It’s kinda funny that I’ve focused on audio talk and remixes but never get into what I actually make a living at and how it relates to audio. So as you may or may not know I’ve worked in IT for 20 something years. I love technology in all it’s various forms and in particular as it relates to the arts, even more specifically the audio arts. It’s one of the areas that two seemingly disparate disciplines combine to make beautifully awesome things.
Enough of that, some of the guys that I play in a band with have been asking about how to put together their own studios at home and have asked for advice. I got me thinking I should probably share some of what I’ve learned over the last couple years as it relates to the music production process. I’ll start in the most place which is the computer.
The computer, what do I go with? Mac or PC? Why? I will tell you in my particular case I use both. That might not be an option for most people though, both have their strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll tell you my experience with both and what I’ve discovered during this process.
Come from a business IT background, I have more than a passing knowledge of Windows based machines so that’s where I started. The PC world offers really great bang for the buck, and you can get into the game fairly inexpensively. Pretty well any modern PC you buy will allow you to hook up an audio interface (we’ll get to those separately) and start recording music.
Now, having said that, recording a few tracks one or two at a time is easy, but recording more at a time, while listening back, and adding effects to each of those tracks, and or groups of tracks, and then mixing them can require substantially more horsepower. So let’s break down what you need to worry about, and this applies to both Mac or PC based computers.
The CPU or processor. Intel or AMD? Honestly either these days will work fine. My suggestion when it comes to this stuff is to try and get and least a mid level processor. You will need the horsepower when it comes to adding plugins. If you’re new to this world, don’t worry, we’ll get to explaining what plugins are as well! For my mac, I’m using a mini with a 6 six core I5. My audio PC’s are a 6 six core I7 laptop and an older 6 core Xeon workstation.
Let’s talk about those CPU descriptions. Intel has a number of processors, their consumer line is currently referred to as their Core series, so Core I3, I5, I7, I9. The 3 being entry level, 9 being beast gaming processors. An I5 will provide you very acceptable performance, if you suspect you will be doing a lot of manipulation of lots of tracks, you may want to set your sights higher, there is of course a cost associated with that though. AMD similarly has their Ryzen 3, 5,7,9 and Threadripper lines. I would start at the 7 line for those.
Now, that Xeon I mentioned? Here’s the thing, Xeon chips were/are aimed at the server and workstation market. Meaning they are by design, monsters. That Xeon I picked up was a used 2012 HP Z420 workstation, I added more memory, a SSD, and for $700 total I had a machine that benchmarked almost identically to a $2k gaming machine I built in 2017 with consumer components. If you are technically minded, I would tell you to look into used Xeon based machines, you can create an absolutely killer audio rig with that stuff (here’s a great article on building a 32 thread monster really inexpensively).
Now, memory. These days we measure in Gigabytes, 8 being what I would consider the minimum, 16 is really the sweet spot, 32 if you are doing a ton of tracks.
Storage. Back in the day we used mechanical hard disks, they were slow and prone to other issues compared to today’s SSDs (Solid State Drives) with no moving parts. Computers are sold with both. Don’t cheap out here, spend the money to get an SSD for your operating system and for you plan to record/mix from. You can (and should) get an external drive for archiving and storing data you don’t use on a day to day basis, but believe me when I say this is the choke point a lot of the time and it’s well worth doing it right. You can get 500 gig SSD’s these days that should be enough to keep you happy. Unless you are planning on using large virtual instrument collections, which we will also get to, and will also require larger drives.
Ports, that is going to be my next topic of conversation, but these days USB is king in terms of availability, to confuse the issue there is USB Type C which is newer, faster and better, but there is not a lot of product available for it, yet. There is also Thunderbolt, which in terms of performance (and price) is at the top. Firewire is dead in terms of the mainstream, but still very much alive in the audio world, and for good reason, but we will have that discussion next time.
The Big Question
Now Mac or PC? Here’s what it boiled down to for me. ASIO vs Core Audio. Those are the two components that allow access to your audio interface. ASIO (Audio Stream Input Output) for Windows, and Core Audio for Mac. They dictate what interfaces you can use, how quickly you can access their features and how you work with external equipment.
Initially I used a Windows based machine and I will tell you first hand, dealing with ASIO was a nightmare. I had huge problems with latency (the time it takes for sound to be captured, processed and then output back to the interface), stability, and compatibility. For me the biggest issue was one brand at a time. You can not use a Presonus unit and Focusrite unit (for example) at the same time, it’s one or the other. We can get into complex tricks to get around this later, but essentially if you want to record large track counts at the same time you are tied to one vendors products.
Now to be fair, using one brand is going to be fine for the VAST majority of people. I love tech and toys and want to push the limits. So unless you are planning on running a crazy setup of equipment chances are you will never run into the problems I had. The big selling point for Windows based machines is bang for the buck. You can get a WAY more powerful Windows machine for less money than you could for a Mac.
Which brings us to the Apple Mac and Core Audio. Core Audio lets you basically plug and play, combine interfaces to make one giant monster. It is fast, stable and honestly painless to work with. For tracking (recording) a band, and a very good chunk of my mixing it is my go to. That being said when I get into crazy 100 track plus sessions I move to my Windows machine because it is more powerful.
Could we just have the answer already?
So what in the end would I recommend? Almost every article I’ve read, says the same thing, go buy what you’re comfortable with, ya great thanks for that 😉 I’ll take a different route, if you want less problems, and can afford it, get a Mac, the best that you can afford. If price is an issue, or you want more than just an audio workstation, or you want to maximize what you get for your budget go with a PC. Or get both, problem solved 😉
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