Studio computer, that is…
This article first appeared Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!
I went to a tiny elementary school in Taos, NM called Vista Grande, which we affectionately referred to as “roll your own academy”. The meaning should be apparent, but I took something else away: a DIY ethic that stays with me to this day.
You may have that ethic, or you may just find yourself in need of more power for less money, but in either case, if you’re mindful, your studio computer is a great place to apply the roll your own philosophy and save some serious scratch. I thought I’d lay out the process, based on my latest build.
Let’s talk basics first. First of all, we’re talking about PCs here. Building a Mac is another story, pretty much untold. Second, you’ll need a basic understanding of computer hardware, some tools, a clean work surface and time. Keep your current machine in operation, and plan on transitioning slowly, over weeks. Keep an attitude of learning and problem solving and you’ll have more fun and do a better job. If things don’t work at first, don’t be discouraged, they almost never do. Just like you almost never nail the mix on the first draft. Right??
You will also need SOME money, but less than you would to buy a machine with the same specs. Do remember, though, that a build may NOT be the right path for you. Consider the opportunity cost of spending your time versus your cash flow and when you need the machine. If you do decide to build, think of it as educational and fun (appeal to your inner geek) as WELL as potentially useful and frugal.
Your main tool is a Phillips head screwdriver. You may need a couple sizes, and depending on the case, a right angle screwdriver may be useful. An anti-static grounding device that you wear on your wrist is a good idea, or at least something grounded and metal nearby (like a rack). You’ll want to touch that to release your static build up before touching computer components. Some compressed air might also come in handy to blow away dust, but be careful about too much force on small internal parts.
Finally, make sure you have your reading glasses. You’ll want to be methodical about reading manuals and instruction sheets. Trust me on this one – don’t be flip. You know who you are!
You probably want to know what this’ll cost. As mentioned, it’ll cost some time, and I recommend a slow process, even if you can spare some focused time for the bulk of the work. Financially, your mileage will vary, as there’s no limit to how much you can spend on doo-dads. As a very rough guide, though, I built my current machine for just under $1000, matching the specs and power of machines that generally cost $2000-$2500 when bought outright. So I cut my cost in half.
Some of this may be obvious, but let’s go through all the parts you’ll need:
Essential (can’t run without):
- Monitor (if you don’t already have one)
- Keyboard (obviously)
- Computer case (the basic housing – you may want a case built to be quiet – Figure 1)
- Mother board
- Internal hard drive(s)
- RAM (memory) (Figure 2)
- Power supply (Figure 3)
- Operating system
Optional (but probably a good idea):
- DVD or CD-ROM
- Extra cooling (Figure 4)
- More hard drives
- External hard drive(s)
- KVM Switch
- Graphics card (probably essential if video editing is a goal) (Figure 5)
- Extra monitor(s)
- Fancy cooling or neon things
So what specs are we looking for? Well this machine isn’t just for email and Farmville. You need some power, and you need decent storage. How much you go for is mostly a matter of budget, because if money were no object, well…you see my point. There are some minimums to think about though. First, decide what your goal is for the machine. How many tracks you intend to be able to record or mix at once, how many soft synths and plugins you have, and whether you intend to do video as well. The more you intend to push it, the more power you need.
If you’re just doing audio, what you need is actually pretty minimal by today’s standards. Common DAW minimum requirements hover around here:
- Windows 7 or later
- 2.5GHZ processor multi core
- 4GB RAM
- 5-20GB space for the DAW software itself
It’s never a bad idea to beat the minimum specs, so I might opt for an i5 quad core chip, 8GB of RAM and maybe 120GB hard drive, with some kind of extra hard drive storage. As a matter of fact, I do a lot of my audio work on my Sony tablet, which is a 1.5GHZ i5 chip with 4GB RAM and 120GB drive. With the right system tuning, I’m able to record 32 tracks and more simultaneously at 96k 24 bit and mix with plenty of plugins without a glitch. Video editing – not so much – and some DAWs are more processor intensive than others. Mixbus, for example, does a lot of work, and therefore needs a lot more power to work well at 96k than Sonar.
As far as storage is concerned, bear in mind the size of audio files. 44.1k 16 bit audio takes up 5.292 megabytes per track minute. So a typical 3 minute song, 24 tracks, recorded at CD quality takes up 381 megabytes. 10 of those is 3.81 gigabytes. At 96k 24 bit, those numbers jump to 17.280 MB per track minute, or 1.22 GB per 24 track pop song – 12.44 GB for a 10 song collection (not including mixdowns, mp3 versions, etc).
Sample libraries of course take up space, as does software, presets, notes, Word documents and so on. So depending on how much you do, you might want anywhere from 250GB to 2 terabytes and up worth of space. My advice is to get as much storage as you can afford. You may also consider an SSD (solid state drive – Figure 6), at least for your main drive if not storage drives, as SSDs can be quite a bit quicker. They are more expensive though, so bear that in mind.
If you’re doing video work, your specs need to be quite a bit higher, and you probably need a video card. That video card should have at least 1GB of its own memory, 2GB would be a better minimum, and 4 or 8GB would be even more awesome. Your CPU needs to be faster and you probably need 8GB of RAM at minimum. Here are the basic specs of my aforementioned build, which I use for video and audio:
- Intel i5 3.0 GHz quad core processor
- 16 GB DDR4 3000 RAM
- GeForce GT 730 video card with 4GB RAM
- 250 GB SSD Hard Drive (for OS and software)
- 2 TB 7200 RPM Internal Hard Drive (for project and sample storage)
Were money no object, I would have gone a lot farther, but that machine serves beautifully for anything I can dream up to do with audio, and has been doing great with video footage for music videos and such, with the proper workflow. I would probably need a few upgrades to make a feature film for Warner Brothers, but for me, it’s a great machine.
As far as which parts to buy, specs are your main concern, but read carefully about compatibility. Not all motherboards work with all chips, for example. Another common problem is skimping on the power supply and not having enough juice for all your components. Read carefully before you order, and here’s a little trick: Use a custom build site to “fantasy build” your machine virtually, then note the power supply and other components. This is also a good way to track how much money you’re really saving.
The Build Itself
The build itself is pretty straight forward, but you want to be accurate, respect the delicacy of components, and there are a couple of areas you want to be especially careful. Here are your basic steps:
- Open the case
- Install the power supply
- Install the motherboard
- Install the CPU and cooling
- Install the RAM
- Install the video card
- Install the hard drives
- Install extra components (DVD, etc)
- Connect data connections from drives to the motherboard
- Connect the power supply to the motherboard and drives
- Connect LED and front panel connections
- Close the case
- Connect power, monitor, keyboard, mouse and audio interfaces
- Power up for first test
- Scream in frustration
- Open case
- Use manuals, wit and Google to figure out why it won’t power up
- Kill yourself over your stupidity
- Fix problems
- Close case (repeat steps 14-19 ad nauseum)
- Power up for umpteenth test and achieve victory
- Install operating system and drivers
- Configure and tweak OS
- Install software and configure
- Pay credit card bill
The order you do steps 3 through 8 doesn’t matter much, but be aware of your layout. In many cases, it’s necessary to install the CPU and cooler before the RAM, simply because of the proximity of parts. If you find a component is in the way of another, you can always take it out and put it back, but in the case of the CPU, that can be a can of worms. Better to get the CPU installed first, and then everything else.
While we’re at it, be extra careful with the CPU. Make SURE you have it oriented right (refer to installation instructions, which should show you an arrow), because you can bend pins and ruin the part pretty easily. Also pay close attention to instructions on mounting the extra fan, or the extra awesome cooling tower you’re replacing that stock fan with. You’ll be applying a cooling gel onto the chip itself, so do that carefully, as you don’t want that stuff all over the motherboard. Remember to connect the CPU fan to its power source (a 2 pin plug on the motherboard). CPU cooling is quite important, and I highly recommend springing for a super awesome better cooling tower. If your CPU heats up too much, your computer will intermittently power down, or worse yet, you could damage or destroy the CPU itself.
In addition to that, here are some other common mistakes you can avoid, most of which will cause the computer to not boot up:
- Forgetting the 4 (or 8) pin CPU power connector (Figure 7).
- Forgetting power on the graphics card
- Seating components incompletely or incorrectly (especially RAM)
- Not plugging in CPU fan (Figure 7)
- Loose screws or incorrectly screwing down the mother board
- Forgetting to turn on the power switch on the power supply
If your computer doesn’t boot, start by checking those.
Don’t fail to discharge your static energy, work in a clean space, or be careful with the parts. Apply gentle pressure rather than force, and pay attention to notches in your plugs and components. Don’t force something that doesn’t seem to want to plug in.
Once you’ve got your computer built and booting up, you can start having fun with your software. Install your operating system first (probably some flavor of Windows, or Linux if you dare), then tweak your system for audio performance, then install your hardware drivers (such as audio interfaces), DAW, plugins and other software. Prioritize audio performance over fancy look and feel stuff, and make sure your DAW is humming alone before you start with stuff like word processors and games. Be especially careful about high end games – they can do a number on your system, from an audio/video point of view. I advise leaving games to another computer entirely.
We’ll get into more depth about configuring a machine to really kick tail for audio and video in another article, but until then you’ve got plenty to do!
There really is a wealth of information out there on this subject, so I’d like to refer you to some online reading that you can keep pulled up on another computer while you build – these resources will give you another perspective, which will be really valuable.
- Tom’s Hardware – a great resource for building and troubleshooting, especially this page: http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/261145-31-perform-steps-posting-post-boot-video-problems
- PC World – has another handy “common mistakes” page: https://www.pcworld.com/article/2049100/how-to-avoid-common-pc-building-mistakes.html
- CNET – also has a “rookie mistakes” page that’s quite a handy reference: https://www.cnet.com/news/how-to-fix-diy-pc-common-issues/
There you go. Hopefully you’ll have a blast building your own custom studio machine, and while you’re at it, save some money and put together a box that suits you perfectly. Have fun!
I’m a singer, producer and recovering developer. I’ve built a lot of computers, but loves people more. Contact me on social media at @AaronJTrumm