In this article I'll be telling you some of the things that I think are important to consider when you set up your PC based home studio. This article will be about hardware issues, and the next part will cover software issues. I'll be getting into running the setup and working with it later on.
Most of the time I will assume that you read the first article about preparations.
This is the hub of the whole thing. The PC determines how powerful your whole setup is going to be. With PC I mean all the components of the computer *excluding* the sound card and midi interface devices, which will get an own chapter.
OK, so you already have a PC and want to make music with it. If you haven't bought it for this purpose, it will probably not be optimized for it. Maybe you want to buy a new system for doing audio. Or you want to upgrade your existing machine. In either case be prepared to learn a bit about the inner workings of your PC if you want to have a powerful, stable music making system. I'll now go through the different components of a PC, telling you what's their significance for audio applications. I'll also give tips and try to tell you how to chose components for a music PC. These are also often called DAW (= digital audio workstation), but that would also fit a standalone system. If I talk about a DAW, I mean a PC.
One thing you must keep in mind: there are few other types of applications that demand that much from a PC in terms of performance and stability than audio recording and processing. Only Video processing comes to mind with similar or bigger amounts of data. 3D games for example may need a lot of processing power and are demanding for the graphics system, but they don't make your harddisk work too hard and don't need too much RAM too. Office applications are a joke, nobody should need a Pentium III to run Word, except for those stupid animations and stuff that the guys in redmond throw in. If you don't want to read that much about PC internals, you can skip to the bottom of each paragraph and look up the recommendations.
Obviously, multitrack audio applications demand a lot of CPU horsepower. Your PC will not only be your multitrack recorder, it will be your mixing console, too, your FX rack, and with the new software synths, it will act as an array of musical instruments - all this at the same time and in real time. And it will make a lot of colorful pictures on the screen while doing all this. If I look a mere 5 years back, I am truly amazed. We've come a long way, baby. Audio processing demands a lot of floating point operations. This is what you are always told by software manufacturers. But it is at the first time a bit misleading, because they don't tell you *why* audio processing is floating point heavy. So why? Now, digital audio is stored on a CD as a succession of integer numbers (each integer number being "one sample"). Even most hardware DSPs (DSP - digital signal processor) work with integers. So integer performance would be the key, wouldn't it? Keep in mind that for the processor, handling integer numbers is fundamentally different from handling floating point numbers. Floating point numbers can be handled much faster by modern processors. Now the audio applications work with floating point numbers which gives them a better resolution for the audio data. Why this is so would take another article altogether which I might post sometime if there's demand.
So the floating point performance of a processor is crucial for it's audio performance. What is also important is the size and clock speed of the second level cache, which is a very fast buffer memory located between the processor and the PCs main RAM. In essential, the more 2nd level cache, the better, and the faster it is clocked, the better, too.
For Windows machines, there are three lines of processors right now that are well suited for audio if you buy a system. Those are the AMD Athlon processors and the Intel Pentium III and IV. Both are very fast processors with great floating point performance. I won't go into the old war which one's the better processor. If you build systems with comparable clock speeds, they will perform comparable. With one exception: the Intel Pentium IV is not that great at the "lower" clock speeds like 1.5 to 1.8 GHz - in this range it is easily outperformed by the AMD Athlon. If you go past 2 GHz, the P IV seems to be a great performer again - this is what the benchmarks say, and lots of people are now running PIV systems with great success.
Generally, the more MHz, the better. If you want to know what's going on in the processor world, take a look at http://www.tomshardware.com.
If you buy a new system, put bit more money on the table and demand the best CPU fan you can get. The best for our purposes means the quietest. If you have already a PC, every Intel processor from the Pentium II upwards (this includes the Celeron A, but not the first Celerons) should get you started and going for a while. You will be at least able to do some basic multitracking (like 8-12 tracks) and mixing with some real time FX. The AMD K6 or K6-2 processors are not optimal for audio, because of their poor floating point performance. Not recommended are any other processor brands around (like Cyrix, etc...). I realize that this info may be obsolete by now, it's 2002, and who is still running a K6? But maybe someone is, and they are wondering why they can't seem to get the performance they want.
This is the piece that keeps the whole system together. Get a quality mainboard. Your system will be much more stable and tolerant of exotic hardware (which most audio cards are since they do not appeal to the mass market). It may even cost a bit more, but it's surely worth it.
I personally recommend ASUS boards. In my experience, ASUS always built boards that were among the most stable and reliable in the PC world. Also check the following things (this holds true for all mainboard brands):
* the board should have enough PCI slots (4 is minimum, 5 is better, 6 is great)
* you don't necessarily need ISA slots anymore, except for some really old hardware you want to work with
* avoid on-board-sound chips. Those are evil. They sound like crap and tend to cause problems like nasty IRQ conflicts
* You'll need USB ports, but the new boards feature this anyhow.
The graphics card is perhaps the least important thing in a audio PC. Audio software does not need 3D acceleration, and all modern graphics cards are good 2D-performer. So I could use any cheapo one, right? Wrong. You don't have to buy the newest fastest game accelerator on the market, but buy a brand product by a big, known manufacturer. There are reasons: a brand graphics card will have the better drivers and better support for them, it will be tested with more possible pc configurations and will generally cause less problems.
Any decent brand graphics board should suffice. Big manufacturers are: Diamond, Matrox, ATI, Elsa, Creative Labs (though more famous for their soundblaster cards).
If you get greedy, think about investing into a Matrox G450 or G550 dual head, that is a card with connections for two monitors, which doubles your screen space (but also the cost for displaying it). I do dream about such a solution, but don't have the money...
Simply put, the more the better.
If you happen to experience random system crashes, it could be faulty RAM (it happens from time to time).
Start with 128MB, no less. 64MB are not enough for extensive multitracking. 256MB should be enough for pretty big projects. 512 MB is fine, especially if you want to use software samplers (that run inside the PC). Try to get good quality RAM (I know, this is difficult, since mostly you get offered RAM without a brand name). PC133 DIMMS are ok, but DDR (double data ram) is becoming the new standard. Make sure that you don't buy RAM that is rated for less than your mainboard's and processor's front side bus (FSB) speed. RAMBUS RAM is very expensive, but very fast too - if you have money to burn, you can equip your P IV system with lots of RAMBUS ram, since this sort of RAM is able to sustain the extremely high data rate that the P IV can work with.
The same as with RAM. The bigger the better. But for audio PCs another factor is important: noise. Different HDs have different noise levels. Avoid HDs that turn with 10000 rpm or even faster. You won't need the speed, and the things are damn loud which is really annoying if in the back of your vocal track one can hear the hard disk rumble.
Speed considerations: audio multitracking needs a big amount of data, and it needs it continuously. Here in germany, the c't magazine measure the loudness of as HD when testing it, which is great. I don't know how PC-magazines in other countries handle this...
Get a new, big hard disk, that puts through 10 MB /s at least. A 7200 rpm HD is a good compromise between speed and noise.
Those new Ultra Dma 100 (or even udma 133) standard is fast enough to make SCSI for HDs more or less obsolete. The new EIDE disks from IBM for example are faster than comparable SCSI disks from IBM and cost about 1/2. So you won't need SCSI. That was different 2 years ago, by the way... get a HD from a known brand, though. In the last years, IBM HDs were a good choice.
OK, each PC needs a CD-Rom. Get anything you like. Be a bit pickier with a writer, though. You'll need that burner as a backup device (and DO make backups!) and for burning audio CDs. Especially for audio CDs, cheap burners often cause problems. A CD-RW is not a must, standard CDR media are ridiculously cheap nowaday...
Plextor and Teac make good CDRs. Avoid the HP 8000, this writer is known to cause various problems.
Get at least a 17" CRT monitor or a 15.1" TFT display. Those are comparable in screen size. If you can afford a bigger monitor, fine. Look for a good monitor, it's better for your eyes. As guitarist, you will have another problem with your monitor, and that's interference. Guitar pickups tend to pick up a lot of nasty hum from the screen, which can be really annoying. So if you don't want to stand away 2m from your screen while laying down the tracks, maybe you should think about a TFT display. Those reduce the hum problem, and they look stylish, too. But they are bad for your wallet.
Well, this covers the basic audio PC. You will notice if you want to buy such a machine that it will be more expensive than the machine that the leading PC-discounter is offering as a bargain, although maybe both machines say "1800 MHZ". Trust me, your high-end PC will be faster and more reliable thanks to good components. You won't be able to argue that this machine is much cheaper than a MAC, though :-) But it will be worth it.
You should not buy a PC from "brand manufacturers" like Compaq. Those machines are far from high end and you pay too much for the name on the box. Find a small local computer dealer (with a good reputation) and let him build your custom machine. To your specs. Or build it yourself if you feel confident in your PC-building skills.
Don't put any cheap components in your audio PC. Most of the time, the cheapo network adapter or whatnot is the culprit if the system is not stable.
Stay tuned for:
Back to Part I
Part IIb: Chosing Hardware: The audio hardware for your PC (sound card and midi interface)
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