Are you having trouble figuring out the right computer components to start making music? We will cover the nuts and bolts of CPU, RAM and how to ensure max compatibility when buying or building your computer for audio production.
A high-performance CPU is considered to be more important than RAM for music production computers. Although, If you are setting up, you should spend on the best CPU you can afford and upgrade the RAM later. If you are upgrading, consider your usage before allocating your financial resources.
Whether you are looking to toy around, do quick ‘n dirty edits, or make pro-level audio tracks, you ought to know the essentials of a ‘music production computer’ to avoid the frustrating pitfalls of a mismatched or incompetent rig.
All computer users, from gamers to programmers, are hungry for a potent and powerful rig. Music production enthusiasts have their specific considerations for buying or building a computer. ‘More RAM or better CPU’ is one of the most common questions in this realm.
Ironically, it isn’t always an either-or choice as they both are complementary to each other and play an important role in the overall performance. For example, RAM plays a key role if you are an ardent user of VSTs with large sample banks or libraries.
CPU is more important for processing software components such as effect plugins, VSTs. As you can see, the precise setup requirements will vary based on the music you are trying to make. Generally, the CPU is touted as the more important of the two because it’s the brain of your computer, it’s responsible for how fast it thinks and acts.
In this post, we’ll examine how CPU affects your music production rig. I’ll give you all the information you need to invest in the right build for your setup.
Music Production Computer: A better CPU or more RAM?
While RAM is helpful, a powerful CPU is far more important for fundamental operations. It is advised to first upgrade the CPU, preferably to an Intel i5 (or equivalent) for basic-to-intermediate users and an i7 for intermediate-to-advanced users. You can milk more juice from your setup if you add dedicated SSD storage (or even a 7200 rpm HD).
There are two things to look for in a CPU – cores and clock speed. Cores refer to the number of cores i.e. dual-core or quad-core. A core, at heart, is the processor itself and CPUs today have anything from 2 to 18 cores based on the model.
More cores mean better performance and support multi-threading. Each core can handle a separate task. I recommend getting a minimum of four cores or as many as your budget allows. They are directly responsible for making the CPU efficient.
Clock speed is the speed at which the processor performs its calculations. Beginners can get away with 2.2GHz of clock speed. Advanced users should gun for 3.6Ghz. Again, gun for the highest speed that you can afford as it makes your processor (CPU) more powerful.
Lastly, the decision is contingent on how many VSTs, VIs, and audio tracks you plan to use per project. If the number is high, you need more power – like an i7 processor. An i5 (or even an i3) can suffice if you use a few synths, drum loops, and a few VST instruments.
Your go-to DAW has a say in this decision. Certain DAWs run fine on a dual-core (Abelton Live) while others, like Pro Tools, need i7 processors with 2.4GHz clock speed or faster.
CPU for Music Production:
Whether music production is a hobby or a career choice, a CPU is the most important component of any new or existing music production build. As a rule of thumb, you should dedicate the largest chunk of your budget towards acquiring a solid unit model with a 4-core and 8-thread CPU or, if your budget allows, a 6-core CPU.
A good CPU, paired with 16 or 32 GB of RAM (DDR4), will get through most audio editing and music production tasks. The current market is rich in choices, Intel and AMD, the industry leaders, offer several outstanding processors across the price range.
You can manage with a dual-core processor for basic needs, but I recommend a quad-core processor for intermediate-to-advanced users. So far, Intel’s i5 processor and AMD’s Ryzen 5 have been popular choices in the category.
The high-performance units are more expensive but they provide a significant jump in core/thread count. If you are willing to spend big, Intel’s i9 CPU offers top specs with 10-core/20thread capabilities but it ensures that you get match parts to get the best results.
Such “monster builds” are primarily for the cash-rich and can be redundant if you don’t need their max performance. Here is a basic list with a sampling from each segment:
- Low-Budget buyers and Hobbyists: or AMD r5 3400G
- Bedroom Producers & Home Professionals: Intel i5019600K or AMD Ryzen 5 3600
- Premium or High-End: Intel i9-10900K or AMD Ryzen 5950X
This is just a basic list that covers the most popular CPUs at different price points. You can find several other options for a balanced build within each category that will vary in performance and price.
Best CPU for Music Production
AMD’s Ryzen 5950X and 5600X have shot to fame for their extraordinary capabilities. The Ryzen 5000 Zen 3 or Ryzen 5 3600 are excellent options if you are an intermediate producer or are on a tight budget. Intel’s 11th gen processors are comparable to high-end AMD processors.
Moreover, most seasoned music producers insist that a CPU with a 7000+ score on the benchmark test is sufficient for all imaginable projects. CPU benchmarks are the results of a standardized performance test that reflect the unit’s ability to run applications.
How do I check the CPU benchmark score?
You can check the CPU benchmark score of any unit online by logging on to any PC benchmark web resource such as www.passmark.com. Enter the model number (or code) of the processor of your choice and compare it with other models or online resources. You can also run a stress test, memory diagnostics, and other software tests to assess the performance of your PC.
If you want to run it on your current computer, Windows has a built-in performance test that can be accessed by typing perfmon/report in the box that pops up when you press the Window key + R. It will do a system check and provide you with a resource overview.
RAM for Music Production:
RAM, or Random Access Memory, refers to the memory a computer has to store short-term information. When you are running a task that overloads your RAM, your OS will palm off low priority tasks to a temporary place on the hard disk. This process is called swapping.
When your computer needs to recall those applications again, they are retrieved from the hard disk. This process is known as paging. Both swapping and paging are intensive tasks and too much of them can cause poor performance or lag.
So clearly there is a need for ‘enough memory’. If RAM is holding back the overall performance of your PC, you can add additional RAM sticks to a build. Its main role is to thwart crashes during audio editing, speed up or optimize DAWs, and make your build more powerful.
But upgrading RAM is only useful until a point where it helps your computer to run efficiently. After that, additional RAM becomes redundant and offers little-to-no value for money. While RAM is important for several use cases, audio tasks don’t tend to be highly RAM-intensive.
8 GB RAM is sufficient for beginner-to-intermediate users. 16 GB is usually enough to avoid performance issues, especially if you have a good CPU to match it. 32 GB is sufficient for intermediate-to-advanced music producers who use 100+ tracks and orchestral composers.
64 GB, in most cases, is overegging the pudding. It should only be pursued if you have extraordinary demands or deep pockets. Here is a basic list with a sampling from each segment:
- Low-Budget buyers and Hobbyists: 16 GB (2 x 8) DDR4 2400
- Bedroom Producers & Home Professionals: 32 GB (4 x 8) DDR4 3200
- Premium or High-End: 64 GB (4 x 16) DDR4 3600
RAM and Compatibility:
Bear in mind that you can’t mindlessly cram your build with RAM. The motherboard and OS (operating system) has a limit on the max RAM in every build. The lower limit between the two indicates what is the maximum RAM your computer can accommodate.
The motherboard has ‘RAM slots’ that are physical slots where you fit the RAM modules. The number of these slots is fixed and the exact number will vary based on the motherboard. Four slots is the norm nowadays, but if you have an older unit, it could have only 2 slots.
Secondly, the RAM needs to be compatible with the motherboard. This simply means that the RAM slots are either DDR3 or DDR4 compatible. All new generation motherboards need DDR4. Search online for a motherboard and ram compatibility checker and ensure the specifications match before you make a purchase.
Operating systems (Windows) are either 32-bit or 64-bit. A 32-bit operating system has a limit (cap) of 4 GB RAM. You can add 64 GB RAM to a build with 32-bit Windows. It will use only 4 GB while the rest of it will just sit there doing nothing.
A 64-bit operating system will handle anything between 16GB to 128GB of RAM. This varies from one OS to another. For example, Windows 10 can use 128GB but Windows 7 can only handle 16GB. You can find out how much RAM an OS can access with a simple online search.
Imagine getting 64 GB of RAM only to find out that your motherboard or OS won’t access all of it. It clearly demonstrates a need to keep the specs and limitations of your overall build in mind when you plan your upgrade.
Like CPUs, there are two main things to look for when buying or upgrading RAM – memory (the amount – like 4 GB, 8 GB, etc.) and the memory speed. We’ve already covered the recommended amounts for music production in a previous post.
Does RAM speed matter for music production?
RAM speed (or memory speed) is nearly inconsequential in music production. You should not focus on RAM speed when you are looking for ways to optimize your computer’s performance. RAM amount can help, but RAM speed yields little-to-no returns on your investment in terms of improving your DAW’s efficiency or your computer’s performance.
The RAM speed you see listed in the specs looks something like DDR4 3200 or DDR4 3600. The numbers such as 3200 or 3600 refer to the data transfer rate speed. It is measured in Megahertz i.e. 3200 Mhz data rate.
It signifies how fast the RAM can send data to and from your CPU. RAM speed varies from 1600 to 3600. In general applications, a faster transfer rate means faster RAM. However, you need matched pairs to use the full rate. If you have a single module or mismatched module, you will only get half the rate i.e. DDR4 3600 will run at 1800 Mhz.
That said, we won’t get into other detail regarding RAM timing and latency as they are intricate topics that are hard for a layperson to grasp. As a helpful rule of thumb, the lower the timing/latency numbers, the better the performance.
How to tell if you have low RAM for music production?
The dreaded blue screen and random rebooting are telltale signs that your computer needs more RAM. Another common symptom is that your computer will freeze or ‘hang’ and programs or apps will stop responding. You can check the memory usage in many VSTs and DAWs while you are running your heaviest audio project.
With a market flooded with options, it’s never been easier to build a music production computer. You can source good components and have them delivered to your doorstep. Plus, web resources (like us) will continue to support you with concise and simple information to get started.
To recap, you should invest in an excellent CPU as a first priority. RAM should be a secondary consideration. When buying RAM, speed is less important than memory. So, you will have more returns from extra RAM at a slow speed than less RAM at a higher speed.
It is also worth spending money on good storage but it is not mandatory. Think of SSD as an indulgence but what is more important is that you select something with at least 7200 rpm. With that, we’ll conclude our post in hopes that you are now well informed to build or upgrade your music production computer, and all set to get the most bang for your buck.
Also Read: Is 4GB RAM enough for music production?