I’ve waited some time to post. That’s because I didn’t want to write anything until my research was finished and my opinion fixed.
I had a 4 year run with my old DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) but it’s time to move on. Sure there are workarounds. I could freeze tracks, maybe upgrade the CPU, but basically it doesn’t have enough juice to keep up with my ideas.
I’m the type of person who likes to know all my options and spend some time considering them. At this stage of recording it makes sense to operate this way. Ten years ago I knew little and was happy with simply buying a popular machine and using popular DAW software. That approach was fast but had it’s pitfalls. Like when I found a out a month later some software I really liked wasn’t developed for my OS, or that I didn’t have any PCI slots for my old DSP card, or that I payed a lot of money for a graphics card I would never put to use. Ooops.
Here is the disclaimer I’m going to use for the next few posts that detail my daw selection and building process: I’m not an expert when it comes to building or selecting machines. Even so, I think I can add some useful information because I’m approaching it from a newbie-ish perspective. People that have been building machines for years seem to have forgotten all the knowledge they have acquired along the way.
Here is an example. I’m my research for a DIY DAW I received a recommendation to use 3 sticks of mid-grade ram. I believe what the poster was trying to say was “Don’t pay for expensive fast ram. Ram speed is not the issue for a DAW. Also don’t get super cheap ram. The problems you can have with cheap ram aren’t worth the savings”. Here is what he assumed I already knew: My motherboard is designed with DDR3 ram in mind. DDR3 ram can only run at top speed if you install sets of three. You should already have checked with the motherboard or ram manufacture for compatibility or downloaded their qualified vendor list (QVL). If you plan on overclocking you will need ram that is stable above your default memory bus speed.
Not to fault this guy. He was trying to help. He just forgot all the things he actually did know or learned years ago building his first machine. What I hope to do is fill this knowledge gap.
All the information I’m going to pass on is from researching online, reading Scott Mueller’s 19th edition Upgrading and Repairing PCs, reading the documentation that came with my parts, and building my DAW.
The way I see it you can either buy a pre-built machine, have a daw builder build one for you, or build it yourself. Over the last 10 years I have tried all three approaches. That’s not scientific, but it’s good enough for an informed opinion.
A few years ago I would say consider your OS. Now that Macs have Intel chips and can run Boot Camp I’m not so sure. I talked to one studio owner and DAW builder who only uses Mac Pros and runs Boot Camp. He says these machines are fast, stable, and have no virus issues. So it would seem any software you can run on a PC you can now run on a mac.
If you run audio software developed only for Macs I think you have to stick with a Mac. To my knowledge there is no Boot Camp equivalent for the PC. There may be ways of simulating a Mac on a PC but I’d be careful. If I went this route I’d like to know what support is like, how much processing power you loose, if it’s stable, and if anyone doing serious audio is actually running it.
I am not going to consider laptops. IMO a desktop will always beat a laptop for a DAW. Laptops have slower drives, no room for your DSP cards, cost more for the desktop equivalent, etc. The only advantage I see in a laptop is mobility. I don’t need that.
Here we go.
Pre-built Machine: If you get a pre-built machine from one of the big manufactures make sure it is a business or enterprise machine (HP and Dell list these as workstations). These machines are designed to do heavy workloads and be dependable. My rule of thumb is most consumer grade goods stink.
I looked at 3 manufactures: Apple (Mac Pro), HP (Z series) and Dell (Precision series). All of them use Xeon processors. The Xeon is basically the enterprise/server version of Intel’s i7 chip. I doubt there is much difference in DAW performance using a Xeon vs an i7. However, Xeons do cost more then i7s. Take note potential DIYers.
The Mac starts at $2,500. The Dell and HP start at less. But if you configure them close to the Mac specs they are over $2,000. Don’t assume Macs cost more. At some price points they beat HP and Dell with similar specs. Go to the respective sites and configure the machines you want and compare prices.
When I had my Dell Precision series machine it performed well for the price, was very quiet, and the only thing that ever failed was the optical drive. They sent a “tech” who just swapped in a new drive. I could have had the part mailed to me and done it myself. I wish I had because the goon with a screwdriver they sent scared the hell out of me. It was apparent he wasn’t that skilled and all I could think about was him jabbing my hard drive (not backed up of course) with that screw driver and loosing it.
The Dell was both quieter and had less hardware failure then my next machine which was a custom DAW build. huh?
The idea behind daw builders is they select components with audio in mind and tweak your system for audio. For hardware: quiet fans and hard drives, chipsets and processors that test well with audio applications, inexpensive video cards (we don’t need the added heat or cost of gaming video cards). For software: optimized bios and OS settings. Some builders will preload your applications too. When the machine arrives you just need to enter your license information. Cool.
About 4 years ago I bought one of these machines. Although I found the owner of the company to be a good guy who was generous with his time I just can’t give them a very good grade. It’s just one machine so maybe it was a fluke, but that machine had more problems then any other machine I’ve owned. I’m not going to go into details here. But if you do buy a boutique DAW ask a few questions. If something goes wrong who will work on the machine? Do you ship it back and loose it for a week? Are You responsible for finding a qualified person to do the work locally? How long do you warranty the hardware? How long is your tech support free?
DIY DAW build:
DIY DAW building is not necessarily simple or fast. There are people who have been building machines for years. It may be simple for them. There are also people who happen to get lucky. They pick the right parts, don’t get any lemons, and things move right along. I am in neither category.
These days I’ve read you can’t really save money by building your own machine. When you take into account your time, the cost of parts, buying critical software ($200 for Windows 7) you may be paying more.
The advantage is you can select exactly the parts you want and know your system very well. If something goes wrong you will probably be more qualified to fix it then the guy at the local computer shop. After my build I certainly feel more qualified then the tech-thugs at the local repair place. They managed to bang up my case replacing a hard drive. Then the tech working on my machine almost dropped a hard drive 5 feet onto concrete. In the last 4 inches he made a miraculous save. I made a decision to not return.
Another advantage is you will or should be using industry standard parts. When you buy from a big company you may end up with proprietary components. This could make future upgrades or replacements a pain or impossible.
If you are inclined to go this route but don’t know where to start please hold on. In my next post or two I will be detailing my DIY DAW build in numbing detail. I’ll include the thinking that went into component selection, the missteps I made, reviews of specific parts, and (I hope) some easy to grasp concepts.
My conclusion? Option 1. Buy a business or enterprise model machine from a big manufacturer. A big manufacturer has the resources to thoroughly test these systems for reliability. If something goes wrong they will most likely send a tech to swap in a new part. You are up and running fast and can get back to making music instead of installing ram and tweaking the bios.