DAW Computers – Buy or Build?

Is it time for a new computer for your studio?

Or are you just getting into music production/recording, and looking for your first DAW computer?

If either of these are true, then one of the first things you need to decide is if you want to buy a pre-built computer, or attempt to build your own. If you are an Apple/Mac fan, then you don’t have a choice – you will need to buy one of the options they currently have available. If you already know you want to go with a Mac computer, you can stop reading right now.

For those of you who want to go with a Windows based system, the rest of this article is for you.

While you may be able to save some money by building your own computer, it may not be your best choice. There are several things to consider.

First, unlike the Apple Mac computers, there is not a single manufacturer of Windows based machines. There are many different companies that make PCs that run Windows, with infinite varieties of hardware combinations you can choose. If you are going to build your own, the amount of hardware options you have is simply overwhelming!

DAWs are a very specialized application that requires a high performance machine that is stable, and where all the hardware works together without any conflicts with your audio interface and other devices. The wrong choices can lead to random clicks, pops, and other audio glitches, or simply not being able to achieve a low enough latency to work effectively with VST instruments. In the worst cases, hardware conflicts can cause random crashes or freezes, or the system may not even boot up.

If you don’t know what you are doing, or haven’t done the extensive research necessary to put together the right components for a stable, high performance system, then you are probably better off buying a pre-built computer. Even if you know what you are doing, and are able to spec out a known working combination of components, you still need to have the time, knowledge, and patience to put everything together and thoroughly test it out to make sure you don’t have any defective components, and that everything will work as expected.

Most times it is worth the slightly extra to pay someone else for a pre-built and thoroughly tested machine.

So, let’s first examine buying a pre-built DAW computer. After that, we’ll discuss building your own system (for you hardcore computer geeks, like me, who want to try to build your own).

Buying a pre-built DAW Computer

As discussed above, DAWs are very specialized applications that require components that work well together to achieve glitch free audio performance at low latencies. Thus, you can’t just go to your local computer and electronics retailer and pick any old computer off the shelf. Even a high-end computer built for extreme gaming won’t necessarily give you good audio performance, and may even be worse than something much cheaper. Likewise, you can’t simply go to one of the big online computer companies, such as Dell, and buy one of their systems and be certain that it will work well as a studio DAW.

Your only real option when buying a computer to use as a high performance DAW is to go with a company that specializes in building systems for that particular use. These people spend a lot of man hours testing various combinations of components to find which ones work the best for a DAW with different types of audio hardware. This knowledge alone is worth whatever extra amount you may need to pay over a similar system from some generic computer company. Also, these builders not only put your system together for you, but they will do thorough stress tests to make sure all the components are operating properly, and they will even install your audio hardware and software for you, if you desire, and test all that out as well.

I have had custom systems built for me from several of these types of companies, and most recently decided to try to build one myself with some consulting help from one of the companies. In retrospect, it would have been easier, and worth the extra money, to just have my newest system built and tested out for me. Would have saved me a week’s worth of testing, troubleshooting, and pulling my hair out!

I certainly have not needed new systems built often enough to be able to try out every company that builds custom DAWs, but I will gladly list the ones that I have worked with, who are still in business as of this writing (October 2010), and that I had good experiences with:

Jim Roseberry at Purrrfect Audio : http://www.studiocat.com Jim is highly recommended on several audio user forums on the net, and I paid him for several consulting sessions when building my newest system just recently. I certainly could not have done it without his help! He helped me track down a bad RAM stick, and showed me the proper stress tests to run that helped my identify I had a failing component in the first place, as well as helping me set the optimum BIOS settings to get the best performance from my new system. The systems he offers on his web site are much better priced than the competitors I checked out, and, of course, they will also customize a system to fit your needs and budget! Highly Recommended!

Steve Lamm at Cryptic Globe: http://www.crypticglobe.com Steve built a fully customized system for me almost 4 years ago, and it was my last system before the new system I just built myself. 4 years is a really long time to hang onto a computer for something as demanding as a DAW application. That just shows how great of a system he put together for me. Over the four years I owned the system, the only thing I had to replace was a power supply that went bad after a couple years. I finally built the new system just recently because I started getting back heavily into composing, but this time using a LOT of very demanding VST plug-in instruments and huge streaming sample libraries. My 4 year old system just couldn’t keep up with the demands any more, and many of these VST instruments simply would not play together nicely on that system (all fixed with my new system). Steve’s systems may not be the cheapest, but they are solid performers that should last several years!

Scott Chichelli at ADK Pro Audio: http://www.adkproaudio.com/ ADK has grown into one of the biggest and well known DAW builders on the internet. They certainly know their stuff and have a wide range of options for both music and video production. You can start with one of their base systems on their site and choose from a variety of customization options. Or, just call or e-mail them and have them build you a custom solution. I bought one of their “desktop replacement” systems from them maybe 7 or 8 years ago now. To be fair, it was pretty much an off-the-shelf Clevo Notebook computer, so there wasn’t much in the way of a custom build, other than upgrading the hard drives and memory. But, it was worth it to know that the notebook I bought from them would work for what I wanted it to do, which was a mobile composing station that I used during my frequent weekend trips to Canada while working on a CD project. Unfortunately, through no fault of ADK, that computer crapped out way too early for my tastes… I had screen flickering problems within the first few months, and got a replacement relatively easily, but then after just over a year or so of use, something died on the motherboard, and the computer became a door stop (not worth trying to fix at that point in time).

My other custom built DAW, before the one that Steve Lamm built for me, was from Scott Reams at Liquid DAW – http://www.liquiddaw.com That system also worked quite well for me for somewhere around 2 to 3 years in the studio, and then was my office computer up until just a few months ago. So, I definitely got my money’s worth out of that one (most of my studio computers end up becoming office machines after they are retired from the studio). Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the Liquid DAW site has been updated for quite some time now, so I don’t think they are still building computers (the ones listed on their site are several years old now).

A final thought on getting a custom built computer, is that if you are simply upgrading, and going to replace your current computer, you can save some money by reusing many components from your own system. If you aren’t afraid of doing some basic computer modifications yourself, you can easily transfer over all the non-OS drives (such as your separate audio and sample library drives) to the new computer, thus saving some cash. You may also be able to reuse the video card, DVD drive, and some other components if you don’t plan on keeping your old system for some other use. Whenever I had systems built for me, I usually had them just build and test out a “bare bones” system with a single drive for the operating system (which they installed and tested), and then I moved all my other drives, as well as my audio cards, over from the old computer once I received the new system and was ready to make the switch. I also saved money by reusing my own keyboard, mouse, and video monitors.

Building your own DAW computer

If you are really brave, or perhaps a computer geek (like myself) that likes to mess around with the insides of computers, then you may want to attempt to build a custom DAW computer by yourself.

Earlier this year I had built my own office machine, that also doubles as a mid-level gaming system, and it went very smoothly, with no problems at all. So, when my four year old studio DAW kept crapping out on me recently when trying to work with several heavy duty VST instruments at the same time, I figured I would try to build my own replacement system.

The advantages of building a system yourself are mostly that you will save some money, and possibly also save some time by not having to wait for a dedicated DAW computer company to build and test out a system for you (and then ship it to you). This is assuming you have the time to do it yourself, and on how much your time is worth to you, and if you even have the knowledge to do a good job with it.

By relating my personal story to you, perhaps you’ll get a better idea of if it’s something you should attempt yourself.

The first thing you need to do when building your own system is to figure out your needs and your budget. That part is actually fairly simple, so no need to go into great detail. Basically, though, the type of system you put together is going to depend on how you intend to use it. If you are basically using it as a glorified tape machine and just need to record and play back lots of tracks at once, without a whole lot of plug-in processing or VST instruments, then you really don’t need the fastest processor available, nor do you need extreme amounts of fast memory, or other bells and whistles. If, however, you ARE using lots of plug-ins for audio processing, or many VST instruments for composing, or creating mock orchestral scores with huge streaming sample libraries, then you will need something fairly high-end. If you also happen to do some video work, like I do, then you will need a powerful system also, as well as perhaps a higher end graphics card that can help with video rendering (if your software can take advantage of it).

Once you know what you need, performance wise, and have a budget in mind, the real work begins! You need to start researching the components for your system. If you already have an audio interface, and possibly other audio processing cards, you need to make sure you put together a system that has the proper slots for those cards, and that works well with your audio interfaces. For example, if you are using an external audio interface that connects via Firewire, you want to make sure you get a motherboard that uses a Texas Instruments firewire chip, or else you’ll need to buy an add-in firewire interface card with a TI chip to ensure the best performance.

My choices because limited fairly quickly because I had two RME HDSP Cards that I connect to two Digiface breakout boxes. My cards were the older PCI type instead of the newer PCI-Express types. Thus, I needed to find a motherboard that had two of the old type PCI slots on it, in addition to at least two usable PCI express slots – one for the video card, and one for my UAD-2 Quad powered plug-ins card. Plus, since I was doing video production, I wanted a nicer video card this time around, and all the nicer cards are double-wide and make the slot next to them unusable. So, I had to make sure the slots were in the proper arrangement so that I had two usable PCI slots, and two usable PCI Express slots.

My motherboard of choice would have been a Gigabyte brand board, but I also wanted to go with a newer X58 chipset to take advantage of the newest Intel processors and triple channel memory. Unfortunately, Gigabyte doesn’t currently make any X58 boards with two of the older PCI type slots.

It was at this point that I decided I need some outside help. I posted some questions on audio message boards to get some opinions. One person suggested that I try out my audio cards in my recently built office computer, which did have a Gigabyte board, but was not an X58 chipset. So, I did just that one night, and put my two RME cards in there along with the UAD-2 Quad card, to see if that system would work well for audio. I did some latency tests and some performance test with the DAWBench projects. It seemed like that system would work well for me, but I still wondered if going with an X58 system would make enough difference to give it a try.

After some more internet research, I decided to contact Jim Roseberry at Purrrfect Audio – www.studiocat.com . The other builders I worked with in the past were not willing to share their knowledge and help me out with motherboard and other choices, and I certainly don’t blame them since they spend a lot of time and money testing out systems to find which ones work the best, and I didn’t expect them to give out that info for free. However, as I found out on some other message boards, Jim will help you spec out system components if you pay him for his consulting. He will also apply any money you spend on the consulting services towards a system purchase if you decide to have him build it for you instead.

Paying Jim for the consulting was the best money I spent on the new system, and I would have gladly paid more!

First, Jim saved me lots of time by recommending the right motherboard, RAM, and other components that would work for what I needed. But, he also stuck with me through the build and testing process (and I paid him for that time as well), and showed me the proper tests to run to make sure everything was working correctly.

It was a good thing he was there for me, as I quickly started having problems with my system build when running the tests he suggested. Even though my system passed the basic memory tests, I was unable to run some of the intense stability stress tests without hardware problems being detected. At first we though it was just trying to find the optimum settings for the RAM in the BIOS, and I tried many different settings. I thought I had finally found a stable setting, and set up a heavy duty stress test to run overnight. When I got up in the morning, though, it had detected at least one hardware error, and the stress test was only running at about 60%.

After that, I tried to do some other tests, and the system kept failing the tests or crashing within a couple of minutes. Jim suspected a faulty RAM chip (I had six 2GB chips in my system), and told me that I should try testing them out one at a time. I tested one chip and didn’t see any problems within a few hours, so decided to move on, but save myself some time by doing 3 chips at a time first to see if I could narrow it down. The first set of three chips seemed to work fine, so I swapped them out for the second set, and then couldn’t even boot into Windows… so, I knew at least one of those three were bad. The last of the three that I tried gave me endless problems right away, so I had finally tracked down that problem, and sent that set of three in for an RMA replacement (still waiting for the new set to come back), and continued on with my system with the 3 good chips (6 GB of RAM… more than enough for most of my needs anyway).

Another way that Jim helped save me some headaches is by letting me know ahead of time that the nicer CPU coolers that he usually recommends would most likely not fit into the rack mount computer case that I wanted to use. I was not aware that rack mount cases don’t have as much clearance above the CPU as tower cases do. So, that saved me some time, money, and stress right there as well. My computer closet is already set up with a bolted into the concrete huge server rack, so I wanted to stick with a rack mount case. Jim helped me pick out a CPU cooler that was low enough profile to fit into the case, while still offering enough cooling for the i7 chip I was installing.

Of course, I had another issue when installing that CPU cooler. The cooler came with the highly rated Tuniq TX-3 thermal paste, but mine must have been old because it was very dry and almost impossible to squeeze out of the tube. When I tried to spread it out, it just flaked off and made a mess. I put it on as best I could, but when running the stress tests, my CPU core temperatures were getting very close to 100 degrees Celsius, which is much higher than they should have been. So, I ran down to the local Radio Shack to pick up some Arctic Silver 3, but they were out of that, but had the Arctic Silver Ceramique, so I decided to give that a shot instead. After cleaning off the Tuniq and putting on the much easier to apply stuff I got from the Shack, the temperatures were back down to the normal range for the stress tests.

There were a couple of other minor issues I worked through, as well as one totally stupid DOH type moment on my part, but I did finally get the system up and running with everything tested out, and very low latencies reported with the latency checker, as well as some very impressive results with the DAWBench test projects.

So, was it worth trying to build it myself? I do enjoy messing around with computers, and am somewhat of a geek, so I don’t regret it. However, if I knew ahead of time what was going to happen with this build, I definitely would have just paid Jim to build the system for me. Basically, I got my components delivered on a Monday late afternoon, and it took me about 4 hours to assemble everything slowly and carefully Monday evening. However, it then took me the rest of the week doing very extensive testing, trial and error, and troubleshooting to track down that one bad memory stick. The entire weekend and following week was then spent reinstalling my extensive collection of audio software, plug-ins, HUGE sample libraries, and video production software. That second week would have still been up to me to do, but if I had paid Jim to build the computer for me, I would have saved five full workdays of my own time (and late nights / early mornings), which is probably worth more to me than the extra bit I would have paid him.

Next time around I’ll be paying someone else to build a system for me and have that stress free week of my life to continue working on my own paying projects!

Conclusions

Based on my own personal experiences in working with DAWs professionally for more than 14 years now, and having custom systems built for me, as well as building my own, you are almost always better off paying a custom DAW builder to put together a custom computer for you. If you do music/recording professionally, and time is money, the time and stress that you save is more than worth any money you can save by building a system yourself.

If, however, you don’t do this professionally, and money is more important than your time, or if you really enjoy putting systems together, then building your own system is certainly an option, but I highly recommend you save yourself a lot of time and stress and pay someone like Jim at www.studiocat.com to help you pick the right components and supply additional support as needed during the build and test process.


© copyright 2010, DBAR Productions, LLC
This content may be downloaded for personal use only, and may not be reprinted in part or in whole in any form without the express written consent of Stephen Sherrard and DBAR Productions, LLC

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