The Musician's Guide to Home Recording

 

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The Personal Computer Based Music Studio
The next thing to think about is the computer...

 

 

Choose your system:

Apple Power Macintosh

Windows PC

 

Apple Power Macintosh

 

The Macintosh has been the computer of choice of creative types for nearly twenty years. Most major recording studios and record companies use Macs to control their digital audio installations. The MacOS is "user friendly," and Macintosh computers are relatively easy to upgrade and maintain. Although Macs are expensive when compared to typical Windows PCs, the extra cost is well worth it for many people. Should you decide to base your studio around a Mac you'll want the following...

 

 

1) A recent-issue Power Macintosh. Even a humble eMac, iMac or iBook can be equipped with a FireWire multichannel interface like the Mark of the Unicorn 828, while a G4 or G5 "tower" can house one of the several PCI card/audio interfaces available, such as the RME Hammerfall DSP or Mark of the Unicorn 2408 MkIII. In some cases, you can upgrade an older PowerMac with a G3 or G4 processor upgrade.
 

Get as much RAM installed as you can afford. The absolute minimum you should have for MacOS 9.x or higher is 256MB; 384MB or more will make things run much more smoothly.

There is no reason to play around with older, pre-PowerPC Macintosh computers. Sound editors and MP3 encoders rely heavily on a fast floating point processor ("FPU" or "math co-processor") for processing their data. All PowerMacs have an excellent FPU integrated into the main processor, while some older Macintosh computers don't have any FPU at all.

 

The PowerMac G4 and G5 processors in new Macintosh computers are actually faster cycle for cycle than any Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon. This means that a Pentium 4 at 2.4 GHz is really no faster than a Mac G5 at 1.6 GHz. Forget the bigger numbers; a Mac G5 will be a lot faster than a Pentium 4 at the same clock speed.

 

The eMac, iMac, G4 and G5 come standard with an IDE hard drive and a CD-R or combo CD-R/DVD drive, as well as decent quality 16 bit audio playback built in. The eMac/iMac/G4/G5's major selling points are their speed, easy Internet connectivity, ease of use, and the fact that they're very nicely styled. You may have noticed that these new Macs have no serial ports (the old "modem" and "printer" ports) for connecting older MIDI interfaces or Mac-compatible printers. Instead, these new Macs have USB and FireWire (IEEE-1394) ports. This means that Mac users upgrading from older PowerMac G3's up to an eMac, iMac, iBook, G4 or G5 will have to buy brand-new USB MIDI interfaces. Also, only the G4 and G5 tower models have PCI slots — and only the G4 notebooks have CardBus slots — so a FireWire audio interface will need to be installed for recording high-performance multitrack audio to an eMac, iMac or iBook.

 

Mark of the Unicorn offers two FireWire digital audio interfaces, the MOTU 828 and 896. These can be used with any Mac G4, iBook, iMac or eMac equipped with a FireWire port. The Digidesign Digi 002 also connects using FireWire.

 

Digidesign offers an entry-level ($500) Pro Tools interface called the Mbox, which connects to the host computer through USB and uses Digidesign's Pro Tools LE software. If you want to play with what the big boys use, here's your chance.

 

The Apple G4 and G5 lack the old, familiar Mac SCSI port, so if you already have a SCSI hard drive, CD burner and/or scanner, you will need to buy and install a PCI SCSI accelerator card to make use of them. The Cube, eMac, iMac, iBook and PowerBook have no PCI expansion slots, so a SCSI accelerator card cannot be installed in these computers.

 

The eMac, iMac, iBook, G4 and G5 PowerMacs do come with FireWire interfaces (also known as IEEE1394). The FireWire interface is the interface of the future. It can be used for hard drives and CD-Recordable drives, and there are now audio interfaces that connect via FireWire too (see the description of the Mark of the Unicorn 828 and 896 in the soundcards page). FireWire allows for hot-swappable connection of up to 64 devices, and allows for a theoretical maximum throughput of around 40MB per second. You can now find plenty of FireWire hard drives in the online e-stores, or even at your local CompUSA. (You can roll your own by taking any IDE hard drive and putting it in a FireWire enclosure.) These new FireWire hard drives are advertised as having a throughput of 15MB/second, which is about as fast as UltraWide SCSI, but not nearly as fast as Ultra2Wide (LVD) or Ultra320 SCSI — or ATA-133, for that matter. But maybe FireWire 800 will change that.

 

The latest G4 and G5 computers come equipped with Apple's new Unix-based operating system, OS X ("OS Ten"). OS X is radically different from previous versions of the MacOS, so a few music equipment manufacturers may not have updated their drivers and applications to work well with it. If you're planning an upgrade, you should first make sure that your music hardware and software is fully supported in OS X.

 

2) A big IDE, SCSI or FireWire hard drive, at least 20GB. If you have a G4 or G5 tower, it's best to install a second internal ATA hard drive (7200 rpm with 8MB cache, 80GB or larger). If you have an older SCSI-equipped Mac, getting an internal SCSI hard drive will save you a good chunk of money, as long as you're willing to open up your Mac and install it yourself. For a G4 laptop, iBook, eMac or iMac, you'll want an external FireWire drive. USB hard drives are too slow for working with multitrack audio.

TIP: If the thought of opening your Mac's case makes you shake with fear, you'll probably be better off spending the extra $75 to $150 on an external hard drive.

 

3) Software is generally more expensive on the Macintosh platform, but some of it is as good as it gets, like emagic Logic, Mark of the Unicorn Digital Performer, TC|Works Spark XL and BIAS Peak for example. There is some Mac music shareware available, though not nearly as much as exists for Windows.

It should be noted that most of the "heavy hitters" in music software developed their applications for the Mac long before they started coding for Windows.
 

 

Windows PC

 

For the more budget-conscious, there's the "Wintel" or "PC" platform. It used to be that the "Wintel" PC was an artistically-inclined person's worst nightmare, but things have really changed since MS-DOS was put out to pasture. Even though Windows 95 and Plug 'n Play made PC's much easier to use, they're still more of a challenge to configure and use than Macintosh computers. But if you're willing to become a bit of a computer nerd you can get a lot of power for less money. Here's what you'll need to get started:


Recommended PC configurations:

 

Processor:
– If you are getting a new Windows PC, I would recommend an Intel Pentium 4 at 2.6 GHz or faster running on an 800 MHz front side bus, using dual-channel DDR SDRAM.

Motherboard:
– for Pentium 4: Asus P4B800 series with i865 or i875 chipset.

AMD Processors:
– If you need to pinch pennies, a good choice would be an AMD Athlon XP 2800+ or faster running on an Asus A7N8X or other name-brand motherboard based on the nForce2 chipset.

 

RAM:
– 512MB minimum, 1024MB better (PC3200 or faster DDR SDRAM recommended).

 

Hard drives:
– One 20GB or larger IDE drive to hold your Windows installation and programs, along with a separate, 40GB or larger Maxtor or Western Digital 7200 rpm ATA-100 or ATA-133 drive for your audio files.

 

CD-Recordable drive:
– Plextor (internal IDE, or external FireWire or USB 2.0 interface)

 

AGP video card:
– Matrox DualHead or other twin monitor card, with two reasonably good video monitors. Audio apps take up a LOT of screen space — and once you get used to having your mixer in one screen and your track view in another, you'll never want to go back to a single monitor again.

 

1) A Pentium III or Pentium 4 equipped IBM-PC or compatible computer. The Intel Pentium 4 processors are good for audio work, and are the most compatible with the various soundcards and other peripherals made for use with Windows PC's. The latest Pentium 4 processors operate with an 800MHz front side bus (FSB) speed (really 200MHz "quad-pumped").
The Intel Celeron with 400MHz FSB (1.7 GHz and faster) should also be OK for audio work, though it won't be as quick as a Pentium 4. The
AMD Athlon XP is as fast as the Pentium 4 and seems to work quite well for audio—and costs a lot less. The AMD K6-2 and K6-III chips (Pentium clones) are now completely obsolete. Avoid the IBM/Cyrix 6x86, MII and MIII, and VIA C3 chips, as they never worked well in music computers. Using anything slower than a Pentium II 450 will make it very difficult to work with large digital audio files.
 

In general, it's best to use a PC that is built on a motherboard (the big circuit board inside the case) made by a well-known, reputable motherboard manufacturer. Each motherboard is built around a 'core logic chipset' that functions as the 'heart' of the computer system. You want to choose a motherboard based on a chipset that is compatible with all of your hardware and software. For Pentium 4 and Celeron, the Intel chipsets are the most compatible, because all the software and sound card manufacturers design their products to work on Intel hardware first, before they check their products on the other chipsets. For Athlon XP, the nForce 2 chipset is generally best, though some say the latest chipsets from SiS work just as well. Motherboard manufacturer names to look for include Intel, ASUS, Gigabyte, ECS, MSI and Soyo. I recommend ASUS or Gigabyte for best performance, Intel for widest compatibility.
 

At one point it was necessary to use Rambus R-DRAM if you wanted to use a Pentium 4, but this is no longer true. Today's dual-channel Double Data Rate (DDR) SDRAM is every bit as fast as Rambus, but less than half the price. The latest P4's with 800MHz FSB use dual-channel DDR-SDRAM.

For the 1999-era Coppermine core Pentium III and Celeron processors, the best chipset choices were the Intel i815e and VIA Apollo Pro133A. It's best to avoid the Intel i810, i820 and i840 chipsets, as these had bugs that were never completely ironed out. Generally, it's a good idea to avoid chipsets from SiS, PC-100, PC Chips, Aladdin or others.

 

For older Celeron, Pentium II and Pentium III processors up to 500MHz, a good motherboard built on the Intel i440BX chipset is your best bet. (The Intel i440BX was very stable and remained in production for a long time.) The Intel Seattle BX-2 motherboard is still widely available. The ASUS P2B and CUBX, and the A-Bit BH6 and BX6 were the "classic" i440BX motherboards.

 

Dell and Gateway computers always use Intel processors and are always built on Intel motherboards, which always use Intel chipsets. Computers made by these manufacturers are usually a safe bet if you specify one that uses a chipset that is well supported by the audio card manufacturers (such as the Intel i845, i865 or i875 chipsets).

 

At the time of this writing (December 2003) the best chipset for use with the latest AMD Athlon XP CPUs is still the nVidia nForce2. According to all trustworthy sources, it's better than any of the recent chipsets for Athlon XP from VIA and SiS, although some people are reporting good results using SiS chipsets. Everybody seems to be afraid of VIA chipsets.

 

If you already have a lot of PC133 or DDR SDRAM you want to keep using and you're looking to upgrade, I would recommend using a Pentium 4 2.4GHz or so, with an Intel, Asus or Gigabyte motherboard based on the Intel i845 chipset (unless you're running a ProTools 24|Mix setup, in which case you'll need to ask Digidesign what you should be using). If you are re-using your old PC133 SDRAM, make sure the motherboard you choose is designed to accept it. Likewise, if you're using DDR SDRAM, make sure to get the version that will work with that. NOTE: The ASROCK 8I845G motherboard is very inexpensive ($65 or so) and can run at 533MHz FSB using old PC-133 SDRAM. It also has two DDR-SDRAM slots, so you can upgrade without buying a new motherboard.

 

A great resource for heavy-duty PC tech talk is Tom's Hardware Guide, where you can learn all you ever wanted to know about PC performance and related topics. Also check the RME-Audio website for computer audio-specific info.

 

There are now several companies that will custom build a PC optimized for music production. These often include your choice of CPU, RAM, operating system, audio and MIDI interfaces, and software. Check out Central Computer Systsms and Wave Digital Systems. Some large music stores are also custom building music computer systems, including Sweetwater Sound.

 

If you're building your own PC (or upgrading), always use high quality parts! I've seen systems malfunction because of weak power supplies, substandard "generic" RAM or lousy motherboard design. Stick with well-known name brands and you should be OK.

 

For RAM, Crucial, Mushkin, Corsair and Micron are my favorites. I've also had good luck with Kingston, Siemens, Hyundai, Hitachi and Samsung RAM. Beware of "generic" RAM!

 

For IDE hard drives, I've had good luck with the recent-production Maxtor 7200 rpm drives. Western Digital drives are reputed to be good too. I've found Fujitsu drives to be very reliable, if a bit slow. A 5400 rpm drive is fine for the system drive (Windows and apps), but you should choose a faster 7200rpm drive for your audio disk. Get one with an 8MB buffer if you can afford it.

 

For SCSI hard drives, I like IBM UltraStar LVD or Ultra160 drives. Again, the faster the rotational speed, the faster the drive. I've had bad luck with Seagate and Quantum drives, but that is my own experience. But who uses SCSI anymore?

 

For CD-R, I've had good results using Plextor drives. Others have reported good results using Panasonic, Sony, Lite-On, TDK, Ricoh and Hewlett-Packard CD-R drives. FireWire, USB or IDE CD-R drives will only work well with recent-issue, fast computers (500MHz or faster). For older computers, use a SCSI CD-R drive (with an appropriate PCI SCSI controller card, of course).

 

A frequently overlooked piece of hardware is the power supply (usually supplied with the case). An underpowered power supply will cause instability. It's always a good idea to get a good case and power supply from a quality manufactuer like Enlight, Inwin or SuperMicro. (Good after-market power supplies are made by Antec and Enermax.) If you're running an AMD Athlon XP processor, make sure your case has an AMD-approved power supply installed, and be sure to install adequate cooling fans in your case! Intel Pentium 4 systems require power supplies designed especially for them. A great place to look for high quality cases and power supplies is PC Power & Cooling.

 

Also watch out for compatibility issues between peripherals. If you're really set on a particular soundcard or audio interface, check the manufacturer's website for links to user forums or newsgroups where you can read about users' experiences with various types of peripherals and software. You may find that advanced features of a particular soundcard won't work in your favorite audio program, or that a certain video card will cause problems in your particular system. This is the price of the PC's "open architecture"—there are many possibilities, but hidden pitfalls abound!

 

Your best bet for a "Salvation Army Special" is an old Pentium II 266 to 400MHz based PC. The original Pentium is too slow for multitrack editing, but will work fine for stereo recording/editing. If you're scrounging around for a 'freebie' starter PC, definitely avoid older (pre-1996) Pentium 60, 66 or 90MHz PC's. These often have ISA, Vesa Local Bus (VLB) and PCI slots all on the same motherboard. These first-generation Pentium machines had a lot of problems and are not compatible with most modern hardware, such as the latest sound cards, video cards or RAM. Also, AMD K6, K6-II or K6-III ("Super Seven") were unreliable, and are not recommended.

 

For the operating system, most of you will want to be running Windows XP Home Edition, although some prefer Windows XP Pro Edition (XP Pro has more advanced networking features, but either one will work fine for audio apps). You'll want a 1GHz or faster PC loaded up with at least 512MB of RAM for running multitrack audio with XP. Pentium III computers faster than 450MHz or Athlon computers slower than about 1GHz will run well with Windows 2000 Professional with Service Pack 4. Pentium II/Celeron slower than 450MHz or older Athlon/Duron computers will probably run best with Windows 98 Second Edition or Windows Millenium Edition ("Windows Me").

 

Windows 98 Second Edition is a good choice if:

 

You have an older computer that will work well with it, like a typical Pentium 166 MMX or faster, loaded up with at least 128MB of RAM, ...NOT a Pentium 75 with 16MB of RAM.

 

You are using ATA-100 hard drives, USB, FireWire devices, and/or you intend to attach digital video (DV) cameras to your computer. All of these technologies are supported better in Win98SE than in Win95 or WinNT.

 

You are doing extensive MIDI work and must have good MIDI timing and lots of MIDI channels. By turning off the extra doodads that Windows 98 installs by default, you can usually get very good MIDI timing in your sequencer apps under Win98. Also, check out 98lite for a cool way to strip Win98 down to its bare essentials.

 

Windows Me is a good choice if:

 

You have an older computer that will work well with it, like a typical Pentium II 300 or faster, loaded up with at least 128MB system RAM (256MB or more is recommended). You are buying all new hardware, including the latest USB and FireWire gadgets.

 

You never need to run a DOS prompt.

 

Windows 2000 Professional is a good choice if:

 

You are very good with PCs and you don't mind being the System Administrator for your setup. If you don't know what this means, Win2000 is probably not for you...

 

You have a fairly recent PC that's not quite brand new, like a Pentium II 300 MHz or faster, loaded up with at least 256MB of RAM (384MB or more is highly recommended), ...NOT a Pentium 200 with 32MB of RAM! If you're getting a new PC, Windows XP is the better choice.

 

You have software that will work with it, like Cakewalk Sonar or Pro Audio 9, Sound Forge 5, or Cool Edit 2000, and NOT Digidesign Pro Tools Free.

 

You have music hardware that will work with it. While most audio hardware will work in Windows Win2000 using WinNT 4.0 drivers, not all hardware that works in Win98/Me will work in Win2000. Check with the manufacturer(s) of your hardware to see if it is compatible with Win2000, before you upgrade.

 

You are doing mostly audio work, not intensive MIDI sequencing work. This is because MIDI timing is generally worse in Windows 2000 than in Windows 95/98/Me, due to Win2000's fully protected-mode, 32-bit architecture. Since Win98/Me allows 16-bit real-mode access to the hardware, MIDI can be made to run much more smoothly. The downside is that this makes Win98/Me less stable. Please note that this does not affect audio timing, which is often better in Win2000 than in Win98/Me.

 

NOTE: This becomes less of a problem with a faster processor and hard disk subsystem. Cakewalk recommends at least a Pentium III 500 MHz processor for use with SONAR 2 in Win2000 or XP. Now that systems with 2GHz processors, 1GB of RAM and 120GB+ hard drives are commonplace, this shouldn't be much of a problem.

 

Windows XP Home Edition is a good choice if:

 

You have a recently made computer that will work with it, like a Pentium 4 running at 1.3GHz or faster, loaded up with at least 384MB of RAM (with RAM prices being so low these days, 512MB or more is highly recommended). Your aging Pentium II 300 with 128MB of PC66 SDRAM just won't cut it for XP.

 

You have software that will work well with XP. Check with the manufacturer of your music software to make sure (most newer software works just fine in XP).

 

You have music hardware with drivers that will work with XP, like the Digidesign Mbox and Digi 002, Lynx Studios LynxONE, DAL CardDeluxe, Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! or RME soundcards, or a MidiMan BiPort 2X4s or Roland MPU-401 or compatible MIDI interface, ...NOT the MidiMan 1X1 or 2X2 MIDI interfaces, as these are for Windows 98 or Me only.

 

XP has a lot of cosmetic bells and whistles that can slow a system down for no good reason. LitePC (who brought us 98lite) makes a utility that allows users to remove a lot of the useless bloat from XP. It also works for Windows 2000.

 

Linux is slowly getting to be a viable alternative for musicians, and there is work going on aimed at making Linux a workable OS for the masses. Unfortunately, Linux still seems to be aimed at the programmer crowd, so most average musician-types will find it a challenge to get a Linux DAW up and running (command lines, switches, X-Terms, conf files...). But remember that the whole point of Linux is that you can get a powerful and stable OS with high quality software up and running for nearly free, given some extra time and effort.

There are a couple of nice-looking multitrack audio sequencer/editors available for Linux, and more programs are sure to follow. Check out
Planet CCRMA, Rosegarden and Ardour.

More soundcards are gaining Linux support, including many from Sonorus (STUDI/O), SEK'D, RME Audio, M-Audio and others. Musicians who are interested in Linux should check out the
ALSA Project and the Linux MIDI & Sound Applications website.

 

2) PCs often come with poor quality sound circuits built in, so a better quality soundcard should be purchased and installed. Soundcard marketing is a morass of false advertising and hyperbole, but there are many really good products available. I have direct experience with several soundcards, and it definitely pays to do your homework before you buy.

 

3) A big IDE or SCSI hard drive, at least 18.2GB or larger. You'll have to decide if you want to use the typical PC's internal IDE (a.k.a. ATA) hard drives and CD-R/CD-ROM/DVD drives, or if you want to invest in a SCSI adapter to connect your PC to SCSI hard drives and CD-ROM/CD-R drives. While older PCs worked much better for audio when equipped with SCSI hard drives and CD burners, newer PCs are so fast that they're able to work just fine with today's "ATA-133" IDE and FireWire drives.

 

Confused by all this talk about hard drive interfaces? Read the article "Which is Better: IDE, SCSI, USB or FireWire?".

 

4) Software: There is a lot of fine quality Windows music "shareware" available on the Internet. Don't be afraid to try these programs out, some are excellent. A great shareware stereo sound editor is GoldWave. Of course there are tremendous commercial Windows sound editors, such as Samplitude and Steinberg WaveLab, as well as MIDI/Audio sequencers such as Cakewalk Sonar and Steinberg Cubase SX on the high end, with Raw Material Tracktion, PG Music Power Tracks Pro Audio and FASoft n-Track bringing up the low end.

 

Speaking of software, there are a number of things that can really screw up a PC's ability to play and record clean sounding digital audio — resource-greedy device drivers, overly intrusive anti-virus programs and fancy fax software are examples that come to mind right away. Excessive "feature bloat" is the kiss of death for good audio performance from a PC. If your first priority is music production then it is essential that you fine tune your computer system for your musical uses as opposed to playing games or viewing multimedia on the web. Check out this article for tips on trimming down WinXP for better music production performance. And don't forget XP Lite!

 

 

Background Information

Computer necessities

Studio necessities

High octane options

IDE vs. SCSI vs. USB vs. FireWire

Sound Cards and Audio Interfaces

Introduction to Microphones

Basic Concepts of Digital Audio

MIDI, Synths and Drum Tracks  

 

 



 

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