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This chapter is from the book

Choosing Your Computer

There are several important considerations to keep in mind when you’re choosing the computer that you’re going to use for your musical projects. Understanding these issues will help you make a wise choice for what will be one of the most, if not the most, expensive pieces of gear you need to purchase for your studio. It’s obviously also one of the most critical pieces of gear you need, so you’ll want to make the right choice.

Even though you probably already own a computer, you’ll be wise to consider purchasing a new one that you can dedicate solely to your recording studio. That way you can keep it clean of all the junk that everyday computing tends to pile onto your machine. It’s particularly a good idea to keep your production computer away from the Internet as much as you can—totally away from it is the ideal! No one wants a virus to take down their entire production machine (and with it, the recording projects they’ve worked so hard on).

Minimum System Requirements

Virtually all software applications provide a list of minimum system requirements in their marketing information and packaging. The term refers to basic minimum standards in terms of storage space, random access memory (RAM), processor speed, operating system version, and so on that your computer must meet to run the software effectively.

Well, I’ve got great news for you: You don’t need some sort of super-secret, ultra-special computer to set up your studio! In fact, if you already have a computer that you purchased within the past three years, you might just have all the computer power you need. That would obviously be great news, because you won’t have the expense of a new computer to cover.

Naturally—as almost always with computers—the more powerful the machine, the better performance you’ll typically get out of it. A computer that meets—but just barely—the minimum system requirements of your software may run the software, but it may not run it very effectively. You could easily become frustrated as you wait for the software to react to your commands.

If you decide that the computer you have now just won’t cut it (or if you don’t have a computer yet), the fact that you don’t need some super tricked-out specialty machine means that you can get a great computer for a decent price. In my opinion, virtually any machine you buy new off the shelf or the website of your favorite computer retailer will make (with perhaps a few modifications that we’ll discuss shortly) for a nice audio workstation. Certainly, any new machine will likely far exceed the minimum system requirements of the software you’ll use to produce your music.

Obviously, a discussion of computer systems, processors, RAM, and so on can and does fill entire books, so we’re not going to get too deep into that here. (Recall assumption 9 regarding technical details.) For now, suffice it to say that more power is pretty much always better. But it’s also pretty much always more expensive. So, there’s your trade-off!

When you’re making your decision, first find out what the minimum system requirements are for all the software you’ll be using. (In all likelihood, your DAW software will have the most stringent requirements.) Then make sure that the computer you’re considering meets or preferably exceeds those requirements. Then buy the fastest processor you can afford (get multiple processors if you can), the most RAM you can afford, and the largest hard drive you can afford. And as long as you’re at it, a second (perhaps external) hard drive is always a great idea for archiving your work.

For the record, I’ve done the majority of my recording on machines that I would consider standard. In fact, the machine in my studio is not nearly as beefy as anything you’ll buy new today, but I’m still using it. I don’t use any special high-performance audio-specific hard drives or anything like that. I’ve been perfectly satisfied with my basic machine. As long as your machine meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements of your software, you should be able to use it effectively for your projects, too.

The minimum requirements for the DAW I’ll be using throughout this book, ACID Pro, look like this:

  • Operating system—Microsoft Windows XP (SP2 or later) or Windows Vista
  • Processor—1.8GHz x86
  • RAM—1GB
  • Hard-disk space for program installation—150MB
  • Sound device—Windows-compatible (ASIO driver support highly recommended)

If you’re using something other than ACID Pro, look for these same sets of numbers for your software. We’ll talk about these requirements in more detail shortly.

Desktop and Tower Machines

Most of us think of these types of machines when we think of computers. These are the big boxes that sit either on our desks or alongside our desks on the floor. Generally, these are less expensive than laptops (discussed in the next section) yet offer more power and flexibility due to the extra space inside the box. That extra space provides room for more than one computer processor, more RAM, more than one hard drive, and computer devices that bring expanded functionality to the computer (not unlike the plug-ins we talked about earlier except that these devices are hardware instead of software).

Obviously, these systems are bulkier and not nearly as portable as a laptop. They’re obviously bigger and heavier and, of course, they require an external computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

But the main deciding factor could be their price. You can get a nice one right off the shelf for $600 or $700 if you watch for the sales.

Laptops

Who wouldn’t love to have a great laptop? The all-in-one portability they offer is absolutely fantastic. Of course, there are trade-offs for that portability.

Laptops tend to be pretty expensive (although their prices, too, are coming down). And, they’re not as expandable as a tower, meaning that they provide no room inside for installing hardware devices like those I mentioned in the previous section. This may be changing, too, but generally you’ll have to settle for a smaller hard drive, potentially less RAM, and a slower processor than you could get for the same money in a tower.

Still, if you want to do remote-location recordings, the new, powerful laptops can work wonderfully. More and more equipment uses fast USB and FireWire connections. This gives you a way to connect large external hard drives while easing the pain of not having room to install other hardware in your laptop. We’ll talk about this in more detail a little bit later in this chapter.

Just as with tower machines, if the laptop you have (or are looking to buy) meets the minimum system requirements of your software, it passes the most critical test. I have often used a laptop to record parts of my various projects or to record live on location, and it’s always worked just fine. In fact, I’ll use a laptop to record the project that we’ll work through in this book.

RAM, Processors, and Storage

I’ve mentioned processors, RAM, and storage several times already in this chapter, but what are they, and why are they important? At this point, I think it’s probably safe to say that most of the people reading this book have at least some handle on these concepts, so I’m not going to go into them too deeply. There are many good resources that you can turn to for full explanations, but following are a few basic definitions for you.

The word processor is short for microprocessor. Another name for a processor is central processing unit (CPU). All three terms mean the same thing. The CPU is the brains of your computer and does all the complex calculations required by whatever it is you’re doing in your software.

Therefore, processor speed is the big number everyone focuses on. The faster your processor, the more calculations it can handle in a given period of time. In other words, the faster your processor, the faster your computer does what you ask it to do. Obviously then, a fast processor makes your DAW run more efficiently, and you can get your work done faster.

You can add multiple processors to a tower machine for even more processing power, whereas a laptop typically has room for just one processor.

Fairly recently, we’ve seen the advent of dual-core processors, which basically means you get two processors in the space of one. This gives laptops a great source for faster processing.

Random access memory (RAM) refers to the memory available for your computer to use while it runs the operations that your software is asking it to run. For instance, when you play your project in your DAW, the application pulls from RAM memory to perform the task of transforming the computer information in your project into music that you can hear through your speakers. The more RAM you can get into your machine, the better your software should perform. For example, in ACID Pro, RAM has a direct impact on the number of audio tracks you can have playing simultaneously in your project. It also has an impact on the amount of DSP you can apply.

Think of RAM as short-term memory; whatever exists in RAM is lost when you close the application or shut down the computer.

Storage generally refers to the size of your computer’s hard disc drive. This is where you store information on your computer for the long term. For instance, when you install software, the parts and pieces that make it work have to reside somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the hard drive. You also save all your files to the hard drive. For example, when you record your vocals, your DAW stores the information on the hard drive.

Drive speed can be important because you’re asking your computer to pull information from the hard drive and do something with it without making you wait. For instance, when you play a file in your DAW, the computer has to read the file from the hard drive and play it in real time. Since full-resolution audio files (for example, the files that you create when you record something) can get pretty large, it’s important to have the most storage space you can. A tower computer case can generally house more than one hard drive, while a laptop probably has only one. You can also connect extra hard drives to either type of computer via the USB or FireWire ports.

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