Monday, 10 February 2014

Where is Apple Going?

Two new developments from Apple have lately caused the audio-community to question how dedicated Apple is to their pro-audio users. Here are some thoughts on Logic Pro X and the new Mac Pro. 

1. Logic Pro X

The new version of Logic Pro can only be bought through Apple’s own App Store and the user interface has been simplified. The changes to the interface has left many Logic Pro users wondering if they were to end up with a pro-version of Garage Band. One of the main concerns have been whether Apple were to remove pro-functions that are not used by the average consumer. Judging from Sound on Sound’s reviewof the new software it seems like most functions have been maintained, but some have been moved around within the interface. This may even improve the workflow when you get accustomed to it, but for pro-users it also means that they might have to sit down and re-learn a few things.

Once upon a time Logic was a MIDI-sequencer and ProTools was an audio-sequencer. Their cousin Cubase integrated both these functions to a complete audio- and MIDI-editing package. With time Logic and ProTools became the first choice of music producers, providing either a focus on audio or MIDI. Cubase always seemed to be more attractive in the semi-pro marked. Recently the tables have been turning. Steinberg (that makes Cubase and Nuendo) has seen a distinct increase in their sales over the last couple of years. When I talk to representatives from both Steinberg and AVID (ProTools), both can confirm that they are getting new pro-users from Logic’s old customer group. With the recent 64-bit ProTools 11 and the mildly astonishing 7th generation of Cubase we have better tools available than most could have dreamt of just a few years ago.

Where does this leave Logic? As an App Store download, with its attractive pricing and with its simplified work environment we all knew Apple was aiming more towards the average consumer and first time home studio owners. We also know that both ProTools and Cubase have gained a number of pro-users lately, many of which would have jumped ships from Logic. But the scene is maybe not as gloomy as first feared. Do you need to mix on the run while you travel? Do you record with your artists in their living rooms, maybe even in different cities? Then the prospect of a MacBook Air with no iLok or eLicenser (in crumbly plastic) with endless updates you have to have to run Cubase may seem very attractive. Also, if you produce music and need a fast workflow but rarely any deep processing the new Logic could be the way to go. This could for instance be the case for anyone programming and producing, but not mixing their own material. Another group that would enjoy the reduced prices and easy download is the education sector. Both Steinberg and AVID are big on education and they both offer upgrade/cross-grade programmes, something Apple has dropped for Logic Pro X since the software is already quite affordable.

Mark Wherry in Sound on Sound wrote these words in his summary of Logic Pro X:

“Logic Pro X introduces a new interface and a large number of powerful, inventive and musical features, but not all existing users will feel their needs have been met with this release”
I think that sums up both the pros and the cons very well.

2. Mac Pro

Steve Jobs passes away and Darth Vader takes over?
Welcome to the new Death Star.

If you have mixed on a laptop or an overloaded desktop for more than five minutes it would be easy to agree with Apple that thinking new about computer cooling is a good idea. However, getting rid of the whole cabinet of arguably the most professional machine for the creative industries over night is a less good idea. Let’s picture this: you own a studio with AVID converters, PCIe expansion cards and a stack of inbuilt hard-drives (system disc, synths, audio, video etc.) but your computer needs replacing, what do you do? Indeed, there are new systems on sale to connect your PCI/ PCIe equipment to the Thunderbolt standard (Ex. Sonnet and Magma), but that means you were just forced to buy more equipment. If you don’t put all the new gadgets in racks your workspace will be less tidy, and who said that discs in an external cabinet or on the desktop is less noisy than internally mounted ones?

Another question is: in a world of over-heated Macs working on maximum power under huge post-productions for film or gigantic multi-channel mixes (really, how many of us have not been working with one eye on the DAW and the other on the CPU meter?); is it actually going to work? Is the new design going to cool down the CPU sufficiently? Maybe it is, but it would be nice to hear it from the audio industry first and not just from Apple.

To provide a little more perspective, this is a part of a larger trend that isn’t all that bad after all. Thunderbolt, USB 3.0 and the Dante Ethernet standard are together going to provide new and really exciting opportunities for audio-professionals in the coming years. When I see the new Universal Audio interfaces and WD discs that can be attached via Thunderbolt I haven’t been as excited since the late/ mid 2000’s. Then we got a whole new generation of multi-channel interfaces (Digi 003, M-Audio ProFire, RME Fireface, FocusriteSaffire, etc.). This especially improved the work-environment for semi-professional studios. When we look at today’s developments (RedNet, UAApollo etc.) it is easy to see that the next revolution is also about to impact the high end pro-audio marked. There will be less need for PCI(e) equipment because of the sheer speed and capacity provided in a modern computer’s com-ports.

Does this justify Apple’s over-night discontinuing of the old MacPro? For users with high-end expansion card equipment the answer is no. The new direction Apple is taking is coming anyway, but new standards needs more time to get established. If not, Apple is dictating how we set up our workflow and are forcing us to buy a set of third party equipment that we really have no need for in the first place.

Again, I’ll let Mark Wherry in Sound on Sound sum it up:

“[Especially for users] in larger studios and post-production facilities, the second word in the Mac Pro’s product name will seem more Project than Professional.”

I need a Mac Pro upgrade, but what to buy now?

I’ll make four suggestions for you:

1.     Get an old Mac Pro that’s a couple of years old and not very much used.
2.     PC’s are getting better than ever before. Especially if you know how to build your own computer and can run Linux or a similar OS with a minimum of clutter you might both get a solid solution and perhaps even save some money.
3.     Embrace the new technology and go for a new Mac Pro or an iMac.
4.     Wait or find an interim solution. There’s likely to be a well of new products on the marked over the next few years. By the time there is a second generation of the Mac Pro (initial bugs fixed, more knowledge about if the cooling works, upgrades etc.) there will also be a lot more interfaces, discs, hubs and other peripherals on the marked. They will let you tailor your workflow better, give you more quality to chose from and force the prices down.

Here is a really informative video from for those who want to see what the new Mac Pro looks like inside. If their conclusion holds it should be really easy to fix, which is a huge plus to its credit:


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