Following on from our article The New Apple Mac Mini 2018 Is Described As Awesome But Is It A Good Pro Tools Machine? in which we looked at the suitability of the new Mac mini as a Pro Tools computer, we asked community member Simon Nakra to share his experiences.
Simon Nakra owns a recording studio called Studio Neo based in Warwickshire in the UK and he has been a Pro Tools user for the past 14 years. In this article Simon shares his own experiences of going from a Mac Pro Cheese-grater to a Mac mini 2018 computer fro his music production Pro Tools rig. Over to you Simon…
Something To Get Out Of The Way
Before we get into my experiences changing to a new Mac mini 2018 I wanted to say something about the Mac vs Windows PC debate.
I just want to say that the war on this topic is well and truly over. With the correct configuration, Pro Tools can work equally well on both platforms and as Apple prices are increasing, choosing a Windows PC to run Pro Tools is no doubt a sensible decision as the cost factor can be much less and the components are largely the same. That said, I’m a Mac guy through and through and have been for a very long time so it’s always my platform of choice.
My previous Pro Tools computer was a 5.1 Mac Pro 6 Core 3.33 GHz (Cheese-Grater), which I purchased in 2012 to run a Pro Tools HD Native PCIe System along with a DigiLink interface.
I used this system for music production, recording, mixing and mastering work. The Mac Pro has served me very well, but as mix session demands increased (larger track counts and multiple plug-in processing), I often had to commit tracks by printing them. In some scenarios this is ideal and in some not so much, but it was what it was.
Then Pro Tools 12.4 was released, and I was a happy bunny as we got track freeze! I constantly used this feature on every mix because of my CPU limitations. It wasn’t a big deal because it meant that my sessions were stable and there was none of those dreaded CPU errors! I could actually have continued to use the Mac Pro for another few years if I wasn’t so bothered about Pro Tools upgrades, OS upgrades and Thunderbolt connectivity.
So, What’s The Problem, You Ask?
When OS Mojave was released and I read an Apple article about compatible graphics cards I quickly realised that my graphics card (ATI Radeon 5770) wasn’t supported. OK, so what are my options to keep this beauty of a machine up to date? Well, I could have purchased a supported graphics card and at the same time pimp out my Mac Pro by upgrading the CPU to a 12 Core and adding more RAM. Did it make financial sense to me by investing further in aging tech though? Nope!
You only have to look at the latest Pro Tools system requirements and OS Mojave compatibility to know that the 2010 and 2012 Mac Pro cheese-graters are hanging on by a thread. I wouldn’t be surprised if those machines are dropped from official support in the next 2 years. A risk I didn’t really want to take.
What about Thunderbolt connectivity? Watching workarounds on YouTube didn’t fill me with much confidence and it all looked a bit messy. A Mac upgrade it is then!
Before the 2018 Mac mini was announced, I narrowed down my options to the 2013 Mac Pro (‘Trash Can’), 2017 iMac Pro and 2018 MacBook Pro. I was actually ready to upgrade in the summer of 2018, but still wasn’t really convinced by any of those options.
The ‘Trash Can’ was over 5 years old and still very expensive. It would have been a different story if I had upgraded to the ‘Trash Can’ a few years ago. I would still be using it today. Then there’s the displays on the iMac Pro and MacBook Pro; which are beautiful by the way but useless to me. I have my own touch control Slate Raven displays, which are firmly part of my workflow so those displays on the iMac Pro and MacBook Pro wouldn’t be getting any attention.
The sensible thing for me to do was to wait and see what the 2019/2020 Mac Pro would bring to the table. But hang on…Apple announce the 2018 Mac Mini at their October event and that changed everything!
The Perfect Fit
New tech – check!
A powerful CPU option – check!
Blazing fast SSD storage – check!
Lots of RAM – check!
Good connectivity – check!
I waited a couple of months and pretty much watched every review on the Mac mini 2018 to see if theory matched reality. Christmas was coming and I was convinced! This was the Mac I needed to upgrade to. I put in my order and timed it so that I could get the new Mac mini and accessories required to migrate from the Mac Pro before Christmas and then instead of being a couch potato over the holidays, I could do something useful and get this baby set up!
Mac Mini Spec:
3.2Ghz 6 Core i7 Processor
1 TB SSD
Akitio Node Lite TB3 Enclosure (for the HD Native PCIe Card)
CalDigit TS3 Plus Dock (connectivity galore)
USB Hub (more connectivity)
Quad SSD Enclosure (to house my SSD’s from the Mac Pro)
Connections Made Simple
There are 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back of the Mac mini 2018, so I decided that I better make use of that huge bandwidth. The Akitio Node Lite Thunderbolt chassis is connected via an active Thunderbolt 3 cable to the first Thunderbolt 3 port on the Mac Mini. The CalDigit TS3 Plus is connected via an active Thunderbolt 3 cable to the second port on the Mac Mini. The USB Hub is connected to the CalDigit via USB. The SSD Enclosure is daisy chained to the Akitio Node Lite (the Akitio has 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports). Further backup storage connected via USB-C to the CalDigit. For the touch displays, the Slate Raven MTX is connected to the HDMI port on the Mac Mini and the RAVEN MTi is connected to the Display Port on the CalDigit. I’m using 1080p resolution.
I’m Set! Or Am I?
I now had both a computer and macOS version that wasn’t yet officially supported by Avid. My usual advice to anyone that is looking to upgrade is to ensure their system is officially supported - so why didn’t I follow my own advice? Well I still had the Mac Pro, so I had a fall-back option. I wasn’t ready to part with it just then. NAMM was also around the corner and I wondered what Avid was going to announce?
Pro Tools 2019 – Yay! OS Mojave Support – Yay! Release scheduled in Q1 – Yay!
While I was waiting, I thought that I may as well put the Mac mini 2018 to the test anyway!
Now rather than put the Mac mini 2018 through a gentle pace by running some light sessions I opted to try and break it via performance tests. I am running Pro Tools 2018.12 Ultimate on macOS 10.14.2 Combo update. My session was set at 44.1KHz, 24-bit, consisted of MIDI and Audio data and was 10 minutes long. I ran 128 instrument tracks with BOOM and D Verb inserted on every track and 128 stereo audio tracks with Slate VMR (full channel strip – 5 modules) inserted on every track. I maxed out the voice count of 256 voices. My hardware buffer was set to 1024 samples.
I was getting around 86% system usage and didn’t get a single spike or CPU error after an hour of looping. Apart from glitchy graphics, which could be solved by adding an eGPU, the session played absolutely fine. This was a massive improvement over my Mac Pro which would have struggled at less than half the number of tracks. I was very impressed.
Regular mix sessions with large track counts (70 plus) and lots of plug-ins operate with ease. I no longer have to freeze tracks, which I was doing constantly on the Mac Pro cheese-grater. I also didn’t notice any glitches in the graphics during regular use. However, the graphics are where the Mac Mini will fall down if I intend on doing any video or graphics intensive work, so in that case I will definitely require an eGPU.
Tracking at lower buffer sizes (32 and 64 samples) also works surprisingly well. Avid has stated that there are known CPU performance issues when working at lower buffer sizes. Well not for me - so I guess I’m one of the lucky ones!
The Avid DigiLink works flawlessly to my Prism Atlas connected to my HD Native card (housed in the Akito) as does Thunderbolt 2 (2 x Slate VRS8 daisy chained and connected directly to the Mac Mini via an Apple TB3 to TB2 adapter).
There is no doubt that this Mac mini 2018 is an absolute beast for audio work. I am very happy with my decision. As for the Mac Pro, it has now gone to a new home.