The modern music industry is built around digital mastering and processing, and the proliferation of flexible and powerful audio software has helped a wide variety of indie, hobbyist, and at-home musicians take their audio production workflows to the next level.
Building a high-end workstation won’t make you a better musician, but it can help you create a production environment that lets your talent shine.
In this guide, we’re going to explore the various ways your PC build can influence your audio pipeline, and help you build the best PC for digital audio production. Let’s get to it.
Who This Guide is For
This isn’t a guide for buying audio equipment or setting up a recording studio from scratch; it’s a build guide for an audio workstation that’ll fit into an already-established studio setup.
That means we won’t get into the weeds of which microphone you should buy or what the best DAC is, but we will talk about some of the logistics of building a PC that fits the physical space you’re doing your audio work in.
Similarly, while we always try to provide hardware recommendations that fit a variety of budgets, we tend to focus on professional and semi-professional setups.
Some of the hardware concerns we’ll cover in this guide won’t apply to hobbyists, as their usage patterns tend to be more generalized. If that’s you, take a look at our getting-started guide.
Some Specific Things This Guide Doesn’t Cover
This guide is specifically for computer hardware; it doesn’t cover the entire digital audio production pipeline.
That means it won’t cover things like microphones, midi devices, or DAW software; those recommendations are better given on their own, rather than as a part of a build guide.
What Makes Audio Processing So Demanding
Audio is weird compared to other kinds of data. It’s analog data, being interpreted and reproduced by digital hardware, passing through multiple layers of independent processing that’s often handled by independent hardware.
The computational workload for a single sample can be minimal — or gigantic — depending on when and where it’s handled, and how your overall workflow is designed.
CPU vs GPU
Audio processing is inherently sequential and frequently real-time. It requires a high degree of computational accuracy, and a lot of it can’t be parallelized.
Hitting the performance limit of your CPU can cause playback errors known as buffer underruns — pops, cracks, and other audio artifacts which, while they won’t show up in the final export, will make it harder to dial in your production.
This means that digital audio workstations are fairly unique. They focus almost exclusively on single-thread/single-core CPU performance, with extra attention paid to things like cache sizes and RAM bandwidth limitations.
GPU-based audio processing is rare, and mostly limited to experimental projects; for audio, your GPU’s mostly there for the sake of supporting your displays.
Memory and Storage
Audio files are large, hard to compress, and hard to stream from disk. Audio takes up a lot of space, both on-disk, and in-RAM, and the aforementioned reliance on live playback and production means that memory limitations can lead to painful bottlenecks.
Memory management is a huge topic in digital production, and it’s one of the more frequent topics you’ll encounter in DAW communities online.
It’s worth noting, though, that a good digital audio workstation needs more than just raw capacity — it also needs speed. RAM timings and SSD read/write rates can have an impact on your production experience, and trying to save money by going for big-but-slow options will come back to bite you in the long run.
While you won’t have to deal with the costs associated with wide-gamut displays, most DAW software benefits from having some additional screen space for all of the tracks and controls you’ll end up working with.
This isn’t a hard requirement, of course (there are tons of musicians and engineers out there who are producing amazing audio on laptops and compact builds), but for a dedicated audio processing workstation, I’d recommend aiming for a screen (or screens) that are at least a little bit larger than what you’d consider for a generalist build.
Whether that pushes you into the 4K range will depend on your budget (making the step to 4K makes it harder to save money on the GPU front), and whether you’re looking to prioritize the size or the number of displays you’re using.
I’m a fan of aiming for 1440p over 4k in most circumstances, as it’s usually easier to find deals in that size/resolution range.
Cases and Fans
We don’t normally cover computer cases in-detail, as there are a lot of subjective factors to consider. For audio workstations, however, there are two fairly important details to consider: Size and noise.
Most audio workstations share elbow room with other equipment, and most audio producers aren’t in a position to simply acquire more space for a new build.
Putting some additional forethought into the size, mobility, and I/O options for your build can definitely pay off, especially if you already use external processing hardware in your audio pipeline.
Similarly, if your audio workstation is going to be anywhere near your recording space (or your listening space) it shouldn’t intrude on it. This means you’ll need to manage your cooling and airflow in a way that results in minimal noise.
You don’t want to hear your fans ramping up and down, or, worse yet, accidentally capture them in a recording.
This means spending more of your budget on cooling, opting for a case that lets you use larger and slower fans, and opting for cooling controls that give you a convenient way to ramp your fans up or down to match the situation.
Specific Hardware Requirements
Audio production benchmarking can be tricky, as it’s hard to account for every piece of hardware that might be involved in the production pipeline.
While some producers use elaborate hardware stacks, live instruments, and midi devices, others don’t. There isn’t a single workflow for audio.
With that in mind, most of the hardware recommendations you’ll see below are based on DAWBench scores.
If you want an in-depth look at CPU performance for digital audio production, there are two resources you’ll want to look at:
The former looks at DAWBench scores and talks about some of the interesting dynamics that come from particular RAM and CPU combinations, while the latter will give you a great introduction to reading CPUMark scores.
Together, they’ll put you in a great position for choosing the best DAW CPU.
So what’s the gist of those two articles? The performance gap between Intel and AMD CPUs is fairly small, but it isn’t trivial.
AMD processors appear to suffer in DAWBench tests when they’re paired with RAM that hasn’t been optimized to match their internal data bus timing, but they close the gap with the right setup.
- AMD Ryzen 3700X — Mid-Budget Best
- AMD Ryzen 3950X — AMD’s Sub $1k Best
- Intel Core i9-10900X — Intel’s Sub $1k Best (HEDT)
- Intel Core-i9-10900K — Intel’s Sub $1k Best (Mainstream)
CPU Cooler Recommendations
All-In-One Liquid Cooling:
If you aren’t going 4K, you won’t have to worry too much about GPU performance, which is great for the budget-conscious.
There’s no ‘RTX On’ for audio, so there isn’t a significant need here for focusing on the differences between Nvidia or AMD cards.
Instead, the main determining factor will be your display size/count, the amount of multi-tasking you’re looking to support, and what other Applications you will be using aside from Audio Production.
For multiple 4K Monitors:
- Nvidia RTX 2070 Super and above
The internet is full of articles offering different takes on how much RAM you need for audio processing — as I said above, it’s a popular topic — and the recommendations they give run the gamut from a mere 8GB to a full 128GB.
Before we get to our own recommendations, let’s explore the reasons behind this spread.
The amount of RAM you’ll need for digital audio production will depend on how many plugins and sample libraries you regularly use.
You can get away with using 16GB or even 8GB of RAM with particular workflows, but those lower bounds won’t apply to every producer.
For sample libraries like the Berlin Strings library from Orchestral Tools, it’s recommended to have at least 32GB of RAM, and you’ll find similar recommendations for other large and high-quality libraries.
If you’re using a variety of instruments, or lots of them, your RAM requirements will balloon pretty quickly.
If you’re on a tight budget and you have to choose between prioritizing RAM capacity and CPU performance, go for the CPU; you can buy more RAM later.
That said, 32GB is still a better starting point than 16GB for most mid-to-high-end builds.
For SSDs and HDDs the standard advice applies: Get at least one of both, and spring for a second SSD as a scratch disk if you can.
Keeping your applications and operating system separate from your project files will make it easier to upgrade your storage later on.
That said, you’ll probably get more use out of your SSDs than your HDDs, outside of backups. You’ll want everything you interact with frequently — (especially!) samples, project files, plugins, etc — on your fast storage, and you’ll only throw projects onto your archive disk once those projects are fully trunked.
Consequently, don’t be afraid to shift your storage budget around to prioritize a larger SSD for your working files.
When it comes to speed, the performance gap between PCIe and NVMe SSDs is large enough that it’ll have a measurable impact on your load times, but the price difference is significant enough that we won’t recommend an NVMe drive for all budgets.
Something to keep in mind when you’re planning your storage setup is how your case size can impact your ability to upgrade your storage later-on, if you’re planning to build a compact workstation for a crowded studio environment.
SSDs are small, but they’ll still take up space in your build.
If your future-proofing leads you to consider an external enclosure, make sure to check out our Best PC for Photo Editing guide. There’s a section in there on setting up high-speed network storage that’s readily applicable to audio setups as well.
- Samsung 860 EVO 1TB 2.5″ Solid State Drive (for storage)
- Samsung 970 EVO PLUS 500GB M.2 Solid State Drive (for speed)
Motherboard and Sound Card
I’m pairing motherboards and sound cards together here, as the main concerns (outside of the usual size and PCIe speed concerns for motherboards) are similar: I/O, EMF shielding, and audio latency.
But I need to back up a bit. Do you actually need a sound card?
While internal sound cards were mandatory back in the day, improvements in onboard audio processing and the rising popularity of fully external audio interfaces make traditional sound cards somewhat redundant, as media generalists rarely need them and audio producers tend to favor the EMF shielding, I/O accessibility, and amplifier quality that external interfaces offer.
I currently use a Rubix22 with my personal setup (my go-to mic is the ever-reliable sE X1 A) and, while I can’t complain about it, I’m reluctant to make broad recommendations based on my (somewhat niche) use-case.
Specific sound card and/or audio interface recommendations are ultimately out of scope, as there are too many studio-specific and taste-specific factors to account for in this kind of build guide.
If you want to get into the details of the sound card vs audio interface conversation, check out this article from Music Studio Insights. It’s a good read.
Audio aspects aside, your motherboard choices should be fairly straightforward, with one caveat: Forward compatibility with future CPUs.
There are always new processors on the horizon, and we know that AMD’s AM4 socket is finally reaching the end of its surprisingly long lifespan.
And while AMD has since announced that some B450 and X470 motherboards can be updated to support Zen 3 processors, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how easy or accessible that process will be.
AMD has made it clear that they’re reluctant to over-promise on compatibility, and that a 500 series motherboard is still the recommended path for their Zen 3 processors, suggesting that PC builders shouldn’t assume their motherboard will support this upgrade.
This means that the safest bet for PC builders looking to future-proof their setup is going to be an X570 motherboard.
In some cases, it might even be worth considering changing motherboards as an ‘in-place’ upgrade, as the X570’s compatibility range means that low-budget builders can watch for sales and swap it into their current setups to spread out the costs of a full build.
On the Intel front, there doesn’t appear to be the same pressures in play. Intel changes sockets more frequently than AMD, and there isn’t an expectation that any one socket will stick around for long.
This leads to a quicker turnover rate for Intel socketed motherboards, and a proportionally smaller ‘old but gold’ market for them.
Past those specifics, your main motherboard concerns will align with those that all workstation builders encounter: Form factor, RAM and PCIe capacity, and I/O.
These factors depend a fair bit on how compact of a workstation you’re looking to build, as once you step from the standard ATX form factor to micro-ATX, mini-ITX, and smaller, you’ll find that most of these smaller motherboards shave off a few RAM and PCIe slots.
Case and PSU
When it comes to choosing the right case for a digital audio workstation, focus on the acoustics.
The layout, construction materials, and airflow of your case, combined with how fast you’re running your fans, will dictate how loud your workstation will be under load.
Going for a sound-insulated case will cost you a bit extra, and it can be tempting to rely primarily on fan speeds, but you’ll find that your workstation will maintain better temperatures and a more consistent sound profile if you make the investment.
A general rule to keep in mind with case fans and case designs is that smaller fans need to spin faster than larger fans to move the same amount of air, and larger fans need proportionally larger openings.
This means that smaller fans tend to be louder, and cases that accommodate larger fans (and those that permit more airflow in general) have less sound insulation.
I’ve mostly gone for the large-and-slow combo in my own builds, but I’ve generally paired that approach with office layouts that let me leverage distance and space-partitioning to manage acoustics.
- Corsair Carbide Series 100R Silent Edition
- Nanoxia Deep Silence 3
- be quiet! Silent Base 601
- Fractal Design Define S
- Cooler Master Silencio s400
Case Fan Recommendations
- Corsair CX Series CX550 550W
- Seasonic Focus Plus Gold 650W
- Corsair RMx Series RM650x 650W
- Modular PSU Guide
When it comes to build guides for systems that’ll live in studio environments, where you might not be able to devote the same amount of space to them or make the same environmental assumptions that you would for a system destined for a traditional office, I like to make some additional recommendations for accessories.
If your case doesn’t have feet or pads that provide vibration damping and isolation, or you know your PC is going to share elbow-room with instruments that can be a bit vibration-heavy, some simple vibration dampening pads will be worth looking into.
They’re surprisingly effective for the price, and they can have a significant impact on your setup.
A desk mat can also help, if you’re a particularly heavy typer.
If you go the route of using physical distance to mitigate potential sound pollution from your PC in your listening or recording environment, you’ll quickly find that you’ll need to play it smart for I/O and cable routing.
A USB hub is a must, as are extended cables for the hardware you won’t route through that hub.
To go along with that, consider grabbing some cable raceways and color-coded cable ties. You’ll appreciate them whenever you need to trace a cable back or find something you’ve dropped under your desk.
A compact monitor arm can do wonders for your desk setup if you don’t have a lot of space, and the business-oriented options are usually more reliable than those marketed towards consumers in the mid-to-low-end price range.
If you do go for a monitor arm, though, make sure you choose a mounting method that won’t cause excessive vibrations or sound whenever you move your screens around.
A direct wall mount or a track mount is usually your best bet in these situations, with the latter giving you some wiggle room for workbench-style desk configurations.
While you won’t need a particularly esoteric hardware list for a digital audio workstation, the example builds you’ll see below are still pretty unique.
Many of the build guides here on CGDirector focus on visual production pipelines — pipelines that tend to take advantage of multi-threaded CPU processing and GPU acceleration.
Meanwhile, audio production favors single-threaded CPU processing with almost no GPU acceleration.
You can easily build a high-end audio workstation that wouldn’t work well as a general-use PC, as your budget will end up going to things that are fairly pipeline-specific.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a fair bit of audio equipment that doesn’t fit into the scope of this build guide. It’s hard to give generic advice for things like microphones and mixers, but many system builders will still want to account for those purchases in their overall budget.
Your digital audio workstation is an important part of your audio pipeline, and you can definitely benefit from taking the time to plan out a well-tuned build. It won’t make you a better musician but can make it easier to focus on the work that matters.
Best (DAW) Computer for Audio Editing, ~700$ Build
Best (DAW) Computer for Audio Editing, AMD oriented 12-Core, ~1800$ Build
Best (DAW) Computer for Audio Editing, Intel oriented 10-Core, ~3400$ Build
That’s about it! What Audio Editing DAW /PC are you thinking of buying?