Choosing Components for a Recording Studio Computer Build - A Complete Guide
If you're reading this article, you've probably been considering the option of building your new recording workstation for a while now; and If you're anything like me, you want the best computer that your budget can afford. You've probably also realized (if you've spent any amount of time researching) that the world of computer build components is very, very confusing - especially for us audio producers! What components do I need? How big should my budget be? What components should I focus my budget on? Should I buy AMD or Intel? How much memory do I need? If you're asking any of these questions then you've come to the right place. I'm going to break it all down for you - what you need and don't need and what to focus your budget on so you can spend less time on researching and more time on recording! So let's dive into it!
Most people would argue that the CPU and not the motherboard is the most important component for your computer build, but I'm going to push back on that idea in the context of audio production computer builds. The reason why you have to think about the motherboard first is because this will determine the connectivity you will be able to have with all of your internal and external hardware components. The most obvious is the CPU compatibility, but secondly you have to think about what kind of interface and internal/external storage options you want for your setup. Do you want thunderbolt connectivity? Support for M.2 SSD drives? Not to mention what generation of CPU you want support for. All these connectivity decisions will be enabled or limited by your motherboard choice. So choose wisely!
This is the brain of your computer build. The raw, working power of your computer is determined by this component alone! Therefore, this is also the component that you should focus the majority of your budget on. The two main producers of CPUs are Intel and AMD. AMD's most recent Threadripper series of CPUs have the edge in multi-thread performance (useful with programs that support multi-thread performance), but Intel still holds a very slight lead in single-core performance (useful in audio editing tasks, processing high track counts). In recent years AMD has approached Intel's level of quality with CPU components and I would be comfortable choosing from either brand as my CPU of choice. You can expect to spend between $200-500 (or more) on a quality CPU processor.
For Intel, you can't really go wrong with an i7 current gen processor (Intel just released 11th gen rocket lake processors). Budget users should choose an i5 of the current gen. Users wanting the best processor with an unlimited budget go all out for an i9 current gen. The great thing about building your own PC is having the option to upgrade from an i5 to an i7 to an i9 in the future as your budget allows or needs change.
For AMD, 3rd gen Threadripper series are the flagship for the CPU manufacturer, though they are out of most people's price range. The more reasonable Ryzen series Ryzen 9 is the most powerful whereas Ryzen 3 is the more budget friendly option of the series.
When choosing your CPU, always choose a current gen processor if you are building from scratch. Manufactures improve upon previous technology from year to year so even a more budget processor can outperform an older gen CPU of a higher level. Base clock is just as important to keep in mind as overclock rating. Your CPU will mostly function near it's base clock rating and only overclock occasionally as needed or forced by the user. Additionally, overclocking will reduce the life of your CPU so only plan on overclocking your CPU if you are planning to upgrade on a more routine basis.
One last thing to keep in mind is that CPU manufacturers tend to change the socket type for their CPUs after a generation or two. For example, 10th and 11th gen Intel processors use socket type LGA 1200, but 9th gen uses LGA 1151 so is incompatible with LGA 1200 motherboards.
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is a type of short-term holding spot for your CPU to access information so it doesn't have to constantly read information directly from a hard drive. RAM becomes increasingly important the more you use multiple programs at once or the more you use virtual instruments for recording. I would recommend having at least 16GB of RAM installed on your motherboard - 8GB at the minimum and 32GB (or more) for those of you planning to use a lot of virtual instruments with your audio production process.
The main specs to keep in mind with memory are the RAM speed in MHz and the CAS latency rating. The RAM speed shows the number of cycles a module of RAM can complete in a second and the CAS latency is the delay between when a command is entered and when the data is available. Therefore, higher speeds and lower latency will give you better performance overall.
To determine what latency you should get, research what MHz speed your CPU and motherboard support at their base clock level (and overclocking profiles if you are interested in that) and get the fastest memory support with the lowest latency that your budget allows. Remember that your system will default to the lowest supported clock speed (MHz) between your CPU and motherboard - whichever is lowest. You will have to overclock your memory if you want a faster memory speed which will lessen the total life of your memory.
4) Cooling Systems
Getting an aftermarket cooling system is extremely important for modern computer systems. For CPUs in particular, heat = death, so you want to keep all of your components cool and running at an optimal temperature.
There are two main types of cooling systems to choose from: air cooling and liquid cooling systems. Air cooling is what I recommend. It's the cheaper option, highly effective and not too much louder than liquid cooling options. The only downside is that they tend to be quite large so make sure you have a case that can fit your cooler if you choose this option. Noctua makes the best air cooler on the market. It's very efficient and dead quiet. I highly recommend them for your cooling needs. Just make sure you check your motherboard compatibility to make sure you're getting the correct cooler version to fit your motherboard.
Water coolers tend to be quieter than air coolers, but come with the added hazard of having to deal with a water leak if anything goes wrong.
5) Data Storage
Data storage is very important to consider for your computer build. You want to make sure that you have enough storage to store all of your recordings (WAV file stems can easily eclipse 2GB per song!), sample libraries, virtual instruments and software programs.
At the very minimum, you are going to want at least 500GB of storage on each drive, but you can and should go for more if you budget allows. Additionally, you will want multiple drives to divvy up your storage for audio recordings and your programs/sample libraries. Reading and writing data to the same drive can slow down your computer; therefore, it's faster to have one drive with all of your programs and samples and another drive where you store all of your song and recording data. You can even take this concept one step further, and have even more drives for archiving files and dividing your sample libraries up. It's really up to you how much you want to segment your computer storage.
There is also the storage method of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) arrays. RAID arrays are a data storage technology that combines multiple physical disk drive components into one or more drives (logical units) for the purposes of data redundancy, performance improvement, or both. This technology is beyond the scope of this post, but it's good to be aware of if you are curious and want to learn more about this method of storage.
Now to talk about types of storage. There are two main types of data storage: hard disk drives (HDD) which are drives with physical moving components and solid state drives (SSD) which are drives that utilize flash memory.
HDDs are the more traditional and affordable data storage devices. These drives are good storage options for recording session, audio files and for use as backup drives as you can get very large drives for a very affordable price. I would recommend getting a HDD with a speed of 7200RPM to get faster read and write speeds. 5400RPM is a bit slow for audio work and faster speeds (10,000RPM and greater) can increase the drive's operational noise.
SSDs use flash storage instead of mechanical disks to read and write data to for storage. This makes them quiet, smaller (2.5" compared to 3.5") and much faster than HDD. They are also much pricier as well. In a perfect world, we would use SSDs for all our data storage, but that isn't economical for most people. So instead, it's a good idea to have at least one SSD drive that you use for your operating system and programs (typically the "C" drive) and then use HDDs for all your other storage. That at least is a good starting point.
One more note about SSD drives. There is a new technology known as SSD M.2 drives. These devices are very tiny, but many are just the same cost as a typical 2.5" SSD drives. The benefit of them is that they plug directly into the motherboard without the need for a SATA cable for data transfer. This means that you don't have any buffer between the data storage device and the motherboard to transfer the data and the result is lightning fast read/write speeds! I highly recommend getting at least one of these M.2 drives if your motherboard supports the technology - which it should if you are buying current gen components.
6) Power Supply
Now that we've selected all of our main components. We have to make sure that we power them properly. Enter the power supply.
The power supply does exactly what it sounds like; providing power to each individual component of your PC build. Power supplies come in three different types. non-modular, semi-modular and fully-modular. By modular, we are referring to the individual wires coming from the power supply and going to the components being removable or not. non-modular is the most affordable option, but having a fully modular setup is nice to have because you can have a less cluttered setup with less wires running through your computer case.
In addition to the modular design, the power supply will also have an efficiency rating and a wattage rating. Efficiency ratings range from bronze 80 plus to titanium 80 plus with three levels (silver, gold and platinum) in-between. The higher the efficiency rating the lower the power draw on average for the PS unit. The lower the power draw, the less heat the unit will produce. The less heat the unit produces, the longer the lifetime your PSU and computer as a whole will have. So, in general, it's better to get a higher efficiency rating than a lower one, but you will pay more for it.
The wattage rating is a bit more straight-forward. Just make sure that the total rating of your PSU is equal to or above the total power draw for the sum of your computer components. Sounds easy right? Just add them all up - right? Unfortunately, even this simple task can be a bit convoluted when it comes to computer builds. One of the trickier things to keep in mind is that a CPU can draw much more power than it's rated at - especially if you plan on overclocking it. The Intel i7-10700k CPU is rated at 125W of power draw, but upon further research, you will find that it can draw up to 250W of power if it is pushed to it's overclocking potential! This is something to keep in mind when shopping for a PSU. Thankfully, websites like PC Part Picker have a tool that calculates your total power draw for the components you select in your build. The safe bet is to choose a PSU that is rated 100W or more above the total, calculated power draw of your components. This will ensure you won't run into power issues when running your build.
It's maybe not the most glorious part of the build to talk about, but there are some important things to keep in mind when getting a case to hold all of your components.
Does the case have enough room for all of my parts?
Is the case large enough to provide adequate air flow for cooling?
Does the case have storage compartments for all my storage drives?
Will I have enough room to make later adjustments to my build if needed?
Is the case too large to fit under or on my desk?
These are the main questions to ask yourself when shopping for a computer case, but there are other things to consider as well. Many options offer plastic, glass or metal frames and it's up to you if you want to save some money here or buy something that looks cool and shows off your internal components.
When it comes to size, computer cases come in three main sizes: ATX Full, Mid and Mini tower. I would say ATX Mid Tower is the average size of a computer case and is suitable for most builds and fits under many (but not all) desks. For this reason, make sure you have a clear picture of where you want to store your computer. Measure the space you have available to make sure your build will fit where you want it to. I would recommend avoiding ATX Mini Tower builds as heat can become a problem not to mention the tiny space being frustrating for installing components.
8) Graphics Processing Unit (and you thought I forgot!)
The Graphics Processing Unit, or GPU, is a component that you can install in your build that will take over the graphics processing from your CPU. Typically a GPU is better suited than a CPU to computing tasks such as video editing and gaming with high resolution and frame rates. In fact, some gamers will save money on a cheaper CPU and put that money to a much more robust and expensive GPU.
But here's where I'm gonna save you a lot of money!
Unless you are planning on doing intensive video editing or gaming, I suggest that you don't get a GPU at all and put that money you would spend on a GPU into a better processor. Audio editing and DAW's don't really benefit from having a GPU so you're going to get way more bang for your buck spending it on a better CPU. Just make sure that your processor has integrated graphics included with the model you buy. Some manufacturers' budget CPUs don't have integrated graphics and therefore require a separate GPU. Just make sure your CPU does include integrated graphics.
8) Other Accessories to Consider
Operating system. Are you going to go Windows, Mac or something else? In my opinion, Windows is the most user-friendly option for DIY computer builds, but there are alternatives.
Additional cooling. When it comes to airflow more is better. Your computer case probably came with one or two fans, but there are probably slots for more to add. Your case manufacturer will most likely have additional fans that you can purchase a la cart for your build.
Keyboard and mouse. There's no reason to overthink this one. Get the most affordable one with the features that you need. There are lots of keyboards or mouse that cost over $100, but from my experience you can find a bundle with both for less than $50 that has all the features that most people will need. You can always upgrade later if you need more.
Monitors. I don't have much to say about monitors. Just make sure that you are getting a monitor that has connectivity that is compatible with your motherboard.
Building a studio computer is fun, affordable, customizable and gives you many options for upgrading later. As tempting as it might be to rush into your build once you get all your components, take a moment to plan out your build. Set aside at least two hours (you might need more than that though - especially if this is your first build) and watch one of the many videos online showing you how to put a computer together from start to finish. Just watching someone else go through the steps can give you confidence and tips in case you run into any issues when putting everything together.
I hope this article has been helpful and answered your questions about recording studio computer components. If you have any questions about anything I covered or didn't cover, please leave them in the comments section or email me at Ben@DreamLoudStudio.com and I will get back to you.
In addition, if you are looking for someone to mix and master your music I offer those services and more on my main studio page which you can find here: www.DreamLoudStudio.com .
Best regards and happy recording!