Congratulations on your decision to create audio on your PC! It is an exciting time for this, as very advanced audio tools and extremely powerful computer hardware are becoming more and more accessible for everybody. The explosion of inexpensive hardware does come at a price. Cheaper components often means reduced performance, and for the high demands of audio processing, this can make the difference between a clean recording and a mess of clicking and distortion. It is imperative that the hardware you choose to run your DAW on is adequate.
This guide is intended to help you with several things:
1. To determine whether or not your current computer is able to handle the demands your software will put on it.
2. To determine which, if any, hardware upgrades or additions you may need to make.
3. To help you determine which operating systems will be ideal for your PC.
4. To help you choose which new computer to buy.
5. Ultimately, to help you avoid problems with your computer hardware down the road.
Before we begin, we need to first know what is needed to run a DAW successfully. Once we know this, we’ll apply it to particular systems. Here’s how the remainder of this guide will be broken down:
I. Minimum Hardware Requirements for Windows.
II. Recommended Hardware Requirements for a DAW.
III. Operating Systems.
IV. The breakdown: What you need for what you’re doing.
V. Additional concerns and incompatibilities.
The specs listed here (processor, operating system version, etc.) can be found on any PC by following these steps.
* Click on the Start menu, then right-click on the “My Computer” icon (just “Computer” in Vista), and choose “Properties.” The system Properties window will pop up.
* Alternatively, you can click Start, then Control panel, and then System. This should bring up the same window. Examples of the System properties window can be found here:
I. Minimum Hardware Requirements for Windows.
At the time of this writing, Windows is currently available in two distinct versions: Windows XP and Windows Vista. There are several subversions of each which will be discussed in greater detail later. For now, let’s look at the basics.
Here’s What You Need to Install and Use Windows XP Home/Professional:
- PC with 300 megahertz or higher processor clock speed
recommended; 233 MHz minimum required (single or dual
processor system);* Intel Pentium/Celeron family, or AMD
K6/Athlon/Duron family, or compatible processor
- 128 megabytes (MB) of RAM or higher recommended (64 MB
minimum supported; may limit performance and some
- 1.5 gigabytes (GB) of available hard disk space
- Super VGA (800 x 600) or higher-resolution video adapter
- CD-ROM or DVD drive
(taken from http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/pro/evaluation/sysreqs.mspx )
Here are Vista’s recommended requirements:
- 1 GHz processor (x64 if you are using a 64-bit edition of Vista)
- 1 GB RAM
- 40 GB hard drive with 15 GB free space
- Graphics card with support for DirectX 9, 32 bites/pixel, Pixel Shader 2.0, and a WDDM driver
- A DVD drive
- Internet access (for activation)
(taken from http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/windowsvista/editions/systemrequirements.mspx )
Please bear in mind that these are minimum requirements as stated by Microsoft. In other words, these specs will allow the computer to operate. You can word process, surf the web, download music, burn CD’s, etc. The demands for recording and processing audio are much greater than this.
II. Recommended Hardware Requirements for a DAW.
DAW processing can place very intense demands on your computer. Sticking with minimum, “off-the-shelf” PC hardware may not be adequate for what you want to do. Below are some guidelines for choosing hardware that will give you a “safe minimum” of power for recording, editing, and processing audio:
These are the minimum recommended requirements for running a modern DAW:
- Multi-core processor. Newer processors, especially Intel processors, often have clock speeds that are slower than their predecessors. However, due the internal architecture, these processors operate much faster than other, “faster” processors. Most any “newer” (read: Dual-Core Pentium; Intel Core series; AMD Athlon 64) processor should be sufficient. To get an idea of how yours performs, see this chart. Generally, 2 GHz
- 1 GB RAM for Windows XP, 2 GB RAM for Vista.
- 40 GB system drive hard disk space, 80 GB separate physical audio drive(s), with drive speeds of 7200 RPM. It’s common to see configurations with an 80GB system drive and additional 200-400GB audio drives for storing samples and session data.
- Separate, dedicated video controller.
The higher above the minimum you have, the better your system will run. For example, a system with a quad-core Intel processor with 3 GB of RAM will outperform a similar system with a dual-core processor and 1 GB of RAM. Both can be configured to run smoothly enough, but the quad-core/3 GB system will be able to handle more processing more easily.
III. Operating Systems.
The operating system, or OS, is essentially the family of programs and code that controls how the software and hardware of the computer behave. Currently, Microsoft offers several different operating system version. These can be broken down into essentially two families; XP and Vista. XP is planned to be sold and supported through June 30, 2008, at which point its sale will be discontinued. Within each major version, there are several separate editions. This chart breaks it down a little for you:
* Professional x64
* Tablet Edition
* Media Center
* Home Basic
* Home premium
Also, note that the Vista editions all come in either 32- or 64 bit subversions. XP’s only 64-bit OS is the professional x64 edition.
For the DAW user, there are several important distinctions. All 32-bit operating systems are only able to address 4 GB of total system RAM. RAM is initially allocated to the various hardware components connected to the motherboard (such as BIOS chips, video cards, DSP cards, etc.), and only the leftover 3 to 3.75 GB of RAM is actually able to be allocated. 64-bit operating systems, however, are able to address a theoretical limit involving TB’s (yes, terabytes) of RAM, but the practical limit is much lower. XP x64 is able to address 128 GB of RAM, and the Vista editions are broken down below.
The major distinction between the versions is compatibility. On the XP side, only Home and professional are universally supported for pro audio hardware and software. Professional x64 is supported ONLY where explicitly stated by the manufacturer. Media Center and Tablet editions are generally not supported at all. On the Vista side, there is a little more unification. Effectively, Vista compatibility can be broken down to 32- or 64-bit compatibility. Other differences exist, but mostly in regard to features and 64-bit RAM support.
Like XP, 64-bit support for Vista must be specifically stated by the manufacturer. Most 32-bit applications will crash or simply not run in a 64-bit environment.
A Rundown of the Major Differences of the Vista Editions
* Home Basic: 512 megabytes (MB) minimum required RAM; maximum 8 gigabytes (GB) RAM in 64-bit edition; Aero interface not supported.
* Home Premium: max. 16 GB RAM in 64-bit.
* Business: 128+ GB RAM support in 64-bit; Windows Complete PC Backup.
* Ultimate: 128+ GB RAM support in 64-bit; Windows Complete PC Backup; BitLocker drive encryption.
* Enterprise: 128+ GB RAM support in 64-bit; Windows Complete PC Backup; BitLocker drive encryption; simultaneous multi-language support.
The breakdown: What you need for what you’re doing.
The major problem with recommending hardware for a DAW is that is depends greatly on what you intend to do with the system. User who simply track digitally and mix out of the box do need fathoms of RAM installed. Hard drive space is a premium for this type of user. A user who primarily mixes or does port-production will require the fastest possible processor and front-side bus to perform as many calculations as quickly as possible. Users who wish to record at high sample rates will need not only a fast processor, but plenty of hard disk space (for example, a recording done at 88.2kHz will have twice as much data as one done at 44.1kHz…this requires twice as much storage space and twice the processing power to yield the same performance). Since no two DAW users will ever be the same, there is no way to recommend a single set of requirements. However, you can set up your system to support what you primarily do with the DAW. Here are more detailed recommendations for the most common kinds of DAW systems.
This type of DAW primarily tracks bands. It functions much like an ADAT recorder or a tape machine. This kind of user needs totally glitch-free recordings and tons of hard drive space. Many fast hard drives are required to ensure smooth operation. Such a system will need:
* Processor: The fastest processor is not essential for the dedicated recording system. A standard dual-core, 2.0 Ghz processor (approximately) should suffice.
* RAM: With the recorder, RAM is not the primary concern. However, recording often are held in RAM temporarily before being written to the hard drives. Generally, 1 GB of RAM beyond the DAW software’s requirement should be enough.
* Hard Drives: This is the primary concern of this type of user. Multiple drives dedicated to certain functions are required. This user should have totally separate hard drives for the operating system, the recording space, and the backup system. Many users recording a high number of tracks (usually above 25-30 simultaneously) may wish to use RAID 0 (striping) arrays to maximize data speed (be sure to check if your DAW software supports RAID). A minimum of 7200 RPM on each drive should be the starting point. Faster drive rotational speeds will allow for higher track counts. Also, when deciding on drive size, keep in mind the amount of data that gets written to a drive. Use this formula: 5 MB of drive space is used per mono minute at 16 bit, 44.1 kHz resolution. Addiotnal calculations can be added to that. See the drive space calculator below for more details.
* Operating System: The OS should be chosen based on the software used. A 32-bit OS should be fine, as recordings rarely utilize beyond a 32-bit floating point resolution. 24-bit is standard for high-resolution recording.
* Other: This machine should be a desktop. PCI-based interfaces will be required for maximum I/O, so one with available slots that are compatible and appropriate for the interface are a must.
The Mixing/Mastering Engineer
The mix or mastering engineer will need as much power as possible to use the best plugins to create the best mix possible. To that end, the processor and front side bus are of critical importance.
* Processor: This user needs the best he can get. Quad-core, high-speed processors are preferred here. As plugin threads are often handle by the extra cores separately from the main application, higher plugin counts are possible on multi-core machines. The more processing power, the better. See the processor guide mentioned in section II for details on performance specs.
* RAM: RAM is also critical for the mix engineer, as many plugins use a large amount of memory to load. Convolution reverbs, drum replacement software, samplers, etc. all load tons of info into RAM. Having about 2 GB of RAM beyond the minimum recommended for the DAW application is recommended.
* Hard Drives: Hard drive space is not of the utmost importance for the engineer. Dedicated OS and audio drives at 7200 RPM are essential, but as long as a single session’s bandwidth does not exceed what the drive can play back, then no other drives are required.
* Operating System: The mix engineer will have a harder time with OS compatibility, as he has to balance not only a single DAW application, but all plugins he plans to use, including those that clients may request be used. An OS with the broadest compatibility range is best. However, if all used applications and hardware support a 64-bit OS, then the mix engineer may benefit. The extra bit resolution can provide greater precision in calculations.
* Other: The motherboard’s front-side bus (FSB) speed is of concern here, as data can only be moved from RAM to the processor and back as fast as the FS will allow. Also, since no real-time monitor is necessary, higher buffer sizes may be employed to release even greater processor performance. A laptop or desktop is OK, provided either has enough power. Laptops would need to use a dedicated firewire-based hard drive for streaming sessions.
The composer typically has volumes of multi-GB sample libraries, and composes with them in real time. Hard drive space and RAM are the major requirements here, as modern libraries split the task of sound generation between data preloaded into RAM and streamed from the hard drive. The processor and FSB components also matter, as they will determine how much data can be calculated. Often, composer will offload the tasks between multiple computers, having some act as sample playback engines while a master DAW mixes and records.
* Processor: The processor should be as fast as possible.
* RAM: As much as possible is recommended for loading samples.
* Hard Drives: This user will need as much drive space as his libraries need. It is recommended to have at least 3: one system drive, one recording drive, and one or more library drives. Keep in mind that a 20% overhead is necessary for proper defragmentation. If there are 460 GB worth of libraries, for example, then at least a 552 GB library drive is recommended.
* Operating System: Like the others, the OS should be chosen based on software compatibility. This user especially can benefit from a 64-bit OS, as the 4 GB OS limit is shattered, allowing staggeringly large amounts of samples to be loaded into RAM. However, many libraries are not yet 64-bit compatible, so be sure to check and re-check OS compatibility before making the jump to 64-bit.
* Other: This computer should also be a desktop, since multiple hard drives often cannot be added to a laptop.
The Renaissance DAW
The Renaissance DAW is the system designed to do everything. This is the system that the one-man-band will use, as he tries to accomplish all of the aforementioned tasks on one system. This is the type of system a hobbyist or home studio user has. Often, the computer doubles as a home office computer, is usually connected to the internet full-time, and often has multiple users. Here, a balance is crucial to make sure that one aspect of the process does not suffer.
There are not really any specific recommendations for each component in the computer. As long as the minimum requirements for hardware and compatibility for EACH application are met, and there is plenty of drive space for recording, this user should be fine. However, many home studio users tend to gravitate toward becoming one of the aforementioned types of DAW users, so the recommendations will tilt in favor of what’s recommended for that general type of use.
The Mobile DAW
The mobile DAW user usually takes his laptop on the road for remote or on-location recording, live performance, or a combination of the two. The biggest challenges for this user are the general limitations of laptops. Battery life is sucked very quickly by high-performance audio applications and bus-powered hardware.
* Processor: The processor should be as robust as possible. Many laptops feature special processor with throttling features. Throttling ramps a processor’s speed up and down as the PC monitors activity. This feature should be avoided, if possible, or turned off at the very least. This is because your audio software requires a lot of processing power and will often generate error messages or crashes if the processor cycles down to save power.
* RAM: The total amount of RAM that can be may be limited due to the form-factor of the laptop. It is dvisable, due to othe rlimitations, that as much RAM as possible be added.
* Hard Drives: This is where laptop users suffer the most. The internal drives of a laptop are primarily designed for power-saving, and as such, spin at significantly slower speeds than their desktop counterparts. Because of this, external hard drive(s) for recording and sample streaming are essential.
* Operating System: The OS, again, should be chosen based off the software to be used. Avoid tablet PC’s, though, as the extra tablet features often conflict with audio hardware.
* Other: If you’re not able to plug in the laptop, bring some extra batteries. Also, please note that many on-board controllers for laptops may not be compatible with certain hardware interfaces, so be prepared to add expansion cards. Also, before you commit to a lptop, double-check that is has enough ports, or is expandable enough, to accommodate all of your hardware.
V. Additional concerns and incompatibilities.
When getting or building a PC, there are a few specific areas to be wary of. Most notably:
* Firewire cards. Firewire, as a general standard, is beginning to fade away from the mass market. The audio and video production industries seem to be the last two where the majority of pro interfaces still use the firewire protocol. Due to the decline of firewire among the general computing population, many PC part manufacturers consider it an afterthought. Motherboard makers are adding firewire controller chips with significantly lower-quality controllers than ever before, and many are dropping on-board firewire altogether. The downside to this is that many incompatibilities now exist between interfaces and on-board firewire ports. Currently, there are two firewire chipset manufacturers with proven reliability among pro audio interfaces: Texas Instruments and Lucent. Others, such as Ricoh, NEC, VIA, and Agere, are generally NOT supported, and can lead to timing problems resulting in pops, clicks, dropouts, and interfaces being completely unrecognized by the computer. If you plan on using firewire devices in your DAW, make sure you have a TI or Lucent firewire controller to connect to. You can double-check this by going to the device Manager (right-click “MY Computer” in XP or “Computer” in Vista > Manage > Device Manager > IEEE 1394 Bus Host Controllers. In the line below the IEEE 1394 category, the text that precedes “OHCI Compliant” will tell you the chipset manufacturer.. For example, “Texas Instrument OHCI Compliant 1394 Device” indicates a compatible TI controller, while “NEC OHCI Compliant 1394 Device” indicates an incompatible NEC controller.
* Software Versions. Many users who purchase new PC’s plan to continue using older hardware and software on the system. This is fine, provided that the current version is compatible with the system. For example, an interface designed for Windows 98 may not have a driver available from the manufacturer for Windows Vista. The older Windows 98 driver will typically NOT work in the newer Vista OS, and if a dedicated driver is not available via download from the manufacturer, then that piece of hardware will need to be replaced. Before you attempt to install and older software or hardware on your new system, double-check and be sure that it is compatible with the operating system of your new computer. Manufacturers will have later version or version updates posted in the Support or Downloads section of the website, if they are available.
* Device Ports. Before investing in any computer, make sure it has enough ports to connect what hardware you plan to use. Many software titles require the use of a USB dongle or protection key. make sure you have enough ports to accommodate these. Also, try to avoid USB hubs for any high-powered or real-time audio devices. Hubs are fine for dongles and mice and such, but not for keyboards, hard drives, or interfaces. Also, make sure that if you have USB 2.0 devices, there are enough USB 2.0 ports available on your PC. The same goes for firewire 400 and 800 ports.
* On-Board Video. Video cards that are built into the motherboard, and that share resources with the rest of the system, are calle “on-board” graphics controllers. These can be problematic for video-intensive applications (such as when scoring to a film) because the draw resources away from the main CPU and RAM. Dedicated video cards have their own built-in CPU and RAM for graphics processing, and can relieve the video processing load from the rest of the system. In most audio-only cases, though, this is not a problem, unless built-in graphics are specifically stated as incomaptible by the manufacturer (as in the case of Pro Tools). Be aware of built-in graphics controllers when choosing a computer, especially if you will use video in your work.
I got my PC. Now what?
So you’ve done the work researching compatibility documents from several manufacturers, double-checking the specs of several models from different manufacturers, and you finally decided on one that has the specs you will need for your work. Can you just plug in and go?
NO! To get the absolute most out of your new PC, please review Sweetwater’s PC Optimization Guide. These guides are specifically designed to help you tweak and configure Windows to avoid common processing problems due to incorrect settings. You can view the separate guides for XP and Vista here:
These guides will take you through the process of configuring and maintaining your computer-based DAW. We hope this has been helpful.
-The Sweetwater PC team
Hard Drive Space Calculator:
We are dealing with several values that need to be converted into the easiest possible format to understand: MegaBytes (MB) per mono minute. To have the formula make sense, here are our conversions:
* The sample rate is measured in kHz (1/seconds).
* The bit depth is measured in bits.
* We are using X number of Y-bit samples per second, so we multiply the sample rate by the bit depth to get the number of bits per second.
* To convert this to bits per minute, we mutiply by 60, since 1 minute = 60 seconds.
* To convert this to Bytes per minute, we divide by 8, since 8 bites = 1 Byte.
* To convert to MegaBytes per second, we divide by 1,048,576, since 1 MB = 1,048,576 Bytes (1024 squared).
So our formula is:
[ (Sample Rate in Hz) x (Bit Depth) x (60) ] / [ 8 x 1,048,576 ] = # of MB per mono minute
For example, 1 mono minute of 96 kHz (96,000 Hz), 24-bit audio uses about 16.5 MB. 24 channels at this resolution uses about 395.5 MB. After 1 hour of recording, you’ve used about 23.7 GB of drive space. Keep in mind that this calculator does not account for file fragmentation of unused bits due to cluster size variations, so the actual usage will likely be a bit higher than this. Also, remember to keep about 20% of your drive free for defragmentation down the road.