For post-production, film and video game composers, and home-studio musicians alike, Logic Pro X ($199.99) continues to set the bar for pro-level audio editing at a bargain price. The latest upgrade, to version 10.3, contains another round of useful upgrades, and the update is free to existing Pro X owners. The package puts even more pressure on its well-established digital audio workstation, or DAW, competitors, many of which have moved to subscription-based pricing that make them more expensive to buy and maintain over the long term. Unless you need Avid Pro Tools for compatibility with other studios, or simply because you’re more familiar with it, Logic Pro remains our favorite mainstream DAW and a clear Editors’ Choice.
Setup, Installation, and User Interface
To get started with Logic Pro X 10.3, you’ll need a recent Mac running OS X v10.11 (El Capitan) or later, with at least 4GB RAM and 6GB of free space for the base program. To install everything, including all of the packaged synths, instruments, loops, and effects, you’ll need 57GB free. As always, Logic Pro X doesn’t require hardware or software copy protection; as long as you’re logged into the Apple Store with your account, you can download, install, and run it seamlessly.
For this review, I tested Logic Pro X 10.3 on two machines: a 2013 MacBook Air with the Core i7 upgrade, a 256GB SSD, and 8GB RAM running macOS Sierra 10.12.2; and a quad-core i7 2012 Mac Mini with 16GB RAM and a 256GB SSD running OS X El Capitan 10.11.6. I tested Logic Pro X 10.3 with both a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 audio interface and each Mac’s built-in audio, and as expected, I ran into no problems. In fact, I didn’t run into any bugs at all; this may be the most stable version of Logic Pro X I’ve tested in years.
A couple of point updates (now at 10.3.2) have since added three new EXS24-based percussionists to the Drummer instrument for pop, songwriter, and latin beats; the ability to transpose or fine-tune the pitch of audio regions; some minor enhancements to Alchemy and the Arpeggiator plug-in; and some performance and stability improvements across the board.
Apple heavily redesigned the interface for the Pro X launch back in 2013; most of the improvements were welcome, but the color scheme wasn’t. It took on a much darker tone that works well for video editing in a dark room, but not necessarily for audio editing. Apple has lightened things up a bit this time around. It’s still not as silvery-bright as Logic Pro 9 was. More significantly, the UI elements and fonts have received a flatter, macOS Sierra-like makeover, with a simpler, cleaner design that’s easier on the eyes. The transport numerals get a thinner, sharper font as well. The UI itself remains almost entirely the same, so there’s nothing new to learn; it’s just a bit cleaner and more attractive throughout.
Despite its immense power, Logic remains a simple program to start using, because the main screen can include everything you need from start to finish—depending on how you populate it, of course. Basic tracks are available in several 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.
The main view doesn’t see much change in 10.3. The transport is located at the top of the screen and away from any keyboards, mixing surfaces, or other things you may have sitting at the bottom of the monitor and blocking part of the view. The Library contains all available media content; it’s on the left and easily collapsible. The top right portion of the screen contains the arrange window, which is where you do most of your composing and editing. Each track in the arrange window has volume and pan controls.
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 that cover the tempo and time signature of your project, as well as the current MIDI track’s event list, which when combined with the piano roll or score editor, makes it simple to edit your tracks. The score editor still isn’t quite as capable as Finale, but it certainly does the job for songwriters or orchestral arranging in a pinch.
Touch Bar and Track Alternatives
Some of the biggest news with the 10.3 update is full-fledged support for the Touch Bar on the newest MacBook Pro lineup introduced in October 2016. It can show a timeline view with appropriate region colors, track controls, Smart Controls on a track-by-track or even plug-in basis (such as compressor or EQ controls, or electric piano distortion). Tap on a knob, and you can slide a fader right or left to change its value, which makes sense given the thinness of the Touch Bar; you wouldn’t want to try and actually tweak a knob that small in a circular manner.
In addition, the Touch Bar supports hundreds of keyboard shortcuts, including customized sets, and you can use the Touch Bar to perform with small drum pads, piano keyboard scales, or even map MIDI continuous controllers to a slider for third-party plug-ins that use the mod wheel for expression, like Garritan Personal Orchestra or Spectrasonics Omnisphere. The Touch Bar enhancements are admittedly tempting enough to consider upgrading to one of the latest MacBook Pros, and along with Logic Remote on an iPad, could further reduce the need for an expensive hardware transport and mixing controller.
Editing and comping tracks gets a boost thanks to a new Track Alternatives feature, which is similar to a Pro Tools Playlist. It does what it says on the tin; it lets you create alternative versions of a track and then audition and switch between edits, takes, or regions. It’s in addition to Take Folders, and as such offers more flexibility when comping a lead vocal or a guitar solo. You can also destructively render selections of a region now; say you’ve found a combination of effects you like, and know you want to keep it; you can print it right away, just for that region, and then get back to work.
Recording and Virtual Instruments
Apple hasn’t changed Logic Pro X’s built-in sound set much in 10.3, but with a few exceptions, you could argue it didn’t need to. There are over 2,700 instrument and effect patches, including 750 sampled instruments, plus 5,600 downloadable loops. Most of the instruments are contained in a neat Library drawer that pack the instrument plug-in and separate effects already set up, which makes laying down new tracks a cinch. But for our purposes, let’s drill down to the actual plug-ins available.
EXS24 continues to be the workhorse sampler it has been for over a decade, and provides the core workstation-style sample set, including drum kits and pianos. Logic’s venerable E-series plug-ins (such as ES1, ES2, ES P, the EVP88 electric piano and so on) provide plenty of synthesizer and keyboard sounds, although many of these sound a bit thin when stacked against today’s top plug-ins. That doesn’t matter, because you also get Retro Synth, which provides fat-sounding imitations of subtractive, FM, and wavetable-based based vintage synths, and you can even drag any waveform into the wavetable module; the plug-in will automatically look for pitched information and transform it into a playable virtual instrument. You can stack up to eight voices—and you thought your Roland JUNO-106’s Unison mode sounded thick!
The star of the show is now Alchemy, a full-blown additive, spectral, and granular synthesizer originally from Camel Audio that Apple added back in the Logic Pro X 10.2 release. I’ve been meaning to buy a copy of that synth for years to begin with; it used to cost several hundred dollars. Apple redesigned the interface, reworked the filters for a fatter analog-type sound, and added support for importing EXS24 instruments. Finally, a separate vintage keyboard and organ collection includes such niceties as B3-style drawbars, a vastly configurable Leslie simulator, and a suitcase-style electric piano. There are also plenty of guitar and bass amp simulators and effects included as well.
I’ve always been a fan of third-party drum plug-ins like Superior Drummer and EZdrummer, but it’s tough to argue with the one built into Logic Pro X. Drummer is an artificially intelligent session player—one of 28, each with different styles, personalities, and drum kits for a distinctive groove. You can adjust the frequency of fills, whether they’re using the toms or hi-hats more in a given section, and even the frequency of ghost notes and whether they’re rushing the beat (a la Stewart Copeland) or relaxing the groove (a la John Bonham). Drummer can follow other tracks for inspiration; for example, the bass player can set the groove for a performance, and Drummer will take cues from the bass track to figure out where to lock in the kick drum.
You don’t have to use Drummer for auto-generated grooves, though; if you’re like me, you’ll want to program your own grooves. And for that, it sounds great. The Producer Kits include excellent-sounding, multi-channel mixes done by legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain—complete with EQ, compression, and additional processing and routing—and you can see all of the settings to learn what he did with the stock Logic plug-ins. Drummer can also do electronic music; you can dial up any number of styles and kits, from house and retro to hip hop and electro pop. The interface changes, when appropriate, to something that models a drum machine or Akai MPC-style unit. That said, many of the acoustic drum kits sound somewhat similar, with low tom tuning, highly compressed cymbals, and deeper sounds; there are few funk, crisp heavy metal, or jazz sounds on offer, though of course you can get there with some tuning.
Third-party plug-in support remains extremely robust, and you can organize your favorite plug-ins into folders. In testing, I had no problems opening up and using major plug-ins I own like Spectrasonics Atmosphere and a series of East West Play-compatible orchestral and world-instrument libraries, and mastering tracks with Izotope Ozone worked exactly as before.
Mixing and Effects
Apple spent plenty of time catering to its higher-end customers this time around. For starters, the summing engine has been upgraded from 32-bit (already pristine, with tons of headroom) to 64-bit. Most working studios and bedroom producers won’t hear a difference. But if you’ve got super-large projects with tons of tracks and higher-end recording gear and studio monitors, this could matter. The more plug-ins you stack, the more you’ll hear a difference. There are now 192 busses available instead of 64, and there’s finally a true stereo panning option that lets you adjust the individual left and right levels instead of just attenuating either left or right signal.
The main mix console offers large faders, pan and other track controls, and as many inserts and sends as you need—once again, with a flatter, cleaner, macOS-Sierra-style look. There are welcome analog-style VCA faders available. Instrument tracks keep everything neat and tidy, though most sequencers now offer some form of that, in lieu of messy audio + MIDI track combinations. At the top of each channel strip, the built-in console EQ really just pops up the EQ plug-in, which offers eight bands, plus configurable Q settings and customizable low-pass and high-pass filters. It offers enough musicality for rounding out the high-end of an electric bass or tightening up the boom of a loosely tuned kick drum.
As before, you can write automation to regions, which makes it much simpler to move around and arrange your project without destroying recorded fader and knob movements. There are Relative and Trim modes for adjusting existing automation data; you can use them to ride a fader and smooth out an edit. Region Gain is similar Clip Gain, one of my favorite features in Pro Tools; it makes it easy to quickly adjust a region that for whatever reason is recorded at a different level, without having to resort to inserting a plug-in or a destructive edit. Fades are generated in real time, rather than stored as separate audio files with your project, which greatly simplifies file management. You can also finally apply fades to multiple regions simultaneously—a single change that can make sound design or track editing much faster.
Flex Pitch and Flex Time make quick work of tuning vocals and fixing mistakes in recorded audio tracks. Flex Pitch in particular is a great freebie if you’re used to working with an entirely separate app (like Melodyne) or needing to budget for one. I’ve used it extensively by this point, and with careful edits, I find it to be as transparent as you could possibly want, and I love not having to export and re-import tuned vocals each time.
Logic’s effects plug-ins come alive in the compressor and reverb department. The compressors in particular shine, with their Platinum (transparent solid state) and Opto (tube-like) modes, which behave differently and provide exactly the kind of warmth and crunch you’d expect from actual vintage hardware. There’s a gorgeous scalable (to 5K Retina iMac levels) paneled interface for each of the modes, including a dBx 160 emulation called Classic VCA. In all, there are over 4,500 presets available across the various 80 bundled plug-in effects, plus roughly 1,000 sampled convolution reverb spaces in Space Designer. You can now side-chain a software instrument as well as a compressor. It’s tough to imagine a mixing situation these tools can’t cover.
Unfortunately, the various recent UI updates still haven’t made it to some of Logic’s other long-running core plug-ins. Pop up an existing effect or even instrument, and you’ll see the same old interface you’ve seen for over a decade—complete with now positively tiny controls (there’s a pixel-quadrupled view, although it looks blocky). It’s about time Apple went through and refreshed the cluttered UIs for the entire plug-in lineup, now that we’re all running 1080p or even Retina-class displays. EXS24 in particular has needed an update for years; while it’s optimized for playing hundreds of voices concurrently on a modern Mac running inside Logic Pro X, it could use a big UI refresh, post-Kontakt 5 and MachFive 3 (which, admittedly, cost hundreds of dollars each, whereas EXS24 is free with Logic). The same goes for the surprisingly powerful ES2 and Space Designer.
GarageBand, Import/Export, and Logic Remote
Over on iOS, in tandem with the Logic Pro X 10.3 update, GarageBand for iOS now shares the same underlying engine as Logic. It supports 32 tracks now, and comes with 12 Logic effects, including a visual EQ and compressor on every channel plus four additional plug-in slots. It even comes with a stripped-down version of Alchemy, including 150 patches. New to both GarageBand and Logic, you can now save a project in Logic in an iCloud/GarageBand –compatible version that sums all the tracks together as a single stereo reference track. Then you can load that on GarageBand for iOS with all tempo, key, meter, and other information intact, add up to 31 additional tracks, and then bring the whole shebang back into Logic with the original Logic tracks expanded and the new GarageBand tracks also added individually.
You can also import and export XML for scoring in Final Cut Pro, and export your projects direct to SoundCloud—the days of mixing down to a CD, then figuring out how to duplicate it, encode it to MP3, put it online, etc. are long gone. Logic Pro X 10.3 still opens any project from Logic 5 or later, though I wouldn’t make any promises about old third-party plug-in support if you never got around to printing straight audio tracks as backup!
If you’ve got an iPad, the Logic Remote app turns your tablet into a remote control for all of Logic Pro X’s major functions. For example, you can record tracks with on-screen keyboards, guitar fretboards, or other smart composition tools pulled directly from GarageBand on the iPad. You can make fader moves and control the transport as well, of course. But what’s most interesting is that the iPad becomes the front end for Logic Pro X, if you want it to be. You can control your entire Logic Pro X-based studio from the couch, and not just Logic itself; Plug-In View lets you access third-party AU plug-ins right from the iPad.
Still the Logical Choice
There are hundreds of other features I simply didn’t have the room for, many of which have been with the program for years. With the latest update, Apple keeps Logic Pro at the forefront of the DAW market. Any quibbles we have with the program—and some are to be expected, given the sheer breadth and depth of what Logic Pro offers—pale in comparison to its virtues. And as is more and more the case these days, you don’t need a desktop machine for professional work. Add Logic Pro X 10.3, a USB MIDI keyboard, and a pair of headphones to a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro—plus an audio interface like the wonderfully designed (and very Logic-friendly) Apogee Duet, and some microphones if you’re recording live instruments—and you’ve got a portable music studio that was simply impossible on this scale even just a few years ago, let alone using the same software the pros use on a regular basis.
The competition is well established and fierce, but much of it costs more. Avid Pro Tools, MOTU Digital Performer, Cakewalk SONAR Producer, and Steinberg Cubase—what used to be considered the other four major established DAWs years ago that are still around today—all remain hundreds of dollars more expensive than Logic, and require either hardware copy protection, subscription or membership fees for support, or some combination of those. Perhaps the most compelling more expensive DAW is Ableton Live, which commands a rabid following for its unique composition and live performance-oriented UI. On the lower end, Logic does see some stronger competition from PreSonus Studio One, the utilitarian-but-bargain-priced Cockos Reaper, and long-standing electronic-dance-music favorites FL Studio and Reason. (Stay tuned for more reviews!)
Logic has been around for several decades now, and by this point it’s got some serious celebrity cred; most recently, Adele’s Hello was recorded in Logic Pro, along with the score of the Academy Award-winning La La Land. Many commercial studios in the US remain committed to Avid’s Pro Tools. But it’s getting tougher and tougher to justify the costs, given how capable Logic Pro X has become, especially when coupled with high-end Apogee hardware. The need for outboard processing gear (as you’d find with Pro Tools HDX) is basically gone except for the absolute largest of projects. And now Pro Tools has a monthly subscription fee, which it didn’t the last time we tested it at PCMag a few years ago.
PCMag awards Logic Pro X a rare five-star rating—not because it’s perfect, but rather it’s an outstanding software product and an amazing value at just $199.99. If you have a Mac and haven’t decided on a proper songwriting, recording, or mixing program yet, or if you’re aching to upgrade from an earlier version of Logic or even GarageBand (project files from which, incidentally, still open seamlessly in Logic), Logic Pro X 10.3 is a great bet—and our Editors’ Choice for digital audio workstations.