Building Your First Audio Workstation - Part 1


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 series of blogs and vlogs, 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 overpriced 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 reliable. 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 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? 

    Before buying a PC make sure you've put aside money for peripherals such as your Mouse, Keyboard and Monitor or any audio equipment you'll need like, MIDI keyboard, Speakers, Audio Interface, Microphones or DJ equipment.

    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!

    OK. I'm ready to build my PC, what do I need?

    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.

     

    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 400 or 500 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, 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 £1500!

    Choosing a CPU can be confusing as there are many products available on the market. Generally speaking, a decent quad-core Intel processor will offer enough performance to meet your needs, however, for the price of an Intel quad core you could get one of AMDs brand new 8 core Ryzen CPUs which offer much greater performance for the price.

     

    Motherboard - or Mobo, is a circuit board that provides connections and allocates power to other components allowing them to communicate to the CPU. Motherboards come in different sizes or Form Factors such as ATX or Mini-ATX. When choosing a case, make sure it supports the Motherboards Form Factor! If you choose the wrong Case you will not be able to mount the Motherboard.

    Another important item to check is the CPU, you need to make sure the Motherboard has the correct Socket for your CPU. For example, Ryzen 7 CPUs use the AM4 socket, that means need to buy a Motherboard that uses the AM4 socket otherwise the CPU won't fit or work.

    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, 4 Pin Hybrid Fan Headers, HDMI and DVI-D connectors and a LAN port.

     

    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.

     

    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. Before buying RAM check your Motherboard specifications;

    • What are the supported RAM types? DDR3 or DDR4 RAM? Tri Channel? Dual Channel? Quad Channel?
    • What are the supported clock speeds? 2133? 2400mhz? 2666mhz? 3000mhz? 3200mhz? etc...
    • What is the maximum amount of RAM the Motherboard supports? 32Gb? 64Gb? 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 minimum of 32Gb to cope with all the different orchestral patches.

    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. Needless to say, the following companies all create excellent memory kits; Corsair, Crucial, G-Skill and Kingston.

     

    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.

    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. This advantage allows an SSD to store and access data much faster than an HDD. They are also quieter, use less power and often more reliable.

    You'll need at least two storage devices for your computer, one for your OS (Operating System) and programmes and the other for storing files and projects. In professional workstations, you'll find they use lots of storage drives with a pair configured in  RAID 1 to create backups of their projects. Having one hard drive for everything is a BAD idea because 1. it reduces performance 2. if anything goes wrong with that drive you could potentially loose all of your work!

    Basic Setup

    250Gb SSD - For your Operating System (Windows) and Programs
    500Gb SSD - For sample library directories
    1TB HD - For saving all your files and projects

     

    CD / Blu-ray Drive - or CD / BD - ROM is an internal device used to read CD and Blu-ray discs on your computer. Enabling you to copy data to your computer or burn files to disc for playback or storage.

     

    Hopefully, after reading this blog you'll understand the basics of computer components and what's required to build a PC. In the next blog, I'll be pricing up a system and talk more about all the different software and hardware options.

    Thanks for reading,

    Marcus.