If you want to get into audio production, then you'll almost definitely want to use a computer-based digital audio workstation. What does a beginner need to know when purchasing a computer for audio? There's no one answer, and this article will help you think the issue through.
This post has been put together with a lot of help. At the beginning of the year I asked the Audiotuts+ readers in an Open Mic post, "What advice would you give a beginner about computers?" This article is based largely on the answers given to that post.
But it doesn't have to end there. Please feel free to add your own advice and experiences in the comments. Or if you are a beginner with a question that we don't give an answer for, please ask!
The choice of a computer and computer software are among the first important questions a new audio producer will need to answer. We've already answered the software part. If you haven't read it yet, make sure you check out our article, What Is the Best DAW for Beginners?
And now to the task of choosing your computer hardware...
Start With What You Have
It's extremely likely that the computer you already own is good enough to get started with. That's good to know. It will give you some time to decide whether music production is really what you want to spend your time and money on. It will also give you time to save some money, and do some thinking about the hardware and software you want to spend your money on.
If you own a Mac, it's extremely likely that it came with GarageBand, which is arguably the best software to get started on. If you are running Windows, there are some free or cheap audio programs that you can get started on.
Here are some articles you should check out when deciding which app to install on your computer:
- What Is the Best DAW for Beginners?
- 20 Windows DAWs Worth Using>
- 7 Free Digital Recording Apps for Windows
- 8 Free, Cross-Platform Apps for Musicians
Are you strongly considering starting with the computer you already own? Here are some reader comments that may help you decide:
- Remember that it’s not the computer that makes music! It’s you! (Pedro)
- While it’s great to max out the spec of your machine as far as your budget will allow, it’s worth remembering that it’s perfectly possible to get started on a machine which, by current standards, is relatively low spec. I’m running Logic 9 on a 2.16 GHz Dual Core iMac, with 3 GB of RAM, and it’s served me very well. (Glynn)
Check the System Requirements of Your DAW Software
When you get down to it, your computer is there to run your audio software. What type of computer does that software need in order to run effectively?
Does it run on a Mac, or Windows? Or either? How much hard drive space will it use? And make sure you have plenty of space left over. Does it run best with a faster processor? How much RAM does it need to run without lag? Don't forget to allow for extra RAM for any plugins you install. And if you're planning on using more than 4 GB of RAM, make sure you're running a 64-bit operating system, and that your DAW is also 64-bit.
In short you'll want to buy the best machine you can afford. As a minimum, get something with at least 4 GB of RAM, a few hundred gigs of hard drive space, and 2-3 GHz of processor speed.
Here are some system requirement tips left by our readers:
- Depending on the DAW, check what the computer system requirements are. This is a no brainer!
…but beginners tend to forget. (dan)
- For beginners, 4 GB of RAM should be good enough when starting out. (dan)
- Choose a fast processor! Software Instruments are getting more and more demanding in terms of CPU power. (Phil)
- Max out the memory of your machine. RAM prices have hit rock bottom, so go for at least 8GB, better yet 16GB! (Phil)
- Minimum system for today I would say: 2 GHz CPU Dual Core, 4 GB RAM, 512 MB Graphics Memory
I try to afford myself the latest and best system. Maybe I don’t need the power everyday, but when I need it I am happy to have it.
4 GB RAM is minimum/fine
8 GB RAM is very good – my current and quad core cpu with 2 GHz
16 GB RAM is great – could be my next (kenibu)
- Once you have your PC, make sure it has enough RAM to do what you want it to do. If you’re recording, you’re going to want 2 harddrives (this is a good idea regardless), but a huge amount of RAM isn’t necessarily a top priority. If you’re doing sample or effects heavy work, then more RAM is going to be vital.
A good processor is needed for effects processing, multicore is pretty much standard these days, and for good reason. (Fleb)
- I would say that the more CPU Hz you can get, the better. The RAM isn’t as much of a concern to me. If you’re recording a lot I could see RAM being an issue but if you’re using mostly synths then CPU is what’s going to be important. (Sean Duncan)
- Hi there, I would suggest there is merit in getting a machine built for the job if you are a using a PC. It can be rewarding to build your own PC but it can also be a complete headache as well. The people who build them professionally know about details, often obscure, annoying details that can put a kink in your day if you do not know what you are doing. I also recommend physically cloning system (C) drives with the Integral SATA copy station, a low costs bullet proof way of getting your system running very quickly if (read : when) your system hard drive breaks. (online mastering)
Desktop or Laptop?
Desktop or laptop? Big or small? Portable or not? Important questions. When you get down to it, desktops tend to be more upgradable, and laptops more portable. And it's no longer the case that a laptop need cost you a lot more.
One important consideration is the size of your screen. A big monitor is a very good thing to have when dealing with lots of audio tracks. Two big monitors is even better.
If you need a mobile setup, then choose a laptop. If you'll mainly be recording in your studio, then either is fine. But if you choose a laptop, I strongly recommend a big external monitor.
Would an iPad or other tablet make a reasonable alternative? That's not a question for this article, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Here's one reader's take on the desktop/laptop question:
- Also worth pointing out that you get a lot more bang for your buck with a desktop than a laptop, and they’re easier to upgrade…I use a laptop for non-studio based stuff and keep my desktop exclusively for studio use. (Nick)
Windows or Mac?
This is a big question with strong feelings on both sides. And if you have strong feelings, you've already answered the question!
In short, either is acceptable. There are two things to consider: Are you more comfortable with one operating system or the other? Does the DAW you're planning to use only work on one or the other.
In a recent Open Mic we asked our readers whether they use Mac or Windows. Here are the results (505 people voted):
- Apple's OS X - 57.43%
- Microsoft Windows - 40.00%
- Linux - 2.18%
- Other - 0.4%
So we have more Mac readers than Windows readers, but not by a huge margin.
We had more responses on this issue than any other. Here are the comments left by those who prefer Macs:
- While cost of entry for those who want to go the Mac route may look high, usability and reliability are much better in my experience. Also, check out the used market, and Apple’s own refurbished products store: there’s no need for a beginner to buy the very latest, top spec machines, and you can save a lot of money by avoiding that temptation. Ideally, though, buy something with a little room to upgrade when you’re ready. (Glynn)
- I thought myself that mac’s are too expensive, but I saw that it comes with many software programs which windows doesn’t. For example garage band and the word like program. (kenibu)
- I used a Mac mini for years but found as soon as I started pushing Logic to any extent it just ran out of CPU and fell over.
Go for an Imac if you can and at least 4GB of RAM – Towers don’t give you as much value for you $ as the Imac currently. I also bought non-apple RAM fairly cheaply and installed it myself for about 1/3 the cost.
My upgrade was to a Core I7 with 16GB RAM and Logic hasn’t batted an eyelid! (Niggles)
- In general I would recommend a Mac, but that is really a personal preference. But in going that route I would suggest going to eBay for a used option. You don’t necessarily need a powerhouse. My son and I spend a lot time running Reason on a 2006 model Mac mini with 2GB of RAM that ran about $300. It’s easy for him to learn, and the machine handles well enough. (Ken)
- Personally I’d also recommend Macs. They are expensive but worth of price if you are thinking of making music professionally. Mac’s tend to get the reputation of being more stable than PC’s. Why? Because they are built on the same components. If you decide to buy a PC, I suggest checking out this link. These units are specially designed for making music and what’s very important they’re super quiet. My loud PC completely ruined many of my recordings. (TTR2)
- get a mac! (yon)
- Here is the advice I would give to beginners:
Putting everything aside, after more than eleven years of being involved with audio (and graphics) if you hear nothing else, hear this:
Get. A. Mac.
Mac “Fanboys”, the whole “PC vs. Mac” thing, all that aside, I can not tell you how much easier life is since I went to Mac computers. I used to use PCs, I used to build them, I can still build them, I can still tech them, but your musical experience is going to be so much easier, headache free, and just plain more fun with a Mac. Why? Because the stupid things work. I don’t care how good your PC is, how spec’ed out it is; it is going to slow down.
Yes they cost more for the “same specs” compared to PCs. I wonder why that is? Fact of life, you get what you pay for. They work. Period.
The last thing you want is for your computer to be butting heads with you when your trying to become a music based musician or producer. You have enough as is trying to learn about the music and software, the last thing you need to have happen is it be a coin toss every time you start you computer if it is going to even turn on.
Macs get the computer out of the way so you can focus on making music.
I’m not talking out of arrogance or ignorance, I’m talking out of experience. Nine years of teeth grinding, hair pulling experience. (Robert Anthony)
Here are the comments left by someone who prefers Windows:
- For PCs try to get yourself one that is the most recent and most powerful you can afford. I say that because I saw that a 2.2 GHz Intel core i3 was faster than a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor. Then your ram: 4 GB or higher would be good. And also recent computers have faster hard disk drives most now come with a 7200 rpm drive. The faster your hard disk spins the faster it exchanges with ram and better your PC will perform. (Arsene)
And many commenters have found that either option is an acceptable solution:
- If you can afford a Mac, get one. If not, that’s fine! PC’s are just as good…and most of the time cheaper! (dan)
- Mac or PC makes no difference any more. Both systems are stable, and many DAWs are running on both systems (recently, MOTU published its Digital Performer 8 DAW for Windows too). (Phil)
- There is actually no difference between getting a Mac, Sony, HP, Dell or any other kind of PC, other than the fact that Mac is supremely more expensive and has OSX.
If you like windows, get any brand of PC other than Mac, if you like OSX, get any brand of PC and either hackintosh or get an authentic Mac. There is literally no difference as far as music production is concerned other than the minor differences between the operating systems. Personal preference and all that. (Fleb)
Get a Dedicated Production Machine if Possible
If you're serious about music production, then you'll want to consider having a separate machine dedicated to just music production. You'll have more system resources available for audio, and your hard drive won't get bogged down by all the other rubbish that finds its way onto computers.
We asked this question on an Open Mic almost three years ago, and received some brilliant and detailed answers. If you're considering going down this track, you really should check out the comments left there as part of your decision-making process.
In the meantime, here's one comment left by an Audiotuts+ reader:
- If you can afford it, keep one machine exclusively for music production. Don’t use your everyday system. (Phil)
Well, that's my advice about buying an audio computer. Feel free to use yours in the comments!