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Music Production

Adding On: CPU Upgrades in 2017

Audio content creators most often look to their CPUs first when upgrading their respective rigs.

Audio content creators most often look to their CPUs first when upgrading their respective rigs. After all, our software tools rely on the specifications and robustness of their platforms; despite how much our DAWs, plug-ins and other associated software-based tools can do, limitations are usually found at the CPU itself.

Though Windows and Linux OS-based computers and a few proprietary CPUs are found at the center of many professionals’ rigs, Apple remains the majority preference amongst computers for audio production. Regarding these customers, what are the most requested features of today’s audio content creators?

“The majority of our customers choose an upgraded i7-based iMac or MacBook Pro for audio production, as these machines can easily handle 64+ audio tracks natively with ample power to run dozens of plug-ins,” offers Erik Muchka, category specialist for Recording/DAW/Software at Full Compass Systems. “But with Apple’s increasingly closed architecture, we tend to see most DAW users maximizing RAM and CPU processing speed as budgets allow. So with a MacBook Pro, for example, we’ll usually see the customer choosing Apple’s maximum 16GB RAM—or 32GB for an iMac—along with a dual or quad-core i7 CPU if available. Most users also opt for a 512GB SSD or higher, depending on budget, and then add higher-capacity third-party external drives for larger sample libraries and project files.”

Apple is known to regularly switch up I/O offerings—for example, no more FireWire following the emergence of Thunderbolt—which clearly affected customers’ use of preexisting I/O. Still today, USB 2.0 and 3.0 remain the most popular by far, whether the CPU in play is Mac or PC. “But Thunderbolt has been making strides,” insists Muchka. “The Clarett series from Focusrite and the Apollo series from Universal Audio have been favorable choices. That said, despite the fact that Apple no longer offers native Ethernet ports on most machines, Dante and AVB have rapidly emerged as audio connectivity standards for larger facilities and live-sound applications, and both Focusrite RedNet series and MOTU’s AVB interfaces rank high. The new Ethernet-based DiGiGrid desktop interfaces have garnered some attention as well.”

On that note, OWC—a.k.a. Other World Computing, well-known upgrade provider for Mac and PC CPUs—just announced its OWC DEC, reportedly “the first-ever expansion solution designed specifically for the 2016 Apple MacBook Pro,” according to the company. It provides up to 4 TB of additional Flash/ SSD storage for a maximum of 6 TB, including factory capacity; SD Card Slot/Multi-Media card slot; USB 3 Type A Ports for standard USB cabled devices; Gigabit Ethernet; and more to be announced at a later date. With murmurings within the content creator community about Apple’s seeming “consumer shift” amongst its “pro” machines, OWC’s creation may well find an audience.

The OWC DEC attaches completely flush to the bottom of the 2016 MacBook Pro, providing additional flash storage and connectivity. “The OWC DEC enables the new MacBook Pro to be updated and expanded in order to operate at peak performance and ultimately be relevant for years longer than may otherwise be expected,” offers Larry O’Connor, OWC Founder and CEO. “We’ve been developing this concept for over three years and feel now is the perfect time for this groundbreaking product. Storage space is always at a premium on a laptop and without the potential to upgrade the factory drive, the OWC DEC gives users that option back, in addition to cleanly supporting the gear we all rely on.”

Meanwhile, iZ Technology continues to capitalize upon the needs of audio professionals with its RADAR series, alluding to changes in Apple’s CPU offerings as a great motivator to consider iZ’s specially-optimized Windows 8.1 Professional OS-based CPUs. “Many are questioning if Apple has moved on from the professional creative users,” poses iZ on its company blog. “Audio and music production not only requires it, but deserves a purpose-built PC… the iZ RADAR is the top purpose-built audio workstation computer in the world. From its motherboard, expandability and interconnectivity, RADAR is made for music.” The RADAR system features a quad-core i7 processor, allowing users to “go from hitting the power switch to launching your favorite DAW in less than 30 seconds.” Other retailers, namely Sweetwater, offer their own custom audio-optimized CPUs, the Windows 10 64-bit based Creation Stations, featuring more than plenty of USB I/O, Gigabit Ethernet port and more.

Full Compass offered an inhouse custom-built PC solution for audio production for many years. “We continue to advise customers on recommended PC components and configurations,” notes Muchka. “The majority of our DAW customers are Mac-based, though many do use a PC they’ve built themselves or sourced through a major PC maker. That said, we generally recommend Apple computers whenever possible, due to the finite set of component variables and solid compatibility and support from most DAW hardware and software developers.”

Muchka goes on to recommend other upgrades first, rather than worrying about the GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit. “For pro audio work, you generally do not need a particularly powerful graphics card,” he offers. “So be sure to opt for more RAM, a faster processor or a larger SSD before upgrading the GPU. However, be aware than some lower-end GPUs allocate system RAM for graphics in lieu of dedicated VRAM.”

In conclusion, Muchka offers good advice for potential customers who need a CPU for their DAW and are willing to build the best system possible: “It seems simple, but the best advice I would offer is this: Your choice of computer should be based on your specific audio production requirements. How many simultaneous channels of I/O do you require? How many audio tracks are in a typical project? How many plug-ins do you need to run at any given time? How many virtual instruments would you like to have? How large is your sample library? Are you going to rely on your computer to process your audio, or will you use a hardware DSP solution from Universal Audio, Waves or even Pro Tools HDX?

“Answers to all of these questions will help guide your computing decisions; lots of tracks and plug-ins may require a more powerful CPU, lots of samples or VIs need more RAM, and so on. There is no rule that the biggest, fastest computer is required for pro audio work. Choose the computer with specs that best meet your specific needs, and allocate your remaining budget resources to components that have a direct impact on audio quality, like your interface, converters, preamps, clocking and so on.”