What happens when a key relationship in music technology turns a bit sour? There’s no mistaking the music world’s preference for Apple products. But there are some specific causes for concern in the way Apple is handling its desktop operating system and its relationship with pro musicians.
First, let me be clear. I’ve covered Apple and music for a long time. I’ve met some of the people handling these products; some of them I’ve known fairly well in a professional capacity. I have tremendous respect for the company, its products, and its management. I’ve been a regular contributor to Macworld (reviewing, in particula,r Logic). I’m not the sort to just to go off on a rant about this company because I had a bad day with my MacBook.
Not only that, but part of the reason I’m often quick to defend Apple in light of those sorts of rants is because I know how often they’re based on feelings, rather than facts. “Apple doesn’t care about pros” or “Apple’s products aren’t worth the extra price” or other refrains occur with some regularity, and too often are poorly informed about how products like these work or how they’re developed. I’ve gotten to know enough engineers inside and outside Apple to have some appreciation for the complexity and nuance involved in developing computer music products and catering to the music industry.
Okay. So those are the disclaimers. Now, let’s talk about why I’m worried. There are a number of decisions at Apple that I think are detrimental to the music technology ecosystem and/or the ways in which musicians use the company’s products, which includes the world’s leading digital distribution outlet. To me, they’re increasingly looking like a pattern, and not a positive one for our little niche. “Our little niche” has the right to be a bit loud about that, because we are central to Apple’s brand and the way they present themselves. (Look at it this way: that niche includes the likes of Beyoncé.)
I raise these points not as some sort of macOS versus Windows discussion – that’s a separate issue – but because these are things I think are worth criticizing. And I think they could be addressed, whether Cupertino sees fit to address them or not.
It’s not pretty seeing all these together in one spot, but here we go.
Apple is in the short term making mobile audio output worse, not better. There’s been a lot of ire raised around the headphone jack, but to me, it misses the point. Switching from analog to a default digital output I can understand. There are, however, some problems with the way Apple is going about it.
First, it appears the analog output in Apple’s headphone adapter (that is, via the Lightning port) isn’t strong enough to drive analog headphones reliably. There’s an excellent and detailed study of this by Germany’s CT magazine. (German only, sorry, but you can read the statistics they gathered easily).
Second, Apple’s efforts to improve Bluetooth pairing appear to be locked to their own headphones. That would be fine, if Apple were any good at making headphones – except, sorry, they really aren’t. (See my next point.)
Add to that the fact that Bluetooth connection reliability is partly limited by the laws of physics (because of the penetration of the signal is restricted by objects, wires still sometimes make sense). And consider that the Lightning connection isn’t anything approaching a standard, and that accessories with only a Lightning connection can’t connect to anything else (including, ironically, your Mac), and the whole thing looks like a regression to me. Comparisons of Apple eliminating the floppy drive or other obsolete tech over the years don’t hold, because you immediately had a superior alternative.
This would be a different picture if Apple were making the world’s best headphones in the same way that they make the world’s best phone and phone operating system. But about that —
Apple isn’t making good headphones. I don’t need to write much here, and there’s no way to put this that isn’t blunt. The headphones available from Apple and Beats are inferior to a variety of competing products. They give you less clarity and range than headphones from other makers, certainly at the same price and in many cases for less. That’s not just pro products, either – I’d just as quickly advise a consumer to buy headphones from the likes of Sennheiser or Sony, just to name two established brands.
Headphone manufacture appears to require a certain degree of expertise. I wouldn’t buy artisanal cheese and wine from Apple, either. (Kudos to the likes of AIAIAI for entering this market anew, but – actually, there’s I’d probably still opt for some Sennheiser HD25s over the upstart.)
None of this would matter, except that the bottom line is, we should be able to choose what products we use in order to stay happy. So the combination of pushing these products while eliminating the headphone jack, failing to provide a decent analog output, being restrictive of use of Lightning connectors, and keeping both proprietary control of both wired and wireless connections is pretty damaging.
It’s not a deal breaker, yet, but it’s adding unnecessary resistance to the otherwise industry-leading iOS platform. And it created a problem where there was none.
Apple Music isn’t reaching out to musicians, either. Then there’s the iTunes side of things. Apple I think is straining their relationship there with the push to Apple Music, which strong de-emphasizes download sales. Sure, the writing may be on the wall as the whole industry goes to streaming. But then there’s the question of the way you interact with Apple on the music service.
And there, unless you’re a big artist or label, the relationship hasn’t been great, either. I’ve yet to talk to many labels or artists happy with their experience dealing with Apple; by comparison, I’m hearing more positive feedback about Spotify. That’s qualitative and just hearsay, but I can’t find material evidence that Apple Music is a place where smaller- and medium-sized artists see much control. Spotify and Pandora are adding new artist connect features, whereas Apple, as Hypebot noted this month, is backing off of its Connect service. What we get instead is front-and-center machine algorithm streams, despite Apple saying publicly that they’ll do more human curation.
To be fair, I expect more from Apple (and the Beats team) in part because streaming needs some new thinking and new interaction. I also know anecdotally that streaming revenue via Spotify is up for a lot of music and seems to benefit most from real engagement tools (like playlists).
Of course, we’re on the Web now, and we’re humans. Yet Web and social media integration is also sorely lacking on Apple Music, in addition to the already-lackluster, now largely demoted Connect.
So Apple was beloved mostly for moving a lot of downloads. Now, with that gone, it seems to be a reflection of Spotify, but with even less artist control. That’s not great news, really, unless you luck out and wind up on their radio station.
Apple’s desktop computer strategy is murky (especially at the higher end). I don’t want to say too much about this, as some sort of announcement seems imminent. But the reality as I write this is, Apple’s desktop computer offerings seem frozen in the past.
The Mac Pro was never updated. The Mac mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro are all long in the tooth. The best we’ve seen lately out of the MacBook line is thinness, but not significantly enhanced performance (and in some cases, worsened performance per dollars invested). (As a reader correctly notes, we’ve seen some updates – but none of these cover the flagship machines or bring much that’s significantly new to the table. And to be fair, Apple has historically set the bar for our expectations high.)
And it shows. For people working in visual media, the Mac is in a real way locked out of the latest advanced in 3D and real-time visuals by GPU offerings that are, at best, overpriced and behind the times, and at worse, incapable of performing at all.
But even in music, Apple’s hardware has failed to keep up. Storage is non-upgradeable, fine – but also mind-bogglingly expensive. CPU performance is unacceptable on many of the lighter models, and lackluster on the pricier machines, which matters if you’re in love with, say, soft synths.
Mac naysayers will say this has always been the case. But the truth is, Mac models have historically been expensive, but offering enough to merit the investment. The Retina MacBook Pro and MacBook Air set standards for display and form factor when they came out, for instance. People often find their machines last longer and are easier to maintain and support. And if the OS is superior (more on that in a moment), that can be worth an investment.
We just need more information. I wonder if the delay is to do with Apple owning their own destiny. It seems the day will come that Apple’s desktop line benefits from the advanced in their system-on-a-chip tech as on mobile – especially when your iPad Pro might easily best your MacBook in CPU performance. But that’s an awful lot of unknowns for the time being. I certainly would advise would-be Mac purchasers to hold off on a purchase to see if there’s something this fall.
Apple’s desktop OS is too often unstable and incompatible, and the yearly update cycle isn’t helping. I saved what I think is the biggest issue, and the only really existential one, for last.
Again, there’s no way to put this nicely. macOS updates are fraught with problems.
People sometimes forget the pain of operating systems past. That seems true on both platforms – I was amazed at the PC users who fell in love with the same Windows XP they once despised. Ask many musicians what their all time favorite OS X release was, the “make the Mac great again” operating system, and they’ll often say 10.6.8. The number after the last decimal place should clue you in to something. Ahem. Apple in the past had a tendency to ship a number of point releases.
The problem is, we shouldn’t have to be playing this game any more. OS X – sorry, now again macOS – is a mature operating system. You’re not paying for short-term reliability because some significant low-level change was necessary. This should be the easy, golden years of the OS – a bit like after retirement when you’re reading long novels on the beach or going on fishing trips or whatever.
Instead, we’re being treated to disastrous, showstopper audio reliability problems. NI have written a good overview, and the headline says it all:
Audio Performance Issues (Drop-outs, Distorted Audio, Timecode Delays) in OS X 10.9 – OS X 10.11 [Native Instruments Support Article]
Here’s how bad this is: you show up to a gig, and out of the blue, your machine starts popping or dropping buffers or creating random distortion. That’s clear-the-floor stuff, things that could make people never want to play again. And it’s not necessary. Computers are perfectly capable of acting reliably for days at a time.
This is being reported by NI, but the cause is Apple and can impact other systems – I’ve reproduced the issues they’re describing in Serato DJ and Ableton Live, for instance, with different pieces of hardware from different vendors. People who work in support paint an ugly picture, and then anecdotal evidence is useful, because it covers a range of different situations. And it’s getting been worse through El Capitan: “OS X 10.9 (rare occurrences), OS X 10.10 (occasional occurrences) and OS X 10.11 (most occurrences, compared to the aforementioned OS versions).”
Now, it’s not uncommon to wait a few weeks when an OS comes out to make sure your complex ecosystem of software hosts, plug-ins, and hardware is compatible. But note the OS numbers – that’s years without a fix, and instead worsened regressions. That’s simply unacceptable. OS X 10.9 Mavericks is about to turn three years old (older if you count pre-release builds).
This should never have shipped in a stable OS in the first place. I can’t think of an instance of this happening on any recent build of Windows, and Microsoft doesn’t control the hardware you run on. It certainly should not have dragged on for years on a platform who has defined itself as the choice of musicians and producers.
The good news is, macOS 10.12 Sierra seems potentially to fix the problem (with AppNap functionality turned off manually, which isn’t totally ideal). More testing is needed to be sure of this.
The bad news: Apple still can’t seem to keep third parties synced up with its now annual release cadence. In a now yearly ritual, Apple has broken plug-in validation for its own Audio Unit format. Open question: why? Why is this now a regular feature of updating an operating system for a format that has basically remained unchanged for years? Why shouldn’t desktop upgrades be the kind of no-brainer mobile upgrades are.
There are some workarounds for plug-ins, but this reveals a deeper, more cultural problem at Apple. The inability to ship OS builds to developers in time for them to adapt, a tendency to change OS internals without properly documenting the results, or whatever the reason, the upshot is the same. If musicians can’t trust an upgrade, they won’t install it – and that means they will avoid critical fixes, too.
In the case of Sierra, we need Mac users to update as soon as possible if it in fact resolves this issue. And the advice I had given would-be installers — wait a few weeks to validate an OS — is proving to be wrong. In this case, you would have had to wait three years, then install that update on day one just to solve chronic showstopper problems with the whole audio system.
Now, there’s different advice: switch to Windows. And I think that’s not hyperbolic in this case, not when you talk to people doing Apple support for a living who can’t recommend either the 2015 or 2016 stable builds of the operating system. (Boot Camp at least got a bit more appealing than it had been!)
There’s a whole lot Apple under Tim Cook is doing right. iOS is an amazing platform, with unparalleled music capabilities. Apple hardware is still heavily used and widely loved. macOS still has features that can best Windows (and Windows still has problems of its own). Logic Pro is still a great DAW, and shows that Apple can make products for our market.
There’s just some stuff to fix. And I complain, because I believe Apple could do better.
To me, these issues are adding up as they raise concerns about priorities. But it’s really the operating system and desktop platform issue that I feel is critical.
Now, Apple very likely will have new machines out soon. So part of what we need to see is what those look like. It might be a longer transition, but I’d like to see Apple leverage its hardware advances from iOS. (Update – commenters agree, that part of the stagnation of the desktop Mac line parallels stagnation on Intel’s side. So maybe what we’ll see is a non-x86 hardware platform from Apple. The last big lag like this was actually just before the move from PowerPC to Intel. Bet you temporarily forgot about that – which also demonstrates how effective it was.)
And it seems Apple is working with third parties to address long-running difficulties with the OS.
All of this, though, should leave people who love computers deeply unsettled. To me, this isn’t really about Apple’s relationship to their hit iPhone. There’s still a lot of revenue coming from the Mac and from services related to the Mac (apart from it being a development machine for iOS). And some of Apple’s best-ever upgrades shipped well into the iPhone era. (If anything, the watch seems to time out with some of the missteps.)
But what it is about to me is trust. Apple may have taken the “computer” out of the name, but we trusted that they didn’t take the computer out of the product. They haven’t rewarded that trust lately.
I love hardware, but I still believe in the computer. To use the computer to its potential, to feel comfortable with it as a device for musical expression, you need to trust it. You need to know it won’t, you know, suddenly glitch out in the middle of a performance – something that in 2016 ought to be a thing of the past.
And you need to trust the company with which you invest time, both the computer itself and the OS platform it’s running. Apple is both. You need to feel a connection to both the commitment level and the vision of that company, because you’re investing your creative output and significant time and financial resources in that platform – hours upon hours of time.
On top of that, to really deepen exposure on a distribution method, you need to trust the distribution method.
I do think Apple can win back that trust. But I’d be lying if I said right now it was secure.
These things have historically gone in cycles. This feels to me like a down cycle – so it’s a question of what the up swing could be.
I’ll be keenly watching as we test Sierra more, and see how fixes arrive for third party software. And I’m eager to see what computer refreshes we get, if any, in 2016, as well as how Apple Music evolves. But I do hope that, entirely apart from whoever may read this, Apple has gotten the message from its enormous and inspired musical user base that there are things that need fixing.
And at that point, yes, we are likely to get emotional. This isn’t just about using your iPhone to buy a Frappuccino at Starbucks with Apple Pay or monitor your daily jog. This is the tool we use to express our deepest feelings, our greatest passion, and to move rooms full of people. We have to trust it.
Postlude: I left out an article that takes this perspective from the “Motion” side of the coin. But for live visuals, it’s almost no contest, as I briefly hinted here – and I think that’s relevant, as someday soon cutting-edge visuals may matter to more musicians. The top-of-range Macs don’t have GPUs that are competitive with even many inexpensive PCs. On top of that, OS X has suffered significant graphics bugs as well as audio bugs, and Windows has plenty of powerful visual exclusives used to do some seriously amazing work, like TouchDesigner and vvvv. That’s an extremely specific niche, though some areas – like virtual reality – also represent the bleeding edge. But I’ve decided to leave that alone, as I don’t think there’s the same cultural need that Apple has on the music side. I will also leave meanwhile leave the now-discontinued Aperture and controversial Final Cut Pro X out of it; suffice to say Logic Pro hasn’t suffered in the same way. Logic lovers I know still love Logic; people who prefer other DAWs still prefer other DAWs.