If you are one of the many people just entering the desktop-recording fray, one of the first choices you will be faced with is what computer to purchase. Unless you already own a machine, this is likely the first and ultimately the most important choice of gear you will make, because whatever you do choose will become the central nervous system of your studio. The obvious starting point is deciding between a laptop and a tower. Although it is prudent to think about whether the main focus of your machine will be live or studio use, laptops and towers each have clear advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, a little dissection of both is in order.
TOWER OF POWER
Towers are considered the tools of choice for most professional studios. Traditionally, towers have been much more powerful machines than their laptop counterparts, and this is still largely true. For example, under the hood of the current most powerful Macintosh tower are dual 1.4GHz processors, a total capacity for 2 GB of RAM and slots to accommodate as many as four internal hard drives for a total storage capability of 720 gigs! Apple's leading laptop clocks in with only (did I just say only?) a single 1GHz processor, exactly half the maximum RAM and one single 60GB hard drive. Certainly no chump, this computer simply doesn't match its tower sibling. Towers typically provide plenty of connectivity. Although the average laptop might include one or two FireWire ports and one or two USB ports, the typical tower boasts two or three FireWire ports and four (or more) USB docks. This plethora of expandability is especially true with Wintel machines. Towers usually include at least a CD-RW drive, sometimes a DVD-R and often more than one. In addition, depending upon the manufacturer, towers can be customized to include a variety of removable media, such as DVD-RAM. Best of all, if you have the know-how, you can build a tower from scratch to your own specifications.
Of course, the tower picture isn't all rosy. Issue No. 1 is their size, as well as their need for an external monitor. Although prices of CRT monitors have shrunk remarkably during the past 10 years, the same unfortunately cannot be said of their size. They are as bulky and heavy as always. Much thinner and lighter LCD monitors have become mainstream during this same period, but they are far more expensive. I know plenty of electronic musicians who haul their towers around to live gigs (and thus their monitors). I have done it myself, and rest assured, it grows a gray beard pretty fast. A less obvious yet still notable disadvantage of towers is the noise of their internal fans. If you have a small bedroom studio, this humming can dirty up any recording you do with a microphone. Last, but certainly not least, towers are virtually useless without a wall outlet to plug into.
ONE LAPTOP TO GO, PLEASE
As the power of laptops comes of age and new audio applications appear practically every day, a revolutionary way of making and performing music has been ushered in along with an entire industry littered with products tailored specifically to this end. Despite this phenomenon, laptops still have both pros and cons that should be carefully considered before you purchase. On the upside, a laptop is obviously portable. You can stick it in a backpack, carry it under your arm like a book or take it to a DJ gig. Laptops can be battery-powered, so imagine making tracks on an airplane, in the subway or virtually anywhere outdoors. This is nothing short of a miracle. If, for example, you get that creative muse while sipping an espresso at your local cafe or you just can't get a melody or beat out of your head while walking your dog, fire up your laptop and lay it down! For all the same reasons, a laptop is also the ideal tool for live gigs. Everything you need is included: the keyboard (you can plug in a full-size keyboard if you like), the track pad (you can plug in an external mouse or trackball) and the monitor (with some laptops, you can even add an external monitor). Adding extra sound gear such as MIDI controllers or synthesizers is the icing on the cake.
This may make laptops sound like the holy grail of music production, but they, too, have drawbacks. Expansion can be limited. Many laptops provide only one FireWire and a mere two USB ports. As your studio grows, these are precious little commodities that fill up fast. Fortunately, there are many hubs on the market that make the ports multiply, yet not without cost, of course. Also, the screens built into most laptops are small. This can be especially constricting for musicians, as many audio applications use several windows simultaneously. Finally, laptops are expensive creatures, often far more so than towers.
PLAY YOUR CARDS RIGHT
This brings you to perhaps the most important point differentiating towers from laptops: Towers have PCI buses; laptops do not. This is an important distinction, especially to a desktop musician, because aside from the computer itself, possibly the most important link in your audio chain is your soundcard or audio interface. Because PCI buses provide by far the most bandwidth as compared to FireWire, USB or even PC Card expansion slots, they are the best solutions for soundcards. PCI-based soundcards are especially crucial for intensive multitrack recording or playback. Many PCI soundcards can handle as many as 10 inputs and 10 outputs (or more) simultaneously. Try doing that with your USB audio interface! (With USB, the limit is six or eight tracks total, depending upon bit rate, although you can squeeze a lot more through FireWire). Most electronic musicians never have such extreme needs, yet even when dealing with just a few tracks, PCI provides extremely low latency with its megafast data-transfer capabilities.
When choosing a computer for recording, the decision often boils down to whether the machine's primary use will be in the studio or at gigs. As laptops become more affordable and robust, they blur that line, yet the undefeated champion of power is still the tower. Think about what you want to accomplish, take a look around and sum up any gear you already may have. Then, ask yourself if your brightest ideas come in the wee hours of the night in your bedroom, surrounded by the flashing lights of your many groove boxes, or during the crunch of rush hour on the subway. Let your muse guide the way!