In a previous life, I was an electronic music designer working on Broadway shows in New York City. Broadway shows look glamorous and expensive on the outside, but it’s often quite the opposite on the inside – at least for the music department. One of the toughest parts of my job as an electronic music designer was to find the best performance-to-cost ratio for computer rigs powering keyboards, guitars, playback tracks, and more.
Over the past decade, Broadway has replaced large sections of traditional orchestras with synthesizers, playback systems, and electronic drum pads. I’m not in support of that, but that’s a story for another day. The point here is that Broadway’s reliance on computer-driven rigs has increased, while the typical budget required to build high-end stable rigs hasn’t increased at the same rate.
Some shows I’ve worked at set aside a $10,000-$12,000 budget for two keyboard rigs. That sounds like a lot of money at first, but it’s not. For live shows, it’s usually best to have a 1:1 backup in case the main rig fails. That fact alone means you have to design a rig that fits within 50% of the proposed budget. Furthermore, a high-quality keyboard controller alone is $1,500-2,000 – so that means there’s $3,000 left for a computer and everything else.
Due to budget constraints, many shows end up using Mac minis. Historically speaking, the Mac mini’s computing power has been a bottleneck for electronic music designers on Broadway. In a perfect world, we’d all like to use the best-sounding sample libraries for our work, but that was never feasible with the Mac mini. Thus, the compromise was always to reduce sound quality to fit within the Mac mini’s compute constraints.
Apple Silicon changes everything for Broadway electronic music designers. The new M1 Mac mini is capable of running high-end sample libraries and virtual instruments in a stable manner, and it’s only going to get better with M2, M3, and M4-series chips in the future. The performance per dollar characteristics of Apple Silicon machines are going to have a huge impact on Broadway’s sound, and I’m very excited to see, or hear, what happens.