Article sponsored by OWC

As much as we appreciate working with those Cupertino-designed computers, we have to acknowledge that they have their fair share of shortcomings: they're not easily upgradeable, connectivity may pose a problem on some models (notably Macbooks) and tackling those issues can get costly. Today we're going to talk about Other World Computing, better known simply as OWC, a company based in Illinois/USA that offers a huge range of high-quality computer accessories and upgrade parts, including highly useful docks, hubs, expansion chassis, memory (RAM) and storage solutions for Macs and PCs. In this article we'll focus mostly on the Mac platform, but many of the items mentioned below will work on the PC (Windows/Linux) as well.

Internal upgrades - giving your Mac some extra life

Buying a nicely-specced Mac requires a considerable investment, something which many studio folks can’t afford to pay for upfront as they have a large of other gear purchases to deal with at the same time, so buying a new Mac with bare-minimum specifications that can be upgraded down the road makes a lot of sense. These days, internal upgrades can be roughly divided into two major categories: memory (RAM) and storage.

Memory upgrades are pretty straightforward, as many Macs can be upgraded to at least double of their original RAM capacity, with some higher-end desktop models such as the iMac and Mac Pro being able to go to even higher multiples. While 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM can be plenty for the majority of music & audio production tasks, we always recommend maxing it out to as much as you can afford, as the capacity of the available memory is one of the most important factors when it comes to loading big, complex DAW sessions - especially if you're dealing with virtual instruments, which can be pretty demanding. No matter the age of your Mac, if the RAM isn't soldered in (as with some specific models), chances are OWC has it covered: they offer upgrades for the latest Macs, and even all the way down to the ancient G series if you're still rocking the vintage look. Click here to check available memory upgrades for your Mac.

Upgrading RAM will have a substantial impact on your Mac

Internal storage upgrades are almost as straightforward as memory upgrades, but depending on your Mac there might be a few additional options available. Mac Pros are by far the most flexible in this particular area, as they allow for a number of storage options such as the Mount Pro, which adds a 2.5” SSD with ease, but other models can also be fitted with SSDs - and older models can have their disk drives replaced with bigger storage solutions which seems like a great compromise given the near-demise of physical media. There are a few different read/write speed options, from the ultra-fast Aura Pro X2 to the more affordable (albeit slightly slower) Aura N, with many different storage size options to choose from. Macbook Pros will usually be capped around 2TB, while iMacs and Mac Minis will go up to 4TB - with Mac Pros going up to a whopping 16TB internal storage. Once again, we recommend going for the largest and fastest you can afford, as an SSD upgrade will positively impact your work by greatly decreasing loading times and also improving the overall reliability and stability of your system. Click here to get SSD internal storage upgrades for your Mac.

Aura Pro X2 Internal SSD upgrades for Mac

Battery replacement: There are few things more upsetting than a Macbook Pro with a dying battery. We recommend checking out NewerTech's NuPower battery, which expand the average battery life by up to 23% from the original Apple cell - and you can even send them your old battery for recycling and safe disposal!

A quick but important reminder about installing upgrades: upgrading a Mac will require some specific special tools and minimum "DIY" skills to do installs - and OWC has a wide variety of tools for properly servicing a Mac. They also provide a number of tutorial videos to guide users through the upgrade process. The difficulty level will vary depending on the computer model, with notebooks being obviously a bit trickier to dig around in due to size constraints. Speaking of Macbooks, battery replacements are harder to execute than swapping RAM or SSDs, so if taking a Mac apart is not for you, there's always the option of hiring a local tech to get those updated and replacement bits properly installed, which hopefully won't be too hard to arrange in most major centres.

Getting it all connected and expanding further

Realistically speaking, most Macs will likely need a few add-ons to ensure that connectivity needs are met for studio operation. Apple dropped various port types (such as standard USB2 & USB3 'A' connectors) in the latest Macbooks in favour of a single flavour of port (USB-C/Thunderbolt 3). This has put users in a position where getting all of their gear connected on a Macbook is nearly impossible without a hub or dock - and said dock may also be necessary to a lesser extent on Mac minis, Mac Pros and iMacs depending on the complexity of your studio. Auxiliary equipment such as USB MIDI keyboards, DAW controllers and iLok dongles can add up to a lot of ports, and that’s not even mentioning the basics such as audio interfaces and Ethernet connections. Because of all the various digital tech we need to plug in to our machines, most studios will have a fairly high port-count to reliably connect everything they need. The good news is that the specs on the latest Thunderbolt 3 ports are impressive - they can handle a substantial data stream and also supply plenty of energy for bus-powered devices. The Thunderbolt 3 Dock takes full advantage of that, providing four USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, a Mini DisplayPort, two card readers and even an optical SPDIF audio output. It's a superb all-rounder that will serve well in many studio setups. If you don't need that much connectivity, there’s also the USB-C Dock, with fewer ports, but at a lower price.

The Thunderbolt 3 Dock

If PCI-based external dedicated-DSP solutions such as Pro Tools HDX or UAD2 systems are required for tracking or mixing, expansion chassis are the way to go for anyone who wants to use PCI-e/PCI-x cards in their setup but are not running a Mac Pro. This includes audio interfaces such as the RME HDSPe range, which is still a Gearslutz community favourite. An expansion chassis also opens the possibility for beefier video cards to be integrated into systems as eGPUs (external graphic processing units), allowing for multiple displays, larger screen resolutions, fast-paced video editing - and for the downtime, they can even aid high-end gaming on a Mac. From the affordable Mercury Helios 3S Thunderbolt PCIe Expansion Chassis all the way up to the impressive ThunderBay Flex 8, there are many solutions to connect those cards - with the added benefit of external storage, all in one place. Click here to explore Thunderbolt Expansions.

Lastly, let's not forget that we'll need cables to get everything tidily connected. High-quality cables that are properly specced & manufactured to tight tolerances are an absolute must for a reliable setup. One gotcha worth mentioning is that with the introduction of the USB-C connector and Thunderbolt 3 it's important to note that not all USB-C cables are capable of handling the Thunderbolt 3 protocol. Also worth mentioning is that Thunderbolt 3 cables come in a few specifications (20 or 40 Gb/s, with or without DisplayPort compatibility) - so make sure to check what you & your gear need before clicking 'buy now.'

Not all Thunderbolt 3 cables are created equal - check the requirements before you buy.

Future-proof storage

Besides the internal SSD upgrades we talked about earlier, studios will also benefit greatly from external data storage solutions. Modern music production workflows can be quite demanding on the raw data front, especially when virtual instruments and samplers come into play. On top of that, between keeping all your recording sessions properly backed-up and any parallel video projects you might undertake (with their massive GB requirements) the "available disk space" issue will inevitably have to be dealt with. The ThunderBay and Mercury Elite series are superb solutions - they are offered with many different interface options and capacities to seamlessly cover all your storage needs. They are available with USB and Thunderbolt, and the ThunderBay and Mercury Elite are capable of packing single or multiple PCI-e cards and drives with the option for RAID. Click here to explore all external storage solutions.

It’s also worth bringing up the Mercury 6G series of solid state drives and the PCIe Accelsior 4M2 SSD. Both can be installed in non-Mac/PC systems or combined with the ThunderBay and Mercury Elite series expansion chassis to provide super fast, reliable and portable external storage that will certainly be useful for recording engineers and producers on the move.

Closing thoughts

We hope this article helps you to make the most out of your computers and keep them running for a long time. Getting everything connected and working hassle-free is essential in order to let you focus on what’s important... your recordings and productions. OWC's solutions will certainly ensure you can achieve that, and maximise your Apple investment for years to come.

What upgrades have you made? What's given you the best bang for buck? Are you looking for more processing power? Tell us below.