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Why has the Mac been so popular for audio and MIDI work?

“I know the topic of Mac versus PC has kinda’ been done to death, but I’d really like to know, why is it that the Mac was (is) so often preferred for audio and MIDI production?”

So much about this topic is subjective opinion that it’s almost hard to talk about it without starting a war. People sure can be passionate about their computers, which is ironic considering the concept of the computer itself represents the very antithesis of passion. While there used to be many more very concrete and important differences between the two systems, these days a lot of the debate is just perception that is in some cases loosely based on that history. Sure, 10 or 12 years ago the Mac was much more multimedia savvy in general than a typical off the shelf PC, but currently things are radically different.

Much of the appeal for Macs over the years was based on the applications and capabilities that were available for it. Simply put, it was far ahead of similarly priced PC’s for years when it came to audio, and to a lesser extent MIDI. Part of this had to do with the finite nature of Mac systems. There has never been (and probably never will be) anywhere near as many different types and configurations of Mac as there has been PC’s. Even within the PC itself there are at least four or five different operating systems (OS) currently in wide spread use. With the Mac there have generally only been one or two at a time. And that’s just the software, there are dozens of other issues relating to hardware. The relative simplicity of it in terms of variables made it easier to develop systems that were reliable at a time when many companies were reticent to spend big bucks on computer product development. Further, this simplicity was also apparent to users. Macs never really utilized a command line interface where you type in instructions as text. Everything has always been point and click with a mouse, which musicians and artists have typically found very intuitive in terms of freeing them from the interface for the sake of artistic expression.

For a little more insight and another viewpoint we go to Sweetwater Sales Engineer and resident computer nerd, Shawn Parr. Here’s what he has to say:

Historically the Mac was chosen because of the Motorola Processors it utilized. Back in the early days x86 processors where much less multimedia able than the Motorola 68k series. One of the reasons for this is because of the way data is moved in the different processors. x86/Intel chips are Little-endian, i.e. the first bit in a word is the Most Significant Bit (or MSB) and the last bit in a word is the Least Significant Bit (or LSB). Motorola’s 68k chips were Big-Endian, i.e. the first bit is the LSB, and the last bit (the end) is the MSB. PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) audio is formatted big-endian. Therefore 68k chips can basically pass the data and process it with little overhead, where as x86 chips need to flip the data around to do the math right.

Also Macs have always been early to adapt to new technology, SCSI, networking/Ethernet, and Firewire make great examples. The Mac was the first consumer market machine with these technologies built in on every machine in the line, and the first to drop technologies whole hog when they were on the way out (read SCSI, serial, and floppies).

In the world of today, PC’s have increased the amount of power they have tremendously, and they can use that power to easily over-ride any endian issues. However the Mac is still extremely strong in the audio realm. The reason for this is mostly historical. As companies started developing for Macintosh in the olden days, most were not able to devote resources to developing for Windows as well.

Another reason for Macs still being prominent has to do with their operating system at this point actually being LESS advanced than Windows currently is. The Mac has a very simple and well understood architecture for extending its capabilities, using Extensions and Control Panels. System wide these library’s and drivers are all stored in a central location, easy to find and manage. This makes the operating system very easy to streamline, just go to the system folder and remove any extensions/control panels you don’t need. It is also very easy to determine how many applications are actually running, and how to stop them from running if you need to.

These are just a few of the differences that have been important over the years.

When Mac OS X becomes mainstream this will all change a lot, but that is fodder for another discussion. The important thing to keep in mind is that whatever the reality was five or ten years ago things are quite a bit different now. Computer choices need not continue to be made based on brand loyalty (or any other historical reasons), but more on what the specific capabilities are for specifically what you want to do. And in this regard the Mac is still a very easy to configure and use powerhouse that is very, very stable for most audio and MIDI applications, but the PC is also very strong, and in some circumstances a better choice.

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