By Tim Smith
This Series of E-book/Articles will cover step by step the building of a computer used for audio recording. All information herein is the property of Recordinghound.com and may not be reproduced or used in any way without express permission from Recordinghound.com. C 2016
In this article I explain the functions of the hardware and options when selecting a motherboard/cpu for your new computer build.
Motherboard and cpu
The motherboard is one of the most important choices a builder can make while deciding on the best setup considering budget and performance demands. The motherboard ties all of the other hardware elements together and assures that everything is working together the best that it can.
In recent years there has been a trend to include features on a motherboard that were at one time only offered as add on cards. Some of these options are onboard wireless WiFi, bluetooth, video and sound. To be fair, onboard audio has been on many motherboards for quite some time. Onboard video is also an internal addition to some main processors.
Some of the nomenclature describing motherboards can be a bit misleading. The advertised feature is possible “if” you don’t add too many PCIe cards or some other catch. In some cases you might need additional hardware to fully take advantage of a feature. It’s always wise to read the fine print on any motherboard you might be considering.
Since we are primarily concerned with building a computer for audio recording and the use of soft synthesizers, ideally the motherboard (MOBO) shouldn’t have onboard audio. In reality I haven’t found any recent motherboards that don’t have onboard audio so you will need to turn off the onboard audio drivers in software since we plan to use an outboard audio interface. If we don’t do this, the two systems can conflict with one another.
Choosing onboard video or a video card is purely a matter of choice. Since video isn’t usually a prime consideration in a DAW , using a mobo with standard onboard video is probably adequate for use in a DAW. Same goes for onboard video on a cpu such as the Intel i5 processor. In most cases it is fine for this kind of work.
A few of the reasons I didn’t use onboard video: My motherboard uses socket 2011.v3 and this standard didn’t adopt onboard video. This was fine with me because if I later on have problems with my video I can change the video card. If you buy a motherboard with onboard video you might not have that option and will instead, be forced to replace your entire motherboard or use an extra PCIe slot if video fails. The more modular you can keep your system the better.
In my build I use a video card with two monitor outs. Since I’ve started using two monitors I don’t know how I ever did without it I highly recommend using at least two monitors since you can have more screen real estate to operate the software of choice. With the drag and drop feature so prevalent on DAWs having two monitors makes the job easier.
The other additions are a personal decision. If your computer happens to be too far from a wired lan connection you may want to get a MOBO with onboard wireless. Same with bluetooth. If you use bluetooth a lot maybe this is something you would consider. I wouldn’t let the lack of a feature be a deal breaker if I liked everything else about a motherboard since you can probably find a PCIe card for it.
One of the most important considerations when selecting a motherboard is external inputs and outputs or I/O. You will certainly want a motherboard to accommodate your audio interface. Much of the industry has adopted the usb standard for connectivity and most prosumer audio interfaces now use one of the usb standards. This is great for plug and play ease. The technology has been proven to work well for audio interfaces.
Usb standard 1.0 was developed in the mid 90’s and could carry up to 12 mbits/sec with the lower speed being 1.5 mbits/sec. The older audio interfaces could support one stereo channel I/O. You are unlikely to see usb 1 on any recent motherboard. USB 2.0 came along in 2000. This standard can support 480 Mbits/sec.
USB 3.0 was introduced in 2008 and carries 5Gbits/sec. A vast improvement over the 2.0 standard. You will still find the 2.0 standard on most motherboards along with usb 3.0/3.1. USB 3.0 is backward compatible with USB 2.0. The first USB 3.0 devices hit the market in 2010. Since then several more standards have either been adopted or are in the works. USB 3.1 is the most recently adopted with a capacity of up to 10 Gbits/sec. USB 3.1 connectors will fit into USB-C connectors which we’ll discuss a little later.
For the purposes of this book the most common USB connections for audio interfaces are USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. A handful of manufacturers have designed their interfaces to allow for more than one kind of input. Apollo has recently adopted this dual approach using firewire and Thunderbolt ( another standard we’ll be discussing). Options are always a good thing!
Firewire was at one time a very popular transfer protocol but has been less popular over recent years. Also called IEEE1394 it comes in two flavors 400 Mbits/sec and 800 Mbits/sec. Developed mainly by Apple and used widely by the video editing community, later adopted by the audio interface community.Used widely in the PC. The two standards are not interchangeable with the 400 Mbits/sec being the most common for audio interfaces. I decided to keep my firewire interface because it works well. On paper it seems as if the firewire 400 standard is slower than Usb 2.0 which if you remember is 480 Mbits/sec. This really isn’t the case. Firewire is a bit faster because if the way it handles data. Another very attractive thing about Firewire is its ability to be daisy chained with other FW equipment.
You won’t find any recent motherboards with a firewire port but you can still get add on cards.
One word of caution to anyone considering Firewire. When buying an add on PCI or PCIe card buy only a card made with chips from Texas Instruments. TI have a patented chip that has been proven to be stable for audio work and audio interfaces. This is one reason Firewire wasn’t popular with some users since there were stability issues with other chip makers. There were problems and the industry gravitated over to USB 2.0. Firewire works wonderfully if you get it set up correctly. Unfortunately the compatibility issue was enough to cause many makers to discontinue its use.
The chip manufacturers really weren’t to blame since they were initially making a chip primarily for storage and video camera connections. With the exception of Texas Instruments, they weren’t prepared to use Firewire for audio work.
Lets look now at Thunderbolt, a technology that was intended to replace firewire. This technology has been slow to be adopted. Originally adopted by Apple but now being integrated into PCs. Probably intended more as a video medium in the beginning.Thunderbolt combines PCIe lanes and display port into one signal. This ability to multiplex using multiple PCIe lanes gives it a tremendous boost in speed. Depending on the application and implementation fro 10-40 Gbits/sec.
As of this writing several Audio interface makers have adopted Thunderbolt mostly for Apple computers. Several PC motherboard manufacturers have began to adopt either a direct connection or an add on card to support Thunderbolt. Many prosumer audio interface makers have stayed with USB 2.0. I think it’s going to take time to see what happens. There were initially many revisions made to the standard which I believe has hurt its progress. The original intention was to use optical connections. Most recently Intel has decided to use a USB -C cable to cut costs at the expense of some performance, but still faster than Usb 3.1.
I personally made the decision to wait a bit more on Thunderbolt. You may decide to use it and I think if it’s set up correctly it’ll work well. I just didn’t want to be the guinea pig at this time and I’m totally content with Firewire presently for my needs. Apple users have the edge with Thunderbolt at this time but the PC hardware market is starting to follow with some help from Intel.
Recommendations For The Beginner
If you haven’t yet purchased an audio interface I recommend an interface that uses USB since most recent motherboards have you covered with both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 connections. Since you will connect your studio monitors to your audio interface the audio connections on your motherboard won’t be needed.If you happen to need more than 24 audio inputs at once then you could also consider Thunderbolt and Firewire as options since you can daisy chain multiple interfaces together. For most applications in the home studio though USB will be sufficient even at higher resolutions and bitrates. If you plan to use your DAW for mainly composing with soft synths then external track input count becomes less important since you’ll be mainly working with a midi keyboard in the box ( ITB).
There are many cases of course, where recording many tracks at the same time is necessary such as recording a band with a full set of drums fully mic’ed. The computer we’ll be building will more than handle this with the right audio interfaces.
A well designed motherboard will take full advantage of the connected hardware and cpu installed. It will be made with good solid connections, have components and sockets placed in such a way that all hardware can be safely mounted and not conflict with the other parts and systems. It should have a good bios written for it so that it can bring every element together and function within the parameters of each demand placed on it.
Will It Fit?
If conflicts arise this isn’t always the fault of the MOBO manufacturer, sometimes it can be the fault of the add on card or cooler manufacturer that the clearances don’t work. Some cooling fans won’t fit certain mobos and still clear the memory sticks or they might be too large for some computer cases. Usually this has all been determined and is printed in the literature for the fan, cooler , memory or video card maker. To get a motherboard that meets all of these
qualifications isn’t as difficult as it may seem since there are only a small percentage of these kinds of problems. The engineers have usually done their jobs well.
It is important though to look at all literature from respective hardware that you plan to purchase and read customer comments to make sure that your setup hasn’t been determined not to work. To be fair, customer comments are generally the discontent people. There are exceptions. I have found one computer parts vendor to be extremely helpful in posted comments from happy users. These are the ones I like to read.
Which Form Factor
The size or form factor of the motherboard might be a consideration if you need to build a computer into a small case. The most common standardized PC desktop sizes are AT and ATX. There are many others that are generally smaller. If you need to build a very small computer , then your build will be totally different.
Usually when building a smaller computer you loose some performance in order to get the smaller size and this is why I opted to use a standard build form factor. You can certainly build a mini computer for basic audio recording. If performance doesn’t need to be stellar for smaller projects with less demand then you need not build a computer in the first place since you can buy almost anything off the shelf to do a basic job. What do I mean by “basic job”? You’ll know it’s no longer basic when your computer chokes.
One big advantage to using the ATX form factor is greater ease in building the computer and better cooling characteristics. Another advantage to using an ATX mobo is most computer cases have mounts already in place to line up with the mounting holes in the mobo. I recommend using the ATX form factor since this is where you can get the best performance for value.
What To Look For In A Motherboard
There are ranges of quality in motherboards. If a motherboard is priced ridiculously low look at the specs compared to other mobos. It is missing some features? Has it had a lot of customer complaints? Does it make full use of the latest hardware? You must ask yourself why this mobo is so much less expensive. Usually such a mobo doesn’t have quite the performance of the mid level or higher ended mobos. Like anything else there’s good, better and best. For my build I used a “good” mobo that had everything I needed but nothing I didn’t need.
Herein lies the next point. You can overbuy a motherboard. If you don’t need it why buy it? There are plenty of motherboards all dressed up to look like a power module on the Starship Enterprise with fancy aluminum and plastic covers. I didn’t opt for one of these high end gamer mobos since they are hyped to the gamer crowd and I really didn’t need all of that capability. On the other hand, if you’re going to build a computer why not pick parts better than the common parts found in mass produced computers? I landed somewhere in the middle for this build and I’m happy with that decision. Thankfully there are a lot of choices out there. If you’re going to do something different please get the better mobos and look the other way on buying anything especially low end. Saving a small amount of money now might end up costing you much more in time and money later.
I also notice the little things on a mobo. If you can navigate through all of the sales hype you’ll find that some of those features are really helpful. For instance, capacitors. There really are differences in the quality of the components. Failed capacitors are a big reason motherboards eventually fail. I confirmed that my mobo uses high quality rated capacitors. This could prevent a future failure. Also look at heat dissipation. Some of those fancy looking colored covers are actually aluminum heat sinks that work well to remove heat from the smaller components. If the mobo looks like one of the transformers folded up at least 50% of it is eye candy. For this build eye candy means absolutely nothing.
Look at the connection material. Some mobos use cheap traces and others use gold plated connections. This isn’t sales hype since gold helps to fight off oxidation over time. Most mobos with gold connections only use it sparingly in key areas such as the cpu socket. To my knowledge my mobo doesn’t use gold plating. Concessions needed to be made somewhere. It isn’t the end of the world if your choice doesn’t have gold. If it does, consider this a benny!
If you plan to buy memory like it’s going out of style, then you’re going to want a mobo that can handle a lot of memory. In the first segment I mentioned that typically 16gb is enough memory for most builds. If you need more to make that 200 track cinematic mix for the next blockbuster, then plan accordingly to find a mobo that can handle it. Even though my mobo is a mid level choice it can accept up to 128gb of memory. It shouldn’t be difficult to locate a great match. All of the mobos I looked at had great specs and documentation and most ATX mobos will accept a minimum of 64gb memory.
The motherboard addresses memory though channels. We will cover memory channels and size divisions in an upcoming article.
Even if you make the perfect motherboard selection there is always a small chance of failure, so keep all of your return papers in order just in case. Don’t buy from a one way vendor. Returns are a necessity. I highly discourage buying anything advertised as “open box”. No telling where it has been or what it has been put through. I’m not sure what the percentage of failure is on mobos but I’m going to guess it’s somewhere around 1% or less which isn’t bad and this will vary depending on the mobo. The same applies to every other component you install. In some cases you’ll know right away, like when the delivery driver decides to put those barbells on your package. In other instances the problem might not show up for months. Warranty is another consideration here. The longer the better. If you feel especially concerned opt to add one of those warranty extensions for a small fee by some vendors.
The cpu or central processing unit is a combination of transistors miniaturized through a photographic/etching and doping process. Traces are made at the microscopic level by designing them larger and then reducing the size by thousands of times. The transistors are made by layering or doping the strata or layers of the cpu. These layers are built up to make the transistors.
There are literally thousands of transistors in a cpu. At the most basic level a transistor is a layer of at least three chemicals in which once a current is passed through traces into these layers it can be made to turn off and on like a switch. This is done with very small amounts of DC current and or voltage. The combinations of different types of transistors add up to something called “gates”. The names of these gates are fairly self explanatory. An OR gate will allow this input OR that input to turn a given output on. An AND gate requires both inputs to turn the gate on. There are also NAND gates and NOR gates.
This adds up to a complex series of switches. All of these various integral transistors working together at super fast frequencies are what drive our computer technology today. The particulars of manufacture are company patent secrets. If they told me, they would have to shoot me. It probably involves robots and more computers.
All cpu manufacturing is done in a clean room with high air filtration and workers all wearing dust free white suits and masks. The reason is simple. One eyelash landing on a cpu during the manufacturing process will ruin it. Even something much much smaller will damage a cpu.
When the whole thing is finished you have a highly complex computer brain encased in a silicone shell and packaged in a static free bag.
Too Hot To Handle
This is important. Before you even think about removing the chip from the static bag remove those Nikes and ground yourself by touching a neutral object or use a grounding wrist band. Touching the grounded computer case will discharge you. The drier the climate the more of a problem this is.
There’s nothing worse for a cpu ( or any sensitive electronic component) than walking across your carpet with rubber sole shoes on. This will build a few hundred volts of static electricity in your body to be discharged the next time you touch something. If you touch a cpu, you probably ruined it. Always ground yourself first! This rule applies in all cases. Even if you’re on a hardwood floor.
The cpu is responsible for the lion’s share of computing in the computer with smaller tasks delegated to lower systems. When the cpu is powered up and starts to work with the instructions from the bios and OS it generates heat, a lot of heat, mainly because of the high frequencies, current and the amount of work going on inside all of those transistors.Simple ohms law prevails, the larger the internal traces the more heat is generated. The hottest running computer chips are usually not as well designed as the cooler running ones at the same performance levels.
Cutting edge cpu’s find a good balance of moderate heat and good performance.
Motherboard manufacturers have taken great care to assure that the average person can install a cpu on a motherboard.
I haven’t covered power supplies, cases or cooling yet, so in the next articles I will cover those things.
Then we’ll get into the details of the physical build!