mousemusic

Want to get into making music on computer? Here are a few good points to start with…

Times have changed since the times of Mozart and Beethoven. Hey… times have changed since 15 years ago. Computer technology is rapidly becoming the medium through which modern composers express their music to the world, and knowing how to take advantage of these tools will help you work faster, write better and get your music heard.

Do You Compute?

If we are going to take advantage of any modern music-making tool, we are going to need a computer. Considering you are reading this article on a computer right now, we probably have this one down – although the specifications of your music computer do tend to relate to the kind of work you will be doing with it.

If you like the music I write – big, burly orchestral music using synths and sample libraries, using DAW programs like Sonar, Cubase or Logic, then your computer is going to need a bit of grunt. By grunt, I mean…

CPU

Generally something that is current and fast. Quad-core Intel chips are the standard these days (or the AMD equivalents). Whether you build your own computer or buy a ready-made one – make sure it has a decent CPU. Most Apple computers are pretty good in this department… (EDIT: I’m informed that 8-core processors are touted for release next year…)

RAM

…or memory as some people refer to it as. If you are using sample libraries like I do, then the amount of samples you can have loaded is somewhat dependant on the amount of RAM you have. The best bet is to get as much as you can afford. RAM is relatively cheap these days, so that’s always a bonus.

Hard Drives

Modern sample libraries are HUGE, there is no other way to put it. So it makes sense that you will need enough space to install them all. Hard Drive Speed is also a consideration… most will have some sort of specification regarding RPMs – the faster the RPM the more responsive the drive will be. 7200 RPM drives generally suffice; 10,000 RPM drives are even better, although they tend to be smaller in capacity. Then there some cool new drives called ‘Solid State’ – which don’t have RPMs at all, but act more like really BIG piece of memory – but they come at a cost… usually in the form of $$$$. Check them out here… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid-state_drive

But what if I just use Sibelius/Finale?

Alternatively, if you are just planning on booting up Sibelius or Finale and doing a bit of composition – notation style… then you probably don’t need an epic beast of a computer. But… there are some cool little sample libraries that come with Sibelius and Finale as well, so if you want to use them you will atleast need something reasonably modern and well-specified – just so you don’t run into any brick walls.

computermusicIs there any wiggle room?

If you are thinking that ‘the beast’ is looking too expensive, or you want to trade-off certain features for others… then yes, there is some wiggle room.

CPU really comes into play when you are working on really large, complex arrangements or productions… especially when you have lots of effects loaded (eg. reverb) – most of which will use the CPU to compute their outputs. If you don’t plan on doing HUGE projects, then you can get away with a slower CPU (but don’t go too slow, or get an underpowered chip that won’t cut the cheese!).

There are ways to get around the ceiling effect of having less RAM by using a process called ‘bouncing’ or ‘freezing’, which most DAW programs like Sonar, Logic and Cubase have built in. These magic bullets effectively FREEZE whatever you music you have been creating with a certain synth or sample library, converting it to an audio track, and freeing up the RAM it used whilst it was open. This means you can then go ahead and load up something else and compose away without too many hassles.

Regarding hard drives, I recommend this rule as a baseline:

  • 1 hard drive dedicated to your computer’s operating system, and
  • atleast 1 hard drive dedicated to your sample libraries and any audio data you record.

This is because operating systems like Windows and Mac OSX can be hard drive hungry, and can chew up precious access to your samples when you need it most. Having a separate hard drive for your samples means that the drive is free to access your sample libraries without your OS getting in the way. So, I recommend atleast 2 harddrives.

What else do I need?

I haven’t covered another important piece of kit when setting up a computer for music, and that is an audio interface… but I will leave that for another post; there are a lot of interfaces out there and it’s worthy of some good attention on it’s own!

This post is by no means comprehensive, as there are always other things to consider… the quality and type of the motherboard, noiseless case fans, graphics cards with multiple outputs for those awesome film-scoring projects you’ll be doing blah blah blah… and for those who are quite serious about all this, there are even high-end options of running sample libraries on multiple computers over networks… computer farming fun!

But seriously, if you get a good CPU, a decent amount of RAM and enough hard drives to hold you over, you are definitely on your way. If you need a computer farm already, then this post won’t help you one bit :).

What Setup Do You Use, Scott?

I haven’t really kept up with many of the more modern sample libraries available these days, so I’m working on a relatively lean setup. I’ve still got a Dual Core Intel, with only 3GB of RAM and a few hard drives to share around the load. That said… if tomorrow I decided to go buy the new Hollywood Strings Diamond library from EastWest, then I might be in trouble. But for now, it holds me over just fine.

Really try to get as good a system as you can. A better, more high-end system will mean your computer won’t be completely out of date in a year’s time when that fantastic, resource hungry mother-of-all libraries comes out. Future-proofing reigns supreme!

-s.