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How to get started playing music on Mac

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If you want to get started on music, Mac is a great option. However, depending on the type of music you want to make, this may not be the only thing you need.

Whether you are a beginner musician or an experienced player who simply wants to study music production, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. After all, you can’t exactly plug a guitar cable into a USB-C port on your MacBook Pro.

Different musicians have different gear for different purposes. Here’s what you need to get started in the complete beginner stage.

A Mac

If you currently have a Mac, use it – you are likely to have at least one that requires you to start playing music. There is no reason to rush into buying a brand new Mac first.

Start from where you are and use what you have. If you are studying music or music production in college or you are 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 need. Faster chips make for a smoother and faster workflow, but it’s not a luxury and necessary.

With that 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 buy the latest Intel-based Macs as a secondhand purchase.

The power of the Apple Silicon is a big boon, but we like the 2018 Intel Mac Mini (retails for $ 499) due to the ease of RAM expansion.

You can actually use any latest Mac for music production.

You can actually use any latest Mac for music production.

When it comes to storage, music files don’t take up as much space as videos. On the other hand, if you plan to play a lot of songs with lots of tracks, you can add files. You can always add storage through external SSDs, but it’s still a good idea to buy as much storage as you can afford without going to the budget.

The desktop Mac is a good choice for home studios, but the MacBook Jam is more convenient for recording sessions or on the go.

If you choose a portable, try getting one with active cooling – so the MacBook Pro, not the MacBook Air. Although fan noisy in some environments, Logic Pro X can be a demanding application that triggers thermal throttling in some workflows. This is especially true for projects with lots of tracks, effects and plugins.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is simply software that you use to create music. If you have a Mac, it’s already installed DAW – GarageBand.

If you’re just getting started recording or playing music, we recommend sticking with the free garageband until you get a better handle. Most DAWs have a learning curve and you may not be able to use all 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 choice because many of the skills you learned in GarageBand directly translate.

Logic Pro X is not exactly the industry standard for music production, but many professional musicians use Logic Pro X. Others may choose DAWs such as Avid Pro Tools, FL Studio, Cubase, or Ableton.

Logic Pro X is a great professional DAW to use to record many types of music, but it's not the only one.

Logic Pro X is a great professional DAW to use to record many types of music, but it’s not the only one.

Each has its own pros and cons and some are good at certain audio production techniques or genres of music.

Once you have a DAW, you can technically start making music – you don’t need anything else.

In GarageBand and Logic, for example, you can layer several built-in loops, plugins and sounds to create songs. Both GarageBand and Logic have “virtual drummers” that can put a real-sounding drum track into your project.

You can also use musical typing to control the virtual onscreen keyboard and record it that way.

Finally, or perhaps immediately, you will need more.

Microphones and headphones

If you want to make music with vocals, you need a good microphone. The built-in mic zoom on your Mac is sufficient for calls, but you’ll probably be disappointed by the sound quality of singing or live instruments.

There are two general categories of microphones: condenser and dynamic mic. For recording vocal and acoustic instruments, you want to go with a condenser microphone. They are usually clear and warm and are great at picking up subtle sounds and high frequencies.

A good beginner option is the Audio-Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser, which retails for $ 99 on Amazon. This is a favorite of home-recording musicians. (Note that you need an audio interface to connect it to your Mac, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)

Singer or acoustic player?  The mic and interface bundle are a great way to get started.

Singer or acoustic player? The mic and interface bundle are a great way to get started.

You may also want to consider a budget-friendly bundle such as the Focusrite Scarlet Setup. In addition to the Focusrite Condenser Microphone, it comes with an audio interface and headphones. Don’t forget the microphone stand.

Speaking of headphones, you need that too. When you record a vocal or instrument with the mic, you need headphones to separate the sound coming from your Mac so it doesn’t “bleed” into the mic (and create a response).

Do not use Bluetooth or wireless headphones – there may be an injection delay or latency. Instead, choose a pair of wired headphones. Good options include studio monitors such as Audio-Technica ATH-M30 or Sony MDR7506. Both are about $ 80.

If you plan to record guitars or bass amplifiers, pianos or other loud instruments, choose a dynamic mic. Shure SM58 and SM57 are industry standards and run around $ 100.

Recording live drums is a completely different story. You will usually use a combination of multiple condenser and dynamic mic to separate the parts of the drum kit separately. Definitely a more advanced ordeal.

No matter what you are recording, you will need a relatively quiet room.

For most indie recordings, your room doesn’t have to be “dead” acoustically, but a small closet with blankets around them ensures you get a clean recording with minimal echo. You can invest in foam pads to ruin your room.

If you are recording a guitar or bass amplifier, throwing a heavy blanket over the microphone and amp is a quick hack.

Audio Interfaces and MIDI

There are two other pieces of gear that are crucial to making some kind of music. As mentioned earlier, you need an audio interface to connect the condenser microphone to your Mac.

The audio interface is used to power certain microphones and connect them to your Mac.

The audio interface is used to power certain microphones and connect them to your Mac.

With an audio interface and microphone, you’ll be able to record a wide variety of vocal and acoustic live instruments such as acoustic guitars, violins and wind instruments. Guitar amplifiers can be recorded with a dynamic mic and audio interface.

If you want to record a guitar or bass – and take advantage of virtual amplifiers in Logic and other DAWs – you can choose Apogee Jam. It’s a $ 179 portable interface that you can connect to a guitar cable.

You can record pianos or keyboards with a microphone, another option is to choose a MIDI controller.

MIDI is the standard that allows you to control virtual instruments or other music elements in your DAW. Unlike the 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.

The MIDI controller is the most powerful tool in the music producer's belt.

The MIDI controller is the most powerful tool in the music producer’s belt.

You can use those MIDI sequences to control virtual tools in your DAW. If you play the chord in the MIDI controller, you can apply any instrument sound to it. Logic has a wide range of virtual instruments, from keyboards and synthesizers to drums, violins and more.

MIDI controllers usually come in the form of a keyboard. Most modern keyboards, digital pianos or synthesizers have MIDI built-in, so you may be able to plug it into your Mac with a USB-C cable from MIDI.

First use what you have, then upgrade

Buying music production equipment can be overwhelming and expensive, even at an early stage. That is why it is important to first use what you have and then stick to the rule of upgrading.

If you’re interested in making music or recording your own music but don’t know where to start, open GarageBand and play with it. Do this before buying any equipment.

In my early teens and early twenties, I relied on my bandmate’s studio and had no musical recorder.

When the band broke up, I started recording music using the garageband on the iPad. From there, I slowly updated my setup and added new gear.

I currently use the Focusrite audio interface and the Scarlet microphone for vocals and the Apogee Jam for guitars and bass. I don’t have a dedicated MIDI controller, so I use my Casio PX-S1000 digital piano and MicroKorg.

I’m primarily a musician, not a producer, so the barebones setup suits me very well. I’m not doing recent pop hits, but the setup is more than enough to track ideas and make amazingly polished songs. The important thing is to use what you need to get started and then upgrade.

All you really need is a Mac, GarageBand and Audio Interface and a 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 – get a MIDI keyboard instead.

And don’t forget that making music should be fun and not stressful.

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