What is the best computer system for your home recording studios? Is Mac better than PC? If PC can do the same job why spend more? It is an age-old discussion between Mac and PC supporters and at some point, you need to decide what perform to go for as per your requirements and within your budget, whether it is Mac or PC. Irrespective of platform the stuff that you find inside your computer plays a major role in determining how smoothly and efficiently your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) runs. While there are several custom-built computer workstations available configured for the best performance of the DAW of your choice, it is important understand what makes a good audio recording computer for hassle-free functioning of your favorite DAW.
Before you jump into the system configuration requirements, I presume, you would have decided which DAW you are going for and have looked at the required plugins, audio interfaces, and other controlling devices you may be using. You will also need to evaluate the nature of your recordings - like how many tracks are you going to handle at a time? is it mostly audio or instrument or a combination? Would you be doing voiceovers or ADRs (automatic dialog replacement) for videos? Answer to these questions are important to decide what exactly you need have inside your computer that will make your home recording function smoothly.
You starting point for configuring a computer workstation once you have decided on what DAW, plugins and interface to use in your home recording studio is the system requirements specified by your DAW / interface vendor. From the system requirements, you will find essential information for the basic building blocks for a robust PC, Mac or laptop. This will also tell you the recommended operating system platforms for your DAW and other software plugins and recommended computer hardware brands, processor specifications, storage requirement, display requirement etc.
Processor - Powering Audio Recording
Processor is the heart of your computer based home recording setup. Intel processors are widely used in both PCs and Mac now-a-days and thankfully the computing power is increasing with every new release and the prices are getting more and more affordable per computing power you buy. The central processing unit of the computer you run your DAW software and other software plugins should be able to handle multitudes of processes simultaneously depending on the complexity of your project. Based on what you wish to accomplish with the software, your computing demands may entail special requirements. When selecting a processor, speed certainly counts because that denotes the ability of the system to how quickly process audio and other information. Many modern DAWs are designed to take advantage of multi-core, multi-processor architecture to reap very high-power performance. However, you need to understand the DAW’s limits to avoid unnecessarily adding power which will not be utilized. It is always advised to use the processor recommended by the DAW vendor and furthermore, you can check the CPU performance score on CPU Benchmarks.
Chipsets – Ensuring Audio Chain Communication
The chipset used on any motherboard is one of the most crucial components of a digital audio workstation. It handles all aspects of the communications between system components (e.g. processor, system busses) including the integration of the audio devices. Though there are several chipset options available – especially on PC – not all of them are suitable for demanding applications. Some DAWs does not work properly with certain chipsets; for eg. legacy firewire interfaces may not work properly if the firewire card uses anything other than Texas Instrument 1394 chipset. One specific chipset can be either highly recommended or completely inappropriate depending on the way it handles the need for low latency and high data transfer rates between different devices.
Typically, DAW software and plugins are RAM (random access memory) hungry. Hence you need to ensure that your computer workstation running audio recording application has a lot of memory. The more complex your recording style is the more RAM you will require. If you record a lot of audio tracks and several effects on each track, that demands a lot of memory. On the other hand, if you record mainly MIDI tracks with instruments that already have the effects that you want, you can get by with less RAM.
Hard Drives – Audio Recordings and Programs
Digital audio recording requires high speed storing and retrieving of large amount of digital information. Hard disks with high capacity storage and high data transferring speed is required to record your tracks. You also need a very fast ‘system drive’ to run the operating system, DAW and other audio applications. The media drive where you store your audio files and may be the project files should be a separate physical drive from your system drive. This will ensure likelihood of the stability of the system and better performance.
Rotational Speed: You need to have a hard drive running a minimum speed of 7200 RPM. Hard disk running at this speed normally is capable of handling data throughput required for projects with many tracks. S-ATA hard disks running at 10000 RPM or SAS hard drives running at 15000 RPM can prevent throughput bottle necks in more complex setups, if 7200 RPM is an issue.
Solid State Disk (SSD): Solid State Disks offer the best performance by far. SSDs use flash technology exclusively and thus do not need any mechanical components. SSDs ensures high data transfer speed and much lower access time. However, SSDs are still expensive compared hard drives.
The home recording computer should have enough and appropriate connection ports for interfaces. Connections found on leading audio interfaces and other devices are USB 1.1, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, Firewire 400 (IEEE 1394), Firewire 800 (IEEE 1394b), PCIe and Thunderbolt. Please refer to your audio interface specifications to decide the minimum connection requirements you need to have on your computer. Remember, some legacy connections (like FireWire) may require specific cards with specific chipsets (like Texas Instrument 1394).
Your DAW vendor may have specific display requirements or additional feature that needs dedicated graphic cards. For example, if you are doing dialog replacement, you need to play the video when the sound dubbing artist is delivery the dialogs. In such case, you may need to add a video card that supports your requirements - like playing the video clips on a second monitor or streaming it on to a TV monitor. Refer to your DAW Video Engine specification and requirements to decide the kind of graphics card you require.
Having a quiet computer is very important since you need to hear all the sounds in your mix. If you are using desk top machines, different fans in the system can make noises that can leak into your home studio mic, if you do not have a fully sound insulated vocal booth. Lap top fans also can get noisy. Silent computer workstations with alternate cooling systems like water cooling, could help eliminate this issue. More information and comprehensive reviews are available at Silent PC Review.