4 Things to Consider Before Building a PC for Music Production
Building your first PC is a fun, rewarding, and extremely stressful process. Are all the components going to work together? Did you overlook anything? You can use PC Part Picker to view compatible PC components and create mock PC builds, but there are 4 things to consider before building a PC for music production that PC Part Picker isn't going to mention.
1. Don't Skimp on the CPU and RAM
Your PC’s central processing unit (CPU) is like a car's engine, while its random access memory (RAM) is like the trunk of a car. If you're trying to move a bunch of stuff from point A to point B, you want a car with a fast engine and a big trunk.
A car with a slow engine and small trunk will require you to make many trips to move all your stuff from point A to point B, and you're not going to get there too quickly either. Upgrading the engine (CPU) will get you to point B faster, but you'll still need to make multiple trips. A bigger trunk (more RAM) will allow you to move more stuff to point B each trip, further cutting down on the time it takes you to move all this stuff.
Ideally, you want a computer with a fast CPU and lots of RAM. These two components work hand in hand to create a fast and responsive user experience. CPU-heavy DAW sessions will run smoothly and you'll be able to run multiple programs at once.
When it comes to choosing a CPU, you need to weigh performance against cost. Buying a super expensive CPU like an AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X will deliver amazing results, but it costs almost $4,000. Comparatively, you can pick up an AMD Ryzen 9 3900X, that’s still going to perform exceptionally well, for close to $500. CPUs tend to provide diminishing returns as you start looking at pricier options.
RAM is a bit of a different story. Generally, you want to buy as much RAM as you can afford without your wife finding out. Common amounts of RAM include 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. 128GB of RAM and up is a bit excessive; you likely don't need that much.
For music production, you can scrape by with 16GB of RAM, but I truly believe it's worth holding off on building a PC and scrounging up the extra cash for 32GB of RAM; you'll experience significantly better multi-tasking performance. For example, if you want to run Discord, Spotify, Ableton, and YouTube at the same time, without your computer slowing down in a noticeable way, you should invest in RAM.
As a future-proof option, you may want to bite the bullet and go for 64GB of RAM; software developers tend to create increasingly taxing software over time. With some extra RAM in your pocket, you won't have to worry about a RAM upgrade until years down the road.
The following video provides a great comparison between the performance capabilities of different amounts of RAM. As the video points out, higher amounts of RAM can lead to reduced render times; it doesn't usually take more than a few minutes to render a song, but this is still something to keep in mind.
2. You Don’t Need an Expensive Graphics Card
I recently built this new PC because my 9-year-old MacBook Pro finally kicked the can. For just a little over $1,700, I was able to put together a workhorse PC with an Intel Core i9-10850K, 64 GB of DDR4-3600 RAM, and a Corsair H100i liquid cooler.
The oddity here is that my PC currently includes a $55 MSI Gaming GeForce GT 710 2GB GDRR3 graphics card. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t allocate more of my budget to a graphics card, and the truth is that budget has little to do with it.
I have my eyes set on an RTX 3080 because I like gaming, but between NVIDIA’s inability to meet demand, BitCoin miners purchasing as many graphics cards as they can, and scalpers buying out inventory online using bots within seconds, it’s currently near-impossible to get your hands on one without paying 2x MSRP on eBay.
Luckily, you don’t need a top-of-the-line graphics card to produce music, and this very odd situation has proved it. I have no problem running massive Ableton sessions on my PC, in spite of my meek little GeForce GT 710.
If you want to play current AAA games on your PC with maxed out graphics settings, it makes sense to buy a quality graphics card, but it’s not necessary for music production. Since your PC’s CPU and RAM do the heavy lifting when it comes to processing audio, you can save hundreds of dollars by opting for a budget-friendly graphics card option.
3. Noise Can Ruin Your Recordings
Fan noise is a significant concern when building a PC, especially if you plan to record audio in the same space that your computer is situated. As your CPU heats up as a result of intense processing, the CPU fan(s) will kick into overdrive mode to help cool it down. Normally fan noise is just an annoyance more than anything, but while recording, you don't want your CPU fan(s) revving up in the middle of a killer vocal performance and boosting the noise floor.
Quality CPU fans are often designed in a way to mitigate noise, while still rotating quickly. Ideally, you want to look for a CPU cooler with fans that can spin at a high RPM, but that also have a quiet noise level. A max RPM of 1400 is considered low, while a max RPM of 2500 and above is regarded as high. Quiet fans produce noise at a level of around 20 dBA, whereas fans that are loud produce noise at a level of 30-35 dBA or higher.
RPM isn't the only variable involved in heat dissipation. The CPU cooler's fundamental design plays a role as well. In the following video, Linus demonstrates how a Noctua NH-U12A air cooler outperforms three different tiers of an all-in-one liquid cooler.
Using an air cooler is great, but due to how bulky they often are, you need to make sure that it won't block your motherboard's RAM slots. Some motherboards are laid out in a way that won't grant enough clearance. You either need to opt for low-profile RAM, or use a liquid cooler because the contact point takes up less space above the motherboard.
It's a hassle to move your computer into a different room, but this can take noise out of the equation entirely. Leave your entire setup where it is, but move your PC into another space and connect to it using a variety of extension cables. This is obviously quite an extreme way to deal with noise, but it opens up your CPU cooling options and lowers the noise floor in your home studio.
4. Thunderbolt 3 Compatibility
If you own an audio interface that’s meant to connect to your computer via a Thunderbolt 3 connection, such as one of the audio interfaces created by Universal Audio, you motherboard needs to provide a Thunderbolt 3 port. Alternatively, you can purchase a Thunderbolt 3 expansion card, but your motherboard needs to have a Thunderbolt 3 header to make this integration work.
Most motherboards that are sufficient for gaming cost somewhere around $150-175, but that price goes up substantially to around $250 to $300+ if you’re in need of a motherboard that comes equipped with Thunderbolt 3 ports.
If you choose to go the Thunderbolt 3 expansion card route, you’re looking at an additional $100 on top of what you paid for your motherboard; this could bring you close to that $250 to $300+ price point regardless, while losing a PCIe slot on your motherboard.
Whether you’re planning an Intel CPU build or AMD CPU build, there are motherboards out there that support Thunderbolt 3, but the options are limited.
For Intel builds, a motherboard like the ASUS ProArt Z490-CREATOR is a strong option—this is the motherboard that I own and it was designed specifically with creators in mind.
The ASUS ProArt Z490-CREATOR uses an LGA 1200 processor socket, DDR4 ram technology, an Intel Z490 chipset type, and a memory speed of 4700 MHz. There’s two built-in Thunderbolt 3 Type-C ports, four USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports (Type-A), two USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports (Type-A), and two M.2 slots. On top of that, it includes one HDMI 1.4b connector, along with two DisplayPort IN ports for Thunderbolt 3.
For AMD builds, you have very few options. You can either take a look at an ASRock X570 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB motherboard or a GIGABYTE TRX40 DESIGNARE. The ASRock X570 seems to be plagued with issues and costs $240, while the GIGABYTE TRX40 DESIGNARE has significantly better reviews but costs $630.
It should also be noted that the TRX40 DESIGNARE does not include built-in Thunderbolt 3 Type-C ports. Rather, the motherboard is bundled with a GC-Titan Ridge add-in card that lets you connect Thunderbolt 3 devices.
An AMD motherboard manufacturer could release a killer new TB3 motherboard at any point in time and flip the script, but as it stands, you’re probably better off heading in the direction of Intel—rather than AMD—if you own Thunderbolt 3 devices and plan on building a PC.
One additional thing that you need to take into consideration is that Thunderbolt audio interfaces don't tend to play nicely with Windows 10 WDM programs like Discord and Zoom. The audio you record through your audio interface into these applications will sound crackly and distorted. Although, there is a workaround and I demonstrate how to overcome this issue in the following video.