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A Computer for Music Production

Photo by Oleg Ivanov on Unsplash

Check the previous post in the “Music-Making for Developers and Other Techies” series

Good news! Your development PC is most likely good enough to get started with music production. Provided you are OK with sharing it between your developer and musician selves. But in case you want to buy or build a dedicated computer for your hobby, let’s cover some high-level considerations.

Mac or PC? Or maybe Linux?

At this day and age, the pros and cons of going Mac vs. Windows are fairly negligible.

There are several DAWs that are Mac or Windows only (more on this later). Then there are price and configurability factors that are obviously in PCs favor. And then predictability can be important for those who are on the road often or just don’t want to think about computer choices too much. Mac wins here.

Another weird aspect that comes up more often on the Mac side than Windows is wariness of upgrading to the current OS version or even having to stay one (or more) versions behind. This can definitely change version-to-version but in a couple of years I’ve seen this issue come up way more often on the Mac side (and I’m not even talking about Apple Silicon) than on the PC. So, if you want to share your computer between your development work and your music hobby, make sure that your OS version preferences and requirements are aligned between the two.

Other than that, you can be as productive and prolific on either macOS or Windows. It all comes down to personal preferences and either choice would work fine for you.

Linux is a slightly different story. Only a handful of DAWs support Linux and only a small percentage of plugins (virtual instruments and effects) have Linux versions. So, unless it’s a matter of principle, I’d recommend you stick to either Windows or Mac for your music production machine.

Laptop or desktop?

If your circumstances permit, get a desktop PC. Laptops are powerful enough for most general music production scenarios these days, but one important and quite unique aspect of music production is performance consistency. And many laptops are not good at that. Especially the thin ones.

The main approach to handle overheating in a laptop is to throttle the CPU so it naturally runs cooler. For your development tasks it means that something may compile a bit slower — not a big deal. If you, say, render a video it may take twice as long as before but at the end of the day the result will be the same. But when you are making music, your track starts choking. It could be bearable in small amounts, but it gets out of hand fairly quickly.

Every DAW has all kinds of workarounds for these issues, but the ultimate workaround is getting a more powerful computer or just one with a better heat dissemination.

For a couple of years my main computer was an Asus Zenbook Flip ultrabook. While it wasn’t a performance monster it was good-enough for my development and office tasks and had an adequate Intel i7 CPU (albeit of the U variety). When I put it under pressure the fans would start hissing like it was a snake but other than that I didn’t notice any other issues. Until I started making music.

One second my track would play just fine and the next it’s glitching and choking. I tried all kinds of optimizations — didn’t do much. And a bunch of workarounds that work but ultimately are annoying distractions. In the end I discovered that once the heat management subsystem on the laptop kicks in the CPU clock drops substantially and just can’t keep up with the task at hand.

I was contemplating buying a more powerful and less thin laptop. Maybe even a gaming laptop (even though I don’t game). But then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear that I won’t be traveling much, I decided to go for a desktop. I got a relative beast of a computer for just around $1,000 and my music-related performance issues were over with no extra optimizations. At least for the time being.

But if you can’t get a desktop based on your circumstances, just try to stay away from the ultra-thin category of laptops.

The magic specs

Everyone wants to be given the magic spec-sheet that would make buying or building the ultimate (but not too expensive!) music computer a breeze. Obviously, I can’t give you that. The parts and the prices change faster than I can type. And, more importantly, different scenarios demand higher investments in some areas and not as much in others.

Here are a few considerations for making computer spec decisions:

  • If you are planning to make [software] synthesizer-heavy music, get as powerful CPU as you can afford (within reason). And a single-core performance may be more important than the multi-core. But don’t sweat about this too much.
  • Those working on orchestral music with massive sample-based instruments should pay special attention to getting as much RAM as you can and large and fast SSDs.
  • In case you are primarily going to record live instruments and then just lightly mix the recordings, you can get away with much lower specs.
  • Unless you plan to game on the same machine or work with video, CAD, etc., you can probably get away with an integrated GPU (I know I did so far).

Overall, get the most powerful computer that you can get without breaking the bank. Pay attention to heat dissemination characteristics but also keep the noise levels in mind — you want to find the equilibrium between the two.

For a more in-depth guide on building a Windows-based music workstation, check out this guide by Pete Brown.

In the next chapter we talk about choosing your first Digital Audio Workstation software.

This is a chapter from the book I’m writing. I will be posting a new chapter each week. But there’s a way to get new chapters early or even get everything I’ve written so far and support this endeavor. Click here for the details.

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Alan Mendelevich

Alan Mendelevich

I run AdDuplex - a cross-promotion network for Windows apps. Blog at https://blog.ailon.org. Author of "Conferences for Introverts"