In days gone by, basing your studio around a computer meant employing a heavyweight, maxed out lump of a desktop machine. These enormous beasts would sit and happily whirr away, chewing through renders, bounces and processes without a care in the world. Nowadays, however, it’s possible to get more than enough power for the majority of hobbyists from even a basic laptop. There’s still room for a dedicated desktop PC though, as we’ll explain in this guide to the best PCs for music production.
Using a laptop is superb, don’t get us wrong. For some users, a simple sub-£/$500 laptop will be enough to start crafting beats and producing basic tunes. For many studio owners, however, there isn’t the requirement to take their rig everywhere. Nor do they necessarily need something compact. This is where desktop PCs come into their own, with their superior pound-for-pound performance and upgradability. With that in mind, allow us to shine a light on some of the best PCs for music production.
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Best PC for music production: Our top picks
If you’re making the leap from a laptop to a desktop computer-based music studio, you are fortunate enough to have a lot of choice as to which direction you go in.
If you’ve gone down the ready-made route, there are some great options to choose from. The Dell XPS 8940 offers the perfect balance of price, performance and power, without ostentatious gaming trappings like RGB lights or edgy graphics. It’s a sensible, grown up desktop computer that will happily serve you for many years to come.
For Apple fans, you’re looking at either a Mac Mini or iMac, although there are some caveats to consider. Since transitioning to its own in-house M1 processor, compatibility with major music production applications has been patchy at best. It figures that these apps will catch up eventually, but it’s a question of whether you are prepared to wait for that promised land of supercharged power and performance. If not, stick to one of the more recent Intel-based machines.
Best PC for music production: Product guide
Dell has built up a lot of credibility as a result of its Macbook Pro-challenging XPS line-up of performance laptops. It figures, therefore, that its XPS desktop range will offer a solid alternative for anybody who doesn’t side with Apple, or isn’t up for going down the gaming PC route.
Sitting above its Inspiron tier of everyman desktops, the Dell XPS 8940 might look fairly unassuming but under the hood is a very nicely spec’d desktop PC which will excel at music production. We particularly like the high number of connectivity options, with four USB 3 slots on the front of the machine, meaning there’s less reliance on dongles and hubs than you might normally encounter.
If you’re looking for a flashy machine you can show off in your YouTube videos, this isn’t it. But if it’s a powerful, trustworthy beast of a desktop PC that will devour renders, plugins and other processes, then the Dell XPS 8940 is a very safe bet indeed.
Apple’s famous all-in-one series has history in the colour stakes, with the old iMac G3 range introducing the idea that computers didn’t have to be black or beige. With the new Apple iMac M1 line-up, it’s gone back to that playful attitude, only this time there have been some serious changes under the hood. This is down to the new M1 architecture employed by Apple, which is both good and (potentially) not so good news for music production.
The good news is if you’re a Logic Pro X user; Logic and the M1 chip have been optimised to kingdom come, so the user experience there is flawless. Where we’d normally frown at trying to produce tracks using only 8GB of RAM, with the M1 range it works as well as any 16GB+ system we’ve used in the past. The downside is if you use a DAW which hasn’t yet been fully optimised. They’ll still work, thanks to backwards compatibility given by Apple’s Rosetta software, but you won’t enjoy the full performance benefits. Yet. That said, in terms of future-proofing, it’s not like Apple is going to perform a U-turn and go back to Intel so you can bet compatibility will come at some point.
There’d be uproar if we did a list such of the best PCs for music production and didn’t include an Apple iMac. The fact is that this range, still going strong after over a decade, has been the centrepiece of many a productive home studio. It balances strong design with power where it counts, and doesn’t look like an alien in the corner of the desk.
We’ve opted for the mid-range Intel i5 version, with 16GB of RAM and a relatively small SSD. You can get less powerful versions, and there are certainly models above this in the range, but for the sweet spot of desktop music production we’d be happy enough with this specification.
As we mentioned, for serious computing power you can do a lot worse than look to the gaming community. And, while many in that world prefer to build their own rigs, there is a decent market for ready-to-go computers. The Skytech Legacy 2070 is a great example, packing in the kind of spec that would chew through most audio/music demands.
We particularly liked the all-in-one water-cooling feature, which cools the CPU using liquid as well as fans. This reduces the low-level hum produced by the computer considerably, making it good for recording environments.
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Okay, it’s a Hewlett Packard, and so possibly doesn’t elicit huge excitement from the more brand conscious. But if you’ve been using an under-powered laptop, and are looking to make a desktop studio without breaking the bank, then you could do a lot worse than consider one of the higher spec models from one of the big names in business computing.
The base spec of the HP Pavilion 690 isn’t hugely inspiring and, it won’t offer flashy RGB lighting or Apple levels of sheen and polish, but as a decent starting point or canvas for upgrading it’s not bad at all for the price.
If you’re within the Apple ecosystem already, but want something more static to run your music production tasks, then the Apple Mac Mini is still a safe bet. As with the 2021 Apple iMac, you now have the choice of an Intel-based model, but we’ve opted for the new M1 version. While it’s still technically an emerging platform, Apple doesn’t mess around with its tech so you can bet your bottom dollar the benefits of opting for Apple’s in-house silicone will pay off in the long run.
It’s still the same grey square that it’s been for a number of years, but therein lies its beauty. It’s small enough that it can be tucked away from view, but powerful enough that it will satisfy the needs of many producers and musicians.
As if to prove it isn’t Apple that has the monopoly over elegant computers that cost the same as some cars, Microsoft offers up the Surface Studio 2. Now in its second iteration, this is some machine. Centre stage is the 28” PixelSense display, which can be titled downwards so it becomes like an enormous, hugely powerful tablet. We can see the benefits for DAW users of having effectively their entire session laid out in front of them, ready to be tweaked intuitively by hand, rather than mouse and keyboard. It’s all rather futuristic, we think.
That said, innovation like this is going to cost you. That blow is softened when you consider the power this thing is packing – 32GB of RAM will give you confidence running huge multitrack sessions, while the 2TB SSD ensures buttery smooth access to your sample libraries.
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It seems churlish when talking about the new Apple Mac Pro, this high peak of consumer computing excellence, to refer to it as the ‘cheese grater’. You have to admit there’s a resemblance though? Put that to one side, however, and marvel at that potential spec sheet. It is, frankly, nuts. Fun game; visit the Apple website and max out the potential specs. We did, and got a final cost of over $64,000. For a computer.
Safe to say the new Mac Pro will be more than you would ever need, and that statement will probably still be valid in 10 years’ time. Nice to dream though, right?
Rounding off the list is perhaps the most visually striking of all the units featured in this list. The Alienware Aurora R9 could quite conceivably have been lifted directly from the remains of a fallen spacecraft, yet is in fact a powerful, hugely capable computer aimed squarely at the gaming market.
That’s not to say there isn’t something for producers here though. If you like to dabble in a bit of Modern Warfare in between exporting final renders of your latest Ableton Live session, this could be the machine for you.
Best PC for music production: Buying advice
What makes a great music production PC?
One of the major benefits of choosing a desktop PC for your studio over a laptop is the ability to extract much more in the way of performance. Without the need for portability, and with a physical footprint less of a constraint, desktop computers can instead major on sheer grunt. For music production, there is a holy triumvirate you should look for; processor, RAM and storage. Gamers and video producers will need to include the graphical capability in their search criteria but, assuming this is an audio powerhouse, the three areas above should top your list.
- The central processing unit (CPU) is the brain of the computer. It’s the part that carries out the work, and makes things happen. Whether it’s running multiple VST plugins, or exporting audio, or fetching data; the processor is the heart of any computer and shouldn’t be overlooked. Typically, the absolute lowest spec processor we’d advise looking at would be Intel’s i5 range, or the AMD Ryzen 5. While a slower CPU will technically be able to run DAW applications, and their associated processes, everything will just take that much longer to occur. This means freezing tracks, rendering or exporting finished mixes and using complex plug-in effects or instruments.
- Also of importance regarding CPUs is the issue of cooling. Desktop PCs are typically larger in size than laptops, and therefore have superior options for cooling. Processors give off plenty of heat, after all. A choice you may have to make is between fan or water cooling. Both have advantages and disadvantages; however, the reduced noise from water cooling gives it an edge in environments where volume levels are a factor, e.g. recording booths.
- RAM is also hugely important. It’s here that the computer holds relevant data and makes it available to access quickly. For audio production that means sample files, bounces and other important data which you’re dipping in and out of. Thankfully, most desktop computer builds are capable of being upgraded – best to check before you buy – as this does at least allow you to boost its capability in the future. It’s usually fairly inexpensive to do this too. As a minimum, however, we wouldn’t advise starting out with less than 8GB of RAM installed.
- Storage is the other key ingredient. For audio work, we’d recommend a hybrid approach. Regular hard disk drives (HDDs) offer huge amounts of storage, but lack in the speed department. Solid state drives (SSDs), on the other hand, are much quicker at accessing data making them ideal for storing sample libraries but are usually more expensive. Combining the two is often a good solution.
You may have noticed we haven’t mentioned audio capability in a desktop computer – pretty fundamental, you’d think? The simple reason is that music and audio production requirements – i.e. plugging in microphones or guitar cables – are better handled by external audio interfaces and that’s an entirely different conversation which we won't cover here.
Whichever option you choose, from pre-made to custom builds, desktop PCs are still very much an attractive proposition for music production. Providing you know the specs you should be looking out for, you’ll be sure to find a machine that will keep pace with you for years to come.