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Monday, March 2, 2009

Get a Computer for Your Studio

This is Part 2 of the Makeshift Musician's Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

The computer is the most important part of your studio. It is the brain, the place where all the audio and data crunching happens. You can make a studio without one, using a dedicated mixing console, but I find it more useful and intuitive to just use a computer. You can use it for not only recording, but also mastering and manipulating your files.

So what do you look for in a computer? The general rule of thumb is the more powerful, the better. You need RAM to manipulate multiple audio tracks at the same time; essential for multitrack studios. You need hard drive space to store all these recorded tracks. Again, that is essential. You need a speedy CPU so you can actually hear the audio while you're editing it, without delays. Jeez, it's starting to sound like you simply need the most expensive machine available, doesn't it?

Here's the thing though. If you have a computer that was built in the last few years, then it can probably work with multitrack software, and you can use it for your studio, just fine. You don't absolutely need the most powerful system money can buy. Computer makers prey on people's desire to own the best product and will release new systems every few months to maximize their profits. You don't need to give in to their pressure. As long as you have a system that works fine for you, you have no need to upgrade. Wrap that thing in duct tape and write "NO UPGRADES EVER" on it . That'll keep it working for years.

I'm reluctant to write down precisely what you should get since standards do change over time and will potentially make this article out of date. It is good to have a reference though, so I'll put the minimum that you should have in order to have a seamless, trouble free experience. Hopefully, if you're an advanced space-musician from the future, my writing will help you get the gist of what you should get for your Infini-core DNA Supercomputer even if the numbers I list seem laughably out of date.

  • CPU: Get something 1.5 Ghz or faster. This may sound a bit low to gamers or graphic designers but the fact is people have done multitracking on computers since the 1980's with much, much slower CPU's than that. I've personally recorded professional-level audio using Cubase on machines that were 700 Mhz and 1.5 Ghz and it's always worked without a hitch. This is the one area where you can afford to cut costs a little. Right now my iMac is a 2.4 Ghz. Not the fastest but it's respectable.
  • RAM: Simply get as much as you can afford. Again, I've recorded with as low as 512 megs and it worked out alright. Each track you record and mix into a song uses a chunk of your RAM while you're working on it. As you can imagine, it really starts to add up as you go and there is undeniably an upper limit to how many tracks you can have going at once. To guarantee a high number of tracks and a good comfort level for you, don't go below 1 gigabyte.
  • Hard Drive: You're going to be recording lots of audio, probably more than you realize right now, and you need a place to store it all. Get a big hard drive. Hard drives are relatively cheap these days, and a hundred dollars can get you pretty high capacity. Get two and use one to back up the other.
  • FireWire Port: Make sure your computer has a FireWire port or two. This will be necessary if you use an external device to plug in all your audio equipment. It will also be good if you use an external hard drive to backup your data.

Now, I'm going to break from my already feeble grasp of professionalism and give you some unofficial, personal, man-to-person advice, based on my experience. Get a Mac. I've used Windows-based PC's for lots of things, including recording. They generally work fine, but man, nothing is easier to use than a Mac. They're built for this kind of thing. You plug stuff into it and it works. A Mac works so well, in fact, that it is invisible. I never even have to think about it when I'm writing music or recording or backing up files or whatever. It's like using a reliable appliance: you turn it on and forget about it. Though I can't give up Windows on my sweet gaming rig, I'll probably never go back to PC for recording.

That said, there's nothing wrong with using a PC for recording. In some cases it may be better because any given piece of software is more likely to be written for Windows rather than Mac. And of course, PCs are cheap, and Apple has never understood the meaning of 'affordable', so that's not in their favor either.

What about a display? When working with software like ProTools or Cubase it's nice to have a big display with high resolution. A lot of data is displayed at once and can things go quicker when you don't have to keep closing some windows to make room for others. Many studios employ a dual-monitor setup (or duel-monitor setup, if they're badass.) For me, this is a luxury that I simply can't afford at the moment. It's nice, but not really necessary. Again, the general rule of thumb is the bigger the better, but even if you can only afford a 15-inch monitor, you'll still get by.

So, you've got your sweet computer, now how should you take care of it once you set it up for your studio?

The setup: The computer keyboard should always be placed in a way that makes it readily accessible. This may sound obvious, but it's always tempting, when working with limited space, to have your musical keyboard in front of you and push the computer keyboard to the side. This isn't going to be like web browsing where you only need your mouse, however. You will want to learn all the keyboard commands, or better yet, set them yourself, so that you can operate this beast with maximum efficiency. I've used a studio setup where the keyboard was mostly out of reach, and without having every function at the push of a button it can be almost crippling.

Backups: If you're the tech-savvy type, then you probably can come up with some sort of fancy automated system for regularly backing up your data. Even if you're like the rest of us, however, you can still backup your files pretty easily. Whatever kind of operating system you choose, Mac or Windows, learn the basics of how the filesystem works: know how to create folders, copy files and move them around. You bought two hard drives, right? On a regular basis, copy all your important music files over to this second drive.

Now that you've got your computer, it's time to start making some music on it. Check out the rest of the articles in the series, including getting an audio interface and software for your machine.

This is part 2 of the Studio Guide

Go to part 1: Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

>>> Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound Into Your Computer


onjoFilms said...

Yes baby, yes baby, GET A MaC. You are so right. After wrestling with PC's since 1985, I finally got a Mac and couldn't be happier. It runs and is not bogged down with antivirus software or a registry that is continually getting corrupted.

Anonymous said...

Both of which are issues Mac's are frequently crippled by but never bother to tell you about. I've worked with macs for years as a programmer and can't bloody stand the things. They just stop as soon as you try to do something useful with them.

Anything a Mac can do, a PC can do just as well. Sound engineering included, which I have also worked in.