QUICK HIT: A guide to putting together PC components that are fast enough to optimally run a DAW (music production software) in a Windows environment.
Suggested PC Components for Running DAW Software
Intel Core i7 Quad Core Processor
Corsair Vengeance DDR4 RAM
Media Sonic ProBox HDD Storage
Western Digital Blue 1TB Hard Drive
Western Digital MyBook External USB Drive
In the context of music production and home recording, a Windows PC can be a fantastic option, primarily for two reasons:
First, PCs are far more affordable than Macs and you get more for your money, particularly in regards to data storage. If you need mass storage for a lot of tracks, and recordings that need to be cataloged, you can get more speed and space for less money.
Second, they're highly customizable.
In fact, you can essentially pick every part of the computer. If you don't want to assemble it yourself, you can have it assembled before it's shipped to you.
We'll cover the most crucial parts, specs and recommendations for building a Windows PC for music production capable of handling the workload of a small to mid-sized home studio.
Job Description of a Windows PC for Music Production
First we need to look at the typical or "core" PC components, then figure out the most optimal configurations for recording and accomplishing music production-related tasks.
In other words: What does our new computer need in order to do its job well?
Simply put, a Windows PC with an audio focus should be capable of the following tasks:
- Running heavy DAW applications
- Delegating workload (more on this later)
- Storing a ton of data
To accomplish this, we need to focus on the three core components of a PC, which are the following:
- Processor (CPU)
- RAM (random access memory)
- Data Storage (HDD or "hard drives")
As you're computer shopping, these three areas are where you should plan to spend the most money.
Other peripheral things like monitors and video cards are also important, though not nearly as crucial as these three.
Get the processor, RAM and storage right, then move onto the extras.
Let's start by looking at the ideal processor.
What processor should I look for?
With processors you have essentially two choices:
While AMD processors are often cheaper, my recommendation would be the Intel Core i7 processor, since it's one of the more reliable and faster CPUs on the market.
Specifically, the Intel Core i7 Quad Core desktop processor is what you should be targeting.
What if the motherboard isn't compatible?
The motherboard of your computer needs to match the processor, though in most cases you can shop by processor.
This means you decide up front that you want an Intel Core i7 processor and you sort your options based on that component.
Take Amazon, for example:
If you look for this part first, you'll be able to sort all your results by the Core i7 processor.
Let's start in the "Tower Computers" category:
If you scroll down, you'll see on the left sidebar where you can filter your search results.
Scroll until you see the "Computer Processor Type."
If you don't see "Intel Core i7," click the "see more" link.
This will bring up a list of all the processors available from Amazon for each computer.
If you click the Intel Core i7 option, your results will then contain only computers with that processor, at which point you can be assured of the correct motherboard and continue to match up the rest of the specs.
Since it's essentially the brain of your computer, the Intel Core i7 is a logical place to begin building your search.
Moreover, it's just plain fast.
Making it the centerpiece of your new PC will insure you'll have plenty of power that will run most any DAW and hardware drivers, assuming we get properly fitted for the next two components.
Let's move onto RAM.
What RAM should I get?
For the Intel Core i7 processor, and in most cases of desktop computing, DDR3 or DDR4 RAM are what you'll be targeting.
DDR4 is newer, but DDR3 is still the reigning standard bearer.
I'd recommend a total of 32GB, which sounds like a lot, but will make your experience almost flawlessly smooth. Basically, the more RAM you have, the more "hands" your computer will have for working on various tasks.
Think of it as an assembly line with 32 workers instead of four. With only four workers, the line has to slow down so the four workers can accomplish the tasks at hand without getting backed up. But with 32 workers, the line can speed along somewhat quickly since there are so many people to keep after each individual job.
Thus, no single worker needs to take on a heavy load, meaning the system runs much quicker and without as much interruption.
In that regard, RAM delegates different tasks to different sections of its memory.
May I recommend this Corsair Vengeance RAM set that comes in two 16GB DDR4 sticks.
Even 16GB would be a lot, but for a desktop PC (since it can usually hold much more RAM than a laptop or Mac) I always prefer to stack the deck and go for the full 32GB.
Combining this with the Intel Core i7 processor will give you plenty of smooth speed to work with for those hefty DAW applications and recording software that tend to use up a lot of memory and CPU. Even simpler music-related tools like music notation software can be a resource hog.
These two areas, the processor and RAM, are where most of your money should be spent.
Installing extra RAM
It's fairly easy to install extra RAM into a desktop PC, a process which is particularly helpful for those who already have a tower they want to upgrade.
The one thing you need to keep in mind is that RAM should be installed in tandem or as a group. In other words, two 16GB sticks or four 8GB sticks should be used and not a combination of various sizes.
You'll notice in the video below that the Corsair instructor installs three sticks of the same type of RAM, matching them with the red RAM ports on the motherboard.
In some cases you can get away with something like two 4 and 8GB sticks, but a best practice is to keep each stick the same size and the same brand.
Here's the video from Corsair that shows you how to install RAM into a desktop PC.
What hard drive(s) should I get?
There are several different ways to set up data storage.
First, you'll want to have an internal hard drive with an external backup.
In my experience, it's better for the external backup drive to be significantly larger, since it will allow you to frequently backup data to that drive without clogging up your computer's onboard disk space.
If you want to take it a step further, you could setup a combination of multiple internal drives with a large, single external.
That setup might look something like this:
- Internal Hard Drive #1: Operating System
- Internal Hard Drive #2: DAW software and other applications
- Internal Hard Drive #3: Documents and storage
- External Hard Drive: Backups
Setting it up this way means you have a hard drive dedicated to all three of your desktop's most arduous tasks, essentially delegating each one to its own hard disk space.
Since you've got so much RAM this will mean that each aspect of your computer is given its own memory and storage source.
Under this system, speed should be an absolute non-issue.
What if I don't have room for three hard drives?
Most towers and motherboards will have room for at least two internal hard drives.
If yours doesn't, you can host the drives externally using a media server. Something like this Media Sonic ProBox will hold up to four internal drives and transfer data extremely fast.
The entire box can support up to four 8TB hard drives, which is likely more than you'll ever need in a home or semi-professional recording studio.
Whether you use the media server or not, hard drives are a little simpler to purchase, especially if you only need a couple of them.
The "Blue" 1TB drive from Western Digital is a great, low-cost (less than $50) option.
Also, be sure to go with the 7200 RPM option and not the 5400.
As you might have guessed, 7200 delivers your data faster.
Also, whatever number of drives you want, make sure they're all exactly the same, just like we observed with the RAM.
It'll help guard against compatibility issues and performance discrepancies between drives.
For the external hard drive:
These 4TB Western Digital USB externals are reliable, affordable and fairly standard.
I've got several that I use between work and my home office.
Once you've purchased the external hard drive, you can make backup folders for each internal drive and setup Windows to automatically backup the contents of those folders to your external.
What if I want to start ENTIRELY from scratch?
If you want to start with a bare tower and build your music production PC from the ground up, I'd recommend using a site like CyberPower PC.
They are not sponsors and I'm not getting paid to recommend them at all, I've just used them for a long time to build my own computers.
You'll use an interface that allows you to select each individual part of your desktop PC.
Choose a base to start with then go through each part and upgrade at your discretion.
Yes, they're gaming PCs, but that just means they're powerful.
You'll start with a base configuration, perhaps something like the VenomX series.
If you scroll down, you'll see where you can add items that will either increase or decrease the total cost of your machine.
For example, an area where you might want to cut costs is the tower.
Most of the towers are overkill for anything other than gaming, so go with something simple. You'll notice the red negative number (with a minus sign) next to the amount it'll reduce your overall bill, depending on which tower you select.
The case I highlighted knocks down the price $16 and still supports USB 3.0.
If you continue to scroll down, you'll eventually get to aspects of the machine that you might want to upgrade. For example, this configuration comes with 8GB of DDR3 RAM. Should you want to upgrade to 16GB you can simply select the option right beneath it to apply the upgrade for the noted cost.
You can see where I circled the price increase, a total of $53, which is well-worth it for doubling your total RAM.
Keep scrolling and you'll notice the video card options.
Here's another area where you could really save some money.
For a music production PC, you don't need a super-human video card, though you do want something that's reasonably powerful, particularly if you plan to use dual monitors.
That said, almost all of the video cards on this website are solid, so you can afford to downgrade to one of the cheaper versions and save yourself anywhere from $100 to $200 off your final purchase.
This particular downgrade still gets you a fantastic video card, while saving you $144 off the final cost of your PC.
Other items you can dock or upgrade at your discretion.
For example, you might already have a monitor on hand, in which case you wouldn't need to include one in the final configuration. You would simply choose "none" from the monitor selection area.
These days I axe the DVD drive as well, since I rarely use one.
Do I need to upgrade the sound card?
Whenever we think music production computer, a lot of us immediately default to thinking about sound cards.
While there are sound card upgrades that can be helpful, the more effective (and affordable) method is to buy some kind of USB audio interface.
They're cheaper and give you more flexibility, especially if you're going to be recording multiple instruments.
The sound card is just harder to work with.
Here are a few USB audio interfaces I'd recommend.
- Focusrite Scarlett Solo (with Pro Tools)
- PreSonus AudioBox USB Interface
- Behringer Uphoria UM-2
These will allow you to record your instruments straight onto your existing sound card through a single USB connection.
For home recording and small studios, it's one of the easiest ways to set things up.
Instruments (or microphones) go into either of the two inputs, which are then routed to your computer via the USB connection.
To record guitar, I use both inputs for a left and right stereo out signal coming from the back of my amplifier.
If you need more inputs, larger versions of these interfaces are available as well.
Two inputs are usually enough, assuming you're only laying down one or two tracks at a time. The PreSonus AudioBox is my preferred USB interface and it works great with both my PC and Mac computers.
Consider it a crucial part of your Windows PC hardware.
If you don't already have one, I'd advise buying it in conjunction with your new tower.
Aside from peripherals, this is everything you need to setup a windows PC for music production. And by "peripherals" I mean mouse, keyboard and anything that doesn't relate to the meat and potatoes of the system. If you're in need of a set of monitors (speakers) for audio, I own two different sets that I typically recommend.
Second, if you want something a little bigger, the Mackie CR Series is only $99. I have a set of those in my home studio as well.
Your thoughts, experience?
Have you built a music production PC before?
What do you know? Share it with us in the comments so others can benefit.
If you have questions, I'll answer them there as well.
Thanks for reading.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Mike Saechang