20-30 years ago, a recording studio was something to dream about. A “real” personal studio that enabled you to do decent recordings was way out of reach for regular budgets. Basically, you were limited to 4-track tape/cassette recorders, microphones, maybe some synth modules and some outboard multi-fx processor. The plan (actually more of a fantasy) for most was to hand out their self-produced demo tapes, get “discovered” and then record their music in one of those big studios for real.
Today, things look way better. For a fraction of the cost you can get equipment that’s powerful and lets you record in more than decent sounding quality. There’s a ton of options available to you. Maybe too many and it’s easy to get confused in the sea of options.
Probably the most important tool is your computer system. Well, you still need musical knowledge, creativity and musicality, but a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is where it’s happening today.
In February I finally got me a new system and now I’d like to share some ideas. This probably will end up a long post – so, my apologies in advance. But hopefully it’ll guide you along and help you avoid some common pitfalls when plunking down your hard-earned cash for a computer system.
Status Quo Assessment
Before anything else, take some time to do an honest assessment of your current situation and some educated guesses about your future usage.
- Why do you need a new DAW?
- Is the old one really beyond repair or totally broken? If not, could you work your old machine a little longer?
- Has technology advanced so much that you can’t use the latest programs due to hardware limitations?
- What’s the primary focus of your workstation?
- Do you want to create simple background music for your family vacation videos, record your album or compose on spec for paying clients?
- In what field and style?
- What’s your workflow?
- Do you record lots of your own audio, will you keep it more VST-based, or do you use a loop-based approach?
- Will you be playing stuff in live or draw the notes with your mouse?
- How intensive are your requirements?
- Recordings of a full band or group of singers simultaneously or is it a 1 man/woman operation – you in your little home-project studio?
- What did you like about your old system?
- What drove you nuts?
- Is there stuff you can keep and port over?
Mouse and keyboard, maybe you are happy with your MIDI interface, soundcard. Also, it might be possible to re-use components like DVD writers, network cards, graphics card, etc… to keep costs down
- Think about the software you’ll be able to keep!
- Any changes necessary due to a new operating system e.g.: like 32bit vs 64bit compatibility issues?
- Check for component drivers!
The old soundcard you’ve grown to love and would like to keep for your new system might not have drivers available anymore. Find out in your planning stage to help you create a realistic budget.
Be Honest With Your Budget
- What amount of money are you able to invest?
- How much are you willing to “bleed”?
- What’s a realistic time frame to make the money back?
When you know that there’s a lucrative assignment on your horizon it might make sense to get the model with the better specs to let you handle your big project. On the other hand, if you know you won’t be able to use it the next few weeks (eg tour, work, etc…) – delay your purchase. Prices most likely will go down and you’ll get the same stuff cheaper.
Is it possible to add certain components later to keep costs manageable – without sacrificing important key functionality? For example, “only” 16GB of RAM now with the option to upgrade to 32 GB RAM a couple of months down the road.
Find the Right Timing to Buy
As early as 3 years ago I already wanted to buy a new system. Fortunately, I was able to talk myself out of it. I figured that by spending my money on the system first, I would have close to no money left over for getting new (better) software and sounds. And by the time I’d have more money to spend, my PC system would be “old” again. So, the better strategy for me was to invest into the software first. I got Cubase, Native Instruments Komplete 5, EWQL Symphonic Orchestra Gold and Goliath in a bundle deal and various other Kontakt based libraries over time.
All that stuff was usable, even on my old system. Sure, there were moments I was cursing because my old system couldn’t handle another instance of my software. I had to use workarounds like freezing tracks and bouncing to audio to get the resources freed up again. But retrospectively I am amazed how much mileage I got out of my old single core, 2GB RAM system. I’ve produced library music that’s in use at various European TV stations – heck, even some multi-media projects that I won awards for were possible.
Meanwhile, little by little, I did put some money away. I’ve been drooling for Omnisphere by Spectrasonics. It’s an incredible softsynth. No chance to run on my old system, though. But knowing that the day for a new computer would come, I put money away and once I had decided to finally order my new system in January, I bought Omnisphere as a Christmas present for myself with the money I had saved up.
Also, almost all the software I’ve bought is still relevant for my new system. Cubase, Omnisphere, Komplete (updated to version 8), Spitfire Albion and Solo Strings, Heavyocity Evolve and Evolve Mutations, Tonehammer (RIP), 8Dio, Soundiron, Zero-G, etc…
Bleeding Edge of Technology
Pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their back. Sure, it might feel good to boast with your latest trophy. Impress the Joneses in your circle with the specs of your system. Question is: how long will that work? 2 – 6 months down the road they’ll be laughing about you instead. Because you sucker paid such a high price for features you are now getting for next to nothing.
Get the most out of the price/value curve. No need to be the high paying lab rat, dealing with all the bugs and incompatibility issues. Get a reliable workhorse system instead.
Take Your Time With Doing Research
Except for some serious emergency like your system dying on you out of the blue in the middle of an important project, take your time and check your options. Because it is such an important issue, don’t just walk into the next electronics store and have some 19-year-old sales kid on his summer job talk you into getting a system from the shelf.
Subscribe to some industry IT/computer hardware portal RSS feed and occasionally scan the headlines and click-through to articles that catch your eyes. No need to stay informed about each new model coming out – but at least stay in the loop about the big waves or breakthroughs. Especially, when you know that you’ll be in the market soon, it does help to know what the current spec standards are.
Get Friendly With Some Computer Gurus
When I was buying my Internet PC I shopped around at multiple local stores. I bought from a local store where I got great advice/service and I also kept in touch with not only the owner but some employees as well. I’ve recommended and referred customers to them and because of that, they really take care of me and my needs. Now for my customized music system I got exceptional service with a customized system built around my needs and a great price on top of that.
Onwards to the specifics.
Here’s a list of the essential necessities:
CPU – Central Processing Unit
The brains of your PC. Unfortunately, you can’t just go with the number of cores and the processing speed numbers alone. While it’s true that in general the more cores and the higher the GHz number, the better – there’s differences between models and brands. So you need to check some benchmarks to see how “your” model performs in comparison. Caveat: there’s more to it than just some numbers. The components need to co-operate.
Equally as important as the processor. Make sure that your mainboard and cpu work well together and that the chipsets are compatible. It also should have enough USB ports, SATA ports, Firewire ports and RAM slots according to your needs.
The memory your computer uses. The more the better, especially considering today’s multi-gigabyte sample libraries.
With 64bit systems NOT having that limit of only using up tp 3 GB, you can really go to town now. I wanted to have 32 GB of RAM installed in my system. Unfortunately, the price of 8GB RAM sticks is still way too high, so I decided to stick to the affordable 4 GB sticks and max out my system at 16GB. In a year or two, when prices most likely will have gone down significantly, I will still have the option to upgrade to 32 GB.
Compared to the measly 2GB (total!!!) I had in my old system I don’t have a reason to complain – at least for now. 😉 Just to give you an idea, my biggest current Cubase template for hybrid orchestral projects (still a work in progress though as I fine-tune my system) uses approximately 10 GB of RAM so far. It’s ca. 110 MIDI tracks connected to 6 fully loaded multi-channel instances of Kontakt 5, 4 instances of EWQL Play, Omnisphere, Absynth 5, Battery 3, Alchemy Player, Massive, FM8
Go for a SSD drive in the 120GB range. 80GB would also work, but the price difference isn’t that huge and the ca. 40 GB extra will give you peace of mind, knowing that there’s enough room to easily install all the relevant programs you’d ever need.
It’s important for performance to separate your data from the system files. Especially, with audio projects which are quite taxing and data intensive, you don’t want to overload your disk. An SSD might be too expensive, and while it would be nice, it’s not essential. But do go for a 7200 rpm (revolutions/minute) drive, though. A 5400rpm drive, as used in notebooks, is NOT fast enough and might lead to read/write errors.
SSD(s) for your most important, resource intensive sound libraries. I’ve split my main libraries onto 2 SSDs – a 256 GB drive and a 128GB drive. Less often used sounds, patch presets, REX format files, etc… go onto an extra conventional 1TB Western Digital drive.
We are not playing graphics intensive 3D games here – so no need for the fastest card. You get good quality in the 100$ range already with 1GB of separate!!! RAM and dual-monitor support.
Power Supply and a Case
That’s stuff I let my friendly guys in the computer store handle for me. I just told them that I need enough juice and it needs to be as quiet as possible. 🙂
I’ve always been a Windows guy. I’ve found my old system stable enough and the new one running Windows 7 in 64 bit performs like a champion. No need for me to change. Especially after I was able to trace my initial troubles back to my under-powered USB port. You can read about my despair in the “Audio Drop-Out Nightmares… and a Happy End” post I wrote a while ago. Don’t have any Mac experience, so don’t know what’s going on there and how the latest Mountain Lion OS update performs.
Last, but definitely not least are the peripherals like keyboard, mouse, a monitor or 2 (for a highly recommended dual-monitor set-up), sound card, MIDI interface, monitor boxes for listening to your masterworks, hardware controllers like MIDI keyboard, faderboxes etc…
Maybe I’ll go into some of the peripherals in more detail in a future article.
The most important thing is to NOT feel intimidated. Don’t get discouraged by all the tech-babble. With a bit of research and comparison you can get an awesome music PC system that enables you to do things in a spare bedroom that you would have killed for not too long ago.
Any questions or experiences about your music system? Please add them in the comment section below.