Sonic LAB: M1 Mac Mini Plugin Tests

Native and Diva      03/12/20

It's not often we get asked if we want to take a look at new Apple hardware, but with the new M1 silicon featuring the SoC (System on a Chip) and from what we've been hearing and what's been claimed, we figured we would.

We were sent the base model Mac Mini with the 8-core CPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB hard drive. Also supplied were the wireless keyboard, mouse and track pad.

The case and size is much the same as the previous Mac Mini model, though of course with this one you can't upgrade the RAM or storage, what you buy is what you are stuck with, though you can up the RAM to 16GB (max) and up to 2TB internal storage, though this will set you back approximately another £1k on top of the £699 base price.

Ports - 1x figure 8 mains, 1x Gigabit Ethernet port, 2x Thunderbolt 3 ports - which can be used as USB-C ports, 1x HDMI port at up to 4K, additional monitor up to 6k can be connected via one of the TB3 ports.

2x USB 3.1 ports and a headphone jack.

You also get Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity built in.

About that new chip: the M1 features 8 CPU cores, 4 regular and 4 speed boost for taxing operations, 16 GPU cores and a 16 core neural engine - this adds dedicated AI/machine learning processing for stuff like image processing, vector graphics and video processing.

The figures Apple claims for this software running natively on this SoC chip are impressive, and we've seen demos that support that as well as worked on video editing applications (Davinci Resolve - native) that are impressive.

RAM - memory is shared between all cores, both the CPUs and the GPU access the same RAM which means there is no need for data duplication and copying between cores - this effectively speeds up the processing and the applications respond well.

Big Sur - you absolutely need Big Sur on this machine, there's no way around it, so it does limit you to what is currently certified to run - which actually right now is a pretty short list, Then when you factor in applications that can run natively on the M1 chip, that list becomes even shorter. Certainly little or no audio applications or plug-ins except Apple's own Logic Pro X.

Yes you can run many of the non-certified products on it, but the point is, you won't really know if it works until you find out for yourself.

Rosetta 2 - this is the translation layer that will take Big Sur compatible applications (Universal)  and translate them to run on the new chip. We've seen this kind of thing before when we went from 6800 processors to Power PC, though  Rosetta 2 has been getting way better press this time around and performance has been impressive for many applications.

In our review, we focussed on two tests, one using U-He Diva - a well known heavy CPU plug-in when set to the highest (Divine) quality, and the other an all native Logic Pro X template downloaded from music-prod.com where they have benchmarked many Mac models.

Caveat - U-He Diva is not officially certified for Big Sur nor to run natively on the M1 chip, so it must have been running using the Rosetta 2 layer in some way.

First up we created a (yes we know it was cheesy) track using 14 instances of Diva all set to Divine mode, providing synth, drums, bass and pads. There were also three native instances of Logic X soft synths: ES2 (brass stabs) and  Retro Synth - arpeggio and a filter swell.

The idea was to create a "real world" music task so we added EQ, reverb and compression to taste.

We were able to run approximately 50 (we counted as best we could, but with long releases, it's not precise) voices of Diva plus  9 voices of the native synths before we got the system overload message. Which is pretty impressive for entry level hardware.

However, we did find that the real-time MIDI input showed a reasonable amount of latency when playing any of the instrument tracks - though playback was fine.

The second test we downloaded from music-prod.com and comprised of 150 identical tracks each playing a sequence of four note chords, with Channel EQ, Auto Filter, Chorus and Multi-pressor plugins, so one instrument plus 5 additional plug-ins on each track - all native. The MIDI playthrough from the keyboard was snappy and without any discernible latency.

We got to 111 tracks total. 

Thats 444 voices and 555 plug-in instances (all native) -, not including Sculpture on each track before the System Overload dialogue popped up, at which point playback stopped. So 666 total plug-ins (is that weird?)

Whats does this mean really?
It means that this little computer packs a lot of punch for the price. But at present only really in true native mode can you expect this kind of performance. The issue is at present, that it runs an as yet not widely adopted operating system, though many audio developers are no doubt working hard to comply with Big Sur, those that are creating native M1 Universal applications are pretty thin on the ground.

If you are working exclusively within Logic Pro X and not using much in the way of 3rd party plugs - happy days, you could pick up a little rocket. But if not, then I would be very cautious before plunging in and finding that perhaps your particular requirements are not yet met.

This will of course change and as more software is signed off then we can expect to see some really decent price/performance.

One More Thing
Well two actually, you can run some iOS applications natively on this machine as it shares similarities to the latest iOS chips, you can run certain iOS apps - not all of them though. We were able to run NLog synth plug-in natively which was nice, and presumably more will come into line, but again, not yet.

Also if you require Bootcamp to run Windows OS, then you are out of luck. While there is a version of windows that does run on ARM chips, it is not supported. We have seen a couple of intrepid developers get it going, but it's real under the hood, bleeding edge stuff.

Ultimately
One area where this machine really shines is video editing, the performance using Final Cut Pro (Apple software) that runs natively and also Davinci Resolve is quite astonishing, they both take advantage of the GPU and Neural Engines to allow pretty smooth editing experiences that appear equal or even out perform dedicated video systems (like ours). We ran a test project that has a little difficulty keeping up without optimized media and caching enabled just fine on this £699 computer - very impressive.

This machine is impressive, and if it fits your current requirements and you can live without extensive 3rd party support (it's coming no doubt) then it's a bargain, that's not often something you can say when it comes to Apple hardware.

Though we'd recommend investing in some high speed SSD external drives, over the internal options which are pretty pricey.

Available to order now - all prices are for the base model:
Mac Mini $699, Macbook Air $999, Macbook Pro 13 $1299

Apple.com

 


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