Music production software is spec-hungry.
It certainly doesn’t rival that of high-end gaming, video production or animation, but to run a smooth, reliable session, you’re still going to need a fairly robust machine.
It’s not a graphics issue but a RAM and CPU issue, as multiple instances of complex plugins are CPU and memory heavy.
Enough active plugins will place strain on even the most hardcore machines – there is always an upper limit. If you keep piling plugins into your session then lag, glitches and errors are inevitable.
When it comes to computer specs for music production, it’s fair to say that bigger is usually better. But, it’s easily possible to run fairly big sessions on mid-range or even budget machines that cost around £400 to £600 or so.
It definitely depends on the types of music you’re creating and how you manage your session.
Here are the recommended computer specs for music production and a breakdown of the options.
Desktop vs Laptop for Music Production?
A common question is whether desktops or laptops are better for music production.
You don’t strictly need a desktop to produce music anymore. Modern laptops can easily pack high enough specs to run fairly heavy music production sessions.
The main issue is expandability – there may come a time when you need to upgrade your RAM or hard drive. Laptops can receive more RAM and external SSDs/HDDs are always an option, but desktop computers are still more future-proof than laptops.
Plus, desktop computers are cheaper with a more favourable pound-to-spec ratio than laptops.
Connectivity is another issue – you’ll find some 6 to 8 USB ports on many desktops but only 2 or 3 on laptops, for example.
On the flip side, being able to take your music production rig anywhere is a massive bonus and USB hubs solve the issue of connectivity at a relatively low cost.
Benefits of Laptops for Music Production
- Can take anywhere
- Powerful enough to run most music production software and plugins
- More flexible than desktops
- Do offer some level of expandability
Benefits of Desktop Computers for Music Production
- More cost-effective
- Comfortable to use from a desk
- Easier to upgrade
- The ceiling is higher with regards to spec
Windows vs Mac for Music Production
This is a tough one to break down.
Many people choose an operating system based on personal tastes and compatibility. Today, there are few DAWs that won’t run on both Windows and Mac – the exceptions are Logic and Garageband.
If you want to use either of these DAWs then you’ll need a Mac unless you plan on running some sort of operating system emulation software that is bound to cause more problems than it’s worth.
In terms of performance, Macs do offer some advantages over Windows. Namely, MacOS CoreAudio drivers are exceptionally good for music production and the plug-and-play style of the operating system ensures smooth functionality with a huge array of software and hardware.
Windows these days is rock solid, but MacOS may yield some advantages over time as it’s not liable to fragmentation in the same way as Windows is. However, MacOS upgrades also have a reputation for breaking people’s computers, though this does seem to have improved lately.
Windows systems are much, much cheaper. You always get more bang for your buck with a Windows system, it’s as simple as that. If you’re looking to build a top-spec music production machine then this is much cheaper and easier to do with Windows than Mac.
The vast majority of modern plugins and other music production software are compatible with both Windows and Mac. However, there are more free VSTs available for Windows than there are for Mac.
Minimum Specs for Music Production
So what are the absolute minimum specs you can get away with when producing music?
Let’s take a look at 4 of the most popular DAWs and their system requirements:
GarageBand: Garageband is lightweight but it’ll only run on MacOS It currently requires Mac 10.13.6 and only takes up 2GB of HDD space. 2GB is the minimum required RAM but 4GB is highly recommended. It’ll run fine on any Mac after around 2012 and the included plugins are also lightweight.
Logic Pro X: Another Mac-only software. Logic requires 4GB of RAM, an OpenCL graphics card or Intel HD Graphics 3000 and 6GB of HDD space. It runs on all Mac processors which support Intel HD Graphics 3000. It’s pretty lightweight as it comes and should run on most Macs purchased after around 2012.
Ableton Live 10/11: Ableton Live 10 runs on both Mac and Windows. It requires OS 10.11.6 or Windows 7 or later, an Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM, but 8GB is recommended. It uses around 6GB of HDD space. Ableton Live 11 requires Windows 10 and 8GB of RAM minimum.
Pro Tools 12: Pro Tools 12 requires an i5 Intel Processor or AMD equivalent. Requires Mac OS 10.11.6 or Windows 7, 8GB RAM but 16GB is recommended. It uses 15GB HDD space for installation.
RAM and Processors for Music Production
It’s safe to say that all DAWs require Intel Core i5 processors or the AMD equivalent and 8GB of RAM as the absolute minimum specs for music production software.
16GB of RAM would be much more favourable and is quite easy to obtain for both PC and Mac, desktop or laptop.
There are various generations of Intel processors and as of 2021, the i5 series is in its 11th generation. Many i5 (and of course i7) processors now have 6 cores clocking at more than 2.4GHZ per core.
It’s hard to say what generation i5 or i7 processor is the minimum for music production. Even the i5 processors used in late-2012 Macbook Pros will safely run most compatible DAWs.
The issue is not the DAW, though, but the plugins – modern plugins like wavetable synths that are very CPU-heavy. If you just want to do some recording and minor processing then an older machine will work fine, but if you intend on using multiple plugins and software instruments then you’ll need to step it up from the minimum DAW system requirements listed here.
It’s also worth mentioning that 64-bit operating systems are pretty much required for music production. If your PC or laptop has an operating system released after 2015 or 2016 then it’ll be 64-bit.
If you had to nail down the recommended specs for standard music production with say, 25+ tracks and 30+ plugins involving a few software instruments, EQs, compressors, reverbs, FX, etc, then you’re looking at i5 or i7 with a minimum of 2.4GHZ clock speed and 8GB of RAM minimum.
HDD vs SSD for Music Production
SSDs are always coming down in price and are worthy of serious consideration for music production.
They’re superior to HDDs in virtually every way – higher read/write speeds mean smoother loading times and they’re more reliable and less likely to break.
HDDs have moving parts and their mechanical nature means they’re destined to break eventually – always keep a backup of your sessions if you have an HDD!
The Benefits of SSDs for Music Production
- Superior read/write speeds allow for lower latency recording and improved performance with some plugins
- No moving parts mean increased durability
- Quiet running volume
- Improves load times across the boards
Do I Need a Graphics Card for Music Production?
All computers have some sort of graphics processor (GPU). But will you need a powerful dedicated graphics card for music production? Not really.
DAW interfaces are not graphics-heavy and though some plugins include nice animated visuals and flashy graphics, it’s highly unlikely that these will place much strain on your graphics.
Screens for Music Production
It’s important also to consider screen size and resolution. Music production software works better with larger screens, it just makes life easier when scrolling through your session.
Higher definition 1080P, 2K or 4K screens will bring further clarity to your session and reduce eye strain when working late at night, etc.
Some DAWs have a minimum screen resolution of 1366×768 which is pretty ancient by today’s standards. 1080P screens are ubiquitous now.
Summary: Computer Specs for Music Production
It’s safe to say that a decent Intel i5 or i7 processor and 8GB of RAM are the minimum computer specs required for music production. This leaves a pretty wide range of compatible devices.
All in all, it really depends on how many plugins you use and how you manage your session. Always try and print/record tracks out when you’ve finished processing them – this enables you to ‘lock’ or ‘freeze’ the track and its plugins to prevent unneeded CPU drain.
You might find that some plugins cause particular issues. One example is Ozone which isn’t really designed to be run on more than 1 track (the master fader, though you can run its modules as individual tracks too).
Remember, even the most powerful machines have their limits!