Ah, the dream of blazingly fast computers and never needing to wait for renders again, something all computer based musicians wish for at one point or another. Luckily there’s a few computer upgrades you can make that promise to speed up your workflow, but are they really worth it for day to day use? Will these upgrades make a noticeable difference?
1. Faster CPU. Let’s tackle the obvious one first, increasing your computer’s raw horsepower with a new CPU (or upgrading to a new computer completely to get a faster processor). Faster CPUs mean more you can run more plug ins and virtual synths before you run out of CPU power and start running into audio drop outs. They also speed up render times, which can be nice if you’re like me and are rendering files all day long for clients.
Having said all that, often times in use a faster CPU is rarely noticeable when I upgrade. Generally I try and replace my computers when the new CPU speed has increased to at least 2 times the performance of my current CPU. On paper and in benchmarks this looks impressive, though I have to admit it’s something I only rarely feel the benefits of day to day. Sure I can run more plug-ins if I want to, but I rarely use so many that my computer starts to struggle anyway, so for me the difference is negligible. Same with rendering files, yes they are faster with a new CPU, and while that is nice, it’s not a game changer.
Bottom line, a new CPU or faster computer is rarely a bad thing, but you might not notice a huge difference after upgrading unless you current computer is more than a few years old and struggling now.
2. Memory. Whenever I see people asking for help with a computer problem, someone always recommends they upgrade to more memory. While it’s rarely a BAD thing, it’s really not the catch all solution some people make it out to be. Today’s OS’s are very good at using as much memory as you have installed, and the more recent ones really need at least 4-8GB to operate smoothly. If you have less than that, then upgrading to at least 8GB is probably not a bad thing to do.
But unless you have large sample libraries you’re trying to load and a 64bit OS and DAW to support that much memory, it’s doubtful you will notice a difference in day to day or studio use. I just had my MacBook Pro replaced with a newer model doubling my RAM from 8 to 16GB. Can’t tell a difference at all here. Again, not neccesarily a bad thing to add more RAM, but if you’re already in the right range, adding more “probably” won’t affect the way your computer responds or fix any troubleshooting issues you’re trying to solve.
3. Hard Drives. Faster is better, right? Like RAM, there’s very little downside to upgrading to a faster or larger HD, aside from possible making things a little louder. But again, the benefit for most people will be minimal (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a second). For years I was using 4200 RPM laptop drives and able to stream dozens and dozens of 24bit stereo wav files with no issues at all. A faster drive will certainly speed things up, but it’s not likely to be a gigantic difference.
Unless we’re talking about SSD drives.
This is one of the few computer upgrades that I found to be instantly and noticeably faster in use, by more than you would think too. Reboots on my laptop went from taking around 1:30-2:00 to less than 20 seconds. Copying files on the same drive is much faster, and loading large sample libraries is almost instantaneous now.
By and large, going to an SSD drive has been one of the most noticeable upgrades I’ve ever done on a computer in terms of speeding up common tasks I do a lot. Unfortunately it’s also one of the most expensive upgrades you can do as well, but if you’re looking to breathe new life into an older computer, this one area you definitely want to investigate.
Personally I would recommend trying to get a large enough SSD drive that you can fit your OS, all your apps, and all of your main sample and instrument libraries onto one drive. Some people like to split up things between an SSD and normal hard drive, but I like to keep it as simple as possible to avoid issues down the road.
4. USB 3.0. Recently I decided to switch out all of the USB2 infrastructure in my studio (back up drives, USB hubs, etc) to USB3 as part of my studio overhaul. Obviously you need to have a computer that actually supports USB3 in order to do this upgrade, but more and more seem to come equipped with this these days.
I was honestly surprised at how much faster transfers were over USB3 compared to USB2, almost 10 times faster here in use. I spend a lot of time shuttling client files around on various drives throughout the day, so this was a very welcome upgrade for me, and not that expensive either. If you use external drives a lot for storing your user data (perhaps combined with a smaller SSD for your OS and apps?), this is another upgrade that might be worth your time and money to look into.
Talking about computer upgrades and benefits always involves some exceptions to the rules, or worry about compatibility issues with your current components. I’m not even going to touch on that aspect of computer upgrades, as it’s just way too comprehensive to cover here (nor do I really want to go down that rabbit hole!). But hopefully some of this real-world experience will help guide you on what to focus on if you’re thinking about upgrading your computer to faster parts. Sometimes the upgrades with the most tangible benefits are the ones you least expect!