So, How Powerful Should My Recording Computer Be?
Well, this depends very much on your needs. I started out in 2001 with a Pentium 3 550Mhz computer running Windows 98. Compared to my modern computer (which is still fairly modest) that computer was like something from the Flinstone's with a little bird running on a treadmill to power it.
What Are Your Needs?
The power of your computer requirements for your recording computer are directly dependent on what you intend to do with it. Are you recording mostly live rock bands? Are you planning producing solo artists using samples to replace the entire band? How much of your work revolves around using VST Instruments?
For well over four years I recorded using Sonic Foundry Vegas 3.0. I used it like a tape machine with a little better editing features. I did not have much reason to switch. I was recording mostly rock and metal bands all in house. I was really quite pleased with Vegas. I could do pretty much everything I wanted to do. It turned out that Vegas was very efficient and never really maxed my computer out. Playing back high track counts in Vegas put most of the load on the hard drive and not so much on the CPU or RAM. I had several mixes that had well over 60 tracks. Vegas had no trouble with those.
I decided that I wanted to get back into midi again. I wanted to take advantage of the powers of samples, VST instruments, and the tremendous editing powers of midi sequencing. I switched to Cubase SX3. Now that I realize just how powerful Cubase SX3 is for a producer (I'm not just engineering anymore), I'm totally blown away. There is no going back to Vegas for me anymore. (Of course, I hear now that the latest version of Vegas has a sequencer, but I've never used it).
Cubase SX3 uses WAY MORE CPU power. WAY MORE !!! Every track I add, uses a little more CPU power. Most of this has to do with the remarkable direct monitoring capabilities that Steinberg's Cubase SX3 utilizes. It's very common for Cubase SX3 to run out of power and essentially lock up if I'm expecting too much from Cubase with a latency set super low. Cranking up the latency pulls the CPU load down drastically and then I find Cubase SX3 to be very reliable ..
Sonic Foundry Vegas was extremely RAM friendly. I could open up 5 finished mixes at the same time and I probably would not even use 300 MB of RAM. Cubase SX3 is the exact opposite. It uses RAM like I go through coffee on a late night session. When I start firing up samples such as Toontrack's DFH Superior (amazing drum samples), it's clear that I need as much RAM as I can cram into my recording computer. One instance of DFH can provide you with the most natural sounding drums on the planet, but it can also use up 2GB of RAM without thinking about it. OUCH !! Luckily they have a "light" mode which I use when tracking and arranging. When the track is done, I convert the drums to wav files and they become much more computer friendly.
So if you are using samples, you had better 2GB of RAM. Not all applications are as taxing as DFH Superior, but in general samples like to chew through the RAM without a conscience. So if you are producing songs for other people using s multitrack recorder / midi sequencer like Cubase SX3 or Sonar, you should get the most powerful computer you can afford. It will save you time, effort, and a few headaches. This means get the fastest processor you can afford and the most RAM your machine will hold. (Note: There is a point of diminishing return in Windows XP where adding more RAM does not seam to do much good. Generally, 2 GB is considered right by today's standards). You will also want to check out the dual core processors that are out there now.
Powerful Computers Do not Always Mean Better Recordings
There are many factors that make a recording great. A talented artist who happens to deliver a tremendous performance of a great song is what makes a recording great. There is no direct correlation between Ghz and goosebumps. (I consider goosebumps to be the ultimate musical accomplishment. If I get goosebumps, the song is amazing!) Having a more powerful computer means you can render a mixdown a little quicker. A faster computer means you can use more effects or effects that put higher CPU load. However, just keep in mind that it's much more important to work with better artists and better songs.
The computer is just a tool. Just because a carpenter uses a drill that operates at a higher voltage does not mean its construction is going to be any better than the next guy. It just means his drill has operates at a higher voltage. It's important to realize that the computer is just a tool that you use to make recordings. It, in and of itself, has no direect artistic value.
I was attending a funeral a few months ago. One of the very first songs I had ever recorded in my life happened to be played. The power of that song was mind blowing! The entire crowd burst into tears with that one. This song was done on my Pentium 3 550Mhz computer years ago. I wish I could capture that kind of emotion and energy now with my Athlon 64 2800 !!!
Latency, Monitoring, and CPU Power.
I've noticed in Cubase that it's CPU load is directly related to the latency I've set in my M-Audio control panel. With latency on the fastest setting, Cubase SX3 will get tired pretty quickly. However, when I pump the latency up to 384ms, I find that I have much, much more CPU power left.
The only reason I would keep the latency turned down super low would be due to direct monitoring within Cubase. If I was to use an external mixer and split the recorded signal off before it even ran into my soundcard, I would be able to keep the latency set much higher, and therefor reduce my CPU load tremendously.
Most of the top home recording programs with the most intense features typically use the most CPU power and RAM. If you recording methods require fewer features than a program such as Sony Vegas will perform extremely well with a moderate amount of CPU power.