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If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software. However, you may not know all the details of how DAWs actually make use of your computer hardware. If you’re trying to configure an optimized Audio Production Workstation and you’re curious about how each part contributes in a DAW or the rest of your audio production setup, then this post is for you!
This will be a definitive, step-by-step guide on part functions and the best part choices that are available today.
Let’s get started, shall we?
The choice of Central Processing Unit, or CPU is arguably the most important aspect of a high performance audio workstation PC.
Within a DAW, the CPU is not only responsible for running the DAW program itself but also for virtually rendering any sounds you create. In order to render these sounds, the CPU has to process all of the information regarding notes or sounds that you want to play into a format that is understandable by your operating system and subsequently your audio hardware.
From our inhouse testing, we determined the two best options in the current market for a high performance audio production computer running Reason 11.
Intel Core i7-10700K for cost-effective high performance
Intel Core i9-10900K for the absolute best performance possible
If you’d like to learn more about the testing we did to determine this, you can check out our blog post, Best Workstation CPU for Audio Production in Reason 11.
The CPU is also in charge of audio rendering when you ask your DAW to export to an audio file, such as a WAV or an AIFF file. Audio exporting was also the main topic of interest in our post, Best Workstation CPU for Audio Production in Reason 11. Audio exporting benefits from having extra CPU cores for multithreading, because it’s able to break the exporting work into chunks and process them at the same time (known in computing as Parallel Processing). However, we found that audio exports in Reason 11 are still bottlenecked by single thread performance as well. This means that the best performing CPUs were one’s that had high core clock speeds (the GHz value of the processor) as well as a sufficient number of cores that were able process multiple chunks of the export at the same time. In the above linked detailed CPU roundup, we noted a maximum utilization of 32 CPU threads, and we found that having an unlimited number of CPU cores was not enough to overcome a relatively low operating frequency. Bottom line here is to have a healthy mix of multiple cores at the highest frequency possible – 10700K and 10900K, with 8 cores 5.1 GHz and 10 cores 5.3 GHz respectively, are the best options currently available.
Synthesizers vs. Sample-playing devices
Especially intensive for the CPU is running virtual synthesizers, as the CPU has to power through countless math-heavy calculations involving many variables changing at the same time to render the sound in real time. This is different from playing a sample, as any sample already exists in an audio format that can simply be inserted into the song at the proper time or from a trigger in the software. There is actually a degree of differentiation that we make between sample-based production and synthesizer-based production for this very reason.
Another thing to be aware of is that if you record, for example, a keyboard using a line input or a microphone (not using it as a MIDI controller), that is actually putting you back into sample territory, where your computer CPU will not be so intimately involved. But more on samples later, as they will be covered in more detail in the RAM section.
Another essential function of DAWs that can be taxing on a CPU is applying any effects that you add to your track. Some examples of intensive effects that can be found in almost any project include:
If you want to achieve that perfect sound by adding individual compressors, equalizers, reverbs, and more to every single one of your devices, you have to make sure that you have a CPU that’s equipped to handle it.
Aren’t there methods for decreasing CPU resources within a DAW?
Yes, there are!
Among them, you may be thinking of “bouncing in place” or “freezing” a track. This is a software method that pre-renders the audio, sparing your CPU resources during real time playback. The problem is that once a track has been pre-rendered, it can’t be modified easily without having to pre-render it again. Effectively, it means that every time you want to make a change to a pre-rendered track, you have to pre-render it again. This can be time consuming and adds extra steps that can potentially bring workflow to a crawl and it does not take very much interruption to break many people’s focus or creative flow.
Of course, you can also offload some of the processing to certain peripherals, like a fancy audio interface, but you’ll still probably have to use your CPU to run various virtual plugins. Essentially, a fancy audio interface might let you enable compressors, equalizers, etc.on the audio going through the unit itself but you may lose some fine-grain control. For instance, you wouldn’t be able to easily apply effects to individual virtual instruments in the DAW without incurring extra loads on your CPU. For this reason, we recommend that you invest in your CPU, first and foremost, and use a device that does its own processing as more of a supplement.
Intel vs. AMD
Many of our customers ask if any AMD Ryzen processors would be a good fit for their PC. The AMD processors are no slouch especially considering their price, but in our aforementioned post, Best Workstation CPU for Audio Production in Reason 11, we found that due to the single threading bottlenecks in Reason 11, the Intel processors were better suited for this application. But the Ryzen processors do have other applications that they excel in.
You can use this frequently updated benchmark list to see which CPU offers the best single-thread performance currently. As of the writing of this post, the top 17 standings are all held by Intel processors. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for Zen 3 to deliver on improved IPC/single-thread performance in the coming months!
Also, there are a few rumors online that some users report compatibility issues when using certain plugins on AMD Ryzen CPUs however we have yet to confirm this ourselves in any official capacity. As a company that builds many high performance workstations over a long period of time, we’ve seen dramatically better reliability with Intel CPUs compared to AMD.
For a plethora of reasons, we feel that the Intel processors are the fastest, most reliable choice for any audio production machines that we build.
Alright, technically speaking, you could say that the sound card is the most important component in an audio production set-up, but that would be more from an audio quality perspective than a computer performance perspective per se. That being said, it still has a role to play when it comes to performance.
Sound cards, more commonly known nowadays as Audio Interfaces, blur the line between computer hardware and audio equipment by their very nature. Their primary function is to get sound signals in and out of your computer in the proper fashion.
Check out this informative video by Sweetwater, Choosing the Best USB Audio Interface on ANY Budget, and pick one based on your needs
There is a broad field of excellent external audio interfaces and the options offer so many features that honestly the best bet is to figure out the one that most suits your needs. That said if you’re at a total loss, the Focusrite Scarlett Solo or 2i2 are both solid, best-selling, intro options that are hard to go wrong with but it really is worth shopping around.
Internal vs External Sound Cards
Interestingly enough, sound cards have undergone a transition from internal cards (that plug into your PCIe port) which were common a long time ago, to a peripheral that frequently connects via USB. Nowadays, an audio professional using an internal sound card is becoming increasingly unheard of. The inside of a computer chassis is an electronically noisey location, and audio production professionals will realize cleaner sound generation with an external unit that removes itself from that noisy environment. As such, many modern internal sound cards are being designed with a greater focus on gaming and home media applications.
Inside Audio Interfaces
At their base level, every audio interface will contain audio inputs and outputs as well as a Digital-Analog-Converter (DAC). The DAC is what converts digital audio data coming from your computer into an analog sound signal and vice versa. The analog sound signal is what is played by a speaker or generated by a microphone.
Audio interfaces will often distinguish themselves with different hardware features such as:
- MIDI inputs
- Digital signal processing (DSP)
- Plugin support
- And more
Now, we come to arguably the second most important component for a high performance audio PC, the Random Access Memory, or RAM. The RAM gives your DAW a place to store data for its normal application operations, the same as any other computer program. As we touched on earlier, the RAM is also generally where your samples are kept when you load them on a virtual sample-playing device in your DAW.
16GB to 64GB of DDR4 RAM, compatibility-matched to your Motherboard, depending on complexity of your workload.
The main consideration with RAM is to ensure you never run out of memory. As long as your programs don’t exceed your memory capacity, the system should be operating at near max performance. The big hit to performance comes when you load too many programs, with too much complexity, and exceed the currently installed amount of memory – when this happens the data spills over onto the ‘paging file’ and comes with a massive performance hit. That also doesn’t mean you need to go overboard with RAM. Just ensure that you have ‘more than enough’ but not necessarily an excessive amount.
Which devices are RAM-focused?
Here are a few examples of sample-based devices that use more RAM and don’t generate their own sounds on the fly. This is not an exhaustive list but it should give you an idea.
- A loop-playing device
- A recorded vocal or instrument audio track
- A drum machine playing individual drum hit samples in a sequence
- A MIDI device placing sample slices
What is special about the RAM?
When sounds are stored in the RAM, it enables them to be fired off in high quality immediately, without having to go through the comparatively slow SSD (RAM can transfer data around 24GB per second while our fastest SSDs run around 3.5GBps). It’s important to have enough RAM, because otherwise your computer will have to use the hard drive / SSD for storing a sudden overflow of excess information. This is problematic because even the fastest hard drives out there can be 6-7x slower than DDR4 RAM and more typical hard drives will be closer to 40-100x slower.
Ensuring the RAM is up to snuff
Another reason you don’t have to fret about the RAM is that we’ve already taken care of the fretting in advance. Every Orbital Computers music production workstation is built with RAM that’s matched to the motherboard, down to the version number and is subjected to in-depth memory stress testing as part of our rigorous pre-shipment burn-in, benchmarking, and extensive validation process. As memory issues can be the source of endless system instability, we go the extra mile to ensure the RAM we use is fully compatible with the entire system as a whole unit and that every stick is tested before meeting our stamp of approval.
Luckily, in audio production the video card is less important than an application we would typically write a guide for here at Orbital Computers. The video card will mostly only be responsible for drawing everything on your screen to be displayed on your monitor. Since DAWs usually don’t have graphically-intensive displays, the extra power is not typically needed and this is an area where you can likely save some of your budget.
NVIDIA Quadro P400
For the video card, we recommend purposefully going for a somewhat underpowered but reliable and budget-effective option, though if your workflow involves any video or motion graphics editing, the video card will become much more important.
What the NVIDIA Quadro P400 buys you
The Quadro P400 will still be a solid upgrade from the onboard Intel HD Graphics that comes built-in standard, allowing you to happily run up to 3x 4K monitors while saving money for the places you can put it to the best use such as a strong CPU, more RAM, or more fast storage.
That being said, there is no problem with upgrading to a stronger video card, especially if there are other applications that you need it for and your budget still has some headroom.
And now we arrive at the last component in our big 3, the Solid State Drive. The SSD is where your DAW and all of your sounds and songs live, in addition to the operating system, all of your programs, and any other files you might have. It’s imperative to have a fast SSD not only for fast boot times but also for being able to pull up files quickly. Audio production requires loading a lot of sounds from storage as fast as possible, so that you can flip through a large library of sounds without waiting for each sound.
Main drive: Samsung 970 Evo+, 500 GB or more – read speeds of 3500 MBps
Additional drives: Samsung 860 Evo SSD 1-2TB or more – read speeds of 550 MBps (but lower price)
Solid State Drives, or SSDs are mandatory for any high performance audio PC in 2020. Here we want to shoot for a blistering fast main drive and 1-2 TB of additional speedy storage to supplement.
The Samsung 970 Evo+ is far and away the best option for your main drive. But the additional drives have some flexibility (especially on a tighter budget) between an SSD or HDD option, as well as the amount of storage space.
How big is the difference between the various types of drives?
As it turns out, there is actually a colossal difference in speed between the various types of storage drives.
Type of Storage Drive
Data Read Speeds
SATA Hard Disk Drives
SATA Solid State Drive
NVMe M.2 Solid State Drive
The Samsung 970 Evo+
The Samsung 970 Evo+ is an NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory express) drive, plugging directly into your motherboard via the newest standard M.2 slot, boasting almost 7x faster data transfer rates than the classic SATA SSDs.The 970 Evo+ is also a big winner in small file access latency, i.e. the time it takes for your computer to pull up a song or some other file. If you browse large libraries of sounds and have had to wait too long for each sound to come up, you’ll immediately notice a massive jump in the quality-of-life of your DAW experience using the Samsung 970 Evo+.
On top of that, over the last nearly 8 years of using SSDs from just about every major brand out there, the Samsung units have proven to be at the top of the list of our most reliable components. No other brand will give you the same minimal risk of losing your hard work and carefully crafted tracks. They refuse to fail and that’s a critical aspect to building a highly stable audio production PC.
Cooling is often the most overlooked factor in building a strong workstation computer in general, but for audio work, it’s more important than ever. The cooling system is a key part of the supporting cast that keeps your CPU running at maximum capacity. Also, fans are often the noisiest component in any PC, so care must be taken to select the quietest possible fans for an audio production PC. Some computer manufacturers don’t say enough about good cooling because it doesn’t sound as flashy as the “brand-spanking new CPU model from Intel” but high-performance cooling is an absolute must-have.
Single or Dual-Fan Noctua NH-U12S
Corsair Liquid Cooler (only for unlocked i9 builds or similar)
The Massive Performance Impacts of Cooling
Good cooling is absolutely imperative to high performance. A processor has to use a lot of electricity to crunch out its operations, which leads to one major byproduct – HEAT. Modern processors are designed to throttle themselves and slow down if they start getting too hot. They need to compromise somewhere in order to stop themselves from burning up. If you throw a bad cooler on a top-of-the-line CPU, you’re shooting yourself in the foot and your expensive processor will never reach its full potential.
Air cooling vs Liquid Cooling
Generally speaking, we recommend high-end air cooling from a top brand like Noctua over water cooling. The reasoning is that any liquid cooling system will always have many more moving parts and places where something can go wrong when compared to a water cooler. The air cooler only has a single moving part, as well as redundancy if you go with the dual-fan option.
Orbital’s primary design philosophy is to put stability first and eliminate as many failure points as possible. In some cases, it may be required to use a water cooler to keep the temperatures of powerful CPUs under control, but if we can accomplish that with a high performance air cooler, that is preferable. We try to spare our recommendations for Corsair liquid coolers for current generation Intel Core i9 and Threadripper CPUs, which can put out more heat than can be dealt with reasonably by a high-end air cooler.
None of this is to say that we don’t trust liquid coolers. We pick the most reliable liquid coolers on the market from Corsair and they have an excellent long term track record. However, the air coolers we use from Noctua are in a class of their own. They come with a lengthy 6-year warranty. As of the writing of this piece in Fall 2020, since we started using the characteristically beige-colored fans from the Austrian company Noctua in 2013, we haven’t had any reports of a single Noctua fan failing on a customer system, nor has a single Noctua fan shown up DOA. That’s about as good of a track record as can be had with any PC component!
The case, in conjunction with the proper fans, is the biggest part of getting the system to be as quiet as possible. The case houses all of the other components in the PC.
Fractal Design Define C Mid Tower Case with Noctua Silent Fans
Our signature case of choice is the Fractal Define C case, featuring seriously quiet sound-deadening material on the inside. We also recommend that you opt for the Noctua Silent case fan upgrade to equip the rest of the case with the same exceptional Noctua fans we discussed in the cooling section. If you’d like to see for yourself just how quiet this combo is, check out our tech demo. We’ve searched high and low and found no quieter setup than this, maxing out at 33 dB.
The power supply unit (PSU) is another oft-skimped component in the field of prebuilt computers. The power supply converts AC power from your wall (or your battery backup/UPS!) into DC power that your PC can use. A cheap power supply also has a very real chance of damaging all of your other shiny components, so it’s an area where we strongly suggest not cutting corners.
The power supplies that we use are not only exceptionally reliable, they are seriously quiet, as cheaper power supplies will often have some degree of electrical whine.
Top-of-the-Line Handpicked Power Supply
All Orbital trading PCs are configurable with an 80 Plus Gold certified (industry standard efficiency rating for high-end power supplies), fully modular (all power cables are detachable) power supply with a 7-10 year warranty. Top-of-the-line brands we use are Corsair, Seasonic, Thermaltake and EVGA.
Power supply efficiency (how much power needs to go in to give your computer what it needs) generally peaks when the power supply is at about 50% of the wattage it can handle, so for most of the configurations discussed here, a high end PSU around 650-850 watts is ideal. Our upgraded PSU option allows us to configure the correct PSU wattage around the rest of your configuration and can be specified to be overbuilt to handle future upgrades you may want to make.
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