Choosing a Processor for Your Recording PC


By Frank Stroupe


       Face it, the CPU (actually standing for Central Processing Unit, but pretty much no longer an abbreviation but a noun), or "processor", is the single most important part of your computer.  The processor is the "brains" of your system, it determines how "powerful" your system is, and also determines the type of some of the other hardware in your system.        

       The purpose of this article is to attempt to explain to you the several types of  processors that you would be choosing from if you are planning to build a recording PC now. (Fall 2006)  I am not planning to get overly technical in this article, though there are a few differences in today's popular CPUs that I will attempt to explain in layman's terms.  I promise to try my best not to totally confuse you.  Geeks will find this overly simplistic, and probably shouldn't bother reading it.

       Keep in mind that deciding on a processor is only part of the selection process of your rig.  Careful decisions must be made for all components to get the optimum performance that your budget allows.  CPU selection should not be made in a vacuum.          

So, How Much Power Do I Need?

       CPU power isn't an issue in most recording processes, though I'm sure you wouldn't agree if you are using something pretty old.  Since the arrival of processing power over the 2.0 gig or so Pentium 4 or AMD equivalent 4 years or so ago,  maxxing out your CPU isn't as much of an issue...of course, much depends on the software you use and your recording methods.  Unless you use a lot of real time effects, even tracking doesn't really stress your CPU.

       Mixing is the real test.  Preparing for the mixdown, with compressors, reverbs, and other effects running on individual tracks and grouped tracks, you can easily have over 100 effects running at one time.  That is the real test for a processor.  With well over twice the processing power of the 2.0 gig processors, today's modern CPUs should make mixing much easier.  Later in this article, I will show some results of a test of one of today's mainstream processors.

Two Basic Choices




       There are two primary brands of PC CPUs, Intel and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) .  There are some other brands out there, but I'm not going to mention them, as their processors are pretty specialized, and not really for the general public.

       Intel is by far the best known brand, mainly due to dominating the CPU market for the first 20 years after the creation of the PC, and billions of dollars of advertisement spent over the past decade by Intel and the computer companies that use their processors, saturating us with their household slogan, "Intel inside".   I have probably heard those tale-tale tones at least three or four times in the past 24 hours, and I haven't been watching tv for most of the day.

       Founded in 1968, Intel designed every important PC processor from the mid 1970s to the late 1990s, along with most commercial server processors during the same period.   Apple uses Intel processors exclusively, and until very recently, Dell did too.  (see the comment below about   anti-trust legislation)

       I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about them, because they are so well known, their name sells itself.  On the other hand, I feel that I need to spend a little time talking about AMD, to familiarize you with this relatively little known company.  Not to sell you an AMD processor, but to help you realize that AMD is not some "off-brand" and a viable option for your choice.

       "Opteron"...these are processors marketed for servers and commercial workstations.  Though some enthusiasts do put them into PCs, I will not be looking at them.  I also will not be looking at Intel's Celeron line, or AMD's Sempron line.  Though these are ok processors for the seriously budget minded, they don't have all of the features of the mainstream versions of each company's processors, and I really don't think that I would recommend them for a Sempron processors, one of the main differences is CPU cache size.   They nearly always have smaller CPU caches than the comparable Pentium or Athlon, and though the speed appears the same, the performance will not be.

Continued on Page 2

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