By Craig Anderton
Musicians have been using laptops for portable music-making for years, but there was always the tacit understanding that they couldn't do what hot desktops could do. Often optimized for battery power, the processors were a bit slower, hard drives didn't spin as fast and had less capacity, and any onboard audio had little to do with high fidelity.
But now you don't have to go through withdrawal when you're away from your studio: Laptop computers have evolved into serious music-making tools. Multi-core and hyperthreading machines are common, and if you're willing to spend a bit more, you can outfit your machine with a huge hard drive that spins at 7,200 RPM (most laptop hard drives spin at 5,400 RPM, which limits the number of tracks you can stream from it). For audio, USB and FireWire ports allow adding high-quality external audio interfaces, such as those made by PreSonus, Yamaha, Echo, MOTU, Line 6, M-Audio, Focusrite, and many others. Furthermore, some interfaces can insert in the computer's card slot, which ties in more closely with the "guts" of the system than an external interface; other card slot accessories include Universal Audio's UAD-2 Solo/Laptop card, which allows running their powered plug-ins without taxing your computer's CPU.
Not only can the latest generation of laptops operate as studios unto themselves, they make perfect "satellites" for your main studio—and offer enough power for most types of remote recording, editing, and composing projects.
Although hardcore partisans would likely disagree, I think it really doesn't matter. Many applications are cross-platform, and for those that aren't, roughly equivalent programs exist on both platforms. Mac laptops are great for audio and video; Intel-based MacBooks not only run Mac programs but can boot up in Windows as well. While Apple laptops used to be much more expensive than Windows equivalents, the price differential continues to narrow.
Windows laptops are now available in more media-savvy versions, and some companies (such as PC Audio Labs, ADK, Rain Recording, and others) make laptops designed specifically for audio. But even a standard laptop designed for business will usually do an oksy job with multimedia.
Just remembe a few important tips: When using an external interface, disable the internal sound card; and also disable any functionality you don't need (e.g., internal wireless card, webcam,etc.). For Windows, the free program DPC Latency Checker can help you identify which devices are interfering with the ability to stream audio efficiently.
Copy-protected software can be a thorny issue when you're on the road. If you're miles from home and need to insert a CD periodically for authorization, you better hope you remembered to bring the CD with you. Some software license agreements prohibit running programs on multiple machines; applications that tie protection into running on a specific hardware configuration are especially problematic, because you can't easily uninstall/reinstall every time you want to move from desktop to laptop.
There are a few workarounds. Most companies don't have a problem with installing a program on both a desktop and laptop, because if you're using only one machine at a time, it doesn't violate the spirit of an "only one machine" license. Sometimes you can call the software company, explain your situation, and get another install as long as you're a legit user. Companies generally don't want to upset paying customers; they just want to discourage the ones who aren't.
Propellerhead Software came up with an interesting option for those using Reason: As long as you're registered, they keep a "virtual dongle" online for you. If you can access the internet, you can run Reason without using a physical dongle. And Ableton Live recognizes the day might come when you have a gig that night, and your laptop breaks. As long as you have your Live set data saved somewhere, you can buy a new laptop, then install the demo version of Live—it's fully functional except for saving projects. Load your set, then play your gig.
Regarding dongles, they may or may not be a good solution. Those who use several programs with iLok or Syncrosoft copy protection can stick all their authorizations on one dongle, bring their distribution media with them, and install wherever they like—desktop, laptop, or even when guesting at another studio. Multiple dongles are harder to manage; adding a USB hub reduces portability. In any event, for USB dongles buy a USB extension cable so the dongle doesn't plug directly into your machine. It's way too easy for a dongle to break off when you're on the road.
If you're into serious multitracking, make sure there are at least USB 2.0 or Firewire ports so you can add a fast external drive if necessary. Granted, it will take you a long time to fill up a 1TB drive. But if nothing else, an external drive allows for easy backing up of your main drive – laptop drives tend to fail more quickly than desktop ones (for starters, they're subject to more vibration), so backing up is crucial.
To boost drive performance, create separate partitions for program files and audio, and defragment often. Also note that USB 2.0 memory stickscan look like disk drives to the computer, so with many programs, you can use them as a temporary drive for audio files.
Buy a really rugged case for your computer, USB memory sticks, and if you need to carry distribution discs and data CD or DVD-ROMs, invest in a quality CD wallet with heavy outside padding. Throw an extension cord and a 3-2 AC adapter in your luggage, as outlets may not always be where you want them.
And don't forget cool software accessories like QWERTY-to-keyboard applets so you can use the typewriter keys to trigger notes, programs that assign joystick motion to controllers, and so on. I particularly like Florian Bömers' Mouse Keyboard (Windows only, unfortunately) because it lets you trigger chords as well as notes, and includes virtual mod and pitch bend wheels you can control with a mouse's scroll wheel. It also doesn't take up a lot of screen space.
So go ahead and rock that laptop—they're not just for businesspeople who want to run PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets!
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus 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.