How to Build a Music PC (Interview with Barry Gardner)
After the success of Barry Gardner’s last post on The Musician’s Guide, I wanted to share his extensive knowledge as an audio mastering expert with you on what to consider when building a music PC. For those of you who haven’t read Barry’s last post on tips to improve recording and mix-down quality, Barry is a mastering engineer who operates SafeandSound, an audio mastering company.
How much money does building your own music PC save? And what kind of challenges does building one usually present?
“I have built a music PC my self and fortunately the machine worked very well and I managed to save around £350.00 – £400.00 at the time. This was actually 7 years ago and the machine was a dual XEON processor build. (Single cores 2 x CPU’s on 1 motherboard). This machine remained powerful/well specified much longer than I thought and was used daily for around 6 years in total. So I had a good experience, this was down to very careful research, planning and care when building. Despite this I did still encounter a problem when installing one of the CPU’s. Whilst tightening a screw mounting the CPU heat sink the screw cross threaded into the chassis meaning if that CPU ever developed a problem the CPU was forever stuck on the motherboard and chassis. Not an auspicious start. I was lucky though, the machine worked great but it demonstrates that however careful you are hassles are just around the corner to hamper you best efforts.
Ok firstly PC components generally snap together using pre configured sockets and parts, it is difficult to plug parts in wrongly as they tend to be made in such a way that they only go in 1 way. Never force any plug and socket combination if they do not fit with relative ease.”
How long does it take to build a music PC once you’ve got all the parts?
“Always leave a full day for a DIY PC build, try and do things slowly and carefully at each step, it will keep you more relaxed and calm and avoid broken parts. Also observe static discharge recommendations before handling parts that may be sensitive to static discharge. (i.e. almost all components except the power supply)”
What’s the best way to choose the right components for a music PC?
“My suggestion is to at least see what the professional builders are putting in their PC’s i.e. brands and model numbers. I am talking about motherboards, graphics cards, CPU types, power supply, memory and hard disk drives. Forget memory for a moment because as long as you buy high quality, reputable branded memory you should be fine. Motherboard choice is absolutely vital, ASUS motherboards will crop up as a brand very often because they have a great reputation. Though do check the model numbers and that the boards specification suits any existing audio interfaces and peripherals you may wish to use from an existing machine (i.e. PCI / PCI-E slots). Choosing graphics cards can be a little trickier so ensure you use one that is specified by a pro builder to improve the odds of it working.
When it comes to power supplies never scrimp to save a little money, in fact I actually suggest spending a little more on this boring and incredibly under rated component. The power supply powers every vital component inside the computer and can potentially lengthen component life and enhance reliability and stability of the system as a whole. Ensure adequate cooling and always pay a premium for quiet fan options as it will drive you mad listening to a fan whirring loudly in your home studio. Ensure your operating system choice is supported by all of your software such as plug ins and soft synths as here can lie surprises. 32 bit and 64 bit is also debatable predominantly for memory usage, it would seem at the time of writing 64 bit is the way to go. I personally opted for 32 bit OS as was advised by the person who last built my existing DAW, which I have been very pleased with. Search online to see which hard drives have been working reliably in computers over the last year or 2 and see if there are any horror stories regarding specific models of hard drive.”
How do you know that the components you’ve bought are correct? Do you have any tips on how to make a build go smoother?
“Do plenty of online research before you start the build, as it can be a headache if things do not go smoothly. Audio forums can be helpful and there is usually going to be some kind of small problems along the way. All in all it can be a very rewarding experience for someone with the confidence and technical knowledge to go it alone.”
Any final words of advice for anyone interested in building a music PC?
“If this sounds like a lot of hassle and potentially nerve wracking, that makes you right in part. For my last PC, I ordered it built by a professional and it was not much more expensive than a self build and yet the onus of responsibility is passed on to someone who knows exactly what they are doing. In many ways I feel it is a small price to pay for the service and expertise they offer in making a reliable and working out of the box system for making music. If time is of the essence this a great way to proceed. Usually the company you purchase the computer from will be able to remotely access the computer (via the internet) to assist with any trouble-shooting. It can be very rewarding to make you own music PC but it is not for the feint hearted or technically incompetent.”
Image Credit: Nicholas Thompson