So, you've been working hard to save up enough cash to purchase your first audio workstation. However, you can't decide which platform to commit to or what hardware and software to buy. In this blogs, I will be sharing my knowledge and experience to help you in the right direction. So, let's get started!
Which platform should I choose? Mac or PC?
Apple computers are well-built, beautifully designed robust products. They're also very pricey and notoriously difficult to upgrade. For the price of a Mac, you could build a monstrous PC and still have enough cash left over to buy other components. However, despite being expensive, Apple computers are extremely reliable and well optimised, easy to set-up and just "work" with minimal fuss. The MacBook is a popular choice amongst travelling musician for its compact design and Thunderbolt connectivity. Paired with the right Interface, the MacBook and MacBook Pro allow you to create pro-quality music from literally anywhere.
When it comes to desktop workstations PCs are king. Having flexible hardware allows a user to add or change components when more storage or performance is needed, enabling you to customise the PC to suit specific needs, saving money by not paying for unwanted components. Building a PC is easy, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to use a screwdriver. A small learning curve is involved, but all you'll be doing is inserting your hardware into the right hole and connecting cables into the PSU and Motherboard. If you don't like the sound of that, there are companies that offer custom PC building services for you, such as Scan.
What's the cost?
Pricing all boils down to what you're looking to get out of your system. If you don't plan on gaming, live-streaming or doing content creation such as video editing, 3D modelling or graphic work, then prices will remain lower. However, if you're looking to do a combination of the above then be prepared to pay a substantial amount more!
If you're planning on building your own Windows based PC then it's important to understand the basics (which I will explain shortly). More importantly, before you buy anything always make sure you've put some money aside for peripherals which you might need such as a Mouse, Keyboard, Monitor or any audio equipment like a MIDI keyboard, Speakers, Audio Interface, Microphones, DJ equipment etc..
OK, I'm ready to build my Windows PC. What do I need? How does it work?
Operating System - An Operating System or OS, is the software which enables all hardware components to communicate and operate with the computer software. Without an OS a computer will not work! There are a few different Operating Systems available, Apple computers developed their own OS called MacOS which is used exclusively by Apple. PCs commonly use Microsoft Windows as the standard OS, however, there are others choices out there such as Linux.
Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses but for general consumers, Windows and MacOS are going to be a safer bet, especially when it comes to audio production as they are both fully supported by developers. Linux is preferred amongst IT professionals because of its open source architecture, security and stability making it a really good OS for building things like servers and supercomputers.
Computer Case - or Chassis is the housing which protects and organises all of the components of a computer. They come in all different shapes and sizes. A good case will have tool-free bays, offer plenty of space for housing components and provide excellent cooling/cable management. Some PC cases also come lined with sound dampening materials to reduce the amount of noise coming from internal components like fans and mechanical hard drives. This can be very useful if you're recording any instruments from the same room, such as vocals.
Recommended Cases for Audio Production;
- Corsair - Carbide 100R Mid-Tower ATX
- Corsair - Carbide 270R Mid-Tower ATX/Micro ATX
- Corsair - Carbide 330R Mid-Tower ATX
PSU - or Power Supply Unit, is an internal hardware component which supplies power to all computer components. Having enough watts to power a system is important, for a dedicated music PC a 500 or 650 watt PSU should be enough. If you plan on doing any video editing, gaming or content creation in the future, consider buying a PSU of 750 - 1000 watts to ensure you have enough power to run bigger GPUs and additional components. When it comes to well built reliable PSUs, I highly recommend taking a look at Corsair products.
CPU - or Central Processing Unit, handles all instructions sent by hardware and software. The two main CPU manufacturers Intel and AMD are currently a hot topic in the PC world. On April 11th 2017, AMD released their brand new line Ryzen CPUs wich offer performance rivalling that of Intel's most expensive CPUs for under £500. To put this in perspective the AMD Ryzen 1800x, priced under £500, is rivalling the performance of the Intel 6950x priced over £1000!
Choosing a CPU can be confusing as there are many products available on the market. Generally speaking, a decent quad-core processor will offer enough performance to meet your needs, however, if you know you're going to be working very large projects with high track counts using CPU intensive plugins, then a 6 core or 8 core CPU would be something to definitely consider. Some DAWs allow you to take full advantage of all your CPU cores increasing overall performance, reducing bounce times and allowing you to run more plugins across multiple tracks.
2017 Latest CPUs;
- Microsoft - Intel Core X-Series (Kayby Lake-X) s2066 socket
- AMD - Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 Series AM4 socket (Best bang for buck CPUs)
Motherboard - or Mobo, is a circuit board that provides all the connections and allocates power to internal components allowing them to communicate to the CPU. Motherboards come in different sizes or Form Factors such as ATX, Mini-ATX or Micro-ATX, have a varying amount of external and internal connections, different BIOS features and depending on their generation, different CPU Socket Types.
A good motherboard will have the latest chipset, effective Heatsinks, support up to 64 or 128gb of RAM, have enough PCIe slots for audio & video cards, contain plenty of USB 2.0, 3.1 & SATA III connections, M.2, 4 Pin Hybrid Fan Headers, HDMI and DVI-D connectors and a LAN port.
2017 Latest Motherboard Sockets;
Before buying a Motherboard remember to check;
- What socket does the Motherboard use and what CPUs are compatible?
- What is the Form Factor and will it fit the case?
- What type of RAM does it use?
- What Clock Speeds are supported for the RAM?
- How much RAM can the Motherboard support?
- Does it offer enough internal & external connections?
Cooling - Without cooling, your PC would overheat cause hardware to fail and die a horrible death, or worse still, catch fire. Common types of cooling you'll encounter are; Heat Sinks, Thermal Compounds, Air Cooling Fans, and Water Cooling.
Heat Sinks are cooling systems used on Motherboards, in GPUs, PSUs or where ever they are needed to dissipate heat. They are usually made from aluminium or copper and come in various shapes and sizes. Here's a great YouTube video by TECHquickie explaining the different types of Heat Sink.
Thermal Compound, often referred to as "Thermal Paste" or "Thermal Gunk" is a sticky compound which is placed onto the CPU allowing a more effective heat transfer from the CPU to a Heat Sink or Water Block. Most CPU coolers already come with Thermal Compound pre-applied to the Heat Sink so there's no real need to worry. If you're unsure then it's always a good idea to check by doing a quick YouTube search, not having thermal compound between your CPU and Heat Sink can cause serious problems.
Air Cooling Fans are hardware device which works to keep a system cool by circulating air in and out of your case. Fans come in different shapes, sizes and can be configured in a number of different ways to offer different types of cooling performance. Most PC cases come with fans pre-installed and configured, however, a lot of people prefer to buy quieter aftermarket fans that offer higher airflow or more static pressure. Here's a great YouTube video by TECHquickie explaining the difference between High Airflow and Static Pressure. Remember, If you're going to buy aftermarket fans for your case, make sure you check what fan sizes your case can support!
Recommended 4Pin Silent Fans;
Water Cooling or "Liquid Cooling" systems are more efficient than air cooled systems. Water is pumped into a water block, as the water absorbs heat it travels to the heat exchanger (a radiator) where heat gets dissipated into the surrounding air by fans, the water then cools and the cycle begins again. If you're planning on Overclocking your CPU then having an AIO Liquid Cooler is definitely a great idea. Here's another great YouTube video by TECHquickie explaining AIO water cooling.
Recommended AIO CPU Liquid Coolers;
What to check before buying an AIO Liquid Cooler;
- Does it come with a supported mounting bracket for the CPU / Motherboard socket?
- Does it come with Thermal Compound pre-applied?
- Does the PC Case support your selected Fan and Radiator sizes?
GPU - or Graphics Processing Unit is an internal hardware component which handles all 2D and 3D generated images. Most motherboards have an integrated GPU which is more than enough for a music workstation. However, integrated GPUs do hinder CPU performance on graphically intensive software or plugins, so it's still a good idea to get one. The two main PC manufacturers of GPUs are Nvidia and AMD, with Nvidia being the preferred in professional work environments for stability and software compatibility.
Recommended GPUs for Audio Production;
- Nvidia - GT 730 64-Bit 2GB DDR5 (Cheap and cheerful.)
- Nvidia - GTX 1050 2GB DDR5 (A little more "oomph")
Recommended GPUs for Musicians / Gamers / Content Creators;
- Nvidia - GTX 1060 WF 6GB DDR5 (Even more POWER!)
- Nvidia - GTX 1070 8GB DDR5 (Getting a little ridiculous..)
- Nvidia - GTX 1080 Ti FTW3 11GB DDR5 (Totally unnecessary.)
RAM - or Random Access Memory, allows information to be temporarily stored and retrieved on a computer. When running a program, that program is loaded from the hard drive into RAM, allowing the CPU to work more efficiently. When saving a document, video or photo from a program, the file is written to the HD for storage. Modern Motherboards tend to use DDR4 RAM with DDR3 being the previous generation and DDR5 being the next-gen.
What to check before buying RAM;
- What type of RAM does the Motherboard support DDR3 or DDR4?
- What Clock Speeds are supported by the Motherboard? 2133, 2666, 3000, 3200mhz?
- What is the maximum amount of RAM support by the Motherboard? 32, 64, 128GB?
Beginners looking for a means to record live instruments and mix tracks using built-in DAW plug-ins would only need 8Gb of RAM. Ameture producers who use a combination of live recordings, sample libraries, and third-party VST plugins will need 16gb to comfortably mix and produce quality music. Professional Composers looking to create large orchestral scores for games, trailers, and films using high-end sample libraries will need a bare minimum of 32Gb to cope with all the different orchestral patches. If you're serious, get 64GB or 128GB.
When it comes to buying RAM, there are many manufacturers to choose from, pricing will vary between each brand depending on clock speeds, RAM timings, and gimmicks like RGB lighting.
Recommended RAM Manufacturers;
Hard Drive - HD or HDD is an internal storage device that permanently stores data on a computer which can be retrieved at any time. Hard drives contain mechanical moving parts which consist of one or more platters. Data is written to the platters using a magnetic head inside an air-sealed casing. HDs come in different sizes with different RPM speeds and storage capacity. Modern HDs connect to your computer using SATA cables and power connectors.
Recommended Internal HD Drives;
SSD - or Solid State Disk is a device that permanently stores and retrieves data on a computer. Unlike a hard drive, SSDs contain no mechanical moving parts, however, like HDs connect to your Motherboard via SATA connections. Because an SSD contains no moving parts, they store and access data much faster than an HD. They are also quieter, use less power and often more reliable.
Recommended 2.5" SSD Drives;
- Samsung - 850 EVO 250GB - 4TB
- Samsung - 850 Pro 250GB - 1TB
- SanDisk - Ultra II 240GB - 1TB
- Western Digital - WD Blue SSD 250GB - 1TB
M.2 SSD- M.2 drives work exactly the same as an SSD, however, there are a couple of differences. M.2 drives require dedicated slot only found on newer Motherboards. They're a lot smaller than an SSD and utilise the PCIE bus opposed to SATA, making them much faster than a standard SSD.
Recommended M.2 Drives;
What to check before buying an M.2 SSD;
- Does the Motherboard have an M.2 port?
- What is the M.2 connection type used by the Motherboard?
It can be tricky keeping up-to-date with computer components, manufacturers are always releasing something new. Try keep your self in the loop to avoid any confusion, there's some great YouTube channels out there such as JaysTwoCents, Linus Tech Tips, & Pauls Hardware, who are pretty good at staying on top of current trends and offer honest reviews on products.
Hopefully you found this blog useful and informative. Remember, if you're going to build your own system DO YOUR RESEARCH! Don't buy pre-made systems off the shelf, most use sub-par components and end up being more expensive than they should due to a little thing called profit margins. Another downside to pre-made systems is not being able to remove and upgrade components without voiding the warranty of your machine. Always pick your own components from reputable manufacturers and sellers, once you have everything either build it yourself or pay someone to do it for you!
Thanks for reading!