Musical Computers

Consider Your Options

“If you can buy it, it’s either obsolete or a prototype.” These words – uttered by a friend working at a computer company named after a certain type of fruit – are as true today as when they were first spoken 20 years ago. If you have a need for a computer, go out, find the best bang-for-your-buck deal, and buy one! Don’t wait for the next-generation computer that’s just around the corner. There will always be a newer, faster, sexier machine about to come out that is better than the one you just bought with that extra babysitting money you’ve be squirreling away. The important thing is that whatever computer and software you purchase, you can use it to discover the many news ways for a musician to create music.

Of course, advising someone on what type of computer to buy is a lot like offering guidance on purchasing an automobile – passions can run high, and opinions vary. I’ll attempt to give you the tools to make the decision for yourself as to what kind of platform and form factor to buy. So save your energy and don’t flame me for my opinions. They are but one man’s view on a complex subject.

CHOOSING A PLATFORM

My bias will undoubtedly reveal itself during the course of this article, so I might as well come right out and say it: I’m a Mac guy, and have been since the first week they came out in 1984. (Yes, I’m that old.) In my studio I have two Macs and one PC (running Windows XP). I purchased the PC a few years back to run a few pieces of Windows-only music software for research and to take screenshots for a book. This was before I was able to easily boot the Windows operating system on my Mac.

That being said, let’s deal with the 800-pound guerilla in the room: Macintosh or PC? Frankly, the answer to this question depends on a number of factors. If this is not your first computer and you have no compelling reason to switch from PC to Mac, or vice versa, don’t. If this is your first computer and you’ll be using it mainly for music, examining a few aspects of your musical life will hopefully make your choice clear.

Logic (above) is available only on Macs. while Sonar 7 (below is available only for Windows PCs.

CONSIDER YOUR COMMUNITY
The following four questions will help bring your platform choice into focus:

1. What platform and software are the people in your extended musical community using?

2. Are you a seasoned computer user or a newbie?

3. Do you know a computer guru that you can call on as a resource?

4. What’s your budget?

Questions one and two are, perhaps, the most important. The Apple Macintosh computer became the de facto music (and graphic arts) computer in the 1980s because of software availability and community. Prior to 1985, the Commodore 64 and Atari computers filled this niche – and that was mainly for MIDI sequencing. Music software for the IBM PC, except for a few oddities, was not written and developed.

Enter a company named Mark Of The Unicorn and a piece of software named Performer 1.0, which became the new MIDI sequencer of choice – and it only ran on a Macintosh. I, for one, ran MotU software (later named Digital Performer) for more that 20 years before succumbing to peer pressure from my immediate community. The last few years has seen my transition to Pro Tools and Logic Studio for MIDI and digital audio recording. Why? Because this is what my immediate musical community was using (in addition to Reason software and a few others), and I needed to easily exchange data with them (MIDI files, audio files, and other project formats). While Pro Tools and Reason are available for both PC and Mac, Logic Studio is available only for the Mac, thereby making the Mac the better choice for me.

Poll your friends who are creating and recording music on which platforms they’re using. Then get a detailed list of all the software they’re using for music. If their software is available only for one specific platform, consider buying that platform; it will make your life easier in the long run.

The inset list roughly outlines the compatibility of some of the major software packages now available. Keep in mind, it is by no means a complete list of software, so I apologize again in advance if I miss yours.

Of note here is that the high-end Pro Tools software doesn’t run, as of this writing, on PCs running the Windows Vista operating system, although it does run on a Mac using the newest 10.5.1 (Leopard) operating system. This means that until DigiDesign upgrades these two packages, as they surely will, you’d have to boot your new computer from an external drive containing a bootable version of the older Mac OS 10.4. Conversely, the two lower-end Pro Tools software packages run on Vista, but not on the latest Mac OS. You must do your homework before you buy! Always check with the manufacturer regarding specific software/hardware compatibility, as there are too many subtleties to address here. So as much as my Mac-centric self would like to say otherwise, it’s not as easy as simply choosing Mac over PC as a music platform.

HELP!
For newbies, as I mentioned, selecting a computer can be as simple and painless as following the herd (your community). They will be your most valuable resource, and at some point you will be calling them for help. I receive a lot of calls for help on Mac issues from members of my extended music community. When stumped, I’ve even made a few distress calls myself, as some members in my community have better expertise in certain areas than I do. (A bit of advice: Make sure you have a bevy of local coffee joint gift cards available to give as tokens of your gratitude. These small tokens will help smooth the way for your next call.) Despite my “geekiness” on this issue, I’m less confident giving advice on PC-related questions. Fortunately, no one in my community runs PCs.

A BRIEF MAC COMMERCIAL
Here’s where I’m sure to rankle some readers, but given the choice of Mac or PC, in a situation where the user is on his or her own (i.e. without the support of an extended music community), I advise you buy a Mac. For one thing, only one company, Apple Computer, controls all of the Mac’s hardware design. Apple also produces the operating system and most of the included software, making hardware and software pairing very stable.

In contrast, PCs are a multi-company collaboration. Microsoft makes the operating system. Countless other companies make the various other components to differing specifications. Therefore, Microsoft has little or no control over the hardware, often making software compatibility an issue.

Additionally, all Macs come with a basic music software package called GarageBand, which is part of Apple’s iLife digital lifestyle software. And it’s installed for free! With GarageBand you can wet your feet in MIDI sequencing, looping, and recording and editing with a simple, easy-to-use program. Later, if you make the jump to Apple’s Logic Studio as your software package of choice, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see a very familiar user interface.

FORM FACTOR (AKA DESKTOP OR LAPTOP)
Determining exactly how you’re going to use the computer can help you make the decision between whether to buy a desktop or a laptop.

If you’re going to run a Pro Tools HD system, the choice is almost made for you: You’ll want to purchase a desktop computer (Mac or PC) because these have the required PCIe (or the earlier, PCI variant) card slots needed to interface the HD hardware with the computer. This is fine, as most HD systems don’t leave the studio.

If you travel a great deal, or need to work on music in different locations, consider a laptop. It’s telling that at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the Intel booth contained just two desktop machines. Laptops ruled the day. Because of increases in power and memory, laptops have become a viable option for music production, either at home or in the studio. Last year, Digidesign released the Mbox 2 Micro Audio Interface, finally allowing Pro Tools sessions to go portable. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like editing tracks at 40,000 feet and 500 miles per hour sandwiched between two larger-than-standard FAA adults.

Computers are an indispensable part of our music work environment. Although my collection may seem a bit excessive, each of the six computers I own serves a specific role in creating music. However, if I had to choose just one, it would be the MacBook Pro laptop. This machine could fulfill the role of at least two other computers, including the PC, since it can run the Windows operating system.

Okay, I’m going to commit here: Unless you’re putting together a high-end system that requires PCIe/PCI slots, buy a laptop. Buy the fastest speed CPU you can afford, and the largest hard drive that can be stuffed into the case. Larger and faster is the mantra. Say it with me, “larger and faster.” Louder, “LARGER AND FASTER!” Of course, as an illustration of the initial bit of wisdom contained in the opening paragraph of this article, No sooner had I bought the fastest processor and largest hard drive available for my MacBook Pro (at the time, the 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor), than it started seeming sluggish as I watched the relentless pace of technology whiz right by. On top of that, the 120GB hard drive is always near full. So it goes.

ProTools HD comes with a HD Core PCI card or an Accel Core PCIe card (pictured). These cards must be installed with an open PCI or PCIe slot.

BUDGET WOES
In the world of desktop computers, PCs are still less expensive than comparably equipped Macs, perhaps because desktop PCs can be built from a dizzying array of components, into almost any configuration; gamers have been building lean, screaming-fast, gaming-specific PCs for years. This mission-specific approach is beginning to catch on in the music community, with a few companies building fast, stable PCs specifically for music applications. Companies such as End PC Noise (endpcnoise.com), Sonica Labs (sonicalabs.com), and Rain Recording (rainrecording.com) build specialized computers that are packed with memory and hard disk space, and may be bundled with hardware such as FireWire interfaces. Often, these music production machines are “tuned” to get optimum performance from a particular combination of hardware components and software such as Pro Tools. If you do go the PC route and you don’t subscribe to the computer geek monthly, I’d encourage you to purchase of one of these machines.

Apple’s Mac Pro, the super-fast, cutting-edge, multi-media machine, comes with a premium price tag. But it’s designed specifically for the audio/visual world. The aluminum tower case design alone is a work of art. Again, the hardware is designed and controlled by the operating system’s creator, making for a very stable computer.

With regard to price, laptops bring a more level playing field. Again, processor speed and hard drive capacity matter. USB 2.0 and FireWire ports are a must. Get the largest capacity (7200rpm) internal hard drive possible. You’ll also want a 15" or larger screen, as well as a video card that allows for running two separate monitors. Beyond this, it’s super important to check if the laptop is on the software company’s recommended list. This is especially true of PCs, where laptop compatibility can be much more difficult to achieve. Make sure that before you buy, the computer will work with the software you want to run.

For PCs (both desktop and laptop), a good place to check compatibility is this site.

CONNECTIVITY AND HARD DRIVES
The different types of computer connections, and the unique demands that music software puts on them, can be confusing. Here’s a list of important items.

You can’t have too many USB ports. These ports are used to connect most peripherals to the computer (keyboard, mouse, and printer, MIDI interfaces, keyboards, and so on). A USB hub can be used to increase the number of available USB ports, but some USB music peripherals like to be plugged into the computer’s onboard USB ports. USB is also used to connect many two- or four-channel audio interfaces to the computer.

That being said, USB should not be used as a connection to a hard drive for music purposes (even the faster USB 2.0). It doesn’t have a high enough sustained data transfer rate to handle multiple tracks of high-resolution audio, and is not supported by many of the popular digital recording software packages.

FireWire ports are a must. FireWire is the interface of choice for the transfer of audio/visual data to hard drives, as it has higher sustained data transfer rates than USB 2.0. There are two types (speeds) of FireWire ports: 400 (slower) and 800 (faster). Each uses a different connector, and they generally should not be combined in a chain with one another. FireWire (Apple’s name) is also found under the name i.LINK (Sony). Both are brand names for the IEEE 1394 high-speed serial bus standard.

In addition to hard drives, FireWire is also used to connect most high-end audio interfaces, like the Digidesign 003R, to the computer. FireWire devices can be daisy-chained, or used in conjunction with a FireWire hub, to connect multiple devices to one port.

Hard drives. In music, FireWire hard disk drives are a must, and in most cases, a requirement. Buy 7200rpm FireWire 400 drives with the Oxford 911 chipset, or 7200rpm FireWire 800 drives with the Oxford 912 or 924 chipset. As a rule you should record and save audio to a drive other than your boot drive, or the hard drive that the recording software is running from.

Multiple video displays are a plus. If it is possible to have a second display that contains different information, go for it. Music applications can contain many different windows, each containing different information (waveform editing, mixing board, MIDI tracks, effects parameters, and so on). In no time, the monitor is extremely cluttered, with windows piled atop windows, making getting to needed information cumbersome. Some desktop computers, and many high-end laptops, can be configured to display windows over two displays. The DVI connection on my MacBook Pro allows me to connect a second monitor, while still using the laptop’s video screen. Different windows can appear in each screen, thereby increasing the active monitor space. Don’t confuse this with the “video mirroring” that some laptops have, which just displays the same video from the onboard screen to an external screen.

RECOMMENDED SPECS (MAC OR PC)
• 2.0Ghz or faster Intel Core 2 Duo Processor (or equivalent)
• 2GB memory (minimum)
• 120GB 7200rpm hard drive (minimum)
• 2 USB 2.0 ports (minimum)
• 1 FireWire 400 port (minimum)
• Video card that supports two independent video displays

CONCLUSION
Computers are the backbone of the modern recording studio, whether home, project, or professional. Ever-increasing processor speed and software stability make the use of computers on stage much more common, not only for backing track playback, but as a sound source using software-based synthesizers and drum libraries. This type of use will only increase. Think of the computer and related music software as just another part of your collection of instruments. It is just as important as any snare drum or cymbal you own, perhaps even more.

Mike Snyder is a freelance drummer, percussionist, and edrum guru based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached through his web site, mikesnyder.net.