Q: “I’m a DJ who’s looking to get into production. I don’t have a very large budget – say around $3000 – but I’d like to get a decent system. Also, I was thinking to go for a PC over Mac as I have always used PCs and I get the impression that Macs are more expensive. What should I be looking for in terms of processor speed, memory, soundcard etc? I’m going to be using it solely for music production (house & techno). Since I’ll be teaching myself, I’d like the software to be relatively straightforward but not so basic that I’ll have to upgrade. What would you recommend? (Cubase? Reason?) Aside from a keyboard, can I do everything (synths, samplers) I need on a computer or will I need lots of other hardware?”
A: Macs and PCs each have their own strengths, but if you’re used to using PCs, then it’s probably a good idea to stick with what you know. (Also, it is fair to say that Macs can be a little more expensive.) As far as ‘ideal’ specs are concerned, there’s a quite a lot of argument going on, but most people will agree on certain general points.
Both Intel and AMD processors have their pros and cons, but in either case, stay away from the cut-down versions like Intel’s Celeron line. Go for a proper Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon processor, and get the fastest you can afford. Lots of memory, (RAM) – 512MB should be considered as a bare minimum – and a decent sized hard drive are also essentials.
It’s not a good idea to skimp by getting a cheap motherboard from an obscure manufacturer. Stick to the mainstream choices such as Intel for Pentium and Asus for AMD’s, otherwise you can run into compatibility issues with some soundcards and other peripheral hardware. Acoustic noise is another factor; some PCs can be very noisy when the cooling fans kick in (See Tech Tip for Cooling Upgrades), so do some research on the case, motherboard, power supply, and graphics card, and consider the various options available for reducing and damping fan noise. These should include lining the case with deadening material and fitting special low speed or temperature controlled fans.
As for soundcards, the only basic truth is that its far better to get a card specially designed for audio recording than a consumer card designed more for video games or home theater surround sound. The sound card you choose should have ASIO drivers as well as MME/DirectX ones. You also need to think about the features you require because there’s a vast choice: How many inputs and outputs will you need? Do you need MIDI ports, or will you be using a USB/MIDI keyboard? Do you want your input and output jacks to be at the rear of the computer itself, or in an external box? Will you just be dealing with line level signals or will you need preamps to input un-amplified signals? Will you want to connect a turntable, or DI an electric guitar?
As you can see, there are lots of decisions to make. Fortunately, that’s why you have Sweetwater. We specialize in making PCs especially for music production and it is well worth your while to contact a Sales Engineer and discuss your requirements with them.
As far as software is concerned a basic version of Steinberg’s Cubase such as Cubase SL or SE would be fine get you started, but you might find that you get quicker results with Reason, Sony Acid, or Ableton Live. For full-blown production capabilities with an easy user interface, many producers of Hip Hop, Electronica, and Techno are turning to Cakewalk’s Sonar. And yes, you can get software instruments that perform every conceivable function – probably a soft sampler such as Native Instruments Kontakt, Steinberg’s Halion, or MOTU’s Mach Five would be at the top of most dance producer’s lists. (Bear in mind that Reason does not support third party plug-ins.) For a budget of $3000, Sweetwater can easily provide a well spec’d-out system with the necessary software and hardware as well.