In days gone by, basing your studio around a computer meant employing a heavyweight, maxed out lump of a desktop machine. These would sit and happily whirr away, chewing through renders, bounces and processes without a care in the world. Gradually, however, something changed in the music world. People started looking for things like ‘portability’ and ‘more power’ from their machines. They wanted desktop power, but in a compact format. This coincided with rapid advancements in computing technology, and thus the all-powerful studio laptop became a thing. So, why have we bothered compiling a guide to the best PCs for music production?
Using a laptop for music production is superb, don’t get us wrong. Some even border on monstrous, in terms of what they can do. Indeed, we’d go as far as to say the majority of people in the market for some kind of computer will default to looking for a laptop first and foremost. That doesn’t mean they are the best option for everyone though. For many studio owners, there isn’t the requirement to take their rig everywhere. Nor do they necessarily need something compact. If this sounds like you, allow us to shine a light on some of the best PCs for music production.
- Go mobile with our pick of the best laptops for music production
- Complete your home studio with one of the best audio interfaces
- Explore the best studio monitors for your studio
- Organise your recording space with the best studio desks
- The best studio chairs: are you sitting comfortably?
What is the best PC for music production?
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. In one corner, you have the gaming computer world, which delivers huge specifications and the promise of easy upgrades in the future. In the next corner there are the all-in-one machines that are as comfortable handling huge spreadsheets and email chains as they are hosting Maschine sessions. And then there’s the otherworldly ‘pro’ models which are beyond most mortals but, for what they are, have to be marvelled at.
Pound for pound, there is a clear winner though. The Dell XPS 8930 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.
Best PC for music production: buying advice
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 size 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 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.
- Also of importance regarding CPUs is the issue of cooling. Desktop PCs are typically larger in size than laptops, and therefore have superior cooling capabilities. 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.
With all that in mind, here’s our list of the best PCs for music production.
- Start making music with our pick of the best MIDI keyboards
- Listen up! These are the best studio headphones for music production
- Store your sessions on one of the best external hard drives
- The best computer monitors for music production: DAW-friendly displays
The best PCs for music production right now
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.
The Dell XPS 8930 is an extremely capable, heavily spec’d desktop computer which would excel in any number of situations. The 32GB of RAM makes it ideal for large projects, while the processor will take whatever your arsenal of VSTs can throw at it. Try as we might, we can’t find much to fault with this one.
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.
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.
Another entry from Apple in the desktop stakes, only this one is about as bare bones as it gets. The sleek, space gray Apple Mac Mini comes in a range of specifications, going from entry-level up to Actually Quite Serious, however we’ve again opted for what we classed as the happy medium.
A shade under $1,400 gets you a solid CPU, a healthy amount of RAM and a small but quick SSD. More importantly for some, however, is that it also grants you access to Apple’s ecosystem and all the benefits – or niggles, depending on your view – that come with that.
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.
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.