Hardcore Musicians: The 12-inch MacBook May Be Your Next Computer.

I bought a 12-inch MacBook. You know…that tiny, weightless aluminium miracle with a beautiful display and only one port.

I also happen to be a composer who churns out multi-stave music for orchestra, chamber groups, and chorus.

There is unfortunately little information online about whether the MacBook can run hardcore music programs like Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Finale, or Sibelius, and few musicians are willing to risk a grand to experiment.

Can the MacBook be your primary computer as a musician? After reading my experiences, I hope you’ll be closer to answering that question for yourself.

About Me

We all have unique goals for our music, so our tools, workflows, and benchmarks will differ. Let me set the context in which I work—if my needs differ significantly from yours, my experience may be irrelevant to your decision.

I am a classical composer. I write almost exclusively orchestral and chamber music, though I’ve branched out into film scoring and church arranging. Check out my brand new recording for chorus and piano on SoundCloud when you get a chance!

I am also a (noob) front end web developer. Don’t ask how I came to join the Dark Side, but if you’re interested in how that affects my compositional workflow, you should read my blog about the perfect notation software.

I am a writer. Most of my ponderings concern music, though you’ll find the occasional short story and faith treatise interspersed throughout my feed.

My Current Workstation

Till now, my primary machine had been a 2011 13-inch MacBook Pro. Thanks to a 2.3 GHz processor and an upgraded 256 GB solid-state drive, it is still kicking hard.

I don’t use many peripherals other than an external MIDI keyboard and an Apple keyboard. I use my computer 70% of the time for correspondence, browsing, music listening, and general writing; the other 30% is split between Finale and Logic Pro. I work primarily with virtual instruments and MIDI input, but I occasionally manipulate audio.

Research

With those circumstances in mind, I originally eyed the 2016 MacBook Pro as my next machine.

Until the October keynote. After four years of minimal upgrades, the newest MacBook Pro boasts a slower CPU, a Touch Bar (not even available on the entry-level model), and a slightly smaller body. Oh yes, and a $200 price increase.

Many smartly opted for the 2015 MacBook Pro instead, but I decided to investigate the 12-inch MacBook.

Probably the most polarizing product in Apple’s current lineup, the MacBook uses a Core M processor, a terraced battery design, and a single USB-C port to create one of the lightest, thinnest computers on the market. Apple has hailed it “the future of the notebook,” but it goes by other, less favorable descriptions like “a laptop without an ecosystem” and “a fashion statement for cappuccino-sipping millennials.” (I made up that last one.)

The music industry has reached a similar consensus: the MacBook lacks the muscles to function as a music workhorse, considering its weak mobile processor, limited screen space, and lack of contemporary ports. It was for these same reasons I originally wrote off Apple’s metal miracle.

Why did I reconsider the MacBook?

The CPU was unlikely to be the limiting factor in my workflow. The processor’s importance is often exaggerated in the industry, and the biggest point of confusion is in how multi-core CPUs work. Most computers (including my 2011 MacBook Pro and the new MacBook) use at least two CPUs, and many modern programs (including Logic Pro and Finale) take advantage of the double capacity by splitting up tasks between the two. So when Activity Monitor tells me a program is using 105% of my CPU, that’s just over half of my total processing power (200%). Running large orchestral projects on my 2.3 GHz MacBook Pro used anywhere from 15–60%…out of 200%! If I opted for the slower 1.1 GHz MacBook, I might max out at 120% CPU out of 200%, which would still be plenty.

For me, a solid-state drive was the limiting reagent. I recently upgraded the hard drive in my 2011 MacBook Pro to a solid-state drive, and while I expected it to be faster, I was not prepared for an entirely new computer experience. The display may be a little outdated, but it now runs like it was built yesterday, and programs like Logic Pro and Finale run effortlessly since the hard drive swap. And that’s considering the machine already sported a 2.3 GHz dual-core processor.

Another point of confusion: Logic Pro’s processing needs are often misleadingly compared with those of video-rendering programs (like Final Cut Pro). To the contrary, high-definition video editing requires far more processing power (and other specs, like GPU) than audio or MIDI editing. Considering that the MacBook can in fact run Logic Pro, I concluded it should be able to effectively run other programs like Finale.

The 12-inch display provided plenty of screen estate. Losing an inch would be an easy transition for me after working on a 13-inch computer for the last five years. I find myself often relocating my workstation to the piano, coffee shop, or church office, so portability and a sharp display are equally valuable assets to my workflow.

An external port hub would easily make up for the MacBook’s single USB-C port and even streamline my workstation. My mobile workflow often means I am unplugging three peripherals at a time just to test out a passage on the piano; using a single dongle as my permanent hub would be a welcome (albeit minor) optimization. And since I never take peripherals like a MIDI keyboard or numpad on the road with me, the dongle would also stay docked at homebase.

First Impressions

After much deliberation, I finally grabbed the MacBook during a Black Friday deal. I opted for the entry-level model (1.1 GHz m3 processor, 256 GB solid-state drive) and an Anker 3 USB 3.1 Hub with Power Delivery.

When I opened the box, my first thought was, where is the rest of the computer? The MacBook is thinner than a 4th generation iPad, and only half a pound heavier.

At this size, the last thing I expected to surprise me was the MacBook’s speakers. In fact, they triggered momentary cardiac arrest. This feather-light machine has killer speakers that are louder and clearer than a 2015 MacBook Pro. It may not have the strongest bass, but I ditched my external speakers after listening to music on the 12-inch MacBook with pleasure. The only downside to such loud speakers is that you can hear noise in recordings at full volume, though it’s difficult to tell how much of this is the MacBook’s fault. While an odd frequency may cause a slight “buzz,” it doesn’t detract from the overall brilliant audio experience.

The display is an incredible sight after years of working on a non-Retina machine. I typically wear glasses for computer work, but ironically I find myself using them less for the smaller MacBook. I even scaled my display for more space (System Preferences->Displays->Scaled->More Space) and boosted text size by 10% in my browser (Command +).

I love the MacBook keyboard’s light, crisp touch. It has the addictive “click” I crave and minimalist key travel that the energy-conserving pianist in me appreciates. The customizable Force Touch trackpad is also a welcome update.

Peripherals are no problem thanks to the Anker hub; my powered hard drive works blazingly fast, even with other devices plugged in.

Added bonus: the MacBook doesn’t huff and puff like MacBook Pros, since it has no fan.

Music Software Benchmarks

After initial setup, I downloaded my two chief productivity apps, Finale v. 25 and Logic Pro X.

To test the MacBook’s ability to handle large-scale works, I opened a 23-stave orchestral score in Finale. For the first time, Finale’s interface actually looked pretty thanks to the Retina display. Instrument loading was faster than ever, while playback was silky smooth and even allowed me to simultaneously navigate around the document with minimal lag. I kept an eye on Activity Monitor while opening other programs, and clearly the MacBook was yawning in playback mode. At the score’s busiest section, Finale used 115% of my processor. (Again, this is out of 200% because Finale leverages dual-core technology.)

I attempted note input and was initially dismayed at the half-second lag between clicking and the note rendering on my score. Unfortunately, this performance bug plagues even the highest spec’ed iMacs. Finale is not yet fully optimized to render in Retina display, and hence something as simple as note input makes brand new computers feel old. (I am told the folks at Finale have made this issue a foremost priority, but fixing the lag involves drastic changes to the program.) In other words, the lag had nothing to do with the MacBook’s capabilities. By toggling Finale to open in non-Retina mode (Finder->Applications->Finale->Get Info->Open in Low Resolution), note input became instant, although it isn’t the prettiest.

In Logic, I tested several VST projects: 10, 14, and 16 tracks. Playback and simultaneous navigation was buttery smooth in each project. The 14-track project required anywhere from 20–35% CPU.

To test MIDI recording, I recorded a 17th track on top of my 16-track project. Again, the MacBook kept up easily, with CPU usage maxing at 88% (of 200%). At this rate, the MacBook has more processing power than I need to put together full orchestral demos.

Bouncing the 10-track, 5-minute VST project to an MP4 file at 256 kbps took just under 45 seconds—not remarkable, but a solid performance from a MacBook.

It is interesting that between the two apps, Logic Pro performed the best. Its architecture takes better advantage of Mac hardware, whereas Finale (despite some ambitious core upgrades) still runs subpar even on high-spec’ed Macs.

Takeaways

Before I upgraded to a MacBook, I assumed that I used much more of my computer’s specs than I really did. Not only was my self-perception as a “power user” incorrect, I have been shocked at how much the “low-spec’ed” MacBook can handle.

Can the 12-inch MacBook run your music productivity software capably? Absolutely! If you’re a composer writing orchestral music in Finale or creating multi-track demos in Logic Pro, the MacBook will do everything you want for a lower starting price than the MacBook Pro. Not to mention it’s super light and portable for the power!