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Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Choosing a Computer

2. Factors and Technology

Computers can be very complicated. One look at a list of specifications of your average system reveals a confusing array of numbers, speeds and acronyms. It’s not our intention to explain every last bit of the technology to you, but rather to point out what’s most important, so that you can make an informed decision.

There are three important elements inside a computer that have a direct effect on the performance of a system for music – CPU (also known as the Processor), Memory and Hard Drive. In terms of connectivity, the motherboard is also an important factor.

CPU

The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the brain of the computer: it dictates how fast it computes, and has a direct affect on how quickly programs can run, and how many things can be done simultaneously. Raw CPU speed is measured in GigaHertz (GHz), but speed alone is becoming less useful as a measurement of overall ‘power’. As CPU technology evolves, we’re finding that slower CPUs of newer series, are outperforming ‘faster’ CPUs of earlier series. This is largely because of the introduction of multi-core CPUs (CPUs with two or more processors on a single chip), but doubling the number of cores does not generally go as far as doubling the performance, so it can be a little difficult to know where you stand in terms of which is the best CPU. A good rule of thumb is to count the number of cores (single, dual, quad etc) and compare the GHz speed with other processors in the same class. Price is also a pretty good way of comparing CPU power, although at any given time, the very most powerful models will typically be disproportionately expensive.

Memory

RAM (Random Access Memory) is where data is held while the CPU processes it. The larger the memory, the more information can be processed, and the more things can be done at once. For example, this relates to how many samples you can load into your software sampler. The basic minimum requirement for running Windows XP is 512Mb of RAM, or 1Gb for Windows Vista. However, for a music recording system, you would be wise to aim for at least 2Gb, although 1Gb would do at a pinch if your budget is really tight. More than 3 or 4Gb will generally make no difference to music performance unless you are a serious power user, and your choice of operating system may well limit how much can be used in any case. Whilst there are different speeds of RAM available, this actually makes little difference to performance versus the amount of RAM.

Hard Disk (or Hard Drive)

This is where all the data is permanently stored (unless you choose to erase it of course!). It’s where your programs are installed, your documents held, and your audio tracks recorded. Drive space is measured in Gb (gigabytes), and 500Gb is common these days. When you consider that a full CD of music takes up only 640Mb of space (well under 1Gb), then you might think that space is not a huge issue. However, music recording can quickly start to eat up a lot of space. If you’re recording a band onto 24 tracks, then you are using up 120Mb per minute at ‘CD’ quality, or 360Mb per minute at 24-bit/96kHz. A four minute song would then be nearly 1.5Gb, an album of an hour is getting on for 25Gb, and that’s assuming that everything is done right on the first take! But although size is important, it’s not the most important factor. Drives run at different speeds, and have different interfaces that affect their performance. Currently the fastest commonly available interface is SATAII (Serial ATA), and the ideal spindle speed is 7200rpm. There are faster speeds available, but these represent a much larger investment. Recording to a secondary drive which is set aside for that purpose will give you a significant performance increase over recording to the main drive that your operating system etc is installed on.

Motherboard

The motherboard is probably the most complicated component, but just look at it in terms of the connections it has, and the stuff you want to plug into it. In the first instance, the board needs to be compatible with the CPU and RAM you want to use. Then you need to make sure it has the right connections for your choice of hard drive. Lastly, ensure that it has the right connections for your music hardware – FireWire or USB 1.1 or 2.0 ports for interfaces, the right type of PCI slots for cards, and all in sufficient number of course.

Summarising the Elements

  • CPU – Get the fastest one with the largest number of cores you can afford. Always aim high with the CPU, as it is directly responsible for how many effects and virtual instruments you can run.

  • RAM – Ideally at least 2Gb.

  • Hard Drive – SATAII is a very fast interface, and 7200rpm is quite fast enough for the drive itself in all but the most extreme cases. Go as large as you can afford, and consider getting two, so you can install your programs on one drive, and keep the other just for recording.

  • Motherboard – Unless you are building the computer yourself, then this decision may well be made for you. Either way, make sure it has the connections you need.
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