Building your own music recording and production computer is actually not as daunting as you may think. Sure you could just buy an already-built music production computer on online, but why pay the middle man? This discussion will be all about how to purchase and build your own custom music production PC. We won’t get too deep into the technology, only as far as we need to in order to explain why you need certain components and what they will do for you. Once upon a time the idea of building a music production PC meant buying expensive components, and hoping that they would all be compatible with the parts you bought. Not to mention making sure the computer parts that you’ve bought are compatible with the motherboard you want to attach everything to. Not only that, but you also had to understand MS-DOS in order to just install the software that came along with everything. Nowadays, it’s all “plug and play” and comes with software that’s compatible with Windows.
Today we will talk about the components you need (in particular an actual unit PC, whereas music laptops are more difficult to build on our own as of now), how to install them and what to do with the software. We are also going to base this discussion on an Intel processor. We won’t talk about monitors here because you can use a television for a monitor just as easy as an actual monitor if you really wanted to. We would note however, that you may want two monitors or one large TV if you plan on taking your music production to the next level — we honestly couldn’t imagine producing with two in this day and age. Be sure the video card you purchase can support multiple monitors. First things first though, what do you want the computer to actually do? Building a home music studio takes a good bit of planning, so let’s start there.
Planning your music making computer
When planning to build a new music computer, we must first figure out what is going to be required and how much each component is going to cost. You’ll need the following:
- A case
- Monitor(s) — we still recommend two
- CPU chip (processor)
- Memory (RAM)
- Power supply
- An operating system (Windows),
- A CD/DVD disk drive
- Hard drive
- Cooling fans (to prolong the computer’s life)
The best part about today’s PC’s is that they are completely expandable systems. Everything we just listed can be replaced or upgraded in about an hour. That’s just the computer side, the music production side will require a microphone if you’re planning to have a studio setup. It will also of course require types of music production equipment, such as a MIDI keyboard or pad, studio speakers, audio interface, microphones and more. You should expect a budget of about $1,500 to $2,000 US, if you’re going to go for a medium tier setup. If you’re trying to do this on a budget, then for everything you should expect around $1,200. Some of the audio components can be bought used which will save money, but the computer components (with the exception of the case, power supply and maybe the video card) are going to need to be new. You can always buy the music gear gradually as time goes on and your needs increase.
The production computer and its many parts
Let’s get into the important details, and we’ll start with the case. If you’re building a music production computer from scratch, then you have to start at the beginning. There are two things you want to look for here. One is airflow and the other is size. The size of the case is really only limited to the amount of space you have on the floor or desk, so getting a large case would be a good investment. The reason is because with a larger case, you don’t have to worry about not having enough space for hard drives and other cards in the computer. Another reason is that motherboards come in different sizes. There’s the micro ATX which is basically a 10 inch (25 cm) by 10 inch board. The standard ATX board is the same width but a little taller at 12 inches (30 cm). The E-ATX is the largest at 13 inches (33 cm) by 12 inches, but there aren’t many motherboards of that size available these days and you won’t really need one when you’re setting up a music production computer.
When buying a new case, consider the amount of extra space you want in the machine. A bigger case means more area to keep cool, but also more room for bigger fans to cool everything down. The case fans are probably going to come with the case, but if they don’t you’ll have to budget those too. They should run anywhere from $15 to $50 US. A larger motherboard also means that the components are not bunched in together, which is a big deal not only for making components easier to install but keeping them cooler with enough space to circulate the air between them. That being said, the ATX motherboard is probably going to be the way to go. With a cost of between $60 and $170 US, buying the case will give you some wiggle room in the budget. The power supply should be at least 800 watts. You could go with a little less, but with the extra peripherals like the keyboard and a microphone that may also need power there’s no point taking chances. If you want to “future proof” your case though, then you may want to go as high as 1,000 watts. A version of Windows 10 will run you about $60 US. Be sure to get the 64-bit version.
Next on the list is the computer processing unit (CPU). Some people believe that going out and getting the new i9 from Intel is the way to go and you won’t need to upgrade that for about 4 or 5 years. Although there is some merit to that way of thinking, the i9 is a real budget buster at typically $1,100 US. A better option might be Intel’s i7 processor. Since the CPU will be your most expensive line item on the list, it will take up most of the budget right off the bat; however, it’s extremely important, because besides your RAM memory, the processor will be responsible for ensuring your music software runs smoothly with all of your tracks. If you’re like us and stacks almost 20 VST’s at a time per track, you’re going to need a solid processor to handle all of that. You could pay anywhere from $300 to $800 US for the i7, but it will more than make up the cost later when you actually get down to trying to put together tracks. AMD nowadays makes a quality processor that is comparable to Intel’s i9 for about $350 so if budget is your primary concern, AMD might be a viable option for you but you will also have to purchase an AMD compatible motherboard. It may not pack the punch of the Intel, but it should do an adequate job for the cost. CPU heatsinks are nowadays mandatory because of the high temperatures that the processors can reach (as high as 72C). Buying a heatsink is more of a personal preference as far as style goes and as long as you get a reputable one you’ll be fine.
The motherboard is next on the list and here is another opportunity to keep the budget down. The LGA2011 socket motherboard is designed for the i7 chip. This same processor will also fit the LGA1151 socket board which is a little cheaper, but doesn’t have the bells and whistles that the LGA2011 has. In this case the Intel X99 chipset is what you are looking for. The boards themselves are anywhere between $85 and $300 US and come with a myriad of options available. What you’re looking for is a board that offers USB-C and several USB 3.1 and USB 3.0 slots. You also want to look for PCI-E slots, not just PCI. Most modern boards offer PCI-E as standard so this shouldn’t be a big problem. A board with more than one PCI-E slot is essential. Make sure it has a Gigabit LAN port and DDR4 memory slots. Some boards offer on-board graphics cards, but you will want to get a PCI-E slot video card to free up the processor to handle the music software more efficiently.
Memory (or RAM) is a sticky situation but not that expensive on the low-tier end. 16GB of memory is optimal, but you might be able to get away with 8GB — we still recommend sticking with 16GB or even 32GB if you can afford it, nothing less. The thing to look for here is the MHz number. The way that works is the higher the number, the faster the memory so 1600 MHz to 2400 MHz should do the trick. Memory can get expensive however ($70-$300 US), so you need to also factor that into you’re budget. Another aspect to look for is the SATA slots. Most motherboards today have one or several on them, so this shouldn’t be an issue but you don’t want a motherboard without one.
The hard drive is also going to take up a good bit of your budget but deserves it. You will want an SSD drive to run the computer faster and get quickly from program to program — and yes, we only recommend SSD drives now! Do not get anything else! You can get a 1TB SSD hard drive for about $250 US which will give you a great starting point. With 1TB it will be a while before you need another drive so you will have time to build up your budget before you run out of hard drive space. You can always purchase an external hard drive down the road if you need even more memory.
Installing the parts in your music production PC
So you’ve opened all of the boxes and read all the manuals, now it’s time to build your own music production PC. Don’t sweat it — you’ll feel overwhelmed at first. What if I plug in the wrong wire? The wrong component to the wrong slot? Will this thing blow up on me? Will I ruin the parts and waste money? Not quite. If anything, your computer just won’t turn on, or if it does, you’ll have a blank screen and not be able to use it. It may take some trouble shooting, and you can also look up some videos on YouTube of how to install computer parts. You can do this.
All you’ll really need for tools is a Phillips head screwdriver and some thermal paste. Start with installing the power supply to the case — it is simply a matter of screwing it in. Take the motherboard and place it on a rubber mat. Install the CPU first making sure to match up the arrow marker on the motherboard to the arrow marker on the CPU chip (make sure to only handle the chip on the edges, don’t touch the top or bottom of the chip).
Once the CPU is locked into place install the memory. Press down on the tabs at each end of the slots on the motherboard to open them up. Place the card into the slot (the gold strips on the bottom only fit the slot one way) and firmly press them down until they click. You’ll know it’s correct if the tabs at each end of the slots click and fit snug to the side of the card. Open the thermal paste and place a small drop (about the size of a kernel of corn) in the middle of the CPU and place the CPU fan on top of it.
The motherboard has slots to secure the fan in place and it’s usually just a matter of pressing down on the fan tabs until they click. Plug the fan into the motherboard and give the paste about 10 minutes to set. Now you’re ready to install the motherboard into the case. There are small male-to-female screws that you have to place correctly in the wall of the case to match the holes in the motherboard. The easiest way to do this is to match the PCI slots on the motherboard to the slot openings on the case. You should be able to look through the motherboard holes and see the holes where the small screws should fit. It’s important to note that the motherboard rests on those small screws not on the case wall. Make sure that you don’t plug the power supply into the motherboard until the end, it is the last thing you do before you power up the machine. If you’ve read the instructions for the motherboard, then you’ll know that plugging in the leads for the motherboard speaker, fans, hard drive cables and DVD drive are easy.
Install the hard drive(s) and the DVD drive into the case and plug them into the motherboard. Plug in the cables from the power supply to those drives too. If you have any PCI-E cards (for example a video card or sound card) now is the time to install them onto the motherboard and screw them in. Lastly, it’s time to plug-in the 32 pin power supply. It comes in two pieces and only fits one way so it’s a simple matter of plug and click. Now you’re ready to power up the computer and install that operating system. Just insert the drive or CD and let’s dive in.
Music production computer and software
As you can see, building a music production computer can be both fun and challenging. Now it’s time to get to work. Installing Windows software should take you about an hour or so, and it’s all automated. We remember once upon a time you needed about 10 disks and you had to babysit the computer all day to manually change the disks. They also had to all go in exact number order. If you put the wrong one in you had to wipe the hard drive and start all over. Today, you just put a single disc in the drive and off you go. After you have Windows installed and all of your base drivers are ready, you can start plugging in your peripherals like your microphone, speakers and midi keyboard. The keyboard should come with software, but you can download the drivers online from the manufacturer’s website. As for the speakers and microphone, as long as you don’t have a sound card the windows software will have drivers automatically installed when you plug the devices in. The DAW software is relatively inexpensive (about $120 US) and easy to install. Once that’s done, you’re all set and ready to start making beats.
Concluding building your own music computer
In conclusion, when setting up a music computer we didn’t want to roam too far into the wilderness of how the software works. Mostly because that’s more of a personal journey and it’s far more fun to just jump in and start experimenting. We also didn’t discuss water-cooled systems. The reason for that is simply because those are geared more towards the high-end gaming systems and we felt that the speed of the software running was more important than the graphics power. LED lighting was also not discussed because it’s just for looks. All you really want is the raw computing power of the system.
Now you’re ready to go, good luck!