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Building a Recording and Sequencing lab on a budget (And why you shouldn’t buy Apple)

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by , 18th March 2014 at 11:01 AM (12206 Views)

Building a PC to do studio recording / sequencing is not something I’ve have to trouble myself with for a number of years. After all, at university, I had access to a number of high level facilities, and after I had left, I bit the bullet and bought a Macbook Pro - whilst not the best outright, it did most of what I needed with little or no fuss (and for close to £2,000 you would expect no less!).
However, I was contacted by a customer this week who had been asked to look into buying a suite of iMacs to replace their aging G4 Macs in their Music Tech suite.

Looking into pricing I was absolutely staggered! Whilst I know Apple kit isn’t cheap I didn’t expect a quote for 25 machines to be pushing past £21,000!
We’re only talking entry-level machines here, 21.5” iMacs as seen in the Apple Store (Configure - Apple Store (UK))



2.7GHz Quad-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz
8GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM - 2X4GB
1TB Serial ATA Drive @ 5400 rpm
Intel Iris Pro Graphics
Apple UK Wired Keyboard & Mouse

Whilst it’s a nice looking machine, I’m not sure I could justify spending so much on so few computers!

This got me thinking… Just what kind of a Music Production setup can you get for a similar price to an iMac? In this case our target price is £875 (excluding VAT) on hardware alone. Software pricing is pretty similar across both platforms (I’d suggest a combination of Ableton Live & Cubase SX7 for Windows users)


There is so much more to audio production these days than there used to be. No longer will a powerful PC with a decent internal sound card be okay for sequencing pre-recorded tracks. Today’s music tech enthusiast has an abundance of external audio interfaces through USB / Firewire; MIDI controllers and keyboards and all manner of outboard effects. It can be quite a daunting task deciding what you need and what you can live without.

Basic Needs

I think we can break down our requirements into basic essential/non-essential categories quite easily however.
Essentially your setup should include the following:

  • Powerful Desktop PC (Windows/Mac) – We’ll be using a Windows Machine for budget
  • 1 or 2 large monitors – Sequencing take up a lot of screen space!
  • External audio interface – You’ll want low latency input, preamps & headphone monitoring without taxing your system
  • MIDI controller keyboard
  • Some decent monitoring – In this case I’m suggesting headphones as a room full of 25 stereo speaker pairs will sound pretty awful if they’re all being used at once!
  • Software

It’s worth considering the following, but it’s not essential in a basic setup

  • Automated MIDI controller(s) – A couple of these will make your life much easier
  • Monitor Speakers – Whilst I said that too many speakers would render a room useless, it’s still useful to have one pair to listen to your work on in order to gain perspective
  • External effects processors – Worth a look although with the number of high quality plugins available for today’s computer music producer these aren’t necessarily required

How to Spend Your £875 Hardware Budget

The main thing you want to look at before anything else is obviously the computer you’ll be using to run all your software and create your mixes with. It’s the heartbeat of the whole operation and important you get it right.

Comparing the spec of the iMac to machines I have available here in the warehouse I was immediately struck by what I would be able to use. In the end I chose the following machine:

Refurbished HP Z600 workstation: - £535 Ex VAT

2 x Intel Xeon X5550 Quad Core 2.66GHz Processors
24GB DDR3 PC3-10600R ECC RAM
120GB Solid State Drive - for OS and programs only
1TB SATA HDD – for local storage of student projects
nVidia Quadro NVS290 – Dual display Graphics
Win 7 Pro
New Keyboard & Mouse
2 Years RTB Warranty
Designed by BMW and built by HP this workstation class desktop sports a pair of quad core server class Intel Xeon processors and a massive 24GB of RAM. Now that will cope with whatever you could throw at it and loading the operating system and all your programs onto the Solid State Drive will give another performance boost.

Next up, I looked for a screen. Again, looking through the items I have in stock I’ve decided on the following screen.

CTX 23.6” LED Monitor - £90

This stylish & thin monitor is a perfect balance between price and performance.
Crucially, its 23.6” screen will display a resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels.

It has a fast 5ms response time and comes with both HDMI and VGA input connections.
Its low power usage and excellent manufacturer’s warranty make this the ideal screen.
At this point I would suggest a pair of these monitors. As the benefit gained from having sequencing on one screen and mixer / effects on the other really is worth the extra outlay! Not to mention that a combined resolution of up to 3840 x 1200 will allow much more creative use of the screen.

Choosing an audio interface is important. Of course to get the very best sound and the quickest response you could quite easily spend thousands, but you can also get great results on a budget. In a school / college setting all you realistically need are a couple of inputs with decent preamps, a couple of outputs, and a monitor channel for your headphones. +48v Phantom Power is desirable (you may wish to use condenser mics) but certainly not essential.

After some searching across the web I settled on the following:

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface - £99.17 Ex VAT
(Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 at Studiospares)


2 inputs (1/4” Jack or XLR)

Renowned Pre Amp technology

2 Line Outputs (1/4” Jack)

Headphone Preamp and Monitoring

Effects bundle (works on Live, Cubase, Logic)
USB Connectivity

The Scarlett 2i2 is a 2 in / 2 out USB recording interface featuring two award-winning Focusrite preamps. Plenty of available headroom makes it suitable for moving coil, condenser and ribbon microphones regardless of the source. Phantom power is provided for mics that need it.
The included Scarlett Plug-In suite provides effects compatible with all major DAWs; so whether you're using GarageBand, Pro Tools 9, Cubase, Logic or the included Ableton Live Lite there is enough to get you recording straight away.

So far, the only thing we have not addressed is MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). MIDI is an integral component of today’s recording environment. Being used to set timings and control everything from virtual instruments to track automation, MIDI is a vital component.
To provide the widest range of options I’m suggesting a MIDI controller keyboard as opposed to a basic MIDI interface or smarter mixing desk interface. Students will have a whole world of instruments at their fingertips without needing to plug dozens of cables into the computer. It helps that you can get a decent keyboard for very little these days.

Sticking with my previous theme of balancing price with features and performance I’ve gone for:

Oxygen 25, a 3rd generation keyboard from M-Audio - £49.17
(M Audio Oxygen 25 3rd Generation MIDI Keyboard at Studiospares)


With 25 keys with 4 octave transposition, the Oxygen 25 is a fully functional MIDI keyboard. Additionally the Oxygen MIDI keyboards features eight MIDI assignable knobs (control any MIDI parameters you desire in your hardware or software), pitch and mod wheels plus dual MIDI outputs. Powered by the USB connection it uses for data transfer, it also reduces the need for an additional plug.

The final piece of the puzzle here is some form of monitoring solution. As I previously mentioned, having a room full of 25 pairs of speakers is asking for trouble. To this end headphones are your way forward. Decent headphones will give a very clean and even response and allow you to work very well without the need to constantly reference your work on a pair of speakers (still advised from time to time if working for long times). Fortunately, decent headphones are both relatively cheap and easy to come by.

For this particular exercise I’ve chosen these:

Sennheiser HD201 Headphones - £12.50
(Sennheiser HD201 Headphones at Studiospares)



Powerful stereo sound
Rich, crisp bass response
Light weight and comfortable to wear
Good attenuation of ambient noise
Extremely rugged
High-quality leatherette ear pads
1/4 inch jack adaptor, gold-plated
2 Year warranty

These are the Sennheiser entry level professional headphone, but for the price are great products. Of course, headphone choice is often a matter of personal preference. I’ve always used Sennheiser, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t equally suitable alternatives out there.

Hardware Conclusions

So there you have it. For the price of the basic iMac (£875) you can kit out your music tech suite with a full setup of pc hardware. If you choose the single monitor setup then your total buy price for everything listed above is:
£535 + £90+ £99.17 + £49.17 + £12.50
= £785.84

That is a shade under £100 cheaper than buying a Mac on its own. Of course, you could (and I would suggest you do) offset that saving by getting that second monitor I talked about earlier. Users really will appreciate the difference!

This article is in no way intended to be a criticism of Apple hardware; they do make lovely computers and portable devices. However I do believe that the price of said hardware is far too steep to be used freely in education. Especially as it’s so easy to find an alternative solution that is both better, and, in many cases, cheaper.

Updated 19th March 2014 at 01:06 PM by ICTDirect_Dave

Money Saving Advice


  1. rbjames's Avatar
    Hi - one thing to add, though, would be which software you would use with it. Logic pro x is £140 where a similar solution on a windows box would be a fair amount more. Cubase springs to mind which is nearly £500.

    There's a good imac 27" here for £730

    I'll concede that that pc is great value but when I looked just now no ssd was available and the max ram was 12gb.

  2. ICTDirect_Dave's Avatar
    Hi Richard,

    I was quoting for new iMacs, though that used one is still fairly expensive.

    And Cubase SX7 for education can be bought for £195 (Steinberg Cubase 7 Education (Unit Price 10-24)) admittedly for 10-24 users, this still fits with the suite of 25 theme.

    I'm adding a couple of new features to the Z600 right now. 12GB configs are the max for single CPU options.

    The point I guess is, that for the pice of the iMac, you can get all the gear you'll need with the iMac anyway. Plus a better base system to use it with
  3. rbjames's Avatar
    ...but having used both macs and pcs for several years when it comes to handling music I know which one I'd trust more. No patch Tuesday update surprises or software/hardware compatibility issues.

    Admittedly my own personal opinion but everyone's entitled to one ;-)
    Updated 18th March 2014 at 11:42 AM by rbjames
  4. ICTDirect_Dave's Avatar
    We certainly are, hence my blog

    I bought a Macbook Pro to do music on the move and to use as the base for my home studio and i love it. I just think that these days, the price is prohibitive for most schools and colleges. Not to mention that with the advent of Ableton Live (IMO far better than cubase or logic, and i've used them all extensively) that patching and compatibility are mostly a thing of the past.
  5. rbjames's Avatar
    Fingers crossed with that.
  6. Norphy's Avatar
    Out of curiosity, did you not consider the Mac Mini? Admittedly in terms of raw CPU power, they don't hold a candle to what you've specced there but they're still comparable to the current line of iMacs and are cheaper if you buy those plus a monitor. That's what we did when we replaced a suit of iMacs for use with Final Cut Pro.

    And you've not really given me a technical reason not to use the Macs other than "They're more expensive" either.
  7. ICTDirect_Dave's Avatar
    I always consider Mac Minis, I generally love them. They're made using laptop hardware however and I'd generally say that's not as robust as desktop HW. Certainly it's fine for home use but there's likely to be more of a demand placed on machines in a school environment. Price-wise you're right, they're cheaper, and spec-wise they're not too different from an iMac, but in every other aspect they lose out to the workstation (Limited (and tricky) expandability, lower initial spec, less effective cooling, lack of dual processors). Basically, workstation class machines (including the mac pro) were built for this kind of environment, and the Mac Mini is not.

    With regard to my technical reason it's fairly self explanatory I think. The hardware is essentially the same these days, since the advent of intel macs. Whilst the onboard audio codecs in a Mac might be slightly nicer, you're still going to want all of the outboard stuff (interface, MIDI keyboard ect) in order to do things as you wish, at which point the computer is no longer handling the audio, as that comes from the Focusrite.

    Whilst I'm an avid Mac lover (My Macbook Pro is my favourite piece of tech) I just don't think the old argument that macs are better can be used any more.
  8. Norphy's Avatar
    Don't get me wrong, you've specced some nice hardware up there but if someone comes along to me and says "I want to use Apple hardware because reason X and I don't want to use a Windows box because reason Y", saying "But the Windows box has better hardware" isn't going to cut the mustard. There is much more to a solution than the hardware it runs on is what I'm trying to say, if someone really does need a Mac, trying to sell them a Windows box is only going to upset them!

    That said, if what you've gone for up there does what they want it to do then there's no problem
    Updated 26th March 2014 at 11:33 AM by Norphy
  9. ICTDirect_Dave's Avatar
    Agreed! And if they want an Apple box because of the shiny factor, I'll sell them one with a smile on my face. Money is money after all. It's just that these days you get far less bang for your buck if you compare the two platforms.

    Also, Ableton Live (my software of choice) runs on both platforms and performs just as well in windows as it does in OSx, Cubase is now available in both platforms (SX7 now takes advantage of hyper threading which would really make the workstation fly - 16 logical cores over 2 CPUs ftw!). In my experience Logic Pro and Cubase are competing for the same role, so it's down to preference, but one isn't better than the other. Protools is the system that stands out, but it's massively more expensive!

    As I said, I'm not saying people can't buy the more expensive Apple kit if they want it. I'm just saying that there's no longer a good reason to do so other than 'I like Apple stuff'. and for me that should never be a consideration when the price is so much higher.
  10. Norphy's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ICTDirect_Dave
    I'm just saying that there's no longer a good reason to do so other than 'I like Apple stuff'. and for me that should never be a consideration when the price is so much higher.
    Not strictly true. If they're specifying a Mac because the tool they want to use is only available for a Mac, I'd say that's a pretty good reason to stick to the Mac myself! For example, we use Final Cut Pro here. You can only get that on a Mac. Yes, there are competitive products but you need to take into account the overall cost of moving to them. It's not just the cost of the hardware, it's the cost of changing your workflow, the cost of learning a new product etc etc etc. Saying there's no reason to buy a Mac other than the shiny factor is over simplifying it.

    If all they want to do is use (for example) Photoshop though, your point is valid and a very good one
    Updated 26th March 2014 at 11:40 AM by Norphy
  11. ICTDirect_Dave's Avatar
    Final cut pro is good, granted, but being a video editor, it's not recording suite software so wasn't in consideration when i was writing my post.
  12. Norphy's Avatar
    Well, OK, what if they'd wanted to use Logic instead then? Would you still have tried to sell them the HP kit?

    You're saying that there's no reason to use a Mac in a recording environment. I'm saying it depends on the user's requirements.

    In your scenario where they're using Cubase and Ableton, I can see that yours is the better way of doing it and cheerfully recommend what you've put up there. I still think that saying that you shouldn't user Macs is over simplifying it though.
  13. Arthur's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by ICTDirect_Dave
    Plus a better base system to use it with.
    Your CTX monitors won't be as good as the LCD on an iMac however (cheap TN panels vs IPS).
  14. ICTDirect_Dave's Avatar
    Completely agree! But we're doing music here not graphics/video work, screen size is more important than gorgeous visuals (although the ctx is pretty nice in that aspect as it's what I use at home).


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