Vielen Dank to Tomas, who enjoyed the Beethoven Buddhist Choir and added a question. What kind of a computer do I think a musician needs?
This raises two immediate thoughts. First, most musicians don’t tend to have great wadges of money falling out of their trousers. Second, most musicians do tend to go without to afford good equipment (often it’s a choice between a decent instrument and a car). So I’ll focus on the word “need”, and the result will probably surprise you.
Basically, modern consumer hardware has long since passed the point where it can handle good audio and even modest video work with ease. The circus has moved on, and as ever it’s games that are leading the way – so bleeding-edge hardware these days is all about live rendering the sunlight glinting off virtual goblin snot (which is mostly the domain of expensive high-end graphics processors).
I’ll focus on PCs here, but I have nothing against Macs. I just feel that you get more bang for buck on PCs if you’re prepared to embrace complexity and choice (and what are musicians good at, if not fiddling with things?) I’ll keep the tech specs general anyway.
There’s an entire industry out there geared to selling you hardware you don’t actually need. So what actually does matter for tasks such as multitrack recording and mixing in a DAW, working with samples and scorewriting?
The processor has to be decent, but not stellar – a modern i5 is perfectly capable. To support that you’ll want a good amount of RAM, so that everything you need for your project gets loaded and the machine doesn’t have to keep playing slow fetch and carry from the storage drive.
I have projects involving dozens of audio and MIDI tracks with sample libraries and FX plug-ins synced to video and the total memory usage rarely peaks above 5GB. A 15-minute orchestral piece running on sample libraries in Sibelius maxes out at around 6GB.
If you work to video, you might want to convert it to a working version downgraded to the most horrible, smallest, blockiest format you can stand to look at while you’re working on the soundtrack.
So I’d say 8GB is a respectable minimum for all but the most demanding musical tasks, but the general point is that you don’t need to go all Pixar on it, just make sure you’re very unlikely to run out of RAM. Note that in order to access memory above 4GB you’ll need to be running a 64-bit OS.
Next we come to connectivity. USB still gets a lot of stick, compared to snappier protocols such as Firewire and Thunderbolt, but this isn’t that relevant anymore. USB2 was actually very usable, but even modest modern systems will now come with at least one USB3 slot (the one with the blue bar) and data transfer speeds are easily enough for large audio streaming projects. The drawback with USB is an inescapable latency, but many audio interfaces implement direct monitoring to alleviate that problem.
One thing you definitely don’t need is a dedicated graphics processor. These things are obviously great to have, but unless you do advanced video editing and compositing work, 3D rendering or (of course) play the latest games, that must-have GPU will spend its entire expensive life asleep.
Final point – storage. Well, what you need is what you need really. I’d say a 512GB drive will see you right for quite some time (upgrade or archive old stuff when necessary).
Consider this. A full load of applications, including music software and a few decent games will take up less than half of that. An entire album of CD-quality audio takes up just 650MB. So you’ll have room for at least 500 albums.
The late lamented Sir Neville Marriner was a notorious workaholic and managed 600 recordings in a career spanning 70 years. I know modern technology is speeding up the world, but if you think you can top that before you next decide to upgrade your computer, I am in awe of your ambition.
SSD drives are very desirable for faster load times and more general responsiveness (and getting cheaper every time you look), but as long as your processor and memory are up to snuff, these drives won’t have any impact on the performance of your system once your projects are loaded into RAM.
Anyway, I did a bit of virtual window shopping. There are plenty of systems around with this spec – i5, 8GB RAM, Win 8/10, 512GB HDD storage and at least one USB3 connector – available for around £300.
You’ll need other gear, of course, like an audio interface, headphones, monitor speakers, and of course microphones, but the base system to run it all from is actually incredibly cheap. Oh, and that system won’t limit you for other uses, unless you want to get into things like rotoscoping or hi-res goblin snot. So don’t fall for the whizzbang marketing.
Then there’s software, of course. You may want to use the big bad boy packages, but plenty of great music (and other content) is produced on free open source programs. The best advice I could give would be to do your apprenticeship on free stuff, until such time as you hit limitations (in some cases, they’re so good and/or evolving so fast that you won’t). Then decide whether the big-boy bells and whistles are really worth the extra cash to you.
THE SOFT MACHINE
So start with the DAW that comes free with your audio interface, or look at the excellent REAPER (not free, but unchoked trialware and very cheap when you do buy). The open-source scorewriter MuseScore still has a long way to go before it matches Sib or Finale, and I wouldn’t like to lay out very complex music on it yet. But it’s a good way in, and perfectly acceptable for leadsheets or small band parts.
I’m not really into the chunk-based loop method of music production, not that I’m knocking it at all. But there’s plenty of cheap or free stuff available in that vein that I’ve mucked around with. What I do use from time to time is Band in a Box to generate chord/tempo/style based backing tracks for practice and to generate some rhythm section performances (prices start from around £100).
I also use the handy freeware Audacity for quick adjustments, but I know people who have produced good multitrack recordings on it.
There are some decent free sample libraries around, especially for pop instruments, but if orchestras are your thing, I’m afraid you’ll have to shell out at least some cash. The Garritan Personal Orchestra is a good quality, comprehensive, low-budget, low-footprint option for around £100.
For more general productivity, grabbing OpenOffice, GIMP, Scribus and Inkscape* will give you about the same functionality as the core of Adobe’s bankbusting suite. Don’t just assume that free = crap. I’ve seen big commercial offices kitted out completely with open source software.
NICE SONG, WHAT ABOUT THE VIDEO?
There are plenty of free video editing packages out there, and a lot of them are very capable. A great deal can be done on basic software with the above-mentioned spec.
But if you want to get into the real video magic, check out the fantastic HitFilm Express. You will, however, need a GPU for this – I’d suggest a minimum rig of i7, 8GB RAM and 960M or equivalent for a reasonable video-capable machine (so your base budget’s up to £800 or so).
* Take a look at Ninite.com for a one-stop freeware shop.