Building a Computer for Music Production

Before you jump in and decide to build a home recording computer, you should decide if building a computer is right for you. 

Benefits Of Building Your Own Recording Computer

  • Building a computer is not difficult. I like to compare setting up a computer to putting together a home theater system with a TV, Playstation, and DVD player. Actually, I find it much easier to build a computer.
  • You build the recording computer so you know how to fix it
  • You will save a lot of money
  • You select the components and therefore can choose to use motherboards, processors, ram, hard drives, based on quality and not so much on hitting a rock bottom price point.
  • You will save time because it’s quicker to build a computer than it is to remove all the useless junk that name brand computers come jam-packed with.
  • You will be more confident when it comes to dealing with problems.
  • You’ll use a case that you can actually fit your hand into. Many name brand cases are so small that they are nearly impossible to work on.

Drawbacks Of Building Your Own Computer

  • You are building it. So if you are an idiot who scrapes the motherboard with a screwdriver for no apparent reason, you may cause damage and destroy the computer. If you are not mentally deranged, you should have no problem, however.
  • Some people are scared of computers. If this is you, maybe you shouldn’t build one. Of course, I’m not sure how you are going to run a recording studio if you are afraid of computers.
  • Some people feel a peace of mind knowing that a pro put together a computer. This is a legitimate reason. If this is the case, I recommend you find a competent professional to build the computer for you. (He’ll need to know your soundcard’s special requirements which you’ll see below).
  • Warranty is usually limited to one year on computer hardware components. Of course, in my experience custom built computers last much longer than the name brand computers. I think this is due to the fact that you are getting much better components for the money.
  • If people quit buying name brand computers, the quality of Super Bowl commercials may go down

1. Choose a Sound Card

This step will obviously not apply to people building computers for uses other than home recording. However, if you are building a home recording computer, ALWAYS CHOOSE THE SOUNDCARD FIRST!!! This is important for a number of reasons.

It’s easy to work the computer around the soundcard. All you have to do is select different components. Since you haven’t selected these components yet, it’s not a big deal to make sure you have X chipset when shopping.

It’s much more difficult to find a different soundcard that has all the features you want/need that fits your computer.

Take some time on this. Visit the website of the manufacturer of the soundcard you intend to buy. Find any specific needs they may require. Sometimes there will be issues with certain styles of motherboard chipsets, firewire, etc.

Once you establish the exact needs of the soundcard, the rest is pretty straightforward.

2. Case and Power supply

I intend to keep this part of the article pretty vague. I want to speak in concepts to help you understand what to buy. If I said you should get X brand motherboards and X brand hard drives, you won’t really learn anything and we’ll start a bunch of Ford vs Chevy arguments that benefit no one.

Case

A case is a fairly simple purchase. It’s plastic and metal. It holds the computer. That’s it. There is no reason to buy a fancy case. I always just buy a $20 computer case and call it a day. You’ll want what’s called an ATX case which means it meets the size standards of motherboard manufacturers today.

Power Supply

The power supply is where you will plug the power chord into. It delivers power to all components inside the computer. I’ve purchased many power supplies that were included within cheap $20 cases. These power supplies are usually cheap but noisy.

When building a recording computer, noise is always something to consider depending on your room and situation. On most computers, I’ve actually had pretty good luck with the cheap, default power supplies.

If you do decide to go with the cheap power supply that’s included with a case, I also recommend that you buy a nice power supply and keep it for backup. (Or maybe use the nice power supply and keep the other one for backup).

All modern computer power supplies come with a fan that shoots hot air out the back of the computer. I highly recommend that you purchase a power supply that also has a fan on the bottom as well as these tend run much cooler.

Some brands specialize in quiet power supplies. If your worried about fan noise in your PC, these are worth a look.

3. Motherboards

A motherboard is kind of the centerpiece of the entire computer. Every component plugs into the motherboard.

Motherboards only work with a specific series of CPU (or processor). There are many different series of CPU processors such as AMD XP series, AMD Athlon 64 series, Pentium 4, Pentium Celeron, etc.

This is extremely important! If you plan to use X processor, you must select a motherboard that works with that processor.

There are a zillion brands, styles, and prices for motherboards. I think any reputable manufacturer of motherboards is fine. In my experience, there is no one standout company over all the others.

I’ve never seen one motherboard manufacturer that blew away another motherboard manufacturer. As long as a motherboard meets the specs of your soundcard/computer interface, you should be just fine.

Motherboards are sometimes bare bones with very little features or they can have all kinds of fancy goodies. Some motherboards have USB 1.1 ports, USB 2.0 ports, Firewire ports, an integrated video card (which I don’t recommend) and various amounts of PCI slots, PCI slots, PCI express, and maybe an AGP slot.

Motherboards have different Chipsets. Via makes one kind of chipset. Geforce makes another kind of chipset. You may want to do a search for either of these on your soundcard manufacturer’s site to see if they have problems with a certain chipset.

4. CPU / Processors

Processors

The CPU / Processor is the main brain in your PC. It’s doing all the number crunching. Assuming there are no obvious weak links in the chain, upgrading to a faster CPU / Processor will make the biggest increase in performance for your computer.There are generally two brands that dominate the CPU / Processor scene: AMD and Intel. In my experience, both are 100% capable of delivering tremendous audio performance. One company tends to be quite a bit more inexpensive than the other. I’ll let you figure out which CPU processor you prefer.

Processors have a “cache”. Caches run in all kinds of sizes, but generally speaking, the bigger, the better. Research this more. I’m not an expert on CPUs by any means, and only you can decide which CPU is best for you.

Just make sure that you select a processor that works with your motherboard.

5. Heat Sink/Processor Fan

A heat sink/processor fan will sit on top of your processor and its job is to keep the processor from burning up. Most processors can make it only a few seconds without the fan/heat sink to keep them cool.

For a recording computer, I would not cut corners here.

You will find drastically different levels of noise in a heat sink/fan combo. Most fans and such have noise ratings. Find the lowest amount of noise as possible for your budget.

While I said that I wouldn’t recommend any brands, Antec seems to be one of the top brands for finding a quiet heat sink. There are probably others that you should research too, but Antec usually has some unorthodox designs that will give you some insight as to where you should start your research.

As long as a heat sink/fan is quiet and does its job, there really isn’t THAT much thought that should be put into it. Just get the quietest heat sink/fan you can afford.

Also keep in mind that the bigger the band, the lower the RPM required. This means the lower the noise. So if you have the option of using a larger fan with a heat sink, always do it.

6. RAM

RAM effects how much stuff your computer can do at the same time. If you have ever opened up 1 Internet Explorer window and your computer ran fine but started to slow down after you opened up 20, you are probably running low on RAM.

Basically, RAM is short term memory. The more RAM, the more stuff you can do at the same time.

Most modern recording programs such as Cubase (my favorite), Logic, Sonar, etc will chew right through RAM if you let them. If you are using samples of any kind, don’t even think about the quantity. Just order 4GB of RAM if using Microsoft Windows.

The next generation of Windows is supposed to have a much larger RAM capacity and that could be of huge benefit to people using drum samples like DFH Superior by Toontrack.

Make sure the RAM you select will work with your motherboard.

7. Video Card

I always recommend picking up an AGP video card or the newer PCI express style video cards. I also recommend the dual monitor output from a video card. I find it impossible to record with just one monitor. It’s just inefficient to me.

Even if you don’t need dual monitor outputs now, you will eventually if you stick with recording.

I’m not up on video cards. I bought a good one like 4 years ago and just kept using it. I haven’t noticed any issues. So do some research and get the best video card with dual monitor outputs that you can afford.

Make sure your video card fits into your motherboard.

8. Hard drives

Hard drives wear out. It sucks! There is nothing you can do about it. I’ve never noticed one brand being any better than another brand. In other words, I’ve had Western Digital, Maxtor, Seagate, and IBM all crash on me at one point or another.

I usually pick up Maxtor’s locally at Staples because they will have mega awesome sales every once in a while.

With hard drives, there are ATA hard drives that have been around for a while. This is what I’ve always used and I’ve never had a problem with performance. These are the least expensive hard drives out there these days.

There are also SATA which means Serial ATA. These are capable of handling more tracks simultaneously, but I’ve never been able to max out my ATA drives. So, SATA may be a little overkill.

Hard drives also have an RPM at which they spin. I’ve always been fine using 7200 rpm hard drives.

I’m of the opinion that standard hard drives have surpassed the needs of audio. So unless you are recording at high sample rates or something (I never bothered) you should be just fine with a standard, over the counter, hard drive.

I always recommend a 3 hard drive setup. Pick up a small hard drive for your C: drive. I used a 20GB for my C: drive until it died on me a few months ago.

I think I have a 60GB for my C: drive that I’m using almost nothing of. (I keep my C: drives very clean). I recommend a separate drive for audio. This should probably be a fairly large hard drive. I recommend the third drive to back up your audio data onto. I don’t use RAID or anything fancy. I just have to copy and paste a folder I worked on onto my backup drive when the session is over.

9. CD-ROM / Accessories

Do yourself a favor and pick up a cheap DVD burner. You’ll want a DVD burner because you will probably want to backup important sessions to DVDs. Backing up to cd takes much much longer and is a total waste of time.

Many sample CDs use DVDs. So if you don’t have a DVD reader, you are screwed!

I’m using the same Toshiba DVD burner I bought 4 years ago. It does fine.

Monitor, Keyboard, Mouse, Etc

Don’t forget to pick up this kind of stuff too. Picking up a keyboard and a mouse is usually super cheap online. I think I paid $5 for my keyboard and $5 for my mouse from Newegg.

Overview of Building A Computer for Music Production

Building a computer for computer production is quite simple. Here is a quick overview of what needs to be done.
  1. To build a computer, you first start with the case. If your case came with a power supply you should be covered, but if it did not, no big deal. Simply install the power supply.
  2. Next, take the motherboard and set in the CPU processor chip. There is usually some sort of locking mechanism to make sure the CPU doesn’t fall out.
  3. Next, install the heat sink/fan which keeps the processor cool.
  4. Next, install the ram chips. Make sure they lock securely.
  5. Next, screw the motherboard into the case. Connect the power clip from the power supply. Do not plug in the power supply to the wall yet!
  6. Install the video card.
  7. Screw in the hard drive
  8. Screw in the cd-rom
  9. Connect the ATA or SATA cable to the hard drive and cd-rom. Connect to the power to your hard drive and cd rom.

This is basically it. On average it takes me about 15 minutes to do this. I took my time the first time through and it maybe took an hour. There are a few things you need to know for each step which I will cover in more depth, but this the basic idea.

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