How to source the right computer for your home studio
Putting together a home studio and unsure about the minimum specs your computer should have for music production? It can be confusing, especially if the Google research rabbit hole leads you to public forums where opinions are freely given by home studio novices and professional engineers alike.
To simplify things for the acoustic-based songwriter/non-techy musician, today we’re going to be taking a closer look at home studio computer specifications, including the big three: CPU, memory, and hard disc storage. Along with choosing between a laptop or desktop computer, dealing with fan noise, improving the computer you may already have, and if you should get caught up at all in the Mac V PC debate.
Almost any computer provided it’s less than 5-6 years old will be capable of connecting to an interface and running software allowing you to record, edit and mix music. The computer itself won’t really have a bearing on the quality of the audio you record, unlike the hardware and equipment you use. However, low spec machines are less efficient and more prone to problems (freezing, crashing) working near capacity. Aim for a multi-core CPU with the fastest single-core processing speed available within your budget and a minimum of 4GB ram. If your budget allows, also consider fan noise (SSD hard disc and sound insulated case) and hard disc space as audio files tend to take up space quickly.
Won’t any computer do the job?
Chances are if setting up a basic home studio you’re working within the confines of a budget. I get it, most of us have similar constraints, especially when starting out.
And when it comes to sourcing a computer for music production if you can use something you already have lying around it’s one component that won’t eat into your budget, leaving more resources to be allocated for sexier items such as studio monitors, and a slick audio interface.
On the face of it, this is good advice. And, if you are just starting out in digital recording it’s a smart way to test the waters.
Your workflow is only as efficient as its weakest link. If you have great hardware and equipment but your computer is unreliable you will make less efficient use of your time.
So, while the advice to work with any computer you have will help keep costs down, much like learning to play on a cheap acoustic guitar your progress may be slow and frustrating with the potential for the following issues:
|Freezing and/or crashing
If you want to produce anything more sophisticated than just a handful of tracks, use multiple soft synths or a high number of plugins when mixing you may find a particularly low spec computer lacks the internal resources to handle the workload and will freeze or take inordinate amounts of time to handle tasks.
A low spec computer, generally won’t feature a quiet hard drive, advanced cooling technology, or a silent case. If you push the computer (which is likely if using a low spec machine) the fan will be noisy and detectable if recording with a microphone. Otherwise, the cooling system itself will run intermittently and may interrupt other processes including those important for audio.
While most computers will not run into compatibility issues with modern software chances are they won’t run as efficiently as they could. For example, a 64-bit application on a 64-bit operating system will have access to more memory, making better use of the CPU which has a flow-on effect with areas such as latency.
|Poor performance despite meeting minimum specs
Software vendors aren’t in the habit of driving away potential customers. The minimum specs recommended don’t mean the software will perform exceptionally well. It just means they don’t want you to think you need to upgrade or buy a new computer to use their software. Don’t confuse minimum specifications for recommended specifications.
There’s isn’t really a standard one size fits all answer either, as the best computer for your home studio will really depend on the way you work, the instruments you record, and the software you are working with. CPU information isn’t always included in DAW (audio recording and mixing software) specifications and minimum specifications for RAM vary based on the software you are using, along with required disc space.
- Intel® i5 processor.
- 4GB RAM (8GB or more recommended)
- 15GB disk space for installation.
- Intel® Core™ Duo or AMD® Athlon™ X2 processor (Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Athlon X4 or better recommended)
- 4 GB RAM minimum (8 GB or more recommended)
- 40 GB hard-drive space
- 2 Ghz Intel Pentium 4 / AMD Athlon 64 (or later) compatible CPU with full SSE2 support.
- 4 GB or more RAM recommended.
- 4 GB free disk space.
With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the computer specifications that actually matter with regard to music production and what to look out for if sourcing a new or new/second-hand computer for your home studio.
CPU — Processing Power
What is a CPU?
The central processing unit or CPU for short is the brain of your computer. It receives information, processes that information, and then executes instructions based on the information it receives for applications and hardware processes that run on your computer.
The performance of the CPU (clock speed) is measured in GHz e.g. 3GHz. The higher the number, the faster the computer processes and executes commands, but other factors including multi-core processing and RAM also influence overall performance.
How much CPU is required for music production?
Audio processing is CPU intensive and depends upon real-time processing, as playback occurs in real-time and it’s important to hear changes as they are made.
This means the computer receives a continuous stream of information and is required to output data almost immediately. And, unlike many other applications, it is unable to take full advantage of multi-threaded processing (multi-core) as efficiently, as processes that occur in audio production generally need to take place in a specific order.
The software (your DAW) will almost certainly utilize multi-threading, so multiple cores are an advantage but, all things being equal, single-core performance is the most important specification with regard to music production.
Intel places more of a focus on single-core performance, at the time of publishing as AMD focuses more on multi-core performance.
Memory (RAM — Random Access Memory)
If the CPU is the brain of the computer, RAM is your short-term memory, otherwise known as short-term data storage.
If you were cooking a meal, RAM would be your kitchen bench. The bigger the bench the more ingredients can be kept within arm’s reach, saving you time going to the pantry (hard drive) each time.
With this in mind, if your computer has a powerful CPU but lacks sufficient RAM, the full potential of the CPU will not be utilized as RAM feeds information to the CPU where it is then processed.
Ram is also affected by running multiple applications simultaneously or performing more intensive tasks such as rendering audio files. Your operating system also uses RAM. Further along in the article, I’ll show you some simple tips to help your computer use its available short-term memory more efficiently and prioritize music production.
How much Ram do you need for music production?
Generally speaking, RAM is one of the least expensive ways to improve the performance of your computer, all things being equal. This means, unlike your CPU it can easily be upgraded.
Hard Drive Space
The amount of storage you require on your computer for music production has to take into account the operating system, audio software, and associated files, along with the audio files used in your projects.
The type of hard drive is also an important consideration. SSD’s (solid-state drives) store information in chips, unlike HDD (hard disc drives) which utilize spinning discs.
Because of this SSD’s (much like USB storage devices) don’t contain moving parts and require less cooling. As a result are faster and quieter, an important consideration if recording acoustic instruments. But as you may have guessed, they are also more expensive than HDDs and less available with large storage capacity, unlike HDDs.
How much disc space do you need for music production?
Laptop or Desktop?
You can use either, but if given the choice I recommend a desktop computer for the following reasons:
Unless you have a gaming laptop or something that uses an advanced cooling system, a desktop will typically be quieter. This matters, because unless you can isolate the microphone completely when recording your fan is likely to get picked up on the microphone. Using a desktop, also allows the option of putting the tower in an adjacent room, provided you have the cable length and are able to drill holes to run the cables through your interior wall.
You will generally get more ‘bang for your buck’ e.g. faster processor, more ram, and hard drive space on a desktop computer. While it’s true that laptops are a newer technology, meaning you are less likely to have a low spec laptop lying around, they are also more expensive to upgrade generally.
- No real advantage to portability
In most cases, the main advantage of a laptop e.g. portability is largely redundant. Your home studio is at home after all (the clue is in the name :). As you get more experienced it’s useful to have a mobile setup as well, and this is where a laptop, or portable device e.g. Tablet or iPad really come into their own, but in the majority of cases there will be a compromise required for that added portability.
Laptops are more expensive to repair or work on for a number of reasons. For one, due to their size, hardware is often proprietary, meaning the manufacturer designs the hardware specifically for the particular machine. This also makes it more difficult to replace parts when they give up the ghost. Faults are also more difficult to detect, and many of the components, much like your typical modern smart TV just aren’t designed to be repaired, meaning replacement is the only (and expensive!) option available.
- Monitor Size
I know, technically you can also add an external monitor to your laptop but if you run a desktop you are far more likely to have more screen real estate to work with. And when you consider how cluttered most modern DAWs are a larger screen is definitely an advantage.
Laptops aren’t all bad, and if that’s what you have it will be fine but if you have the choice, and don’t need the portability, go with a desktop computer.
Mac V PC?
In the majority of cases, it won’t matter all that much, so go with the platform you are most familiar with.
Despite the fact that Macs are typically used more often in creative industries e.g. design, most interfaces and DAWs are platform-independent.
But if given the choice, for music production I prefer a PC. No, that doesn’t mean I dislike Apple, I’m typing on a Mac book as we speak but if you need to upgrade a PC it will be less costly and more capable of being upgraded if for instance, you want to increase your RAM.
However, if you prefer Apple, Garageband comes free and is an excellent first DAW to learn music production on.
While it’s not necessary to run your home studio using multiple monitors, if you are aiming for ultimate efficiency aim for a video card that can take two monitors or if going for a laptop, ensure it can handle an external monitor. Audio recording and editing software interfaces often take up a significant amount of screen real estate. a dual monitor setup can help as you can have your mixing tools on one monitor and your tracks on another, saving you minimizing repeatedly.
How to get more out of your existing computer
Regardless of whether you buy new or are using an existing computer, there are a number of things you can do to optimize the computer for music production. A lot of the tips below will help your computer perform more efficiently using any software or for any application but bear in mind many of the recommendations will improve performance only if one application is running.
- Check the settings within your DAW
There are often settings that you can change to increase the efficiency of your computer with regard to music production. While all DAW’s differ slightly, look for the following:
- Close all programs and remove unwanted USB devices
Your DAW will have more available RAM.
- Update all drivers
Software manufacturers create software that is optimal for their hardware. Use these instead of generic drivers.
- Adjust the computers settings for best performance
Switch of background services, disable unwanted programs that open on startup. Switch visual effects such as animated windows and set your power settings to high performance.
- Remove all unwanted Software
If the computer you are using is now your dedicated studio computer, remove all unwanted software taking up additional disc space.
- Clean the fan
A clean fan will run more efficiently and quietly.
- Get the computer off the ground
If you arable, avoid sitting your computer directly on the floor where it is more likely to attract dust. It will also be less prone to mechanical vibrations.
- Disable network adapters and anti-virus
If you don’t need to be online save ram by switching off those non-essential processes. Be sure to ensure you do have functional Anti-virus however if this changes in the future.
- Check the settings in your DAW
Look for options that allow you to take advantage of multi-threading, check and test buffer settings.
- Disable plugins, not in use
Plugins use RAM, enough said.
- Render Midi Tracks
If you do not need to edit midi, render it as an audio file (.WAV) and load it back into your project in place of the midi file.
- Use Bus tracks for plugins and effects
Routing your tracks to a group affects bus cuts down on RAM and is generally just a more efficient way to work.
While an obvious point, It’s difficult to compare apples to apples when it comes to computers. One person’s ‘great’ can be another’s worthless junk and it really does depend on your requirements, which, when it comes to audio mostly comes down to the types of instruments you are recording, your use of virtual instruments, samples, and plugins and how sophisticated the music you intend on the recording is, not to mention your choice of DAW.
If possible get recommendations, read reviews, but also keep in mind the opinions of people working in a completely different way to you, will not only, not be helpful, it may also mean the difference between a highly efficient workflow and one that continually is a cause of frustration. If you are playing the twin roles of audio engineer and performer as most of us do in the home studio environment, tension will always affect performance.