Since its analog heydays, music production has become digitally transformed, and virtually all production, mixing, and mastering tasks can now be conducted ‘in the box’, i.e – using only a laptop or desktop computer.
Since computers are such an essential part of the modern music studio, choosing the right computer is one of the most important questions and many new producers are wondering which one should they choose – a desktop or a laptop?
Laptops and desktops can perform broadly the same music production-related tasks. Laptops are preferable if you want to create music on the go and collaborate with others. Desktops are the most cost-effective. You can buy a stronger desktop for the same money as you would buy a weaker laptop.
Having said that, keep reading as I provide an in-depth comparison between laptops and desktops for all things related to music production. But first, let’s take a look at the below table which summarizes the comparison factors.
|Value for money||Stronger spec for the same price||Weaker spec for the same price|
|Portability||Limited to one place||Allows to produce music on the go and collaborate easily|
|Future-Proofing||Easier to upgrade specs||Harder and more expensive to upgrade specs|
|Workflow||More convenient||Limited in terms of agronomy and screen space|
|Peripherals||Higher number of ports||Limited number of ports|
Laptops are powerful and cheaper than ever but high-end models will still set you back thousands. A top-end MacBook, for example, could cost in excess of $3000.
For the same price, you can grab an extremely powerful desktop computer.
There is still a difference between the power of laptops and desktops and when you factor in the price, desktops will usually come out on top.
A desktop will provide more bang for your buck. Whether or not you need that power is a different matter.
Audio production is certainly CPU-intensive and you will need a good processor and plenty of RAM, but super-powerful gaming-level desktops are overkill and are probably not necessary unless you intend on running hundreds of tracks with tons of CPU-intensive plugins.
That’s not the say that power doesn’t matter because it does. If you intend on running a few instances of software instruments like Massive or Serum, for example, with compressors, reverb, delays, etc, then you will need a laptop or desktop with some clout.
If, however, you want to run less intensive music production sessions with minimal plugins then a cheaper laptop could be sufficient.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll need at least an i5 or equivalent processor rated over 2.5gHz with around 8GB of RAM for most audio production.
A good dedicated graphics card also helps as modern DAWs and plugins are visually intensive.
The Bottom Line:
Desktops provide more power on a budget compared to most laptops.
If you want to run a few software instruments with plenty of processors and intend on mastering in the same session then you will likely need a high-end laptop or a good mid-range desktop.
Compared to the stacks of analog gear required for audio production back in the day, both desktops and laptops are comparatively portable.
In one DAW, you can access hundreds of plugins that digitally emulate an entire building’s worth of physical gear!
Still, if you want to produce on the move then a laptop will undoubtedly benefit you the most.
With excellent battery life, superb screens, and plenty of power, modern laptops can crunch through most music production tasks and are swift and comfortable to use on the go.
Desktops are only really suited to home or studio use where they’ll be used as a static entity.
It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that the portability of a laptop is not only advantageous when traveling, but also enables you to record others on the go, or even make field recordings outside, etc.
The Bottom Line:
You can’t really lug a desktop around with you.
Laptops are the best shout for those who need a portable audio workstation. Make sure you don’t skimp out on the performance if you intend on running heavy sessions with lots of software instruments and processing.
Computer technology is advancing all the time and decent specs now will usually prove lacking in several years’ time. If you want a workstation that will survive the test of time and work with future DAWs and plugins then you’ll need something that is both powerful and expandable.
Newer DAWs and plugins from major publishers such as Izotope and Waves are power-hungry for additional system resources and are incompatible with many older systems.
An up-to-date, expandable setup is futureproofed and will save you time and money in the long run.
Older systems or components might become incompatible with new software, leaving you in somewhat of a time-warp where you’re forced to use older plugins than is ideal. Desktops are more easily expanded and can be upgraded as time goes on.
Many laptops can be upgraded too so it isn’t one-way traffic, but desktops offer more expandability than laptops – they are certainly more futureproof on the whole.
The Bottom Line:
You don’t want to run into compatibility issues down the line, grabbing a futureproof, expandable setup allows you to keep your setup up-to-date.
If you foresee yourself working on long-term projects that span several years then consider a system that is adequately futureproofed with higher specs than you need right now.
Workflow is crucial to productivity when producing music.
There are many factors that comprise a solid and efficient audio production workflow. The DAW itself matters hugely here and different options will attract different kinds of users, e.g. Ableton and Logic are favored by electronic music producers whereas Pro Tools is the recording go-to.
Laptops and desktops also have different workflows and although the added space of a desktop may always seem like an advantage, laptops do yield their own benefits.
For some, the all-in-one laptop unit with screen, keyboard, and trackpad all in one place is much more efficient and easy to use than a PC with peripherals.
This primarily depends on what you’re producing. Big sessions with complex compositions are best produced on a desktop whereas simpler sessions with a handful of tracks are simple and easy to navigate on a laptop.
The Bottom Line:
Desktops do lend themselves to complex computing tasks and audio production is no different.
DAWs can really take advantage of the additional screen real estate of a desktop setup – the workflow of a desktop setup is preferable for audio production in most cases but laptops are also excellent for smaller sessions and more straightforward audio production tasks.
We can become so engrossed in the DAW side of music production that we forget about the role of other peripherals.
First and foremost, an audio interface and decent monitor speakers are pretty much a requirement for audio production. MIDI devices and other outboard gear can also be connected to a desktop or laptop and in many cases, a desktop can better accommodate these audio peripherals.
With a laptop, you’ll likely be more limited with USB ports and other inputs or outputs.
This may or may not be an issue, but for those that envision connecting outboard gear to their setup, a desktop is hard to beat.
The Bottom Line:
Desktops allow for the connection of more audio-related ‘stuff’, whether that’s audio interfaces, MIDI controllers and instruments, outboard gear such as synths and instruments, or mixing desks.
For larger-scale recording studio setups, desktop workstations will always come out on top due to their more comprehensive selections of inputs and outputs.
In many ways, laptops and desktops are becoming harder and harder to split. They’ve grown closer in terms of their power and expandability and it’s now possible to grab an audio production-ready workstation at lower costs than ever before.
There are crucial differences, though.
Laptops are unequivocally the best option for anyone who wants a portable audio workstation. Yes, you might need to fork out more cash on a high-end laptop with a similar spec to a mid-range desktop, but portability is a dealbreaker for many.
If you foresee yourself producing music from just one location like a bedroom studio, then a desktop is hands down the way to go. Cheaper, more powerful, expandable, and with greater connectivity, desktops are impossible to beat for those looking for a primarily static workstation.