Music-making: Suggest a capable laptop, please!
November 24, 2009 3:33 AM   Subscribe

Which laptop computer for making music? It's PC vs Mac with the usual provisos...

I'm going to be getting a computer in the new year for making music. I'll most likely be using Reaper on it, perhaps Reason as well if latency isn't a killer, otherwise with a variety of VSTi and VSTs running simultaneously.

It'll be my main computer for my other roaming surfing listening to music needs so it has to be a laptop.

So the first question: Windows or Mac? I'm not interested in the ideological war - I have owned and used both in the past and am happy with both systems, so not interested in design or useability arguments. The software I'll be using is available on both, so that's not an issue, either.

Macs are A LOT more expensive - firewire (is that a must these days for musical stuff?) doesn't start on a Mac for less than £1000 (that's for a refurbed Macbook Pro with a poky 13.3" screen). Also if I get a refurb I can't choose my spec, so might have further costs there - if I'm recording audio I'll need a 7200rpm drive (presumably external). £1000 is the absolute limit to what I can spend, really.

But if I get a Windows computer will I have to spend a couple of hundred on an ASIO card/breakout box to deal with the horrible latency issues?

I could get a Lenovo for 2/3rds the MBP price with what seems like a pretty good spec: which includes a faster HD and the same amount of RAM.

I realise that this won't be as fast as the Pro, but I'm not interested necessarily in system-wide speediness. I want something that can handle simultaneous recording of audio and MIDI, and that won't fall over and die if I want to play with delay and reverb on four or five audio tracks with a couple of drum machine VSTIs and softsynths, as well as lasting as my lug-around-town regular computer for the next five years.

Any advice greatly appreciated - and if there are issues I've forgotten don't hesitate to flag them up!

If it makes a difference, I'll most likely be picking it up in the January sales.
posted by Cantdosleepy to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Personally, I'd take a mac because a mac is a PC but a PC isn't a mac. (Except if you get a Hackintosh, which might work.) There are some very good and unique Mac audio programs, and vice versa. Get a computer that is both, and you'll have both.

The batteries in the new Mac laptops are superb. I haven't seen those batteries in other manufacturers' machines.

I wouldn't want to be Firewireless, personally. ESATA is as good as Firewire for disks, but Firewire is also used for audio interfaces and importing from video cameras. There's actually Firewire on the brand-new £900 13.3 MBP.

Btw, I'm sure you can get a slightly older 15" MBP for less than £1000, if you want a bigger screen. Any Core 2 Duo MBP is superb for audio.

My personal do-want is the new 13.3" MBP because of the small size, light weight, excellent battery, nice graphics chip, and Firewire port ... and then an external monitor. I have a Benq 24" monitor that I think you could get for £150.
posted by krilli at 4:19 AM on November 24, 2009

Addendum: ... you can't have MY monitor. I mean that my office 24" is excellent and a similar one would run you £150 used :)
posted by krilli at 4:22 AM on November 24, 2009

If you want fast HD performance, go with an SSD. I pretty much just give this advice to just about everyone asking about computer issues, but they make such a huge difference, if you get the right one. Toms hardware has a comprehensive set of benchmarks, but the Intel -M disks work great. The 80GB drives are down to $250 now, and you should be able to replace most laptop drives with them, probably on Macs too.
posted by delmoi at 4:39 AM on November 24, 2009

don't assume that by buying a mac you negate the need for an audio interface - latency is not the concern, it's connectivity and good analog to digital (and vice versa) converters.

personally I own a mac, but I also own a pc. I work for a company who produce computers for audio production and I say to anyone that a well maintained pc is no differen to a well maintained mac. there is one difference though, be very very careful that your pc is actually able to cope with audio production. to make things simpler, stick with USB audio interfaces on pc.

if you buy a pc laptop, buy it from a company selling it for music production. I say that as someone who bought a dell, then had to get rid of it. their USB and FireWire ports just plain didn't work with audio interfaces reliably.

if you're now after an interface recommendation, probably go with an emu 0202 USB - good box for less than £100.
posted by 6am at 4:53 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Concerning Firewire, most firewire audio interfaces still use FW400 (i think). The new Macbooks all have FW800, so you will need an adaptor cable to connect them. Keep that in mind.

I had to use a USB interface a few years ago and it handled 2in 2out well enough, but once I tried to route some signal to some outboard gear and back, it got a bit flakey. I think things have gotten better in USB land since then.

Tons of people use PC for audio production. I only know 2 of them personally. One keeps his PC off of the Internet or behind heavy firewalls (only allowed to visit allowed certain sites for email, news, file transfer, user forums) because he can't risk getting a virus and compromising the stability of the systems he uses to earn his living. The other guy is kimyo, who has an undying caustic hatred of all things Apple. He has a pretty good compact setup (I think) and makes great tunes. Drop him a line and ask what he uses.

Looking at the Lenovo you linked, assuming the options selected are the ones you chose, I would get a 7200rpm hard drive and probably the bigger size, or an SSD like delmoi suggested (I've never tried a ). Audio can quickly fill up a hard drive and if you are planning on using for other stuff as well, it will fill up faster. If you are going to be doing a lot of your audio production in one place (at home), I would get an external firewire drive and use that as your work drive (where all audio files are stored), if you are often going to be on the go with your production, I would get the bigger internal hard drive. The external variant is also safer in case windows goes tits up and your system hd is fucked. Either way, I would buy a second HUGE external hard drive to use as back up for the system and audio.

I would also recommend maxing out the RAM at 4GB. Plugins rendering audio need as much RAM as possible.

That all being said, if you get a PC you may have to spend a bit extra anyway to make it able to handle some serious audio if you want to get crazy. If you are just starting out, you should get what you can get and add on later. You can get a stable DAW with a PC and save some cash, but there may be a few headaches along the way especially with driver conflicts (firewire especially), viruses, OS issues (Make sure the software and hardware you want to use is supported for Windows 7). I have some of these problems with Macs as well. Every time a new OS version comes out, I have to wait for Digidesign to test it and support it before I can update.

my $0.02
posted by chillmost at 5:03 AM on November 24, 2009

(I've never tried a SSD myself, but I have been tempted to try it out because I have heard good things)
posted by chillmost at 5:05 AM on November 24, 2009

Seconding what chillmost said, "Either way, I would buy a second HUGE external hard drive to use as back up for the system and audio.".

And to add some spin, this is actually MANDATORY - this item MUST be on your budget unless you already have a backup drive.
posted by krilli at 6:55 AM on November 24, 2009

What kind of recording are you doing? If you're just recording one instrument at a time, having Firewire isn't really necessary (it's always nice to have, but shouldn't be a dealbreaker). You need to get a decent audio interface whether you go Mac or PC. As has been pointed out, it's not just about latency - a dedicated box is going to do a much better job of analog-digital conversion than the built-in soundcard on any laptop. FWIW, I use an M-Audio Fast Track Pro USB and it's been pretty good.

As far as system requirements go, you'd be hard pressed to buy a computer today that wouldn't have enough power to do what you're doing (netbooks aside). I record music on my aging laptop using Record (from the same company that does Reason). I've never had any issues with performance, even when I'm playing back ~8 tracks at once with effects and EQ on all of them.

Finally, one upgrade that I think is definitely worth going for is more screen resolution on the laptop, and a second monitor if you can swing it. It's a huge pain to have to scroll endlessly to get at the parts of the program you need, and more resolution/additional screens alleviate that problem substantially. For instance, in Record (which is the same as Reason in this regard), I maximize the effects rack on one screen and split the other screen between the mixer and the track display. Whenever I'm using the program away from my second screen, I cringe at having to mash everything together into one little window.
posted by sinfony at 7:59 AM on November 24, 2009

I'd go with the setup that other people around you use. If your friends or network are using PC and Cubase, buy a PC and Cubase, if they are using Mac and Reason, buy a Mac and Reason. This establishes a good start-up platform to grow on where assistance and communication are easy. Then choose later when you really know what you want.

If you don't have any friends, or want to disregard that advice, buy a Mac.
posted by gmm at 10:10 AM on November 24, 2009

Furthermore...after a day doing this same thing but for money...

The Lenovo looks allright by the way. Just be careful with specs - on paper it may look more powerful but "invisible" things like crap USB and Firewire chipsets can give you problems later on. I think that plus either the EMU 0202 or fast Track would be fine...but I don't know for sure. M-Audio generally write quite good drivers, so while the Fast Track Audio is no Apogee Duet (mac only), it should be stable. And that's worth weight in gold.

The time honoured advice on chipsets on firewire for audio production is get a Texas Instruments one. But if you're on PC it's just so much simpler to go USB. Don't get misled that there's a "difference" between USB and Firewire Interfaces either - they should both perform as advertised in a compatible system. Finding one that's completely compatible may be a problem.

Definitely go 7200RPM. Another bit of "secret" advice is that 32 bit Windows can only actually use a maximum of 3GB RAM. 4GB is only really relevant if you use a 64 bit operating system. Personally I wouldn't bother with SSD drives...just put that money into a nice Mic or a better interface.

Don't use Windows 7 or Vista if you can avoid it. Stick with XP and upgrade later if you must.

Again, you're best off getting an audio laptop from an audio retailer. If you can afford a Mac, go for it - only because it's generally good hardware. But budget for an interface and software too.
posted by 6am at 10:42 AM on November 24, 2009

Not to be too pedantic, but you say £1,000 is your limit, and that the cheapest Mac laptop with FireWire is that much? Not so. You can get the base-level 13" MacBook Pro for £899. Also, although I agree that a 13" display is somewhat pokey, bear in mind that a 15" MacBook Pro is going to run you closer to £1,500 and the difference, while noticeable, is not night and day. You'd be better served by getting a cheap desktop display and working off that is likely to be a lot more cost effective.

Oh, and I second the 'backup!!111' comments. Factoring in the cost of a backup drive is practically mandatory these days, trust me; I've seen disasters way too many times, almost as often from people who last backed up a week ago as those who've never backed up before. Not to scare you or anything! :)
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 11:04 AM on November 24, 2009

Hmm, it's unclear from your question whether you're going to be using external keyboards to input notes with your hand, but if you're only using plugins and the piano roll then latency is not as big of a deal as you think. It only really matters when you need to lock real-world input to what's being played by the computer.
posted by rhizome at 11:51 AM on November 24, 2009

Thanks for all the advice guys. I'd be using a MIDI keyboard (Oxygen V2, only a couple of octaves) connected via USB.

I currently use a Line6 BassPOD XTLive for audio - it's got a USB connector which seems to work pretty healthily with my iBook.

6am - I don't suppose you know a good audio retailer in London? Would be nice to go kick some tyres...
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:15 AM on November 25, 2009

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