I am writing this short, and fairly simple guide on how to choose the best computer or computer components for your music production and recording needs. Having worked in studios for more than ten years, and having produced numerous remixes, music for tv commercials, and sound tracks.. I believe I can offer solid advice on what works and what doesn't.
CPU Speed - Do I need the most powerful computer? The one with 3.0 Ghz dual core chips? Or will a Pentium 4 2.0 Ghz chip suffice?
This is the most tempting bit to every computer purchaser. It seems like there is an obsession with buying the fastest computer. However, faster processor speed does not necessarily mean fastest performance. You have to ask yourself - What am I going to do with this computer? What applications am I going to run?
A fast processor is limited by multiple things - such as the amount of RAM, the hard drives, the bus speed and so on. What good is a 4 core processor system (like the Apple Mac Pro) if you are using 512 mb of RAM and a hard drive that spins at 4200 rpm? I can guarantee that your audio production software (ProTools, Logic, Digital Performer. Cubase, etc) will not work that great at all.
Now we have multiple core processors like the Intel Xeon workstations. The quad core workstations - its akin to having 4 processors in your system! This helps a great deal when you are using virtual instruments. Virtual instruments are software synthesizers/samplers/sound modules. The computer distributes the processing load to all the 'cores' .. so you can add more virtual instruments and run them with ease.
You must ensure though, that your software has the capability of 'multi-threading' i.e. it can sense what apps to distribute.. and to what core. It is absolutely useless if you buy a computer with 4 cores, and your software concentrates all the work on only one core!
Yes, a faster CPU (or multiple CPUs) can be beneficial but its not the most important factor. RAM and Hard Drive speed are more important. Lets discuss this..
RAM (Random Access Memory)
Think of RAM as a temporary storage bank for your computer. When your computer is performing multiple tasks - like editing audio, or applying effects, etc.. it transmits all this information from the hard drive, to the ram, back to the hard drive, and so on. If you have less RAM, the computer slows down.. especially when performing intensive tasks. Please note, that I am trying to explain this in the most simple language possible to folks who might not have any idea of computer lingo.. so computer nerds, don't flame me :-)
Try to add as much RAM to your system as it allows. I have a Apple MacBook, loaded with 2 GB of RAM. Thats the first thing I installed when I bought this laptop. My audio production software runs flawlessly, without any slowdowns or crashes. I have seen numerous customers operate powerful computers with a measly 512 mb of ram.
So don't waste your money on buying the fastest processor.. buy a reasonably fast one, and spend the money you saved on the RAM instead.
Hard Drive Speed
As I mentioned earlier, when you are working with any software, the computer transfers all information from the RAM to the hard drive, and back and forth. What is hard drive speed? Its the RPM i.e. the number of times it spins per minute. When you shop for hard drives at any store, you will see these terms "5400 rpm" or "7200 rpm" The faster the speed of the drive, the faster the computer can access information and utilize it.
Nowadays 7200 rpm drives are more than adequate for music production/recording needs. In fact, I can run a full 32 track session with plug-ins on my laptop's 4200 rpm drive. However, for best performance.. I absolutely suggest that you have a 7200 rpm hard drive.
What if you need more tracks? There was a commercial that I was working on.. and the project ran upto 256 tracks. Thats 256 tracks - kicks, snares, vocals, effects, basses, percussion.. what not. Not to mention plug-ins and virtual instruments. The computer had 4 gb of ram, but the session would stop every now and then, because the hard drive (7200 rpm) simply couldn't keep up with so many tracks and so much information.
So we installed a SCSI drive for this project. SCSI drives are high end drives which spin at 10,000 rpm and more. The one we got was a 15,000 rpm Seagate Cheetah drive. 15,000 rpm is the fastest speed in the market currently. These drives are expensive, but was it worth it? You bet! We were able to playback, edit, mix 284 tracks (256 wasnt enough apparently) with plug-ins, virtual instruments, and everything ran smooth.
Is SCSI for you? Maybe.. if you intend to work on intense projects later on. For now though, you should be able to run your projects on a 7200 rpm drive.
You also get Firewire and USB external hard drives. I would suggest USB 2.0.. as thats faster than USB. I find no performance difference between firewire 400 and usb 2.0. Firewire 800 does offer performance gains.
Mac (Apple) or PC?
I have a MacBook, so you might think I am biased..(I am to an extent, and I will explain later) I also have an AMD Athlon 64 system. Both computers have 2 gb of ram installed, but the macbook has an advantage as it has 2 cores (kinda like 2 chips)
You might be one of those "Mac vs PC" guys who can't make up their minds. The only reason I switched to the mac is because of its operating system. Windows, for me, always crashes and I find myself wasting time rather than concentrating on making music. With the mac, I can work and I can't remember when my macs have crashed.. ever.
In the end, its all a matter of preference. You may like Windows more than the mac operating system, but most professionals in the music and video industry will stick with macs for their reliability. If you have a pc, the key to keeping it running without glitches is obviously - no spyware, adware, no kazaa, limewire, etc. No 3rd party plugins or pirated software either.
I hope this guide was helpful to you. If you have any questions, please contact me and I will be glad to answer.
Purchased a Mac Pro (2008) with 8 core Xeon processors and 8 GB RAM - this thing flies with Pro Tools! Maxed out the track count, with plugins on every track (reverbs and delays - so that was intensive processing) .. loaded up 16 virtual synths - and the system worked great.
On Logic Pro, I worked on an orchestral session - 128 tracks - again, no hiccups. The 8 core MPs are beasts - expensive but absolutely worth it for the professional.