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 version 10.4 contains an unusually large number of useful upgrades, and the update is once again free to existing Pro X owners. The package puts even more pressure on its well-established digital audio workstation, or DAW, competitors, some 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 earning a perfect score and an Editors’ Choice award.
Setup, Installation, and Interface
To get started with Logic Pro X 10.4, you’ll need a recent Mac running OS X v10.12 (Sierra) 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 63GB 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 10.4 on two machines: a Touch Bar-equipped 2017 MacBook Pro 15-inch with a 256GB SSD and 16GB RAM running macOS Sierra 10.12.6, and a 2012 Mac Mini also with an (older) quad-core i7 processor and the same specs and macOS version. I tested the program with both a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 audio interface and a PreSonus AudioBox USB, and as expected, I ran into no problems.
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 10.4. 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.
Logic Pro 10.4 supports the Touch Bar on the newest MacBook Pro models introduced back in October 2016 (and refreshed in the middle of 2017). Logic Pro 10.4 can show a timeline view with appropriate region colors, track controls, or 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, along with Logic Remote on an iPad, further reduces the need for an expensive hardware transport and mixing controller that also takes up space on your desk.
Recording and Virtual Instruments
For years, Logic has delivered a seamless environment for recording live audio tracks, and that continues with the latest version. As before, you can record audio at up to 24-bit, 192kHz resolution. The big news in 10.4 is Smart Tempo, which auto-detects tempo information from whatever material you want—a guitar riff, a rhythmic synth loop, a live drummer—and sets up a tempo map (a measure-and-beat grid) around it. This lets you create a project around a specific feel, and allows for things like a drummer rushing a tiny bit in the choruses for more energy. It means you can stick everything on successive tracks to a grid without a metronomic feel.
Smart Tempo is a little fiddly to get it working; you have to set the project to keep or adapt tempo, and then also set how recordings and import behave. And of course, Smart Tempo works with audio, not MIDI or virtual instruments. But it worked well in testing; my wife clapped in a syncopated rhythm in Adapt mode, and Logic perfectly mapped out the grid lines and tempo map measure by measure. I was then able to adjust the tempo up and down in individual measures simply by grabbing the line and moving the mouse, which was similar to how Logic’s regular automation lanes work. I then imported in some clav loops and watched as Logic Pro adjusted the rhythms to follow the tempo map from the clapping exactly. This is a serious boon for live recordings of bands or singer-songwriters that want to get ideas down quickly and then also use them to form the basis of the final project, as opposed to having to do it all again later to a metronome.
Apple amped up Logic Pro X’s built-in sound set considerably in 10.4. Heading up the list of additions are Studio Strings and Studio Horns, both of which offer fine control of individual players and sound excellent in a mix context. Apple has created a new articulation system for legato, staccato, bowing, pizz, and other kinds of playing that not only works here, but also with third-party virtual instruments from Native Instruments, EastWest, and more. The new strings and horns sound authentic, crisp, and clear, if more on the immediate close-miked side than in capturing any room ambience the way EastWest libraries work. So you’ll need to add a reverb from within Logic. (Apple offers a guide to the articulations that lets you set up keyswitches on an 88-key keyboard, and you can also manage the articulations for different instruments and third-party libraries; there are separate ones for the horns as well.)
That said, even with all of this done for you and some nice patches set up in the Library, it’s going to sound like “General MIDI 101” unless you take full advantage of the articulations and program the tracks in the right ranges. That’s obviously true for third-party libraries too, although some offer more immediate gratification than others. Studio Strings and Studio Horns are on the “spend some time with it to get it sounding natural” side. That said, they’re free with Logic, and hopefully Apple will eventually flesh out the rest of the orchestra with articulations for woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
The star of the show remains Alchemy, a full-blown additive, spectral, and granular synthesizer originally from Camel Audio. I had 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; in 10.4, Apple has included a stellar-sounding Visions library with 150 cinematic presets. 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, along with a new-for-10.4 Mellotron library. There are also plenty of guitar and bass amp simulators and effects included as well.
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!
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 30, 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; in 10.4 Apple thoughtfully added a super-sweet-sounding jazz kit called SpeakEasy, complete with dark, washy cymbals, and two new drummers for jazz and roots-style playing.
Overall, there are now almost 2,900 instrument and effect patches, including just under 1,000 sampled instruments, plus 7,200 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. Third-party plug-in support remains robust, and you can organize your favorite plug-ins into folders. In testing, as usual, 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.
Mixing and Effects
Apple spent plenty of time catering to its higher-end customers over the past several updates. 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.
The 64-bit summing engine sounds great. There are now 256 busses available instead of 192, and there’s a true stereo panning option that lets you adjust the individual left and right levels instead of just attenuating either left or right signal. New for 10.4 is a revamped Undo system that covers the mixer—finally—and also works on a global or per-plug-in basis, so you won’t lose track of your edits even over a longer period of time.
Several new effects arrive in version 10.4 as well. ChromaVerb is a beautiful plug-in that delivers algorithmic reverb programs along with a colorful visual component, letting you see and shape the reverb tail. ChromaVerb offers lots of sweet-sounding patches, including Collins Gate (they’re playing my 80s song!) and a slew of useful vocal reverbs and ambiences for different tracking situations.
The new Phat FX and Step FX both add warmth, punch, and presence to your drum, bass, and synth tracks along with rhythmic elements; these plug-ins are derived from work with the Apple-owned Camel Audio. Finally, a new Tube EQ plug-in does for the equalizer what Logic’s awesome compressor did for, well, compressors. Tube EQ contains several models that mirror famous Neve, API, and Pultec hardware, and each adds a distinctive character to the sound that you can’t get from the usual parametric EQ.
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 main Compressor continues to shine, with its 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 paneled interface for each of the modes, including a dBx 160 emulation called Classic VCA. In all, there are over 4,100 presets available across the various 101 bundled plug-ins, plus 1,060 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. And while you can also master in the box, in testing I found mastering tracks with the superb Izotope Ozone 8 Advanced worked exactly and as reliably as before.
Still the Logical Choice
There are hundreds of other features I simply don’t have the room to discuss here, 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 with the program—and some are to be expected, given the sheer breadth and depth of what Logic Pro offers—pale in comparison with 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 10.4, 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, 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 fees for support, or some combination of those. Perhaps the most compelling higher-end 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.
Logic has been around for several decades now, and by this point it’s got some serious celebrity cred; 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. Regardless of your opinion of Apple products and their pricing, it’s tough to argue with the value here. There’s no denying the company packs in a couple grand worth of plug-ins with Logic, easy. And it’s a stellar recording, editing, mixing, and post-production environment.
PCMag awards Logic Pro X a rare five-star rating—not because it’s perfect, but rather it’s an outstanding 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 10.4 is your best bet.