Getting the Right Computer for Music Production
Let’s face it, you are probably not going to be headed out to a buy Neve console any time soon. And why should you? Nowadays the VAST majority of music is being recorded, mixed and mastered with a PC. With how good plugins and home interfaces have gotten full-on analog recording is transitioning to be more and more ‘in the box’. Furthermore, there are enough free pieces of software that you can be pretty much up and running the moment you have a decent laptop or desktop. But what makes a computer decent?
Well, the only real answer to that question requires context. You see, certain parts of a computer matter a lot more than others when it comes to music/audio work. Below I cover what components you will want to know a little about and be giving some recommendations. Don’t worry we won’t be getting too technical here. The goal of this article is to simply cover the important stuff and look at what you’ll want to consider purchasing.
Mac vs PC (Windows)
The first choice you’ll need to make in the process of purchasing any (consumer) computer is whether to go with a Mac or PC. This is obviously a fairly big question to answer, seeing as neither one is definitely superior to the other. Both a Mac or a PC can be great for music production, it really comes down to what operating system and hardware you personally prefer. Your preference will largely be influenced by if you already use other Apple products and whether or not you like the idea of their brand.
As far as relating these two options to the music world, there really is only a slight advantage for Mac. While the majority of music software is available across both Windows and Mac OS, there is some that is OS specific. The only reason I give Mac the slight victory here is because of the GarageBand and Logic DAWs. But unless you are dead set on Apple's proprietary music software, this will likely not impact your choice.
Important Components (Features)
Here we will take a look at the most important parts of a computer that is being used for music production. The types of parts mentioned below will all be found in the specs portion of a laptop/desktop’s product description.
The CPU (central processing unit) is like the brain of your computer, and arguably the most important part of a music production computer. Everything that is going on in your computer has to go through the processor, so you really want to make sure you are aware of what you’re getting here.
As far as recommendations go, the two companies you’ll have to choose from are AMD and Intel. For a while Intel was pretty much considered the better of the two, however that conception has changed recently. Truthfully, the best value is with AMD’s Ryzen processors, but Intel’s Core lineup is still super solid. Also, if you are going the Apple route, you are stuck with only Intel options for your CPU. Whatever computer you’re looking at, do some research on the processor to see how it stacks up against others. There are plenty of direct benchmark comparisons with all the major CPUs on the market.
For other applications RAM is not nearly as important, but with DAWs and plugins, you want to make sure that RAM is not going to hold you back. I recommend getting 16GB at the minimum and 32GB or more if you can afford it. While this amount of RAM is hard to get in an affordable laptop you often will be able to upgrade this part.* Also, RAM has a speed rating and you’ll want to get as fast as possible (3200 MHz or above would be great). While the RAM speed is not always mentioned in specs, you can usually assume it to be slower if not mentioned.
*It is worth pointing out that RAM is one component that can be upgraded relatively easily in most Windows computers. Even laptops often will make this process easy enough, just make sure you research before you buy!
The last really important component for a music production computer is the storage. The two main types of storage you’ll run into are SSDs and HDDs. HDDs are the older of the two and they are much slower at reading and writing data. SSDs are newer, faster and pretty much better in every way. While SSDs do typically cost a little bit more (in pre-builts) they are well worth it. For the average person, upgrading from a HDD to an SSD is one of the most instantly recognizable improvements to a computer.
There are different types of SSDs as well, but you do not have to worry about that as much as HDDs vs SDDs. The most important thing with storage is in general is to make sure you get enough of it. Luckily, music files and sample libraries are pretty small compared to things like games or videos. So, you don’t need a ton of gigabytes if you are strictly using the computer for music production.
For many people the portability of a laptop is just too useful to pass up. If you find yourself in this camp, you’ll likely have to come to terms with the fact that you’ll have to pay more for lesser parts. This is not to say that you can’t get a great laptop for music production, just that you do end up paying for the luxury of portability. But if you need to be making music on the go, a desktop is obviously not a great option. With that in mind, here are two great portable options (Mac and PC) for music production.
MacBook Air 13-inch – $1649.00
Yes, there is the MacBook Pro which has nicer specs. However, the Air provides a solid level of performance that I would recommend for most people in the music space. The one major con of this model is the 13-inch screen, this can be a problem when using certain plugins/VSTs. But buying and hooking up an external monitor is easy enough so I still can give this flaw a pass. Here are the most notable specs for our context.
- 10th gen Intel Core i7 CPU
- 16GB 3733MHz DDR4 RAM
- 512GB SSD Storage
- 13-inch Retina Display
Dell XPS 15 – $1779.99
Dell makes some great laptops across the board. In this case we are looking at their XPS series of mid and upper tier units. While this computer is priced slightly higher than the MacBook Air it also has some advantages. The main one being the larger 15-inch screen. While I still recommend picking up a nice external monitor (for home use) if you can afford it, you could get away with sticking to this screen size exclusively. Additionally, this XPS has some really nice graphics capabilities that make it a bit more versatile of a computer. However, both the RAM and CPU are a little below the quality/speed of the Mac. Here is an overview of the specs.
- 9th gen Intel Core i7 CPU
- 16GB 2666MHz DDR4 RAM
- 512GB M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD Storage
- 15.6-inch OLED 4K Display
If you are someone who already has a laptop or just doesn’t need the portability, desktops typically offer a better performance to price ratio. While you won’t be taking it with you everywhere you go, a desktop is the perfect brain of a home studio. Here are two options (Mac and PC) that both provide very solid specs and will last you a while.
iMac 5k 27-inch – $2199.00
If you want an Apple desktop to act as your music production computer, the iMac 5k 27-inch is one of the absolute best options right now. The specs in this guy are not quite as high as some of the other computers mentioned, but it still performs very well. And this unit definitely has the best display out of anything else in this article (if that matters to you).
- 8th gen Intel Core i5 CPU
- 16GB 2666MHz DDR4 RAM
- 1TB Fusion Drive Storage
- 27-inch Retina Display
Dell XPS 8930 – $1644.90
For the PC side of things, we have another XPS from Dell. This is a very good spec if you are sticking only to music production and normal use. This has a TON of storage, 64GB of RAM, and the processor is great as well. There are really only two notable downsides with this one. First off, the graphics are integrated into the CPU. This means if you want to do other creative work or gaming of any kind, you will want to also purchase a solid GPU to stick inside of this. Second, this is the only on this list that does not include a display, though you can pick up a really nice monitor for under $250. If you are someone who simply wants a reliable and upgradable computer that will work great for music production, this is a good buy.
- 9th gen Intel Core i7 CPU
- 64GB 2666MHz DDR4 RAM
- 2TB SSD and 2TB Hard Drive Storage
Consider Building Your Own
I know this may sound intimidating but building a (Windows) PC is really not that hard to pull off. Why would you want to do this? Putting together your own spec is a great way to save money and get exactly what you want. There are hundreds of build guides out there, even many specified for music production. Getting into the details of this process would take a little too long to cover here. Just be aware that this is an option for you, even if you have no background in computers.
That covers the majority of what you should know if you are looking at purchasing a computer for music production. There is a lot more detail that I could have gone into on most of the stuff covered, but this was just meant to give you an overview. Also, the recommended computers represent just 4 (2 laptops and 2 desktops) units out of a massive selection to choose from. I would recommend that you still shop around and wait for sales to pop up. And if you are looking for a versatile computer that can handle all types of tasks in conjunction with music making, you’ll want to continue learning.