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Q. Are the new iMacs good enough for serious audio work?

By Paul Wiffen
Published June 2001

Q. Are the new iMacs good enough for serious audio work?

With the advent of the new iMacs with CD‑RW drives, I wondered if it would be possible to run Logic to record directly into such an iMac, and then master it onto CD? Or is this a job better suited to the G‑series Macs?

David Ankrah

SOS Apple Notes columnist Paul Wiffen replies: Actually, strictly speaking, David, the iMacs are the only Apple computers now suited to doing what you describe, as they are the only shipping machines with audio inputs. To do what you are describing on a G4 or Powerbook would require adding a device with an audio in, since Apple in their wisdom have omitted this from the most recent models. Of course, you might think that audio input is fairly cheap and easy to achieve, but if you look at my previous pieces on USB audio expansion, and my forthcoming article on PCI cards, you may be left with a different conclusion. FireWire expansion is proving more reliable than USB and less of a palaver than PCI card insertion, but for the moment, at least, it's fairly expensive, as the professional solutions are the first ones hitting the market. The first company to produce a £99 FireWire audio‑in box should do very well.

So, for the time being, buying an iMac is the fastest way to get audio input on an Apple computer. The big question is whether the quality of the built‑in A‑D converters is good enough for serious recording. For some time now, the D‑A converters in most computers have been pretty good. Thanks to the huge number of other consumer devices (CDs, MiniDisc, even TVs and DVDs) with digital sound to be output, high‑quality D‑A converters are now plentiful and cheap. Computer companies such as Apple have taken the opportunity to seriously upgrade their output sound quality with the many cheap and good devices which have flooded onto the market in recent years. This makes sense for them, as consumers are hearing better sound on all the other devices in their homes/cars/offices. However, most consumers do just that — consume sound recorded by others, rather than recording any themselves — so the A‑D conversion side of things has been slower to improve. If there are fewer devices on the market needing A‑D conversion, and they are less popular, the market will require fewer A‑D converters, and those that there are will be more expensive.

In the past, the standard received wisdom would have been that you shouldn't even think about recording anything seriously through A‑D converters in a computer. However, I have to say that recently I got stuck without any other way of recording some audio into the Apple desktop (no input on my iBook), so I used the audio input on my sister's Graphite iMac, and the results were pretty darn good (I was recording an entire mixed stereo signal, too). They are certainly good enough for recording single instrument or vocal parts to be put together in a final mix, especially when you have the full EQ and effects capabilties of something like Logic to bring to bear on any problems in recording. You might find the odd instrument — say, Taurus bass pedals — whose full frequency range is not faithfully captured by the built‑in A‑Ds, but then they would probably not be ideally recorded with many of the next level of USB or PCI devices either, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over that.

In any case, considering the appalling recording quality of many of the multitrack cassette machines which musicians have been using for years, I can't see any reason to warn anyone off the infinitely superior sound quality of the iMac's A‑D converters. We then have to ask whether there are any other parts of the recording, mixing and mastering process the iMac can't handle? Well, the 600MHz G3 processors in the top iMacs are far faster than anything in my studio, and will cope admirably with a fair amount of effects and EQ processing. Even the IDE drives which are standard in both iMacs and G4s these days will give you audio track counts unheard of from the more traditional SCSI devices of a few years back.

So let's look at the software you mention. Although in the premier league of the MIDI/audio recording software, and therefore ideally suited to stages one and two of the process you describe, Logic itself isn't a mastering program in the traditional sense of the word (although many of the plug‑ins you get with it can certainly be used for standard mastering tasks, such as loudness maximising and EQ). However, a good mastering program like IK Multimedia's T‑Racks or TC Works' Spark would make up for that, and I think would be advisable to really pep up tracks before burning them to CD.

Just one thing that always seems to be forgotten. Although you can get Logic to run in the 64Mb of RAM that the iMacs come with, I strongly recommend that you get at least an extra 64Mb — although 128 would be better, and memory is cheap at the moment. So in short, add 128Mb and T‑Racks or Spark to your shopping list, and an iMac/Logic system will give you some fantastic results, and with a lot less fuss than adding sound input capability to a 'more professional' Mac.