There are a lot of options, I get it. So what's the best computer for recording music at home? Instead of listing 10 random computer options, let's explore what exactly you need this home studio computer to do.
You ever see that Johnny Depp movie where he uploads his consciousness into a computer system and then his giant scary face is chasing people around?
No. Of course you didn't. No one did. But we all saw the preview.
Anyway, the studio computer may or may not be like Johnny Depp in that movie. I can't be sure because I also didn't see it.
Where was I going with this?
Oh yes. The computer is important to our studio setup. Let's list the things it enables us to do:
Store information. We used to "save" stuff to tape. Now we can save it to a hard disk drive or solid state drive in our computer.
Interface with and manipulate our recordings. The computer allows us to run software with which we can see, touch and manipulate our recorded waveform.
Provide processing power. The computer processor and RAM combine to let us process our audio and, most importantly, process it in a non-destructive way. In other words, we can try out effects without changing our initially recorded file. This and the Undo feature are absolute game changers.
Distribution. Another truly amazing development that no one would have believed 50 years ago is that we can finish a song on our computers and almost instantly make it accessible to billions of people around the world through digital distribution channels and streaming services. Truly bananas.
Clearly, these are some very important functions.
How do you choose a computer that's right for you?
Finding the Best Computer for Recording Music at Home: Within reason, this decision is a matter of taste.
You can think about this choice as being similar to choosing which new car to buy.
You may like one car’s features better than another’s or you may prefer the design, or driving experience, etc., but ultimately, most new cars will be reliable and will get you from point A to point B.
Similarly here, you want to have gear that’s up to the challenges of your recording projects but personal preference and comfort level will become the dominant factors once you meet the minimum recommendations.
Six Guidelines for Choosing a Home Studio Computer
Guideline #1: You should look for a computer with at LEAST 8 GB of RAM.
RAM is Random Access Memory and the analogy I like (from the Intel website) is that it is the "size of the workbench". Think about doing a wood working project. A bigger workbench allows you to stage more tools and material and work on more stuff.
As of this writing Pro Tools (the most demanding DAW of the bunch) is requiring 16 GB of RAM (32GB recommended) for both MAC and PC. Logic X, Cubase and Ableton 10 are all recommending a minimum of 4GB.
Consider how long you will keep the computer you have. If you want this computer to take you into the next 4-5 years, 16GB may be a better target because software is getting greedier as it gets more powerful. 16GB should be plenty for just about any production you can think of.
Think back to the woodworking example. At some point it stops mattering how big your workbench is because you're only one person and can only do so much work. This is where the processor comes in.
Guideline #2: Target somewhere around 4GHz for processor speed
Having more processor power is like having a friend come over and give you a hand.
Again, Pro Tools is a bit of a hog for computer power so it’s a nice benchmark for us. Pro Tools 2018 is suggesting an Intel Core i7 processor – which gives you a processing speed somewhere between 3.0GHz and 4.7GHz. This a nice range to target.
Guideline #3: For laptops, go with SSD. For desktops, find the right balance between HDD and SSD.
SSD and HDD are two types of storage systems.
HDD (Hard Disk Drive) is the traditional system. It consists of a rapidly spinning disk and reader head.
You get a lot more "gigabytes per dollar" with these drives than with SSD
In some cases these things can sound like jet engines taking off. This can be a problem if you're recording using sensitive condenser microphones in the vicinity of the computer - as pointed out by my podcast co-host Benjamin Hull
HDD are less reliable than SSD. In other words, they can fail and make you really really sad - especially if it's been a while since your last backup.
They're power-hungry. If you have a laptop, that battery has to spin a physical disk at un-audio godly speeds and this reduces batter life
SSD (Solid State Drive) consists of memory chips that pretty much plugged directly into the motherboard. There are no moving parts
Guideline #4: If using HDD, get at least two drives
It's considered a best practice NOT to store audio files on the same drive that is running your operating system and your DAW. Again, think of that spinning disk having to run all around trying to get your bits of shred guitar solo while trying to also run the entire operating system. Instead, have one drive that's dedicated to all of your audio samples, sessions, and audio files and one drive for everything else.
Guideline #5: Shoot for at least 1TB of storage
A typical session can run between 1.5-3.5GB. DAWs, samples, operating systems, etc., also take up a bunch of space. Space runs out quick!
Guideline #6: If buying new, spring for Thunderbolt 3 connectivity
Thunderbolt 3 is where it's at in terms of digital protocols. Thunderbolt 3 has 8X the bandwidth of USB 3 - which has 10X the bandwidth of USB 2. But here's the thing. Even USB 2 has PLENTY of bandwidth for most recording situations. You could record over 16 channels of simultaneous audio with USB 2 without breaking a sweat. In other words, bandwidth itself is not a compelling reason to go with Thunderbolt 3.
The compelling reason is that Thunderbolt 3 is effectively the first digital protocol that makes the word "latency" obsolete. The round-trip time of the signal is super quick. It's so quick that using the direct monitoring feature on your interface may no longer be important.
Bonus Guideline: Mac vs. PC? It's not a real question. Ignore it.
Oh man. This question used to be ALL the rage on the internet. You would not believe it. It's estimated* that 25% of the memory of all computers comprising the internet was taken up by this debate.
And here's the conclusion: it absolutely does not affect the quality (or quantity) of music that you're able to create. First and foremost, use whichever you're more comfortable using. You like left-handed golf clubs or right-handed golf clubs better? Use what you know.
That said, for a comparable set of specs, you can expect to pay ~30% less for a PC than for a Mac. Of course Macs come with other pros - like excellent reliability and nice form factors.
*No it's not.
For more, check out The DIY Recording Guys Podcast. We talk about computers in Episode 3
For even more, check out my FREE eBook!