Why Choose A Desktop Computer Over A Laptop For Your Home Recording Studio
We live in a world where almost everything is getting smaller and more compact. The term, "The Bigger The Better" definitely does not apply in a world where technology enables everything to be increasingly miniaturized and made more portable. A modern day smartphone carries more computing power than a state-of-the-art computer of the 1970's, that would literally fill up a whole room.
Since those early days, the desktop computer gave birth to the laptop, which in turn led to the development of the tablet and smartphone. This kept evolving to a point that some people don't even own a laptop today. This is especially true for the younger generation. The power packed into a smartphone or tablet is all they require for their personal use.
There are still many instances where the computing power and design of a tablet or smartphone still cannot even begin to compete with a "real traditional" computer. In some cases even a laptop are not able to replace the capabilities of a desktop computer.
Especially when choosing the right computer for your recording studio, the advantages of a bigger desktop computer completely outweigh those of a laptop. This may seem a bit confusing to a new user and goes against the grain of technological development over the past two decades.
For this reason we will be taking a detailed look at all the attributes that make a desktop computer the most suitable solution for home recording. We will be breaking this down into eight categories to better understand the significance of each attribute.
This is one instance where the saying, "the bigger the better" still holds true. In the environment of the home recording studio, ease of use and practicality are very important, as it increase productivity and speed. Here size plays a big role.
To best understand this, we will look at the different components of a desktop and how size and upgradability increase both productivity and speed in all cases.
a) The Monitor
Whenever you get the chance, have a look at some footage of recording studios. Do you see any small screens? Exactly. There is a reason why recording studios use large computer displays. With most of your mixing and post-production work done digitally in DAW software, everything done is viewed on computer displays.
Whether you are working in the digital mixing console or audio adjustment screen, the sheer amount of information displayed on screen is completely overwhelming at first. You need a big display to just see all the different options available, nevermind easily accessing and working with them.
Simply take a look at the size of an traditional mixing console with all its sliders and adjustable knobs, and you will get a pretty good idea of the screen size necessary to display even a portion of these functions.
Here it is not a question of how big you monitor screen should be, but how big a one you can afford.
b) The Keyboard
The keyboard is your primary interface with the computer and onscreen functions. (Yes, touchscreen technology is available on high-end systems, but this is still out of reach for the majority of home users).
Apart from easily striking the correct key while working, your DAW software assign certain keys on your keyboard to specific functions in the software. The convenience of a full-size and even extended keyboard is obvious. This keyboard allows you to work more accurately with a much greater speed.
I will leave it to your imagine to try and perform these action with the virtual onscreen keyboard of a tablet or smartphone. Even the condensed keyboard of a laptop is sometimes unpractical for the productive use of a digital audio workstation.
The power inside a smartphone maybe light years away from the desktop computer of the early 1980's. It still cannot begin to compete against the fast processors required by modern day DAW software.
To give you and idea without getting too technical, traditionally a CPU (Central Processing Unit), the brain of computer used to have one core, meaning it could handle one stream of data at a time. Today's affordable Intel Core i5 and i7 CPU's are quad-core CPU's, meaning they can handle four streams of data simultaneously (Each one has hyper-threading capabilities meaning these tasks can be divided further). Your top-end Intel Core i9 processors have anything from 10 to 18 cores!
All these functions also takes place at a very high speed. (New smartphone chips are also capable of multitasking, but not nearly at the level or speed of a desktop computer CPU)
If you wonder why this is so important, just take into consideration the amount of audio data your DAW software must process, sometimes in real-time. Now add the fact that it has to cope with multiple tracks of data at once.
This simply means a desktop CPU will be able to process and output the same amount of audio data in seconds or minutes, which will take the small CPU of a tablet/smartphone hours or days to perform the same task. And this is no exaggeration.
You might wonder why manufacturers can not just install a processor as powerful as a desktop computer into a tablet or smartphone. This is a valid question but the answer is simple: Size, capacity and heat.
The size of a full-blown CPU installed in a desktop computer will take up more than half the size of any smartphone, even in, today's 6 inch "phablets" This leaves almost no room for the rest of the components needed to make cell phone work.
The power consumption a of such a CPU also means that you will need a battery the size of a small brick to operate the smartphone for any realistic period of time.
Lastly, the the heat produced by modern CPU's this powerful, is immense. In desktop computers, it does not only need to be surrounded by enough space to absorb the heat. A specifically designed heat sink and CPU fan is placed on top of the processor in order to keep it cool enough not to sustain any damage.
If you look at the memory requirements of the big players in the DAW software industry, most recommend a minimum of 4 Gigabytes of system memory to be able to operate. In truth, most of these requirements are the bare minimum. This means in reality you need 8Gb to make your working experience with the software productive, without unnecessary system hold-ups due to the computer running out of memory.
For this to make sense, let me just quickly describe how a computer and memory interacts. Whenever a software is loaded from the hard drive the first time you open it, it is stored in the system memory (the 4 or 8 Gigabyte memory modules). This makes accessing the software and its functions fast as the CPU (computer's brain) can immediately talk to the software loaded in the memory.
The problem arises when these memory modules gets filled up. Not only does it store the computers operating system and Digital Audio Workstation software. It also stores the audio data that the software works with and process. This is a huge amount of data that can fill up in even 8Gb of data very quickly.
When these memory modules are full, your computer has no choice but to start using "virtual memory", a place on your hard drive that is allocated to act as temporary storage when your system memory is full. You can understand how disruptive the constant interaction with a hard drive to access data and temporary store it can be. It slows your computer down to a crawl where you can actually see the light of the hard drive frantically flickering while you frustratingly wait for one command to be processed.
Luckily most modern day desktop motherboards come with at least 4 memory module slots (from which the first two are normally filled in your new system). By adding additional memory or completely replacing all 4 slots with more memory, many new systems allow you to easily allow from 64Gb to 128Gb to be added to your system.
This may sound like overkill, but from personal experience, you can cut your processing time working with large files by up to 4 times or more by simply adding more memory.
(I personally experienced this when upgrading 2 of my desktop systems from 8Gb to 16Gb, without changing a single other component in the system).
It is also important to note that it has already proven time and again, that adding sufficient system memory to a computer has a much greater effect on performance, than upgrading to a system with a much more expensive and powerful CPU (Central Processing unit).
Just keep this at the back of your head, and whenever you start experiencing computer slow-down when working with increasingly bigger files, knowing you can significantly reduce this slow-down by using the expandable memory slots of your desktop computer to expand your system's total memory capacity.
4. Separate Components
I don't need to dwell on this subject for too long and waste your time.
It is clear that by having a separate desktop, separate keyboard and computer display (to mention just a few), you are able to upgrade any of these components at any time without having to replace you entire system.
This way you not only protect against occurring unnecessary additional costs, you are also able the to substantially prolong the lifespan of your computer system.
5. Multiple Monitor Support
Remember the footage of a recording studio I asked you to look at when discussing monitor size? If you recall or take a look at again, chances are pretty good in most professional recording studios, the sound engineer sitting at his console, is surrounded by 3 or more big computer screens. There is a very simple and practical explanation for this.
It is just impossible for all the monitoring and adjustment functions available to you, to be viewed on a single monitor, no matter how big the screen.
Software technology, especially on high-end systems, have multiple-monitor support. This means it allows you to organize your digital work-space. For example, it allows you to have all your tools and adjustment controls on one screen, while freeing up space for your time-line and all changes that are made on it to be displayed on a separate screen, uncluttered from toolboxes and other online objects.
You may not have the funds or need for multiple monitors when starting you home recording studio. However, as your needs and budget grow, you now have an upgradable computer in which you can install a graphics card that support multiple monitors at any stage.
At this point its hardly necessary to bring up the subject of upgradability. Almost all the functions and attributes that make a desktop computer so powerful and versatile is mainly due to its upgradability.
From desktop memory, to adding an additional hard drive in your desktop, almost every part of your system can be upgraded and improved to some extend.
I will not bore you with the list of components and devices that can be upgraded in your system. You already have a very clear picture of why this is so important.
I think it's safe to state that the upgradability of a desktop computer is its single biggest strength, able to turn your humble entry level computer into a powerhouse workstation able to process and output multi-track recordings in record breaking time.
If you are not convinced by now as to why a desktop computer is far superior than any other type of computer for handling the needs of your digital audio workstation, I am afraid there is not much more I can do to convince you.
At some point, as your basic needs and software requirements outgrow your system, you will find it out for yourself, hopefully not at too great a cost.
I tried not to get too technical while explanation all the features that exist and function in a desktop computer. In order to properly explain everything properly, I had to lean a bit on some technical terminology.
If anything is unclear or confusing, feel free to leave me a question or comment, and I will be happy to address it.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!