Songwriter’s guide to home recording: laptop vs desktop

28 October, 2019 in Features, Gear, Tips & Techniques

home recording studio

A home recording studio: which is better, a laptop or desktop? Photo: Wes Hicks

Our resident music production aficionado Dave Chrzanowski explains the basics of setting up a home studio, starting with computer selection


It’s never been easier for songwriters with limited tech knowledge to produce music. While setting up a home studio isn’t as daunting as it sounds, the amount of equipment required depends on budget, size of space and, most importantly, creative needs; it’s unlikely a full-scale keyboard, like the M-Audio Keystation 88 MKII, will be of any use if it takes up all your studio space.

This guide aims to delve into the necessities of home recording, giving a clearer insight into the requirements of different studios. It will include some equipment you shouldn’t be without, while disposing of some myths along the way. Over the coming weeks, we’ll cover six main areas of home recording including software, monitors and headphones, interfaces, microphones and MIDI controllers and cables. But let’s start with the first important decision…


Laptop or desktop?

When I began building my own bedroom studio 16 years ago, the easiest route, albeit an expensive one, was to opt for an Apple MacBook to sit as the central hub of my creative laboratory. Macs are ready to record with straight from the box, thanks to the preinstalled Garageband. Also, Apple computers just seemed more user-friendly for recording. I remember people pulling their Windows desktops apart, replacing hard drives and processors just to get Logic Pro to run – never successfully. Thankfully, Windows has caught up with Apple, so there’s no longer just one player on the market. That being said, finding a laptop for this purpose can still be an expensive business, but worth every penny if the software runs smoothly.

Pay attention to the specifications required to run your chosen DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and buy a laptop to suit. Cubase LE 10 needs a minimum of 4GB of RAM, with a recommendation of 8GB to run. So, if your laptop has 8GB of RAM it will perform well with room to spare for other performance requirements.
Installing and storing a DAW is one thing, but it’s important to consider projects, virtual instruments (VST), effects and other add-ons that go with creating music. Hard drive/disk space will determine how much a computer can store. Ableton Live 10 recommends 8GB, but 3GB should run the basic version. However, taking into account all of the extras, you could require in excess of 76GB.

If plugging in a guitar or keyboard is your chosen method to record, then space for huge amounts of samples won’t be necessary. For electronic music producers and score composers requiring large sample libraries, collecting samples on a dedicated external hard drive is the best option. If anything, this gives the freedom to move from studio to studio. As someone who has only used a MacBook and MacBook Pro for recording live instruments and maintaining a small sample library, without performance issues, adding an extra hard drive shouldn’t be necessary, especially with bigger inbuilt computer storage these days.

Choosing a processor can be confusing, it’s all Intel this and multicore that. At the time of writing, Intel Core i5 or higher will suffice. Without going into too much detail, a multicore processor is two or more CPUs working on the same chip. The more cores the better, most CPUs are dual, quad or octo-core. Intel Core i3 is dual-core only, while the i5 and i7 series are both dual and quad-core; each series being better than its predecessor.

Most people will ask which is better, a laptop or desktop for home studios? That shouldn’t be the question, because both will do the job. It comes down to personal requirements, with physical space being one. Ask yourself, do you have room for a desktop or is portability more important? Desktops will offer more power and outputs for a similar price, it’s also easier to upgrade hardware, add more RAM, etc. Personally, I’ve always gone down the laptop route as limited space was a factor.

So, taking on board some of the information above, let’s look at some options. The user-friendly and extremely versatile qualities of the Apple Mac always guarantee its high position on Top 20 lists, and if you’ve got the money there’s not much that can beat it. For those of you who won’t dance with the devil, the Lenovo ThinkPad comes with all the required specs for a fraction of the cost – currently available for around £779, although cheaper models are available. Another household name is Dell. A quick internet search will produce several suitable Dell laptops at a wide range of prices.

Leading the way in towers, or desktop computers, is Dell and Apple. However, the Acer Aspire TC-780 and HP Envy Curved All In One are throwing their weight around in this category. HP’s Envy Curved All In One is so named due to its massive 34-inch curved screen which houses all its bits, saving space, however, the Acer is considerably more affordable.

Well, that concludes part one of the series. Next, we look at all the software options to fill those fresh hard drives.

Words: Dave Chrzanowski



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