How to Start 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 type of music you want to make, that’s not the only thing you’ll need.

Whether you’re a beginner musician or a seasoned player who just wants to dive into music production, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. After all, you can’t just plug a guitar cable into your MacBook Pro’s USB-C port.

There are different pieces of equipment that different musicians will need for different purposes. Here’s what you’ll need to start the absolute beginner phase.

A Mac

If you currently own a Mac, just use it – chances are it has at least one of the necessities you need to start making music. There’s also no reason to rush out and buy a brand new Mac in the first place.

Start where you are and use what you have. If you’re studying music or music production in college, or you’re very serious about 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 mean a smoother and faster workflow, but that’s a luxury, not a necessity.

That being said, if you have the option of buying a new Mac, aim for something with at least 16GB of RAM. Any Mac with an M1 or M2 will do, as will recent Intel Macs bought second-hand.

Apple Silicon power is a godsend, but we like the 2018 Intel Mac mini (on sale for $499) for this, given the ease of RAM expansion.

You really can use any recent 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 do a lot of songs with a lot of tracks, the files can add up. You can always add storage via external SSDs, but it’s always a good idea to buy as much storage as you can afford without breaking your budget.

A desktop Mac will be a good option for home studios, but a MacBook will be more practical for joining jam sessions or recording on the go.

If you choose a laptop, 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 application that can trigger thermal throttling in certain 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 have a Mac, it probably already has a DAW installed – GarageBand.

If you’re just getting started with recording or making music, we recommend sticking with the free GarageBand until you’ve got the hang of it. Most DAWs have a learning curve and you probably won’t be able to use all the features for a while.

Once your skills reach a basic level, you can upgrade to a paid DAW. Logic Pro X is a good option, as many skills learned on GarageBand will translate directly.

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 Professional ToolsFL Studio, Cubase or Ableton.

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

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

Each has its own pros and cons and some excel at certain audio production techniques or certain 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 plenty of built-in loops, plugins, and sounds that you can layer to create songs. GarageBand and Logic also have “virtual drummers” that can create a realistic-sounding drum track on your project.

You can also use musical typing to control a virtual on-screen keyboard and record that way.

Eventually, or maybe right away, you’ll need more.

A microphone and headphones

If you want to make music with vocals, you’ll need a good microphone. Your Mac’s built-in mic is good enough for Zoom calls, but you’ll probably be disappointed with its sound quality for vocals or live instruments.

There are two general categories of microphones: condenser microphones and dynamic microphones. To record vocals and acoustic instruments, opt for a condenser microphone. They are generally brighter 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 sells for $99 on Amazon. It is a favorite of musicians who record at home. (Note that you’ll need an audio interface to connect it to your Mac, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

Singer or acoustic player?  A mic and interface set is a great way to start.

Singer or acoustic player? A mic and interface set is a great way to start.

You can also consider an economy package like the Focusrite Scarlett Setup. Along with a Focusrite condenser microphone, it comes with an audio interface and headphones. Don’t forget the microphone stand.

Speaking of headphones, you’ll need those too. When 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).

Do not use Bluetooth or wireless headphones – there may be delay or latency injected. Choose a pair of wired headphones instead. Good options include studio monitors like the Audio-Technica ATH-M30 or the Sony MDR7506. Both cost around $80.

If you plan to record guitar or bass amplifiers, pianos, or other loud instruments, choose a dynamic mic. The Shure SM58 and SM57 are industry standard and cost around $100.

Recording live drums is a whole different story. You will typically use a combination of multiple condenser and dynamic mics to individually mic specific parts of the drum kit. Definitely a more advanced test.

No matter what you’re recording, you’ll need a relatively quiet room.

For most freelance 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 cushion your room.

If you’re recording a guitar or bass amplifier, a quick tip is to throw a heavy blanket over the microphone and amp.

Audio and MIDI interfaces

There are two other pieces of equipment that are essential for making certain types of music. As mentioned earlier, you will need an audio interface to connect a condenser microphone to your Mac.

An audio interface is used to power some microphones and connect them to your Mac.

An audio interface is used to power some microphones and connect them to your Mac.

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

If you just want to record guitar or bass – and take advantage of Logic’s virtual amplifiers and other DAWs – you can opt for an Apogee Jam. This is a portable interface at $179 to which you can connect a guitar cable.

Although 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 sound recording, you can play and edit MIDI “notes” as you wish. For example, you can change the pitch, length, and timbre of a MIDI sequence.

A MIDI controller is one of the most powerful tools in a music producer's belt.

A MIDI controller is one of the most powerful tools in a music producer’s belt.

These MIDI sequences can be used to control virtual instruments in your DAW. If you play a chord on a MIDI controller, you can apply just about any instrument sound to it. In Logic, there is a wide range of virtual instruments ranging 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 might be able to hook it up to your Mac with a MIDI to USB-C cable.

Use what you have first, upgrade later

Purchasing music 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 don’t know where to start, just open GarageBand and play around. Do this before purchasing hardware.

Having relied on my bandmate’s studio for most of my late teens and early twenties, I had no musical recording equipment.

When the band broke up, I started recording music with GarageBand on an iPad. From there, I slowly improved 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 MicroKorgComment.

I’m primarily a musician, not a producer, so the barebones setup suits me just fine. I don’t do the latest pop hits, but the setup is more than enough to follow ideas and create songs that sound surprisingly polished. The goal is to use what you have to start with and upgrade later.

All you really need is a Mac, GarageBand, an audio interface, and a microphone to start creating acoustic guitar music. If you want to make instrumental electronic music, you don’t even need an audio interface – just get a MIDI keyboard instead.

And remember, making music is supposed to be fun, not stressful.