Building an Audio Production PC

Having recently purchased a new custom made PC, I thought it might be useful to put together an article on what to look for when building or purchasing a new PC for audio production.  If you want to see the specifications I choose when I bought my PC, just skip to the end of the article.

Budget

Before we get started, how much is your budget? I set out not caring how much I spent.  I could have spent anything up to $5000 realistically, but after careful consideration and research, I found that the more money you spend, the less value you get.

A really decent PC for music production can be created for less than $2,500.  The difference between that PC and a PC that costs $5,000 is not really that much – you can get a lot more RAM, better processor etc., but performance wise, you’re not missing out on that much.  This guide is based on a budget of approximately $2,500 or €2,000- that should work in the US or Europe in numerous retailers to get you what you need.

The Components

Lets pretend you know nothing about PCs (maybe you don’t).  If you buy a PC, it has the following parts in it:

Processor.  Firstly, AMD or Intel? These are the two guys to choose from – AMD is less powerful but cheaper, and Intel is pretty much the industry standard.  I would always advise Intel as they’re winning the race in power and value for money at the moment. AMD are cheaper, but their processors lack the power required to push your machine to the limits.

Next, which model? Intel currently have the i5 and i7 core processors. These are the top of the range processors – the i7 being a lot better than i5.

Options

i7 2600, i7 860 i7 870, i7 875 – all around the same range. Awesome processors for the money.

i7 980x, i7 990x – top of the line extreme i7 processors. These give more punch than the rest, but at around €600 / $800 more than the rest, you’re loosing out on value.

CPU Fan. If you’re looking for a silent PC, you’ll need to go for a really quiet CPU fan.  The CPU fan cools your processor while the PC is on and can sometimes be loud.  Every processor comes with a “stock” fan to keep it cool – some of these are loud or not very good at keeping it cool if you overclock the PC.

Options

There’s plenty of options available for CPU fans, and the big names are Corsair, Noctua, Scythe and Cooler Master.  When looking at fans, always check the socket type to ensure it will fit your processor and motherboard.

RAM. For audio production (especially heavy use of samples), the more RAM the better. DDR3 RAM is the latest and greatest.  Based on the motherboard you get, you get get more or less RAM. Some motherboards come with 4 RAM slots, some come with 6 RAM slots. With 6 RAM slots, you can get 24GB of RAM by using six sticks of 4GB.

Options

There’s so many options to choose from. Things to remember – DDR3 is the best, the timings must all be the same, always keep the same sized sticks – don’t get a 2GB one and 768MB stick, don’t forget how many RAM slots are on your motherboard.

Motherboard: The motherboard is generally where you can find a bottleneck in your entire PC, if you go for a sub-par option.  Some of the big names in motherboards currently are Asus, MSI and Gigabyte. When you look at motherboards, the important things to look at are

- How many RAM slots does it have? Most motherboards have 4 “DIMM” slots, meaning you can put in 4 sticks of RAM. Certain motherboards now have 6 DIMM slots allowing you to put in 6 slots of RAM.

- ATX or mATX? – ATX motherboards are the normal sized ones. mATX is micro sized which means its really small and can fit into a small “media” PC. Avoid mATX boards for audio production.

- Processor Socket – the socket name of the motherboard needs to fit the processor you have chosen. For example,  the i7 990x processor has an LGA 1366 socket – you need to get a motherboard that also uses this socket.  This means the processor will fit and work on it.

- SATA ports – does the motherboard have enough SATA ports? Things that use these are DVD/Bluray drives, hard drives etc. If you have 6 SATA ports, you can have 2 DVD drives and 4 hard drives. If you want lots of internal hard drives, get a motherboard with plenty of SATA ports.

- USB/Firewire ports – do you use a firewire or USB audio interface? All motherboards come with USB ports, but firewire ports don’t come as standard – if you use firewire hardware, make sure and get a motherboard with firewire on it.

Case.  Theres hundreds, if not thousands of cases currently available for PCs.  They come in all sorts of sizes and shapes and in some ways, can make or break your entire PC.  Your PC case plays two important roles in the audio production field – it keeps air flowing throughout all the parts, ensuring everything is kept cool, and it reduces the overall noise of the components.

When looking for a PC case, you want to get one that is sound proofed as much as possible, and that has good air flow.  You could get a case with 5 huge fans on the side of it, but this will probably:

1. Be very loud

2. Blow hot air from one side of the case to the other, causing everything to overheat, rather than blowing cold air in, and hot air out

3. Both of the above

Options

Two great cases to consider that have nice air flow and are quiet, are:

Fractal Design Define R3 – I own this case and its superb. It has foam insulation to reduce internal noise, and great airflow

Antec Performance Line – All these cases are based on quiet computing and offer some great options.

 

PSU. Your power supply unit (PSU), is a very important part of your PC – if you skimp on it, you could either not have enough power to run everything smoothly (or even at all), or at worst, it could blow up and damage the rest of your PC.  The two most important things to look at when buying a PSU are the power (watts) and noise levels.

Power – You need a PSU that can power all of your components – if you for some reason have 3 graphics cards, 12 hard drives etc., you’ll need a lot of power. However, if you have a “normal” setup with say 1 graphics card, 4-5 hard drives etc. you will probably be ok with something around 700 watts – however, this is by no means technical advise. Seek professional advice before buying your PSU to make sure it can power and work properly with your components.

Noise level – some lower end and indeed a few higher end PSUs can be quite noisy.  For an audio PC, you really want to get a PSU that is as silent as possible.

Options

There are plenty of PSU options out there, the biggest names being Thermaltake, Corsair, Coolermaster, be Quiet!, Superflower etc. Again, I can’t advise you on your options here as it depends totally on other components you choose. Just make sure its quiet, has enough power, and has enough connections on it to power all the parts in your PC.

Hard Drives – For sample based music production, you’re going to want to go all out on these.  The main things to look for in hard drives are the following:

  • Size – The majority of hard drives currently go up to 3tb in size per disk. One thing to bare in mind is that the bigger the size, the more you might loose. If you have a two 3tb hard drives in your PC with everything on them, and one of them crashes, you’ve just lost 3tb of data. Get four 1.5tb hard drives, and you’re going to lose less data if one of them crashes. Also, in some cases, larger hard drives are more prone to breaking down.
  • Cache – This basically translates as how fast you can transfer data from drives and how fast your pc can read data from that drive.  A lot of this depends on your processor and the motherboard you choose, but choose a hard drive with a high cache, and it should work well for you.
  • SSD or HDD – There are basically two options right now for hard drives – HDD or SSD. HDD (Hard disk drive) is a normal hard drive and SSD (Solid State Drive) is a super fast drive.  If you have bucket loads of money to spend, you could load your PC up with SSD’s and get super fast loading speeds. However, SSDs are still very expensive and the $/€ to space ratio on them is pretty bad compared to normal HDDs. Value for money goes out the window with SSDS – having said that, if you can afford them, I’d highly suggest getting as many as possible.  Software like Hollywood Strings and the upcoming Hollywood Brass advise SSD drives if possible to ensure smooth running.

Options

The big names in hard drives manufacturers like Samsung, Western Digital, Seagate, Hitachi and OCZ. I chose an SSD drive to install windows on and use for some of my most demanding samples – the rest of my drvies were all normal 1.5tb hard drives.  Your options here are all based on your budget – if you are on a tight budget, you might be best getting normal HDDs for now, and upgrading to SSDs at a later date when they’ve come down in price a little more. Some great hard drives are the Western Digital Caviar Green 2 TB , and Western Digital Caviar Blue 500 GB, and some great SSD ones are the Crucial 128 GB m4 and the Crucial 256 GB m4.

Soundcard – The large majority of motherboards now come with a built in sound card.  For this reason, if you are using your PC only for audio production, I would suggest just using the on-board sound card on your motherboard for normal PC usage (windows sounds, looking at a video now and again), and using an external sound card for all audio production work.  The sound card is arguably the most important part of your PC for audio production, and you should focus on getting a high quality external sound card for any work you are doing.

Options

There are hundreds of different options out there for external sound cards. Some great ones to look at are the Focusrite Saffire Pro , the Alesis IO2 Express, the Tascam US122MKII, the MOTU UltraLite-mk3, PreSonus AudioBox 22VSL and the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 2.

 

Operating System – Again there’s a couple of options for your operating system (OS). The last 3 created by Microsoft are Windows XP , Windows Vista and Windows 7. XP is stable, Vista is now fairly stable and Windows 7 is good too.  The most important thing to remember when choosing your operating system is that if you want to use more than 3.2GB of RAM, you need to choose a 64bit OS. The 64 bit versions are sometimes a bit more expensive, but you need to have a 64bit OS if you want to use more than 3.2GB or your RAM.

What I Chose in the End

Here is the PC I decided to go with in the end.  I bought it from Hardwareversand - a German company who build the PC for you using the parts you have chosen. I’d suggest you do this also if possible – I built my first PC myself using components I bought online, and it was a nightmare!

RAM 4 x Corsair Dominator 6 GB

Motherboard ASUS P6X58-E Pro

DVD Drive Asus 24xDVD-RW

Graphics Card Asus ATI Radeon HD6450

Case Fractal Design Define R3

CPU Intel Core i7-960

Operating System Microsoft Windows 7 Professional

PSU Super-Flower SF550P14PE Golden King Modular 80plus Platinum 550W

Hard Drive OCZ SSD Vertex 2 120GB

Hard Drive Western Digital Caviar Green 1.5 TB

Hard Drive Western Digital Caviar Green 1.5 TB

Hard Drive Western Digital Caviar Green 1.5 TB

Hard Drive Western Digital Caviar Green 1.5 TB

Total Price – €1780 (including shipping)

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

  • http://www.reallyslowmotion.com Agus Gonzalez-Lancharro

    Superb guide!! I am sharing it if you don’t mind

    • admin

      Thanks very much feel free to share !

  • Plucko

    If you are using WD Green drives, they go to sleep after awhile.
    I suggest using the program No Sleep that writes a 5k file to disk every 10 minutes

    • Emmett Cooke

      Excellent thanks Plucko!

  • Pingback: Getting Started – Audio (Brief Overview) « annex2nothing.com

  • Zakster

    i feel u r underestimating the amd rigs.. honestly i am using my amd machine for music production along side my intel i5 pc.. there is absolutely no diff in terms of pure performance.. both are able to handle everything i throw at them. looking at the way u underestimated an amd pc shows that u havent done enough research on this field.. but anyways it was a good guide.. and hope it helps future music directors looking to make a good audio based pc

    • Emmett Cooke

      Hi Zakster. Actually an intel 3.3 GHZ will out perform an AMD 3.3 GHZ side by side as Intel chips can do more per cycle. Also, AMD are no longer manufacturing their high end chips anymore and letting the stock naturally run out over time. It looks like they will be focusing more on the lower end to mid end PCs in the future.

      For these reasons, I would go with Intel.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ddmcleod David McLeod

    Thanks for a great article. I found this very helpful and I’ll keep all of your ideas in mind as I start shopping for my next big PC. Cheers!

    By the way, just curious–which plugin are you using for these WP/FB comments?

    • Emmett Cooke

      Thanks David. Its the Disqus plugin for wordpress

  • Kwyat Man

    GREAT Article!!!! Thanks! But I’m a little confused… When you said, ‘RAM 4 x Corsair Dominator 6 GB’, do you mean by 4 or get 4 chips? and You never said what a good internal sound card would be?

    Also, now that this article is a year old, would you make any product replacements?

    Thanks again!

    • Emmett Cooke

      Hi there!

      By 4, I meant 4 sticks of 6GB Corsair Dominators :)

      In terms of soundcard, any average soundcard is fine – all my playback is done by an external audio interface (Lexicon IO82) so the internal soundcard doesn’t really matter.

      I made my PC a year ago, and haven’t made a new one since so don’t have any suggestions a year later. I’ll try do another article next year when I build a new PC again :) My only suggestion really would be to make sure you get the most amount of RAM and fastest processor you can get – they’re the most important parts of a music production PC :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.i.westhoff Matthew Isaiah Westhoff

    I have a question! I love everything you picked for your pc! But if I were to get a better graphics card for doing a little movie making on the side and watching videos on YouTube in 1080i witch graphics card would you suggest (one that fits the same motherboard )

    • Emmett Cooke

      Hi Matt. Hmm better graphics card. Depends how much you want to spend – have a look around for cards that are in your price bracket and search for reviews.

      You’ll need a card that fits either PCI or PCIe as those are the slots that mother board has. Bare in mind also – if you get a better graphics card, you might need to get a more powerful PSU also in order to power it

      • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.i.westhoff Matthew Isaiah Westhoff

        I might just stay with the normal graphics card you have. I’m having a lot of trouble locating all of the stuff you bought I know there are links but some are kinda of hard to get a price on ” like the ram, the link has 3 x 2gb but you said you need 4 chips of 6gb. If you could maybe help me about by telling me how much everything cost all together. I will be building it my self and I just wanna know how much it will cost me to buy it and not have the website do it for me

        • Emmett Cooke

          I think everything cost around 1700 euros when I did it in October 2011. Nowadays, everything should cost around 1100 I guess?

          You don’t need to get the exact parts – just look for parts that are similar or email them and ask them for something that would be a similar build ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.i.westhoff Matthew Isaiah Westhoff

    And also what’s a good CPU fan for it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.i.westhoff Matthew Isaiah Westhoff

    Alright thank you. Is that including paying the website to build it for you? Because I’m wanting to build it by my self.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nick.smeenk Nick Smeenk

    About the RAM:
    I would recommend running Memtest+ directly for 24 hours. Even when your computer is new. There’s always a possibility that the RAM isn’t 100% good. And it’s better to know it directly when you haven’t moved your setup to a new computer, then to find out your RAM is broken when you’re on a tight deadline and get BSOD’s. BSOD’s always get me out of my creative flow.

    I bought my computer in June last year. Occasionally I got some BSOD about memory management, but I never paid really attention to it because it happened once in two months. A couple weeks ago I got a new one, so I decided to search for the problem. And I ran Memtest+. It turned out one of my RAM stick’s was broken. Now I got new RAM, I ran the test for 24 hours, no problems.
    Just a little advice from me ;).

    • Emmett Cooke

      Actually I’ve heard of Memtest+ before, but never actually used it. Interesting to hear your opinions on it – I might have to let it run this weekend so. I’ve luckily only ever had problems with my RAM once on an old PC but it really would have come in handy then!

      I guess with the higher RAM sticks we have now, they’re more prone to bugs.

  • Vedran

    Thank you for this article, it was very helpful!

    I’m planning to build the PC with a help of a friend. I know exactly which components I need, and I’m planning to buy them online (it can save me some 300 euros with the discounts and all). My friend, who is a computer technician, will assemble all the components once I buy them.

    I was just wondering… You said ”I built my first PC myself using components I bought online, and it was a nightmare!”

    Was there something wrong with the components that you’ve bought online, or did you meant to say that assembling all the components yourself was a nightmare?

    • Emmett Cooke

      Hi Vedran, it was a nightmare because I kept getting error messages when switching it on. I had to keep taking it apart and putting it back together a number of times before it worked. Also, I had problems figuring out which cables went where, as well as actually putting some of the cablines into the motherboard (some of them have 8 1 pin connections that are very hard to connect inside a case).

  • Shof Beavers

    As someone who has always used WD in my last couple of builds I have switched to Seagate. The new ones are way faster than the WD’s and they cost less.

    IMHO considering the cost AMD’s are a better choice. You can get an 8 core and easily overclock it and have a real screaming machine.. You didn’t really cover memory and for this I would recommend at least 8GB. Other than that it was a good article with alot of information for first time builders.

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