How to get started making music on a Mac
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If you want to start making music, a Mac is a good choice. However, depending on the kind of music you want to make, it’s not the only thing you’ll need.
Whether you’re a beginner musician or a veteran player who simply wants to delve into music production, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. After all, you can’t exactly just plug a guitar cable into the USB-C port on your MacBook Pro.
There are various pieces of gear that different musicians will need for different purposes. Here’s what you’ll need to start at the absolute beginner phase.
If you currently own a Mac, just use that — it’s very likely to have at least one of the necessary things you need to start making music. There’s also no reason to rush out and purchase a brand new Mac at first.
Start where you are and use what you have. If you’re studying music or music production in college, or you’re dead serious about pursuing music in general, you can upgrade later.
Most Apple Silicon or Intel-based Mac devices will be able to handle the audio you’ll need. Faster chips will result in a smoother and speedier workflow, but that’s a luxury and not a necessity.
With that being said, if you have the option of buying a new Mac, aim for something with at least 16GB of RAM. Any M1- or M2-equipped Mac will do, as will recent Intel-based Macs purchased secondhand.
Apple Silicon’s power is a big boon, but we like the 2018 Intel Mac mini (on sale for $499) for this, given the ease of RAM expandability.
When it comes to storage, music files don’t take up as much space as videos. On the other hand, if you plan on making a lot of songs with a lot of tracks, files can add up. You can always add storage via external SSDs, but it’s still a good idea to buy the most amount of storage you can afford without going over budget.
A desktop Mac will be a good option for home studios, but a MacBook will be more convenient for taking to jam sessions or recording on the go.
If you do choose a portable, try to get one with active cooling — so a MacBook Pro, not a MacBook Air. While the fan can be noisy in some environments, Logic Pro X can be a demanding app that can trigger thermal throttling in some workflows. This is especially true for projects with lots of tracks, effects, and plugins.
A digital audio workstation (DAW)
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is simply the software you use to create music. If you own a Mac, it probably already has a DAW installed — GarageBand.
If you’re just starting out recording or making music, we’d recommend sticking with the free GarageBand until you get a good handle on it. Most DAWs have a learning curve and you probably won’t be able to use all of the features for a while.
Once your skills improve to a basic level, you can upgrade to a paid DAW. Logic Pro X is a good option, since many of the skills you learned on GarageBand will directly translate.
Logic Pro X isn’t exactly an industry standard for music production, but many professional musicians use Logic Pro X. Others may opt for DAWs like Avid Pro Tools, FL Studio, Cubase, or Ableton.
Each has their own pros and cons and some excel at certain audio production techniques or genres of music.
Once you have a DAW, you can technically start making music — you don’t even need anything else.
On GarageBand and Logic, for example, there are many built-in loops, plugins, and sounds that you can layer to create songs. Both GarageBand and Logic also have “virtual drummers” that can lay down a realistic-sounding drum track on your project.
You can also use Musical Typing to control a virtual onscreen keyboard and record that way.
Eventually, or perhaps right away, you’ll need more.
A microphone & headphones
If you want to make music with vocals, you’ll need a good microphone. The built-in mic on your Mac is enough for Zoom calls, but you’ll probably be disappointed at its sound quality for singing or live instruments.
There are two general categories of microphones: condenser and dynamic mics. For recording vocals and acoustic instruments, you’ll want to go with a condenser microphone. They’re generally clearer and warmer, and are better at picking up delicate sounds and higher frequencies.
A good beginner option is the Audio-Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser, which retails for $99 on Amazon. It’s a favorite of home-recording musicians. (Note that you’ll need an audio interface to connect it to your Mac, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
You may also want to consider a budget-friendly bundle like the Focusrite Scarlett setup. In addition to a Focusrite condenser microphone, it comes with an audio interface and headphones. Just don’t forget the microphone stand.
Speaking of headphones, you’ll need those, too. When you’re recording vocals or an instrument with a mic, you’ll need headphones to isolate the sound coming from your Mac so it doesn’t “bleed” into the mic (and create feedback).
Don’t use Bluetooth or wireless headphones — there can be an injected delay or latency. Instead, choose a pair of wired headphones. Good options include studio monitors like the Audio-Technica ATH-M30 or the Sony MDR7506. Both are around $80.
If you plan on recording guitar or bass amplifiers, pianos, or other loud instruments, choose a dynamic Mic. The Shure SM58 and SM57 are industry standards, and run about $100.
Recording live drums is a different story altogether. You’ll generally use a combination of multiple condenser and dynamic mics to individually mic specific parts of the drum kit. Definitely a more advanced ordeal.
No matter what you’re recording, you’ll need a relatively quiet room.
For most indie recordings, your room doesn’t need to be acoustically “dead,” but a small closet with blankets hanging around them will ensure you get a clean recording with little echo. You can also invest in foam pads to deaden your room.
If you’re recording a guitar or bass amplifier, a quick hack is to throw a heavy blanket over the microphone and amp.
Audio interfaces and MIDI
There are two other pieces of gear that are critical for making certain types of music. As mentioned earlier, you’ll need an audio interface to connect a condenser microphone to your Mac.
With an audio interface and a microphone, you’ll be able to record most types of vocals and acoustic live instruments, such as acoustic guitars, violins, and wind instruments. Guitar amplifiers can be recorded with a dynamic mic and an audio interface.
If you just want to record guitar or bass — and take advantage of the virtual amplifiers in Logic and other DAWs — you can opt for an Apogee Jam. It’s a $179 portable interface that you can connect a guitar cable into.
While you can record pianos or keyboards with a microphone, another option would be to opt for a MIDI controller.
MIDI is a standard that allows you to control virtual instruments or other musical elements in your DAW. Unlike an actual recording of sound, you can play and edit MIDI “notes” to your heart’s content. For example, you can change the pitch, length, and timbre of a MIDI sequence.
Those MIDI sequences can be used to control virtual instruments in your DAW. If you play a chord on a MIDI controller, you can apply pretty much any instrument sound to it. In Logic, there’s a wide array of virtual instruments from keyboards and synthesizers to drums, violins, and more.
MIDI controllers generally come in keyboard form. Most modern keyboards, digital pianos, or synthesizers have MIDI built-in, so you might just be able to plug that in to your Mac with a MIDI to USB-C cable.
Use what you have first, upgrade later
Buying musical production equipment can be overwhelming and expensive, even at the beginner stage. That’s why it’s important to stick to the rule of using what you have first, and upgrading later.
If you’re interested in music production or recording your own music but have no idea where to start, just open up GarageBand and play around with it. Do this before buying any equipment.
Having relied on my bandmate’s studio for most of my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t have any musical recording equipment.
When the band broke up, I started recording music using GarageBand on an iPad. From there, I slowly upgraded my setup and added new gear.
I currently use a Focusrite audio interface and the Scarlett microphone for vocals and an Apogee Jam for guitar and bass. I don’t have a dedicated MIDI controller, so I just use my Casio PX-S1000 digital piano and a MicroKorg.
I’m primarily a musician, not a producer, so the barebones setup suits me just fine. I’m not making the latest pop hits, but the setup is more than enough to track ideas and make songs that sound surprisingly polished. The point is to use what you have to start, and upgrade later.
All you really need is a Mac, GarageBand, and an audio interface and microphone bundle to start making acoustic guitar-based music. If you want to make instrumental electronic music, you don’t even need an audio interface — just get a MIDI keyboard instead.
And don’t forget that making music is supposed to be fun, and not stressful.