The Best Computer for Music Production

The Best Computers for Music Production

The accepted wisdom is the Apple Mac is the best computer for music production. It has always been and will probably always be a well-made computer from which creators and music makers can benefit. As a platform, it’s stable, predictable and all the major music software and hardware developers produce products for it. However, they can also be very expensive, less compatible, and lacking in diversity. Apple has you over a barrel in terms of upgrades and support. Of course, an Apple Mac can be a good option, but there are other ways of running a successful digital audio workstation (DAW). And so along with the Apple Mac, we’re going to look at some of the other possibilities to help you choose the right platform for your music making.

Before we do, let’s consider what’s important about a computer for music production. You can run music software on any sort of computer, tablet or even a phone but not every environment is ideal. If making music is important to you then you need to be looking at a computer that’s going to give you the space to create. Whether it’s recording bands, knocking out beats, writing film music or capturing an entire orchestra you need a computer with the power for serious production. If virtual instruments are your thing then CPU processing power is paramount. If you need to load large sample libraries then the amount of RAM memory becomes important. If you are recording live instruments then you’ll need a lot of hard disk space, as you will for all those sample-based plug-ins and library. And in many cases, you’ll be wanting to do all these things. This means a bargain basement PC is probably not going to hack it but this all depends on your level and your budget.

Our Picks for the Best Computers for Music Production

Apple

So, let’s check out what Apple has to offer before we move onto the alternatives. Firstly, there’s more than one choice. There’s the iMac, the iMac Pro, the Mac Pro and the Mac mini before we begin to look at the mobile MacBook possibilities. But the one defining characteristic that brings them all together is the operating system. MacOS is the key to the Apple platform stability. It’s a well-written OS that only has to run on a handful of computer specifications, unlike Windows which needs to be flexible enough to run on a huge range of hardware. This narrow focus enables MacOS to be very stable and offer up very few surprises. The connection to the hardware makes it a very attractive platform for music technology developers because unlike many other computer products, DAWs require intense software running on complex third-party hardware.

When a developer of an audio interface builds the drivers for an Apple Mac they know exactly what hardware it has to connect to. When developing for PC the hardware has to work through a whole range of ports from different manufacturers. So, when they test it with the Mac they know their device will work on every Mac. That’s not a given on a PC. However, it also comes with a downside. Apple arbitrarily decides to remove or change ports on new ranges of Macs which instantly render many bits of expensive third-party hardware obsolete. There shouldn’t be any need to have to upgrade an audio interface; it can do its job forever. But if your next computer no longer has the ports needed to connect it then you have no choice but to replace that as well.

All Apple Mac computers are built to a high standard using high-quality parts which account for a proportion of their high cost. Every model of Mac is capable of running DAW software and hardware without too much trouble. The question then comes down to the level of power you need for the size and content of your projects and, of course, your budget. The rule of thumb with any computer for music production is to aim as high as you can. This is particularly true for Apple because the after-market upgrade possibilities are extremely limited. If you think you might need more RAM in the future then you’ll need to get it now or forget about it. Apple has pushed additional storage into external Thunderbolt boxes as there’s no longer any room to add further drives or your existing ones.

So, although Apple makes excellent computers and they are a great platform for music making they are also expensive, restrictive and feel like they have in-built obsolescence. They are not for everybody.

Link to Website: www.apple.com

Building your own PC is a great endeavor and I would always encourage people to do it. You could end up with a decent audio PC for under $1,000 or an awesome one for under $2,000. Do bear in mind you have just become your own tech support.

The Windows PC

The Mac vs PC debate has raged for millennia (in computing terms) but the argument is most commonly flawed by the assertion you can compare an expensive Apple Mac running Pro Tools and Photoshop with a cheapo office machine running spreadsheets. They are not the same and the comparison is pointless. In terms of OS, both Windows and MacOS can run the same software (more or less), give you access to the same tools and utilities and once you’re in Pro Tools or Cubase or Studio One the brand on the computer is largely irrelevant.

However, you don’t want a spreadsheet-running office PC to be the heart of your creative endeavors. When choosing a “Best” Windows PC for music production you are going to want to aim for something a bit special. That gives you two choices, the self-built DIY custom machine or going to an audio PC specialist.

DIY Windows PC

Building your own PC can be relatively straightforward and will undoubtedly get you the most for your dollars. You can mix and match various components, choose the exact configuration to suit your situation and end up with an intimate knowledge of your system should anything ever go wrong, need fixing or you are wanting to upgrade. But it can take a good deal of research and will probably require a good chunk of time and is likely to have you tearing your hair out at some point in the process.

So how do you know which components to choose? That is the biggest problem. Most DIY PC forums are full of people building gaming rigs. Although we share the same desire for a fabulous power-to-dollar ratio, a PC for the studio is a very different animal. A studio PC needs calm stability over raw speed and vibrant lighting. Overclocking can reduce the reliability of the CPU. It’s fine to crash when playing an online game; it’s different if you are in the middle of a mixdown for a client. Do you choose AMD or Intel processors? And if Intel, then which series? There seem to be all sorts of different CPUs labeled i7 or i5 and yet they seem very different. Another key component will be the motherboard and there are so many available, even from the same brand. How are you supposed to know?

Without going into too much detail, there are two Intel series worth looking at (correct at time of writing — technology changes quickly):

  • Core i5/i7 “Coffee Lake” e.g. Core i7 8700K. This is the mainstream desktop solution which is good power and good value and is paired with a motherboard running the Z370 chipset.
  • Core i7/i9 “Skylake-X” e.g. Core i9 7900X. This is the high-end workstation solution which has excellent power at a much higher cost and is paired with a motherboard running the X299 chipset.


The best way forward is to ignore all the researching and head scratching and simply copy what you find on the website of an audio or studio PC specialist.

And then my advice is to take it slow. Don’t expect to have it all done in an afternoon. Give it a weekend. Build it, update it, test it. Install Windows, update it, test it. Make backups. Don’t install all your software and all your hundreds of plug-ins. Install your main DAW, test it, make a backup. Then install a few plug-ins, test it, backup — rinse and repeat.

Building your own PC is a great endeavor and I would always encourage people to do it. You could end up with a decent audio PC for under $1,000 or an awesome one for under $2,000. Do bear in mind you have just become your own tech support.

Link to Website: www.tigerdirect.com

iPads can also be very useful but are hampered by their lack of processing power. There are a lot of great music making apps out there but you will struggle to record bands or produce a symphony. Ultimately, if you want it done properly then a desktop computer is your best bet.

Specialist Audio PCs

The easier, quicker and fully supported route is to buy a solution from a specialist audio PC supplier. They would have done all the hard work deciding which components work best. Everyone hates doing tech support and so it’s in their interest to build machines that don’t go wrong. They will be stable, predictable, powerful and upgradable: all the upsides of the Apple Mac with none of the restrictions. The technology will be almost identical to the Apple Mac with the added bonus of being able to add your own drives, upgrade the memory and graphics card and still cost considerably less than a comparable Mac. Along with this, if things do go wrong (and yes Apple products do go wrong) you’re not having to deal with Apple Geniuses who are experts on the iPhone; you’ll be talking to a firm who are probably all musicians, using the same software as you and know exactly how to get the best out of their machines.

It will cost more than building it yourself, but you are paying someone to build, test and support a high-end and sophisticated machine designed for music production. That sounds like a decent alternative to the Apple.

Link to Website: pcaudiolabs.com

Link to Website: visiondaw.com

Link to Website: silentpc.com

Link to Website: pro-tools-pc.us

Laptops

Mobile platforms are slightly different. The Apple MacBooks all have the potential to be good computers for music production. They’re not as powerful as the desktop Mac but being mobile has its own advantages. In this arena, the Windows laptop tends to lose out. You can’t build your own so there’s no DIY route. This also means specialist audio PC suppliers can’t build one for you either. Although some do offer laptops they will be re-branded versions of regular laptops, but at least they should work.

When buying a PC laptop off-the-shelf there’s no real knowing if it’s going to be up to the task of running audio software. They all should be fine but there can be issues with the way they connect to audio interfaces that can cause audio glitches over USB. It could be that something in the laptop you can’t remove or disable interferes with the smooth running of low latency audio data over the USB bus. In most cases it’s fine, but you’ll only know after you’ve bought one.

One possibility is the Microsoft Surface range. Although they are not very powerful when compared to desktop PCs they are capable of running a modest studio setup and have the added advantages of great build quality and a touchscreen interface capable of adding another creative dimension to your music making.

Link to Website: surfaceproaudio.com

 

In Closing

iPads can also be very useful but are hampered by their lack of processing power. There are a lot of great music making apps out there but you will struggle to record bands or produce a symphony. Ultimately, if you want it done properly then a desktop computer is your best bet.

The “best” computer for music production, in my view, is the one designed to do the job. Built for the purpose, either by you or a specialist company, and used primarily for music production, but Apple Macs can work well too.

 

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