Saturday, August 31, 2019

Buying a Laptop for Audio Production - Part 1

I regularly get asked to recommend hardware, and so have recently been looking once again at the annoying world of laptop computers. This article will summarise the state of the art and make certain recommendations for those who want a portable audio workstation.

The assumption here is that such a laptop will supplement, not replace, a desktop computer. For this reason I am most interested in small and light computers, realising that they can be connected to external monitors and audio interfaces for increased usability.

First, Software
It should go without saying that your software environment comes first. A computer is only a way of running the software you need to be creative. So, before you start looking at hardware, make a list of your essential software and pay attention to the minimal specifications.

Actually, that's rather old advice. Today, computers are commodities and specifications for most software are similar enough. If you have a 255 GB SSD drive for application storage, 16 GB of RAM, and any decent processor, you will be fine.

The Component Problem
Laptops in consumer lines are commodity products, made up of numerous components that the manufacturer changes regularly, in order to have the lowest total cost of manufacture. Within the life of a product line, the processor, RAM, and even screen might be upgraded to stay competitive. This means that even if you buy the same model computer as me, you won't necessarily be getting the same computer. To add to the confusion, reviewers often have tweaked systems (better than what you will buy), or pre-production models (often less optimised than what goes on sale). So, ultimately, you cannot trust the specifics of what you read, only the broad strokes.

This rarely impacts the general user, but smooth audio functioning is highly reliant on the specifics of components. This means it's impossible to know if a laptop will or won't function properly, without latency spikes and other problems, until you actually try it out. This is one reason to purchase with a return deal, from a store that will honour this warranty. But I am going to take the opposite approach in this series, recommending used models that risk less of your cash in the first place.

Another way around this quandary is to purchase from retailers specialising in the audio production market. There are few enough of them remaining, but they do exist. The problem here is that you will be paying top dollar. On the up-side, you can stop reading this article and instead break out your plastic!

For the purposes of testing, grab LatencyMon. If there are problems with the results, disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, plus any unnecessary drives. (CD-ROM units were once a big issue for audio compatibility, but laptops no longer include them.) If you still have a problem, look forward to long hours of reading internet fora.

The Version Problem
I won't be recommending Apple computers for a number of reasons, including ethics. Regardless of your stance on a company that refuses to pay taxes and support the communities they are exploiting for labour (ahem), Mac computers are contra-indicated for practical reasons. The first is the lack of backwards compatibility in their operating system versions, any one of which is likely to (perhaps only temporarily) break applications you rely on. For this reason it's common to put off upgrading until the manufacturer forces you to, risking security problems and losing out on newer features. Windows doesn't have this problem to the same degree. I still have an application from 1995 that runs just fine. (Though it does look rather dorky.)

The second reason is that I rely on software that runs only on Windows, namely Samplitude, the best DAW for audio editing that I have used. (And I have used them all.) Most software is cross-platform, so you might not have this restriction. Reaper, Reaktor, Max, etc. will run on MacOS or Windows. This is why it's critical for you to list your requirements and constraints.

Increasingly, manufacturers force upgrades on you in order to minimise the number of platforms they must support. With Windows 10, Microsoft has unfortunately copied this tactic. However, there are ways of delaying upgrades until you wish to make them. (The simplest is to set your internet connection to "metered".) The last thing you want is for a ten minute long reboot process to start in the middle of a live set!

The Port Problem
Apple's love for inventing new "standards" -- dictated by themselves and not by standards organisations -- has resulted in yet another minefield. Buy a new model and your computer might well require a chain of three dongles, just to get devices to talk. That's multiple points of failure and a maintenance nightmare. I perform live with my laptop and refuse to countenance any such jury-rigged nonsense.

Very few of us relish replacing our expensive digital interfaces, but Apple in particular don't care, jumping from USB to FireWire to Lightning for no good reason at all. If you believe otherwise, you are either a video professional (and have valid reasons) or you got suckered by the marketing. USB 2 is still a perfectly good connection standard. RME sells converter boxes that support 70 audio channels over USB 2. Need more than that? Thought not.

Newer laptops have also done away with dedicated video ports like HDMI and DisplayPort. Everything's going USB C, which means... more dongles.

Apple has successfully shaped the market so that it is driven more by fashion than reason. Other firms have followed their lead. This is terrible for those of us who want consistent features and reliability in our computers. One way out of this trap is to purchase computers designed for business users, not consumers.

The Advantage of Old
Now for some good news. Although models keep proliferating, you can buy a laptop up to ten years old and still get a capable workhorse for audio production. There is absolutely no reason to get this year's model. In saying this, I recognise that a laptop is always a horrible compromise compared to a desktop unit that you can customise to your heart's content. As I wrote at the top, a small portable laptop is a supplement for a workhorse system back home. (If you need a desktop replacement, this article is not for you.)

There are several advantages to older computers, including the fact that you will get a wider variety of ports, extending the life of external devices. I am still using an IBM laptop with a PCMCIA slot (AKA "PC Card") into which slots a FireWire interface with a high-quality Texas Instruments chipset. My next computer won't have this flexibility, and I will lament.

Because fashion and marketing go hand in hand, the latest models make poor compromises to be more visually appealing. Apparently the only attributes that matters these days is for a computer to be as slim and silver as possible. It's a strange technological twist on the body image problem. To be fashionable is to be slim.

For example, compare the 2018 Dell XPS 13 (model 9370) with the 2017 version (model 9360). The 2018 model has fewer USB ports, a MicroSD slot (useless) instead of a full-sized SD slot (compatible with my field recorders and cameras), and a dongle instead of a proper USB type A slot. The computers weigh the same, which is the main metric of portability. But the new model is 3mm thinner. A great deal of usability is sacrificed for that meaningless 3 mm.

Your audio interface
Most of the potential problems with running audio on a laptop derive from your audio interface. There is only one company who writes their own drivers from the ground up. Every other firm purchases software stacks and uses generic components. This means that there is only one firm whose products are guaranteed to be rock solid, who have incredible converters, tank-like construction, and exceptional customer service (I can tell you stories).

Yes, I am talking about RME. If you are not using one of their sound cards, you are basically doing it wrong. This is not to say that other gear won't work, and at a fraction of the price. But it's a lottery. Once you upgrade your laptop you might find your sound crackles or you get drop-outs. You might blame the computer, and you might be right. Or it could be that you just found a weakness in the audio drivers. How would you ever know? What's your time worth?

With RME you know that if something is wrong, it's the computer to blame. Every single time someone has followed my advice and purchased an RME device, their audio problems have vanished.

Most people spend 1000 clams on a computer and 300 on a sound card. That's backwards. A Babyface Pro is €700. A FireFace UC is €870. The FireFace UCX is €1170. Buy one of those if you haven't already. It will last you a lot longer than the computer itself.

As a bonus you will now be able to record directly to your computer without a DAW, with the highest possible performance. You get a full software matrix mixer, the most powerful in the business. You can set audio channels to be mixed in any combination, even looped back to inputs. You no longer need additional software to route audio between applications. TotalMix is fantastic!

In my next article I will provide further hardware details and outline my purchase methodology.

Continue Reading
The second part of this article is now online here. And the third part examines specific Dell and Lenovo laptops.

Updated the statement of how many audio channels RME interfaces support to 70. Reference here.


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