While there’s certainly still room in the world of music production for a jacked-up iMac, going with a laptop for your music production needs gives you the mobility of bring your portable studio with you wherever you go.
We’ve put together this guide to the best laptops for music production for that exact reason. Regardless of your choice of operating system or budget, you should be able to find something that will give the creative tools to make that next killer mixtape or album you’ve been thinking about.
Apple has been the preferred choice of professional creatives for many years — and that includes musicians and music producers. While some of that has to do with the “cool-factor,” it’s also because of Apple’s continued support of its first-party creative applications. On the music production front, Apple has Logic Pro X and GarageBand, two pieces of software that have done quite a lot to democratize music-making in the world.
Logic Pro X is a professional-grade DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that costs a flat $200, frequently sees substantial updates, and doesn’t require any external interface to operate. Beyond that, all the primary DAWs support MacOS, so don’t worry if you are a Pro Tools or Ableton Live user. In addition, it should be noted that because of Apple’s reputation in this area, certain audio interfaces like the Apogee Duet 2 are exclusively Apple-based.
While you might want a MacBook just because it’s the only laptop that looks socially acceptable to have with you on stage, don’t forget that this is going to be the computer you have to use for everything else, too. If the idea of using MacOS for work or other everyday computing makes you want to gag, there are plenty of options in the Windows 10 space that will do.
Here’s our advice: If you’re in the market for a laptop to make music with, take a good hard look at the current lineup of MacBooks (and an even harder look at how much money you’ve set aside to invest) and then move on to the available Windows 10 options.
Let’s get this out of the way: you probably don’t want to go with either the MacBook Air or the 12-inch MacBook if you want to get involved in music production. The 12-inch MacBook will work for dipping your toe in the water, but if you are serious about music production, you’ll want something with a little more power to handle all those tracks and plugins. So cross those both off the list and focus in on the particulars of which MacBook Pro you’re going to get.
We know it’s expensive at $2,400, but if you want what is truly the best laptop for music production, you’ll want to get the 15-inch MacBook Pro released in late 2016. When it comes to running a session with dozens of tracks and plugins actively running, you want as much processing power and RAM you can get. The 15-inch comes packed with a quad-core Intel Core i7 and 16GB of RAM. In addition, those high-quality audio files add up really fast, so the 15-inch MacBook Pro starts with 512GB of SSD memory. Get this system, and you won’t have to worry about it freezing up in the middle of your guitar player’s one-in-a-million guitar solo.
It may not come with access to Logic Pro X, but the Surface Book 2 will have you covered in pretty every other conceivable music production scenario. To best the 15-inch MacBook Pro, both the 13-inch and 15-inch Surface Book 2 rock the new 8th-gen. quad-core Intel Core i7 processor and 16GB of RAM. That’s the kind of performance punch you need to run large-scale audio recording sessions. We’d recommend going with the 13-inch model, since it starts at a more digestible $1,500.
It’s as portable as the MacBook Pro, and the available ports on the Surface Book 2 (2 USB-A, 1 USB-C, and an SD card slot) match what’s currently available in audio interfaces. The 2-in-1 aspect of the Surface Book 2 isn’t going to do you any favors in terms of music production (especially without a kickstand), but the detachable screen should be a nice add-on if you use the laptop for more leisurely activities when you don’t have Pro Tools loaded up.
If you’re putting together a mobile music workstation, you’ve got things to spend money on besides just the laptop. With that being said, you definitely don’t want to dip below a dual-core processor — and probably don’t want to do anything with less than 8GB of RAM.
If you’re dead-set on a Mac, we’d recommend the 13-inch MacBook Pro (without Touch Bar), which starts at $1,300. It has a great balance of power, affordability, design, and portability. You’re not going to miss the Touch Bar — in fact, you’ll probably be glad to have easier access to things like the physical volume keys and the Esc key.
On the Windows side of things, we’d recommend the excellent Asus Zenbook UX330UA. It’s not much of a looker, nor does it feel like much of a premium device. But for the price, you won’t find more bang for your buck out there. The 2017 version comes with the 8th-gen. Intel i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, which just happens to be the same specs you find on the 13-inch MacBook Pro, a laptop that’s over $400 more expensive. Both won’t give you the sheer power that the Surface Book 2 or MacBook Pro 15-inch would provide, but should get you by a tighter budget.
When it comes to manipulating sound live from the stage goes, DJs and synth players still use analog stations for that very tactile feel of controlling an instrument. However, touchscreens are becoming a viable option that recreates that feel much better than using a trackpad and keyboard. For this particular use, the Surface Pro is the most versatile computer to have with you on the stage.
You’ll probably want to spring for the Core i5 model (starting at $1,000 without the Surface Pen) to handle running tracks out of Ableton Live or MainStage. Again, you won’t be able to use Apple-specific hardware or software, but the leaned-back kickstand of the Surface Pro make it a fantastic tool in a live performance setting. It might not be ideal for the studio, but it’s a great companion for running tracks.
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