The Ultimate Mac Setup for Musicians

There’s no disputing the fact that OS X is a brilliant platform for musicians and music lovers. Apple has invested a huge amount into the music industry and, whether or not they’ve left a good impression, it has lead to an abundance of useful software on the Mac.

Today we’ll be looking at a huge selection of software for musicians and music lovers alike. Whether you produce, record and mix music – or whether you just love listening to it – we’ll have something for you. Read on to learn about a few new applications that can fill your life with music!

All-In-One Studios

  • GarageBand – Included on your Mac in the iLife suite, and used by bands such as Fall Out Boy, GarageBand is a simple but easy-to-use recording application. It’s as straight-forward as you’d expect from Apple, and makes a good place to start if you’d like to experiment with making your own music.
  • Ableton Live – A feature-packed recording and life performance application. It’s an immediate way to get your ideas down, record professionally, and even perform a live DJ set. This video offers a great introduction.
  • Logic Studio – A complete set of professional applications that lets you write, record, edit, mix, and perform. According to Apple, it’s the largest collection of modeled instruments, sampler instruments, effect plug-ins, and audio loops ever put in a single box.
  • Pro Tools – An advanced audio creation and production suite, featuring dozens of new virtual instruments and plug-ins, scoring and MIDI features, and much, much more.
  • Digital Performer – Record, edit, arrange, mix, process and master audio and MIDI tracks side by side for songwriting and live performance.
  • Cubase 5 – An industry standard application, Cubase is used by the professionals for music recording and production. Highly recommended by our Twitter followers!
  • Ardour – If you like an interface so jam-packed with dials and switches it will make your eyes water, then Ardour will be right up your street. Completely free and open source – something fairly unusual in this particular category.
  • Tracktion – Moving towards a slightly simpler, one-window interface, Tracktion is another studio app to compose, record, edit, mix, and share your creations.


  • Finale – Compose, arrange, notate, and print engraver-quality sheet music. The output looks beautiful, and there are a wide range of different methods to get notation and music into the application.
  • MuseScore – A free, cross platform WYSIWYG music notation program. Perfect whether you’re using a Mac, or any other type of computer!
  • Sibelius – Sibelius 6 is a giant leap forward in notation software, and it makes composing a score incredibly easy and straight-forward.
  • Tablatures – Tablatures is compatible with Windows’ PowerTab, with a wealth of import and export options.


  • Audacity – A completely free, open source audio editor. It’s only going to meet your most basic of requirements, but can come in useful from time to time.
  • Wave Editor – Designed in Cocoa from the ground up, Wave Editor proudly takes advantage of Core Audio, Quartz, and other solid OS X features to deliver a feature-packed editing suite.

Sampling and Synthesising Music

  • Reason – An incredibly popular and powerful synthesiser, coupled with a sequencer, a monophonic arpeggiator, and their “ReGroove” mixer.
  • Native Instruments – Producers of a whole range of high quality sample instruments. They tick off every category of instrument you could imagine.
  • Ivory – A selection of high quality virtual piano solutions – Grand Piano, Italian Grand, or Upright Pianos. A multi-platform plug-in that recreates the sound and playing experience of various instruments.
  • GrooveMaker – Feel like you need to compose music on-the-go? GrooveMaker is the revolutionary iPhone/iPod Touch app to create non-stop electronic, dance and hip-hop tracks anywhere.
  • Recycle – ReCycle lets you do with sampled loops what you can do with beats programmed from individual drum sounds – alter the tempo, or replace sounds and process them individually.
  • IK Multimedia – Creators of SampleTank and a number of other virtual instrument packs along with Sonik Synth 2.

Drum Kits

  • Battery – We mentioned Native Instruments above, but their drum synthesiser – Battery – is worth linking to here as well. It contains an extensive library of both acoustic and electronic sounds.
  • DrumThing – Not the most appealing interface, but worth a look if you’d like a simple application for programming your drum kit.
  • iDrum – I’d be remiss not to mention an “i” application here, and iDrum fits the naming stereotype nicely. It integrates as a plugin with much of the studio software above, and also links to an iPhone app.
  • Musing – And now for something completely different! Musing works around the process of “evolving” beats, to find a rhythm that fits your melody perfectly. Not really a “pro tool”, but worth taking a look at.
  • Archibald – Another feature-packed “virtual drummer”, which adds a margin of improvisation to each beat, better replicating the sound from a real drum kit.


  • Katsura Tuners – A number of different applications are available from this developer for every different type of instrument tuning.
  • Guitar Shed – Packing a range of different guitar tools into one application, Guitar Shed is capable of tuning, helping you reference and learn chords, and organising tablature.
  • Perfect Pitch – A powerful and diverse tuner application. Simple enough for the casual instrumentalist to use, but also offers tuning based on harmonic series, quarter tones, and any other even division of the octave.
  • Cleartune (App Store) – An iPhone application that uses the built-in mic to quickly and accurate tune your instrument. The interface is intuitive to use, and it’s the application used to demonstrate this feature of the iPhone in Apple Stores.
  • Guitar Toolkit (App Store) – It’s a touch expensive, but Guitar Toolkit packs a huge range of features: tuning, chord library, a metronome, and support for a huge range of stringed instruments.

Listening to Music

  • iTunes – The classic Mac audio player, which syncs with your iPod, and provides easy access to thousands of songs through the iTunes Store.
  • Songbird – A fairly new iTunes competitor that offers a similar interface, but far less restriction than Apple’s application. It’s also good if you don’t tout an iPod/iPhone, but another device instead.
  • Spotify – As far as streaming music goes, Spotify is setting a new standard – but only if you live in one of the supported countries.
  • Last.Fm – Another online music catalog and streaming system, Last.Fm is a great way to discover and share new music.
  • VLC – Capable of playing absolutely anything you throw at it, VLC is good for handling any and all music file formats.
  • Grooveshark – The final “online radio station” mentioned here, Grooveshark looks good, and has a large catalog of music you can stream.
  • AudioFinder – AudioFinder can build a catalog of every sound on your system, save it, and search it instantly to find the sounds you need when you need them.

Share Your Software

We’ve done our best to pick out what we consider to be some of the most useful Mac applications for musicians. I’m sure there are several that we have missed, so it would be great if you could share your suggestions and favourites in the comments!


Add Yours
  • I found this music app yesterday after many, many years of searching for the perfect DJ application: . It’s simple, beautiful and perfectly Mac-like in function and usage.

    I think that the software and its accompanying turntable accessory: deserve a writeup here!

    • It looks nice but wastes too much screen on silly gimmicks. A “record” and a tonearm? C’mon…
      In all fairness, it looks ok for hobby use but for anyone who is really serious about digital DJ’ing there is basically only two choices and that is Native Instruments Traktor or Rane Serato.

      • Traktor? Dude………. your a fucking joke traktor is for people who wish they could work out how to beat match, and just hope none of their friends notice……… grow a dick!

      • Traktor and Serato are ok, I guess. I use Ableton Live 8

  • No mention of Renoise? There should be at least *some* mention of trackers. I’m a Reason / Logic user today, but I come initially from tracker software. It wouldn’t hurt to give some attention to that approach to music composition as it’s often a fairly accessible approach for novices, software depending.

    • Also, I’d probably throw Amadeus and/or Sound Studio or Fission some love in the Editing department. Amadeus has managed to open some truly arcane files left over from my ][gs days (with some work) when nothing else would even come close.

      Sound Studio and Fission have served me well over the years also, though maybe not quite as fully featured as Wave Editor or as free as Audacity. Still, they each fit between the two listed offerings rather well, I’d think.

  • I also submitted Renoise via twitter for inclusion. I am amazed at how overlooked that software is. I grew up on Fast Tracker 2, so I’m a bit biased, but the power and potential available in Renoise – not to mention it’s absolutely free to use (You basically pay for the WAV export feature). It is absolutely worth a mention.

    If you’re just screwing around, use Garage Band. If you want absolute control over every aspect of the music you’re making down to the finest details, Renoise is amazing.

    This entire album was written and recorded in Renoise:

  • To clarify, this isn’t a setup. Nor is it ultimate. This is a list of apps.

  • +1 for Renoise.

    It got good reviews in Computer Music Magazine and MacWorld. It’s been picking up steam for the last few years with constant updates. Kind of disappointed not to see it in the list.

  • No mention of Guitar Pro 5?

    Great notation/tab program.

    • Up to Guitar Pro 6 now :) Students of mine are using it for composition since they are mainly guitarists :)

      • tux guitar. its basically guitar pro, only less neat, but is completely and totally free. look it up, its amazing.

  • a great program for routing sound is called soundflower

  • No mention of TuxGuitar? A free-as-in-speech-and-as-in-beer little brother of Guitar Pro, with an ever-growing community. Works great on OS X.

  • NI Maschine + Ableton Live = Heaven

  • No Reason and Recycle both can be found here:

  • Nevermind I’m blind……both reason and recycle are on the list…!

  • Ultimate setup? A list of applications more like, most of which will work just as well on a PC.
    Although I’m supprised to see Garage Band on the list.

    Oh and what is with the iPhone/iPod apps?

  • As much as I used to love Tracktion, I have to admit that it is dead. Version 3 for the Mac is filled with bugs and they were never fixed.
    Mackie hasn’t officially declared Tracktion dead but it was 2 years since the last update so…
    Official Tracktion forum:
    Anyway, since Apple dropped the price of Logic there is little reason to buy any other DAW.

  • I think this list is coming from a slightly uneducated person in regards to music production.

  • Hey, anyone remembers good old OS9 apps we used to use back in the day?

    Or when Ableton Live first came out? I actually had a chance to use a pre release version. Experience I probably will never forget.

    (Sorry, the post made me a little nostalgic)

  • Another good app for mobile DJ’s that I have on my MacBook Pro is MegaSeg. It’s not really state of the art for mixing and scratching (at least not the version I have–it’s a few years old), but it does the trick nicely for playing continuous party mixes and you can cross-fade with the click of a button. Just load up a playlist, arrange the songs and let it go. You can tweak the auto-seg settings as well, or exercise your control over it. It’s up to you. Fun app!

  • THANK YOU! I’m already using GarageBand and Audacity, as well as NCH Software’s Wavepad and Guitar Pro. I’ve always wanted to check out Cubase (it’s what my friend uses) and ProTools (duh). I’m definitely gonna look into a bunch of these apps.

  • For editing sound files I find TwistedWave (, which was on MacZot at the end of January, simply unbeatable.

  • This post inspired me, to write a general guide to making music on a mac. (

    I definitely don’t claim to be an expert, but I am studying Music Technology, so I hope what I know can help others!

    Let me know what you think, and keep the awesome articles coming!

    • Good read, however the post is a bit too long and badly laid out IMO.

      • Thanks, I will have a look at reshuffling it, and see what i can do!

  • Reaper! It’s in Beta for OSX, but it’s fantastic and free, and is updated regularly.

  • I thought cubase was pc only..? for good music
    d16 group for 808 & 909 emulation
    camel audio and bbe for plug ins
    bassizm for kick drum synthesis

    • Nope, Cubase is very much Mac as well!

  • Ya’ll missed the holy grail of wave editing… Peak from Bias Inc. Sure… it’s pricey, but I’ve tried the editor you mentioned here with great dissatisfaction.

  • I know this post is rather old, but I thought I’d mention Superior Drummer (or EZDrummer, if you’re cheap) for drum sounds. Simply sensational. For metal drum sounds, the Drumkit From Hell expansion is a necessity.

  • Currently using Logic Studio + Native instruments. Great software — I’m still waiting to hear the first hit single from someone that produced it entirely in an iphone app. I think it’s insane that you can actually do that.

  • all my love to presonus studio one pro

  • I have found very useful as a music teacher and for students who have different computers and not a great deal of cash to spread around, for a powerful, free and easy to use notation alternative. Its very easy for typing in and playing back many parts. The only thing is that you cannot plug in a MIDI keyboard. But most of the time, keyboards are a little bit painful to quantise :)

    • Oh and you can export what you have written to GarageBand, Logic etc for further editing.

  • I am not a musician but seeing what is available to Mac users it might give some of it a go. You never know, it might be fun. We will see.

  • This site is nice. Thanks for all the information I have been looking for a while and you made it easy.

  • Under “Drum Kits” section you totally missed Spectrasonic’s “Stylus RMX”. While the perception to some might be that it is only “Loop Based”, it is not, you can actually go to the mix panel, click on “Kit” where you’ll find a bunch of “one shot” samples and just go nuts.

  • I have a lot of the IK Multimedia apps.
    I just got the iRig Mic for my iPhone.
    I’m using it to sing live through VocaLive.

  • Hey, I’ve heard that Capo from the Mac App Store is really nice! It slows down audio tracks for the listeners to be able to learn songs better and quicker!

  • You’ve missed out the industry standard audio editor, Steinberg WaveLab (which has only recently made the platform leap from Windows and is now at version 7) –

  • thanks for this post, this has really helped me out now.

  • Native Instruments Traktor is one the good choice for digital dj’ing, with timecode cd/vinyls or midi controller (or just with your mouse). Well, Native instruments is good with updates and Mac os x.

    Ableton is also another standard for sequencing.

    Itunes also can be handy when you are converting your recorded dj sets from wav to mp3 to upload somewhere on the web. Well for me the best thing Itunes can do :/

  • anyone tried dubturbo? can’t compete with reason or fl but it’s decent for beat making

  • i bought dt couple of weeks ago, find it very straightforward. i need something more complex though :)

  • I will return certainly, and i’d like you can visit my website.

  • If you are looking for an ear-trainer, sheet music trainer, and music symbols trainer all in one solution, than please take notice of Solfeggio Studio for Piano Mac edition. Download a free version at I’ve been using it for the passed three months, and the results are great. It really has helped me to become a better musician.