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
Recommended PC configurations:
– 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.
– for Pentium 4: Asus P4B800 series with i865 or i875
– 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.
– 512MB minimum, 1024MB better (PC3200 or faster DDR SDRAM
– 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.
– Plextor (internal IDE, or external FireWire or USB 2.0
– 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.
A Pentium III or
Pentium 4 equipped IBM-PC or compatible computer. The
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
great resource for heavy-duty PC tech talk is
where you can learn all you ever wanted to know about PC
performance and related topics. Also check the
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
Some large music stores are also custom building music
computer systems, including
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.
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!
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.
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
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).
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
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.
the operating system, most of you will want to be
Windows XP Home
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
Service Pack 4.
Pentium II/Celeron slower than 450MHz or older Athlon/Duron
computers will probably run best with
Second Edition or Windows
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.
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.
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
for a cool way to strip Win98 down to its bare
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
(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.
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
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
Linux MIDI &
often come with poor quality sound circuits built in, so a
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
"Which is Better:
IDE, SCSI, USB or FireWire?".
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
Of course there are tremendous commercial Windows sound
editors, such as
WaveLab, as well as MIDI/Audio sequencers such as
Cubase SX on the high end, with
Power Tracks Pro Audio and
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
for tips on trimming down WinXP for better music
production performance. And don't forget