The MacBook Air is a popular laptop known for it’s sleek design, light weight, and portability. I’ve recently been looking for a new laptop and have researched whether a MacBook Air can be used for music production. Here’s what I’ve found.
A MacBook Air can be used for music production. Its lightweight design makes it a great choice for travelling musicians. Older models, however, may not have the computing power required to effectively run modern software. It also has limited ports for external devices.
There’s a few things you need to consider when making music with a MacBook Air such as the required specifications, any hardware you will be using, and the software you want to use. I’ve covered all of these, and more, below!
What specifications are required to produce music on a MacBook Air?
When you’re producing music, your MacBook Air needs to be able to handle the complex demands from your DAW and plugins. While they tend to sacrifice higher end performance for portability, certain MacBook Air models can still be used for music production with good results.
When it comes to performance, the main consideration for selecting a MacBook Air should be its processor, cores, clock speed, RAM, and hard drive.
For this reason, I always recommend choosing the latest available model, however, I’ve produced the below table for MacBook Air models that I believe can be used for music production.
|MacBook Air Model||Processor||Cores||Clock Speed||RAM||Hard Drive||USB Ports|
|MacBook Air (11-inch, Early 2015)||Core i5 (I5-5250U)||2||1.6 GHz||4GB or 8GB*||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB (3.0)|
|MacBook Air (11-inch, Early 2015)||Core i7 (I7-5650U)||2||2.2 GHz||4GB or 8GB*||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB (3.0)|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, Early 2015)||Core i5 (I5-5250U)||2||1.6 GHz||4GB or 8GB*||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB (3.0)|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, Early 2015)||Core i7 (I7-5650U)||2||2.2 GHz||4GB or 8GB*||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB (3.0)|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, 2017)||Core i5 (I5-5350U)||2||1.8 GHz||8GB||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB (3.0)|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, 2017)||Core i7 (I7-5650U)||2||2.2 GHz||8GB||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB (3.0)|
|MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2018)||Core i5 (I5-8210Y)||2||1.6 GHz||8GB or 16GB*||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB-C (3.1)|
|MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2019)||Core i5 (I5-8210Y)||2||1.6 GHz||8GB or 16GB*||128GB or 256 GB SSD||2 USB-C (3.1)|
|MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2020)||Core i3 (I3-1000NG4)||2||1.1 GHz||8GB or 16GB*||256 GB SSD||2 USB-C (3.1)|
|MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2020)||Core i5 (I5-1030NG7)||4||1.1 GHz||8GB or 16GB*||256 GB SSD||2 USB-C (3.1)|
|MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2020)||Core i7 (I7-1060NG7)||4||1.2 GHz||8GB or 16GB*||512 GB SSD||2 USB-C (3.1)|
|MacBook Air (M1, 2020)||Apple M1||8||3.2 GHz||8GB or 16GB*||256 GB SSD||2 USB-C (3.1)|
|MacBook Air (M1, 2020)||Apple M1||8||3.2 GHz||8GB or 16GB*||512GB SSD||2 USB-C (3.1)|
As you can see, I’ve included the different models specifications. Here’s what the different components do, and how they will affect your music production:
The processor is the brain of your MacBook Air. When you’re producing music, it’s doing complex calculations that ultimately determines how everything sounds. An overworked CPU will begin to make mistakes in your recording and could crash your system.
The largest drain on your processor for music production will be complex plugins, most notably reverb! I recommend using a MacBook Air with at least an i5 processor, but higher if you can.
The core processes information, so having more cores means that more information can be processed at a time. So, the more cores, the better! As you can see, in early 2020 the cores doubled from 2 to 4, which makes the 2020 models a great choice. Even better are the 8 core models from late 2020 which will be able to handle complex processes, such as multiple virtual instruments and plugins, with ease.
Put simply, the clock speed measures how many processes your MacBook Air’s processor conducts each second. This is can be a good indicator of speed when compared with a processor of the same generation. Generally, the processor type and cores matter more than the clock speed.
RAM stands for Random Access Memory and is basically your computers short term memory. For music production, 8GB RAM is enough for most applications, but you may want more if you plan to use complex sample libraries.
It’s important to note that the RAM on a MacBook Air cannot be upgraded after initial purchase. If you’re buying your MacBook Air second-hand, make sure it has the RAM you need.
The hard drive is where everything is saved. All MacBook Air models come with an SSD, or “Solid State Drive”, which are much quicker at loading files than their hard disk drive counterparts. As for producing music, this will make loading large files and complex plugins a lot easier.
256GB should be enough space for you, and I wouldn’t recommend going lower. Whilst you can save files to the cloud, or export them to and external hard drive, it’s a lot easier to have everything saved directly to your laptop.
Hardware connectivity is a limitation for all laptop users, and the MacBook Air is no exception. As you can see from the table, all the recommended models only have 2 ports. This isn’t a massive problem, as you can get USB hubs that give you more ports.
Likewise, if you are using instruments, then a USB audio interface will give you the inputs you need. From 2018 onward, the ports were changed to USB-C, which are the smaller style USB ports.
This means that you may need an additional USB to USB-C adapter to connect older pieces of equipment. Fortunately, most modern equipment comes with a removable cable, so you can just purchase the USB-C cable.
As with any laptop, the newer the model is, the longer it will be able support more modern software. This is especially true for music production, as some software will simply not work with older models.
If you really can’t afford a newer model, you can still produce music by using techniques such as track freezing and bouncing, but this will drastically slow down your workflow and really isn’t recommended.
If you’re only intending to record audio, and not use virtual instruments or plugins, then you can use an older model laptop. This is because recording audio generally requires less processing power than using virtual instruments. This does, however, mean that you may struggle when it comes to both mixing and mastering your track. In addition, an older laptop may not be able to run certain software.
Your ability to run software will mostly depend on the specifications of your MacBook Air. As discussed, the better your laptop specifications are, the better it will performance and the longer it will be supported by software.
One important aspect of your ability to run software is the Mac operating system or “macOS” of the MacBook Air. Some music production software may not support an older macOS. The MacBook Air’s listed in the above table can all use the latest macOS (macOS Big Sur 11.0.1). The older models, however, will likely not be able to upgrade to future a macOS, so be careful when purchasing.
Also, not all software will be available for macOS. Some plugins and even some DAW’s, such as Cakewalk, are not available on the Mac operating system. Fortunately, most major software is compatible. In fact, some software, such as Logic Pro, is only available on Mac which may influence your choice towards choosing a Mac.
Newer MacBook Air models have the “Apple M1” processor, which is Apple’s first non-Intel chip in recent history. Users have seen some teething issues regarding software compatibility; however, it’s expected that these will be resolved over time. Still, this is something to be aware of if you’re looking to start making music straight away.
The MacBook Air only has one headphone port for audio in or out. This means that when recording in using an audio mixer, you will be reliant on the built-in speakers when dubbing, tracking, or syncing to a click track. This can be easily overcome by using an audio interface instead, as it will allow monitoring from both the recorded input and laptop.
It’s worth mentioning, the MacBook Air comes with either an 11-inch or 13-inch screen, which may be difficult for long periods of use, so I would recommend connecting it to a monitor for long periods of use.
Another consideration is the battery life of your MacBook Air. Generally, the battery life of a MacBook Air is around 10 hours. This could be shorter though, as music production software is very energy intensive. If you’re looking to produce music on the go, try limiting the amount of systems and plugins you have loaded.
A MacBook Air can be a great tool for your music production, although it does have certain limitations, mostly regarding software compatibility. If you’re looking to buy a MacBook Air, I recommend buying the latest available model as it will have better specifications and be supported by software for longer. If you’re on a budget, then older models are still a viable option, although it will slow down your workflow!
MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro for Music Production
This really is down to personal preference. The MacBook Pro models tend to have better specifications compared with MacBook Air models at a similar price, as well as being able to upgrade the RAM after purchase. This may make it preferable for second-hand buyers, as you can buy an older model and add more RAM to it. Remember though, you will always be limited by the processor. Personally, I recommend the MacBook Pro as it’s what I use myself.
Conor is a music producer, multi-instrumentalist, and all-round enthusiast from the UK with over 15 years of experience. He’s the founder and sole-content creator for the roundtable audio blog and YouTube channel. He wrote this in 3rd person!