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Music Production Laptop Buying Guide

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Ten years ago, only the highest-end laptops were powerful enough to take on the task of real-time audio processing, and even still, they paled in comparison to the desktop machines of the day. In 2017, those days are long gone, and the promise of a mobile, high-performance music production studio is a reality. So, let’s go over the ins and outs of buying a laptop for music production and pro audio.

When it comes to choosing a formidable music-production weapon, there are, universally, certain specs that you’ll want to look for to ensure top performance. And then, there are those specs that can be sacrificed to cut costs.

The first important thing you need to consider is what DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) you’ll be using, and which platforms it’s available for. Most DAWs, like Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Bitwig, are available for Mac or Windows. Others are only available for one or the other, like Logic, which is Mac only. Conversely, Cakewalk SONAR and FL Studio are Windows only.

Image-Line FL Studio 12

Once you’ve narrowed your search by platform, you can start thinking about processing power, and for music production and recording, you’ll need a healthy dose of it. In the old days, capable machines were much harder to come by, and some DAW software developers used to qualify only specific “chipsets” on a case-by-case basis. But, now that powerful laptop processors have become more prevalent and affordable, you don’t have to do as much detailed research to qualify a machine. But still, there are some simple guidelines to follow.

Basically, you’ll want the fastest CPU that you can afford. The faster your processor is, the higher the track count, and the more mixing plug-ins and virtual instruments your computer will be able to play back without clicks and pops occurring from CPU overloads. Also, you’ll be able to use more plug-ins at lower sample hardware buffer sizes, which means lower latency, and a more responsive system. However, I recommend that you search for a laptop with a quad-core CPU with the fastest single-core performance you can afford.

The next thing to look at is RAM, or Random Access Memory, which is where your computer temporarily stores information for use, like project files and samples. With most all DAWs now supporting 64-bit operation, we have virtually unlimited access to the amount of RAM we can utilize, which means producers can create larger and more complex projects, without the need for cumbersome workarounds. I recommend 8 to 16GB of RAM, unless you’re using a lot of multi-sample based VST like EastWest, for instance, in which case I’d recommend a minimum of 16GB, and preferably more.

The Cost-to-Performance Ratio

Internal hard drives are another important factor. Obviously, you’ll want as much storage as possible for housing all your software and samples, but another big consideration is speed. SSD is by far the fastest, but also the most expensive. For traditional magnetic hard disks, you will absolutely need a 7200-rpm drive. A 5400-rpm drive simply won’t cut it, and using one will substantially limit the maximum number of audio tracks your system will be able to play back.

In my opinion, the best cost-to-performance and storage ratio for laptops now is the hybrid SSD/magnetic storage solution. The idea here is to have a super-fast, small SSD for your operating system and all your programs, and then a second larger, 7200-rpm magnetic drive for all your samples and project files. This way, you’re afforded the advantages that SSD drives provide, like super-fast load times for your programs, including your DAW and plug-ins, as well as the advantages of magnetic drives, namely huge size at a low cost. Also, by going this route, you’ll be adhering to the age-old best practice of keeping your precious project files on a separate drive from your operating system, a failsafe to protect against data loss, should your system disk become corrupt.

While having two hard drives built into your laptop is certainly a convenience, you can always pick up a compact portable hard drive to store your program files, should you go for a machine that only has one drive.

Samsung 1TB T5 Portable Solid-State Drive

Another point that shouldn’t be looked over is USB connectivity. For portable production, it’s nice to have plenty of USB connectivity without having to use a USB hub. I would recommend a minimum of three, and preferably four USB ports for connecting devices like dongles, drives, MIDI controllers, and more. Speaking of USB devices for laptops, I highly recommend a portable DAC like the AudioQuest DragonFly for laptop production on the go. Most laptops don’t have very good sound cards, and the DragonFly will give you more accurate sound reproduction, in a tiny package. And, while you’re at it, you may also want to pick up a great pair of isolation headphones like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x or the Sennheiser HD 380.

AudioQuest DragonFly Black - USB DAC + Preamp + Headphone Amp

Now for a spec you can skimp on. While certain plug-ins will utilize a dedicated GPU to render their graphic user interfaces, this kind of operation doesn’t require the kind of intensive processing power that gaming or video editing would. Not that a dedicated graphics card would hurt, but, you don’t need to break the bank going for the top NVIDIA or AMD models. In fact, the integrated Intel® graphics will do just fine for audio applications, and going this route can save you money, or let you put those funds toward a faster processor.

Now, that you know the main points to look out for, here are some models that I recommend.

Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar with 2.9 GHz Intel® Core™ i7

This beast of a Mac features a 2.9 GHz Intel® Core™ i7 quad-core processor, 16GB of RAM, and a huge 1TB SSD. Its only cons are its high price, you can’t expand the RAM, and it only has one internal drive. Luckily, it also features four Thunderbolt™ 3 ports that also allow you to use USB 2.0 and 3.0 devices using an adapter, so you can easily add a portable drive for project files.

Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar with 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7

Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar with 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7

Considerably more affordable than its 2.9 GHz big brother, the 2.6 GHz MacBook Pro is also plenty capable. The drawbacks for this model are that you can’t expand the RAM, and the single SSD is only 256GB. 256GB is enough to get all your programs installed, but you’ll certainly need a portable external drive for sample content and project files.

Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro with Touch Bar with 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7

ASUS 15.6" Republic of Gamers Strix GL503VD-DB74 Gaming Notebook

As it turns out, gaming laptops make great music-production laptops. Who knew? Anyway, this machine packs an incredible amount of power, for a great price. It checks all the boxes—2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 Quad-Core, 16GB of including the 256GB SSD for your programs, five USB inputs, and the big 1TB, 7200-rpm magnetic drive for content.

ASUS 15.6" Republic of Gamers Strix GL503VD Gaming Notebook

Dell 15.6" Inspiron 15 5000 Series Gaming Notebook

This Dell notebook is the most affordable of the bunch. It has the same 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 Quad-Core processor as the ASUS above, and a nice big 512GB SSD. It only has three USB ports, which may be a bit limiting on the go, especially considering the fact it only has one hard drive. Nevertheless, it offers an excellent performance-to-price ratio.

Dell 15.6" Inspiron 15 5000 Series Gaming Notebook

Hopefully, we have answered some questions for you, and this can serve as a guide to your quest for the perfect music-production laptop. Thanks for reading, and I encourage you to leave your questions and thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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