What matters the most for music production: plenty of fast RAM or a powerful CPU?
Most experts agree that having a high-powered CPU is more important than piling on the RAM. When it comes to music production, having sufficient processing power will benefit you more than having plenty of memory.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons why you might want to upgrade your computer with additional memory at some point. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish and what software you use for your music projects.
In any case, it is important to know what the best CPU and RAM configuration is for your music production goals. This knowledge will help you get the most value for your money and avoid the pitfalls of unnecessary spending.
So whether you are planning on a monster build that allows you to complete fully-orchestrated tracks or a basic system for creating song demos, here’s what you need to know about CPUs and RAM.
What makes a killer music computer?
Simply put, the best computer configuration is the one that lets you do what you need to and stays out of your way. You need to be able to work quickly, efficiently, and intuitively without getting bogged down by system crashes, lags, and hiccups.
More often than not, this capability is due to two major components: the CPU and memory. Each plays an essential role in ensuring optimal system performance, and you can’t have one without the other.
CPU and RAM: How are they used in music production?
Of course, each component fulfills a unique role in a music production setup. Although they work in conjunction with each other, the CPU and memory each has a specific set of functions to perform.
Think of the CPU as the brain of the system. It analyzes and processes the data it receives and sends the appropriate instruction to the other computer components. It is also mainly responsible for how fast the programs carry out their intended tasks. Without the CPU, even the biggest hard drive and gobs of memory will be useless because there is no brain to tell them what to do.
As for the memory…well, the name says it all. The memory is the storage space for all the data that passes through the system, but only temporarily. As the data is stored in memory, it is quickly passed on to the CPU, which handles process management and task assignments as needed. So while the RAM is essential for storing information, it needs to pass it on to the ‘brain’ of the system (the CPU) so that the associated program will run.
How does this translate in the real-world environment of music production?
In general, the CPU is responsible for processing your software’s complex operations and functions, in this case, your DAW and plugin instruments and effects. The more complex your DAW and the more virtual effects and instruments you run, the more powerful your CPU needs to be.
As for the RAM, it is primarily responsible for storing data such as audio files, sample libraries, and the like. Because the memory doesn’t actually process this data, it only needs to hold them before passing them on to the CPU.
Keep in mind that most of your work will involve processing data rather than keeping them in short-term storage. Therefore, a combination of a powerful CPU and less RAM will always be more efficient than plenty of RAM and an underpowered CPU.
Striking a balance between processing power and memory
Ideally, you will want a system that has a powerful enough processor to handle your DAW, all your plugins, and run your computer’s operating system efficiently. The good news is that computer CPUs have become amazingly powerful over the past several years, so anything above entry-level should work great.
You will also want enough RAM to handle your audio files and sample libraries without filling up to capacity too quickly.
You must realize that if you don’t have sufficient RAM, your computer will store the excess data on a temporary “virtual memory” section on your hard drive. But because of the extra work needed to retrieve this data and transfer it to memory, the entire system will likely slow down. This typically results in audio glitches, hiccups, and stutters.
What all this means is that the CPU and memory are equally important for ensuring the optimal performance of your music computer. Although I stand firm in the belief that your money is better spent on a powerful CPU and less RAM, you do have to consider how much RAM you need to allow your computer to work efficiently.
Choosing a CPU for your music computer
So what kind of CPU should you get for your music production computer? The short answer is: the most powerful one you can afford. I suggest looking into Intel i7 machines (or the AMD equivalents), which provide excellent performance and enough power for most tasks.
If you can afford it, you might even consider an i9 (or equivalent), which will continue to be useful for a few years down the line. As DAWs and virtual instruments and effects plugins become more and more processor-intensive, you will appreciate having the extra power that an i9 CPU provides.
If you are on a strict budget, you could make do with an i5 machine. They are powerful enough for ‘lite’ versions of most DAWs and can easily run a modest number of plugins. Keep in mind that you will probably run into the processor’s limitations soon enough, especially if you are working on larger and more complex projects.
When choosing a CPU, you might want to check out its performance rating in relation to other CPUs. Many websites have databases of CPUs with performance scores and allow you to compare them with other models.
Hobbyist/entry-level: Intel i5-9400 or AMD r5 3400G
Bedroom production/home recording: Intel i5019600K or AMD Ryzen 5 3600
Professional: Intel i9-10900K or AMD Ryzen 5950X
Type and amount of RAM for music production
Despite everything I’ve said about the CPU being more crucial than RAM, I strongly suggest that you get as much quality RAM as you can afford.
Why? Having enough memory helps your computer run more smoothly and speeds up performance when dealing with many large audio files and multi-gigabyte sample libraries. The more RAM you have, the less burden on the hard drive and your computer in general.
The bare minimum you should work with is 8 GB. This should let you perform most recording and composing tasks with ease and allow you a decent number of audio tracks.
If you routinely work with long chunks of audio or large sample libraries, you might consider bumping that up to 16 GB. This is sufficient for more complex tasks, and you will definitely notice a performance improvement.
For really complex projects with several dozen audio tracks and massive, multi-gigabyte sample libraries, 32 GB to 64 GB is recommended. But keep in mind that this much RAM can be expensive and isn’t really necessary for most home recording studio setups.
Hobbyist/entry-level: 16 GB (2 x 8) DDR4 2400
Bedroom production/home recording: 32 GB (4 x 8) DDR4 3200
Professional: 64 GB (4 x 16) DDR4 3600
CPU vs. RAM: The bottom-line
Ultimately, having a high-performance CPU will always be more beneficial for music production than copious amounts of RAM. I always advise budding producers to get the most powerful processor they can afford and get as much RAM as the remaining budget allows.
Of course, if you go for the bare minimum amount of memory that your DAW needs, you will probably want to add more RAM later on. But I strongly suggest that you think about what you need the RAM for and how much you actually need so you aren’t throwing away money for no good reason.
Don’t even sweat the RAM speed. Any recent RAM chips should do regardless of speed. You probably won’t notice a difference anyway, so when you upgrade, go with the most RAM you can afford, even if it is the slower variety.
Enjoy your new build, and have a productive session!
1. How can I find out my CPU’s benchmark score?
Benchmark scores of most commercially-available CPUs are available from the following online test sites:
These sites have databases of CPU scores, so you can easily compare your CPU with others. You can also use Windows’ built-in performance test, accessible by pressing the Windows key + R.
2. Is there a benefit to installing as much RAM as my computer allows?
Although plenty of RAM is nice to have, there is no point going beyond what you need for your computer to run optimally. Beyond that point, you are simply spending money without getting any significant performance improvement. Remember: most audio tasks don’t require extreme amounts of RAM.
3. How much RAM is ideal for music production?
If you are a beginner or intermediate producer, 8 GB RAM should be enough for most tasks. If you find yourself frequently reaching the limits of your memory, you will notice a significant boost with 16 GB. For complex arrangements and orchestral work, 32 GB should be sufficient.
4. Do I need to consider RAM speed?
RAM speed has little to do with how well your DAW or computer performs in relation to music production work. Although higher speeds will increase the rate at which data is transferred between memory and the CPU, this is largely irrelevant to most music production tasks. If you have to choose between more slow RAM and less fast RAM, go with more RAM every time.
5. How can I tell I have enough RAM?
If you can load your biggest projects with all the audio files and sample libraries you need and not experience any lags or stutters, you probably have enough RAM in your system. Conversely, you may experience hanging or freezing if your RAM is insufficient. In more extreme cases, you may even experience blue screens and random reboots.