- At least 2.2Ghz i7 quad-core processor
- At least 4GB of RAM
- 64-bit operating system
- At least 256GB of internal storage (HDD or SSD)
- At least a 15-inch screen.
A lot of the requirements will, of course, vary depending on what type of music you are going to record.
How complex is it? How many tracks will it consist of? Will it be mainly produced using MIDI or will it be all audio? How many tracks do you intend to record at one time? Are you recording an entire orchestra!? Will you be running hundreds of effects and/ or plugins?
You get the point. Not all music production needs are equal. But this guide should help you understand what to look for and why each one of the confusing technical specs is important.
If you follow this guide your laptop should be more than capable of recording fairly complex stuff, just about anything you would want to record in a home recording studio.
A Brief History of Recording
Over the past 100 years, audio recording has advanced significantly. The very first recordings in the early 20th century were created by a large horn-shaped object capturing sound and literally drawing out sound waves onto paper or wax.
By the middle of the century, magnetic tape recording became the technology of choice. This method made recordings of much higher quality and also meant they could be much longer in length.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that digital recording even became a thing. But as with tape recording before it, digital completely changed the musical world and the way music production was done. Where tape only recorded continuous analog sounds, digital recordings work by taking a large number of small samples of a sound very quickly.
But even once the digital recording was invented it was a luxury reserved only for high-end professional recording studios for a long time.
Eventually, it would be possible to buy a computer for your home which would be capable of use in a recording setup. But to get the required spec you had to spend a lot of money. I remember computers even into the early 2000s that were just about capable of playing a CD or running a word processor. And even they would crash occasionally.
So the fact that you are here, even contemplating using a LAPTOP in a home recording studio is quite remarkable. It shows how far technology has come and it’s great!
Laptop vs desktop for home audio production?
I personally made the move from my (not so trusty) desktop PC to a laptop around 4 years ago. Mainly because of the reasons mentioned above. It just wasn’t possible until recently to get a laptop with the spec required for a reasonable price and that wouldn’t explode as soon as you tried to open your DAW software.
Don’t get me wrong, for the money you can probably get a much better desktop computer, custom fitted with everything you could ever want. But a laptop gives me other things which I find very handy.
The main one is portability. With a laptop, I have a music studio I can effectively take anywhere. If you are as busy as me, this is a great thing to have. It has allowed me to mix and even record parts of songs whilst on the train. I’ve even taken it to a church when I wanted to record the acoustics there. I don’t have the space for a drum kit at home so I will sometimes take it to a studio to record drums without having to use someone else’s setup, I have my tracks ready to go and I just plug in and record.
Before I splashed out on my faithful laptop (almost 4 years ago and still going strong), I did a tonne of research into what to look for in a laptop for music production.
I read loads of articles from people saying, don’t bother, get a desktop bla bla bla. But there was a lot of useful information out there and it lead to me purchasing a laptop with a spec that has never let me down!
Ok, so you can’t just grab your old dusty laptop that you mainly use for Facebook browsing and hope it will work in a home recording studio, it probably won’t. The fact is, most off the shelf laptops don’t have the spec required to run a DAW efficiently. But what specs are needed, and why?
Well here is a guide of the key laptop specs for music production which I hope you find useful. I will end with my recommendation of which laptops I think are your best options.
What processor do I need for music production?
Recommended – At least 2.2Ghz, i5 dual-core processor, but ideally i7 quad-core.
You’ve probably heard phrases such as ‘dual-core’ and ‘quad-core’ or ‘i3’ and ‘i7’ banded around but without any explanation of what they mean. I will do my best to explain without confusing you further.
The computer processing unit (CPU) is arguably the most important thing to get right when looking at laptop spec for home recording.
I like to think of the processor as the computers ‘brain’. Being the brain it is therefore responsible for performing calculations, carrying out actions, but probably most importantly for us, running programs. A processor is usually a square chip and sits on the motherboard of your laptop (like the one in the picture above).
When there was just a single core, only a limited amount of tasks could be carried out at one time. When we are running a complex digital audio workstation with multiple tracks all at once this is likely to overwhelm a single core.
Luckily that is why we now have laptops with dual or even quad-core processors. A dual-core is effectively two CPUs on a single chip rather than just one.
As you may expect adding more gives you more. With more processing power your laptop will be able to perform more tasks simultaneously which is essential when recording music. So more cores are usually better.
Another important factor to look for in a processor is the frequency. This is the speed of the processor and is measured in gigahertz or GHz for short.
The frequency used to be the most important factor to look at when all computers had just a single core. And it does still make a difference, the higher the frequency the better. In some cases, a very high-frequency dual-core could actually outperform a lower frequency quad core.
I would recommend a frequency no lower than 2.2GHz, but the higher the number the better so see what you can stretch the budget to.
i3 vs i5 vs i7, whats the difference?
The numbers i3, i5 and i7 refer to different models of processor produced by the company Intel. And quite simply they improve in capability as you go up the numbers. With the i7 being the top processor Intel produce.
The i7, for instance, has a larger ‘cache’ which allows it to deal with repetitive tasks more quickly. Repetitive tasks are stored in the background and then when required can be carried out almost instantly.
With increased performance comes increased price however so bear that in mind.
There are other makes of processors such as AMD as with intel just pay attention to the frequency and number of cores and they will work just as well.
How much RAM do I need for music production?
Recommended – At least 4GB but 8GB or 16GB is definitely the preference. You can never have too much RAM!
Music production software hits your laptop’s memory hard, particularly as you add more plug-ins etc. to your process.
RAM stands for ‘Random Access Memory’. Rather than the long-term memory (which I’ll explain below) RAM is the short-term ‘working’ memory. It is much quicker for the laptop to use the RAM to quickly access data it needs rather than accessing it from the hard drive every time.
I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor for this for a while but this is the best I can do (sorry). RAM is a like a wallet full of money, whenever you need to pay for something you can quickly dip into your RAM wallet to grab some money. The hard-drive is more like the bank, it stores stuff away that is not needed quite so quickly. You have to imagine that you live in a dodgy neighborhood though as every time you put your RAM wallet down (i.e shut your laptop down) all the money from it disappears. Whereas the bank is nice and secure (hopefully) and even when shut down
So although these are both forms of memory they should not be used interchangeably. 4GB of RAM is quite high but 4GB of hard drive storage would barely be enough for a couple of audio recordings with multiple tracks.
As I mentioned, music production requires a lot of this quickly accessible memory. For this reason, I would definitely say to have no less than 4GB of RAM in a laptop for music production. The more RAM you can get with your cash the better, I decided to go for 16GB of RAM in my latest laptop and it runs smooth as anything.
32 vs 64-bit operating system
It’s not that important to understand what the difference between 32 and 64 bit operating systems are apart from 64-bit is newer and better. It is capable of storing more data and is like comparing a car to a bike in terms of speed.
As I said above the more RAM the better but it is worth bearing in mind that a 32-bit operating system is only capable of running up to 4GB of RAM. If you want to have more than 4GB of RAM (which is highly recommended) you will need a 64-bit operating system.
Chances are with modern laptops you will be running a 64-bit operating system. With Windows, if you are running anything later than Windows 7 chances are it is 64 bit. With Macbooks anything more recent than a 2008 Macbook Pro will be 64-bit.
So it probably won’t be an issue if you are buying new (or almost new) but I thought it was worth a mention.
How much memory do I need for music production?
Recommended – at least 256GB internal storage (HDD or SSD) with at least 500GB external storage
Hard drives were one of the specs I found most confusing when choosing a laptop.
One thing that may shock you when you start producing music is the crazy amounts of storage space just a single track can consume! If you are used to just storing a few images or documents on your laptop then prepare for a shock! We are talking in the gigabytes here not the megabytes.
So as you will probably guess as with processors and RAM, the higher the number the better. But what is the minimum? What is recommended?
You will want a decent amount of memory to ensure you can smoothly run your DAW software and plugins but if you are using this laptop primarily for audio production you don’t have to go too crazy with size. I would recommend going for at least 256GB of internal storage but 128GB may be enough for the following reason:
Use an external hard drive for audio files
If you have a high spec laptop you shouldn’t have an issue storing audio data on the internal hard drive, but if you want to make sure you have absolutely no issues with performance then an external hard drive is well worth getting.
This will allow you to just use the internal hard drive for running the operating system, DAW and plugins. Whilst any audio tracks and samples can be kept separate on the external drive. This external hard drive can be your ‘audio drive’.
I personally recommend getting an SSD external hard drive (see below for the difference between SSD and HDD). I have this one from Samsung. The more storage the better of course but even 500GB will last you ages! Don’t splash out loads of money on a 2TB one unless you plan on recording a ridiculous amount of songs.
I actually have a second external hard drive just for backing up and archiving old tracks. You don’t want all those hours of recording to go to waste, do you?
Do I need an SDD for music production?
No, it is not necessary. As with all these things, it is a great luxury to have if you can afford it but an HDD will do most people fine. I’ll try and explain why:
There are two main types of hard drive; SSD which stands for Solid State Drive and HDD which stands for Hard Disk Drive.
A solid-state drive works in a similar way to a USB drive, but built into the computer and much bigger. Unlike a hard disk drive, it doesn’t have any moving parts. Information is stored on a series of microchips.
A hard disk drive, on the other hand, may be familiar to you as the whirring sound you get in many computers and laptops. That whirring sound is caused by a disk spinning really fast. As the disk spins around a mechanical arm read the information of it.
A solid-state drive is like having bookmarks in a book on the pages you want to find, whereas a hard disk drive is like having to flick through the pages every time to find what you are looking for (I apologize for all the terrible comparisons in this article!).
This means SSD is better than HDD but, of course, comes at a price being the better technology.
Personally, I still use an HDD drive. You can just get so much more for your money than with SDD. The truth is that the majority of data will be stored on the RAM. So having lots of RAM is much more important than having an SDD.
If you do go for HDD try and get one with a rotational speed of at least 7200RPM.
If you are planning on using huge numbers of samples, this will be too big to be loaded into the RAM so will be accessed from the hard drive. Then the need for SDD becomes slightly higher but is still not essential.
Is a Flash Drive the same as SSD?
Do I need to worry about the soundcard?
Unless you plan on plugging an instrument directly into the laptop then your external soundcard spec is not an issue. It is most likely you will be using an audio interface, which acts as an external soundcard. Therefore the spec of the one in your laptop won’t matter.
Recommended – at least 15 inches
Screen size depends on how portable you want to be. I opted for a 15-inch laptop as I felt the 17 inch was a bit too big to carry about. When I am in the home studio I will connect it to a much larger monitor though as it makes the experience much better.
Some people find a 15-inch screen too small for working in many DAWs but I don’t mind it. This one is personal preference really. Go to a store and test a couple out to see.
I would advise against anything less than 15 inches as it will be pretty much impossible to work in the DAW without connecting to an external monitor.
Mac or PC for Home Recording Studio?
I had a lot of issues when I used to try and do audio production on a Windows PC and moving to Apple was a game changer for me. It runs like a dream and I’ve not had any issues with latency which I always used to get with my Windows machine.
That said, it was over 4 years ago and I know Windows laptops have come on leaps and bounds since then. The fact is that if you follow the guidance above and meet the correct spec, then either should be fine.
One important thing to bear in mind is which DAW are you going to use?
Logic Pro, for instance, is only for the Mac. But most DAWS will work on both operating systems. I personally use Ableton Live and it works just the same on Windows and Apple. But definitely, check your DAW of choice is compatible before buying your laptop.
As I always say, I will only recommend what I personally use myself or have at least tried. I am currently using a MacBook Pro from around 2015 and it still runs great. It has a 2.7GHz quad-core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of internal storage.
This is the great thing about Macs for me. All my Windows laptops have lasted just a couple of years of heavy use but my MacBook still feels like new even after 3 years of very heavy use.
So bearing that in mind if you can find a Macbook second hand, in good condition, which isn’t too old, with a spec that reflects what we’ve talked about above then that would be a great option.
If you want a nice new shiny one then I would recommend this one. It will give you a 2.6GHz, i7 processor, 16gb of RAM and 512GB of storage.
Your laptop will be the heart of your home music studio so if you’re going to spend money anywhere it should be here. Save that $1000 you were going to spend on a vintage synth and put it towards a laptop first.