The past few years have seen an insane increase in the amount of processing power afforded by the latest generation of CPUs. And, finally, the nearly decade-old promise of a “studio in a box” is now not only a reality but also something that is practical and enjoyable to work with. In the 1990s, now considered the infancy of the computer-workstation era, the early stages of this technology had far too many sonic, technical and functional limitations to be deemed practical by the professional audio community. Proof of concept was indeed reached, and it was exciting, but the sonic end results weren't about to make veteran producers and engineers “go virtual” overnight.
Today, the industry has progressed to what you might call the teenage years of virtual studios. And just as you'd expect with any adolescent, the older they get and the more they grow so, too, does their muscle power, coordination and list of tasks that they can perform.
A few months ago, I began a pet project of sorts. Having gone through numerous rinky-dink clone PCs and chain-store boxed brands throughout the years — each of which I had eventually upgraded from office duties, dissected for parts and molded into music machines — I sadly came to the realization that I had never actually had a purpose-built, highly spec'd digital audio workstation PC. After all, if your computer is the center of your musical-production universe, then aside from your talent, it's your weakest link. So I then set out to build myself a killer PC DAW.
Actually, I first have a small confession to make: I already have a killer DAW. It's just not a PC DAW. I run Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel hardware under Apple Logic Pro command on a Mac G5, and it acts as my central recording, sequencing, editing and mixing environment. I don't own an outboard mixer, per se; everything goes into my Pro Tools interfaces. I mention this now so that some of my choices later on make a bit more sense and so that you understand that my ultimate picks aren't gospel; everyone's mileage will vary, as they say.
It became my mission to research the components necessary to construct the biggest, baddest, fastest mutha of a PC DAW that my already-melting Visa could handle. Therefore, I tried to keep the total system price fairly modest — perhaps too modest at the start, as I quickly discovered that it's best to bite the bullet once and go for quality and speed where it counts most and save money in other areas by being smart about component decisions. Sure, there may be better (and more expensive) individual components than the ones I chose, but on the whole, these represented my picks for the best on a moderate budget. Well, moderate depends on your budget, I suppose. As you will see, the cost of a purpose-built dedicated DAW with processing power to spare isn't exactly your blue-light special.
I will not cover construction or assembly of the system, nor will I talk about tweaking the PC into high-performance mode. Those are operations best left to a professional technician and are collectively far too vast a topic to address here. What you'll end up with is a shopping list for creating a dedicated system designed to run the DAW host application of your choice, with enough plug-in instances to keep your sonic palette brimming.
THE MAIN CPU
Balancing power and performance with my (relatively) modest system target price, the CPU was one area I had to think through a bit. At the time of this writing, some of the hottest processors were the Pentium 4/2.8, 3.2 and 3.4GHz models. Luckily, back in August, Intel slashed the prices of its Pentium 4 line. Still, its price ranges were widely varied when I went shopping. The oldest 2.8GHz model was being blown out around $160 while the latest bleeding-edge 3.6GHz Pentium 4 560 model (a member of Intel's new numerical chip-naming scheme) was topping the scales between $800 and $1,000 at online shops, with availability being extremely elusive at that.
In the end, my decision to get the best speed performance for the buck led me to the 3.2GHz model ($218), which I could easily justify spending an extra $58 for to get considerably more horsepower than the 2.8GHz. Jumping up an extra two ticks to the 3.4GHz standard non-Extreme model ($300) or a bank-account-dwindling 3.6GHz just didn't seem like a wise use of an additional $80 or $600, respectively.
The Pentium 4/3.2GHz processor features 800MHz front-side-bus (FSB) technology; fits the de facto Intel Socket 478; comes equipped with a 512K L2 cache; and, when purchased in the retail box version, includes the decent stock Intel CPU fan. If you desire near-silent fan operation, check out the Zalman 7000 Silent Mode Super Flower ($42) or the extremely quiet, heavy-duty P4/3.2GHz — rated PHT-3600 SkiveTek ($30) from Nexus.
THE MOTHER OF ALL BOARDS
With the processor chosen, I now had to look for a Socket 478 — compliant motherboard. The motherboard is the foundation of any PC, and my first temptation was to buy a do-it-all mobo with lots of integrated features and, in particular, video onboard. This led me to the Asus P4R800V-Deluxe, based on the ATI Radeon 9100 IGP chipset. What a sweet board and what a terrific and frugal decision — or so I thought. As I later found out (after numerous trips to my friendly neighborhood tech), when building a DAW, it's usually best to leave the frills off individual components and cut straight to the task at hand. The motherboard, it turns out, is not an ideal place to house video. Nor do you want to spend money on a main board with integrated extras such as onboard audio and surround entertainment features, which the P4R800V-Deluxe had in spades. All of these features use interrupts and limit the overall system options available to the user later on. Furthermore, and perhaps my biggest mistake in choosing the P4R initially, it was based on ATI's chipset. I experienced nothing but trouble trying to get my initial system, running on the P4R800V-Deluxe mobo, to communicate properly with certain audio hardware and add-on cards. I should have known better.
I like Asus motherboards and almost always recommend them to others, and I typically prefer to use motherboards built on the Intel chipsets at all costs. The simple reason is that this combination has demonstrated stability, reliability and compatibility in all of the systems that I've built. So after hauling out the P4R, I popped in the current DAW-industry-champion Asus P4C800-E Deluxe ($175) model, which proudly houses a genuine Intel 875P chipset.
Suitably, this model still has a number of DAW-appropriate integrated features that help eliminate the need for costly add-on components. In addition to leveraging the 875P chipset to support my CPU's 800MHz front-side bus, Intel Hyper-Threading Technology to deliver the highest performance solution and Dual DDR 400 memory support, the P4C800 boasts ATA133 and Serial ATA (SATA) controllers with onboard Multi-RAID (0, 1) support, integrated IEEE 1394 FireWire, eight ports of USB 2.0 support and a wicked-fast Gigabit Ethernet — crucial if you wish to share audio files back and forth with other computers in your home or studio network.
An important word about RAM configuration on this board: Dual-channel DDR technology doubles the bandwidth of your system memory and thus boosts the system performance. System bottlenecks are eliminated with balanced architecture, and peak bandwidths as great as 6.4 GB are attainable. By the way of a side note, if you do choose to go with AMD processors rather than Intel, it's imperative that you stay away from older motherboards, such as the Asus A7N8X-E Deluxe, in which the SATA controller shares the PCI bus; this creates an unbearable data bottleneck. All newer boards are constructed so that the SATA is no longer on the PCI bus.
MILLIONS OF COLORS
Lesson 1 on video: Don't go overboard and buy a video board designed for a high-performance gaming system. You'll not only be wasting your money on speed, video RAM and 3D-modeling features that are absolutely unnecessary in a DAW but also likely be buying a PCI-based card (which would be a big no-no as explained shortly) and kicking yourself hard because it doesn't come with dual-monitor support. Call me spoiled, but I can't imagine working on a main DAW without dual monitor displays.
Therefore, for this ultimate DAW system, I chose the Matrox Millennium P650 dual-head DVI AGP 8× card ($169). The card comes with 64 MB of DDR memory and is capable of simultaneously powering dual CRT monitors or flat-panel LCDs. If you absolutely cannot see the need for dual-display support in your particular situation, please allow me to tempt you with this thought: I almost guarantee that you will want to move to dual displays at some point in the future. And here is a little industry secret to sweeten the temptation: Retailers often carry what is known as OEM (original equipment manufacturer) versions of the dual-head cards for approximately the same price as a boxed version of the single-head card, so ask around. Finally, do not use PCI-based video cards, as they have the potential to lower the headroom of the PCI bus considerably, and nine times out of 10, you'll experience significantly less than optimal audio throughput.
Memory prices have been jumping around a bit lately, particularly in the upward direction it seems, so I went into this DAW project thinking that I could perhaps squeak by with only two paired sticks of 512MB DDR400 RAM for 1 GB total. I tried various leading manufacturers, opting to stay with brand names and not the pricier boutique makes that are now flooding the RAM-hungry gamers or enthusiasts markets. Boutique brands often carry a higher price tag and don't offer any real added benefit to digital audio apps.
For this reason, I first auditioned the OCZ Technology Dual Channel Performance Series unbuffered/nonparity DDR400, 184-pin PC-3200 400MHz RAM in a 2×512MB kit. Although I found this 1GB configuration to be sufficient to handle as many modeled soft synths as I could stuff into my CPU's headroom, it wasn't until I started to play with sample-based plug-ins that load their sample resources into memory that I began wishing for more RAM. Just the same, if you're intending to run high-def (HD) audio, the more memory, the merrier. You could probably live for a while with 1 GB of RAM, but I hereby recommend doubling that for comfort and performance.
So I quickly traded in and slammed the two 1,025MB sticks that come in the OCZ DDR PC-3200 2GB Dual Channel kit ($500) into place, and the performance was smoking! OCZ hand-tests each 2GB Dual Channel kit on the Asus P4C800 main board to ensure flawless performance and stability under the most intense conditions. It's comforting to know that your RAM has been specifically tested with your mobo of choice. With ultralow latency and impressive cooling times, I was extremely happy with my decision. With the main computational guts in place, it's time for storage solutions.
I just happened to have a perfect candidate for my DAW's system/application drive lying around in my studio, waiting to be put into action. It was a brand-new, plain-and-simple Maxtor ATA drive, which I'd originally intended to toss in a case and make into a backup device for my administrative office PC. So in a relatively simple decision, I installed the low-cost 250GB Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 ($110) 7,200 rpm Ultra ATA/133 as my system/program drive for its healthy data capacity, 8MB buffer size, 9.4ms average seek time, quiet fluid-bearing operation and attractive price-to-performance ratio. The silence-is-deafening operation of this drive was a big factor in my decision. Whether you consider the noise of a hard disk to be a major or minor distraction, my philosophy is that if you can nip it in the bud and nip as often as you can, you're better off in the long run.
Why do you need such a large capacity for a system/application drive? Well, if you intend to use any of the new trend of sample libraries that come bundled in Native Instruments' Intakt sampler front end, for instance, or you wish to load in lots of Propellerhead Reason NN-XT or REX libraries, you'll need tons of space — trust me!
Just as Mac users will always debate with PC users and native DAW users will slug it out with Pro Tools users, so, too, will the argument about the drive type most suitable for audio recording and editing likely continue. True, there once was a day when SCSI drives ruled the DAW landscape; then, the Ultra SCSI ruled. But I'm here to tell you from experience that there's absolutely nothing wrong with (or economically close to) a high-quality SATA drive acting as your main audio drive. Of course, your motherboard has to support SATA (which the P4C800 does), but the increased bandwidth of SATA over ATA makes this option enticing.
Another idea to consider — especially if 24-bit, 192kHz HD audio is in your future — is the size of your audio drive. I was going to use my audio drive not only for typical DAW recording and editing duties but also as a sumo-size repository for my Tascam GigaStudio sample libraries (which stream and are best not stored on the system/application drive).
Because the P4C800V-Deluxe hosts a high-quality Promise brand SATA controller offering RAID 0, 1 and 10 functions — enabling users to build a RAID array with any two, three or four of the available hard-drive ports — I decided to make use of this feature and create one giant “audio disk” from two drives. For this purpose, I bought two Seagate ST3200822AS 200GB Barracudas ($170 each). I have always been a huge fan of Seagate for my audio drives, as I find them to be the most reliable and have the longest mean time before failure. Here, two powerful 7,200 rpm SATA drives act as one large 400GB resource disk with 8.5ms access, incredible throughput and extremely quiet operation. Of course, another handy alternative is to use single or multiple external USB 2.0 or FireWire drives for your audio, swapping them out project by project or when they become full. It's often just as affordable to buy a new external drive as it is expensive, wasteful and time-consuming to back up your internal drive to optical media — which leads you to the next subject: removable media.
At this point, I decided to consolidate. Rather than purchase a DVD-ROM and CD-RW drive, I opted for a single DVD+/-RW drive. I went with the hot new TDK Indi DVD1280B drive ($180), boasting 12× read and write (that's in DVD-speed terms, by the way, which equates to about 72× CD speed) and 4× rewrite; in CD mode, it tops out at 48× read and write. Having the capabilities to burn DVD volumes for huge audio or sample projects or HD work rather than stringing them across multiple CD-Rs doesn't just make sense; it is almost a necessity today. Of course, I also installed a generic 3.5-inch high-density floppy diskette drive ($8) because, well, you just never know.
CASE, POWER SUPPLY AND OS
Because most people put their DAWs on, under or very near the desk that will be their main listening position, using an inexpensive generic computer case is probably not a good idea. I tried it, and it was far too noisy. Pay a little more, I found, and you can achieve much better noise control. I wouldn't say that I went overboard, but I did spend a little extra to get the ridiculously muffled Nexus Breeze 400 UltraQuiet ATX full-tower ($180) with 400W RealSilent CPU+Fan (upgradable to suit). The case is lined with noise-absorption material; comes equipped with Nexus' patented 120mm Real Silent case fan, filter and grille; and has thick rubber feet to prevent vibration, front-access FireWire and USB ports and an attractively curved exterior. It's one sweet case that makes placing your PC within the mix environment quite practical.
If you decide to go with a less-expensive generic case, be careful of the rating on its built-in power supply. An underpowered system will be very unstable, causing crashes or severe damage to your hardware. You should consider a high-capacity supply as a priority when putting your case together. I really like the Enermax FCA-series 460W model ($49), as it's more than ample to fuel the various power-hungry hard and optical drives that you are likely to install, including any power-sucking USB peripherals that you may add on, such as control surfaces that come with some soft synths (like the Korg Legacy Collection), DSP effects process cards, MIDI and audio interfaces, and more. It's good preventive medicine for your DAW.
As far as the operating system goes, this one is a cinch: You have a choice of Windows XP Home Edition ($199) or Professional ($280). Really, there is no alternative to Win XP if you want your system to run the latest and greatest soft-synth applications and plug-ins. Besides, older versions of Windows (not including 2000) that you may have kicking around do not support drives greater than 137 GB, which would make your drive choices moot.
What's a high-end DAW without a high-quality audio interface? Of course, the sky is indeed the limit when it comes to interfaces, and everyone's requirements vary. The world is your oyster here, and you have the choice between FireWire, USB or PCI-based interfaces. Through example, here's my particular case and associated purchase rationale: As I said at the start, this system was not intended to be my main DAW. In fact, it was built to be a preproduction edit station, slaving alongside my Pro Tools rig — or what you could relate to as your primary mixer. It was also going to act as a dedicated VSTi host and computer sampler, again slaving to Logic on the Mac. Don't get me wrong, though: I built this system to have all of the power that it could hold, and when all is said and done, it could just as easily serve as my main DAW. I only mention this as setup to explaining my decision of audio interface.
You see, I don't record bands, drums or multiple live instruments that require lots of microphones; all of my musicians live inside little metal boxes. Therefore, my need for preamps is next to nil. I do, however, record vocal tracks and overdubs for remixes from time to time, so at least one or two mic pres would be nice. Furthermore, I don't need many line inputs, as all of my outboard gear goes directly into my Pro Tools mixer rig; I need an input pair, at best, simply for sampling. What I do need, however, is enough outputs to feed submixes or individual outs from my various VSTis and GigaStudio tracks into Pro Tools for mixing. With this knowledge, I hit all of the leading manufacturers' Websites and began my search. The competition is fierce, and the quality and feature sets are the best they have ever been. However, my decision process kept leading me back to M-Audio's FireWire 410 interface ($499) for its external half-rack or PC-top breakout-box design and studio-quality connections. Featuring a pristine 24-bit, 96kHz signal spec at input and 192kHz at the stereo out, it boasts dual-purpose phantom-powered XLR mic preamps and balanced 1¼4-inch line inputs, stereo S/PDIF I/O and eight balanced line outs to go to my mixer. It also supports the ASIO 2.0 standard for ultralow-latency software monitoring and is GSIF-compatible — an absolute must for working with GigaStudio.
MIX DSP CARD
Relying solely on native processing for your effects plug-ins will surely lead you to frequent episodes of profanities that make Ozzy Osbourne look like a goodie-goodie. A truly wicked DAW that is capable of handling full-onslaught mixdowns requires some potent doses of dedicated mix power. Even on today's fastest processors, the unassisted native plug-in processing approach still yields a ceiling far too low for most engineers' tastes.
Although more than a few fantastic solutions are available from both Universal Audio and TC Electronic, I chose to install the top-of-the-line UAD-1 Studio Pak ($1,099) from UA and the PowerCore PCI ($1,199) from TC. Together, they blew the mix ceiling right off my machine and gave me incredible-sounding emulations of some of the world's finest outboard gear, all at near-zero processor strain on the P4. And they work marvelously together.
With the core computer now built, there are still a few items left to add to the total system cost — first and foremost: a decent monitor or two. I chose to go with dual LCDs rather than conventional tubes, as I really didn't have a whole lot of choice with my desk space being rather limited. The LCD market is saturated beyond belief, but my ultimate pick of the LG L2010P 20-inch LCD ($950 each) was based on prior experience with the company's 19-inch models, which kicked ass. The L2010P's thin profile and narrow bezel (the frame around the screen) were really appealing to me because I was going to be butting them together in a dual-display configuration. It's important to find an LCD with as high resolution as you can afford, which in this case was 1,600×1,200 pixels. You'll also need a MIDI interface if your audio card of choice doesn't come with one. Even though the M-Audio 410 has a single MIDI I/O pair, you'll likely want to budget for a multiport MIDI interface to handle all of your outboard gear. I chose the MOTU Micro Express XT ($295) for its four inputs and six outs, an ideal and plentiful choice given that I was only intending to have individual MIDI Inputs when controlling GigaStudio instruments or VST instruments from my Mac-based Logic and Pro Tools rig.
Lastly, there are a ton of niceties that you can add to your DAW, but I won't list any as part of this system's price or go into detail about them. These include additional high-quality converters, tube mic pres, analog stereo summing modules, hardware control surfaces, external backup drives, control-room-monitor and studio-feedback controllers and so on.
Okay, take a deep breath. Are you ready? The system created that I here, with all of the trimmings — not figuring in sales taxes — came to approximately $7,000. Expensive? Sure. Worth it? Absolutely! A custom-built digital audio workstation opposed to a store-bought boxed PC is ideal for a number of reasons: the ability to hand-select components based on their performance, reliability and compatibility being the most obvious ones. Sometimes what is left out of a PC that is intended for DAW use can be as important as what is included. Remember, also, that the added expense of the monitor and interfaces are long-term investments compared with the computer components themselves. Overall, custom-designing your own monster DAW is a decision that you won't regret.
LG Electronics, www.lge.com
OCZ Technology, www.ocztechnology.com
TC Electronic, www.tcelectronic.com
Universal Audio, www.uaudio.com