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Extra Computer power for music production

November 24, 2006

There are, of course, three certainties in life: tax, death and the ever increasing need for more computer power. OK the latter is possibly not quite up there with death but it does seem that, no matter what processor you have under your bonnet, you’ll always want more oomph to run your applications and, of course, computer hardware companies will be more than happy to supply it for you!

Ten years ago computers simply didn’t have enough Hz to do computer music. In fact even eight years ago when I launched a magazine called Computer Music we were still a little uncertain as to what they would ultimately achieve. But, as ever, technology marches on and now, not only can they do the music thing, they can do it very well and many musicians and studios have a computer at the core of their music making set-ups.
But software developers will always push the latest machines, processors and RAM to their limits (some would say with lazy programming, but we won’t go there) so that the latest releases always seem to gobble up all the resources that you’ve just shelled out for.

So what does a computer musician do? Fall into the trap of upgrading their machines every few months? Well, with the apparent inflation busting pricing structure of today’s computer hardware, where you always get more bang for your buck than six months previous, you’d be forgiven for doing just that. But there really isn’t any need to go mad… not yet. Have a think about other options before you buy a shiny new computer and end up realising that transferring all of that music software from one to another (together with all of those audio files) is an absolute nightmare.

The first option is to upgrade bits of your computer. This is certainly feasible for PC owners and actually a lot more straightforward than you might initially think. Mac owners, too, have some degree of flexibility but really the most you’ll ever be wanting to do on either platform is upgrade the RAM (which I wholeheartedly recommend for music making) and perhaps adding more hard drive space in the form of an extra internal or external drive (and they are so cheap now I’d recommend that too!).

But when it comes to the actual speed of the computer, swapping processors can be a chore and is not something you’d like to be doing when there’s music to be made instead.

Hardware acceleration

A better option, if you are finding your computer struggling with some of its musical tasks, could be to consider buying extra hardware power just for music number crunching. Such boxes work independently from your computer’s own processor to effectively take the strain away from it when dealing with more complex tasks, and to either free it up to do other stuff or simply give it time for a breather and a cupper.

These hardware boxes often come bundled with some exceptional software which, you’ve guessed it, in some cases is actually so good that it uses all of the additional power within the hardware! Still, these boxes are a good option for computer musicians and some of the software that is available on them was previously only available on Pro Tools, the industry standard ‘pro’ recording set-up, and itself a form of hardware accelerator. So you really are looking at pro quality products here but not, in most cases, pro level pricing.

The other advantage to having a hardware box running your music making business away from your computer is that, when you do eventually upgrade your computer, you don’t have to mess about with upgrading and transferring the software contained in the external box. Simply plug it into your new computer and play!

But aren’t we going round in circles?

So, hardware that processes software totally independently from your computer to make music? Haven’t we been here before? Isn’t that exactly the same as having a bunch of hardware musical instruments like synths and samplers outside of your computer environment? Well, yes. And no. You see the integration with the hardware accelerating box (I think we’ll called it Digital Signal Processing or DSP box from now on – it’s much sleeker) is what is key here. The external software will integrate seamlessly into your DAW or computer set-up so that it appears to be running as one with it. Well, that’s the theory anyway…

And there is one other small factor that means we’re very likely to have to get used to the hardware DSP box, or indeed a variation on it. Some companies are getting back into hardware simply because software piracy means that selling software alone will not pay the bills.

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