Straight Talk on System Specs

As we move into Spring and the Fall TV production season, I thought it worthwhile to review where we are with system specs for those looking to upgrade to new systems.

The Situation
One of the biggest issues we face with system specs is the limited system testing that goes on with all music tech companies for both hardware and system integration issues.

System integration issues includes the correct specs for the main sequencing program to perform as advertised and demonstrated. That’s first, and it includes the machine, the operating system, possible OS tweaks, the audio card, audio card drivers, software programs using wrappers, video drivers, and then, which virtual instruments and plug-ins operate efficiently within the host sequencing program.

Next is backwards compatibility for various OS versions for both Mac and PC. How far back do you go? Not an easy question particularly when you consider that there’s no massive library of data on who owns what system.

Next is CPU compatibility, then finally, determining what minimum system requirements are and what performance levels are really achieved with them.

Who Built the Machine
If you’re just dealing with Macs, that’s one thing. With the PC, you’re dealing with myriad options including customers who build their own, and not knowing the quality of the parts used, their skill in system building, and if a powerful enough power supply was used. The power supply has always been the hidden feature that rarely gets discussed. But if a system is underpowered, you can get pops and clicks.

The Basics
Here are some starting points.

CPU – For the most part, it’s an Intel world on both Mac and PC. Street talk says to use an i7 Quad Core on the PC for your slave systems and 8-core for the main DAW. So far, as in so far, these anecdotal reports have been holding up, but they are untested. There’s no lab who’s gone to the trouble of testing these variables and publishing The Compleat Slave System Spec for 2010: First Quarter.

If I were to make an investment on a new sequencing system, I’d follow Apple’s lead with the Mac Pro and get an 8-core, regardless of the platform. Yes, it’s a little more expensive, but as professionals, we’re making a multi-year business purchase. If you’re holding on to your system for 36-48 months, the extra you pay for an 8-core is negligible, especially when you factor in IRS depreciation allowances (standard vs. accelerated. See your CPA for details).

For a slave system, I would tend to follow the prevailing thought until, of course, you get to Vienna MIR or other high demand program, in which case, 8-core is how you go. Unless, of course, a 12-Core shows up 30 seconds after I wrote this column!

A year ago, all of these systems were big boy systems (uber expensive!). Today, from Hewlett-Packard, you can get an i7 with 9GB of RAM and a motherboard that can handle 24GB. A year ago, the biggest consumer mobo available was 8GB. Above 8GB, you needed a server board. Not today.

This is not an endorsement. But check out what HP has to offer for their i7 Quad Core systems with inhome 24 service available.

Another thing about HP, is that several of these systems are in Best Buy, so you can check them out. And yes you can uninstall the gunk that bottles up the Registry.

Anything above Quad Core, you’re looking at custom systems from ADKProAudio or VisionDAW.

Also, be aware that you can now get an iMac with an i7 Quad Core that will handle a maximum of 16GB of RAM.

RAM – Again, no real testing available. The Mac Pro comes standard with 6GB. I tend not to want to go below 8GB, 12GB is always better. Remember, this is a 3-4 year buying decision.

One point about RAM – RAM slots. In planning RAM, you have to consider the cost of expansion. RAM slots work in pairs. So if your mobo can handle 16GB and it has four slots, you can buy 8GB of RAM in four 2GB modules, or two 4GB modules. The 4GB modules will cost you more, but you have two slots open, and if you want to upgrade your RAM, you don’t have to risk staring at several hundred dollars of unused RAM modules in your drawers!

The Mac Pro can go up to 32GB of RAM while HP and other PC boards are at 16GB to 24GB. Above 24GB on a PC and you’re in to a server motherboard.

The Case – Again, it depends. Ideally, getting 4 hard drives into a case is the more ideal. The HP systems I referenced above have space for two. Anecdotal evidence says that 1T or better 7200RPM drives are ideal. One composer I know has LASS running on an i7 Quad system, a C drive, and a single SSD 360GB D-drive dedicated to LASS. His polyphony per instance of Kontakt 4 is amazing and he was pulling multiple instances of K4 using MIDIoverLAN (MoL)!

Audio/MIDI Connections – This is the bug bear and I’m not making recommendations, I’m making observations. Check out the web sites to see for yourself.

Right now we seem to have two (2) master options. One is VSL’s Vienna Ensemble Pro that’s dual platform. If you follow the VSL forums, it does/doesn’t work with PLAY. Some have PLAY working with it, but it depends on the version of VE Pro. It is running Kontakt 4 and LASS.

That’s Option 1 today.

Option 2 today is more standard. With VE Pro (the idea of which I like a lot), you connect from the VE Pro machine(s) to the master DAW by way of LAN cable. This means no more additional hardware audio and MIDI interfaces. However, others prefer what is now the standard approach which is to install MIDI Over LAN (MoL) between the slave and the Master DAW, and an independent audio card. The connections can made to the audio card on the Master DAW bypassing a hardware mixing board, or through a mixing board. Your choice.

32-bit or 64-bit – Check to see which programs you use or are interested in have made the transition to 64-bit. This bit of knowledge (no pun intended) will help you understand which programs you’ll run in standalone on the Mac and which should be assigned to a slave unit.

As a composer, you’re the president of your own music production company. Build your studio with quality planning. How many years will you be using this setup before really needing to update again?

Then, with the info I’ve given you here, build your system(s) on paper first. By that, I don’t mean picking out the motherboard, the RAM, etc. I mean build your music production system on paper, including drawing simple wiring diagrams so you understand how it’s all going to work.

By all means, spend time on the various company forums asking pertinent questions, and know your production goals ahead of time.


  • Simon Paul
    June 19, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for your usual insights.
    Two things; one a provocation the other a question:

    1) Isn’t it weird that there’s all this confusion in an industry as busy as this is? It’s strange that a sample production house (i.e. EWQL) makes a product; a computer company (i.e. APPLE) makes a computer and then both parts stay in a somewhat mystical silence regarding compatibility, performance and other aspects that are vital to the working composer. A lot of it is, not guesswork, but trial and error… And doing a trial is often a very expensive move and not too many can afford to make a mistake in being stuck with a system that doesn’t perform as expected! Then on the official forums we read things like (And i am quoting text) “please list your working MAC/PC setups – it’s difficult for us to recommend one product over another without upsetting our industry partners, even if we have our preferences”! Who should the sample creators be serving? Their customers or their industry partners?

    2)With all these evolving scenarios nd the apparent everlasting delay of the new Mac Pro (already long overdue….) do you think I could get good orchestral work done (EWQL Platinum, not LASS) on an iMac running 2.8GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, 8GB 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2x4GB and a 1TB disk and possibly another two external disks if needed (USB & FW)?

    I understand it’s not a really expandable solution, but all I’m interested in is being able to start working with orchestral music and recording acoustic instruments in Logic.

    Thanks for your feedback!

  • Tomasz
    July 5, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    Good day,
    how about the processor? what will be the best pick” for a MacPro 8 Core as Processor?

    Two 2.26GHz Quad-Core?
    Two 2.66GHz Quad-Core?
    Two 2.93GHz Quad-Core?

    the RAM will be 16GB


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