Music Technology PCs – Getting the best bang for your buck – Version 2.0

Music IT Classes hardwareOver the last decade, computers have become an ever more essential component of a music departments teaching arsenal.  Whether these are basic PCs to run software such as Sibelius in the classroom; through machines of better specification, designed to cope with the rigours of post-production and editing.  At the top of the pile you see mighty machines sat in the recording studio itself, needing immense processing power to handle dozens to real time effects and virtual instruments.

Obviously computers of this ilk aren’t cheap.  You’ll find various well-known online retailers selling Pro-Audio Workstations with a starting price of more than £800.  You’ll also get die-hard Apple fans and Music Tech teachers claiming that Apple machines – with their lovely design & inflated price tag – are the industry standard.  These same people will then push on with the use of GarageBand to the exclusion of all else.

So how do you provide your school with a top-class setup without breaking the bank?
Way back in 2014 I wrote an article comparing a standard iMac of the time (Gen 3 Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB HDD) with one of our Professional HP Workstations.

I showed that for the price of the Mac alone, you could purchase a superior PC, two displays, dedicated Audio Interface, a Midi interface Keyboard & pair of decent headphones.  The complete setup!

So now in 2019 and with five years passed it’s time to see what has changed since I last looked into this.
To make things more interesting, this time I’m going to look at two of the different tiers of machine as mentioned above.

  • A basic music classroom PC with a slightly upgraded teacher setup.
  • A workstation setup ideal for sequencing projects fresh out of the recording studio.

As before we’ll look at a brand new comparison and find ways to spend the difference on additional tools to make the setup more complete.

The Music Classroom PC

iMacThere’s a lot going on in a music classroom so looking at an All in One (AIO) PC for day-to-day use makes sense as this will free up desk space for when the students need to get out instruments.  As our brand new unit for comparison we’re going to bring back our old friend from my first blog on this subject.  The Apple iMac.

The Apple range has diversified somewhat from the halcyon days of 2014.  Apple tend now to release regular updates to their models whilst keeping alive an older model which is used as an entry-point to the range.  This iMac is such a model.

The Mid-2017 21.5” iMac will set you back in the region of £710 (Excluding VAT) brand new and features a 7th Generation dual core i5 Intel mobile processor, 8GB RAM and strangely, the same 5400 rpm 1TB Spinning Hard Disc Drive found in the Late-2013 iMac from my previous blog.  Four years on I am surprised that, in this modern age of DDR4 RAM and Solid State Drives, Apple has persisted with a storage drive boasting what were already dated specifications back in 2013.  Another consideration with an iMac is the peripherals.  iMacs come with the wireless Apple Keyboard & Magic mouse.  Most schools I’ve spoken to prefer to get these swapped out for the more traditional wired accessories.  However, Apple quietly discontinued their longstanding wired keyboard and mouse back in 2017.  For schools looking for a more secure keyboard, the Macally keyboard and mouse combo is a must-buy (available from Amazon for £20).  These niggles aside, the iMac is a nice machine and it comes with GarageBand thrown in for free.  If we ignore the issues involved with getting it to play nicely on a Microsoft based network, it’s a perfectly serviceable machine.

The Alternative

800 g1 aioSo what is out there that is cheaper and perhaps more suited to a networked environment than our entry-level Apple machine?
Keeping with the AIO theme I believe a refurbished HP EliteOne 800 G1 is perfect for the job.  A business-class AIO desktop PC built to HP’s very high standards the 800 G1 boasts a full HD 23” screen, a powerful 4th Generation Intel quad core i5 processor, 8GB RAM and Brand New 120GB Solid State Drive.

The 4th Generation processor, whilst a little older than the one in the iMac is more powerful by almost 20% (see chart)

7360-4590s

Priced at £320 Excluding VAT it is less than half the price of the Apple alternative.

These are machines that are built to last.  Originally shipping with a 3-year warranty from HP.  The refurbished machines have a base 2-year Advance Replace warranty upgradable for a fee to 3 or even 5 years if required.  Shipping with a Professional Windows License, you’ll be able to get them on your network just like any other machine.  The 800 G1 has more than enough power to run software such as Sibelius or Audacity.

These make great classroom PCs, and with the option of a 10-point capacitive touch screen version for as little as £60 extra; they make great collaborative machines, allowing students to work together easily.

For a teacher’s machine I would consider upping the internal SSD storage to 240GB (+£15).  I would also invest in both an audio interface such as the Focusrite Scarlett Solo (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface (Available from Amazon for around £70 Ex VAT) and a Midi Keyboard such as the Nektar Impact LX88+ (Available from Amazon for £180 Ex VAT).  This turns the standard machine into a capable music workstation allowing the teacher access to a speaker-connected 88-key piano interface whilst also giving them the option of connecting up another instrument such as a guitar if they required it.  When connected to the classroom speakers this gives the students a musical focal point.

Adding up the costs then, we have the following:

Apple iMac 2017 – £730 (including keyboard & mouse)

  • 5” 1920 x 1080 built-in display
  • 3GHz Intel Dual Core i5 7360U Mobile Processor
  • 8GB Memory
  • 1TB 5400 rpm Hard Disc
  • 1 Year Apple Carry-in Warranty

HP EliteOne 800 G1 – £320

  • 23” 1920 x 1080 built-in display
  • 2.9GHz Intel Quad Core i5 4590S desktop Processor
  • 8GB Memory
  • 120GB Brand New Solid State Drive
  • Windows Professional License
  • 2 Years Advance Replace Warranty

So, £730 – £320 is a saving of £410!

If we then look at adding the features to upgrade the teacher PC…

Audio Interface – £70

Midi Keyboard – £180

SSD Upgrade – £15

The final figure for a fully-kitted out teacher machine is £390 + £70 + £180 + £15 or £585!

That is still £145 less than an entry level iMac!

But what if you need more power?

Whilst those All in One PCs are great for your everyday music classes.  Music Technology focuses more on aspects of music production.  So you’ve laid down tracks in the studio, you’ve got a raw mix but it needs fine tuning.  A mixing lab will typically have several machines available all with similar software to that of the recording studio PC that students laid down the tracks on.  They need to be powerful enough to handle playback whilst running several virtual instruments.  All whilst allowing users a seamless interface that doesn’t freeze whilst they’re adjusting levels or making crucial cuts.

mac-mini-2019An look at the options available from Apple would suggest the 2018 Mac Mini as being suited to this role.  Looking at brand new options for a Windows-based system, we can also consider the 3XS CZ390 – Audio Project PC from Scan Computers who sell this as their entry-level music tech solution.

So let us consider the spec on both of these machines:
The Apple Mac Mini 2018 model (MRTT2B/A) packs a decent amount of power into a small chassis.  Despite having a laptop-class CPU, the 8th Generation Intel Core i5 8500b boasts six processor cores at a respectable 3.0GHz.  Coupled with 8GB DDR4 memory and a 256GB PCIe based SSD, these are very capable boxes.  Even the Mini Mac isn’t cheap however, and this model will set schools back something in the region of £750 Ex VAT!  To keep prices and packaging small, these Macs ship without Keyboard or Mouse which you’ll need to buy in at around £20 for the compatible mac wired keyboard & mouse set mentioned previously.  A decent 23” widescreen TFT will set you back around £100 such as this ACER SA230 from Ebuyer (https://www.ebuyer.com/811134).  That puts the total cost for this system in the region of £870.

The benefits and the drawbacks with this particular model can essentially be boiled down to one word…  Upgrades.  Whilst soldered RAM and SSDs are now standard in Apple’s laptop range and changing a drive in an iMac is a marathon task, it is still possible to do your own upgrades in the Mac Mini.  It’s not easy however, requiring a near total teardown in order to swap out components.

3XS CZ390.fwOur second comparison product is a custom-build PC from Scan Computers’ 3XS system builder.  The imaginatively named CZ390 Audio Project PC is billed as an entry-level machine, ideal for multi-tracking and basic editing duties.  The specs would certainly seem to back this up with a 9th Generation Intel Core i5 9600K hexa core CPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, a 120GB SSD plus plenty of magnetic storage with a 1TB HDD.

The CZ390 is priced better than the Mac Mini too.  It comes in at £690 Ex VAT which is great for a system with a better spec.  There’s no Keyboard, Mouse or Monitor however so we’ll assume £20 and £100 respectively bringing it’s total cost to £810.

Both of these machines are credible units, if expensive.  Lets look at a refurbished alternative that should outperform both and leave some cash left to spend on Audio Interfaces and other essential tools.  In the computer music world, CPU clockspeed is less of an essential component.  When mixing multiple tracks with effects and post-processing going on in real time CPU core and thread count make a huge difference.  There’s really only one place to look in order to get this.  The beautifully designed HP Z-series workstations, specifically the the Z440, the third generation of the Z4xx range.
Z440 with monitors
A mid-tier professional workstation, the units are found in studios, design and animation houses the world over.  There is good reason for this as these unassuming machines can be stuffed full of server-grade components!
Our example machine is no exception.  Boasting an Intel Xeon E5-2660 V3 with 10 (Yes Ten!) cores and 20 threads; 32GB of fast DDR4 ECC RAM for guaranteed performance; plus a brand new 240GB SSD, 1GB dedicated graphics card and new keyboard & mouse.  All of that come in at a respectable £595 Ex VAT!  There’s no monitor obviously so we’d have to add the superb HP Z24i full-HD IPS display for an additional £80 Ex VAT bringing the total cost for this machine to £675 Ex VAT.  But what you have there is an incredible machine that’ll do everything asked of it without missing a beat.  Despite having a slightly older CPU than our comparison machines, the server CPU inside the Z440 smashes the opposition aside, as can be seen from this table.  The Xeon CPU scores significantly higher than either of the newer processors.  The multiple cores and threads will translate into a far smoother experience for users, with the PC able to do much more without the user having to freeze tracks to save on CPU resources.
There are other areas this machine will excel.  32GB of DDR4 memory will allow the system to keep larger projects in direct memory.  The dedicated graphics card will free up system resources that would otherwise have been diverted away from the main purpose of the machine.

8500-9600-2660

Costs & Side-by-Side Comparison

Model Apple Mac Mini 2018 Scan 3XS – CZ390 HP Z440 (refurbished)
CPU i5 8500B 6 Core  3.0GHz i5 9600K 6 Core 3.7GHz Xeon E5-2660 v310 Core 2.6GHz
Hyper Threading No No Yes
RAM 8GB DDR4 8GB DDR4 32GB DDR4 ECC
Storage 256GB PCIe SSD 120GB SSD
1TB HDD
240GB SSD
Graphics Integrated Integrated Dedicated
Easy to upgrade components? 3/10 Sealed Case 9/10 ATX Case 8/10HP Custom Case
Peripherals £20 £20 Included
Display £100 23” 1920 x 1080 £100 23” 1920 x 1080 £80 24” 1920 x 1200
Total Price £870 £810 £675
Warranty 1 Year Carry-in 3 Years 1st Year onsite 2 Years Advance Replace

NB: spec comparison winner denoted by bold text.

The Refurbished Z440 wins easily in all but three categories (though it is possible to fit PCIe SSD storage if needed and the warranty can be upgraded to 3 or even 5 years for a fee).  The price differences are clear to see with a saving of £195 vs the Mac Mini and £135 vs the CZ390.

Essential Hardware

Stations in a mixing and editing suite need a few essential components in order to make things possible for the user.  These include a dedicated Audio Interface for each PC, a Midi controller keyboard so users can be creative & a decent pair of studio headphones.  Other desirables include USB mixing consoles to allow for a greater degree of precision, though keyboard & mouse functionality is adequate.

The Audio Interface

A decent Audio Interface will make a significant difference when running software such as Ableton Live, Cubase, etc. The specialist drivers in these interfaces go a long way to ensuring top-quality sampling with low-latency.
The Behringer UMC22 is a 2 in 2 out USB interface compatible with all the major recording software releases.  It is ideal for this situation and available from MusicMatter – (www.musicmatter.co.uk/behringer-u-phoria-umc22) for around £32 Ex VAT.

The Midi Controller Keyboard

A good Midi controller keyboard will allow users great control over the edit and mixing process.  There are many on the market and you can spend hundreds of pounds quite easily.  However, all you really need are good plugins and a well-built controller to drive them.  The Alesis V Mini is a 25-key portable USB-Midi controller that is compact enough to fit in the cramped space available in most classrooms.  It is USB-powered so no need for any additional plug.
The controller is well priced too, coming in at £35 Ex VAT on Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk/Alesis-Mini-Portable-Controller-Sensitive/dp/B01BDMKK1W)

Headphones

In a packed classroom, using studio-grade monitor speakers is not possible, so students must mix using headphones.  These need to be robust, and offer a neutral signature with accurate sound reproduction.  This means that everyday headphones will not cut it.  These usually have pre-boosted bass and other enhancements which will give an inaccurate representation of a final mix.
AKG have been making superb headphones for years now and the closed-back AKG K72 Studio Headphones are superb value for money.  Widely available online, they’re on Bax Music (https://www.bax-shop.co.uk/studio-headphones/akg-k72-closed-studio-headphones) for around £25 Ex VAT.

Total Cost of Extras

So we have three essential components to finish our mixing lab.  The interface at £32, the Keyboard at £35 and the headphones for just £25.  That’s a grand total of £92 Ex VAT for everything you need to get set up.
Even when you add this to the price of our Z440 it still comes in at £43 cheaper than the 3XS System & a massive £103 cheaper that the Mac Mini!

Conclusions

So there you have it.  Several comparisons later.  I think it’s fair to say that even in this new world of multi-core computing, it still pays to shop around for the best deal.  Despite the massive boost in processing power of the last couple of CPU generations, refurbished hardware more than holds its own in both the price and performance category.  This isn’t just for day to day use either.  Any old PC can perform well with a spreadsheet or a copy of word open.  Music Tech is a demanding environment, often taxing hardware to the limit.  In that environment, it’s reassuring to know there’s always a cheaper option that absolutely doesn’t compromise on the quality you offer to your users.