Music PCs – part 1

If you use a Mac you have a relatively easy choice when buying a computer for music.  But if you still use Windows things are a little more complicated. Here I will discuss how the individual components within a modern PC affect the performance of an audio sequencer.

Personal Computers (PCs)

Personal computers consist of many different components. The main ones are the mother-board, hard disc drive, RAM memory, processor and expansion cards.

The Mother-Board (Main Board)

The mother-board connects all other components together and will determine the overall speed of the system (the bus speed), the maximum possible processor speed/type, the maximum RAM memory configuration and the expansion card interfaces. The “bus” (also called Front Side bus or FSB) is a communications channel, which routes signals between the different components connected to the motherboard e.g. from the processor to the RAM memory. To be honest I would focus on processor first and then buy a mother board to suit as different processors require different mother boards. Asus, MSI and Gigabyte are all good makes. Check the maximum amount of RAM memory the board can handle before buying. Avoid anything less than 16GB.

Processor (CPU)

There are two main companies making PC processors; Intel and AMD. There is a lot of discussion about which is best with different people on both sides of the argument. Personally I am using AMD. The reason? I can get an 8 core AMD FX 2 for the same price or less than a dual core Intel i5.

Of course cores are not the complete argument. The bus speeds mentioned above are much slower than internal processor speeds which can leave processors waiting around for information. To counter this problem processors have cache memory on board, that is a small amount of super fast RAM memory where data can be stored for almost immediate access when the processor needs it. Level 1 cache feeds the processor directly and level 2 cache is a backup which feeds into L1. Cheaper processors such as the Celeron and the Duron have less of this cache memory or even none at all in older processors.

Cache for AMD is usually typically between 128K, and 1024K (1MB). Intel is usually between 3MB and 8MB. As you can see, Intel has more cache and so if you can afford it, it may be a better option but you will pay for it. I am very happy with my 8 core and have never needed more, even when I have run over 40 tracks of audio and virtual instruments. However, if you have reverb on all tracks, then you may need more as reverb is very processor intensive. If you share reverbs on sends this shouldn’t be a problem but if you use independent reverb on every track you may need to go for a high level Intel (likely i7 or at least a quad core i5 – check the spec for core numbers).

Laptop processors are also less powerful than desktop as they are largely designed to save battery power and so compromise performance.

RAM memory

Random Access Memory is temporary storage (i.e. everything in it is lost when the computer is powered down) but is much, much faster than hard disk storage. This is because RAM memory is purely electronic and has no mechanical parts, which are obviously limited in how fast they can move. If you have less than 4GB you may struggle with running large numbers of audio tracks, virtual instruments and effects. This is because when the computer runs out of RAM it will have to use the hard disc for temporary storage and this is much slower; much too slow for audio use.

If you buy multiple chips, check that they are all the same size and speed and that they will fit your motherboard. Note how many slots you have available on your mother board (if your board has different types it is likely that only one type can be used at a time). DDR 3 is generally best (at the time of writing).

Enough for now; we’ll continue our PC exploration next time with more hardware and a brief look at software too.