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Building a digital audio workstation is an exercise in eliminating noise, minimizing latency, and designing for ergonomics. One of the first steps is to realize that the workstation is more than just the PC itself. There are many components to connect and configure. Even the layout of your workspace is important as you fiddle with a keyboard (the musical kind), sing into a microphone, and play a riff on a guitar, all the while easily clicking options with a mouse or punching buttons on an external controller. The good news is that all of the pieces can come together quite nicely as long as you avoid one of the most common pitfalls: using hardware that was never meant to go together in a studio.
Now, before I get started on the workstation design, here’s some background info. As a journalist, I’ve covered many of the best software and hardware options for about eight years. I remember testing one of the first versions of Cubase SX in 2002, and I’ve stayed current by either writing articles on recording or by creating my own songs. I’m a guitar player and songwriter and I also play keys and drums. A few years back, I even went to Nashville to perform for a record label. I use some PreSonus gear (it’s on long-term loan from a friend) mounted in a rack and situated in a separate room in my house.
One of the main lessons I’ve learned is that exceptional equipment does not make you a better musician. However, when you do have a moment of inspiration and creative brilliance, having gear that works well will help you to really appreciate the investment, minus the clicks and pops so common in amateur recordings. That said, it is also really easy to use mismatched gear, such as a microphone that records the subtle frequencies in an upper registry plugged into a low-end audio interface without phantom power capability and recorded with a computer that’s crippled by a slow processor and minimal RAM.
As with any serious computer project, it’s critical to think about the components because there are a few gotchas: a motherboard with a four-pin instead of the more common six-pin FireWire port, for example, or a hard disk drive with loads of capacity but not the cache you need to capture audio accurately.
You might be tempted to go with a small form-factor (SFF) PC. After all, space is usually an issue with a music workstation and in your recording space. The fact is that an ATX case is easier (and faster) when it comes to upgrades, which in my case are frequent. For a simple four-track recording session, I might want to use the main disk partitioned for data and the operating system. I may then decide to add an extra internal drive or two for a more complex project. I also like to be able to adjust fan speed, add or remove more RAM, and replace processors. I like this flexibility for another reason: I don’t always use a music workstation just for recording. I may want to upgrade my rig with an SLI graphics configuration with enormous fans not intended for a recording PC to play the latest first-person shooter.