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Which is Best: Mac or PC for a Music Computer
Straight Talk from Tweak
Go to any computer gear-head forum, including studio-central, and simply ask this troubling question. Suddenly the air changes around you. For a moment, you sense a cold scrutiny from everyone around you, the same kind of vibe the significant other gave you last year when you forgot valentines day (again!). Senior members, moderators, and administrators rush out of the dugout to say "You didn't really mean to ask that question, right?" "We're not going there, Sorry!" But its usually too late. You already stuck your finger directly in the crusty wounds left by a two decades long platform war.
Experienced forum users know that nothing starts a major brawl as quickly as a PC vs. Mac debate. Its kind of like being in my least favored neighborhood tavern on the south side of Chicago. As soon as some idiot shouts out, "I used a Mac for music AND IT SUCKED!" (substitute "PC" if you are already offended). It is as if someone just smashed a beer bottle on the bar! Mayhem ensues. Somebody fuels the jukebox with 30 plays of Elton John's Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting. The internet traffic on the forum dramatically rises and people around the world login just to watch the impending bloodbath. In this corner, we have the Mac wine-cooler sniffers, noses high in the air, holding up placards of Steve Jobs, the messiah of Macdom. In that corner, we have the Microsoft quarter-beer slammers, brandishing the banner of Bill Gates, with the evil subculture of code hacks already behind the scenes concocting a virus to slip into their own team's beer. You have the guys that would rather fight than switch, the ex-hippie peacemakers who try to break it up and make us love each other, the guys that don't care what side they are on as long as they get to kick some A... Why? Every person feels they have the intelligence to spew the magic utterance that can end the war for eternity. The next person retorts with an insult, and both end up on the floor, rolling in the spilt beer and broken glass. Mac or PC? If you are lucky, a few cogent arguments might make it through the din that actually makes sense.
Deciding which computer platform is more of a far reaching decision than which mixer, mic, monitor or who you want to go drinking with. I am taking you here because you guys that are new really need to know the issues and I am equipped to answer it in a somewhat balanced way. I have and use both. I'll tell you straight off, this is another one of those areas where there is no "best", no definitive answer. It is different for everyone. A computer is just a tool, not a religion. Use what you like. Everyone can have their own opinion. For what it is worth to you, here is mine.
But rather than just tell you what the strengths are of each platform, which would be dreadfully boring and incomplete, I'm going to tell you where the major irritations are on both, and both platforms have their share. This may help reveal where "the bottom line" is for you on this decision. Rather than focus on what is best, you might consider what is going to bug the heck out of you once you get it. Here's the stuff you realize after you invest in a platform, often after its too late.
Learn about the irritations of each platform before you commit.
Though Macs are getting cheaper for the more basic machines like the Mac Mini, Macbook and iMac, a full-fledged powerful desktop Mac is going to cost more than a PC of equivalent power. Expect to pay $2500-$3000 for the better Mac Pros without any add-ons like extra drives and memory that you will want if you are serious about making full-scale productions. So add another grand. Macs have always been more expensive. Adding to this cost is a hefty future cost of ownership: There is no way to substantially upgrade your Mac, other than adding memory, drives, and peripherals. You won't find motherboards, new CPUs, power supplies, cases and other parts you can snap together to give you a new Mac out of your old one.
That makes the Mac a disposable machine. You can't buy a "bare-boned" Mac without a mouse, keyboard, drives. When you want a faster processor, you buy a new machine. If you are lucky you can salvage the hard drives. Of course, you can keep your USB and Firewire drives. The memory might not go over too well. Cards that are PCI based could be trouble. The Mac Pro, for example, has dropped PCI support in favor of PCIe. Apple switches gears a lot. They got their users hooked on expensive SCSI drives, then dropped them. Developed monitors with special ADC connectors, then dropped those. Now PCI is going away, much the chagrin of those of us depending on PCI slots for our UAD-1 cards and SCSI connection to our older Emu and Akai samplers. Sigh. When you go Mac and want to stay Mac you are committing yourself following Apple through these often expensive changeovers. So you may have to pay in more than one way when you feel your computer has gotten old and slow.
PCs are cheaper, not only initially, but also in the long term because they are upgradeable. In fact, it is probably better to build your own from the very start rather than buy one off the shelf. Why? So you can control the quality of the components, and get the motherboard with the the slots and connections you need. You can still buy boards with legacy slots and connectors for old hardware, if you look. When the system gets old, you can usually get away with snapping in a new motherboard and CPU and perhaps new memory. You can sometimes get the equivalent of a whole new, much faster PC for around $400-700. At that cost you could upgrade your PC every two years and always have a fast machine. That has become an hobby in and of itself for many people, and its fun, but it does not help you make music, unfortunately.
Performance vs. Productivity
That Macs are faster than PCs is a myth. Lets forget about benchmarks and MIPS for a second and let me be subjective. To me, they feel slightly slower in terms of how fast you can work. Is this a big deal? Not really. The Mac makes up for it by providing a more conflict resistant system, so in the end, the Mac comes out being more productive. The time you save by not tweaking and troubleshooting things on the system gives you more time to work on your projects. Yes, PCs can be tweaked and tuned for high performance. You can overclock the CPU, speed up memory, optimize things all the way to hard disk cluster size. You can add bigger fans, hyped up video cards and tweak BIOS variables for a week if you want and sometimes get it to give up superb performance. Yet all of this tweaking detracts in a major way from making music. The ironic thing is by giving more performance you get less productivity. But I will say that a fast well tweaked PC is f a s t! And if you tweak your windows installation performance screams. That is a thing of beauty in itself when you are working hard and your PC is not only keeping up with you but kicking you in butt to work even faster. That is something the Macfolk are least apt to understand (And also why hardcore gamers are all on PCs).
PCs are harder to deal with? Consider. With so many different motherboards on the market and several different chipsets controlling things, conflicts are more likely to arise. Vendors of PC parts typically release products before they are finished and expect you to update them when you uncover the problems. Because of this market tendency, you have no choice other than to try to troubleshoot and fix these problems all by yourself when they occur. Is it a hardware issue? BIOS setting? A driver? The PCI slot in which you installed the soundcard? Or is it in the registry? A virus? Worm? Service Pack incompatibility? You may have to check out "everything" and boot and reboot 3, 10, or in the case of a nightmare issue, 50 times before you get it solved.
With the Mac you get it one way, the way it works, right out of the box. All motherboards come from Apple. The OS comes from Apple. Apple puts together all the machines after a lot of testing. There is far less of a chance of failure. If things do go bad its not so hard to find the culprit. Adding a peripheral or installing software to a Mac is rarely difficult. It is rather amazing how little one does to maintain the machine. That alone makes the Mac "worth it" for many people and it more than offsets any gains made by tweaking a BIOS.
Macs don't have the problems that PCs have with viruses and worms, at least not yet. Some people don't use any virus protection at all, something that is unthinkable on a PC that is connected to the internet. You don't have to subscribe to an internet security regime and wait for it to load every time you boot your computer. You don't have to worry as much about your neighbors prying into your financial information or browsing your system. I think most Mac users don't even think about those issues, sort of like the way computing was in the early 90's, but now with nothing slowing down your internet travels.
Notice we have not said a word about music yet. So lets go there now, but be forewarned, these are general statements that might not always apply.
Both platforms share many software titles though important ones are exclusive, that is, they only run on one platform. The PC has Sonar, Sound Forge, Fruity loops, Adobe Audition exclusively. The Macs have Logic, GarageBand, Digital Performer, Peak, Soundtrack Pro exclusively. Of course there are more. Both platforms can run Cubase SX, Nuendo, and Pro Tools LE. Thankfully, many (though not all) of the softsynths and samplers and plugins are cross platform. I've compared these enough in other parts of TweakHeadz Lab, so I don't need to do it again here.
But what we can talk about is the raw processing power and speed of operation. In my experience, a fast PC running Sonar or Cubase is outstandingly fast, cutting through audio operations with ease. A Mac G5 has a tremendous reserve of power under the hood for realtime plugin processing, though it may not be as fast with the screen redraws. Its hard to say anything more meaningful than that, speaking generally. Every PC is a different cluster of variables. The important thing on the PC platform is getting these variables right.
Many of the desktop Macs are ultra quiet in operation. A nice feature for doing music in the room with one. You can do things to quiet your PC, like adding quiet fans, power supplies and a better case if yours is deficient.
There are some technical differences in the way Macs and PC set up audio and MIDI devices. Clearly, the Mac provides better access to your MIDI and Audio systems in its Audio/MIDI Utility, compared to the Windows Control Panel "Sounds" directory. You can define more details on the Mac. However, this is not a feature you can't live without as in practice, on a Mac or a PC, one rarely goes there. There's also a difference in where plugins are stored. On a PC you can create a VSTPlugins folder anywhere you want, whereas on a Mac, they will reside in either your system's or user library under Audio.
Since Tiger (OSX 10.4) came out on the Mac you can now run multiple audio interfaces. Before this upgrade Windows had a clear advantage.
Macs do not "sound better". Nor do PCs. That is another myth. The computer never touches the sound anyway, your audio interface's converters do. Get a RME Fireface for either platform and you have the same, great sound. The math that the CPU uses to execute audio transformations is a function of the application, not the CPU. The plugins and software instruments that affect the sound have nothing to do with platform. Since both machines can use the same hard drives, you won't find a smoking gun in storage either. Some people claim they can hear the difference between summing algorithms in their mixing applications. But again, its not that its Mac or PC making the difference, its the ways numbers are crunched.
You can evaluate software packages in terms of sound. Today recording software comes with (or lets you add on) sound generators--soft synths, samplers, effects. These "plugins" are not created equal. Apple again is changing the game here. It used to be you'd get a sequencer and it would have some tiny, crappy, half baked software instruments. Logic, before Apple took it over, worked like that. You had to buy all these add-ons. But then Apple decided to put them all in LogicPro and raised the price from around $600 to a cool grand. That shook things up. So the other sequencer makers start adding soft synths and upping the price. Then the surprise! Apple drops the price to $500. Logic Pro is easily the best deal going in sequencers. Am I biased. Oh you bet! One of the better reasons to go Mac is not the superior hardware, its that Apple owns LogicPro, or and the suite of applications in Logic Studio.
Back in the mid 90's, Macs were dominant in
computer assisted recording studios that actually made money. If you did not have one, you were not
going to get as much work. That changed dramatically as we rounded the
bend into year 2000. Today it is hard to say which is more popular. Your choice as a professional should be influenced by your clients, that is, by
your customer base. Today people will be bringing you projects they
started at home on their home computers, and if you want the job, you need to be
able to cater to them. You might get a Sonar Project or one made in
Digital performer. Of course if you have ongoing contracts with clients
that are all Mac based, or with a Pro Tools studio, you might get a clue of what they might
insist that you have. If you are exclusively Mac based, you'll be scratched off the list by
producers that are working on tracks with Fruity Loops or developing a new video
game on the PC.
Networking a PC and Mac--Do it all!
I really believe a professional has to have both a Mac and PC and needs to be fluent on both, so this issue never comes to the table in the mind of your client. Even if you port all the work over to your favorite platform, just having the other platform there may give you a better chance of getting work. For me, the Apple platform is a much less aggravating experience for making music. I am much more productive and there seem to be fewer snags when I decide to make a song, and I worry less about security, crashing, compatibility when I want to add on to my system. But I have not given up on my PC, which I use for specific tasks on an everyday basis. You can network a Mac to a PC easily these days. Many audio and video formats work perfectly on both, such as .WAV and .AIF, .MP3, .MOV, .AVI, MP4. If you run a sequencer on your Mac you can use your PC as a host for virtual instruments; or use the PC for video and Mac for Audio when building a video project. One method i use is to use Logic on my Mac and use my PC for developing sounds in my hardware and software samplers.
The War is Over?
The birth if the Intel processors on the Mac platform is quite a significant event. By using the Nova Development's Parallels Desktop, one can now install the Windows OS on their Intel Mac and run Windows, even Windows 7, alongside Snow Leopard. I have done this on my Mac Pro and it works. Just saw you know, I am creating this page in Microsoft Expression Web 3, which ONLY works in Windows, inside Mac OS 10.6.2. In addition to running Cubase and Logic on the Mac side, I have all my Sony apps like Sound Forge, Vegas, Acid Pro working on the PC half in Windows 7 Home premium. This is the logical end of the platform war of operating systems. It is no longer a war of OSX vs. Windows, but Apple hardware vs. other hardware solutions. As it turns out, Windows is stable and powerful on the Mac. I no longer need my home network of multiple machines. My Mac has the clear advantage of being able to run Logic or Sonar, and ultimately, any application I want. The PC will only have it's limited choices. It will never run Logic, Final Cut Pro, Digital Performer or anything that is native on OSX. Do the math. The war is over and the Mac has won. The PC offers only one thing: it's cheaper and easier to upgrade. But it will never be "better".
Now that the Intel processors have been out for a while, most audio interfaces and software has caught up. However, older units and of course older Mac software can be a problem. For example, older versions of Cubase are not able to work outside Rosetta on the Intel Macs. You have to upgrade to Cubase 4. Many soft synths required updates too. Logic 7 and 8 are already in universal binary form (Mac Speak translation: will run on both Intel and older G5s and G4s, the Power PC based Macs). However, with OSX 10.6 (Snow Leopard), Apple is dropping the older non-Intel G4 and G5 processors. MOTU had their audio interfaces ready right when the Intel Macs were released, so they remain excellent solutions.
You know the old rule of thumb: Decide which software you want to use and get the platform that runs it best. Right. But there is more to it than that, as i have attempted to show you here. Both platforms have their advantages and disadvantages. It may boil down to budget, how productive you want to be, your clients, choice or sequencer, or a preference on your part. What? You want me to tell you what to do? I already told you: Get Both! Not good enough for you? OK, you have me at knifepoint in a Chicago alley, having dragged me out of the bar, I'll tell you "If you can afford a Mac with an Intel processor, do it", then in a nearly inaudible whisper, "They won"....
No, do not discuss this article at
studio-central's About Your PC/MAC DAW forums. Don't even think about it.
Go On to the Next Class, if you dare!
Is it Time to Go Mac Yet? (Blog)