Why build a music studio PC in 2021?

The last time I got my hands dirty with building a custom PC was about 10 years ago, cobbling together a small home theater computer that also doubled as a large RAID array for storing a burgeoning media collection. I had built a few desktop machines before then in the late 90s/early 2000s, a time when PC gaming and PC building was a much less of a cool pursuit, but since then I’ve reliably stuck with laptops if not only for the simple reason that I can fit my entire digital workspace in a backpack and take it whenever I please.

But fast forward twenty years, PC gaming has become a lifestyle and PC building a mainstream hobby. Wars rage online about AMD vs Intel processors, enthusiasts battle cryptominers (as well as each other) for bleeding edge graphics cards and hardware, and live-streaming or competitive gaming have become new careers people aspire to. Not to mention the technology has taken a leap forward, and with it, new terms and specs to pay attention to if you desire to build an optimized and well-suited machine.

My computing needs are slightly different from the mainstream. Most of the information out about building your own computer regards putting together a machine for PC gaming, and while I’ll definitely get a few rounds of Counterstrike or Civilization out of my new PC, I intend to build a computer more suited to audio production, live streaming, video editing, and other creative/productivity types of tasks.

Though I’ve always been able to eek by on the dual-core processor of my Thinkpad X1, my ability to complete projects without absolutely wanting to throw my laptop out the window is thinning more and more. A recent upgrade to a Thunderbolt eGPU has helped improve my ability to do video work, but my studio computing experience continues to be plagued by problems, compatibility issues, and other annoyances that make working in the studio much less enjoyable, which then translates into me doing less work and finishing fewer projects.

But I’m never going to get around these limitations on my current laptop, taxing video and audio work undoubtedly requires more processing cores than I have access to. Even if I bought a new Thinkpad I’d get, at the most, 4 cores of computing power, which is a commendable achievement for a laptop but still not entirely efficient for heavy studio tasks (not to mention insufficient graphics capabilities for video work). It fills me with a little anxiety that I’ll now have 2 machines to configure and administer, and I like having a minimal setup for what it’s worth, but a more powerful desktop will inevitably give me more options than I currently have.

And frankly, I miss the days when I could pull up a large project on a desktop, fool around with it for a few hours, and then mentally move on to other things, coming back to my work when I feel like it. It’s not as easy to step away from your work when you only have a laptop, and adding an eGPU can compound things. Disconnecting can be a pain, reconnecting to the eGPU an even bigger headache, and closing out of a project is a necessity if you hope to keep any battery life when you take your laptop to the other room.

Desktops are also infinitely more upgradable than laptops. It’s doubtful that whatever machine I design will need a significant upgrade in a few years, my buildout will pack a significant wallop when compared to performance of my current setup, but at the least I will have the ability to swap in better hardware down the road if I choose. Upgrading a processor was always out of the question with a laptop, but most ultraportables won’t even allow you to upgrade the RAM or hard drive these days, making many notebooks more of a disposable commodity you rebuy every 2-3 years when you want better performance. But despite all of this, my laptop won’t be going away anytime soon.

In fact, I’m counting on my desktop to help improve the efficiency of my laptop. For one, I’ll be able to save disk space on my laptop by offloading all my production assets (Ableton projects, audio samples, patch files, VSTs, etc) to the desktop and then synchronizing the files I’m currently working with between the two. With my current setup I’m unable to use the laptop’s screen since it’s plugged into an eGPU (which is then plugged into an external monitor). Adding a desktop to the mix will allow me to take advantage of 2 monitors again. There are likely other gains the desktop will provide in this area but I’m most excited for how these two improvements will change the way I work at home and away.

While it may not be the best time to build a new desktop (thanks to COVID, economic shutdowns, trade tariffs, supply chain issues, hardware scalpers, and more) it’s certainly the right time for me to reimagine how I’m leveraging the technology in my workspace. Unlike most PC builders I also have the advantage of being able to build my machine slowly and buy the parts at a leisurely pace. Not to mention graphics cards are the least of my concerns (many new GPUs now sell for $500-$1000 which is almost the price of every other PC component put together).

Hardware prices skyrocketed in late 2020 and show no signs of coming back to earth anytime soon. Waiting for parts to go on sale or otherwise be purchased at a discount will give me the ability to put my extra dollars where it counts the most. I plan to write another post with more specifics about maximizing your budget when building a new PC, though none of this is to say I plan to build a budget computer. The considerations I put into my hardware choices will go well beyond performance (more in a future post), but time is on my side, helping me research deeply enough and piece together slowly to ensure I get everything right the first time.

Let’s get building!

This page was last updated on April 12, 2021.