– by nanashiwandererSelecting a computer in the Home Studio.
Part I The importance of the DAW in modern recording studios, and criteria for selection.
The personal computer has revolutionized the modern recording studio. In many cases it has functionally replaced tape, and made once difficult editing a painless process. In professional studios, for better or for worse, it has made it possible to correct minor mistakes from performances during tracking. In a large portion of todayâ€™s home studios the personal computer serves as the center for a digital studio. It often not only provides the medium which sound is recorded and edited, but functionally replaces every aspect of the studio. Increased processing power of modern computers, make it possible to use several plug-ins to completely functionally replace the role of hardware units. In addition, in the last 3 or four years the availability of high quality plug-in has drastically increased, that is often superior to the hardware within the budget of the average home recording studio. However, despite the crucial rule computers play in the home studio, their value is often under rated and overlooked. People often spend more time mulling over what sound card or microphone to buy ,before even checking if their pc is actually compatible with the audio interface they are running or suitable for audio. Others realize the importance of their DAW; however make mistakes of paying to much attention to system power, speed, at the expense of stability, reliability, and compatibility. The purpose of this article is to explain some of the considerations one should take while selecting a Digital audio work station, for their home studio; As well as explore the pros and cons of different routes a person can take when selecting a DAW. This guide will refrain from complex in-depth technical explanations of how components in a DAW work.
So what considerations should one actually take when buying a personal computer for studio use?
If someone asked this question in the mid-nineties the first answer that comes to mind would be system power and speed. In the past it was often a tedious task to even run a few plug-ins, and realistically computers were suitable for minor editing. However, the computing power has drastically increased in the last few years. The average new computer has well over 25 times the processing power, of the average pc 10 years ago and likely at a significant cheaper price. A top of line PC DAW can now days record near 100 tracks (often more), and is often capable of running multiple plugins on every channel. This kind of processing power greatly exceeds the needs of most home studios. Even computers from three or four years ago, as of this writing in have significant processing power, and often with minor adjustments and upgrades can be used for audio. In my personal opinion the great increases in power, has shifted the primary concerns of modern DAW, from power to compatibility, stability, overall reliability, and silence.
Most audio interfaces and soundcards are fairly finicky about the hardware their attached to. If the soundcard/audio interface, for a lack of a better term, doesnâ€™t like your hardware numerous issues can occur; an example of such issues are system instability, pops and clicks when recording, cyclic redundancy errors. The reason for this fickleness is unlike consumer soundcards, like the Creative Labs SoundBlaster, which are just designed primarily to playback audio from your computer, audio soundcards have to perform a task which is far more complex. Sound cards used for recording have to be able to take an input source (often multiple input sources), which is often analog, convert it to digital, which the computer then stores, and then often play the signal back (which requires the computer to perform a digital analog conversion), in a time period that is indiscernible to the human ear. A soundcard doing this needs frequent attention from the computers CPU, or for the pc illiterate the computerâ€™s brain. The CPU generally can only do one thing at a time, so it switches back in forth between tasks. An audio pc as a result has to be configured in a way that your audio interface isnâ€™t fighting with your other hardware for different resources. For the aforementioned reasons I usually consider compatibility as the most important factor when selecting any DAW. DAW compatibility is the ability of your computerâ€™s recording hardware to be configured with the rest of your computers hardware and software, in a way that it can actually be used.
Help guys Iâ€™m not good at transitions at all
Once compatibility of audio hardware with a given system is established, the next most important criteria for any system stability and reliability. A stable system is a system that isnâ€™t prone to crash, or other errors, and a reliable system is one that isnâ€™t prone to hardware failures. The reasons why one would want to have a stable system should be fairly obvious; no one wants their computer to crash in a middle of a recording session. This can mean often loosing unsaved data, and mean re tracking whole projects. I doubt anyone, wants to replace a pc, or send their pc to the repair shop shortly after they bought it. One may wonder, shouldnâ€™t compatible system be reliable, a compatible system merely means, your computer can work properly together; it doesnâ€™t mean it has to. A compatible, stable and reliable computer is a system which works the way itâ€™s supposed to vast majority of the time.
The last criterion for a good audio pc is silence. This is especially true of home studios, and smaller project studios which are unlikely to have a dedicated machine room, or sometimes even a control room. In single room studios, where the pc is located with in the room one is using for tracking, one runs the risk that the microphones will pickup background noises from the pcâ€™s cooling system. In smaller semi-professional and professional project studios, a loud DAW in the control room, can compromise ones listening environment. As a result, how quiet ones PC is becomes an very important factor when choosing a pc for audio.
Part II. F.AQ.
Okay nanashi this is all fine and dandy, but I already have a desktop pc, canâ€™t I just use it?
In many scenarios, a person new to recording, may not want to take the time to purchase a dedicated for audio. Because, modern computers generally exceed the power requirements for the basic needs of most hobby musicians, often an older computer can be suitable for the task of music production, with minor upgrades, and modifications. In general the user should take power, compatibility, and how quiet the pc is into account. Generally a user should already be aware, if the pc is stable or reliable.
A musician wishing to use their old pc, should already have a rough idea of what their looking to do, and consider the software they wish to use before hand, to get a measure of the power requirements. On software boxes usually there are system requirements, and recommended specifications; one should realize it is more realistic to buy software, based on whether or not their computer fits the softwareâ€™s recommended requirements. Recommended requirements are usually the resources a program should have for normal use, not when the software is pushed to the maximum. Generally there are three major factors that come in to play when determining power requirements with software, the CPU/processor speed (example a box may say Pentium III or Athlon 1GHZ required, Pentium 4 1.5 GHZ or better recommended), the ram/memory (example continued, 256mb required, 1GB recommended) and hard drive space (example continued 1GB required, audio data takes up additional space). If your system meets the CPU requirements, it can be upgrade to meet the other two, assuming the system has the upgrade capacity to add another hard drive (or replace an existing one), or add more ram. Crucial.com (as well as a few other memory distributors), has a memory finder which can determine the type of ram one needs, and how much ram their system can support, based on the computers model number. If the system does not have the horse power to run software, it is generally advisable to purchase a new machine, as replacing the CPU will often require other components to be replaced. As of this writing, most computers 4 years old and newer meet the recommended requirements for lighter software such as Cubase SE3, or Mackieâ€™s Tracktion 2).
The second thing one should do is determine, what sort of interface/soundcard one wants, and come up with a list of possible interfaces that match their budget. The individual should then try to determine whether the interface is compatible with their, machine. Usually, the best way to do this especially, for windowâ€™s users is to determine if their pc is not compatible. Generally Hardware manufacturers, will list systems that have potential incompatibilities with their hardware. People who wish to use Digidesign pro-tools le, should take note that digidesign spends extensive time testing which systems are and are not compatible, and keep archives of systems that were previously compatible on their website.
c. is it quiet enough? This is the big breaker for many people, and should be considered carefully, especially if the computer one is using is made by a big OEM. Most OEM PCâ€™s made by dell, HP, Compaq, apple. Use what are called proprietary components. These components are custom designed to fit the manufacturerâ€™s design, as opposed to retail hardware which follow usually standard sizing specifications. Often the use Proprietary components make it impossible to replace certain components usually the CPU fan, Power supply and motherboard. Power Supply and fans are usually the two components that introduce the most noise into a computer system, followed by the hard drives. Oftentimes irregular sizing of proprietary cases mean that the cooling system selected because they allow for safe internal temperatures for the computer system. Generally quieter cooling system means the use of passive cooling or using slower case fans, which are less effective at cooling then louder components.
The summary: often computers which are a few years old are suitable with minor modifications, especially for users in home studios. However, the flipside is that it may require so much modification its easier to buy a new pc.
What about me!!! Nanashi, I have a laptop? I bought for school can I use it?
Unlike PC desktops, whether or not a laptop can be used for audio is a far trickier business. As of this writing (Quarter1 2007) the answer is it may be possible if your laptop is under 5 years old, however there are no guarantees. Like with desktopâ€™s the criteria for using an old pc laptop for audio remains the same, does the system have enough power, can it be made to work with ones hardware, is it quiet enough however, modifying a laptop is far harder than a desktop, and often times impossible.
Determining whether a system has enough power is fairly simple. One should simply follow the same methodology discussed for determining whether their desktop pc has power. The major bottle neck for power with most laptops is often the hard-drives. Laptops generally use hard drives, with slower rotating internal components (the platters for the tech savvy) than desktops. Slower, hard drives generally mean slower read and write times and usually entail that a user cannot achieve as high a track count as one would on the desktop. As a result it is recommended that one use an external hard drive with high rotation speed (7200rpm as of this writing), when using any laptop for audio. In recent times modern laptops hard drive performance has been much closer to desktops, and it is possible to replace the internal hard drives on many laptops, however often times the drives are difficult to access making it impossible for average consumers to easily replace. A common solution is to use the external drives that connect using the firewire bus. While the data read/write performance is not as fast as an internal desktop drive, it often is a drastic improvement over the laptop drives. In even more recent times (laptops no older than 2 years) have been made it possible to hook up external SATA hard drive controllers (SATA is the communications bus that most new hard drives use, to connect to your computer) which allow users to add an external desktop hard drive running at the native speed of internal drives.
The most major concern with laptops is it even possible to perform major audio editing duties with a notebook. With many older notebooks or low-end models manufactured new, it is not. Older and lower-end notebooks often suffer from resource conflicts due to sharing of interrupt request lines (IRQ). IRQ conflicts often are a source of unwanted pops and clicks in your recording, and render many laptops unusable for serious audio editing tasks. (An IRQ is an interrupt request line. The computers hardware uses this to signal the computers CPU, the brain, that it needs it to do something a.s.a.p. an IRQ conflict occurs when two devices are fighting for access because they are sharing a request line, its best to think of the IRQ as the emergency line to the manager of a business). On desktops the number of IRQ is standardized and conflicts can be solved by disabling communication ports one is not using (the serial bus fore example) or moving the location of internal devices so they have a different line. On laptops, which are highly integrated machines, there is often no way to change which IRQ your audio interface is assigned too, which makes many laptop prone to IRQ conflicts. Assuming your laptop is not prone to IRQ conflicts, and has the power you need to accomplish the tasks you wish to do.
The next major concern is audio interface compatibility with. Since laptops do not have the same internal expansion slots as desktops, the types of sound cards one can use with a laptop are limited mostly to external audio interfaces connecting using USB or Firewire. Majority of USB (2.0) interfaces cannot record more than stereo at this time, and will not be discussed in detail, generally firewire interfaces due to the design of the firewire protocol is a more effective solution for recording audio, in addition almost all the complex audio interfaces are firewire soundcards. As with desktop it is important to check for the compatibility of the interface with oneâ€™s system and similar rules apply. Generally manufacturers will list which systems are incompatible with their interface. However, in the case of firewire interfaces often times incompatibilities can be fixed since the incompatibility maybe potentially caused by the firewire chipset the laptop is using. If your laptop has a PCMCIA or express card expansion slot it is often possible to add a firewire expansion card. A general rule of thumb is most firewire audio interfaces work the best on firewire ports which utilize a chipset manufactured by Texas instrument. Often times device conflicts with firewire interfaces on desktops and laptops can be corrected merely by adding a firewire card using Texas Instrument Chipset.
The Summary: Some laptops are able to handle serious recording tasks, and other laptops will always unsuitable for recording. Usually those laptops which are unsuitable for recording cannot be modified period to be made suitable for studio purposes. Those which are suitable for recording, usually benefit from a faster external hard drive. General audio interface compatibilities with laptops suitable for recording audio can often be solved by addition of Texas instrument firewire board.
Part III Nanashi I read the rest of your boring drivel, and Iâ€™m convinced I need a new pc? What are my options?
Essentially in the market buying a desktop pc theirs 6 routes one can take. One is going to a store and buying a big name desktop or big name laptop pc. The 2nd is going to a local vendor and have them build a pc customized to your needs. The 3rd option is to go to a vendor which specializes in building pcâ€™s for the tasks you plan to use it for. The 4th option is to build your own Desktop PC, using retail components (my preferred method). The 5th Option is to buy a pc from apple.
Big OEMs Desktop
The acronym OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer, which essentially is a fancy term for any company which resells components of another company under their logo. Oftentimes components are marketed as OEM components when they are intended for use in an OEM system, such components are sold open box at normal retail computer warehouses like newegg.com; Generally these components come without warranty as opposed to retail box where the hardware is bundled often times with accessories, software and has a complete package and full warranty. Dell, HP, Compaq and almost all computer vendors are OEMâ€™s since they do not manufacture the internal components of their machines. Instead they either bulk order components, such as hard drives, optical drives from companies which do produce such products, the really big OEMs will often contract vendors to manufacture certain products for them like cases, motherboards and power supplies (and this is how proprietary computer hardware originates.) So what is a big OEM? A Big OEM refers to the large companies, which sell mass distributed computers intended mostly for the general public. The key major players are Dell (also owns Alien-ware), HP/Compaq, Gateway/E-machines.
So can OEMâ€™s be used for audio? Generally OEM PCâ€™s are intended for use by the general public and not designed for specific tasks. Rather they are geared to do basic tasks like play music, web surfing, watch movies, e-mail, word process. As a result the hardware and system are configured for the needs of general public. OEM machines can often times used for audio, but it often has to be optimized for audio, and may have to be upgraded and modified for use. Most of the large OEM companies use proprietary components and often the expandability and upgradeability of the system is limited by small power-supply, the use of proprietary power supplies and irregular case sizes often makes it impossible to replace power supply to increase expandability. Other problems occur in the fact that OEMâ€™s use custom motherboard, and often do not state what chipset the motherboard uses (the chipset is the device the CPU, or brain, uses to communicate with the rest of the computers hardware, kind of like your spinal chord). This means that itâ€™s often hard to determine if your audio interface is not compatible with a big name pc.
So are there advantages to the OEMs? Generally serious home studios, or professional studios and project studios would be better off investigating other options, which are more easily suited for audio, however the OEM does offer the advantage is they are comparatively cheap. Generally, when a person has a PC budget under 800 $ including the cost of windows, it is very hard to beat the performance and relative quality that OEM PCâ€™s can offer. For home studios and hobbyist engineers who maintain a rigid budget may benefit from the fact, that the right OEM PC with modifications may be suitable for audio.
~ Nanashiâ€™s tip if your limited to buying an OEM Pc, try to get one certified for use with Protools even if you want to use sonar or Cubase. Generally a pc that is certified for Protools will be suited with a number of audio interfaces. Also do research for tweaking windows for audio.
OEM PCs arenâ€™t ready for audio out of the box from the get go. The hardware they use is not 100% replaceable, and upgradeability is somewhat limited due to use of proprietary core components, mainly the motherboard (the thing everything inside connects too), and the power supply. The advantage to OEMâ€™s is they are relatively good for tight budgets, because other options are not as affordable.
- The local store or online stores with design it your self options.
Believe it or not there are probably companies in your town which manufacture computers. These stores are under the many different types of small OEM vendors, and use what Iâ€™ll call retail channel hardware. Retail Channel hardware that essentially can be purchased by the consumer market, and not just by vendors. The implication of this is a person could build a computer themselves using the exact same components. The advantage to retail hardware is there is a wide market, and many options exist. The top end of retail hardware is considerably better quality in terms of performance, and reliability than the components inside the average (like the pcâ€™s large OEMs make) PC. The bad thing about retail hardware theirs a lot of sorting through the trash, considerable research needs to be done to actually create pcâ€™s that are higher quality than the Big OEMâ€™s.
So whatâ€™s the advantage to the local store? Often times small vendors and local stores will build pcâ€™s for a cost thatâ€™s cheaper than specialized pc vendors. Since, Small OEMâ€™s use retail components often theyâ€™ll often allow users input to the core components they use. A user who is willing to do research can essentially design a pc custom tailored to their needs, and tweaked to their needs. In edition they still will have the security of knowing that they have a technician they can go to that will help fix or trouble shoot system (of course depending on the vendor but this is on average). The draw back, these vendors often do not specialize in audio computers and the user must do some of their own research, to get a well suited system. In edition, the user could have saved the cost of labor by building a system himself.
A Small OEM uses retail components, and the user can design a system to suit their needs. These systems are generally more costly than OEM systems; however the use of retail box hardware means better hardware options are available provided the buyer/vendor uses the hardware in the system. The user has technical support, and warranty he would not have if he built the pc himself, however could have saved himself the cost of labor if he had chosen to build himself.
Option 3 the DAW Vendor.
In the computing world there is small retail OEM companies that often specializing in building certain types of computers. The advantage to such vendors, are assuming that they are a reputable brand with in their specialty (Such as Falcon-Northwest or Voodoo PC in the gaming world), they have a product which is suitable for a specific task right out of the box. The best DAW vendors, take the time to research which retail hardware is most suited for audio work, and provide the most performance. In edition they will configure and tweak the computers Operating Systems. Generally the best specialized vendors use top quality hardware, and have better reliability over all then most OEMs, due to higher quality standards. In edition, these class of pc vendors on average have better overall technical support then most OEM counterparts, and are more likely to have a technical support staff that actually constructs machines, and is technically skilled with computers.. The main draw backs, to good vendors, is the cost of the system is often immensely higher costing significantly more than all other avenues of buying pc. In edition, many times those not familiar with the respected specialized vendors within an industry may fall for retailers of lesser quality which advertise them selves as specialized vendors (and often times barely qualify). In my opinion for serious professional studios, buy a DAW from a pro-audio vendor is the correct choice. It saves these studios the time and effort of having to design a DAW, and is ready for audio out of the box. Hobbyist studios and home studios who do not want to worry about configuring, tweaking or spending enormous time researching components might also do well to buy from a pro-audio vendor provided they have the money.
Summary, Buying from a respected pro-audio vendor quality PC with tech support out of the box. However, the price tag can be quite high, and the internal components are retail. In addition some research must be done to determine which vendors are respectable with in a field and which ones arenâ€™t. For a professional studio, buying such a solution is effective since it saves them the hassle of having to research pc components, or tweaking and configuring a system for audio. In edition the tech support, is often quite good.
1. Mythical Magical Macintosh apples.
** Please wait one moment while Nanashi puts on a flame suit!**
They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, with appleâ€™s Mac that statement is at least partly true. Due to the design of OS/X, the smaller market share Mac possesses, mostly due to the OS design, Macintosh computers cannot get severely damaging viruses. Unbelievably many Mac users do not bother with a virus scan. So what is an apple? I think itâ€™s a red fruit, that is quite good when juiced, but some people describe it as an alternative to a pc. In my opinion, the Macintosh is an alternative to Microsoft Windows, which is run by majority of consumer desktops and laptops.
There are many myths surrounding Macs, especially with the introduction of the transition to Intel Macs. Essentially Apple is a large OEM which gets its own class. Like the large OEMâ€™s they use proprietary components, and for the most part their target market is the average consumer, with an eye on media professionals. Currently new apple computers use Intel Processors, and have made hardware transition to the X86 architecture that windows pcâ€™s have used for many years. In the past, Apples machines used a fundamentally different hardware design that was not comparable to the X86 architecture used in PCâ€™s. In the essential the philosophy of how hardware function was different (RISC Macs, vs. CISC/X86 for pc), ironically this exact architecture has been adopted in Microsoftâ€™s XBOX360. The implications of the Intel transition, on the architectural level (the type of hardware being used, not the brand or specific model) is fundamentally the same as any other pc. Modern Macintosh are capable of running windows, as long as the drivers (the software that makes your hardware work) for their hardware are available for Microsoftâ€™s OS; as of this writing apple has introduced boot camp, which does allow apple to run windows natively. The reverse implication of this is apple has also made it theoretically possible to release OS/X for all pcâ€™s and has chosen not to do this at this point.
The positive side to buying Macâ€™s for audio, is in general their pc are media editing friendly assuming the user has bought enough ram, and CPU power. The driver scheme for Apple called core audio makes integrating an audio interface with appleâ€™s product quite easy. Particularly, Digidesign protools le and Motuâ€™s audio interfaces are quite Mac compatible and can reduce headaches about which audio interface to use. In edition Macâ€™s OS/X is designed to work with the hardware within the Macs, and the design of the kernel itself makes Mac computers quite stable.
So are their drawbacks to purchasing Macs. The main concern is expandability apples are highly integrated machines and marketed as a software hardware package. If you want to use OS/X you have to use apples hardware. While the hardware in todayâ€™s apple is fundamentally the same as their pc counterparts, the number of options for expansion is quite limited, as hardware bought for Macâ€™s has to have a driver supported by apple. Like most large OEMâ€™s their hardware is proprietary though this often isnâ€™t an issue since the only motherboards OS/X supports are the oneâ€™s apple has chosen to distribute. However, many of the lower end models offered by apple offer no expansion slots, and completely prevent users from adding in any type of internal cards. The quality of appleâ€™s hardware is at least on par with most of the large OEMâ€™s, but according to many owners somewhat better. I have my reserves about remarking Mac hardware as high quality due to issues with the Intel laptops.
****Wait Nanashi what about price****
Apple is more or less competitively priced with most of the large OEMâ€™s which it is competing with. The lowest end models which are highly compact can be bought as low as 700$ configured with 1 Gig of ram and a DVD+/-RW. The higher end Mac currently offered(February 2007) is a pc server, and the base configuration isnâ€™t much more expensive than building a personal computer using the same chip. However, there are options using a different chip that can offer comparable performance that is not offered by Mac. As of this writing the Lower End Intel Macâ€™s use laptop processors (including the iMac, and Mac mini). The high-end Mac pro uses a server chip, and the line of Intel processors intended for majority of consumer desktops are not offered by apple.
Summary and conclusions
Essentially with macs you get a more or less working system out of the box, but have little ability to configure a system that fits your exact hardware needs. In my opinion the best reason to buy a Mac is that you want to use OS/X. Another potentially good reason is if you have one desktop pc for internet use, and basic tasks and audio. The price of Macs are competitive to their competitors.
5. Building your own desktop.
Okay weâ€™ve reached my favorite method, as a result Iâ€™ve resolved to talk about it the least.
The advantage to building a DAW is you can configure it to fit your needs exactly provided you have the budget. A DIY pc is generally the most cost effective way to purchase a computer as long as the user spends over 1000 $ or more. Generally, A 1000$ worth of DIY parts will cost you 1200$-1300$ to build a similar system from any OEM, 2000$ will generally cost 2500$ or more from the same OEM, so generally the â€œsavingsâ€ increase the more you spend. Because a DIY pc uses retail channel hardware, the quality of well designed pc can be as good as the best professional DAW vendors for fraction of the cost. The catch is you have to choose the right hardware, and you have to do this research your self, choosing the wrong hardware can yield a poor system. As mentioned earlier in this article, there is a lot of garbage among retail channel hardware. Other major draw backs include with a DIY system you have no technical support, the trouble shooting of the whole system is up to you though you have individual component warranties, and component support. The other disadvantage is it requires a considerable amount of research. While any one with half a brain can screw a pc together choosing good components for a pc is actually far harder and more tedious its not a process you want to rush. In addition, many forums and research avenues geared towards DIY PC builders are largely oriented towards performance enthusiasts and gamers, and the conceptions of good may not be what are suitable for audio.
6. PC Laptops for audio.
Essentially it is best to read over the discussion of pc laptops in part II of this article. I will however state that generally Macintosh Notebooks and laptops distributed by pro-audio vendors are suitable for audio. As of this date Macintosh Notebooks use slower 5400rpm hard drives and it is advisable to buy an external hard-drive for use with macs.
If buying a pc notebook, one should consider buying a notebook that is certified by digidesign or from a Pro-audio vendor. The major problem with the OEMâ€™s, is an inability to tell which notebooks are quality and which are not. Almost none of the OEM market manufactures a notebook from components, rather the redistribute notebooks from ghost vendors, at most they add the basic components such as ram, hard drives, CPU and very occasionally optical drives in graphics cards. Essentially pro-audio companies test which model ghost notebooks are suitable for audio and distribute only those.
I would like to take Bruce Valeriani, Jon Scripps, and Jay Walsh for their input on how the computer has changed professional studios.
Disclaimer 1. I do not guarantee that this article is up-to-date, or accurate
Disclaimer 2. Opinions expressed here are sole opinions of the author, and is not representative of Tweakheadz Lab, Studio-Central.com, or Audio-Pro Central.