Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
4/8/22 1:30 p.m.

Hey Boys & Girls,

I read with great interest the excellent thread started by Wally regarding choosing a laptop for general purposes. Learned some new stuff and went down a delightful four-hour rabbit hole chasing down various laptop types.  I recognized many fine attributes these new machines possess for audio recording but I still have questions as to how much computer is enough.

Back in the aughts, I built a couple of computers from components which performed very well.  I used one for ten years by just cramming more memory into it until it was just too obsolete.  Which means I know just enough about computers to hurt myself.  I don't want to make a bunch of mistakes by flailing around and throwing money at problems.  Therefore:

  1. Laptop or desktop?  Is there any reason for the extra mobility or can I save money by getting better performance out of a desktop where miniaturization is not an issue?
  2. I can see where gaming computers have many of the same characteristics desirable in an audio machine, except for more-than-necessary graphics cards.  Is there anything a gaming computer doesn't have that I need?
  3. Would I be better off building from scratch?
  4. Any suggestions on digital audio software for a machine that will handle mostly live (mic) recording?
  5. How about DA converters both in and out?

This and any other enlightenment would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

Jerry

andy_b
andy_b New Reader
4/8/22 7:46 p.m.

1. If you don't need the gpu, a gaming computer isn't necessary.  Graphics card prices are crazy, and that money can be better spent elsewhere if you aren't going to make the most of it.  It sounds like you'll need a lot of peripherals for audio I/O.  At a minimum, make sure anything you buy has USB C ports.  Many can deliver Thunderbolt over USB C which I think is critical for a laptop these days, as that ensures lots of high bandwidth I/O to a variety of peripherals through reasonably inexpensive docks.  You can get a desktop for less than a laptop, but I've always appreciated the flexibility of a laptop.  
 

2. I'm not an audio expert, but I assume that like most things on computers, fast storage and plenty of ram are key for pretty much anything.  You'll find that in any good computer, whether it's a gaming pc or business focused laptop. 
 

3. For desktops, this used to always be yes, but these days gaming PC's from reputable sources are a cost effective way to get a quality rig. 
 

4-5 I can't be of much help. 
 

In general, I recommend looking into business grade laptops or desktops if you aren't gaming. For minimum specs you'll want at least 16Gb DDR4 ram, an NVME, and at least one USB C port.  

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim MegaDork
4/8/22 8:59 p.m.

The main issue when recording audio with the computer in the same room are the noise levels. Building a really quiet computer (which you'd want if you're recording acoustic instruments via microphones) takes a fair amount of work and careful parts selection. Most, if not all, PC laptops with enough oomph will have audible fans. Gaming laptops will have very audible fans.

The "order it and just use it" button are the Apple M1 Mac Minis and IIRC some of the M1 laptops. They're are not cheap, but they're 100% silent even under full load because they have no fans. And they pack a pretty solid punch, too - my M1 Mac Mini renders 5k videos faster than my 12 core Ryzen PC with a decent graphics card.

If you want to go Windows/Linux, I'd build a desktop with carefully selected hier components. It's unlikely to be completely silent, but you can get noise levels down pretty far.  

aircooled
aircooled MegaDork
4/9/22 10:30 a.m.

I think you need to get a bit more specific about what sort of recording and processing you are doing (e.g. multitrack mixing?).  Even then I don't think most any recording / processing tasks will push most any computer these days. I do a bit of VO recording on a PC (using Audition) and the only thing that requires any muscle at all is filtering (e.g. noise reduction, compressors etc) and that is not that bad. My biggest concern is always background noise and environment (e.g. room echo).

I would tend to say, what you plug into the computer (mics, mixers etc) is far more important, and how and where you record.  As noted, a very quiet computer can be useful, but still not you biggest worry sound wise.

Software will come down to PC/Mac, and what you need to do.  Audition goes both ways, but is under an Adobe subscription plan.  I believe  Logic Pro has been the popular Mac software for a while.  If you are doing more basic stuff (e.g. podcast, VO), I am sure you could get away with less sophisticated software (I have heard Audacity mentioned as being popular).  Here is a quick overview I found:

https://www.appsntips.com/home/best-audio-editing-software-mac/

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
4/9/22 2:07 p.m.

Thanks for all the info so far.  Sorry about being a little short on the specifics but I was under a time crunch when I wrote the original post.

First of all, I do have an audio recording background.  However, most of it was in analog.  That does mean I have a good grasp of the peripherals (mics, preamps, boxes, etc) needed to make good sounding recordings.  With digital, I need info on exactly what constitutes a good audio machine with excellent multi-track capabilities and a minimum of latency.  Plus, I need help with sorting through all the various software setups, since most of the tracks I generate will be live or direct in.  I am aware of the need for USB-C as well as all the other hotrod I/O.  I'm also trying to avoid bloatware if possible.  Also, the budget is not unlimited. While we're at it, what is the budget exactly?

Apple products are off the table for now.  While I appreciate the OS very much, I can't reconcile the E36 M3ty glued-together hardware, especially for what they're charging.  I'm just having a hard time figuring out exactly how much computer I need and what it's going to cost.

D/A conversion could be influenced by whether or not it is bundled with some neutered version of the software I/we decide I need.  That might help with the software learning curve.

Questions I could use help with especially:  Do I need i9-level processors or will i3 be good enough with 25 tracks running (I'm using Intel nomenclature because I'm more familiar with it.  I am open to AMD as well)?  How much storage? Two drives? SSD or HDD or one of each?  How much memory for really good function?  Then there's the laptop/desktop question.  I've got to figure out whether portability is even an issue.  Don't get me started on monitors.  One or two?  Uh-oh.  Here we go......

procainestart
procainestart Dork
4/9/22 9:22 p.m.

I'm not up on hardware, but I use Audacity ($0) for voiceover work. It's pretty widely used, not hard, lots of tutorials on YT. I haven't been around commercial engineering software for 15 years so couldn't tell you what you'd be missing, but for the voiceover tracks I record, I can very easily clean them up (noise reduction, compression, limiter filter, eq, normalize) and it doesn't tax my corporate laptop (Lenovo w AMD Ryzen 7 Pro). For noise reduction, you feed it a sample of room "silence" and it uses it to modify your tracks. Whether it's suitable for producing music, I couldn't say, but the price is right and it's good for voiceover work. 

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Curtis73 (Forum Supporter)
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
4/10/22 1:10 p.m.

I use Audacity as well.  I suggest a good audio interface like a Focusrite.  That takes some of the burden off the computer.

You need processor and audio card fortitude.  The rest is gravy.  Display size is nice if you're doing multiple tracks, but that can be solved with an old flatscreen.  I went with a gaming laptop mostly because I also do video editing and it came with a wicked graphics card, but you don't really need much.

I would suggest 16gb memory, an SSD for fast glitch-free read and write, and a good audio card.  I choose laptops for portability but no reason it can't be a desktop.  My home laptop (ASUS ROG) has an 8th gen i7 6-core at 2.21Ghz and it can overclock to 4.1Ghz but I never need it.  My work laptop has a Ryzen 8-core at 3.3Ghz and also 16gb memory.  I use it for CAD stuff and audio editing.  Both are overkill, but worth every penny.

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
4/10/22 3:39 p.m.

In reply to Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) :

Here's what I don't  get.  If the audio interface is doing the heavy lifting, why does the sound card need any extra robustness? Also, is there any multitrack capability with Audacity?  Based on what both of you have said, I should be looking at it but since it's free I understand there will be limitations.

Curtis73 (Forum Supporter)
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
4/10/22 7:29 p.m.

Not many limitations with Audacity.  Certainly not pro-level features, but ultimately functional for the home sound engineer.  I used it to mix 13 tracks of a choral piece that my friends all performed at home during the pandemic and it was brilliant.  My B-I-L used it to record the mix of audio for the video below and he had no issues with all those tracks.

The interface isn't necessary, but it helps.  If you plug a USB microphone directly to the computer, you're asking the sound card to do all the work.  The interface converts it to a nice, clean digital signal first so that the computer only sees audio.  At that point a good sound card is necessary so that you don't ruin the good sound you just made with a crap card.  Its much like if you have a great amplifier that you put through crappy speakers.  It's only as good as the weakest link.  A cheap sound car makes bland sound.  It's great for watching a youtube video or hearing a Windows notification, but it often lacks the bandwidth necessary for complex audio.  When that happens, it has no choice but to compress it down to what it can handle and quality suffers.

If you're just recording a vlog or a voice-over, don't worry about an interface.  If you're recording a flute solo or capturing a thunderstorm, an interface and good card can be a noticeable difference.

My B-I-L's talents:

 

Curtis73 (Forum Supporter)
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
4/10/22 7:31 p.m.

He also recorded this one, but this might have been after he switched to Garage Band or some other Mac stuff

 

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
4/10/22 8:46 p.m.

I want the interface because I have some analog mics and access to many more.  It was my impression the interface would do all A/D and D/A work so I could monitor/ playback off of its signal. Audacity may end up being a good starting point.  Others have indicated Ableton might be nice for the future. I'm at work so I can't listen to the pieces but I will.

Curtis73 (Forum Supporter)
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
4/10/22 9:53 p.m.

I like the interface for that reason... analog compatibility.  There are some amazing USB mics on the market, but (for the most part) unless you pay big bucks, they're best used for vlogs and such.  An interface lets you use whatever you want and it does the A/D conversion for you.

I use an AudioTechnica studio condenser that I got used for $20 at a yard sale because no one knew it was worth $1300 new.  XLR to the interface, USB to the laptop, and I have top notch signal before it even gets to the sound card.

The interface also acts as a sorta remote sound card.  I use mine in the studio for zoom meetings and you can configure it for sound in/out/whatever.  I plug in my headphones for zoom meetings, or I can switch the output to the studio monitors.

Jerry From LA
Jerry From LA SuperDork
4/11/22 2:07 a.m.

In reply to Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) :

First of all, I really enjoyed your B-I-L's work.  Who knew they had digital recording in the tenth century?  And the singer's clothing is so much like ours!  If that first one was done with free software, then I'm in.

Meanwhile, I've been discussing my project with some people at work who have DAWs.  I was wondering whether i9-level processing was necessary or would something less do the trick?  They told me i9 or its equivalent was perhaps more important than the memory or even the storage.  That may ratchet up the cost quite a bit.  They also related their experience with laptops running really hot when processing digital audio, which begs the desktop/laptop question.  I'm wondering what your experience has been like with that phenomenon or how freaky the Big Chip needs to be.

Speaking of storage, you are an advocate of SSDs for both programming and storage?  One drive or two?  What about an SSD for the programs and an HDD for storage to save a little money?  Once I understand and work out the signal path for all this digital gear (including any add-ons), I will be able to anticipate future requirements but I'd hate to spend the money and end up short in some way.

Here's another scenario....I have an old musician friend on the east coast.  We would like to trade tracks back and forth, perhaps building up a song or two.  He has a Mac with Garage Band.  let's assume I have a Windows machine with Audacity.  There is some compatibility between all this software but it may not be automatic.  How much trouble would something like that be? 

Thanks for all the help.  I've studied audio since I was a youngster so I'm enjoying the convo.  I also enjoy the computing aspect as well.  It's the mashup that I'm murky about.

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