Gamers and musicians have broadly similar needs when it comes to computing. Which is convenient, because many gamers happen also to have at least a passing interest in composition and production.
A machine that’s built for one of these things is – more or less – going to be able to do a reasonable job at the other. But of course, there are a few caveats we need to think about if we’re planning on gaming on a music production PC – or indeed, making music on a gaming PC. You can’t expect a general-purpose machine to do as good a job as a specialised one. Let’s run through some of the key divergences between a quality gaming machine and a quality music production PC. What does a pure music PC do that a gaming PC can’t, and vice versa?
A significant point of divergence between music PCs and gaming ones is the power of the graphics card. Gamers need monstrous graphics cards that can push huge amounts of pixels; music producers, for the most part, are staring at grids all day. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits for producers who are composing for games and films, but it does mean that the graphics card is often seen as an optional extra. It might be that the money you spend on a graphics card might be put to better use elsewhere in the machine (or elsewhere in the studio).
While we’re on the subject of visuals, it’s also worth thinking about your monitor: features like ULMB and adaptive sync are great for gaming, but probably not so much for general use. (Though a high refresh rate is always beneficial.)
Certain DAWs (that’s Digital Audio Workstations, or the software with which computer-based musicians make music) can handle enormous numbers of threads. It’ll typically assign each track you create to a new thread. The more threads you have, the more tracks you can pile on, and the more efficiently everything will be distributed.
It’s for this reason that many music producers will favour CPUs with huge thread-counts. AMD has created waves in recent times with the introduction of its Threadripper line, but even if you’re not willing (or able) to push your budget that far, you’ll get a good return on more affordable CPUs that can be optimised for both music production and gaming.
Storage for Music Production PCs
In recent years, game installations have been getting pretty ginormous. A 200GB install isn’t all that uncommon these days, much to the chagrin of those of us with smaller storage drives.
Composers and musicians have been putting up with this problem for quite a while now. A big sample library like Spitfire’s Symphony Orchestra will weigh in at a hefty 500GB. After all, you’re sampling every instrument in the orchestra at 24bit resolution, at 96Hz. And you’re doing it from several different mic positions, and several different velocity levels (that’s how hard the musician is bowing their cello or smacking the kettle drum). Multiply all of those together and you have a lot of audio.
There are a few points to make, here. First, it’s difficult to compare the storage requirements of a game and those of a sample library. You can only play one game at a time, but you can load as many different sample libraries as you like.
While you might uninstall certain games when you know you’re not going to be playing them for a while, doing this with music libraries is incredibly fiddly and annoying. If inspiration strikes and you need to play the piano, then you don’t want to have to mess around installing libraries. By the time you’re done installing, the chances are that the idea will have deserted you.
Like any other creative pursuit, music production relies a great deal on spontaneity. Anything that you can do ahead of time to minimise disruption when you’re actually being creative is going to pay dividends in the long-term.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to set up a template file that contains all of your instruments, ready to go. This is only possible if you have enough storage space to accommodate all of your stuff.
On the other hand, some producers don’t rely on samples to the same extent. If all of your music is being generated on-the-fly by software synths, then storage isn’t a big concern – you instead need the computational power to handle all of those instruments – which means a CPU-weighted build
Massive sound libraries are massively RAM-hungry. Load up that piano VST, and all of those uncompressed sample files are going to need to be instantly recallable the moment you play a note.
If you’re layering several different instruments atop one another, then you’ll quickly hit your RAM limit. Your machine will shunt the excess audio to your storage drive, and you’ll experience excruciating performance drops. For this reason, it’s not uncommon to see music PCs being equipped with 64, or even 128GB of RAM.
Is this excessive? In most cases, absolutely. But some people are willing to pay the premium for the assurance that they’ll never, ever have to worry about slowdown as their instruments are streamed. After all, if it makes you just 1% more productive every day for the next five years of your professional life, then the few hundred extra quid is probably justified. It’s a judgement call.
If you’re a hobbyist, however, you might find that you never even get close to the 32GB that ships with a high-end gaming machine. What’s more, there aren’t any games that will push you further than that. You’ll also need to think about the speed of your RAM, as well as the quantity – look at what your motherboard can handle, and remember you’ll pay a premium for super-fast memory.
How can I tell what I need for a Music Production PC?
If you’re considering an upgrade, then it’s worth looking at how your current machine is performing under load. Open up the Task Manager with Ctrl+Alt+Del, and open the Performance tab. You’ll get a series of pretty graphs that tell you where you are, and how much further you can push things.
It might be that you have more headroom than you thought in certain key areas. You’ll also get an option to open the Resource Monitor, which will tell you, amongst other things, how many threads your software is really using.
Find out where your bottleneck is, and build your machine accordingly. Certain kinds of machines are better suited to one kind of music production than another – but if you want to play games as well as create music, you’ll need a machine that’s appropriately balanced and optimised for both. So it might be worth custom building a system or looking at one of our high-end Pre Built PCs.