Resources for the Recording Musician
December 31, 2006

Buying a music computer

I have used for the last three years a stand alone hardware mulit-track digital recorder and would like to now move into a music computer.  Looking for advice on computer, hard drive, interface, software, etc. to get started.

I am still new to recording so I am not looking for the $$$$$ top of the line but a good system I can grow with, with a very user friendly program.  Any suggestions?

Nobody can really give you any specific suggestions without knowing a lot more information first.

Things you need to consider and specify:
- Are you doing audio only? Or do you do a lot of MIDI & VST instrument work as well?
- Will you be recording mostly live (or MIDI) instruments, or will you be working with lots of VST instruments, loops and samples?
- How many tracks do you need to record at once?
- What is your computer skill level?
- Do you prefer "PC" or "Mac" computers? Or, it doesn't matter to you?
- Are you going to be mixing inside of the computer?  Or splitting out multiple channels to an external analog (or digital) mixer to mix?
- Are you going to do all the EQ and Effects inside the computer?  Or, do you have some outboard equipment you wish to use?
- Are you looking for a relatively portable notebook system?  Or will a tower/desktop system be fine?
- What is your spending budget?

One of the first things you should do is to investigate all the software available and find out what you like best, and which fits your needs.  Software is mostly a matter of personal choice.  However, here is a short list of the top contenders that you may want to look into, and you may be able to download demo versions of some of them:
- Steinberg Cubase or Nuendo
- Cakewalk Sonar
- Cockos Reaper
- Ableton Live
- AVID/Digidesign Pro Tools
- Samplitude
- Logic (Mac only)
- Sony's ACID Pro

Once you figure out the software you want to use, you can start researching the best hardware solution for that software by visiting some of the forums and message boards for that software and asking other users what they have had success with.  You'll also need an audio interface for your computer.  These days you can use any hardware that fits your needs, as long as it has good ASIO or WDM drivers (or Core Audio drivers for Macs).

In general, PC's are the more cost effective solution since there is no single PC manufacturer that controls everything like there is in the Mac world.  However, that also means there are endless variations of PCs you can put together, so you definitely need to do the research to buy the right system that is compatible with the hardware and software you want to use. With Macs, you have far fewer choices, and so compatibility is easier to figure out, but you pay more for them, and with each new operating system release, you have to pay for all new versions of all your software since Apple does not try to make each new release compatible with previous OS releases.

As for myself, I use lots of different software for different tasks.  My main multitrack recording, composing, and mixing software is Steinberg's Cubase, and I run it on a PC.  I've upgraded or bought new PCs at least 5 times in the last 12 years, but I do high-end work with hundreds of tracks, lots of software instruments, and many plug-ins and such, and I do this professionally, so I try to stay fairly cutting edge.

A professional facility will probably change out computers about every 2 years.  As a home based hobbyist, if you get a decent system to start with that does everything you need, and you aren't the type that always needs to upgrade to the latest and greatest software, and you don't use a lot of software based instruments, your system should last you at least 3 or 4 years... maybe even more.


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