You may have read our article about Apple’s development of a new, modular Mac Pro and been excited by the possibility of what it might actually look like when it arrives. Well, you’ll have to wait just a little longer as the company has stated categorically that it won’t be unveiled until some time in 2019. According to MacRumors, Apple has a team working with professionals full time to really get under the skin of what their workflows require. But what impact will this have on musicians and producers thinking about upgrading their Mac in their studio?
Why has Apple, notoriously tight-lipped about its plans, revealed this information? Essentially it’s because it recently released another high-end Mac, the iMac Pro - and is concerned that some users may be putting off buying one because they think the new Mac Pro might be just around the corner. Actually telling users this kind of stuff is really helpful, especially when those users are likely to be dropping many thousands of dollars on hardware that they rely on for professional work.
The unkindly-nicknamed “trashcan” Mac Pro (in real life they are strikingly beautiful) was surely powerful, but in terms of hardware flexibility, a world away from the old tower models where you could add more hard drives, PCI cards and other bespoke hardware. These are things that are crucial to a lot of professionals, especially music and video people who need maximum processing power as well as highly customised I/O. Thunderbolt is great and everything, but if you make it the only expansion option you’re going to alienate at least some large sections of your customer base.
So with the modular Mac Pro not due until next year, what are the options for Mac musicians and producers who want to upgrade to a super-powered machine rather sooner than that? Maybe your existing setup is wheezing, or you’re moving up from a MacBook Pro for more storage and power. Let’s look at the lie of the land. (Note: we’re looking here at viable alternatives to the Mac Pro, so while you might be quite happy with your MacBook, that’s not really what we’re discussing).
Concept design of the modular Mac Pro by Curved Labs.
The iMac Pro is a fearsome machine. With up to 18 cores, Turbo Boost to 4.3GHz, up to 128GB of RAM and up to 4TB SSD it’s the most advanced Mac you can currently buy. Even in the more modest configurations it’s an absolute beast. It’s physically the largest Mac too, and of course it incorporates a 5K screen, saving you having to add one yourself. As these figures show, in terms of power it’s going to be more than enough for most producers. https://ask.audio/articles/is-the-new-apple-imac-pro-the-best-mac-for-musicians-producers
The issue though is not just one of straight line speed. The reason many professionals didn’t take to the current Mac Pro is its lack of internal expandability. From experience I can testify that an internally-fitted component is very unlikely to experience the issues that sometimes arise when everything is connected via a cable. It has a bunch of USB3 and Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports and you can technically upgrade the RAM and hard drives, though this is very complex. The GPU is fixed, although as of very recently, Apple does now support external GPU hardware over Thunderbolt.
So the iMac Pro - possibly in one of the mid range configurations for reasons of affordability - is an excellent one-box machine for music. But it doesn’t address the expandability issue much more than the current Mac Pro does. If you want to fit specialised hardware, you’re out of luck.
I’m not going to spend long on this one because if you were minded to get one, you would have done so already. The current Mac Pros are almost 5 years old, have barely been upgraded in that time, and retain all the expandability limitations. They are older technology than the iMac Pros yet still seriously expensive. Anyone buying one now rather than taking one of our other options would need a very good reason to do so. In case you’re tempted, here’s a shootout between the two models. https://ask.audio/articles/apple-mac-pro-vs-imac-pro-realworld-test-using-logic-pro-x
We don’t know what the modular Mac Pro will look like and probably won’t until it’s unveiled. Unlike the iPhone where millions of units are manufactured, this will be a niche product and thus much easier for Apple to keep secret until it chooses to show it to us. They do seem to be taking it seriously though, so waiting might pay dividends in the long run. There are many ways to extend the life of your current machine - here are just a few. https://ask.audio/articles/8-ways-to-speed-up-your-computer-for-music-production. If you can spend a couple of hundred on an upgraded drive, more RAM or even just spring clean your system, you may well eke another year of life out of it.
OK, it’s true that people tend to be very loyal to their platform of choice, be it Windows or the Mac. So I’m not saying that you should or shouldn’t switch, just that it is one of the options. If you’re heavily invested in Mac-only software like Logic, then Windows isn’t going to be much of a goer. Most DAWs and plugins however are dual platform so you will be able to download Windows versions of your purchases.
PC hardware is the opposite of Mac world in the sense that it’s very common to customise, upgrade and even build your own system from scratch. This means that Windows systems are potentially as powerful as your budget allows, and you can also tinker endlessly with them. Top end hardware doesn’t come cheap so it’s not a budget option exactly, but it is more customisable. And yes, the Hackintosh is a thing, but only the most hardy tech enthusiasts really go down that route.
The flip side is that this approach does require more technical knowledge on the part of the user. Some may howl at this (tech people tend to assume a basic level of geekery on the part of the average musician that just isn’t there) but while you may be happy overclocking your CPU, there are many people that prefer a system they don’t have to understand on a complex technical level.
There’s a fairly small subset of musicians that genuinely don’t care what platform they use. In those cases, a custom built PC supplied by a music specialist can be a good way to go.
Not as crazy as it sounds with the growing popularity of modular synthesizers leading the resurgence of hardware in the studio. Many music producers are relying less on their software setups and incorporating analog and digital hardware music machines into their studio productions.
If you're serious about exploring how to make music using hardware only... our very own JAde Wii takes you through the process in this article and video: https://ask.audio/articles/how-to-make-music-without-a-computer-my-dawless-setup
Only joking! Unless you love the command line... ;)
So there you have it. While nobody seems yet to have any insider information on the modular Mac Pro, the unusually conciliatory approach Apple seems to be taking, along with the amount of time it’s spending to do it, suggest that this really might be something special. Apple basically never admits a mistake, but it did so over the current Mac Pro’s appeal to the people it was supposed to appeal to. So whether you plan to ride it out, upgrade your current machine or go for an iMac Pro, let us know!