I always hear people saying that the Mac Pro is the Mac of choice for musicians but, as a hobbyist, I simply can't justify the expense. I'm tempted by a Mac Mini, as I already have a decent screen, but am concerned that it won't be able to cope with the requirements of audio recording. What are the pros and cons?
Petra Smith via email
SOS contributor Mark Wherry replies: While it used to be the case that a high-end computer like the Mac Pro was essential for running music and audio applications, these days it's really hard to purchase a system that will be incapable of such tasks. It's all a matter of how many audio tracks, instruments and effects you need the computer to handle. Among the most important factors to consider in determining such handling are the type and speed of the processor, the amount of memory and the speed of the hard disk.
Since the first Power PC-based model was introduced (see the full review at /sos/may05/articles/applemacmini.htm), the Mac Mini has established itself as a basic-yet-capable studio computer. The current range features Intel Core 2 Duo processors, and the 2007 MacBook Pro (which, with a 2.4GHz processor, had similar performance capabilities) gives us a rough guide of the performance you can expect: using Logic Pro 7, this was capable of running 150 PlatinumVerb instances, 54 Space Designers and 512 EXS24 voices (with the filter enabled). Today's baseline Mac Mini also has a 2.4GHz processor, so those figures should be roughly comparable.
When it comes to memory, the 2GB supplied in the entry-level Mac Mini should be just enough to get you started. But you'll find life rather more comfortable with 4GB, especially if you want to work with sample‑based instruments. It's worth bearing in mind that 8GB is the maximum amount of memory supported by the Mac Mini.
In terms of storage, the basic Mac Mini comes with a 360GB drive. But, perhaps more crucially, this internal drive runs at 5400rpm — slower than those used in most other Macs — which will limit the number of audio tracks you can play back simultaneously. As a guide, you should expect to be able to handle approximately 50 to 60 mono 16-bit tracks at 44.1kHz. However, it is possible to connect a faster drive for audio, thanks to the Mac Mini's built-in FireWire 800 port — assuming you're not already planning to use this port for an audio interface, of course, since daisy‑chaining devices isn't always possible.
Another important factor when considering the Mac Mini, and one that might initially sound a little bizarre, is price. Although the Mac Mini is the cheapest Mac that Apple sell, its £649starting price can be deceptive in terms of value, even though, on paper, it's several hundred dollars cheaper than the cheapest iMac. If you already have a suitable monitor, keyboard and mouse, that's fine. But if you factor in the cost of these required devices to even the cheapest Mac Mini, the price difference between that and the low-end iMac starts to narrow considerably.
In a nutshell, the Mac Mini remains a basic, yet capable machine that provides a good starting point. However, in many ways, the entry-level iMac represents better value for those on a budget, especially if you see yourself quickly outgrowing the Mini's capabilities.