By Martial Besombes
Composer, self Jan 10, 2018
You’ve done your research, looked at your budget, and now’s the time to make the move. Whether you decide to expand with a slave machine or just want an all–in-one solution, you’re ready to build your PC. So where do we start?
Well, there are a lot of viable options in today’s market – including buying an already pre-built machine – and yes, I would advocate for that solution in most cases. I wouldn’t have done so a year or two ago, but things have evolved quite fast.
Before looking at two different scenarios, I’d like to review a couple general concepts and discuss a few specifics related to a PC build for Cinematic Composers.
The brain: CPU (6 cores minimum) – Motherboard – Basic memory (256 GB SSD) – OS (Windows Pro)
The lungs: RAM (16GB minimum)
The body: Case – Power supply – Fan (if needed) – CD/DVD player (?) – Wireless (card or USB)
A good supplier – I like Microcenter, but Frye’s, Amazon, Best Buy or Newegg will do.
A benchmark site for CPU’s speed (or this site)
An instructional video to help guide you throughout your build – unless you pay someone.
Companies are fighting aggressively to produce faster, better, bigger CPUs. For cinematic composers, it’s the number of cores that matters most.
There are two main software products that can handle the audio engine for your sound libraries: VE Pro and/or Kontakt (we’re not talking about the audio handled by your DAW). They were both built from the beginning with the idea of optimizing the use of multi-core processing and that’s a huge plus for us. Many software applications were not built with that in mind which means, unless the company bites the bullet and rebuilds from the ground up, revisions of their software won’t be as efficient in a multicore environment.
The takeaway: look up multi-core performance on the benchmark sites when you compare CPUs.
Side note: every CPU needs a cooler. The good thing is that nowadays most of them come with a cooler that is more than adequate for normal use. I recommend adding a good basic cooler so that when you push the processor to the limit, there’s extra cooling power. IF you decide to overclock your CPU (which I don’t recommend) then you’ll need serious additional cooling power.
SSDs are fast, and now really cheap. As a Cinematic Composer, you’re going to need a lot of sounds ready to go in your template. And you’ll stack up a lot of them. (As a starting point, you could start with 1TB of storage for your sounds, but 2 TB may feel more comfortable).
Because we work in midi as long as possible, we end up streaming a lot of samples – really a lot. The solution for that is having as much RAM as possible. Think of RAM as a big desk – as big as your RAM size. Your sounds are stored somewhere in your warehouse – your hard drive – and as you get set up, someone brings your sounds from the warehouse to your desk!
So let’s say you decide to compose a piece that needs 30 instruments with 6 articulations each. If each sound takes up 20 MB, you’re going to need 3.6 GB of RAM (30*6*20=3600MB). No problem. Now, in reality it will end up being more like 200 MB of sample size with 150 instruments – 6 articulations – which accounts for… 120 GB (and probably more)!
The way that audio engines are handling that situation is they pre-load only a portion of the samples (what is called the cache size in your audio engine settings) and then stream the rest of the samples straight from your hard drive while they’re being played. This way it doesn’t clog the RAM and we can have access to a lot more sounds.
Which brings us to the point of the SSDs. The faster the SSD, the faster the stream is, and the lower the RAM cache size has to be set to. Bingo!
Bottom line: Buy SSDs! Regular Hard drives are good for backups
The motherboard basically connects all your components together: CPU, RAM, hard drives, fans, PCI cards, etc.. So one thing is to have enough memory slots. Nowadays most motherboards can hold 64GB of RAM and have 6 slots for hard drives. So we should be all good in most cases.
Now each CPU is built with a particular size/shape and with a certain of number of access points. That’s referred to as a socket type. And every time a company brings a new technology, here goes a new socket type, so you want to make sure that the socket of your motherboard will host your CPU. For example the Intel Core i5-7500 has a LGA1151 socket type. A quick search for a LGA1151 motherboard on newegg.com will return more than 1000 results ranging from $30 to $550. Then you’ll have to narrow your search. I would suggest starting by filtering the one that hold 64GB of RAM and then sorting by most reviews, best ratings or newest.
About the m.2 ports: they’re the new kids on the block. What’s important is they can host NVMe SSDs, which are 3 times faster than current SSDs. And they’re priced about the same as the traditional SSDs– so why not, right? Sure, but right now speed is probably not your number-one concern. Currently, motherboards offer 1 or 2 m.2 ports so you do the math to see if it’s worth buying a higher end motherboard to add those ports… One detail: the m.2 port itself does not add more speed. The NVMe technology does. There are m.2 ready SSD drives out there that are not NVMe drives. So watch out when you pick your drives!
Last thing to know, each motherboard will last 2 generations of CPU – i5 to i7 for example. So the likelihood that you would upgrade CPUs with the same motherboard is quite low….
The takeaway – no need to buy a too expansive motherboard. If it has enough ports and recipients for your SSD / RAM needs, then that’s it!
At the end of 2016, I built a slave PC and bought 32GB of RAM for $160. As of Jan 4th 2018, I couldn’t find anything cheaper than $350…. The word on the street is that only 5 factories are producing those in the world and one burnt down, disrupting the balance of supply/demand.
Here’s another thing to take into consideration: CPUs tend to be more efficient in dual or quad mode when it comes to RAM management. What it means is that you want to pair up memory sticks of the same size to optimize usage.
The bottom line, buy as little RAM as needed and wait for the price to come down to add to it. It may take more than a year from what I’m hearing…
Ok I think we got the basics covered so let’s get to it!
Specs: 6 cores-16GB Ram-1TB storage+256Gb bootable drive for OS and software.
Sub Total: $750
Sub Total: $385
Grand Total: $1135
* note: we could shave a little bit more by doing a bundle CPU/Motherboard (-$30). Depending on when you read this, it could be an option. You may also be in a position to transfer the OS license from a previous computer and save yourself the expense of a new one.
Grand Total: $1250
Now that SSDs are relatively cheap, companies can build desktop PCs that are affordable and very competitive. Online videos and gaming have driven the market in the past 5 years and have been be the main concern for the general public.
I call it a toss up.
Sure building it yourself will save you a potential of $100 to $250 and it may be fun to build but still…. Time… Mistakes… Is it worth it?
* The Powerspec G500 comes with an extra 1TB HDD and a Graphic card – which we don’t really need but it’s nice to have them
Specs: 16 cores-64Gb Ram-3TB storage+256Gb bootable drive for OS and software.
Sub Total: $3630
Sub Total: $385
Grand Total: $4015
Base: iMac Pro – Base Model 8 cores-32GB RAM-1TB SSD $4999
Well, when it comes to high-end machines, companies have to boost graphic capabilities for video editing and gaming uses. I couldn’t find any pre-built PCs that would keep the graphics to the bare minimum…
* As far as our comparison goes, I purposefully targeted $1000 lower for our build because of the screen quality of the iMac – which I think is fair.
Hands down for a custom build!!!!
For a slightly lower price (adjusting for screen, etc.) you basically get a machine that is two times more powerful: twice the number of cores (two times faster), twice the RAM and three times more storage. We could add 2TB of SSDs including a1TB NVME drive and add a 4TB backup drive.
At this price point I would even recommend hiring someone to do the build and tune up the machine ($150 roughly).
If you need a low-end to mid-level machine to get started or to supplement your set-up, there are quite a few solutions for pre-built PCs. The only reason to do it yourself would be:
1- you want to learn how to build a PC or
2- you have access to refurbished parts (maybe recycling another machine).
But if you want the Ferrari of the computers, definitely go ahead and build it!
*** All price reflected in this article are priced as of 1/10/2018
Martial Besombes is a pianist-composer born in Annecy, France. He toured and worked with many international artists such as Jennifer Holliday and Alexander O’Neal. He currently lives in Minneapolis, MN.
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