Hackintosh DAW for pro audio
June 2018 - Switch to Windows like many creatives frustrated with Apple or try the darker path of powerful PC hardware running Mac OS?
I’d been using my trusty mid 2012 MacBook Pro for around 6 years. It still works well but it was finally time for a more powerful desktop system. 6 years is good going for any laptop, it really doesn’t owe me anything for its time served. I wrote my first 12" record on it, achieved a first at Uni, built Ideosound from the ground up and even worked on it whilst on holiday (won’t be doing that again!). I upgraded on the way; doubling the RAM to 16GB (unofficially supported but it is recognised) and swapped the CD drive out for another SSD.
Apple's designs use to allow users to upgrade some functionality of their machines. Sadly now the agenda is making everything as thin and compact as possible, partly why moving away from Apple’s hardware was tempting. Macs are expensive but you got your money’s worth in the end. Is this still the case in 2018? Apple's new Mac Pro was still in development and I wasn't waiting around for it. If you aren’t familiar, a Hackintosh is a PC with PC components running Mac OS. I don't think Apple officially allow this in the license agreement but I've given them enough money not to care. After all, if they offered me the perfect machine I'd buy it but they don't.
I looked into the old range of Mac Pro’s on eBay but I felt these were just too long in the tooth, especially graphics wise. I thought a new iMac was the way to go but something sparked my interest in the Hackintosh community. My dream machine should be VR ready with powerful graphics to future proof it. There is a new school of thought that GPUs could also become more involved in audio processing. I’d worked on a few spatial audio projects that the MacBook's 1GB graphics struggled with so a fast GPU was a must. The current range of iMacs are great and powerful but I just wasn’t sure they would cover my long list of requirements.
Nvidia seemed to be the way to go for graphics cards and real macs had switched to AMD. I’d heard from the motion graphics community that Nvidia was thought to be better for rendering/VR. The iMac Pro seemed the only option for serious graphics power, the price tag for just the base entry model around 5K. I could get a powerful PC based machine for nearly half that, one which runs both Mac OS and Windows.
OCT 2018 UPDATE: Whilst I didn’t have any serious issues using Nvidia cards, I favoured system longeitivity switching to AMD graphics. Nvidia uses webdrivers and they only release one build per version of OSX. Whereas AMD GPUs are now natively supported without additional drivers. AMD’s drivers are a lot more solid and whilst Nvidia cards offer better bang for buck (U.K sterling for me), I decided on a AMD RX580 8GB. Not as quick as my 1070TI but its native and solid drivers won me over more than performance alone.
In an ideal world, I would have built my own Hackintosh. I could have saved a few hundred off the price had I ordered the parts myself. This was my first one and like any system, it needed to be solid and reliable for client audio work. I hadn't built a PC desktop in over 10 years so I felt left behind with the latest technology. The problem was I didn’t have the time to troubleshoot any issues that occurred during the build. I’m pretty sure I would have come across some head scratching moments on the way.
There are step by step hardware and ‘golden build’ guides you can follow if you wish. I had a look what was on the market, do companies build these professionally? I found a company on eBay with some nice dual boot builds, I checked their buyer feedback. It seemed like they knew what they were doing, I was getting warmer to the dark side... Maybe it's worth sending an enquiry email huh? Having experts take care of this was worth it for me, still a lot cheaper than Apple hardware with the flexibility of choosing my own.
I liaised with XDS Computers (UK) to spec a machine that was right for my studio. Quiet fans, 3.7Ghz 6 core i7 coffee lake CPU, 32GB RAM, NVIDIA GTX1070TI 8GB, Thunderbolt 3 card, solid state and mechanical 7200 RPM hard disks, Bluetooth, WiFi (requires a separate card installing) Firewire 800 (for my older TC electronic soundcard). I also wanted a dual boot machine with Windows 10 for VR and games etc. Should running Mac OS on PC hardware not be the experience I’d hoped for, then I could move over to Windows as a last resort. Most of my software is cross-platform but I would miss some mac only plugins.
The order went in and it took a few weeks to be built in January 2018. When the machine arrived I decided it was best to go the long route and clean install all of my apps and data. This probably took a few days to get all setup. It’s installing all of your plugins and configuring everything that takes the most time. I copied data across to the new machine over CAT5. Not sure this was the fastest option out there but it worked. Everything went smoothly and the machine runs great. Its quiet, fast as hell and stable.
Some further tweaks needed doing such as correcting the "About My Mac" info. On a Hackintosh, this doesn't normally show the correct hardware. There are guides on how to amend this to show your exact hardware system specification. Or if you don't care it doesn't matter! My onboard audio wasn't working either which I rarely use but I managed to get this working quickly with some research.
I held off on this for a while in case it broke anything. After backing up I figured I’d jump in and see how it works. You should always backup with something like Carbon Copy Cloner before doing anything that might destroy your current configuration. Updating went smooth, it's worth reading the forums over at tonymacx86 to see if early adopters flag up common problems occurring on the latest updates. Normally updating the OS breaks the NVIDIA graphics driver so you have to re-install the latest version. You can be lazy and run a script that does it all for you. It even blacklists drivers which have shown to be buggy or problematic.
How does dual boot work on a PC?
To boot into Windows 10 Pro you hit spacebar during the BIOS screen on boot to bring up Clover. This is a bootloader that handles which hard disk partition/OS you want to load after BIOS. Clover is set to autoload High Sierra on a normal boot but space bar will show the Windows partition so I can boot into it.
After 6 months of solid use, I can’t say that there are any apart from backing up before you attempt major system changes. This is good practice for any system. I believe iMessage doesn't work out of the box and there is a complicated guide on how to make it work correctly. I’ve never used iMessage on my old MacBook in my life and frankly having phone messages delivered on my desktop would be awful. I mean that's the phone's job, I want them separate not all on the same system personally. UPDATE OCT 2018: I switched to an Android phone so I definitely don’t use iMessage now!
WIRED KEYBOARD FOR DUAL BOOT
As I predominantly use High Sierra I use a mac keyboard but what about when using Windows? USB keyboards work in both operating systems but wouldn't it be nice to have one keyboard designed specifically for each OS? Enter Penclic's range of keyboards that switch modes from Mac OS to Windows!
It's also worth noting you're better off with wired versions of keyboards. This means you'll have no issues using Clover which probably won’t recognise wireless versions so early in the booting stage. I find Bluetooth a bit hit and miss even on a real mac so I prefer wired versions of everything, they always work with no batteries or charging ever involved.
I decided on a Samsung S34E790C ultra-wide 34" curved screen. The quality of the panel was surprisingly bad when it arrived. It seemed blurry even when changing this setting. It also had one dead pixel that wouldn’t heal so it was returned as unwanted rather than faulty. I normally rate Samsung’s products but maybe this was a one-off bad production model.
Realising I shouldn't choose just on brand reputation, I found great reviews on Dell's U3415W version of a 34" curved screen. It has great colour accuracy meaning it looks even across the image with a matt, none glossy screen. I prefer these over reflective versions. The quality of this panel is miles ahead of the Samsung, I believe it’s actually an LG panel. The ultra-wide size means I have enough space to see my main audio project and video window, being a joy to work on.
Overall I am totally satisfied I went down the Hackintosh route. It does mean you have to be a little more careful and informed regarding OS updates etc but it's totally worth it in my opinion. I don't see the point in installing every single update straight away anyhow, I was always a few OS versions behind on the MacBook. I only moved to High Sierra when I got this machine, I was using El Capitan before. If you do get into trouble with anything the kind users of tonymacx86 and I’m sure all of the other forums and websites about doing this have your back. Its a solid community of people who help each other out and just want to get the best from their machines, PC hardware and Mac OS.
The Hackintosh is quick, quiet, looks tidy, dual OS flexible and future proofed for a while to come. I think if you know little about computers it’s maybe a little too complex to maintain in the long run. If you are willing to learn and know basic computer knowlege then a pre built system would be fine. I certainly didn't feel confident enough to build my own from scratch with little time. I am learning more about my system and how things work in the Hackintosh world as I go. This is something I can grow at now I have a solid machine. As long as you have a backup you can relax, if something does wrong after tweaking you can always go back. That applies to real macs too!