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Limitations of a budget laptop

Discussion in 'Recording' started by saxoonist, Dec 23, 2012.

  1. saxoonist

    saxoonist Active Member

    Hey guys! My old XP desktop finally kicked the bucket, and I'm looking to replace it with a new laptop. I'd rather not spend more than $400, which I know is not a lot. What kind of limitations will I have?

    I've heard people on here talk about 5400 vs. 7200 Hard drives. Will a 5400 RPM not allow me to say, record 2-3 tracks at once in Cubase? Will Cubase 4 (LE, if that matters) still work with Windows 8?

    I have an external Audio interface (Lexicon Alpha) so do I need to worry about sound cards on a computer?

    Thanks for any help, and specific laptop recommendations would be great.
  2. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    You can accomplish incredible things with a $400 laptop and that rather nice USB audio interface you currently have. 5400 RPM will not hinder you much at all. We need the 7200 RPM drives when we're trying to record, print, playback 24+ tracks. And we must record our stuff not on the computer system hard drive. That's used to run the computer. That's used for some storage. And it's used for small-scale home recording on the computer system drive. But that's all you can really expect from just a $400 laptop. Plug a external 7200 RPM USB 2.0/3.0 and/or FireWire, thunderbolt connectivity hard drive and you're cooking with gas. No problems printing or recording 24 simultaneous tracks or playing them back, mixing them or anything. Your computer however will not necessarily run as fast or aggressively as the other higher-priced spreads. So you shouldn't worry.

    There are price point differences depending upon what kind of processor the $400 laptop will have. Many of us prefer Intel-based processors. Though there are those that have found that the AMD processors might actually be a little more responsive for audio work. There are those pieces of software and hardware though, that may not be compatible with those particular processors? ProTools by Avid comes to mind. Not compatible, requires Intel. But most everything else will run on most everything else.

    The fun part for you will come in when you realize you can plug in more than one USB audio device. And then you have four inputs. You could even have eight inputs. And you can still record eight simultaneous inputs fairly effectively write to your system hard drive, though not necessarily recommended. I recommend you do all your recording ported to an inexpensive external 7200 RPM USB hard drive. By playing around at home with, say, your guitar and a vocal, you're good to go.

    While none of us recommend that you use the computer's own built-in audio device, it's inevitable that many do. They playback quite well. As good as any CD or DVD player would. All similar output chips from the same manufacturers. Were they really differ is their inputs. Many laptops today only have a microphone input. It can also accept higher levels sources but not by much. In short, not professional sounding. Perfect for your multimedia headset microphone so you can speak with your friends via Skype. Just not too realistic for recording purposes. But they can be used if they will accept a line level input of low level such as -10 a.k.a. .3 V RMS at 1 kHz. That low-level consumer signal will usually not overblow the inputs. Professional stuff like the output from your USB audio interface, will. And so it can be used in a pinch or to augment something else. Just don't expect to plug a real microphone into it. There is voltage on that and it could destroy another microphone. Your Lexicon Alpha is a professional piece. I've purchased them for clients that wanted a good solid USB audio interface. And you get that fabulous Lexicon reverb plug-in that will only run on the Alpha by Lexicon. You lucky as so be LOL. And so the software knows whether you've been naughty or nice.

    One thing you'll have to understand is that your computer will always default to its own internal sound card whenever that Alpha is unplugged. And you will not be able to record with the Alpha while listening to the computer's own soundcard output. You'll only be able to do that, when ya go to play it back, which confuses a lot of people. So whatever your recording, it can only be monitored through the device in which you are using for recording. Either device can be used for playback and even simultaneously via software control. Possibilities are limitless. And where some possibilities may have limited functions or capabilities such as monitoring problems and issues. But you shouldn't have that problem as only a single person.

    The jury is kind of out still on Windows 8. Most folks I've talked to, don't really like it. But right now, on new computers, you don't get a choice. Though, you could look into Micro Center and other related specialty computers stores as some computers are still available from earlier stock with Windows 7. Many of these machines are the same ones that are currently being offered now with Windows 8. Most of us recommend 7. It's been around long enough that all the other companies have made qualified and certified drivers for it and the software too. So whether everything will work properly with Windows 8 and what you currently have is still uncharted territory. It should. But that doesn't mean it will because it's the Wonder of Windows. Almost sounds like a commercial doesn't it? But time after time... after time (we'll be right back after this message), computers burp gag and crash. It's the unfortunate reality. Recording and producing audio and video on computers is a specialty. Require some working knowledge. When there is no knowledge, there is only learning through experience and reading anything you can get your hands on. It's actually been good to read these things ya don't understand. Because after a while, you will start to see a certain repetition. And then things will come into focus if your brain works at all. Mine doesn't yet I still have gotten by, lucky for me. (Please deposit another $.25)

    As I was saying before that rude interruption... if you're going to consistently use your Lexicon Alpha, there is ways you can tell the computer operating system that the Alpha is your preferred audio device. And whenever it's unplugged, it will use its internal device. And its playback will be about as good as the output from the Alpha in quality. Though output levels do vary from manufacturer to manufacturer depending on what the output is intended to be used for. Is it an earphone output? Is it a speaker output? Is it a studio line signal or consumer line signal output? Those all produce different output levels, for different applications and purpose. Understanding these differences in signal levels is what we call gain staging and signal flow. That sounds like a comedy troupe doesn't it? And that's kind of what it is LOL. Because your audio won't be anything to laugh at if you don't understand that, in that it will be, horrible. You can laugh out of the embarrassment, it's OK.

    So there's a bare-bones assessment of what you need to know to become a hit recording engineer (please deposit another $.25)

    Next week we'll discuss rocket science
    Mx. Remy Ann David
  3. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    Take the following for what it's worth:

    I recently did a live remote using a laptop; Dual Core 2.4 Athlon Chip, Windows 7, 4 gig Ram, and tracked the audio to a USB Western Digital HD (5400 RPM, 500 Gig). There was no partitioning of the drive.

    My recording platform was Sonar 6.5 PE, ( which is about 6 year old technology, maybe more) ...the audio I/O was a 16 input ( 8 XLR, 8 Line ) Tascam 1641 USB.

    I was able to record 7 tracks, at once, at 44/24, for a duration of 55 minutes, without so much as a hiccup. I'm sure I could have gone longer, but the show was split into two 1 hour sets, so that's what I tracked.

    I think I paid around $400 for the laptop, and that was 4 years ago... and it's most certainly considered to be dated in its specs compared to PC's being made now.

    I have no experience with Windows 8, although I've been told by people who know far more than I do that it's hidden intention (and I'm not sure how "hidden" this really is) is to support the touchscreen technology that Microsoft has developed in an attempt to compete with the Mac/ipad. Whether or not this is true, I can't say.... but I've heard more than one person whom I respect say that they prefer Windows 7 far more.

    Heck... my PC production platform at home is still using XP ...LOL.... so I'm certainly not the guy to give an opinion on Windows 8. ;)

    Although I'd find it hard to believe that Cubase wouldn't have drivers available for 8... anything is possible... whenever a new OS is developped and released, there is always the possibility that certain programs won't work, or at least won't work correctly, so it is possible that your version of Cubase isn't yet supported by that platform.

    To find out more, You may want to do a google search on that subject, or, you could contact the manufacturer directly, there may be an update/patch available on the manufacturer's website that would fix any wizzly gremlins.

    I don't know anything about your Lexicon Alpha, (I'd like to know what format the Alpha is using... (for example, which driver does it use? WDM? ASIO? etc).....

    I can tell you that Remy is correct ( it's rare that she's not, LOL) in that when I unplug the Tascam USB, the laptop's system audio does indeed default back to the internal audio card - which is probably something cheap like a Realtek or a SoundBlaster or something similar - but.... If I load up Sonar, the default audio settings of the program are still set and looking for the Tascam, and will not play back through the built in card... which leads me to the next paragraph....

    .... I tried recording once using the cheap built-in audio card, (with Sonar as the platform) just to see if I could, and the resulting clicks, pops, drop outs and freeze-ups made it impossible.

    No matter what buffer or audio i/o settings I adjusted, to any degree, Sonar simply doesn't like that cheap internal audio device. Cubase might act differently. I can't say as I have no experience with it.

    So the quick and dirty answer is yes... you can record efficiently with a cheap laptop, if you are using a decent audio i/o and have the chops to tweak the laptop's settings accordingly.

    You can probably even use your internal drive, if you have one large enough. If using the internal drive, you may want to go to task manager and disable certain systems that are running in the background, to buy back more processor power, but ...you shouldn't ever shut any system or apps down until you know just what you are shutting down... things like Virus Protection programs can use a lot of CPU power, and if you're not online while recording, you might as well shut it off temporarily... but again, it's important that you know what process you are ending before you select it to do so.


  4. saxoonist

    saxoonist Active Member

    Thanks for the quick replies! I will start my search for a windows 7 laptop if I can find one, and if not, I guess I'll take the plunge. So do you think it would be advisable to call up Cubase and Lexicon and ask about compatibility? I don't want to have problems with that.
  5. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    You don't need to restrict yourself to a laptop that comes only with Windows 7, as Windows 8 Pro includes a downgrade option to Windows 7 Pro. I don't know whether this is available on the Home editions of W8.

    As the others have indicated, you don't need a hugely powerful or fast laptop for 2-3 channels. Much more important is that you have a separate audio drive so that the disk head is not shuttling around as it fusses itself with all those needless operating system tasks. So I would be looking for a good-value laptop, preferably one that comes with W7 or W8 Pro, and has several USB ports. Then I would also get a 7200rpm external USB drive of the type that has one of those rubber suits with chunky corners, and you are good to go.
  6. saxoonist

    saxoonist Active Member

    So the external hard drive would not be a necessity, right? As in, I could get the laptop now and a hard drive down the road.

    I also don't know if Cubase 4 will work with Windows 8, and as far as I can tell, no one knows. Does it even work with Windows 7?
  7. RemyRAD

    RemyRAD Well-Known Member

    As suggested, almost any external storage device will work. It can be a memory stick. It can be 2.5 inch external that fits in your shirt pocket or you can opt for a larger 3.5" external with your choices of interfaces on them. You keep asking the same question we keep giving you the same answer. What you're asking is whether you're going to win in a game of crapshoot if you don't do what the pros suggest and even if you do. Windows 7, external hard drive for recording and playback purposes. I mean you don't stick your baby in the trunk of your car because you don't have a child seat and only because you'll get it further down the road some time. And it might work perfectly well for you and you saved all that money on a child seat. But then again it might not. Maybe not all of the time? Maybe not even part-time? It may just work poorly because that's the way it is. Or it might work like a dream? There's ways the professionals do things and there's ways that party people do things. Sometimes both work out well. Not always.

    Bottom line is, most everything should work reasonably well with Windows 8. But there are no bets.
    Mx. Remy Ann David
  8. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    No, what we are all saying in our different ways is that you have to regard the external drive for audio as a necessity from the start if you are going for a laptop in this sort of price range. You will get problems with hiccups and drop-outs if you try to record audio to a small slow disk that is also used as the system drive.

    I would myself be wary of solid-state drives for this use unless you can guarantee their writing speeds. In my experience, very few SSDs are marked with their write speeds in any way that reflects their audio performance.

    As far as Cubase 4 goes, I think it has a much better chance of working with Windows 7 32-bit than with Windows 8. It's unlikely to work even in any of the compatibility modes under 64-bit versions of either OS.
  9. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    On top of its recommended usage for writing audio to, it's also not a bad idea to have an external drive anyway, as a safety back-up system, should your internal HD crash and burn... important stuff; things like project files, various mixes, midi files, waves, MP3's, album artwork/photos....

    It also makes it easier to transport project files to other recording facilities, or to collaborators, etc.

    You just pick up the drive and go.


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