Best Computer Specs for Music Production
Computer processors essentially determine the speed of a computer. There are multi-core processors, which have multiple processors built into one.
Most modern recording software can take advantage of multiple cores by splitting tasks amongst them. Hence, I highly recommend a multi-core processor.
With that said, almost any new computer as of 2012 has an adequate amount of power required for any recording application. The most popular processors at this time include Intel i3, i5 and i7.
8GB of RAM should be more than adequate for any recording situation, unless you are working with over 30 recorded tracks at a time.
RAM, or Random Access Memory, determines how many tracks and software you can open at the same time.
You probably can even get away with 4GB of RAM without any issues unless you are working with more than 30 tracks at a time.
The amount of hard drive you space required depends mostly on how many tracks you plan on storing on there.
Each song can take around 1GB depending on how many layers of recording it has.
Recording software such as Pro Tools require at least 15GB of free space. Windows 8 takes about 20GB of space. Considering you’ll have about 100 songs, a couple software like Pro Tools, a couple dozen plugins, each requiring 1GB of space, and a 100GB of other random files, I would recommend a hard drive no less than 256GB… and that is only if you’re getting an SSD!
Regular SATA hard drives are now dirt cheap and there is no reason you shouldn’t get at least 1TB of space if you’re buying a SATA. SSD hard drives are much faster, but much more expensive.
The ideal setup would have two separate hard drives, both preferablly SSDs, with one having the operating system and DAW installed, and the other having all of the music files.
You may want to go with a computer that has a USB 3.0 port as backing up data on an external hard drive will be a lot faster.
If you’re planning on connecting a midi controller, you will need a USB port for that as well. In addition, you will need a USB port for your recording interface.
Pro Tools requires an iLok USB key, which will require yet another USB port. Make sure you have at least 4 USB ports!
You will want a CD burner, which is standard in almost every computer.
Besides that, every other port is optional unless you are going to purchase a recording interface that uses firewire or some other unpopular way to connect to your computer.
Choosing a Sound Card
The first step in choosing a recording rig for me is to choose the soundcard. We are making the assumption that you have a computer with decent performance already.
Choosing a soundcard is difficult for beginners because it is often tough to anticipate your recording needs. The marketing of most companies doesn’t help either.
Note: When choosing a soundcard, it’s important to note that there is EXTREMELY LITTLE difference in fidelity between one $200 soundcard and another. In reality, the difference between a $200 soundcard and a $2,000 analog to digital converter (just the converter, no computer interface) is fairly subtle.
The average songwriter isn’t going to notice a difference. So, I’d rule out sound quality from your list of factors when selecting a soundcard because they all pretty much sound the same. I’d go for a reputable company (that will actually stay in business) that offers the most reliable product and the best tech support.
Soundcard Questions To Consider
#1 How many simultaneous inputs do you need?
This is the biggie right here. If you only plan on recording one or two microphones at a time, you will save a lot of money compared to systems that record 8, 16, or even 20 inputs at the same time. When I say “input” I’m referring to an individually recorded channel that will show up on your recording software as an individual track.
In this case, we are putting together a rig for songwriters, so we will assume that you don’t plan on recording 8-15 simultaneous tracks of drums.
We are going to assume that you will use your midi sequencer or loops for drums. So with that in mind, it’s totally possible (and often recommended) to record the rest of your tracks with a single channel. Seldom does overdubbing require more than 2 microphones in the home recording setting, so basically a 2 channel soundcard is all you will need.
#2 Do you need portability?
If you ever plan on using your soundcard with a laptop or taking it anywhere, the desktop PC is not the best method. It’s grueling carrying the tower, a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse on top of all the other gear needed to make a recording. You see, there are basically two types of soundcards.
There are internal soundcards which use PCI card technology and there are external soundcards that use Firewire, USB, or USB 2.0 to hook the soundcard to your computer.
The PCI cards require a tower style computer. This is great for home and will save you a few bucks. However, if you ever plan on taking your recording “on the road”, you’ll be lugging that big tower with you. If you opt for USB or Firewire soundcard, you can plug the card into any plug and play modern PC, such as a laptop (assuming it has the necessary firewire or USB inputs).
While I’ve had great luck with my M-Audio Delta 1010s (overkill for songwriters), I have wished they didn’t use PCI cards.
#3 What brand?
There are many soundcard companies out there. Do some research and see what like-minded individuals have had great luck with. I’ve personally had great luck with M-Audio and Presonus.
#4 Will the soundcard work with my recording computer?
As always, I recommended a dedicated computer specifically for audio recording, if possible. You shouldn’t have any problems plugging a soundcard into any Windows computer.
However, certain computer motherboards use a Chipset that conflicts with certain soundcards. You really don’t even need to know what Chipset means. Just look to see if your motherboard is compatible by checking out the soundcard manufacturer’s website. If you don’t know what motherboard you have, just ask me on the recording forum. I’ll help.
#5 Do you need Midi?
Midi is an extremely powerful tool for recording and I think songwriters would benefit more than anyone from the powers of midi. Selling you on midi is not the focus of this article. However, before you buy a soundcard look into midi and see if it’s right for you.
Some soundcards will come with midi ports. While you can always buy more midi ports down the road, but it’ll usually save you time and headaches getting a soundcard with midi ins and outs. If you are not sure, I’d say spring for the midi outs.
You never know how your needs might change. 4 years ago I would have said you were CRAZY if you told me that most of my recording work would revolve around midi, but midi has dominated my work in the past few months.
#6 Do you need prebuilt-in preamps?
If you are not sure what a microphone preamp is you may want to click on the link. Basically, if you are going to use microphones, you are going to need a way to boost microphones up to line-level (which is required for the soundcard to work properly).
Mic preamps are all over the place online. You can pick up 8 Behringer preamps for a few hundred bucks.
Some mic preamps cost $3,000 per channel. For the songwriter at home, I’d recommend looking for a soundcard that has preamps included just to simplify things. Generally, if mic preamps are included with a soundcard, then they will also have a solution your headphone mixes, which just happens to be our next criteria.
If you choose a soundcard that does not have preamps included, you will need some way to boost the signal of your microphones to a level that is usable for your soundcard. If you already have a mixer (preferably with inserts) I’d try using it. There will be forums that tell you that you are inadequate unless you have spent the price of a decent used car on your preamp collection.
While I certainly would love a massive high-end preamp collection, the songwriter at home who hasn’t given up his life for audio engineering isn’t going to notice enough of a difference to pay the big bucks.
#7 How Will You Adjust Your Headphone Mix When Tracking Lead Vocals?
Most people don’t think too much about the headphone mix until it’s time to start recording. The headphone mix would be very simple if it weren’t for latency. Latency is the time it takes for audio to go from the microphone, into the computer, get processed, and come back out of the computer. It’s pretty much a given that this is going to take a least a couple of milliseconds on a good setup system. On a crappy system, the delay is unusably long. You won’t even be able to play in time.
So make sure you check with the manufacturer about the latency of their soundcards.
To be honest, I’ve done very little monitoring through the computer. I always split my vocal microphone, for example, right after the preamp so that the soundcard would get one signal and my audio mixer (dedicated to monitoring) would get the other. In this setting, latency was never an issue. Now that I’ve switched to Cubase SX3 recording software, I’ve played with monitoring inside the PC. It does work pretty well. It’s not absolutely mega perfect, but it works well enough.
So before you buy any soundcard, ask around on the manufacturer’s forum and see how people are monitoring with the specific soundcard you are looking for.
Why Recording Computers Blow Away Standalone Units
Alright, you are ready to start doing recordings at home. You are highly tempted to pick up the cute little box with all the buttons on it from whatever music gear catalog you have laying around.
You can’t decide whether you should buy one of these standalone boxes or if you should go with a recording computer. Let me answer that question for you: THE RECORDING COMPUTER!!!! THE RECORDING COMPUTER!! THE RECORDING COMPUTER!!
It’s Easier To Make Better Sounding Recordings On A Computer
It’s easier to make better sounding recordings with a computer. It’s easier to make real recordings that express real emotion in a computer. When it comes down to it, buying a new recording guy is supposed to do nothing but make your recorded music more effective.
If it doesn’t do that, there is no point in buying it. I’ve never seen a standalone recording ever turn out to be more than a terrible sounding demo.
You CAN Learn Audio On A Computer
The second biggest problem with standalone recorders is that you don’t learn anything. Sure, you have had to read their bible of a manual to figure out how to set an eq, but after months of using the thing every day, I’m guessing you’ll learn jack crap about audio.
You spend all your time learning their proprietary interphase that you never actually learn how to record music.
The cool thing about computers is that you probably already know how to work the proprietary interphase on a computer. We call it Windows.
Sure, you have to learn the recording program you want to use and it is a bitch. However, most of them all work in the same way… like a real mixer more or less.
Software engineers have gone well out of their way to make sure your experience with the software is as close to the real thing as possible. There is no comparing the graphical user interphase on a computer with using one of those stupid standalone recorders.
You CAN Actually Mix On A Computer
I’m not sure what sort of intense experience you would have to go through to add a delay on just one line of the lead vocal, but I couldn’t imagine the complexity. All I have to do is set up a delay bus and draw a line. It’s that simple.
Now getting it to sound good is the real work. I get made because the lines controlling the delay don’t move with my mind’s instructions. Instead, I have to use that silly mouse.
When I look at my computer screen after a tough mix, it’s been ravaged to death. I have edits and volume automation and effects automation all over the place. It looks like death 2000. I’m not suggesting that I’m anything special with this whole recording thing, but there is no way I could do the job that people pay me to do with a little toy recording box.
You CAN Actually Afford A Computer Recording Setup
Well, hopefully, you can. The beauty of this setup is you can buy a computer that is 3 years old and it will do EVERYTHING you need to do (unless you use VST instruments or something similar). If you are mixing audio that you’ve recorded with microphones or direct inputs (don’t do this unless you are recording a keyboard or bass) then a computer from 3 years ago will work fine. The cool thing about the computer rig is everything is modular. You can sell your computer and keep your soundcard You can keep your preamps but sell your soundcard. You get the idea. In the end, it’s much cheaper.
In closing, I had a buddy who was very much into audio recording just as I was. He bought some Roland piece of junk a few months before I bought my recording computer. Soon, he gave up and just started recording with me. It was too easy to work and too easy to get good sounds with a recording computer (when compared to some Roland box). You get the point.
Mac vs PC
That choice is completely up to you. Both Macs and PCs are perfectly capable of running professional recording studio software. It’s all about preference.
You usually get a better bang for your buck when you go with PC, but Macs are generally more friendly with Pro Tools in particular.