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Optimize Your DAW Computer for Your Home Studio

How to Build a Computer for Music Making

This is how you can easily build and maintain a professionally equipped music computer to power the digital audio workstation for your home recording studio.

A Music Computer, or a computer specifically intended for processing digital audio simply means that there are several components that you need to look at and understand in order to optimize for this environment. These elements are crucial to performance, and can have a massive impact on your workflow and overall efficiency.

You may use your computer for other functions as well as music production, but to get the most from your computer in order to power a digital audio workstation, you need to understand how to optimize it best for home recording. Faster is almost always better, and perhaps the most important ingredient to optimum performance in THIS environment is MEMORY.

Today, you will learn how to assemble a computer for your home studio. We will look at the several options for doing so, as well as my recommendations. You will also learn what specific parts and components you need to understand that play an integral role in designing an effective system.

You will learn some ways to protect your studio computer, because having a solid backup system is worth it’s weight in gold. Lastly, we will cover a few key maintenance actions that you can integrate into habit to keep your system healthy and working like a champ.

This article isn’t meant to be a comprehensive “textbook explanation.” I’m not writing a paper to a professor. I’ll be moving quickly as i condense a lot of years of dealing with and learning about first-hand, down into a few short paragraphs that tell you the key things you need to know.

So let’s get it...

Options For Building/Buying a Music Computer

Although there are variety of options that exist and we will cover them shortly, i want to point out that in my personal experience Apple (Macintosh) computers offer a great “out of the box” solution for most beginners and are a great starting point. Further, with just a few upgrades you can arm yourself with a world class digital production experience.

  1. Build the computer yourself. You can pick out all the components you need, order them and then assemble them just how you want them.  To build your own computer you will need to have reasonable technical expertise so unless you know what you are doing, or have someone who does assemble it for you, i wouldn’t advise going this route.
  2. Buy a new computer from the store.  I can assure you that a new Mac, off the shelf, will be adequately optimized for recording music in most cases and there are quite a few PC models that would also be well optimized. Again, in either case there are a few key components that you need to consider, which we will be covering shortly.
  3. Buy a music computer that is custom built specifically for music recording.  There are a number of computer companies like MusicXPC that create specialty computers which are built and optimized for audio and recording. However, expect to pay a bit more for a custom computer like this. It’s worth checking out, do your homework and ask a lot of questions as you compare.
  4. Buy a computer off the shelf and then replace some parts.  This means that you are purchasing a computer for their bare-bones platform and then buying parts separately to upgrade the overall performance. So for example, buying a computer basically for its operating system, processing power and ease of use; then buying memory and hard drive upgrades, etc. from a third party source.  You can either install them yourself or have someone install them for you. In most cases this is a fairly simple procedure.

Option #4 is the route i always take now. It is in my experience the BEST way to cost effectively build a super powerful DAW computer. As you know i am a big proponent of Apple, and have been for the last eight years.

See the little secret about Apple is, their parts are RIDICULOUSLY expensive. Not as if they were cheap to begin with...!

But if you buy a Mac Pro or Macbook Pro for their processors, motherboard, delicious and simple interface, operating system, support, and other lovely little inclusives...

THEN you purchase some high quality third party Memory (RAM) and Hard-Disk upgrades, you got the best of both worlds for a killer price!

Key Components of a DAW Computer for the Home Recording Studio

  • Hard Disk – 7200 RPM DUAL Internal Hard Drives

Yes, 7200 RPM if you can. 5400 RPM drives will still do the job just fine, they’ll just be a little bit slower. Nothing too dramatic though.

Now the idea of having DUAL internal hard drives is that you have a ‘write to’ drive and a ‘read from’ drive.  You have one drive that is specifically for recording and storing your music files. 

The way i do it, and what i’ve found best - is to READ from your startup volume, the one with all your applications and the one that starts up automatically when you turn your computer on; and then WRITE to, or STORE, all your project and project files onto a second internal hard drive.

This takes a bit of stress off the system, as well as is just an efficient way to save space and keep things organized.

*One more note: I personally use a third drive store all of my loops and samples and sound library because it is large. This could be internal or external. Mine is currently external and works just fine.

I also use a FOURTH drive to back everything up.

It’s best to take that extra precaution too and have all your work backed up in two different places.  Do your research when looking for hard drives as you will get a heap of different reviews.

  • Memory – Get as much memory as you can afford, but you will need a minimum of 2GB of RAM.  I currently have 9GB or RAM but am planning to double that when I upgrade to a new Mac Pro in the near future. That may sound excessive to some and in many other cases would be. Be careful when buying RAM as some of it can be cheap and faulty, so do your research and make sure you get good solid RAM. I’ve found Kingston to be good, but do your research. The more RAM that you get the better performance you will get with VI’s and plugins.  You will also get much better streaming of multi-track audio sessions with higher RAM.
  • CPU – You want to get a fast computer processor, buy the fastest you can afford. That’s pretty simple and straight forward.
  • Motherboard – Motherboards are expensive to replace and not swappable so do your research and buy a computer with a good motherboard. Again, i recommend Mac because that’s all i’ve ever used, after a short but unpleasant start with windows.
  • Quiet Efficient Fans – Your system is going to be doing a lot of heavy work so it is important that you keep your system cool.  You will want a fan that is quiet so there is no ‘fan noise’ picked up in your recordings.  Your fan needs to be efficient enough to keep your system regulated and to prevent over-heating. If your fans are noticeably loud and present in your recordings, then you will want to take some corrective action to isolate the computer by running it from a closet or some place where you can eliminate or reduce the noise that bleeds onto your recordings.

Home Studio Backup System

As mentioned earlier, you will want to have at least two backups of all your files.  It is recommended to use an online storage and backup service like MOZY pro so that you have a backup away from your own computer system.

There are quite a few programs such as Carbon Copy and Apples own Time Machine, and online backup solutions like Mozy Pro which store all the files you select to a cloud server. This takes QUITE a while to upload to, but it has saved my ass once before. Almost lost about 80 gigs of music and documents... Thankfully i backed it up with Mozy in addition to my external hard drive which my dogs tail clipped and knocked over. Not a good day.

Home Studio Computer Maintenance

Lastly, let’s top things off with something i hope you’ll do regularly and make habit of. Don’t neglect the maintenance of this machine. It is the brains of your home studio. Here are a few basic maintenance tasks that’ll get you on your way.

  • Keep your computer clean by dusting it off once a week, also dust off all electronics in your home studio weekly.
  • Always keep at least 20% of your hard drive space free. Ensuring this amount of free space will keep your computer from lagging or losing response time, and won’t put any unneeded strain on it.
  • Backup your work regularly, setup time machine or other service to back it up on a physical hard drive; and then also setup the second backup of your most critical files through a virtual storage service.
  • Run a disk utility weekly and verify all volumes. This is just to check and fix any errors, and to verify the disk is working properly.

I’ve done this stuff every week, and have had computers running like a champ for over five years.

So there you have it. Tried to keep it straight to the point, although it went a little longer than most, but I hope you’ve found this article helpful and i’ve answered your questions about what it takes to setup a DAW computer for home recording.

Jamie Leger is a SingerSongwriter by night and Internet Business Coach for Experts (Authors/speakers/coaches/consultants) and Music Entrepreneurs (Songwriters/artists/bands/producers) by day.