So let’s say you’re a voiceover artist like yours truly and you decide that rather than just buy a computer to use as your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), you’d rather build one yourself so that you have greater control over the components that go into it and, hopefully, will end up with a purpose-built system that does the job well and costs less than one you’d buy from a manufacturer who specializes in pre-fab DAW machines.
If you have some experience inside the case of a computer, this is entirely do-able. As to whether or not it’s the best solution is totally up to you and your situation. It could in fact save you money, or it could end up costing you more. It will almost certainly take much more time and effort than buying one pre-fab, but sometimes just the process itself is worth a little effort if you have fun with this sort of thing or want to learn about building PCs. Plus, then you end up with something that is, hopefully, exactly what you want without being less or more.
First let’s just go through a run-down of the components you’ll need:
Sound Card or Audio Interface
Monitor / Display
Keyboard / Mouse
Whew…that’s a fair amount of stuff, huh?
Now, before you even start to think about that there list, you need to ask yourself what OS you’re going to run. Vista is spiffy and looks great and has some really cool features. I’ve also found it to be quite stable. However, many audio hardware manufacturers have been extremely slow to release stable, efficient Vista drivers for their hardware. Please note this is no fault of Vista but of the manufacturers themselves. So if you already have a favorite bit of hardware that doesn’t run under Vista yet, contact the manufacturer and ask them what’s taking them so darn long!
Note that on 2/12/08, Microsoft released a number of Windows updates for Vista and to be honest, it’s the first time I’ve encountered ANY stability issues with the OS. I’m not sure what part of those updates, specifically, has caused this flakiness, and it seems to have mostly corrected itself (perhaps with another couple of updates on 2/13), but I’m hopeful that the remaining issues are resolved asap since, again, up til now, I’ve had extremely stable performance from Vista on every machine I’ve run it on.
Ok, since everybody’s going to have different preferences and needs from their system, I’m not saying that my choices for components are the “right” way to do it, but one example. In fact there are a couple of things I would (and might) change, but I’ll talk about those in a few minutes. My main goal here is to shed some light on the process and things you need to consider when building your own DAW.
Before I get into how I made my selections, let’s just spend a few minutes going over what each of the above components is and how it relates to the others.
- Case – This is the shell that the majority of the computer’s bits fit inside of. Sometimes people call this the “tower”. I’ve heard many people mistakenly call this the “hard drive” but a hard drive is a component that goes inside the case.
- Motherboard – The primary electronic component of the computer, the motherboard or mainboard as it’s sometimes called, is a large circuitboard that everything gets connected to either directly or indirectly.
- Power Supply – Fits inside the case and supplies power to the system.
- Processor – The processor, or CPU, is the primary computing component of the whole system. Some people like to call this the “computer’s brain”. Those people usually have trouble answering their cell phones (just kidding!)
- Memory – Memory, or RAM, is where programs and files are loaded while they’re being used. The more memory your system has (up to a point) the faster it’ll run, because the computer can load more programs and files into memory, which is accessed very quickly. RAM only operates while the computer is turned on.
- Hard Drives – These, also known as disk drives, are the “permanent” storage for your computer, meaning data stored on the hard drive isn’t lost when the computer is turned off, as it is with RAM.
- Sound Card or Audio Interface – This is what takes your voice, by way of a microphone and any other components you add to your audio chain, such as a pre-amplifier or mixer, and turns it from an analog audio signal to a digital one that can be stored as data on your computer.
- Monitor / Display – This is the part that looks kind of like a TV and it’s what you’re looking at right now. And now. And again now.
- Speakers, Keyboard / Mouse, Printer – If I have to explain these, I’m afraid this article isn’t going to do you much good. Sorry :)
Case, Motherboard, Processor & Power Supply
Why are these four things all lumped together? Well, in many ways, the choice of one directly affects the choice of the others, or at least limits the choices you’ll make. In the case of building a DAW, and in fact in building any computer, what you’re going for are tailoring the equipment to your specific needs. In my case, I’d determined that I wanted a machine with very good performance and longevity, but without paying a premium for everything when all was said and done.
With that in mind, I started by thinking about what kind of processor, or CPU, I’d want to use. I knew that I wanted an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and the one I chose was fast without being the fastest thing on the market at the time, which will save you a lot of money in most cases. Generally one or two steps down from the absolute state of the art in processors is where you’ll find the best value – the best performance for the money. Sometimes, the 2nd fastest processor available at a given time is half the cost of the fastest one, but only 5% to 10% slower, so it’s a pretty good deal.
Now that I had decided on a processor, it was time to pick a motherboard for the system. Different motherboards only accept certain CPUs, so again, some forethought has to go into what you’re planning for the whole system so that the various components match up.
So once I’d selected my processor, I did some research and found a motherboard that seemed to suit all of my needs. Obviously, the motherboard had to support the processor that I’d chosen, so that was step one. I also wanted one that had eSATA controllers for the hard drives. An eSATA connection is a very fast hard drive controller technology. Fast drives are important in a DAW because you want to make sure that your hard drives, where your audio will be recorded to and saved, are fast enough to keep up with the bit-rate (how fast the data is processed) of your audio and the software that you use to record it. Just FYI the motherboard I chose is the Asus P5B Deluxe.
Not only did this motherboard have eSATA controllers, but it also included a SATA RAID controller. RAID, which stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, is a way of using multiple hard drives together either to improve the performance of them, add redundancy to safeguard your data, or both. RAID use is a bit technical…there are various “levels” of RAID, meaning various ways to use the technology depending on your needs. I chose RAID-5, which means that with at least three disks in the array working together, your data is safe even if one disk fails. Pretty cool stuff…there’s a bit of a performance hit with RAID-5, especially when compared to RAID-0, which is very fast, but RAID-0 is vulnerable because if a disk goes bad, your data is lost.
RAID-5 can survive a disk failure without losing data. If this happens, you simply replace the drive that failed with new one (of the same type) and the data is “rebuilt” onto the new drive. This process is generally done by the RAID controller itself and invisible to the user, which is pretty handy.
I figured that with the speed of the eSATA controller and the speed of drives available these days, the slight performance hit by using RAID-5 would be overcome enough to not have any issues with recording audio at sustained bitrates (and true enough, this has never been an issue…the system performs great).
The motherboard I chose also has an IEEE 1394, or FireWire, controller built in, and it’s controlled by a Texas Instruments chipset. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t need to know (or care) who makes the FireWire controller, but in researching DAWs online as well as audio interfaces (we’ll get to those later), I noticed that a number of manufacturers claimed that their hardware only worked with Texas Instruments FireWire chipsets. I have no idea if this is true, and at the time I didn’t even know what type of audio interface I would be using, but I figured since this motherboard used the TI chipset anyway, it was a good bet because it would offer another level of flexibility in terms of choosing the audio interface when I got to that point.
So now that I’d decided on a processor and motherboard, it was time to pick a case. Cases are generally standardized in certain respects, such as layout of the attachment points for the motherboard, the I/O panel cutout (the area where the various ports will be available on the back of the machine), where the power supply goes, etc. Of course their are always exceptions, but for today’s PCs, generally what you’ll be looking at are some variant of what’s called an ATX case. This isn’t a brand, but a sort of “standard” for cases. There are also a number of BTX cases available as well. ATX and BTX cases are not compatible with each other, as they have their I/O panels and expansion slots in different places. This comes into play when selecting a motherboard (motherboards are also identified by their layout standard), so you’ll need to pair an ATX motherboard with an ATX case, etc.
Call me silly, but one of the things I was looking for in a case was something that was a little bit different looking and that had a certain “cool factor” to it. For this reason, I chose the red Vento case by Asus. It didn’t look like much else on the market, the color was vibrant and it definitely looked high tech and cool. I also read a little about it and found that people thought it had very good airflow characteristics, which is good, because I was going to try to use a minimal number of fans within my DAW, so a case with better airflow is going to make better use of the fans that are there.
Ok, so the last component in this group is the power supply. There are a couple of hard and fast requirements here. First, the power supply has to have the right connectors for your motherboard and second, it has to supply enough power for the other components that you’ll build into your DAW. The one component in a system that will often require a beefy power supply is the video card, since many current video cards, especially those designed for gaming and advanced 3D graphics, use a LOT of power. Fortunately, for my needs, cutting edge graphics aren’t a requirement, so I figured that based on what components I’d be using, a 500W power supply should do the trick. I did some research and found that the Thermaltake W0093RU power supply had gotten good reviews both for reliablity and noise, meaning that it wasn’t too loud.
This should serve as a mildly annoying reminder that you simply can’t trust the opinions of people you don’t know. While I’m sure the power supply is much quieter than many, it certainly isn’t “quiet” empirically. In fact, I’ll probably swap out this power supply at some point because it simply is too loud.
Now, with regard to the power supply, you need to make sure that the power supply you choose has the proper connectors for your motherboard and video card, especially if you’re building a system with a high-end card, because they often require their own power connector. As an example, your motherboard may require a 20+4 pin connector, a 12v 4-pin connector or both. This one has both as well as plenty of peripheral connectors. But again, it’s not as quiet as I would have liked. Moving on then.
When you look at motherboards, you’ll see that they’re rated for memory up to a certain speed, and this can be determined by the rating of the Front Side Bus or FSB. So if your motherboard has an 800MHz FSB, then you can use memory rated up to that speed. Many motherboards support different speeds of memory so that if you want to use slower / cheaper memory for now, then upgrade later, you have the ability to do that. However, I would recommend buying the fastest memory you can afford to buy for the FSB of your motherboard, and to get at least 2GB of memory.
Since memory is where your applications and data are loaded into while you’re using them, fast memory means faster performance in your computer. And having 2GB of memory means that your software will run fast even when you have multiple programs open. This is good, because it means your system won’t “page” software to disk…if it did this, there’s a good chance your audio would be glitchy since the computer would be trying to stream audio to disk at the same time it’s trying to swap program data to and from disk.
While disk access is very fast, it’s not nearly as fast as RAM access, so again, my recommendation is to have at least 2GB of the fastest memory your system supports.
Note that under Windows XP, only 2GB of memory is supported. Under Vista (the 32-bit version), you can have up to 4GB of memory in the system, not all of which will be usable by the system. This is due to some technical limitations with 32-bit computing and system architecture that I won’t go into, but for most people, 32-bit is still a good idea, especially if you’re more interested in software compatibility than you are the “ultimate” processing performance. Again, given that the audio manufacturers and developers aren’t known for having bleeding-edge, stable hardware and software, I would recommend, at least for the time being, sticking with a 32-bit OS (Win XP, Vista 32-bit) for now.
Ok, again, this is an area that people always disagree on. And there’s no right or wrong here, so just give this a little thought and make the best decision for you.
As I mentioned when talking about my motherboard above, I wanted to implement RAID-5 so that I’d have data redundancy. But it’s also a good idea to have your data on a different drive than your operating system and software. Fortunately, I was able to do this with my system, because the motherboard has the SATA RAID controller AND a secondary SATA controller. So I used the secondary SATA controller for the system’s primary (boot) disk, and set up the SATA RAID to use 3 hard drives for the RAID array, where all my data would be stored.
So far, this has worked out extremely well and as I mentioned, I haven’t had any performance issues at all. Part of this, though, is selecting fast hard drives. SATA and eSATA are already fast technologies, with very good data throughput. And you’ll see, for instance, that if you look at a SATA 3.0 drives, that they all are rated at 7200RPM, so there’s not a ton of variation in performance between drives. You’ll see things like seek times and write times expressed in milliseconds, and you’ll notice that they’re all very close.
I chose some Seagate drives, because I’ve had very good luck with Seagate products in the past and these drives, which use “perpendicular recording” are supposed to have some of the best performance times and quietest operation among SATA 3.0 drives.
Now, with RAID-5, again, you need at least three drives, and the capacity of your RAID array is the total of all your drives minus one. In my case, I got three 250GB drives, so my RAID array is 500GB (250 * 3 = 750, minus one drive at 250 = 500 total). RAID-5 supports more than three drives…just use the same formula to calculate your total…and of course you can also get higher capacity drives which, at the time, were too expensive for the budget I’d set for myself. Also, the SATA RAID controller only would allow for 3 drives (there are dedicated RAID controllers that allow for more) so this is where I ended up.
Actually I got four drives, because as I mentioned, there are three in the RAID array and one used for the system’s boot and program disk.
Sound Card or Audio Interface
Let’s not forget we’re not just building an “ordinary” PC here, we’re building a Digital Audio Workstation. So the Sound Card or Audio Interface is one of the most directly important parts of the system. There are many, many options to choose from and, again, what you choose is going to be dictated by a lot of factors.
First let’s discuss the difference between a Sound Card and an Audio Interface. Both serve the same purpose…to bring in an analog audio signal and convert it to a digital signal that can be manipulated on the computer and stored as digital audio. A sound card goes inside your computer and gets plugged into one of the slots on the motherboard. If you’ve ever owned a desktop PC with a variation of a Sound Blaster, then you’re already familiar with sound cards, as that’s what the Sound Blaster is. In a higher-end or pro-audio sound card, there’s usually an additional component in the form of either a bundle of cables coming out of the back of the card (such as XLR connectors to plug in pro microphones) or what’s called a breakout box, which is another device connected to the back of the soundcard. Usually the breakout box includes the various I/O (input / output) connectors.
An audio interface, on the other hand, is an external device that usually attaches to the computer through either a USB or FireWire port. Instead of the computer’s sound card doing the analog-to-digital (and reverse) work, this is done inside the audio interface and then sent to the computer through the USB or FireWire connection.
In each case, the hardware you choose will have drivers that allow your chosen audio software to use your hardware to send sound to the computer and, subsequently, your software.
When I built my DAW, because of some of the things I’d read about various audio interfaces, such as trouble with certain USB or FireWire connections causing dropouts in the audio, or flaky drivers, I decided instead to go with a pro sound card and chose the E-MU 1616m PCI. E-MU, by the way, is the pro audio division of Creative Labs, the company that makes the Sound Blaster products. This was one of the reasons I chose this product. For one thing, Creative Labs has a long-standing reputation for pretty good and stable drivers. I assumed this would carry over into the E-MU line of products. For another thing, they’ve also had a pretty good track record for developing drivers for new operating systems quicker than most audio hardware manufacturers.
This was another bonus, because I figured that although I was going to use Windows XP for now (more on that later), that if / when I decided to upgrade to Vista, E-MU would likely have stable Vista drivers ready long before many other manufacturers.
Either way you go, there are a few things you want to make sure of. First, your chosen hardware should supply 48V Phantom Power to your mic input(s), as almost all non-tube microphones require this. Many tube mics have their own pre-amp / power supply, but non-powered microphones generally require Phantom Power making this a necessity (and in fact it’s available on just about all pro-grade sound cards and audio interfaces, but just make sure!).
XLR connectors for your mic(s) are another requirement. Unlike the “normal” PC sound card, which takes an 1/8th inch headphone-style jack as its input source, pro audio equipment generally uses 3-pin XLR connectors, so in order to keep your audio chain (the series of devices you have connected together) as “clean” as possible, you want to not use any more cables or adapters than are necessary. The best way to do this is to choose hardware that accepts the type of connectors you’ll likely be using.
There are plenty of features that sound cards and audio interfaces have and will try to sell you on. Other than what I mentioned above, make sure that if you plan to (or think you might) record with more than one mic at some point, or with instruments, etc., that the hardware you choose has multiple inputs. Also, good DACs (digital-to-analog convertors) are important since they’re what does the conversion of the audio to a digital form. Your hardware’s sampling rate should be at least 44kHz (the sampling frequency used on CDs, for example) for good audio fidelity.
One final note here. Many motherboards include audio hardware. If yours does, you may need to disable it so that it doesn’t interfere with your sound card or audio interface that you’ve decided on. At the very least, having more than one sound card or audio hardware option on a PC can be confusing and can lead to a lot of frustration if you’re recording into one and wondering why the speakers hooked up to the other aren’t playing any sound! Much of this comes down to the configuration of your hardware and software settings as relates to audio hardware, so just keep this in mind if you find yourself frustrated with such things.
Monitor / Display
These days, it’s almost impossible to find a CRT monitor for a computer. CRTs are the “old style” tube-based monitors that essentially look like a traditional analog TV set. They’re deep and heavy, thanks to the cathode ray tube (CRT) assembly and front glass required to create the on-screen image. But just like with newer hi-def and digital TVs, computer monitors these days are primarily flat-panels and, more recently, widescreen. Not only are flat-panel displays lighter and take up less room, they can be easily wall mounted and have exceptional image quality. Plus, their ubiquity in recent years has made them quite affordable for their size, as well.
Having a widescreen display is great, because obviously you can see more at once. This is especially useful when using an audio program where you’re going to be looking at your audio tracks…widescreen displays allow you to see more of your tracks at once, or to see the same amount (as you would on a traditional 4:3, or “TV-shape” monitor) at a bigger size, making it easier to see and work with.
Just like with most other electronics, many people have their favorite brands. Personally, I really like Samsung flat-panel displays and usually purchase them when I’m building or upgrading a system.
Now, in addition to the display itself, there’s also the video card or display adapter. I mentioned this briefly when I said that I’d chosen one without a fan, to make for a quieter system. Note that many motherboards include video hardware on the motherboard itself, but that the included circuitry may not offer you all the features you want. For instance, widescreen displays run at different resolutions (the number of dots horizontally by the number of dots vertically) than traditional 4:3 displays, since they’re a different shape. Integrated video hardware on a particular motherboard may not offer widescreen resolutions, or ones that are as high-resolution as the monitor you choose, so it’s important to make sure that your display adapter runs at your monitor’s “native” (default) resolution at a minimum.
There’s also a good reason to consider a video card as opposed to relying on video hardware that’s integrated into the motherboard, and that’s that many video cards offer dual outputs. Why would you want this? Well, you may want to use two monitors side-by-side to get an extended desktop and see more at once. Or, as in my situation, you may want to have one monitor on your desk and one inside your booth or recording space, so that you can control the computer from either location.
Some motherboards do have dual display outputs but they’re less common than are dual displays on video cards, so again, just make sure your hardware will be able to do what you want it to do.
For my system, I chose the Asus EAX 1600 Pro Silent video card with dual outputs and fan-less operation. For my monitors, I have a 20″ Samsung widescreen display on my desk and a 17″ Samsung widescreen display for in the booth. Note, though, that I haven’t yet mounted the 17″ display inside the booth and may in fact swap it out for another 20″ display since the 20″ and 17″ displays have different native resolutions…this was a mistake on my part. Oops!
Like microphones, people have very passionate opinions on speakers and speaker technology. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, because as I was putting together my DAW, and knowing that I would likely be the only person ever to listen to them, I opted for about the least expensive “studio monitors” I could find that would connect to my E-MU’s breakout box. At the time, these turned out to be the M-Audio StudioPro DX4 powered monitors. Actually there were cheaper speakers available, but they were, inconveniently for me, out of stock at the time and I needed something, so these had to do. They sound great as far as I’m concerned. I likely could have found cheaper “computer speakers” and just used an adaptor to connect them to the E-MU, but even “computer speakers” that sound decent are getting kind of expensive these days, so I figured that I’d spend a couple extra $$ and get something designed for this particular application (and with the right connectors already).
Keyboard / Mouse
Now, you can go to Target and get a cheapo keyboard for about $10 and a mouse for probably $5, but I prefer to spend a bit more on my kb / mouse because I’m kind of particular about both typing and mousing. When I built this sytem, I just set it up with an old IBM keyboard I had lying around along with a nice, ergonomic Logitech mouse that I like.
This past week, however, I purchased a Bluetooth wireless keyboard / mouse combo by Rocketfish from Best Buy. The reason for this is that I’m finally getting around to getting my phone patch (not ordered yet, though) and I want to be able to control my DAW not only from the desk outside the booth but from inside as well. So I have a flat-panel mount and a keyboard / mouse arm that I have to put into the inside of the booth, but the Bluetooth kb/mouse will allow me to simply carry the mouse & keyboard to the inside of the booth when I’m recording and then just bring them out again when I’m going to be working at the desk.
It’s a pretty convenient solution and Rocketfish claims a 60′ range which is way more than I need, but means that at about 6′ away, the signal should be plenty strong. I’ve yet to hook it up, so I’m hoping that the Bluetooth doesn’t cause any residual interference with my audio chain.
I won’t spend too much time on this either, but just don’t forget that you’ll likely want to have a printer so that you can print out scripts, script revisions, script notes, etc. :) And a place to put it. Most printers are either USB or ethernet (network) connected these days so, again, just make sure what you buy fits in with your whole setup.
Putting It All Together
Hmm, I thought about a step by step here, but I think that’s beyond the scope of this post as well as being too specific to the particulars of anybody’s setup. So instead, I’ll just quickly go over the general order of getting things put together.
I started by putting the motherboard into the case and connecting all of its various fan and system wires such as the wire for the power button, the wires that go to the front panel USB and FireWire ports, etc. Depending on your case layout, you may want to put the power supply in first, but if not, you’ll likely put it in after you get the motherboard in.
After the motherboard and power supply, next I would put in the processor and its heatsink / fan and get those connected. Then I’d put in the RAM. After that, any expansion cards (such as my E-MU 1616 and Asus video card).
Next I’d attach all the hard drives. Note that in my particular case, I had to do a fair amount of finagling with the hard drives, because I connected the drives for the RAID array first, but doing this, there was no way to then later connect the fourth drive (to the secondary SATA controller) and have that be the system’s boot disk. So I then had to disconnect the RAID drives, connect the boot disk, re-install Windows XP (ugh) and supply the Asus motherboard driver for the secondary SATA controller during Windows installation. Once this was done and Windows was installed on the boot drive, I reconnected the RAID drives and they became my D:\ drive. To be perfectly honest, this whole thing was the most difficult and annoying part of building my DAW, especially since the Asus tech support guy I talked to said it wasn’t possible to do what I was trying to do (have a drive on the secondary SATA controller be the system disk). But in fact, it was possible and has worked flawlessly.
After that, the system is pretty much built…you just need to close up the case, attach your monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers and you should be good to go.
Finally, once your OS is installed and you’ve gotten your various hardware drivers installed, you can install your other software, such as audio recording software, e-mail and word processing programs if you use them, etc.
I personally wouldn’t recommend isntalling anti-virus software on a DAW, only because all anti-virus software slows down system performance while it’s running. This could cause audio dropouts and other problems (such as issues with file permissions) that can lead to major headaches.
Instead, I would recommend keeping your system free of anti-virus software and connecting it to your internet connection through a broadband firewall / router such as any number of those manufactured by Linksys, for example. The reason for this is the firewall / router will NAT your computer, meaning it’ll connect to your ISP and pass that connection to your computer through a technology called NAT (Network Address Translation). When your computer’s connected through NAT, Windows File and Printer Sharing cannot work on the other side of the firewall / router…they can only work on computers on the inside of your network. This, combined with common sense when surfing the web and opening e-mail, should keep you pretty safe.
I hate to suggest it, but if you feel like you don’t HAVE any common sense when it comes to surfing the web or opening e-mail, then just don’t do any of those things as aren’t specifically related to your audio work. Only go to sites that you already know are safe and don’t open any attachments you weren’t expecting to receive, unless you’re sure they’re audio files or image files, etc.
Wow, this was a long post. But hopefully somebody will find it useful. Again, the idea here wasn’t to say what’s right / wrong as much as to describe a bit of the thought process that went into building my system so that in the event you’re thinking about building one, too, you can perhaps learn from some of the successes and failures of my own experience.
This is by no means the only way to go. As I mentioned briefly, there are companies who specialize in building and selling DAWs, and I have a friend who just “went out and bought a laptop” with Windows Vista, hooked up an Audio Interface and microphone and installed some audio software and she’s happy as a clam. But I like building PCs and this was a fun project. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it’s the right choice for you, taking into considering how you like to work, your particular hardware or software preferences, your space and your budget.