By Stephen Fortner
I’d never taken the MacBook Air seriously as a music production machine. Previous models were undeniably gorgeous, and I was happy with the second-generation (late 2008) model as my mobile office and my portal for managing Keyboard’s website. It also had enough power for hammering out a handful of tracks for a quick song sketch, and for quickie edits of web-sized videos in iMovie. However, I wouldn’t have trusted it with a mission-critical multitrack project, nor as my sole sound source for a gig that called for lots of split and layered soft synth setups. When Apple asked me to try the latest model (introduced in October 2010) for exactly such tasks, I glanced at the new specs and thought, “This could work.” My verdict: Not only does it work; it works so well as to be the only laptop that a great many mobile musicians will need for some time to come.
The MacBook Air has two USB2.0 ports, an SD card slot, and fast 802.11n WiFi, but no wired Ethernet or FireWire. A mini FireWire port or third USB port would make it easier to connect the trifecta of audio interface, MIDI controller, and copy protection dongle, but an increasing number of synths—including the Roland Gaia and Juno-Stage, M-Audio Venom, Novation UltraNova, and Yamaha’s new MOX—have built-in USB audio interfaces, letting you kill two birds with one cable. You’re also fine if your controller has a conventional MIDI out and your interface has a MIDI in.
There’s an 11-inch model, but unless super-small is super-important, you want the 13-incher. It’s still impossibly thin, and so light that I almost can’t tell it’s in my laptop bag by how the strap feels on my shoulder—I have to double-check visually to make sure I didn’t leave it in a bar. (My favorite bars all have WiFi. You might say I’m a workaholic. . . .)
The screen resolution of 1,440 x 900 pixels (as compared to 1,280 x 800 on 13-inch MacBook Pros) was enough for me to split the screen in Logic or Pro Tools with the arranging window across the top and the mixer on the bottom, and still get at everything I needed without too much scrolling and zooming. Everything in MOTU Digital Performer’s unified window was crisp and legible as well.
Most importantly for music, while all MacBook Airs now use zippy, non-volatile Flash storage, only the 13-inch offers 256GB of it. That’s the point where you start to be able to record a decent amount of multitrack audio while also hosting your favorite virtual instruments and at least some of the sample content that comes with them.
Fig. 1. Mounting my desktop Mac’s DVD drive to install Pro Tools, using
the MacBook Air’s Remote Disc functionality.
A bump in CPU speed from 1.86 to 2.13GHz will cost you $100. So will an extra 2GB of RAM (which you need to opt for at point of purchase) for a total of 4GB. If you have to pick one, get the RAM. It’s more relevant to how much you can do at once and to smooth operation.
Though you can download much of today’s music production software, just as much of it still comes on DVD-ROM—instruments with multi-gigabyte sample libraries are a prime example. Given that there’s no room in the MacBook Air for a CD/DVD drive, how do you get stuff onto it?
First, Apple will pre-install some soft ware they make, such as Logic Express (but not Logic Studio). Second, an external Apple SuperDrive is just $79 and connects via USB. Th ird and most cleverly, if you have another Mac with OS 10.4.10 or later, or even a PC (!) running Windows Vista, 7, or XP Service Pack 2, you can use its CD or DVD drive as though it were the MacBook Air’s. Simply enable DVD/CD sharing in the System Preferences of the Mac (or the Control Panel of the PC) that has the optical drive. That drive will then show up as “Remote Disc” in the MacBook Air’s Finder. (See Figure 1 above.) The two computers need to be on the same network. In case you aren’t near a WiFi hub, I tried creating a computer-to-computer network on an older MacBook Pro, and then joined it from the MacBook Air. This worked fine. Full instructions, and soft ware updates you may need, are at support.apple.com/kb/ht1777.
For installing samples for virtual instruments you already own, using an external hard drive (make sure it has a USB2.0 port) as an intermediary is faster than Remote Disc. It also helps you be selective— 256GB is a good chunk of room, but probably not so much that you’d indiscriminately copy over everything from your studio machine. For example, I installed just the Synthogy Ivory II program from DVD using Remote Disc access, then dragged over all the files for its Yamaha C7 library from a backup of my Mac Pro’s “Ivory Items” folder that lives on an external Glyph drive. Th e Yamaha takes up about 23GB, and the total install time was ten minutes. The progress bar for copying the same files over the network via remote login showed 45 minutes, and installing them from remote DVD would have taken much longer.
I’m shocked. In a good way. For starters, the new Flash storage boots apps and sessions stinkin’ fast. Time from cold power-up to a 40-track project being open in Logic Pro: 28 seconds. Time from clicking the MainStage icon to the “Keyboard with Patches” template having loaded all its instruments and samples: 20 seconds. Time Ivory II needed to load a grand piano keyset with 16 velocity layers: two-and-a-half seconds.
Fig. 2. Despite the alarming CPU meter, 15 virtual instruments played this dense piano loop at once with no audible problems. The buffer was set at a low 64 samples.
How many things a computer can do at once is where the rubber meets the road, and the first of my torture tests was to create a project with 48 stereo audio tracks and Logic’s buff er set to 64 samples, at 24-bit/44.1kHz resolution. I then started dragging audio files to tracks—to give the Flash drive a workout, I needed to make sure each track was accessing a different file, not just playing copies of the same audio region. Playing all 48 tracks back put Logic’s system performance meter for one CPU core consistently in the top 20 percent of its range while the other hovered near the bottom—and the Disk I/O bar barely registered any activity. The audio itself was smooth and glitch-free.
I then started inserting two of Logic’s most demanding plug-ins— the Space Designer convolution reverb and Spectral Gate filter—on each track. Screen graphics slowed down by track 20, and I got to track 23 before playback stopped and a system overload message appeared. Upping the buffer to 128 samples let me put both plug-ins on seven more tracks, and if you mix down at even higher buffer settings (as is common practice), you can expect more still. Of course, I’m not suggesting anyone be this profligate in the use of insert effects—this is just meant to show how much power is really on tap.
My next tests were more relevant to live soft synth hosting and writing songs “in the box.” With the buffer back at 64 samples, the densest sustainpedal- down playing I could muster in Ivory II—with Ivory’s polyphony set to the maximum of 160 voices—produced no dropouts, flam between notes, or latency. Going multitimbral, I copied the same MIDI file into all 15 instrument tracks in Logic’s “Instruments” starter project, which includes six instances of the EXS24 sampler (I turned on the filters in all of them to use more resources); one each of EVP88 electric piano, EVD6 Clav, and EVB3 organ; four Ultrabeats; and two ES2 virtual analog synths. The MIDI file itself had lots of sustained chords, and I was able to play it in a continuous loop with one core’s meter pegged, the other dancing at about halfway, and again, no audible problems. I got away with changing two of these tracks to Sculpture, Logic’s CPU-intensive physical modeling synth, before an overload (see Figure 2). Your mileage will vary if you use third-party effects and instruments and/or a different DAW, but not by much.
Writing to a Flash drive is somewhat slower than reading from it, so the only thing that might give me pause is multitrack recording of a lot of audio inputs at the same time. What do I mean by a lot? You’ll have no problems tracking every analog input on single-rack USB2 audio interfaces such as the MOTU 828 Mk.3 or RME Fireface UFX—even at 96kHz. If, on top of that, you want to fill all 16 channels of lightpipe either of those interfaces offers (by adding a couple of eight-channel mic preamps that have lightpipe out and recording a swing orchestra, perhaps), you’ll see the disk I/O meter in your DAW start to climb. I’m not saying the MacBook Air will glitch, but I’ll stop short of guaranteeing that it won’t. As always, sample rate and buffer setting make a difference.
Some previous MacBook Airs had overheating issues, but not this one. Though the fan spun up to full blast at the height of my CPU abuse, the underside of the machine got no warmer than my cat is after lounging in a sunbeam. Finally, battery life rocks. I regularly left for the office without the power supply. Despite all-day use that included powering my Novation UltraNova synth via USB, the battery usually had one to two hours left by the time I headed home in the early evening. Asleep, the thing barely uses any juice. You could conceivably open it on a two-day-old charge, realize the charger is at home, and get through a gig.
For music production on the go, the MacBook Air is a giant in elven clothing. It’s also very stable—I saw the occasional, brief “beach ball” if I opened a plug-in window while everything was playing back, but nothing affected the audio. I also never once had to force-quit anything or reboot, and the SSD speed has forever spoiled me for conventional hard drives. Unlike current MacBook Pros, it doesn’t have the latest Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, so if you need that level of power for, say, film scores using the Vienna Symphonic Library, it’s not like any amount of portability or beautiful design is going to change your mind. Otherwise, an uninflated look at your needs may well argue loudly for making the MacBook Air the centerpiece of your mobile keyboard, DJ/ producer, or songwriter rig. It’s truly the first ultraportable that pros can take totally seriously for music and multimedia creation.
PROS Ridiculously portable. Enough battery life for you to work all day. Gorgeous display. Quantum leap in computing power over previous MacBook Airs. More than suitable for serious music production.
CONS Thinness precludes a built-in CD/DVD drive. No FireWire or Thunderbolt. RAM is not user-expandable.
CONFIGURATION TESTED Intel Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz, 4GB 1,067MHz DDR3 RAM, 256GB Flash storage, 13" LED backlit screen.
PRICE As tested: $1,699
With 128GB storage and 2GB RAM: $1,299
No list/street price difference