The price of entry for professional digital audio workstation (DAW) software has become lower—much lower. Apple recently separated its flagship Logic Pro application out from the rest of the original Studio package, and is selling it for an unbelievable $199.99 through the App Store. Taking that price into consideration, Logic Pro 9.1.7 sets the standard for its sheer power, its plug-in and audio loops bundle, and its overall flexibility. Unless you need Pro Tools for compatibility with other studios, or simply because you’re more familiar with it—perfectly valid reasons to go with Avid—Logic Pro is our favorite mainstream DAW and a clear Editors’ Choice.
Versions, Installation, and Hardware
First, a word about what Logic Pro doesn’t contain, for those who were familiar with the older Logic Studio 9 package, which cost $499.99 (and is still available, but only in Apple retail stores). MainStage 2 is now a separate $29.99 download, while Soundtrack Pro and WaveBurner have been discontinued. The cut-price Logic Express 9 is also gone, since that program retailed for the same price as what Apple is now charging for the full-blown Logic Pro 9. You still get the entire plug-in bundle, including the EXS24 sampler and Sculpture synthesizer, plus tons of additional content. There’s no paper manual, but there hasn’t been since Logic Studio 9 was originally released.
For this review, I tested Logic Pro on three Macs: a Core i7-powered MacBook Pro 15-inch (Thunderbolt, early 2011) with 8GB RAM; a two-year-old MacBook Pro 13-inch with a 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB RAM; and a 24-inch Apple iMac (Nvidia GeForce 9400M) with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB RAM. There’s no PC version available, and hasn’t been since 2002, when Apple first purchased Emagic. Mark of the Unicorn recently announced Digital Performer 8, which had been a Mac-only program for 20 years but will be available on the PC for the first time this coming Spring. So that leaves Logic as the sole major digital audio workstation that’s Mac-only—a situation we don’t ever see changing, given Apple’s ownership.
Installation is a breeze compared to before. First, there’s still no copy protection. That’s not unusual for Mac apps in general. But it’s novel in the realm of digital audio workstations, where Avid Pro Tools 10 requires a PACE iLok key, and Steinberg Cubase 6.5 requires its own proprietary eLicenser key. Having no copy protection is a godsend, especially if you’re on a MacBook Pro with just two free USB ports—and USB hubs aren’t always an answer, because too many audio devices (not to mention other peripherals) prohibit using hubs in their user manuals.
Logic Pro’s initial 413MB download is quite quick, although deceptive, as most of the extra content is available as in-app downloads totaling 19GB. That includes all six Apple Jam Packs, which contain over 15,000 royalty-free loops. Logic Studio 9 used to require over 40GB, but it turns out more than half of that was entirely because of royalty-free library music and effects included with Soundtrack Pro. Beginning with Logic Pro 9.1, the program now offers a full 64-bit mode, which vastly increases the number of plug-ins instances you can run on any machine with more than 4GB of RAM. (To enable this, bring up Get Info on the Logic Pro main app in the Applications folder with Command-I, and uncheck “Open in 32-bit mode.”)
It’s also easy to get started with Logic Pro without any additional hardware. Granted, Windows 7 PCs are excellent recording systems; the days of Mac-only recording studios have been gone for years by this point. But one clear advantage Macs have is in configuring audio interfaces. I’ve done this with countless interfaces, and countless PCs and Macs, over the years. While it’s not always perfect on the Mac side, especially right around major OS revisions, I run into less trouble less often on a consistent basis. And no matter the interface, it always seems to coexist perfectly with the Mac’s system sounds, and hot-plugging the interface always works reliably as well.
Another advantage is that with a Mac, you can use the built-in sound card in lieu of a separate interface. Not only is it relatively clean sounding—no hiss or thin sound here—but it works perfectly fine for virtual instrument playback, with low playback latency, for composing music “in the box,” if not for recording live instruments. That’s something that I’ve never been able to get to work reliably on the PC side, even when using supposedly low-latency, third-party ASIO drivers like ASIO4ALL—though I’ve seen occasional reports of success in various forums across the Internet. Either way, you’ll still want at least a pair of headphones and a small USB-powered MIDI keyboard for Logic Pro 9, at the very least. During testing, I had no problem alternating between using an M-Audio Fast Track($149.99 list, 4 stars) to record and monitor audio, and just using the built-in headphone jack for virtual synth playback.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the main program. Logic dates back 25 years to Notator on the Atari ST (which I’ll date myself by admitting I’ve used). But you’d never know it from the interface. Apple gave everything a huge overhaul for version 8, and version 9 also added some useful improvements. Perhaps the nicest thing about Logic, post-version 8, is its lack of extraneous windows and annoying dialog boxes. The top right portion of the screen contains the arrange window, which is where you’ll do most of your composing and editing. Below that is a multi-mode window that can display the mixer, a piano roll, a score editor, or a sample editor.
To the left, a track inspector window shows the mixer channel strip for the individual track, plus the track’s output bus—be it the master stereo or 5.1 surround bus, or an aux. The right side pops up a number of windows, including a massive media bin that contains instrument track presets, loops, audio files, and other relevant media. You can also display the current MIDI track’s event list, which when combined with the piano roll or score editor, makes it simple to edit your tracks. Logic’s live quantizing is particularly useful, as it’s non-destructive; you can adjust note length, strength, note durations, and other tweaks, and then modify it to your heart’s content to get just the right feel.
Despite its immense power, Logic is a simple program to start recording with, because the main screen can include everything you need from start to finish—depending on how you populate it, of course. That said, you can still save multiple screen sets, which are a great idea for arranging, recording, mixing, and so forth. Better still are templates, which let you populate otherwise empty projects with commonly used instruments, effects, and sends and returns, as well as custom channel strips for preserving virtual instruments and effect chains on a track-by-track basis.
A few nits remain. You still can’t organize your plug-ins in any way; Logic organizes its own plug-ins neatly, but any third-party plug-ins appear in alphabetical order and that’s it. Pro Tools and Cubase offer much more here. Logic does have an arguably more powerful alternative, though: Channel Strips, which let you save folders full of preset instrument tracks that include all effects and settings ready to go. Logic also stores many user settings, including custom-saved presets for plug-in settings, in tough-to-find folders deep within Library/Application Support, which makes backing up and transferring things from one machine to another tricky.
Moreover, a handful of important features—notably arpeggiators, though there are others—are buried within the esoteric Logic Environment, a powerful but obtuse object-oriented tool that takes considerable practice to get the hang of. The Environment is a relic from much older versions of Logic—useful to hang onto for veteran users, but unnecessarily tough to understand for just about anyone else. Tip: The bundled Electronic template contains a pre-built, floating palette arpeggiator you can lift and use in your own custom templates.
Logic offers plenty of recording modes. Basic tracks are available in three kinds: audio, for recording live instruments; MIDI, for recording MIDI data from a keyboard, electronic drum set, or other input device; and instrument, which combine the two for use with virtual synthesizers and other plug-in instruments. Once you’ve recorded a track, editing MIDI data is one of Logic’s strong suits, thanks to its comprehensive event list, piano roll, and notation editor. That’s in contrast to Avid Pro Tools, which has improved considerably over the years in the MIDI department, but as late as a few years ago still lacked features as elementary as basic score notation. Recording audio is also very Pro Tools-like, and includes robust features like Quick Swipe Comping, which is one of the smoothest comping methods I’ve seen in terms of workflow.
Logic’s new Flex Time offers incredible value if you’re recording a lot of pure audio. Flex Time analyzes audio regions and drops in little markers at what it interprets are beats, such as around each kick drum hit. You can then play with those markers almost as if they represented MIDI data. For example, you can drag beats slightly back or ahead, lock it all to a tempo grid, quantize it as if it really were MIDI data, or rip out a groove template and then apply it to other actual MIDI tracks. That lets a real drummer and bass player set the groove for a performance, which you can then quantize existing virtual tracks on top of and lock them together to whatever degree you want. A Varispeed feature mimics a variable speed reel-to-reel tape recorder effect, and even lets you record audio at a slower tempo only to speed it up properly for the track during playback. In short, there’s lots of power here.
- PROS Amazing value. Flexible interface for audio and MIDI recording. Robust, varied, and excellent-sounding plug-in bundle. Includes over 15,000 loops. No copy protection, unlike many of its competitors.
- CONS No PC version. Some legacy interface problems. Logic’s obtuse Environment still needed for some tasks.
- BOTTOM LINE Apple Logic Pro 9, at its newly reduced price, sets the standard for digital audio workstations, both on the Mac platform and overall. It’s a killer package that every serious musician should at least look at closely, if not purchase immediately.