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Both laptops and desktop computers are frequently used in music production these days; indeed I have used both for making my own music. They each have advantages and disadvantages, but which is the better computer for music production – a laptop, or a desktop?
Desktop computers are better than laptops for music production, except if portability is a requirement. They give better performance and are easier to upgrade. Desktops can be made quieter much easier than laptops, an important consideration in a home music studio.
Whilst, in general, a desktop computer offers the best experience at a particular price point, your personal requirements could mean a laptop is more suitable. Getting your ideal music computer depends on a range of factors, in particular the physical location where you do your music-making.
If you are fairly new to home recording, I highly recommend you check out my beginner’s guide to recording music at home. A huge amount of work has gone into this guide! It is a complete resource to take you from never having recorded before all the way through to making your first home recording.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
Home Studio or On-The-Go
Obviously, portability is the key feature of a laptop computer. If you perform your music production tasks in multiple locations and need a computer to take with you, then a laptop is pretty much your only choice.
Maybe you record artists in several locations, maybe you’re a DJ traveling around the country, or maybe you mix/master music projects on high-end headphones in hotel rooms. In these circumstances, a good laptop with the highest spec you can afford is your best choice.
If you do all of your music production tasks in a fixed location e.g. in a bedroom studio, then this is where the real decision is to be made. Here a desktop or a laptop will work fine, but a desktop offers several benefits.
You may be reading this article because you are looking at putting together a new music production system. As well as the hardware, you will also need appropriate music software, particularly a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) application. Check out these articles for information on DAWs, what you need to use one, and the best way to learn a DAW…
- What is music recording software? A guide for beginners
- What do you need to use a DAW? A complete guide
- How to start learning a DAW: the best way to learn quickly
If you are recording using microphones, it is important that your environment is quiet. If you don’t record through microphones, say you don’t record vocals and any instruments are recorded directly into your interface, this will be less of a concern. For those of us using mics, background noise you cannot eliminate can be the frustrating ruin of an otherwise excellent take.
It is much easier to make a desktop computer quiet than a laptop, for example by…
- Fitting quieter case fans
- Using a silent CPU cooling system
- Adding sound insulation inside the PC case
- Replacing traditional hard drives with SSDs
- Changing out your PC case completely for one designed to be quiet
Some of these are impossible to do to a laptop (adding sound insulation, changing the case), and others may be possible but a lot more difficult than on a desktop.
Maybe you don’t have the skill or experience to perform such operations on your own PC, or you’re worried about damaging your computer. In that case, there are several companies that specialize in selling quiet PCs e.g. Quiet PC, Silent PC to name just two. My own main music production computer is a desktop PC I had custom built by Quiet PC.
So if making the least amount of noise possible is important in your situation, a desktop computer is the clear winner.
For the same price, a desktop computer will always give you better performance than a laptop. Although these days laptops are incredibly powerful, you will pay a premium to get the same specs as the equivalent desktop.
It used to be the case that an off-the-shelf computer would just not cut it for music performance work, and that a more expensive specialist machine was required to do even the most basic tasks. Thankfully that is no longer true, and even the most basic computer will be capable of some level of music production.
That said, a more powerful computer will allow you to run music software such as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) smoother, use more plugins and virtual instruments at the same time, have more tracks in your project, and run lots of other software simultaneously.
If you have a fixed budget (and let’s face it, who doesn’t), a desktop will always give you more bang-for-buck.
Music software is getting more and more demanding, and music projects are getting bigger and bigger. That is especially true if you have any sort of video production involved with your music-making. So it is always possible that you will outgrow the capabilities of your current computer. When this happens, it is much more desirable to be able to upgrade your current system if you can, rather than have to shell out for a whole new computer.
Typically, the most common upgrades to a music production computer are…
- Adding more RAM
- Adding more storage (hard drive, SSD)
- Replacing your current monitor with a larger one
None of these are impossible to do to a laptop. But they are a lot harder and more expensive.
The limitations on what you can add to a laptop will always be reached sooner than on a desktop e.g. there will be more slots to fit extra RAM in on a desktop, as there is just more physical space.
An extra hard drive added to a laptop would have to be an external drive, creating extra unwanted noise. And you can add a larger monitor to a laptop in addition to its current built-in one, but again that is yet more money and you can’t sell your old monitor to recoup some of the cost.
Reliability and Longevity
In general, laptops are less reliable than desktops, making it more likely that they will have to be replaced sooner. This could be due to the increased wear and tear of physically moving a laptop around, making it more likely to get knocked or damaged. Compare this to the stationary desktop, often placed out of the way where damage is very unlikely, you can see why many more laptops get sent in for repair than desktops.
Another factor is the lower amount of air moving around inside the laptop due to the limited space, so all the components tend to run hotter. This means they will reach the end of their life sooner than if run at the typically lower temperatures found inside a desktop computer.
As well as the reliability considerations, there is another reason why desktops tend to last longer – the upgradability.
We all know software requires ever-increasing performance, and at some point, your computer will become unable the run the latest and greatest application. You may be able to upgrade your desktop to keep up (e.g. increase the RAM or replace the CPU with a faster model), whereas those upgrades are more difficult, more expensive, or impossible on a laptop.
Non-Music Production Use
There is a balance to be considered here. Most computers (unless you are very rich and have your own recording studio) are not used for just music production. You will typically be also using it for email, social media, general web browsing, streaming video, maybe for work, perhaps some video editing, or some gaming.
So the requirements for all uses of the computer need to be taken into account, and they may override the considerations for a solely music production computer. This is a personal decision, and will very much depend on your individual circumstances.
So what specifications do you require for a music computer, either a desktop or a laptop? Just about any off-the-shelf computer bought from any consumer electronics store will be able to run typical music software. But, you should really buy the best you can afford, as this will last longer before it needs upgrading/replacing, and will run current software faster.
My recommendations can be found in the table below. I have given what I consider to be the “minimum” specs you could get away with decent performance, and “comfortable” specs allowing you to run your music production software faster, with more tracks and plugins, and alongside other software.
|Core i5 3GHz
|Core i7 3.6GHz
|1TB SSD (+ optional HDD)
|1080p Full HD
|2560 x 1440 QHD
For much more detailed information on the computer spec you need, take a look at my “PC specs for music production – what do you actually need?” article. It takes you through all the different specifications of a computer as applied to music production, and will help you decide exactly what you require for your personal musical activities.
Before you go, you may also be interested in these articles aimed at home music production novices. One is a guide to making drum tracks on your computer, the other is a beginners’ introduction to the very popular free audio editor/recorder application Audacity…
- How to create drum tracks – a complete guide for non-drummers
- Is Audacity a good audio editor for beginners?
If you do your music production activities in multiple locations, choose a laptop. If your activities are going to be in a fixed location, a desktop will give you a better computer for music production than a laptop at any particular price point. The desktop also offers further advantages such as low noise options, upgradability, better performance, reliability and longevity.
If you prefer your information in video form, then the video below has a nice summary of the information in this article…
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!