Review: Logic Pro X loses none of its power, gains great new features
Apple’s music division has been anything but idle the past several years, but it has focused largely on the GarageBand products for consumers and mobile users. The professional crowd has seen some updates (and a reduced price) to 2009’s Logic Pro 9, but very little else. Today that changes with the release of Logic Pro X, Logic Remote (a companion app for iPad), and MainStage 3 (Apple's live-performance tool, sold separately).
Those who’ve seen the Roman numeral X slapped onto Final Cut Pro may approach this release with some initial trepidation. Has Logic Pro been stripped of vital features to make it more accessible to GarageBand users? Is Apple abandoning professional audio engineers and musicians to cater to the prosumer user?
No and no. While Logic Pro has indeed adopted some of the look of Final Cut Pro X—with its dark visage and panes that can be invoked or dismissed as the mood strikes—Apple’s digital audio workstation (DAW) has lost none of its power and gained valuable features on just about every front.
Logic Pro X is available only through the Mac App Store and costs $200. This is for both new and existing users of Logic—no upgrade pricing applies. Your Mac must be running OS X 10.8.4 or later, and you’ll want at least 35GB of storage if you plan to install all of the optional content (you can get by with 5GB for the default Logic Pro X installation). You should also make sure that any plug-ins you wish to use are 64-bit: With this version of Logic Pro, Apple has bid farewell to 32-bit plug-ins. There’s no bridging utility to allow those older plug-ins to work, so they are entirely incompatible with the application. But the new version hasn’t entirely abandoned the past. Projects created as far back as Logic 5 can be opened with Logic Pro X.
An interface with ease in mind
Logic has long had the reputation of being one of the deepest, but most challenging DAWs to use. Since Apple acquired Emagic (the German company that developed it), it’s set about making Logic easier to use. Logic Pro X takes a major leap in that direction.
Apple has rethought the placement of elements you routinely use. For instance, the transport controls have moved to the top of the window to join the buttons that represent common commands, whereas in the past these controls and buttons were split between the top and bottom of the interface. The Library pane is now on the left, as many of us tend to work from left to right, and can quickly be exposed or hidden with the click of a button. As in GarageBand, each track now has volume and pan controls within the track list, thus allowing you to make changes there rather than moving to the Channel Strip or Mixer. Overall, elements are slightly bigger than they were in Logic Pro 9, so that finding just the tool you want is easier.
This doesn’t mean that Logic Pro has lost its command-rich menus within the application’s various panes. When you need to dig deep, they and the menu bar menus are still your avenue for doing so. But when you want to do something quickly—sketch out a new tune or perform a quick edit—the new layout makes it easier to get to the task at hand.
It also presents GarageBand users with a more familiar environment. Musicians who’ve grown beyond GarageBand’s capabilities often come to Logic and sit, stupefied, wondering where to begin. I have little doubt that part of the purpose behind Logic Pro’s redesign was to make these users feel more welcome. Close enough panes, and you find a Logic Pro that performs a darned fine imitation of the GarageBand interface. As those users become more confident with the application, it’s a simple matter to expand the interface to place more advanced tools before them.
Other adjustments make Logic more logical. Elements in a channel strip and mixer—a group of effects, for example—reflect their position in the signal path. To change their position in that path, just drag them up or down to a new position. And you can now engage a Quick Help feature that, in a small window, provides tidbits of information about any item your cursor hovers over. You can easily move arrangement markers to change the order of sections in your song. The Score editor now behaves more like a notation application. And the arpeggiator, plucked from its obscure location, is now within the software instrument tracks’ Edit pane.
An interface concerned with clutter
Logic Pro’s interface changes are about more than accommodating GarageBand users—in the past, pros could be overwhelmed as well. For example, suppose you’re working on a project that contains half-a-hundred tracks. Regardless of how large your monitor is, you’re going to perform a fair measure of scrolling as you access your tracks. But suppose you could group some of those tracks—all the acoustic drum tracks, for example—into a folder-like arrangement in the track list and then show or hide the tracks it contains with the click of a triangle icon? That’s one of the ideas behind the new Track Stacks feature—specifically, the folder stack. In this view, you consolidate tracks you’ve selected into a single group (thus getting them out of the way). Once you’ve created the folder stack, you can mute and solo the stack as well as control its volume with a single fader.
The other idea is the summing stack. Again, you consolidate the selected tracks, but in this case you’re submixing them into an auxiliary channel.
If this track contains software instruments, it can be used and saved as a patch so that it behaves like a single instrument rather than a group of instruments. For example, you’ve created seven tracks, all of which are analog synthesizer tracks, with Logic’s instruments. Not only can you group and hide them as well as control their mute, solo, and volume settings, but you can additionally use your MIDI keyboard to play all of them at once as a single instrument. And if you’ve configured the ranges for each track—so the Growly Synth plays only the first two octaves, the Crunch Synth plays every note thrown at it, and the Lead Synth plays just the top two octaves—different instruments play, depending on which key you press. Press a low key, and you hear the Growly Synth and Crunch Synth mixed. Play something in the top octaves, and you hear no Crunch Synth, as it’s not mapped to play in this range. You can then save this patch and call it up for any project you work with in the future. This is a powerful method for creating layered (and fat) instruments.
Another way Apple makes Logic more accessible is through new Smart Controls. If, in the past, you created a software instrument track or applied an effect to a track and wanted to change some of that track’s parameters—give a little more brightness to an instrument or adjust a compressor effect’s setting—you were thrown into what could be a complicated interface with scads of controls. Smart Controls allow you to avoid this by providing a subset of simple controls for accessing that instrument's or recording’s most common settings.
For example, call up the Classic Electric Piano instrument, double-click on its icon in the track list, and its Smart Controls appear at the bottom of the Logic window. Here are eight simple knobs for exactly the kind of tweaks you’d want to perform on a Fender Rhodes electric piano—Bell, Drive, Treble, Bass, Tremolo, Ambience, Chorus, and Reverb. No sampler fiddling required.
You don't have to live with a track’s Smart Controls, however. Click an Info button, and a pane appears where you can choose what a particular control will do. For instance, on my Fender Rhodes I can assign a Phaser control to what is, by default, the Bell control knob. I can then store those settings as part of a patch so that they come up every time I use it. And like other Logic controls you can assign a hardware controller to them (a slider or wheel on your MIDI keyboard, for example) and manipulate them while you play. As you do that, you can record your manipulation so that it plays back with the track.
Give the drummer some props
Logic Pro 9 was a boon for guitar players in that it included stompbox, amp, and speaker effects. With Logic Pro X, Apple turns to bass players and drummers. Bass players will be happy to know that they can now build their own rigs as well. Included are three amp models—Modern Amp, Classic Amp, and Flip-Top Amp—as well as a Direct Box setting. You can additionally choose from six cabinet settings—Modern Cabinet 15”, Modern Cabinet 10”, Modern Cabinet 6”, Modern Cabinet Distant, Classic Cabinet 8*10”, and Flip Top Cabinet 1*15”. There are two direct box-out settings as well. And, as with the guitar rig, you can choose a mic and its position—a Condenser 87, Dynamic 20, or Dynamic 421. While bass tracks are designed primarily for those jacking a real bass into an audio interface, as with guitar effects, you can apply your bass rig to software instruments and MIDI tracks too.
New drum features run deeper still. I’ll start with the new Drummer track. Drum loops can help you sketch out a tune, but because they’re loops, they tend to be pretty static. You can tweak them and insert fills but they still don’t sound like the real thing.
So Apple came up with the Drummer track. These are 15 virtual drummers—sampled from some of the world’s best studio cats—who live inside Logic. Create one of these tracks and choose from four styles—Rock, Alternative, Songwriter, or R&B (sorry, no Country, Jazz, or Latin). Then choose the drummer you’d like to use (and yes, they all have names). For example, Max is a punk drummer who bangs on a punchy kit. Logan is an older dude who prefers retro rock and plays a just-as-retro kit.
This may sound like just a cute way to add personality to loops, but it’s far more than that. Next to your drummer are some helpful controls. From a Presets menu you can choose a substyle in that drummer’s roundhouse. For example, with Logan I can choose AM Gold, Stonehenge, or Firebird (licensing issues may prevent Apple from calling it “Freebird”). Next, you can employ an X-Y pad and move a controller between Simple and Complex on one axis and Soft and Loud on the other. Drag the control around, and the pattern changes to match your desires. For example, if you place the control in the bottom left corner (Simple and Soft), you may hear a rudimentary kick drum on beats one and three and high-hat clicks on beats one through four. Drag the control to the top right corner (the Complex and Loud corner of the X-Y controller), and the pattern gets far more interesting.
(Next: More on Logic Pro X's Drummer track, new flexibility, and new instruments.)
You can also choose which drums will and won’t be used in the track. For example, if you hate cymbals, just click them in the representation of the kit, and they disappear. You can also adjust fill and swing controls, adding more or less of each with the turn of a virtual dial.
But there’s still more. Click on the drummer’s kit, and you can not only change the kind of kit he uses, but swap out his bass drum and/or snare for a different style of drum—a bright pancake snare instead of a deeper snare, say. And for each drum and cymbal you have the option to adjust its gain, dampening level, and tuning.
You can also enable a Follow option that tells your virtual drummer to examine the other tracks and try to get a feel for its part based on what else is playing in the song. What I’ve heard so far from the drummer track is pretty remarkable—it sounds like a real drummer rather than a loop.
The virtual drummers are also capable of playing in time signatures other than 4/4. Thinking I’d trick the drummers, I demanded that they play in 5/4. They did. I also tried 3/4, 6/8, and 12/8, and they dutifully beat out the appropriate rhythms. I then created a track that played a measure of 7/8, two measures of 4/4, three measures of 3/4, and then a measure of 6/8. Unlike any drummer I’ve ever played with, this one didn’t stumble once. Clever, these Apple engineers.
With Logic Pro 9 Apple introduced Flex Time, a feature for subtly adjusting the timing of where specific notes fall. If, for example, a kick drum plays a little before the beat, you can shift it over to fall on the beat. Now, what Logic Pro 9 did for timing, Logic Pro X does for pitch with its new Flex Pitch feature.
Suppose you have a singer who’s largely nailed a part, but a few notes are slightly sharp or flat. In the past you could use a pitch correction effect to try to knock them into line, but Flex Pitch takes a different approach. For a monophonic track (meaning only one note sounds at a time), Logic can display bars indicating how “in tune” a note is. Notes in tune will display a solid bar. If a note’s flat or sharp, the bar is partly full, with the direction of the empty space indicating whether it’s sharp or flat. You can then gently drag the bar up or down to fill it and bring the pitch into tune. You can also make more radical adjustments and change the note entirely—drag it down a fifth, for example—to change the melody. Obviously this sounds more natural when notes are separated as they would be on an instrument track, versus a vocal track where the singer slides from one pitch to another.
If you find dragging a drag, just play the note you want on your MIDI keyboard to move it. Additionally, you can ask Logic to analyze the pitches in a track like this and extract its notes as MIDI data, which is a cool idea if you want to easily double a vocal part with an instrument.
New and improved instruments
If you long for the analog age when Moog, Sequential Circuits, Yamaha, Waldorf, and Oberheim ruled the roost, Logic Pro X has you covered with its new Retro Synth instrument. This instrument models analog, wavetable, and FM synthesizers from years past and contains the oscillators, filters, amps, and effects you’d expect. With the click of a Settings button you can tune and transpose the instrument and determine how it will behave with your controller’s mod wheel, aftertouch, and velocity. I’ve heard enough Yamaha DX7 FM patches to last me a lifetime, but for someone who hasn’t experienced the real thing (or, more realistically, doesn’t already own the real thing or their virtual-instrument counterparts), the Retro Synth is a great addition.
Logic Pro X includes new versions of its Vintage B3, Vintage Electric Piano, and Vintage Clav plug-ins. The B3, in particular (modeled after the classic Hammond B3 organ), is wonderful. Not only will you find the expected drawbars, vibrato, and percussion switches, but you can make a load of adjustments to the rotor cabinet (Leslie) effect, including the motor’s rate and acceleration, mic placement (front or rear), and the balance between the rotating top speaker and the larger speaker at the bottom of the cabinet. If you like, you can even “age” your B3 by adjusting a series of Condition sliders. Somebody at Apple clearly has an abiding love for these old organs.
While the Vintage Electric Piano doesn’t have quite as many controls as the B3, it has plenty of knobs to twiddle. As someone who played a Fender Rhodes for years, I appreciate not only the tone controls but also the included Chorus, Phaser, and Tremolo effects, which, back in the day, required the purchase of a string of stompboxes.
Guitar players haven’t been left out entirely. They get seven new stompboxes—Tie Die Delay (a reverse delay), Tube Burner (overdrive), Wham (when your guitar’s whammy bar isn’t enough), Grit (distortion), Dr. Octave (doubles the pitch an octave down), Flange Factory (a flanger), and Graphic EQ.
Apple has also redesigned the sound library with 1500 instrument and effect patches, 800 sampled instruments, 30 urban and electronic drum machines, and 3600 Apple loops. You can also download the old Logic Pro sound library along with Apple’s Jam Pack collection from within the application for free.
One of the difficulties I have working with an application like this is that my keyboard rig is 90 degrees away from my computer desk. This means that when I want to adjust something in the DAW, I have to swivel my chair about and perhaps lose the flow of what I was playing. Apple has a solution in the form of the free Logic Remote iPad app.
Logic Remote puts a virtual control surface on your iPad. As long as your Mac’s running Logic Pro X and it and your iPad are on the same Wi-Fi network, you can control the most important parts of Logic remotely. This includes not only transport controls but also a mixer, complete with fader, pan, record, animation, and mute and solo controls. If you’ve used GarageBand on an iPad, you’ll be familiar with this interface, as it pulls many elements directly from that app.
You additionally have the ability to pull up a music controller—a keyboard, drum pad, drum kit, chord strummer, or fret board. With the controller comes many smart controls attached to an instrument—tone controls for an acoustic guitar, for example. These controllers can appear in context—you’ll see a fretboard if you’ve chosen a guitar, for example, or both drum pads and a virtual kit if you’ve selected a drum kit. But you can choose any controller you like. This is helpful for me as I don’t play guitar and therefore don’t know which frets and strings correspond to a particular note. Instead, I just use a keyboard for playing single note parts or the chord strummer to play a guitar track’s rhythm parts.
You can also use Logic Remote to create a new track (audio, software instrument, drummer, or external MIDI track), choose instruments from the library, initiate the arpeggiator, and jump between markers. You’ll also find an area for initiating key commands by tapping on the iPad. And if you need some assistance, just tap the Smart Help button to access Logic’s electronic manual (good for bedtime reading). What you can’t do is edit existing tracks or see an overview of your project. For these things you’ll need to return to your computer.
Obviously, I prefer a real keyboard with a sustain pedal over the keyboard offered by Logic Remote, but for making simple adjustments (or playing drum parts), it’s very handy. Plus, I haven’t found latency to be an issue. Tap on the iPad and you hear the notes without delay. I did find, on a couple of occasions when switching between projects, that Logic Remote failed to make the switch as well. Restarting the app fixed the problem.
Logic Remote requires an iPad 2 or later (or an iPad mini) running iOS 6 or later. And it works only with Logic Pro X.
That’s lot of great new features (added to an already impressive set of existing features) at a price that even starving musicians can afford. But features aside, who is Logic Pro X for? It’s hard to imagine a musician or producer who won’t benefit from it. Thanks to its easier-to-use interface, it becomes a viable next step for GarageBand users. Those seeking drum tracks that sound like the real thing rather than loops will be impressed by Logic’s Drummer tracks. Bass players not entirely committed to their hardware rigs (or who can’t lug them around everywhere they hope to record) will appreciate having modeled amps and speakers. Keyboard players seeking traditional timbres should be thrilled with the Retro Synth and B3 instruments. Producers and engineers are already well aware of Logic’s depth and attractions. They simply get more expansive with this release. And everyone with an iPad should be happy with the convenience wrought by Logic Remote.
In short, unless you’re already committed to another DAW or aren’t entirely dependent on 32-bit plug-ins, you should plunk down the measly 200 bucks Apple asks for it. It’s an amazing piece of work.