Computers / Buying Guide

Audio, Apps, and Apple: Digital Audio’s Heritage and Future Meet in Apple's 2015 Lineup

If you have five recording engineers or producers in a room, you will undoubtedly see five different approaches to any one task, all equally successful. A comfortable workflow is a key component to just about every creative pursuit, and your typical modern recording or production studio is going to be centered around your computer (to the chagrin of tape-only purists).

Even with the multitude of approaches different music makers have, it is no secret that Macs and their more recent iOS counterparts have long been the preferred computing platforms for many professionals and hobbyists. Ranging from the Mac Pros found in professional studios to the iMacs in project studios, the MacBook Pros preferred by producers and DJs, and iPads that are finding their way into almost every aspect of audio production, Apple has left its thumbprint on the audio world, and if its 2015 lineup is any indication, the company does not intend to go anywhere.


Since its introduction in 2010, the iPad aimed to provide the touch experience the iPhone could not because of its size. While the strength of the iPhone in audio has grown as a recorder and playback device (with pro audio stalwarts such as Shure releasing iOS specific mics and interfaces), the iPad has really expanded what iOS as a platform is capable of in the studio, on stage, and at the front of house.

Like so many innovations, initially, the iPad’s usefulness as a production device wasn’t exactly clear. Out of the gate, there were a few clever musical apps taking advantage of the touchscreen’s abilities, such as pianos and guitar emulations, but excluding the iOS version of Garage Band, it took developers a little time to bring apps and peripherals to the table that took advantage of the hands-on experience the iPad provides.

Performance with the iPad

One of the genuine strengths of the iPad is the way it gives producers and engineers a hands-on, tactile approach that is missing from much of the music-making experience for those accustomed to working completely in the box. Once heavyweights such as Korg and Moog got onboard with developing for iOS, the potential of the iPad as a performance device became much more apparent; world-class synth sound engines couple with 1:1 hands-on control of parameters, freeing you from reaching for a mouse every time you wanted to tweak a tone.

Accomplished and amateur musicians alike began to flock to the iPad as more than just a neat toy, but a capable and unique addition to a production rig. For those who missed the responsive control traditional keyboards or pads provide, in short time a bevy of third-party keyboard and drum pad controllers became available. Now the iPad could quite easily be transformed into nearly any style synth or drum machine, giving beat makers and musicians instant access to parameters, modulation controls such as XY surfaces, and much more, limited only by what developers could imagine.

Obviously, the portability of the iPad is one of its main features, and allows the device to be integrated into live performance in a number of ways. Increasingly common to see the iPad on stage, it has found favor with DJs, keyboardists, and musicians of all sorts. Once again, crediting better apps and powerful peripherals, such as audio interfaces, the iPad has snuck its way into guitarists’ rigs, vocal chains, and DJ setups.

Recording and Mixing with the iPad

With later releases of the iPad, its processing power has continued to grow, along with its storage capacity. Its natural evolution as a music tool would be to use it as a recording device, and sure enough, it has become the next frontier for recording, editing, and mixing audio and MIDI. Everyone from pro studio mainstays Apogee to Shure are making a variety of interfaces and microphones designed explicitly for the iPad (or iPhone).

Apple has ported a version of its entry-level desktop DAW, GarageBand, for the iPad, and apps from third-party developers such as Cubasis from Steinberg or FL Studio Mobile HD from Image-Line, give your iPad the platform to handle dozens of tracks simultaneously for mix-down and export. Unlike your typical computer, however, the iPad allows you to get hands-on with your editing in the most literal way, which can make critical waveform editing efficient and intuitive.

Without wading into the always contentious “digital versus analog” mixing debate, one thing each side of that argument can agree on is that mixing with a mouse is a less than ideal way to sculpt your mix than having some sort of tactile control. Most current releases of your major desktop DAWs support a (typically free) iPad app that lets you get hands-on in some capacity that was previously lacking. Notably, Apple’s own Logic, Avid’s Pro Tools, and Steinberg’s Cubase all have apps that, when connected to the same Wi-Fi network as the computer running your DAW, allow you to automate various parameters and control faders, as well as give you transport controls—great for when you have to track your own vocals.

MacBook Pro and the Power of Portability


Creating and performing music, almost regardless of genre, has long since come around to the convenience and power that having a laptop on stage can provide. A MacBook Pro and external hard drive essentially have replaced the crates upon crates of vinyl that DJs used to have to drag with them to every show. Keyboardists now have access to almost every sound conceivable, only needing a MIDI controller and audio interface rather than multiple keyboards, all while having access to audio software that otherwise might not make it to the stage.

Since digital audio software is breaking new boundaries with almost every new release, it is only reasonable that artists are eager to integrate these effects and processors into their live shows, in many cases, taking the exact tools they used in the studio right on tour. Outside of providing effects processing, digital DJ’ing, and a world of software synths within its aluminum shell, Apple’s MacBook Pro lineup (even its most modestly powered options) has been bringing the world of multi-track playback and recording to venues across the globe.

Whether the band is performing to select backing tracks or entire arrangements, having the ability to run your DAW of choice in a live setting has, for better or worse, changed the way most modern pop tours are run. A huge pro for having rigs like this is the ability to record every live show of a tour easily, giving artists another way to connect with their fans by giving them the ability to download the very live show they saw.

In the Studio

The dawn of digital audio in the late ’90s/early 2000s sent the recording industry for a loop, and better-quality audio interfaces coupled with more powerful computers. One unfortunate side effect of this democratization of recording was seeing many legendary professional studios shutter their doors. In their place, however, were launched countless project and home studios, equipped with software and gear that would be cost prohibitive for the hobbyist to own just 20 years prior.

The nature of studios changing has evolved the way a great deal of modern pop music is made. Since machines like the MacBook Pro assure you do not have to sacrifice power for portability, the ability to collaborate on a production has simplified from just a decade earlier. Many producers carry just their MacBook Pro, an Apogee Duet, and an external hard drive for their sound and sample libraries. This nimble rig allows producers to go from studio to studio and still have the essentials of what they need, no matter what kind of environment they’re walking into. Thanks to the addition of Thunderbolt connectivity, there is straightforward integration of most available professional peripherals.

The MacBook Pro has arguably become one of the most significant professional production tools of the last 15 years, as evidenced by the seemingly endless number of accessories geared to (and even aesthetically mimicking) the machine. Whereas the iPad appeals to hobbyists (and pros, perhaps in a peripheral capacity), the MacBook Pro brings the power that serious productions need without tethering you to a single location. Even Pro Tools HD systems, for many the be-all end-all of pro recording, released its Native system geared towards the MacBook Pro user. Thanks to the MacBook Pro, musicians and performers do not have to sacrifice power for portability.

iMac: The Cornerstone of the Project Studio

The strengths of the iMac, at first glance, might seem more obvious for photo and video. Current models of Apple’s all-in-one computer/monitor system are sporting an impressive Retina 5K display, so it is only reasonable that more visually geared creative pursuits get more attention. However, when you take a look under its (albeit slim) hood, what the iMac brings to home and even pro studios is evident.

Depending on what configuration you go for, an iMac can provide you with multiple Thunderbolt ports, up to four USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and an SDXC slot for even more storage options. While the beefy graphics-card options might seem like they would be relegated to the concerns of pro video guys, keep in mind that your 60-track mix is going to be sporting a lot of moving meters that you do not want to see lagging, or otherwise causing a drain on your CPU.

With the ability to equip your iMac with up to 32GB of RAM, in addition to the proprietary Fusion Drive or pure flash hard drive storage, you can further create a reasonably “future-proofed” machine. Both your RAM and hard-drive options line up to support up to quad-core processing, each playing its part to create a stable environment to run your complex multi-track recording and mixing sessions swiftly.

Another benefit of the iMac for the project studio is its form factor. The subtle and slim design assure that your computer takes up literally the same amount of space as would a monitor by itself, and in many home and project studios, let’s face it, space if often at a premium. The design also functions to free-up desk space, allowing you to fit many smaller audio interfaces or some outboard gear directly underneath the iMac itself.

The Mac Pro

The Mac Pro, from its iterations as a colorful box, to the aluminum tower, and now, the sleek but impressively powerful black cylinder, all spoke to the same solution for the creative power user.

When you needed to call in the “big guns” that required more powerful processing and speed than your other options could provide, the Mac Pro was the way to go.

Its current black cylinder design was a bit of a shock when the line refreshed in 2013, in functionality, as well as looks. Gone were the PCIe slots of its predecessor in favor of 6 Thunderbolt 2 ports, which added not only a world of future connectivity to the machine, but provided backward compatibility to PCIe cards with the use of a Thunderbolt to PCIe chassis, an important consideration for use with Pro Tools HDX systems.

Another large departure from previous designs of the Mac Pro is the hard drive. Since the Thunderbolt ports give the ability to connect a number of fast and reliable external hard drives for writing to and reading session files, sample libraries, and backups, the Mac Pro comes equipped with an internal flash hard drive for fast program launching and operation.

Frankly stated, the processing power of the Xenon processor, even in its “basic” quad-core configuration, will handle even the most demanding, processor-intensive tasks for your recording and mixing needs, catering especially to post-production and film mixing tasks, which regularly deal with hundreds of tracks.