Things to Consider: Your Computer
OK, everything is almost set. But there is one more piece of equipment in the studio that we have to analyze before getting into sequencing in the next chapter: the computer. Even though not strictly a musical instrument or an audio device, the computer plays a crucial role in your productions. We know by now that it serves as both a MIDI and audio recorder/playback device, and therefore we can think of it as the brain of your studio. Keep in mind that we could devote hundreds of pages to this topic, but that would go beyond the scope of this book. Here I want to give you some practical information that will come in handy when you have to decide which computer to buy for your studio.
First of all, let’s take a look at the two main platforms available: Apple computers (which run the Mac OS) and PCs (which run Microsoft Windows). The debate on which one is better has been going on a long time, basically since the mid-1980s, when both operating systems (or OS) became available to the general public. As you have probably learned by now, there is no perfect OS. Each one has advantages and disadvantages that are really up to the end user to consider. Apple machines have the reputation of being more expensive, while PCs are believed to be cheaper. Even though to a certain extent this is true, you have to consider that Apple computers are slightly more expensive for a reason, mainly because they usually come equipped with features you may have to add as options to a standard PC, such as FW 800 ports, dual video outputs, and dual internal HD. Another advantage that can be attributed to Apple computers is their stability. No matter how much your next-door neighbor brags about his superfast PC that can show you 200 frames per second (fps) playing the latest video game hit, for your studio you need a machine that is reliable, stable, easy to configure, and troubleshoot. Macs here have a clear advantage, especially since the introduction of OS X.
Remember that you are going to use your computer for music only; do not try to run games, Internet surfing, e-mail, bank account management, shopping list, and more on your main machine. You must have a clean, simple, and well-organized computer to run the audio sequencer in your studio, so leave the other tasks to a second machine.
The latest version of Windows 7 is a greatly improved OS, and it has become a stable alternative to Mac OS X. The timing of its data transfer paths has come up to standard for MIDI and audio applications, while its stability is solid. Nevertheless, one of the main advantages of Apple computers is that the same company makes both the machines and the OS. This guarantees a tighter and more stable interplay between the two. In the case of PCs we have thousands of different designs made by thousands of companies over which Microsoft has no direct control. This results in several incompatibility issues that can ruin your creative day more often than you would like. Remember that all the equipment discussed so far (computer included) are only tools that allow your creativity to develop and grow. As with any other tool, you do not want them to get in the way of your compositional process. If you were writing for an orchestra you wouldn’t be happy if your first violinist came up to you every time he or she broke a string, right? Well, since the MIDI studio is your modern orchestra, in the same way you do not want to be interrupted by technical problems. Therefore, my advice is always to choose the more stable, safe, and sound options, even though they can sometimes be a bit more expensive.
When deciding which computer and operating system to choose, pay particular attention to 32-bit and 64-bit versions. While the latest Apple OS is only available in 64 bit, Windows 7 (and its predecessors, XP and Vista) can be purchased and installed in their 32- or 64-bit versions. The main difference between 32 and 64 is that the former can only address (use) up to 4 GB of physical random-access memory (RAM) while the latter can address up to more than 128 GB. Why should you care? Being able to access a larger amount of RAM is crucial when using sample-based software synthesizers (such as the ones that feature orchestral libraries), since having more RAM will allow you not only to load a higher number of patches simultaneously but also to use libraries with a larger number of samples per patch (resulting in more realistic rendition of acoustic instruments).
When considering a computer for your studio, think in terms of the best machine you can afford. While for MIDI-only sequencing you do not need a very fast CPU, for audio data handling you need the fastest CPU available, especially if you plan to have a high track count with many plug-in effects. It is hard to give some reference about CPU speed, since the rate at which computers evolve in terms of features and options is extremely high. Besides considering the clock speed of your main processor (or processors in the case of a multiprocessor machine), you have to make sure you have the fastest bus speed supported by your motherboard. The bus system is the connection path over which the data are transferred from and to the different components of the motherboard, such as the I/O interfaces, CPU, and memory. Having a fast bus speed allows your computer to perform better in all the tasks involved with digital audio recording and playback. Always try to install as much memory as your computer and system allow. RAM is the temporary storage space your CPU uses to store big chunks of data in transit to and from the I/O ports; if the CPU runs out of RAM, then it will use the HD (permanent storage space) instead, as virtual memory. Remember that the HD handles information much more slowly than RAM. This option therefore would work fine for applications where the timing of data fetching is not an issue. But with MIDI and audio you need very tight time management, and therefore more available RAM allows your computer to handle more data with tighter timing.
Permanent storage space devices, such as internal and external HDs, are also a very important aspect of your computer system. When you record audio sessions in your audio sequencer, the data converted from the ADCs are stored on the HD of your computer as a sequence of 1s and 0s. The higher the sampling frequency and bit resolution of the digital conversion, the more data the computer needs to store on the HD. You will soon realize that the 250 GB of HD space you thought would last forever will not be enough. While I will discuss space and file management of your sessions later in the book, for now keep in mind that, as with the memory issue, for HD the bigger the better. Not only can a bigger HD hold more data, but it is also usually faster, since the computer has more space and freedom to organize the data in a rational way. In terms of speed, when buying an HD for audio applications, get a model that uses mechanisms with at least 7200 rpm, 10 ms or better access time, and at least 8–10 MB/s transfer rate.
Always have at least three HDs in your studio. The first one is the internal one that holds the OS and the applications (or programs) you run, such as sequencer, notation program, and utilities. The second HD, which can be either internal or external, is the main session disk, where you store your projects during the recording sessions. The third HD is the overnight backup (more on backing up and archiving in later chapters), where you make a copy of your project as soon as you have a minute, even during the session itself. For no reason should you allow even one day to go by without making a copy of your current projects to the backup device! Catastrophic events always seem to happen right before the deadline of your important project, so you must have a plan B (as in backup!).
Another feature you should consider equipping your computer with is a multiple video monitor setup. The regular one-video configuration is good enough for word-processing and Web-surfing applications, but it is far too limited for MIDI and audio composing/sequencing. Imagine having to write a score for a studio orchestra on a two- by two-inch piece of paper. Well, if you had only one monitor, that’s pretty much the feeling you would get. On the other hand, if you have two (or more) monitors, you increase your desktop real estate without affecting considerably your budget. What you need is an additional video card for your computer—nothing fancy, a card that supports at least a video resolution of 1400 1050 will work fine—and a second monitor. The advantage of having a second monitor is that you will be able to organize the edit windows of your sequencer across both desktops and drag elements and windows of your current project across the two monitors, making recording and mixing on your computer a much more enjoyable experience. What I usually do is to set a template so that when I open my audio sequencer I immediately have the track/arrange window displayed on the main monitor and the mix window on the second. This setup allows me to do quick edits and to apply changes to my mix without opening and closing different windows. Because of the low cost of monitors and video cards, this is something you should seriously consider.
Excerpt from Andrea Perjolo’s Creative Sequencing Techniques for Music Production.