Apple Logic Pro X Reviewed

December 10, 2013
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It’s been four years since Apple released a major update to their flagship digital audio workstation, Logic Pro. During that time speculation among the professional music community has been running wild with hopes for a game-changer, not to mention fears that Apple might forget the faithful. As a longtime Logic user myself, I felt a mix of excitement and anxiety when Apple announced the latest incarnation of Logic, dubbed Pro X (ten), back in July. I’ve had time to live with Logic Pro X (LPX from here on) for a while now, and I have to say, quite happily, that this version offers more for keyboard players, sound designers, composers, and songwriters than any previous release to date.

PROS: Intuitive user interface. Best-in-class virtual drummer instrument. Updated vintage keys offer even more vibe. Track Stacks open the door for unprecedented sound design possibilities within a DAW environment. 

CONS: Smart Control moves aren’t recorded as part of a MIDI performance when mapped to MIDI hardware controls. Channelizing MIDI controllers within track stacks is not as straightforward as it should be.

Bottom Line: By far the most features for the least money in any DAW—as long as you’re on a Mac. Whether you’re a new or experienced Logic user, Logic Pro X will not disappoint.

$199.99 | apple.com/logic-pro


User Interface
 
The most apparent change in LPX is a majorly overhauled user interface that goes well beyond cosmetic tweaks. In my brief with Apple I was told that one of the goals with this version was to present a design that encourages “progressive discovery.” Part of what this means is that “advanced” features of the user interface can be hidden to simplify the experience for new users, making it easier for them to acclimate without getting overwhelmed by the details. As users become more experienced, they can dive deeper by enabling these hidden aspects of the interface. Sounds good in theory.

When I first launched LPX the software asked me if I was a new or experienced user. I chose “experienced,” which should have enabled the entire interface, advanced features included. However, LPX launched in the “newbie” mode, but this was a glitch. Foe example, with Advanced Tools turned off I found that I couldn’t enter tempi with a decimal place. When I tried entering a tempo of 126.4 bpm, the simplified transport interpreted the entry as 1,264 bpm! [UPDATE: As we saw that the Advanced Tools were hidden, we naturally inferred that new user mode was the cause of this. However, upon testing with a clean install on a new iMac at Keyboard central, we found that the new/experienced user dialogue only determines whether to point you to a "What's New" document and has no effect on whether Advanced Tools are shown or hidden. By default, they're shown, which is the correct behavior. --Ed.]

Once I enabled “Show Advanced Tools” from the Advanced Preferences options, however, I was in business. You can see a preview of what gets hidden with Advanced Tools turned off in Figure 1, below.

 
 
Fig. 1. Much of Logic’s feature set can be hidden to make things simpler for new users. Top: The new Navigate menu with Advanced Tools disabled. Bottom: The same menu with Advanced Tools turned on.
Another goal Apple had was to make Logic more, well . . . logical. To this end, the names of certain features, menus and windows have been changed to be clearer and immediately intuitive. The Arrange window, where audio and MIDI track regions are laid out horizontally in typical linear fashion, is now simply called the Track window (duh). Basic record settings such as metronome count-in and MIDI cycle record options are now organized under the new Record menu (double duh). 

Most of the interface changes make a lot of sense and generally improve workflow. There’s less need for modifier keys—bypassing and moving plug-ins can be done by clicking and dragging as there’s no need to use the Option or Command keys in tandem. A darker background color scheme combined with brighter foreground colors provides better visual feedback. (It’s easier to see the cycle area, muted regions, and the solo/mute states of tracks, for example.) The transport, previously positioned along the bottom, is now along the top, thereby eliminating the risk of accidentally clicking in the OS X application dock. 

Accessing instrument presets is now done on the left-hand side of the screen via the new Library Browser. Browsing instrument presets used to be done from the right-hand side, but the instrument plug-ins themselves were shown on the left in the dual channel strip Inspector pane. This was always a bit of a disconnect for a lot of people, but won’t be now.

As I browsed through the new Patch Library (more on this later) I couldn’t help but notice the generously sized and detailed graphic representations of the source instruments. Facsimiles of various classic synths from Waldorf, Moog, Yamaha, and others are displayed to imply the sound source currently loaded. It’s great eye candy, and you can size the icons smaller or hide them entirely.

Some of the new onscreen areas—the aforementioned Patch Library browser and the Smart Controls window, in particular — eat up a fair amount of screen real estate. I found that on my 27" screen the interface quickly became crowded, leaving little room for me to actually see my tracks. Maybe this gives me the perfect excuse to upgrade to multiple screens!

A nice touch that new and existing users alike should appreciate is the Quick Help feature. It shows the name and function of whatever you hover the mouse over. I found this to be a great way to short-cut my learning curve during the review. Overall, seasoned Logic users should have little difficulty adjusting to the interface and new users should have a much easier time getting up to speed compared to previous versions.

Next: Remote Control via iPad

 
 

Remote Control

   
 Fig. 2. Two of the display modes in the new iPad-based Remote Control. Left: Smart Controls for the new Virtual B3 organ.  Right: Large transport controls and oft-used commands.
 

Third-party DAW control apps that work with Logic have been available for years now. But Apple finally jumped in with their own Remote Control app for the iPad, which is free and provides a lot more than transport and mixer control. There are a total of five display modes, including a Key Command display that lets you access up to 366 customizable commands (see Figure 2 above).

In Smart Control mode, RC shows a virtual keyboard along the bottom of the screen, which is helpful if you want to audition sounds when you’re not at your MIDI keyboard. However, there’s no way to hide the virtual keys, which fill nearly half the screen. This was an issue for me when I tried to work the Virtual B3 organ’s drawbars from the iPad. The drawbars were too small and too close together for me to grab combinations and “play” them the way a seasoned organist would. How about a preference to show/hide the virtual keys? This minor niggle aside, Remote Control is a boon for iPad-owning Logic users. “In mixing mode, the piano keys aren’t present,” observed Keyboard editor Stephen Fortner, “so if you have an iPad, you have a touchscreen control surface for mixing and Logic’s transport. For me, having that extra poke-and-go real estate next to my main workstation is the big benefit here.”

In use, Remote Control was extremely responsive and it quickly became indispensible. I can’t imagine using Logic without Remote Control ever again. 

Next: Patches, Libraries, and New Instruments

 
 

Patches and Libraries

In previous versions you could save entire plug-in chains as Channel strip presets. These would include instrument settings along with all of the settings for any plug-in inserts on the instrument’s channel strip. However, effects that were set up on aux channels were not saved with the channel strip settings, which meant you had to load two presets if you wanted to recall a complete patch with its associated send effects. This has been streamlined with a new file type called Patch. 

Patches are similar to Channel Strip presets except that Patches can include send effects and their associated aux channel configurations, as well as multiple instruments layered in a new track type called Track Stacks (more on this below). This takes Logic’s sound design possibilities to a whole new level, which is evident when you start auditioning some of the preset sounds that were created by layering multiple instruments using Track Stacks. I’m happy to hear that Apple invested in quality sound design, and I suspect many users will find a lot to like with the new material.

In general, browsing and auditioning sounds is easier. Related to the Patch file type, the Library browser focus can be directed to present Patches or instrument-specific presets, depending on where you position the cursor within the dual channel strip area. Additionally, there are subtle enhancements that make the process of exploring and choosing sounds more musician-friendly. For example, the Revert button lets you jump back to the previously loaded preset if you’re not happy with the one you just selected. 


New and Updated Instruments

 

Fig. 3. Retro Synth offers subtractive, wavetable, and FM synthesis methods. File under fun: The user interface changes depending on the method selected. With Wavetable, shown here, the interface becomes bright blue—a clear nod to the PPG Wave synthesizer.

Logic was once known for having top-notch virtual vintage keyboards. But over time the built-in B-3 organ, electric piano, and Clavinet plug-ins fell from their leading-class status as third-party developers came to market with better emulations.

Now with LPX, Apple has doubled down on vintage keyboard modeling once again by updating the former EVB3, EVP88 and EVD6, giving them more intuitive interfaces, simpler names (Vintage B3 Organ, Vintage Clav, and Vintage Electric Piano) and most importantly, new sonics. Apple didn’t give many details, but apparently they updated instruments employ better modeling. To my ears there was a definite improvement in sound quality and vibe, with the Vintage B3 in particular, although this could be somewhat attributed to an improved Leslie speaker sim.

And speaking of Virtual B3, I was pleased to find that it has presets that allow you to control its virtual drawbars using the physical drawbars from several popular clonewheel keyboard series, including the Korg CX, Roland VK, and Hammond SK/XK. Nice.

Also new to the roster is Retro Synth (see Figure 3 at left), which offers subtractive, wavetable, and FM synthesis methods. Again, the interface is more intuitive and inviting compared to Logic’s older synths such as ES2 (although curiously Retro Synth lacks a filter cutoff knob—you have to tweak cutoff by dragging in the filter response display). More importantly, the sound is a noticeable step up from the “legacy” synths. Retro Synth certainly has more of an analog character, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ballsy or punchy. The filter isn’t very aggressive, but it is capable. Considering this is a built-in synth, I’d give it an A minus.

Next: Track Stacks and new virtual Drummer
 

Track Stacks

Logic has had region-based folders for years, but LPX takes the concept further with Track Stacks, which allow you to combine multiple tracks and sum their outputs for easier management. There are two types of stacks: Folder and Summing, the latter of which allows you to layer multiple instruments and treat them as a “combi,” to use hardware keyboard-speak. This capability means you can create sophisticated layered sounds that comprise multiple software instruments, complete with aux channels, and save everything as a single patch. For keyboard players who like to “roll their own,” this is a huge workflow improvement that opens up new possibilities for creating layered textures. 

MIDI continuous controllers aren’t channelized with Track Stacks, however, so it’s not possible to use MIDI volume automation or track automation to adjust volumes for individual instruments within a stack if you’re working with sounds assigned to discrete channels within a multitimbral instrument such as NI Kontakt or Spectrasonics Omnisphere. There is a workaround involving aux tracks, and we'll be posting a how-to video to accompany this review soon.


Drummer

 
Fig. 4. Drummer is a songwriter’s best friend. Building “live sounding” grooves in a sequencer has never been easier.
Arguably the most game-changing feature is Drummer, which combines several technologies into what I consider the most elegant virtual drummer plug-in to date. Drummer is actually a combination of three components: expertly sampled drum kits (via the new Drum Kit Designer sample-based instrument), a library of fantastic MIDI drum performances played by 15 different drummers, and the Drummer Editor, which features an X/Y pad for directing the intensity of the performances in terms of loud/soft, simple/complex, genre, and more (see Figure 4 at left).

More than simply spitting back canned drum performances, Drummer has built-in musical intelligence, so as you massage the settings from the editor, Drummer will produce variations according to song section (e.g., intro, verse, chorus, and so on, determined by the new Arrangement Markers) and musical intentions (e.g., less or more fills, grooving on toms versus hi-hat, and more). In a word, it’s brilliant.


 
 
 
 
Next: Smart Controls, MIDI Effects (video), and our overall conclusions.
 
 

Smart Controls

Ever wish Logic had a way to create macros for controlling multiple plug-in parameters at once or to easily get your hands on just the right controls for making dramatic and musical tweaks to an instrument’s sound? Now you can with Smart Controls, which feature a set of screen controls, each of which can be used to modify one or more plug-in or channel strip parameters for a given track. 

By default, Smart Controls for LPX’s built-in instruments automatically map to parameters according to what most users would want to tweak. When Vintage B3 is selected, for example, Smart Controls are provided for a set of drawbars, rotary speed, chorus on/off, percussion settings, distortion, and more, putting all of the tone-shaping controls right at your fingertips. With a synthesizer, Smart Controls provided filter settings (cutoff, resonance, attack, release), oscillator mix, and so on. 

One gripe: I discovered that Smart Control moves aren’t recorded the way other MIDI-mapped controls are—you need to use one of the automation write modes (Write or Latch). This means an extra step if you want to record a MIDI performance along with Smart Control moves, and the potential to mistakenly overwrite your Smart Control moves if you don’t switch automation modes before cycling playback. Even so, Smart Controls add a level of musicality to the Logic experience that I suspect every user will appreciate.

MIDI Effects

Logic Pro X's new MIDI Effects are partially demonstrated in the video below.
 
 

Conclusions

The wait might have been long, but it certainly was worth the reward. Logic Pro X manages to improve the user experience from a purely interface design perspective, but also as a creative tool that helps inspire and facilitates musical exploration. Apple has done an admirable job of adding musician-friendly features, refining the interface for improved navigation and operation, and pushing the envelope for what we can expect from a DAW as a compositional tool. And at 200 bucks, Logic Pro X is easily a Key Buy.

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