Adventures In Audio

Why you should (or should not) upgrade to an Apple Mac Studio

by David Mellor
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I'm looking at current Mac owners here, but if you're a Windows user, or maybe even Linux, you are very welcome but please be aware that this is a Mac-focussed article.

I'll assume that you have checked the specification and you consider that the Mac Studio, in whatever version you can afford, is better than your current computer. Geekbench is a good place to go to see how you rank.

Reason #1 to upgrade - Video

You work in video production or editing. Or anything 3D.

There's really nothing else to say here. For video work, other than simple playback, you need the fastest computer you can afford. And bear in mind that someone else will always be able to afford a faster one, and they are your competition. The place to be is well up with the front-runners.

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But Reason #1 not to upgrade is that however slow your current computer is, there are always ways to work more efficiently. The guy with the faster computer will rest on his laurels and be lazy. You can, for example, find something useful to do while your computer renders. Productively useful, not just making a cup of coffee.

Audio

Now let's move into audio. What will your upgrade get you?

Well, what is it that's holding you back? It could be different for different people. Obviously, it's mainly your skills and anyone who isn't the most skilled in the business can benefit from improvement.

But sticking to the computer, then there are several things that don't really come in any kind of order. I'll just dive right in...

Reason #2 to upgrade - Latency

I always like to make the comparison that analogue audio has zero latency. That's what we should wish for in the digital world, even though it will probably never happen.

In digital audio, latency is everywhere. But where it impacts most is in the buffer size you have to run. If you're a digital audio workstation user and you don't know what 'buffer size' means, you seriously need to find out.

I'll give my own figures as an example. My computer may be old, but it has a fairly reasonable Geekbench score of 6215.

I mostly use Pro Tools but these concepts apply to all DAWs. My Pro Tools offers buffer sizes of 1024 samples down to 32 samples.

For playback, the buffer size can be as big as you like. But for recording, a smaller buffer means less latency, and less delay in the performer's headphones.

A smaller buffer is therefore good for recording, but the risk is that your computer won't be able to keep up.

If I set a buffer of 256 then my computer can keep up with mostly anything I need to do, but the latency when recording is audible and distracting.

64 is much better for latency, but my computer will sometimes shudder to a halt.

I can set 32, but it's almost a certainty that my computer can't cope.

So the zone for me is 64 or 128. 64 with a small risk of things stopping, 128 with slightly distracting latency.

As I said, a faster computer will allow a smaller buffer. Or a buffer of the same size with more reliability.

Reason #2 not to upgrade - There's no reason not to upgrade. Until computer audio achieves zero latency, less latency is always better.

Reason #3 to upgrade - More tracks

Think about it - all of the tracks you record have to go through your computer's processor. OK, processors in the plural if there's more than one, and multiple processor cores too. But it's still a bottleneck, and the wider that bottleneck the more tracks you can get through it.

Now for some people this is important. If you record orchestras, then although two tracks are theoretically enough for stereo, there's always a reason to use as many tracks as you have microphones. And there's always someone who will want to do that. So that person needs a faster computer to achieve more tracks.

In the world of sanity however, Reason #3 not to upgrade is that eight tracks were good enough for the Beatles. 24 tracks were good enough for Pink Floyd. 48 tracks were good enough for just about anyone in the mature age of tape-based recording, either analogue or digital. Honestly, 48 tracks are good enough for you. If your brain power is massive enough to handle more tracks mentally, and make good use of them, then go for it and get a computer that can handle as many tracks as you can. But for most of us, a reasonably modern computer can handle as many tracks as we need.

Reason #4 to upgrade - More plugins

Let me take the point of view that it's better to use more plugins than to use fewer plugins. My Pro Tools offers ten plug-in inserts per track. So that 48-track recording I was talking about earlier could have up to 480 plugins running. And that's without any aux tracks or the master track. And, using a little bit of bussing, I could have more.

No, I'm not going to test this, although I know that some people do.

I'm going to come back to brain power again. There comes a point that for most normal people there's simply too much going on to handle. As you build up the complexity of a session, you can't remember why you put a second compressor on the main harmony vocal. For instance.

But again, if you have a head for complexity, and you genuinely are improving things with each additional plugin you use, then use as many as you like, until your computer breaks.

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Computer broken? Then that's a good reason to upgrade.

But of course, there's Reason #4 not to upgrade. It's probably that you're using too many plugins without having a clear idea of what you're achieving, and being able to use more plugins would just lead to more temptation. Four, five or six plugins in the most important track of your session isn't at all unreasonable. But for the tracks of lesser importance, surely one EQ, one compressor, one other process or effect - most times that's as much you would need. And your existing computer can handle that just fine.

Reason #5 to upgrade - Better connectivity

So your computer still has USB-A ports. Hey that's great. USB-A might be over a quarter of a century old but it's still massively popular, massively convenient, perfectly useable for a range of tasks, and it isn't likely to go away anytime soon.

But if USB-A is all you have, then you're behind the times. USB-C and Thunderbolt ports are way faster and way better. And although they won't make communication with your keyboard or MIDI interface feel any different, they will significantly improve communication speed between your external drives, and with your audio interface. You will appreciate having less copying time between drives, and you will appreciate the lower latency a modern audio interface can give you.

Reason #5 not to upgrade is because you're stuck in the past and you like it there. USB-A will be around for some time to come so it's still nice to have. But believe me, better connectivity is always better.

By the way, I've been talking about USB ports rather than standards. There's Wikipedia for that if you want it.

Reason #6 to upgrade - Power consumption

You didn't expect this did you? Well I've been doing a few calculations with the benefit of my smart electricity meter (which can tell me how many watts I'm using), Apple's published specifications, and my trusty Casio four-function calculator.

I'm going to summarise and say that if I upgrade from my current Mac Pro to the new Mac Studio then over the next three years I'll save £800 on electricity. £800 UK pounds, which is around a thousand dollars! And I worked that out before the recent price increase.

Phew, that's reason enough in itself to upgrade.

OK, there we go. I hope I've given you enough reasons to consider the pros and cons for yourself, and justify your upgrade to your SO. You'll have to upgrade eventually, so maybe just do it now? Yes, do it now (not an affililate link, just for your convenience.)

Wednesday May 4, 2022

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David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

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