Now, everyone knows that all new macs come with iLife, which includes garageband. Now you can use garage band to make music, but if thats what you're into then this post really isn't for you! Some of you may remember back to last year, when i detailed a comparison between two DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) Protools Vs Cubase. I direct you to this article to decide which of these fits your preference best. Essentially ProTools is best for audio recording, and Cubase is best for MIDI. There will be the hardcore logic fans out there who argue that logic is a contender, but in my personal opinion, logic is simply a 'professional' version of garage band (That's not to say you cant do advanced audio editing with it, I just wouldn't !! ).
Anyway, so you've decided on your weapon of choice (and by weapon, i mean DAW!). The first piece of hardware you will need is an interface (fancy term for sound card). Obviously, if you have decided to choose ProTools, you will either have purchased a Digidesign soundcard (Mbox / 003 Rack / etc as the software comes with the hardware!) or you will have to have gone down the ProTools M-Powered route, which means you require a compatible M-Audio interface. It is worth mentioning here, that Digidesign hardware is very unreliable on both Mac and PC when you try to use the interface for anything other than ProTools, for example iTunes or iLife programs on a Mac tend to cause kernal panics at shutdown.
Regardless, If you have gone down the Cubase or (*ahem* Logic) route, you will need a standard interface. There are literally hundreds of possible choices here, Personally I would recommend anything by Edirol, E-MU, or if your a guitarist then I would particularly recommend anything by Line 6. I would advise going for an external USB or Firewire sound card, as they are portable, and often powered off the USB socket themselves (saves lugging around that hefty power adaptor!). Personally my interface of choice is an Mbox 2 Mini (when running ProTools) and an Edirol UA-25EX (When running cubase and everything else). The Edirol interface is now branded as Cakewalk, and has excellent Mac support!
Now you have to make the most difficult choice of all, You have your DAW, you have your interface. You just need some monitors (for those not in the know, speakers are referred to as monitors in the music industry, as you are 'monitoring' your sound!). Now, you can spend anything from £50, to £50,000 (Maybe a slight exaggeration for home musicians) on monitors, and as with interfaces, there are hundreds available. A few of the choices you have to make are, whether you want active or passive monitors. Active monitors have built in amplifiers, whereas you will need a separate amplifier to power passive monitors. You will need to decide how much power you want, this is measured in Watts and essentially translates into how loud the speakers will be. Remember, studio monitors are all about the quality of the sound, and NOT the loudness. So make sure you take into account the frequency response, Most studio monitors will come with a frequency response from 20Hz - 20Khz, as this is the range of frequencies our ear can pick up. However, it is important to look at the frequency response graph of a speaker, as it is important to have a flat frequency response (this is also true of microphones) as you will be hearing a truer sound, the flatter the line. Below is an example of a good frequency response graph, and a bad frequency response graph.
Below is an example of a flat (Good) frequency response
Whereas Below, is an example of a non-flat (Bad) frequency response
So, Armed with this insider knowledge, My personal recommendations would be to check out cheaper offerings from Alesis, but if you're looking to spend a bit more, then Genelec Monitors are a firm favourite in the industry. Personally, I run Alesis M1 Active MK2 monitors, which can be brought for a fairly reasonable price today. The new version of these monitors is the Alesis M1 Active 520's. A good friend of mine has these monitors, and is more than happy with them!
Right, now you have everything you need to get a good quality sound from your Mac. You need to get sound into your Mac! You can do this in two ways, either record the audio information using a Microphone or a DI-Box, or using MIDI. MIDI stands for (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and esentially all you need to know, is that you can purchase a MIDI keyboard (USB / Firewire / or MIDI ports) plug it into your mac (or interface) and play musical information into the DAW. This can then be picked up by a VSTI (Virtual Studio Technology Instrument) and turned into audio information. For the purposes of this post, i will talk only about MIDI keyboards. Microphone choice is such a vast topic, I will cover this in a future post.
MIDI keyboards come in all shapes and sizes! (Well okay, they don't, they all look like keyboards, but anyway...) You have a number of different choices and options, you can get different sizes. e.g. if you're not a grade 8, classically trained pianist, a 25 key, semi-weighted solution will probably suffice. But midi keyboards are available up to 8 octaves, with fully-weighed keys for the more traditional pianist! I could talk for days about MIDI and the benifits, etc, however right now, i'm going to give you a few suggestions of keyboards. The M-Audio Axiom range is a relatively comprehensive solution, available in 25, or 49 key versions. If you're looking for something a little simpler then the Oxygen range, also by M-Audio should suit you well.
Now, this post just brushes the surface of music creation on a Mac. But the intention was to cover some of the hardware you will require to start producing music at home. I am considering making this a series of posts, covering everything from Microhpones, to Synthesisers, to Outboard Gear, and Virtual Instruments. Well, If you're still reading, then I applaud you, and thank you! If you have any specific questions please don't hesitate to ask in the comments!