iMac ... money ... hurrmmm

September 16, 2011 12:02 PM

Talk me down from buying this iMac for my recording studio, please ...

So I'm building a recording studio at home. Hurray for me! But I've got my heart set on one of those big iMacs with the huge display as my primary editing machine, mainly because I had one years ago and loved using Garageband.

But ... $2000! I know I could get a Windows machine for half that that could do just about everything the iMac could. Probably could get away with Audacity so the software's free there, too.

But ... the iMac! It's so beautiful and easy to use. And Garageband is special, isn't it! There's nothing else like it on Windows! It's worth a thousand dollars, right?

Of course it isn't. I think.

Help me ... what should I buy?
posted by jbickers (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

My opinion is that Macs are way better than Windows for audio work. There are some actual technical reasons for this (better low-latency I/O subsystem) and some social reasons for this (better software/hardware ecosystem). You can find plenty of anecdotes on the web supporting either the view that Macs are essential for audio or that Macs are overpriced and that Windows is perfectly adequate. There's quite a collection of them in this reddit thread.

I think you could save a lot of dough if, instead of the iMac, you bought a Mac Mini and a large non-Apple external display. The iMac has a super awesome display that's also super expensive. You could get an equally large but not as awesome display for less from another vendor.
posted by chrchr at 4:38 PM on September 16, 2011

You certainly don't need a Mac for audio work but in my experience you will spend a lot less time fucking about trying to get everything working optimally (especially in terms of latency and mysterious sound problems) with a Mac. The whole Core Audio / Core Midi thing is beautifully executed and transparent.

Garageband is kind of cool but it's not really a serious DAW on the scale of Logic or Cubase or Protools. On the other hand, trying to use Audacity for multi tracking is going to be a nightmare. You should look at Reaper if you want something free (and cross-platform), although it currently dumps all the audio work into a single thread which means that it can't really take advantage of multiple cores to run tons of plugins/soft synths if that's your thing.

I've spent far too long trying to solve soundcard/hardware issues on PCs. On the Macs it's generally been a no-brainer. Sometimes you spend weeks trying to track down something on a PC only to discover that that sound card and that motherboard just don't like each other. This is particularly true when you start building your own systems.

You do have to watch out for a few things - some devices (e.g. my Tascam 1640 interface) have really shitty OS X drivers. This mostly applies to older equipment which is not class compliant -- nowadays most USB devices will not require drivers at all.

Logic is due for an upgrade any moment now and it will probably involve a massive price reduction and availability on the app store.

Mainstage, which is currently bundled with Logic but will probably become a separate ($50?) app, is a fantastic thing in its own right.

You pay a premium for the big-screen i7 iMacs -- you may indeed be better off with a Mac Mini or a lower spec iMac with a separate (second in the case of the iMac) monitor.

Also check out the refurb section of the apple online store which usually has some terrific deals.

Always buy the barest bones machine you can from Apple, and upgrade the drives/memory yourself if you feel comfortable. Also, never buy the fastest processor. The slower i5 or i7 will be way cheaper and the performance difference will be infinitesimal.
posted by unSane at 11:38 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here is the refurb section on the Apple store. But I'm liking the idea of this Mac Mini with a consumer monitor and a ton of cheap RAM.
posted by unSane at 11:48 PM on September 16, 2011

Audacity? thats not for proper recording?! its not even a DAW really. And Garageband on Apple is a bit of a toy really.

I've used Windows machines and Cubase almost for ever. I don't think it makes much difference these days. the iMacs look good though. but they are a bit limited on i/O options.
posted by mary8nne at 4:30 AM on September 17, 2011

For free DAWs there's also Ardour.

I've been having some fun with Harrison Mixbus too, which is built on top of Ardour, but costs money.

All DAWs have more or less steep learning curves (the more capable they are the steeper it is, usually) so it's worth choosing one you're going to stick with. Mixbus is unusual in that because they use a physical metaphor so pervasively, it's actually very easy to use if you've ever been in a real studio. However it also has the problem that all the audio processing is dumped onto a single thread, which means that you only use 1 core of a multiple core machine for all your plugins/VSTS whatever. The next release of Ardour is due to fix that but it will be a while before Mixbus is updated.

I would wait on getting a Mac until the next version of Logic (Logic X) is released, which I would expect before the end of the year, perhaps sooner.
posted by unSane at 7:10 AM on September 17, 2011

Bit of a warning about Ardour: It doesn't work on OS X Lion yet, because GTK (the user interface library it's built on) needs to be patched upstream for Lion. Until it gets patched, I've been playing with Reaper. I think I may buy Reaper, though, because it has several features Ardour lacks right now, primarily the MIDI piano roll. If only I could make the Jack Send AU work, I'd be in <3 with it.
posted by Alterscape at 12:38 PM on September 17, 2011

For what it's worth, Ardour works much, much better on its native system – Fedora Linux. If you're comfortable with linux, it's not to hard to install a Fedora partition and just build everything you need from scratch; I did that, and my system works perfectly. However, if you're not on Linux, I don't know if I can recommend Ardour.
posted by koeselitz at 10:23 AM on September 19, 2011

Also, mary8nne is correct. No one in their right mind should ever do recording in Audacity. It's a bare-bones recording utility that completely lacks the quality of actual DAWs. I'm just a rough amateur, but it wasn't very long before I quit using Audacity in disgust, the sound is so bad.

No, GarageBand is not worth $1000. It's not worth half that. It's neat, but it's maybe one step up from Audacity in quality.

I still use it for quick mixing here and there, for example when I'm making mixtape type things, but it's really not good for audio production.

If you want my recommendation, here it is:

Macs are great. If you were building a world-class production studio to be rented out or something, maybe it'd be best to have a Mac for user-friendliness and for that extra oomph of good latency. It doesn't sound like you're doing that, though. This is what you should do:

Buy a solid $800 Windows machine and spend the rest on a good DAW (like Reaper, which is well-priced.) You'll have everything you need there, and you'll pay half as much. Heck, you'll probably be paying less; GarageBand isn't really a DAW, you should know, so you'll probably end up spending money on a DAW even after you get the iMac and GarageBand. (And DAWs are often not cheap.)
posted by koeselitz at 10:30 AM on September 19, 2011

Consider a comment I made on the Macbook Air Thread here.

For $2000 US you can get a perfectly decent Windows computer with a good monitor (though probably not as pretty as the 27-inch iMac monitor) AND enough hardware and software to get a full (if basic) studio going. If you'd like me to spec out the best setup for $2k, let me know.

I'm happy to help people out in recording (I've done some consulting locally for people to help with their home studios in addition to producing/mixing/mastering groups and recording and releasing my own stuff), and firmly believe that you can do everything you need for an album for 2k excluding tax (if you go the Windows route).

I advocate Mac rather than Windows for the following types of studio users:

1) Someone who needs it to "just work" the first time and is willing to pay a premium for that convenience (but don't be so sure of it "just working" when you're adding things like audio interfaces, etc).
2) Someone who is already invested in the OSX ecosystem.

If you want the most bang for the buck, I do not recommend using a Mac.
posted by chimaera at 5:12 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Logic Studio is $500 and has TONS of samples and instruments.

Add an interface for $200, a microphone for $100 and a keyboard for $150, leaves $1050 to buy a Mac Mini and Monitor.

So the studio for $2000 is perfectly doable in the Mac ecosystem too.
posted by unSane at 5:37 PM on September 19, 2011

(and if you decide to work with Garageband until you are ready for a full DAW, a lot less)
posted by unSane at 5:39 PM on September 19, 2011

Definitely doable, but I think the Mac mini is a bit underpowered for the price (equivalent price for a mac mini will probably get you a core i7 windows box rather than the mini's i5 and 8GB rather than 4GB RAM)

Ultimately, it'll come down to whether you prefer Mac or Windows.
posted by chimaera at 6:05 PM on September 19, 2011

Right, and the trade-off for the difference in processors is (maybe) a more efficient audio subsystem.

Like most hotly contested issues it's probably more or less a wash. The main thing is (I think) to buy something you feel good about and want to use. I've never regretted buying expensive music gear but have often regretted buying cheap music gear (on the other hand I've often had fantastic results from cheap music gear, so there's that).
posted by unSane at 6:16 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Buy a Mac Mini and reuse your existing monitor. I'm doing this with a previous-generation mini running ProTools 8 M-Powered, and it works flawlessly.
posted by davejay at 3:31 PM on September 21, 2011

and takes up very little space, and is very quiet
posted by davejay at 3:31 PM on September 21, 2011

Reading through this thread I'm feeling a slight sense of epiphany - it's about time I got over my mild technophobia about recording software and working on laptops. I'm probably missing out on a lot of good things and actually not doing my music much good through wilful ignorance. Time for Dundee to engage with the 21st century. So.........I need a bit of a steer guys. Where's a good place for a total IT ignoramus to start? Are there any "idiot proof" tutorials? Something that's not too scary and likely to put someone off who very easily gets frustrated with little fiddly little virtual buttons, multiple stacked menus etc etc.
posted by MajorDundee at 1:34 AM on September 22, 2011

That's a great question, Major. I can still remember my headaches trying to figure out Cubase when I first encountered it. DAWs have a stupidly steep learning curve, although it's definitely mellowed out a bit.

In terms of ease of use, Garageband is definitely where it's at. It has a LOT of limitations, but they may be quite useful ones in some ways -- by the time you are bumping up against them you are probably over the steepest part of the curve. Your recording methods seem to involve only minimal use of FX, so GB may actually work very well for you.

The other one I would look at is Harrison Mixbus which is not free but pretty cheap. You might like it because the whole metaphor is based around the physical design of a Harrison console, so each track has a very familiar looking channel strip with EQ and compression, plus it sounds absolutely GREAT because of some very well done tape-style compression/saturation built in to the audio engine.

Cubase always seemed a bit more user friendly to me than Logic but I've ended up a long-term Logic fan, partly because of the free sounds, FX and virtual instruments you get with it. Logic is about to get an upgrade to Logic X and I suspect that will mean a drastic price drop from $500 to $299 or $250, plus a huge interface overhaul which I imagine will make it a lot easier to use... but of course it's Mac only.

My feeling is that Reaper and Ardour are a bit less easy to use than the big commercial warhorses but there's probably not that much in it.

I don't have much of an opinion about ProTools -- it's the industry standard but you hear a lot of frustration from users about ease of use. Someone else can comment much better than me.

You do *not* need a powerful machine to run a DAW these days. If you just want 16 tracks of audio and a midi drum/keyboard track, you can run one on almost anything, probably including the computer you have now.

The other thing you will want is a good midi/audio interface. There are tons of good ones out there and you shouldn't have to spend too much unless you want to record a lot of tracks simultaneously (e.g. recording a full band, or a drum kit).
posted by unSane at 4:36 AM on September 22, 2011

Thanks for all the input, folks. I think I should clarify the scope and ambition of this studio. I'm not gonna be mastering the new Porcupine Tree record in it ... this is mainly a tool for tinkering around and having fun, and also teaching my kids some basic editing and production skills (heads/tails, crossfades, basic concepts like that). We'll be doing voice/documentary stuff as much as music. The radio station where I work uses some truly archaic software for editing (like, a 20-year-old copy of SAW), and it works fine, so by that standard, Garageband is cutting-edge.

So I'm looking for that sweet spot of:

* Fun
* Easy to use
* Covers the basics of production/mixing/etc.
* Under $2000

I'm leaning toward the Mac because of the points raised about its inherent superiority re: latency and things like that. Now am torn between that sweet, sweet sexy iMac and the mini/monitor suggestion.
posted by jbickers at 6:12 AM on September 22, 2011

jbickers, the biggest limitation of Garageband for you is probably going to be the inability to use third party effects and instruments. The ones that ship with Garageband are OK for what they are but you grow out of them pretty quickly (e.g. the acoustic drum samples and acoustic piano samples are really not that great, although they may be OK in a mix).

Overall I find the canned GB stuff (jam packs etc) a bit cheesy although some of it is very good. It's a walled garden, is the problem.

If you start on GB then your upgrade path is likely to be through Logic, which will be able to import your legacy Garageband work and will obviously work with anything. Currently you can get the cut down Logic Express but I would expect that to disappear with the next release of Logic, and the price of the full version to drop accordingly.

One thing to consider is using a laptop instead of an iMac/Mac Mini. It costs more but there is something really nice about being able to take your stuff outside and record on the porch, or in the garage, or wherever.
posted by unSane at 9:11 AM on September 22, 2011

Thanks for the advice unS (and apologies to jbickers for hijacking the thread). I think I might start in a kind of halfway house way. If I record on my current DAW and then try to export the tracks to mix in Garageband that'll be a relatively "safe" way of learning the software with the safety net of not losing the original stems. Once I get the hang of it I can then move to a complete session on the laptop.
posted by MajorDundee at 11:27 AM on September 22, 2011

Yeah, don't be afraid of Garageband. Just get stuck in and record something.

Next month's challenge is likely to be 'a song you recorded before putting your pants on', so that would be perfect.
posted by unSane at 12:17 PM on September 22, 2011

the biggest limitation of Garageband for you is probably going to be the inability to use third party effects and instruments

Buh? As far as I know, this isn't the case. You should be able to use any AU instrument or effect in Garageband. (Although the last version I used only had one or two slots for effects; I don't know how the latest version behaves.)
posted by uncleozzy at 12:37 PM on September 22, 2011

Yeah, the last time I had a mac (which, admittedly, was years ago - it was the pixar-lamp-style iMac) I bought some third-party samples and loops for Garageband, which worked fine. Is that a feature that's been removed?
posted by jbickers at 12:53 PM on September 22, 2011

Yeah, sorry, that was a total brain fart on my part. I just checked and you can use third party AU instruments and FX in Garageband just fine.

I think what I like least about GB is the lack of a a real mixer and the slightly unintuitive way you apply FX to a track or the master channel. A lot of the other stuff is quite nice - multiple takes etc.
posted by unSane at 3:05 PM on September 22, 2011

in my experience anyway, the only quick way to learn it is to sit down for half a day with someone who is really good at it and have them walk you through all the stuff you need to know. It's really easy that way, though.

That's pretty much what I'd be looking for. Probably a business opportunity for someone there - a kind of peripatetic pro-tools pedagogue (I do love a bit of crappy alliteration). I'd bet if that was added to a portfolio of skills/services maybe including instrument tuition, mixing etc it'd be a nice little earner over time. If there was someone local to me (Bristol, England) it'd definitely be something I'd check out. Probably bypass Garageband and cut straight to the Pro-Tool chase. Just how much hassle would that save.....
posted by MajorDundee at 2:25 AM on September 23, 2011

Apple do pro training courses but I think they are three days and probably $$$. There's a Logic 101 and Logic 102 version.
posted by unSane at 11:34 AM on September 23, 2011

So you got me thinking about the laptop ... will the $1199 macbook pro work for this? Too slow? Too small a screen?
posted by jbickers at 1:06 PM on September 23, 2011

You can always hook an external monitor to the laptop for extra goodness.
posted by unSane at 4:30 PM on September 23, 2011

Funnily enough I ended up using my laptop with Garageband to record something today... my pump organ won't go up the stairs to my studio so I had to do it in situ. Just a laptop, an interface and a couple of mics -- worked very well. I do have Logic on the laptop (a really old Core 2 Duo MB Pro) but it's often easier to fire up GB and import it afterwards on the big machine.
posted by unSane at 7:20 PM on September 24, 2011

unSane, a dumb question about the external monitor - can you use an LCD TV for that purpose? Because I could get a stupidly large 1080p for hundreds less than a smaller monitor ... but I'm guessing the resolution isn't sufficient to go that route? Or could it work?
posted by jbickers at 5:47 AM on September 26, 2011

I dunno where you are shopping, jbickers, but the monitor should be cheaper than the TV. A decent 20" monitor can be had for $150, a decent 27" HD Monitor for under $300. With a TV you are also paying for a tuner and so on.

Monitors are designed to be used at much closer distances than TVs, so the dot pitch is generally tighter. If you want to use a big TV it's going to need to be further away from you so it ends up looking the same effective size, the same way you stand back from a big photo or put a small one up to your nose.
posted by unSane at 6:00 AM on September 26, 2011

Computers these days are really insanely Powerful!

Any new computer can probably be used as a basic DAW. I"m currently using a 5 year old Windows Laptop that was mid-level when I bought it and I almost never run into CPU Problems. I think it only has 4Gb or RAM too.

I'll run 20-30 Audio Tracks with Compressors on half of them, 3-4 Send reverbs, EQ on most tracks, some miscellaneous delays, and fx, a few Grouped Sub mix buses and a virtual instrument or two and its kicks along fine.

That Macbook Pro could run a fully fledged indie studio I reckon. Buy a cheap large external Monitor and an External Audio Interface with a Mic Preamp built in and you are ready to go.
posted by mary8nne at 8:32 AM on September 28, 2011

I'm doing similar to to mary anne on a macbook air, and it's only using about 35% cpu while rendering the track. You don't really need that much computer to produce music these days.
posted by empath at 5:40 AM on September 30, 2011

So what did you get and how did it work out?
posted by unSane at 7:56 PM on October 20, 2011

unSane: "You should look at Reaper if you want something free (and cross-platform), although it currently dumps all the audio work into a single thread which means that it can't really take advantage of multiple cores to run tons of plugins/soft synths if that's your thing."

Just wanted to point out that this isn't precisely true any more, Reaper will distribute processing for each individual track across cores. If you have a single track with 20 effects you're still SOL though.

FWIW, I run Reaper with a Focusrite firewire interface on both OSX and windows 7 x64, and the difference in experience has been negligible for me so far. It mostly comes down to what you're comfortable with and whether your particular set of audio software and hardware is well supported on the OS.
posted by vanar sena at 1:38 PM on November 3, 2011

Thanks for that: that's cool. I've been kinda sorta thinking about transitioning away from Logic and that was one of the things that had been giving me pause.
posted by unSane at 3:22 PM on November 3, 2011

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