This guide provides information on individual hardware components of a computer system. This information should be considered before buying or assembling a system suitable for a stable performance of Native Instruments or other third-party audio-related products.
Each chapter of this article provides general information as well as recommendations for each hardware component. Click on any of the chapter names to jump to the corresponding section.
The processor (also called CPU) is the core of any computer system. It is responsible for coordinating and processing instructions requested by running applications and services. A CPU can have one or more physical cores. Additionally, a CPU is able to access the next instructions quickly by pre-loading data on its cache memory.
It is important to note that the overall performance of a processor does not increase in direct proportion to the amount of cores or its clock speed. A number of factors such as power supply, amount of RAM, CPU temperature and overall processor design, will determine the performance and the measured CPU speed in realtime. Given the complexity of factors involved in the practical performance of a processor, we advise you to look up the benchmark number for the processor model of your choice in the Passmark Software website as explained in this article.
- Intel or AMD processor with at least 4 cores and hyperthreading capabilities.
- Intel or AMD processor with 8 cores, TurboBoost technology and hyperthreading capabilites for larger projects involving several applications running in parallel. Make sure that the processor is equipped with an efficient heatsink and that the computer's case is cooling efficiently (see Case).
RAM (short for Random Access Memory) is a memory module designed to store frequently used data. In the context of audio processing, this means that the software data of your audio application, sequencer, plug-ins and your audio samples will be loaded here for the CPU to gain access to them directly without the need to load them from the hard drive. A CPU never communicates directly with the software. Instead, all data is exchanged via the RAM module as intermediary between software and processor.
The amount of RAM memory your system can accept depends on two factors: the system architecture and the physical layout of your computer's motherboard. The standard for system architecture is 64-bit, which means you can add as much RAM as desired. 32-bit architecture can only address a maximum of 4GB RAM. The computer's motherboard is equipped with a specific amount of RAM memory slots. Laptop computer motherboards tend to offer less slots due to their reduced space and integrated hardware layout.
RAM modules (also known as DIMM modules) will be able to fit into most motherboard memory slots. You can find out how much RAM can be added to your system by entering the model / serial number of your motherboard in an Internet search engine, which will return the specifications page from the manufacturer. If you wish to perform a query for a specific system model from a specific manufacturer, we recommend to use the tools provided by the Crucial website.
- Add more RAM to your system if used as audio workstation (i.e. when using KOMPLETE products as plug-ins within a sequencer, including MASCHINE).
- For the use of sample-based products (e.g. KONTAKT, BATTERY, POLYPLEX) use at least 8GB RAM.
- For the use of sample-based products within larger arrangement projects (many plug-in instances running within a host sequencer) use at least 16GB RAM.
If you are planning to add RAM modules to your motherboard, please consider the following in order to avoid issues where your system may be underperforming or not recognizing a RAM module at all:
- Use memory modules of the same manufacturer and model.
- Add memory modules of the same size. For instance, if you plan to add 8 GB to your motherboard, add 2 x 4 GB modules as opposed to 2x 2 GB and 1x 4GB modules.
The hard drive is the permanent storage device of your system. In this manner the RAM, Cache and the operating system can fetch the data stored inside of it for further use.
The current industry standard for hard drives is HDD and SSD (see below).
Hard drives can be external or internal. External hard drives are usually connected via USB / Firewire / Thunderbolt. There is virtually no difference regarding the speed and performance of data transfer between USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, which are currently the top-performing interfaces. Internal hard drives on the other hand are directly mounted onto the computer's motherboard. The data transfer rate over internal hard drives makes no noticeable difference compared to external hard drives. The standard interface connection of internal hard drives to the motherboard is SATA (Serial ATA).
HDD (Hard Disk Drive)
HDD has remained the industry standard for a considerable amount of time. It stores data on magnetic spindles (or disks) that are read / written to by a mechanical head. HDDs offer extensive amounts of storage over little physical space and cost and are in this respect a better choice than SSD drives (see below).
SSD (Solid-State Drive)
SSD uses integrated circuitry to store data. Since it has no mechanically moving components, SSD benefits from very fast access times and resistance to shock and vibrations compared to its HDD counterpart. Additionally, SSD drives do not generate noise and are overall more energy-efficient. However, since SSD is a new technology, the relation between cost and its storage space and size is still fairly high. Consult your system manufacturer before mounting internal SSD drives as the SATA ports or the system's BIOS may not be SSD-compatible.
Lastly, some 'hybrid' drive models combine SSD and HDD drives in a single unit. In many instances the SSD partition is used for fast caching of operating system data. While it is possible to operate Native Instruments products with hybrid drives, we recommend to use separate drives instead.
If you plan on purchasing or assembling a system with more than one hard drive, we recommend the following:
- Use an SSD drive as system drive to store all your application data; in other words, install all NI applications or other third-party applications, including host sequencers, in the SSD drive.
- Use an (external) HDD drive to store all the content (music files, audio samples, etc.).
Additionally, please observe the following recommendations:
- If you use an external hard drive, choose one that connects via USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt as these interfaces ensure a performance equal or higher than the one achieved via eSATA ports (internal hard drives).
- For HDD storage devices, choose models with a disk speed of 7200 RPM. 5400 RPM speeds are more suitable in combination with older data transfer interfaces (USB 2.0, Firewire 400/800).
- For TRAKTOR users or live performers (e.g. MASCHINE JAM) who use their computers (laptops) in venues or festivals, we recommend to store their data inside SSD drives as they are much more resistant to shock and and are much less prone to damaging of the stored data (music files, projects, etc.).
In general your external devices (audio interfaces / MIDI controllers) will require a USB 2.0 / 3.0 or Thunderbolt connection.
While the transfer rates of Thunderbolt are higher than USB 2.0 / 3.0, in practice there is virtually no difference in their performance.
- Native Instruments hardware devices (both audio interfaces and controllers) utilize USB 2.0 data transfer but they are nonetheless fully compatible with USB 3.0 ports. We recommend nonetheless to equip your system with at least one USB 2.0 port, especially when using older Native Instruments devices.
- For efficient data exchange with modern external hard drives, we recommend to use USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt ports as these benefit from faster bi-directional data interchange. Please be aware that the external device needs to be compatible with the USB 3.0 / Thunderbolt protocol.
Note: Some Windows computer vendors (particularly laptop manufacturers) may equip their system with low quality USB drivers / controllers or may share other resources internally with the same USB controller. Read chapter 4.5 ('Energy Options') of our Windows tuning guide to learn how to diagnose and configure your system in order to reduce the latency of peripheral components.
The graphics card or GPU (Graphic Processing Unit) is the least relevant component in real-time audio processing. For this reason, rather than looking for a high-end model, use one instead that will consume as little resources as possible. GPUs can be either integrated to the motherboard or mounted as an external component.
Even though it is safe to go for average models, please consider the following aspects:
- Avoid using cards whose design follow the 'shared memory' principle. Instead, a GPU should have its own memory module.
- Some PC vendors provide their own setting tools for graphic cards which may interfere with the performance of your audio-related products. Please read the section "Graphics Card Tool" of this article for more information.
- Some Apple systems provide an 'automatic graphics switching' option which may interfere with the performance of your audio-related products. Please read the section "Graphics Card Switching" of this article for more information.
A look at this system component in detail comes into question if you are planning to build your own system from scratch (as may be the case with desktop audio workstations). Motherboards feature specific chipsets that coordinate the communication between memory, CPU, RAM as well as other options.
When looking for a suitable motherboard, consider the following aspects in regards to efficiency and compatibility to other hardware components:
- Efficient heat dissipation (heatsink).
- Bus speed/bandwidth and chipset performance should be sufficient enough to avoid data bottlenecks with other components (mainly RAM and CPU).
- DIMM memory slots that support the amount, clock speed and channel architecture of your RAM modules.
- SATA ports and transfer rates that support your storage / DVD drive.
- USB or Thunderbolt ports that amount to the number of external USB or Thunderbolt devices you will use.
A good case design will minimize noise and heat. Look for case designs that ensure good airflow and insulation against noise and vibration. Some cases will be equipped with cooling fans. Make sure that the amount and position of the fans allow for cold air to flow in and hot air to flow out of the case, rather than distribute the hot air inside the case.
The power supply unit is an often overlooked component that plays a significant role in the overall performance of a system. The power supply needs to ensure both sufficient and constant amounts of power for every component of the system while maintaining the noise level as low as possible. Seek professional advice in order to find out the sum of each individual component's power requirements for your system.
Note: There is a number of vendors that provide desktop, laptop and rack computers specifically designed for the purpose of real-time audio processing. You can find them by typing the following (or related) search terms or keywords (preferably, a combination of them) in your Internet search engine: 'audio' ,'real-time', 'low-latency', 'computer', 'system', 'DAW', 'recommendations', 'shop', 'customized', etc.