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Music Computer Myths

True or false? The answers might surprise you


by Craig Anderton


There is much mythology surrounding computers, so let’s debunk some of the more common myths before they do any more damage to your music—or sanity.


Programs will work if your computer meets the minimum system requirements. Well, yes, and you can drive a car using only first gear. But even if a program says it will work with 1 GB of RAM, that might mean most of the time it will be swapping data to a hard drive because it can’t get enough RAM—and performance will slow to a crawl. If you run music programs, you need at least 4 GB of RAM, and even that is like putting your computer on a starvation diet; 8 GB or preferably at least 16 GB is better as a minimum requirement. Don't know whether your computer matches a program's system requirements? Check "About This Mac" for Mac OS, and for Windows, the Control Panel System category (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: It's easy to check whether your computer meets a program's system requirements.


Apple Computers are much more expensive than PCs of equivalent performance. This was once true, but times have changed. This myth persists mainly because there are a variety of budget PCs, ideal for surfing the internet, running spreadsheets, etc., at price points far lower than a Mac; but they’re a poor choice for high-performance music programs. At the level of performance we need from our computers, although you still pay a premium for Macs it’s not as much as it was a few years ago. Also, if you use programs from Apple, their software is relatively inexpensive because they want you to buy their hardware.


PCI sound cards are obsolete, because Firewire and USB interfaces do everything we need. While convenient, outboard audio interfaces have an additional “layer” that adds latency—not that much, but it’s there. For Windows, onboard cards still give a performance edge, and will continue to do so until Thunderbolt (which basically brings PCI "out of the box") becomes more widespread. With the Mac, Thunderbolt gives equivalent performance to PCI cards.


The Mac OS has a superior user interface compared to Windows. Regardless of what partisan zealots want you to believe, as a long-time user of both platforms I find both operating systems have annoying limitations and awesome capabilities. 


Windows 10 brings the audio sub-system to parity with the Mac. While Windows has made significant improvements to the audio system as well as MIDI (it's now multi-client), Core Audio still has an edge. However, Windows has improved latency dramatically for laptops and onboard sound cards—the latest WASAPI drivers have shared and exclusive modes, with latencies as low as 3 ms in exclusive mode (Fig. 2). 


Fig. 2: Windows 10 brings greatly improved onboard audio latency to Windows.


The most important component of a good music computer is a fast processor. While a fast processor helps determine aspects of performance like how many plug-ins you can run, in terms of stability for Windows machines, the motherboard, its associated chip set, and the graphics card all influence performance to a huge degree. As the “which motherboard is best” game presents a moving target, follow magazine articles and web sites to get an idea of which motherboards are most multimedia-friendly. And for either Mac or Windows, enough RAM is crucial.


It’s necessary to do lots of tweaks to Windows to optimize it for audio. Yes and no. It can be important to turn off wi-fi, and crucial to set up a high-performance power plan for laptops (other performance plans tend to throttle back power to save battery life); it’s also good to disable background processes and drivers that aren’t relevant to making music (Fig. 3), as well as set the USB ports so that they never sleep. Computers that come with a lot of bloatware and trial versions of security software almost always benefit from a clean install followed by selective disabling of non-essential services. However, the days of Windows operating systems needing lots of tweaks to work properly with audio ended with Windows XP.


Fig. 3: In Windows' Device Manager, you can disable drivers that aren't being used. The main audio interface being used is the TASCAM US-4x4, so other drivers aren't needed and can be disabled.


It’s no longer essential to defragment hard disks. Again, yes and no; one reason for this myth is operating systems that defragment invisibly in the background, leading people to believe it’s not being done. Most experts agree that defragmentation is not only unnecessary for solid-state drives but can also be undesirable; however with standard, spinning-disk hard drives, defragmentation is still useful. This is because as you use a hard drive over time and add/delete files, there will be less free, contiguous space for storing large files (like those used in audio and video work). So, pieces of the same file might get stored at different places on your hard drive, creating file fragments. Defragmentation joins these various pieces of files back together, which means your hard drive head doesn’t have to jump all over to read the file.


The Mac’s OS is less prone to crashing than Windows. With a modern Mac or Windows computer, the OS itself will almost never crash. Crashes arise not so much because of the OS, but from the relationship of other programs to the OS and to each other. The Mac has a more tightly controlled environment that promotes more stability, but Windows machines can be equally stable with careful software and hardware choices.


With laptops, it’s important to discharge the battery completely from time to time to prevent the “memory effect.” This was true with nickel-cadmium batteries, but today’s batteries will last longest if you avoid frequent deep discharges.  -HC- 






Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.



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