How to Set Up a Mac-based Recording Studio*

How to Set Up a Mac-based Recording Studio*

Thanks to the audio geniuses (genii?) at for the generous use of their space. And their desk. And speaker stands. And Iggy Pop box set.


Just a few years back, the thought of buying enough equipment to record and mix your own music for under $1,000 - forget less than $500 - was unimaginable. But as time and technology march on, the prices have dropped to the point where the bang you can get for your buck is almost hard to believe. Let’s examine some cool studio gear for the Mac that can help get that song in your head out into the world (and the iTunes catalog).


Before we dive into the two studio options - based on budgets of $1,000 and $500 - it makes sense to discuss some recording basics. Also keep in mind that we’re assuming you’ve already got a Mac. As with other multimedia work, the faster your Mac’s processor and the more memory it has, the better it handles audio production. Here are some other important considerations.


You’ll need to get your sounds into and out of the computer (Input/Output). Generally referred to as an audio interface, the input/output device, which is typically connected via USB or FireWire 400, allows you to route a signal from, say, a guitar or microphone to your Mac. Many audio interfaces also have the ability to return the signal, so you can hook it up to a set of headphones or a pair of monitors. You can also buy affordable PCI-based cards that connect to your Mac and have audio breakout cables attached. However, the all-in-one audio interfaces are usually easier to use.


You need audio software. It doesn’t get any simpler than GarageBand. You can record, edit, loop, and mix without much experience. But those who want more features could step up to Apple’s Logic Express 7 ($299) or take advantage of the “competitive crossgrade” option to switch to Steinberg’s Cubase 4 ($399.99 crossgrade, or $999.99 retail), which now runs on the Mac platform. For the popular M-Audio and Pro Tools apps, you’ll need an audio interface that works with those companies’ software (more on that later).


And an external hard drive. While you can do it, we don’t recommend recording straight to your computer’s internal hard drive. This point confuses some people, so here’s a simple way to think about it: Your music software will run on the internal drive, but your actual audio files should reside on an external drive. You tell the software, when setting it up, where the audio should go. Remember, the faster the RPMs of these drives, the better the audio performance. Also, avoid using USB external drives (their cable throughput is just too slow to effectively pass audio for our needs) and go strictly with FireWire 400 (referred to technically as IEEE 1394) at minimum. Check out for a huge list of cheap drives, or try Apple’s online store. If you’ve got a Mac that has multiple built-in hard drives, you can record to a secondary drive, as long as the audio stays off your main drive.


A microphone is recommended for better audio. Sure, you can sing or play into your Mac’s built-in mic, but you won’t like what you hear. The old adage applies when making records: “garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO for short). One reason to buy a decent audio interface is so you can plug a microphone into it and record like a pro. Most quality mics output through a three-pronged connector called an XLR (male) output. But that means you’ll need an XLR cable to get to your audio interface. Simply insert the cable’s XLR (female) end into the microphone and connect the XLR (male) end to the XLR (female) microphone (MIC) input on the audio interface.


Don't forget the preamp. In the home theater/consumer audio world, a preamp is a unit that lets you plug in various sources like CD players, DVD players, tape decks, and so on, so that the amplifier can make the signal loud enough to hear. In our case, a preamp takes a microphone/keyboard/guitar signal and amplifies it enough to be recorded by the music software. Most of today’s USB and FireWire audio interfaces have the preamps build right into them, and that’s where you plug in the XLR microphone cable. Then you adjust the mic level using the gain control.


For those who play bass, guitar, or keyboards, you plug into a different input. Instead of XLR, you’ll use what’s called a 1/4-inch cable. Unlike the XLR, which is referred to as balanced (because one of the three prongs has a ground), the 1/4-inch cable is referred to as unbalanced, since it has no ground. So these 1/4-inch cables get plugged into a direct interface (DI) input on your audio interface. Then the preamp will provide the signal with enough gain to be recorded - just like the XLR microphone. (Note that some audio interfaces have their DI inputs separate from XLR, while other audio interfaces use a special kind of combo connector that lets you plug in either one.)


Listen to yourself. Last but not least, you need to play back your hit song. The best way to go is to use a pair of headphones or set of speakers that hook up to the audio interface. On Macs, you can also plug speakers into the audio output jack, which is a 1/8-inch mini stereo plug. You could also use the built-in speakers on your Mac - if you’re really cheap. But if you go this route, you won’t be able to properly hear your music. And when we say properly we mean with a pretty flat frequency response, which we think is probably the most accurate audio representation possible and what you’re going to need to hear if you’re mixing and trying to tell up from down. Studio monitors, also called reference monitors, don’t kiss up to your ears like most stereo speakers that are just designed to make all music sound generally pleasing. Yeah, some people DO just plug into their home stereo and use that for monitoring (don’t do it). But hey, whatever works (don’t do it).


Making musical magic. OK, so we get ourselves an audio interface, and plug that into the computer using whatever cable it needs (USB or FireWire 400). Into that audio interface we plug our mics (using those XLR cables) or guitars, basses, or keyboards (using 1/4-inch cables). To get sound back out of the audio interface, we plug in our headphones and speakers, or just run a cable to our home stereo as a last resort. Then we install the software on the computer and hook up an external hard drive - again, preferably using FireWire 400 (or FireWire 800 if your Mac can handle it). Just remember to tell the software to record to the external drive, and you’re ready to rock.






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If you don't mind, I would love to know if this will record decent vocals over electronica tracks:

Macbook pro 2.2ghz quad, 4GB, 115GB OWC SSD
Abelton Intro
Audio-Technica AT2020 USB Condenser USB Microphone (with shock mount + pop filter)

I'd also be doing some simple djing with various track files using abelton.
I just worry about file compatibility since some were downloaded to a pc.

Thanks for any advice/help in advance.



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Hi there,

Great article - really helpful and insightful!

At my work we're buying a new Mac Pro with the aim of having a workstation that will be able to do all of our sound and video editing. We're looking to buy a pair of JBL Control 1 Pro speakers, and I wanted to know whether we could use our existing Mbox 2 as an amp or whether we'd have to buy another amp to connect the speakers to the Mac? I've spoken to a local Mac technician, from whom we're buying our Mac Pro, and he suggests buying another amp because the Mbox doesn't have enough power to give us the sound quality we need.

I've been doing some online research and I'm still very confused, because I'm not sure I agree with the technician but on the other hand I'm not getting much clarity from my research.

So my question is, can we use our existing Mbox 2 to connect our studio monitors to the Mac and will the result be of high quality as we use it in audio (Pro Tools) and video (Adobe Premiere Pro) editing?



It’s very good article.
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Just found this forum, and I'm wondering if USB is still the recommendation for audio? I'm looking at the Konnekt 24D, and TC Electronic recommends dedicated buss, so I'm assuming unless I use the ExpressCard/34 interface I won't be able to hang the 24D off the FW400 and the external drive off the FW800? Anyone using say the M-Audio 1814 with an external FW drive on a MacBook Pro (mine is new, 15.4/2.5)?

This is a real good thread, glad I found it!



Very nice tips. I was wondering if we can somehow sync IMovie with MBox 2. I have a Macbook and Mbox 2 and would like to make videos with the sound quality of MBox 2. Any suggestions?



I am using the iMovie 08 voiceover function and trying to record audio with my MBox but I am not getting any audio.  iMovie is seeing my MBox and giving me the MBox as a choice under the audio input dropdown on the Voiceover box. Also, I have selected the Digidesign MBox under System Preferences as the Audio Input source.  The Mac is definitely seeing the Mbox and the audio is showing up under the system preferences audio input meter... but the iMovie voiceover functionality is not hearing the audio... but it is seeing the MBox as an audio input option.  I have tried the same operation with ProTools LE open and closed in the background.  It made no difference.  I tried the voice over function using the Buil-In microphone on the Mac and it worked.  Why won't the voiceover function hear the MBox??? 



I'm encountering the exact same problem but don't see any resolutions underneath this message. Can anyone help me out? Cheers!



Where can I get speaker stands like the ones used in this article?



This article makes a lot of sense....


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Studio monitors, also called reference monitors, don’t kiss up to your ears like most stereo speakers that are just designed to make all music sound generally pleasing.


Wang Chung

This article makes a lot of sense....thanks guys for the help!!

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