Back in 2015, my studio computer started to cause me a good bit of aggravation. Long story short, my desktop PC was coming up on 9 years old (NINE!), and it was time to get with the times. Apart from all sorts of driver issues and storage restraints, my old computer just wasn't capable of running as many channels or plugins as I wanted. VSTs had come a long way in 9 years, but my computer had only become slower. It was time to upgrade.
I took to the internet in search of my new DAW computer. Now, I'm not the most tech savvy guy. I spend a lot of my time soldering and upgrading analog gear from the 50s-80s...modern computing technology is not my forte (no pun intended). It didn't take long for me to get overwhelmed. At some point, the device you're using for your music production will become obselete, too. My hope is that my experience can help cut a lot of the confusion I encountered AND save you a lot of money!
I knew I wanted a desktop computer. I haven't played live in years and my musical focus is entirely in production, mixing, and mastering. If you're dead set on a laptop and absolutely need the portability, I'm afraid this story won't help you too much. I started off by researching what capabilities I would need to run the programs I wanted. I decided I needed 16GB of RAM, a fast processor (+4.0 gHz), at least 1TB of storage, and plenty of USB ports.
If you do start looking for a desktop for music, you'll probably run into what I did - you will find very few computers with the specifications required to get the most out of today's digital signal processing technology. 4GB of RAM (memory) won't get you too far. The computers I found in my budget were not well-suited to my needs at all!
The only PC's I could find with the power I needed were marketed towards gamers. These PCs were not only much more expensive, but they included things I didn't need like super fancy video cards. Ableton and Pro Tools don't exactly demand cutting edge graphics. I also definitely didn't want to buy a computer with Windows 10 on it as I had heard plenty of bad things with regards to driver issues and poor performance in that OS.
In the end, I wound up with exactly what I needed for about half the price I would have paid for a high-spec machine from a manufacturer like Alienware. I built my own PC! I know I said I'm not tech savvy (I'm not!), but I found an awesome website that made things so easy that even I could do it. It's called PC Part Picker. I created a fully loaded monster with specs that would cost over $500 more to match when buying pre-built.
For less than $550, I was able to create a DAW computer with a monstrous 8 core, 4.7 gHz processor, 16 GB of RAM, over 1TB of storage, a top of the line motherboard, and enough juice to run power-hungry peripheral devices on 8+ USB ports. On top of that, I used a very modest video card which saved even more money. This machine lets me work at a sample rate of 88.2kHz with 30-40 audio channels and loads of VSTs with no problem! If you click here you can see exactly what I put together and even order the same parts, or mix it up to make things your own!
PC Part Picker is an awesome site. As you select each component for your computer, it provides prices from stores all over the internet, making sure you get the best deal on each part. On top of that, the website will flag you if you select a part that is not compatible with the other parts in your build. It basically did all of the thinking and shopping around for me. All I had to do was snap a few wires and cards together. If you can plug in your cell phone charger, you can build a computer! The hardest part was applying thermal paste to the CPU and installing it onto the motherboard with the cooler, and that was even pretty easy.
So, next time you're due for a computer upgrade, don't settle for sub-par performance or pay way too much on a high end computer. Feel free to use my build as a guide and swap out parts to your liking. Note that if you prefer to use an Intel i7 chip instead of the AMD, you will need to use a different motherboard. The i7 does perform better in multi-threaded applications like DSP, but that comes at a higher cost. The build I put together has satisfied all of my DSP needs.
A few tips - I installed my operating system on the solid state hard drive (SSD) which lets me boot up my machine super fast. I keep my recordings and mastering files on the standard hard drive disc. Solid state drives are much faster, but also much more expensive per gigabyte. Putting just the OS and core programs on the SSD and using a traditional hard drive disc for audio saved a lot of money on my build. If money is no concern, get the largest solid state drive you can get! Your audio files will load much faster when opening large projects.
I can't wait to see what I can build for just $550 in 9 more years!