year guarantee. I’ve had two of their mics. Highly recommended.
- M-Audio make good, cheap, light music keyboards with great feel. They plug straight into the Macs USB port. I have one. You can buy them in three sizes (49, 61 and 88 keys). Avoid the eKeys models – they’re not velocity sensitive (i.e. you can’t play softer by just press the keys more lightly).
- I recommending avoiding Behringer keyboards – the graduation between soft notes and loud notes is very sudden and natural.
- If you shop around on the Internet, you can find much better prices on audio interfaces, mics and keyboards than list price.
Do you want to get a studio quality sound? Then check out the Eight Essential Keys to Great Recordings.
Hope this helps you get a great MacBook for making music!
If you found this article helpful, could you please click the +1, Like or other sharing buttons. It only takes a moment! This helps this article get found ahead of old, out of date articles, and helps MacCrazy.com compete with powerful, established corporate-owned sites. Thanks!