Processors and RAM
No matter how well your computer runs now, you'll need to tweak the setup for home studio use. Audio recording places special demands on the computer that are very different from the demands of surfing the web or checking your e-mail. The more power, the better when working with audio files.
In order to get your machine running smoothly, the best thing you can do is start over. If it's at all possible and you know how to do it (or can get someone who knows how to help you), back up your important data and reload a fresh copy of your operating system. While this might seem drastic, the majority of computers get lethargic and become prone to committing errors when there are old files hanging around the system. Generally speaking, spring cleaning like this will always help. Starting fresh can breathe new life into a machine when it begins to feel old and slow.
Consider dedicating one computer to music alone. No e-mail, no instant messenger, no Internet—only music. In professional studios, a dedicated audio computer is standard. Think what would happen if a web-based program introduced a virus on the computer that holds all your music. You could lose everything!
The processor, properly called the central processing unit or CPU, is the brain of the computer. The speed of your computer is measured by the frequency at which the processor is able to perform an instruction, called instructions per second (IPS). This number used to be stated in megahertz (MHz), which implied a million instructions per second or MIPS. Now that chips are faster than 999 MHz, the term gigahertz (GHz) is used for any chip that exceeds 1,000 MHz (1 GHz equals 1,024 MHz). The higher the number, the more tasks the computer can do at once and the faster it can do them.
However, we're getting into the multicore processor revolution. Imagine squeezing two chips into one; it creates a sort of dual brain. Multicore chips offer significant advances in speed, so don't look at just the number of gigahertz as your speed. Chips like the Intel CoreDuo set a new standard and give laptops almost unlimited power for audio production. More powerful processors are able to play more tracks, add more effects, and perform more elaborate edits. Unlike studios-in-a-box and analog tape machines, computers come with no guarantees on how many tracks and effects you can run in the software. The possibilities of what you can do with software are largely based on how fast your machine is. But many variables affect what the computer can do.
Different Types of Processors
It used to be that when you compared Macintosh computers with machines that run the Microsoft Windows operating system, the Mac processors had a lower stated speed when compared with the PCs. On the surface, this seems to indicate a decreased processing power, but this is no longer the case. Mac's processors (G3, G4, and G5) were very different from the Intel/AMD processors used in PCs, and they couldn't be compared simply by their processing speed. Now, Apple and almost all other companies use the same Intel chips in Mac computers (which was a significant switch for Apple), so you truly can compare apples to apples (no pun intended). You can choose your computer based on the available software and the quality of the OS, and not just the chip inside.
Random access memory, or RAM, is another vital system component of your computer and another number that should be high. RAM is a specialized area where data is stored temporarily while the computer is on. It is called volatile memory because it is gone when you turn off the computer. RAM is superfast and data can be written into it and read from it at much higher speeds than from the hard drive.
RAM holds important information that needs to be accessed quickly. RAM is measured by how much data it can store at one time. Having a lot of RAM will speed up a computer, no matter what speed the processor is. You could have the fastest processor on the market, but with only a small amount of RAM, the computer will crawl. Most software manufacturers suggest minimum and recommended RAM. For example, Digidesign's Pro Tools 8 requires 1 GB RAM and recommends 2 GB or more. Check out websites and call companies to see what they recommend. To run music-recording software, most computers need more RAM than what they typically come with. Installing RAM is not difficult, and the price of RAM chips has fallen dramatically. However, computers have limits on how many RAM chips can be installed, so your ability to increase RAM is not infinite. Pay attention to this when you are purchasing equipment.
Generally speaking, your computer should have at least half of the total RAM it can hold. If your machine can hold 4 gigabytes (GB) of RAM, 2 GB of RAM is a good starting point. The bare minimum for audio production is about 1 GB. Audio applications love RAM and will use more RAM if available.
Your magic number for RAM will depend upon what you do with the computer. If you plan on recording only a few tracks and you won't be going crazy with effects, filling your computer with RAM won't be necessary. However, if you plan to record a lot of tracks (sixteen or more) or do anything with samplers or virtual instruments (see Chapter 13), RAM is crucial. In this case, you can't have too much.