Choosing the Right Computer

Choosing the Right Computer

Choosing an OS

Few technology issues inspire more passion than the choice of an operating system. Fortunately, both Windows and the Macintosh OS are excellent choices. Each OS has made major strides in recent years in terms of available software, hardware compatibility, reliability, and ease of use. Nor should Linux be ignored as an option. While less pro-level music software is available for Linux than for the Big Two, Linux can be installed on a PC or Mac alongside the primary OS, and Linux software is mostly free.

Mac vs. Windows

Cross-platform development on Mac and Windows, once an expensive and difficult endeavor, has become commonplace in recent years. Many developers now share the same code on both platforms, enabling them to release applications for both platforms simultaneously with almost complete feature parity ( Figure 2.5 ). Each OS has its own array of exclusive applications as well, but each lineup is strong enough that choosing the better of the two is an entirely personal decision ( Table 2.6 ).

Figure 2.5. Switching between Mac and Windows versions of cross-platform software like Ableton Live is nearly seamless.

Table 2.6. Applications and Platforms (Partial List)

Only on Mac

Apple GarageBand, Apple Logic Audio, MOTU Digital Performer, U&I MetaSynth, BIAS Peak and Deck

Only on PC

Cakewalk product line (SONAR, Project5), FL Studio ("Fruity Loops"), Sony ACID and Sound Forge , Adobe Audition, Tascam GigaStudio


Digidesign Pro Tools, Steinberg product line (Cubase, Nuendo), Native Instruments product line (Traktor, Reaktor, Kontakt), Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, MakeMusic Finale, Sibelius, Cycling '74 Max/MSP and Jitter, Plogue Bidule, IK Multimedia product line (AmpliTube, SampleTank)

The Mac platform has the advantage of including Apple's free entry-level software GarageBand. In addition, it has two Mac-only front ends to Digidesign hardware (Logic and Digital Performer) that offer an alternative to using Pro Tools, as well as unusually easy MIDI and audio configuration.

The PC generally offers slightly better audio performance-for-money value and more hardware choices. In comparison, both platforms are capable, affordable, and have more applications than anyone could ever exhaust.

Foreign exchange program: If you need to exchange files between PC and Mac, nearly all cross-platform apps share a single file format that works on both platforms.

Is Your OS Up-to-Date?

Both Windows and Mac OS went through generational differences involving OS releases that used the letter or Roman numeral "X." Make sure you can run at least the following versions. Earlier versions can cause incompatibility problems with some audio software.

Mac: Mac OS X 10.2.8 or later (10.2 overhauled audio and MIDI support)

Windows: Windows XP SP1 or later (any XP version will work; SP1 improved USBsupport)

Linux: 2.6 kernel or later (2.6 kernel integrated audio driver support)

Although you are typically better off with a new OS version, be careful not to upgrade too soon. New releases often require updates from music software companies that can lag behind an OS release by weeks or even months.


Until recently, Windows and Mac were the only options for running audio, but Linux developers and advocates have been hard at work to make it a viable alternative. The Linux operating system has a small but dedicated band of converts for audio use, including many developers and conservatory electronic music programs. Here's the good news about Linux:

  • Free software: Linux applications are generally free and are open source products under the GNU General Public License (GPL), meaning they can be used at no cost (donations are often suggested). In many cases, if you're a developer, you can use the source code. A growing number of powerful, unique audio and music applications are available on Linux for free.

  • An OS built just for digital audio: Special distributions or " distros" of Linux are available that have been preconfigured for music production. Just install or boot from the OS and everything is set up for you, including a selection of free digital audio applications, notation software, effects, instruments, and tools.

  • Linux alongside Mac and Windows: You don't have to give up your current OS. Most Linux installations let you choose between Linux and your existing OS on your Mac or PC on startup.

  • Linux without Linux: Mac OS X users can run an increasing number of Linux applications without Linux, thanks to OS X-native ports and OS X's ability to run windowing environments like Apple's X11. Other applications can run on Windows, too, thanks to cross-platform development tools.

The bad news about Linux is:

  • Only geeks need apply: Linux isn't for the faint-of-heart, since it lacks the software choices and driver support of Windows and Mac, and can be tricky to configure, although preconfigured operating systems can help.

  • Limited software selection: Mac and Windows still have a dramatically larger selection of software and capabilities for audio, at least at the moment.

  • Competing drive formats: Moving files to your existing Mac or PC drive can be difficult.

Resources for Linux

AGNULA project ( Extensive audio links and tutorials from this audio-specific development project.

ALSA ( Provides drivers for audio and MIDI hardware included in many music distros; check for compatibility.

Rosegarden (, Ardour ( Full-featured digital audio workstation packages built specifically for Linux; Rosegarden includes notation and MIDI functionality, to boot ( Figure 2.6 ).

Figure 2.6. Rosegarden is a free, open-source audio application you can run on your Mac or PC hardware under a Linux operating system. (Screenshot courtesy Fervent Software, Ltd.)

Audacity (http://audacity. sourceforge .net): Must-have multichannel audio editor.

MetaDecks ( Developer of Linux software Metadecks, an audio editor with DJ-style interactive scrubbing, and live audio software AUBE.

terminatorX ( Real-time DJ application with vinyl-style scratching and sequencing.

Jack ( A "low-latency audio server," virtual-connection software you can use to connect multiple applications to each other or interfaces on Linux as well as Mac OS X.

Fervent Software Studio-to-Go ( Makes a mail-order, bootable CD-ROM for Intel PCs to run a full-featured Linux music studio, complete with Rosegarden preconfigured and support for Windows VSTs. (You can install to a hard drive, too, if you like.)

Linux software is nearly free or most often "pay what you can." If you're broke, it's free, but if you can donate some spare change, you will help the initiative continue to evolve .

However, if you're on a tight budget, if you're a programmer, or if the idea of a self-contained OS and applications just for music is appealing, Linux is worth a lookeven if only to run alongside your existing OS. And even if you don't use Linux directly, odds are you'll be using hardware powered by it or open source or commercial software developed on it in the near future.

Configuring Your Computer

Whether you're buying a new computer or using an existing system, specifications are important ( Table 2.7 ). If you're just doing MIDI or music notation, older machines are likely to be sufficient, but live digital audio is system- intensive . In these situations, your computer has to perform mathematics on data that changes 44,100 times per second or more, outputting the results with minimal delay. Digital videographers and 3D graphic artists can afford some rendering time, but musicians often can't.

Table 2.7. Essential Specifications

Factors to Consider




CPU speed

800 MHz processor for a single basic application/13 GHz processor

The primary CPU performs tasks like effects processing and sound generation in many programs.

Research: Check software requirements to see how processor-intensive the software you want to use is.

Cost: Functional bare-bones computers start at about $500.

Hard drive capacity

60 GB free for recording/As much as you can afford (250 GB +), dedicated drive

Recorded audio eats hard drive space fast: a CD's worth of audio is about 600700 MB, and that only includes the finished, mixed songs. Once you start recording layers of audio tracks, you'll have multiple recordings for each minute of sound.

Research: Calculate how much space you need at

Cost: Large, fast internal hard drives start at around $100; external drives suitable for audio have dropped below $200.

Hard drive speed

7200 rpm for simultaneous multitrack recording/Audio or A/V-optimized drive

4200 and 5400 rpm drives, like the internal drives that usually ship with laptops, choke when recording multitrack audio, causing dropouts, or they cease to record.

Research: Check drive specs carefully . Examples include audio-specific drives from Glyph Technologies (, picturedphoto courtesy Glyph Technologies) or the portable high-speed ComboGB drive from Wiebe Tech (


512 MB/1 GB +

If you're using a software sampler, the amount of RAM is vital : these applications usually load samples directly into RAM, so you'll need more RAM for bigger samples.

Research: Memory prices fluctuate as often as week-to-week based on supply and demand, so it's best to comparison shopcomputer manufacturers usually inflate RAM prices. Check tracking sites like DealRam ( for the best deals.

Cost: You can usually significantly upgrade RAM for under $100, so buy as much as you can afford.


At least USB 1.1 and one high-speed bus (FireWire, CardBus, or PCI)/USB 2.0, FireWire 400/800, PCI (desktops), other fast connections

You'll need connections for your audio interface, hard drives, keyboards, control surfaces, and other audio gear.

Research: Apple systems ship standard with these connections; PC users should max out their systems.

Screen real estate

One 1280x1040 display/Larger screens, second monitor

Audio software interfaces take up lots of space; multiple monitors prevent you from having to switch between windows.


Quiet operation


The quieter the system, the less you'll have to deal with noise added to recordings.

Research: Consider a system designed to run quiet or, for complete control, use an extender and place the system in a different room from your recording booth , or use a noise isolation cabinet such as those made by AcoustiLock (

Going Non-native: Hardware DSP Systems

Ever-faster processors have led to more and more native or host-based software that relies on your CPU to function. But there are still benefits to using specialized hardware to power virtual instruments, effects, and other audio tasks.

Even with faster chips and multiple processors, your built-in CPU provides only a finite amount of processing power, and audio applications have to compete with each other and with operating system tasks for attention. This can cause latency , a delay between when you play a note or record a sound and when the software responds. If the CPU can't keep up, you may run out of processing power altogether, making audio skip and pop.

Digital signal processing (DSP) chips are designed especially for off-loading tasks from your CPU. They're available in add-on hardware that connects to your computer via PCI or FireWire in the form of either an audio interface or a dedicated peripheral like the PowerCore Compact in Figure 2.7 .

Figure 2.7. TC Electronic's Power Core Compact ( attaches to your desktop machine or laptop via FireWire, and provides extra processing power for high-quality , low-latency effects and instruments at home, in the studio, or on the road. It's available for less than $1,000.

Effects and instruments must be specifically coded for DSP platforms, so you'll need a specific DSP hardware product and plug-ins designed for it. Available platforms include TC Electronic's popular PowerCore platform, which can connect to a laptop via a FireWire version, or Digidesign's PCI-based TDM hardware, which is integrated into products like Pro ToolsHD.

Although basic cards with DSP can be purchased for about $100, the price of pro systems range from $1000 to tens of thousands of dollars. You can live without dedicated DSP processing power, but it can make your audio creation experience more efficient and reliable. See Chapter 6 for more on processing audio.

Preconfigured and music-specific machines

Digital audio works well with off-the-shelf systems, but you can buy preconfigured music-specific products that range from simple bundles to custom audio-specific hardware:

Where to buy

Turnkey systems:

Korg SoundTree (

Sweetwater Audio (

Tekserve (

Custom systems:

Alienware (www. alienware .com)

Carillon (

MusicXPC (

Audio-only hardware and hybrids:

Muse Research (

Open Labs (

PlugZilla (

  • Bundles: Packages that combine computers, interfaces, and software range from around $1,500 to high-end five-figure options.

  • Turnkey systems: Bundles that have all software and hardware installed and "optimized." You can turn them on without having to configure any settings. Many education vendors also sell turnkey configurations for school labs. Package prices vary; typical well-equipped configurations run from about $2,000$3,500.

  • Custom systems: Custom pro audio PC systems add optimized custom PC hardware to turnkey systems. Many include rack-mountable, low noise cases for use with other racks of audio gear, like the Carillon AC-1 ( Figure 2.8 ). Some even have special audio controls, like knobs and transport controls, integrated with the case. They often add a comparatively small price premium: Carillon's systems, for instance, start at about $1,000 without a monitor. (Since Apple no longer licenses clones , Macs aren't included in this category, although some users have built compact Macs like the Mac Mini into custom cases.)

    Figure 2.8. By appearance alone, you can see some advantages of custom audio computers like this Carillon AC-1. It's rack-mountable, rugged, and comes with special pro audio controls built in. Bundled "turnkey" software is ready to use right out of the box.

  • Audio-only hardware and hybrids: You may not even need a traditional computer to run computer digital audio, thanks to new computer-powered gear designed just for audio ( Figure 2.9 ). The Muse Research Receptor and the PlugZilla, for example, are both Linux-based audio boxes designed to wed the flexibility of software synthesis and effects with the ruggedness and stability of traditional hardware. They'll run Windows plug-ins and even provide dongle copy protection support via USB. The Neko is a full-featured keyboard with an integrated Windows PC for virtual instrument support. The Neko and PlugZilla aren't for those on a tight budget; they each cost over $3,000 and up. But the Receptor is competitive with current PCs at just over $1,000, and you can expect more of these devices in the future.

    Figure 2.9. Computer, or audio hardware? New hybrid devices are both, like the Muse Research Receptor rack-mounted effects and instruments box and the Open Labs Neko keyboard. The devices run Linux and Windows, respectively. (Photos courtesy Muse Research, Open Labs)

Real World Digital Audio
Real World Digital Audio
ISBN: 0321304608
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 96
Authors: Peter Kirn

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