The Smoke and Mirrors of Laptop-Based DAWs
During the past few months I have been researching what makes a laptop really great for recording audio. I needed to be mobile, and needed a machine that wasn't going to shit out on me when it really counts. Clients aren't only paying for my services, they're paying to ensure that their tracks are being recorded at top quality, and their data is safe.
I've been amazed at what I've found researching what actually goes into not just a DAW laptop, but the very idea of the notebook computer. First of all, let's get something out of the way immediately this is NOT going to be a PC vs. Mac nonsense debate. This will be a discussion of the technological and mechanical machinery under the hood of laptops. Regardless of PC or Mac status, it's all hardware-based. Also, it's common knowledge that the better processor and more RAM you have available the better, so that won't be discussed either.
I intend this piece to help shed some light on what's really important when purchasing a laptop/notebook computer for recording audio.
I've broken this article down into what I think are the most important things to be aware of.
The Basic Input Output System on PCs is pretty much what calls the shots. It controls all of the hardware and software on your machine. It is often advisable to disable anything you don't use in the BIOS, as opposed to the device manager. Bear in mind, everything affects DPC latency. USB controllers, Bluetooth devices, and WiFi especially!
In fact, most Laptops have stuff running in the background that you'll very likely never come to know of, because they're burnt into the BIOS and not a Windows process or service. Tasks and settings pre-set by the machine manufacturer to optimize things that are irrelevant for "studio" use, think of power saving features, et cetera, and most of these things you can't deactivate, because most Laptops' BIOS-es are VERY restricted and allow nearly no tampering with any useful or interesting parameters.
With this in mind, how much does it really matter that your RAM is maxed, or you can overclock your old dual-core to twice its recommended capacity?
Another of the primary issues with recording audio to computers (not just laptops) is DPC latency. I would like to make one thing very clear: DPC latency is the biggest killer of audio on a PC. This is a real-time issue that relates to pretty much the DNA of the computer: the hardware, the BIOS, everything. This used to be a bigger issue than it is today, as most of the newer factory laptops offer great DPC latency reading right out of the box, even with all peripherals enabled.
It is still one of the fundamental signs that a given computer will or will not be able to handle audio streaming well.
THIS IS ALSO THE ONE AND ONLY FACTOR that makes the boutique audio laptop companies worth your attention in even the slightest. They advertise a Custom Bios written solely for audio. I'm even skeptical on this. The price increase is hardly worth the extra effort to find a consumer laptop capable of meeting your demands. All other tweaks can be done as a user, saving you thousands of dollars by a simple Google search.
What are you really paying for? Their main components aren't any different than any given PC manufacturer, and in fact they're still using lower-quality motherboards. There is a little bait-and-switch going on here. They'll advertise the most state-of-the-art processors and highest capacity RAM, but how much good can this do you when hooked up to an inferior motherboard? Factor in the BIOS, and what are you left with?
This is a symptom of all laptops, regardless of make. The motherboards just aren't that great to begin with, and on top of that there is much more integrated hardware than on a desktop, taxing a unit that may not have been up to the task to begin with.
Interrupt Requests relate to different hardware devices competing for your processor's attention. Often times when installing new hardware drivers (like audio interfaces), there can be what are known as IRQ conflicts. This is *normally* a very easy twerk to your system settings.
Desktop computers are so efficient because their components are dedicated. Laptops, on the other hand, often have everything integrated into the motherboard: graphics card, sound card, etc. Add to that the buss controllers and that's a lot going on.
It is advisable to have as many dedicated components as possible.
Converters are the most important spec on any audio interface. They are usually contained in an outboard unit like an interface, but sometimes can be in PCI format, thus becoming hardware inside the computer. While PCI interfaces are on their way out it's still worth mentioning as sound quality is directly affected. This precedes preamps and protocol. Preamps can be bypassed. If the converters are bad, or of lower quality, every piece of audio information that travels through them will suffer. Analog to digital, and digital to analog conversion is the heart and soul of recording in the digital age. Converters are the reason something sounds harsh and digital or warm and analog (hey, I'm sure someone says it about digital recording!).
People spend thousands of dollars on plug-ins to make their sessions sound like the standard tape sessions of yesteryear. It's ironic really. There are pros and cons to either point of view. Digital offers an almost unreal level of editing, but analog offers a bare-bones, no-nonsense approach and the warm harmonic distortion of the tape medium. It really comes down to one's individual needs and the genre of music being recorded.
My entire laptop search first started by trying to find a suitable PC station to work with my Saffire Pro 40, (which I LOVE). The journey started by my understanding of what it really took to run FireWire, and while it is a fast and efficient medium that doesn't outweigh the fact that it is very, very fickle in operation and is virtually useless on laptops in regards to recording audio.
To record audio via FireWire you MUST have the Texas Instruments chipset in your host controller. Period. It is not an issue of maybe it will work without it. FireWire for recording audio WILL NOT WORK ON ANY PC without the TI chipset in the motherboard. You will hear the argument Just use the express card slotit's only like 20 bucks dude! Yes, it is only $20 but the likelihood of it working is even more diminished. If the PCIe host controller isn't TI then even if the express card is it will not work. Even if the host controller is TI and the express card you chose is TI, there's still a 99% chance it won't work.
Why? I don't know. The simplest answer is: TI or no go for FireWire. No use in worrying why or how, make it work or switch to a new platform. That's where I am (again, dammit!).
USB technology has come a long way. While FireWire is still faster, it is so unstable that the new crop of USB 2.0 interfaces that have appeared are more than worth an invested look and are a very reliable alternative. Latency is still an issue, but never like before. There are also some great USB interfaces that offer the I/O of FireWire interfaces. Focusrite, Tascam, and Line 6 to name a few.
One thing that you want to make sure you have if you're considering a USB interface for serious recording is that it is mains-powered. This means it doesn't draw power from the USB port, but from a separate power supply. It's a bandwidth issue. USB interfaces that are bus-powered are notorious for dropping out when whatever you're recording hits transients (like acoustic drums).
Hard drives can be used in different applications for DAWs. Perhaps you're using an external drive to store samples. The important thing for writing audio to a hard drive relates to its speed. 7200 rpm is the desired write speed to use as the drive you're saving your sessions to. SSD drives are the optimal choice for recording audio, although the results are debatable between SSD and a 7200 rpm drive.
It is advisable to have your OS and samples on one drive, and have another for writing your sessions to.
Nowadays many laptops are offering integrated graphics. What that means is the graphics card is integrated into the motherboard, leaving less IRQ for other services and applications. It is desired for your DAW machine to have dedicated graphics, meaning the graphics are processed upon their own capacitance.
Luckily, there are still many models that offer this feature. It's not quite even, but something like 42% of the laptops still on the market offer dedicated graphics. There are advantages to integrated graphics, as in better graphic performance for gaming, but for DAW use graphics are almost a non-factor in performance decisions.
Many of the standard consumer laptops today are perfectly capable of handling audio, FireWire excluded. The trick is to find a machine that is the right components of hardware and DPC latency. The BIOS is something that can rarely be altered after-the-fact, so I suggest buying from a dealer with a very generous return policy. Truly, you can't know how well any rig will perform until it's put in a working situation.
This would be the last step taken to ensure that your PC is ready for your session. I'm not going to actually divulge some of the things you should do to your OS to make it run audio more smoothly. Each subsequent Windows incarnation seems to be better at handling audio with less tweaks. Windows XP is still a favorite, and was the first Windows OS to offer a 64-bit version.
I've had a great experience with Windows 7 on my rig.
Laptop recording continues to be a gamble, but there have been significant strides in technology so that it's not so bad anymore. Ideally, in the future one could just pick a laptop and go in terms of recording audio, not only efficiently but professionally.
Until that day comes, armed with a little information and a little motivation, one can certainly find a laptop that can fit their needs. It's important not to be bogged down with the possibilities, especially from the boutique companies. Do your homework, know exactly what you want. If you can find the model you're interested in in-store, run DPC latency checker. Find a company with a lenient return policy so you can fully test your rig in a working situation.
There are inherent aspects of audio in the digital realm that are just beyond hardware, software, and a custom BIOS. A top-of-the-line processor and the maximum amount of RAM will always be beneficial. In your situation, it could very much be a case of it works or it doesn't! Such is common with audio recording on laptops. Often times even specs reported to work will not, and the hardware least fitting for your setup will work flawlessly. If you have a set up that gets you results, by all means, don't get caught up in the hype of gearlust.
Wasn't technology supposed to make things easy?