How much RAM do I need for music production?
A returning question I see on various music production groups every week is: ‘How much RAM do I need for music production?’. There is nothing wrong with this question, the problem is the answer that is given.
The advice: ‘get as much RAM as you have money for’ is given most of the time. And not only online, the stores keep selling you this advice too! So, there should be some truth in it, right? Of course, having lots of RAM doesn’t hurt you, but before you hand over your money to the store, let’s talk about the other side of the story.
Basic parts of a computer
There are various parts inside a computer system of which RAM is an important piece, but not the most important one. Many people may tell you otherwise but the most important part of a computer is actually the CPU. The Central Processing Unit is the brain of a computer that makes all calculations.
RAM, which stands for Random Access Memory, is used to store variables calculated by the CPU. The CPU drives all other parts of the system and no matter how much RAM you have, the CPU decides how fast calculations are done. So, the first thing you should look at when building your own computer is the CPU.
In my experience, Intel i7 processors are an absolute necessity for music production. You don’t need to spend more than $450, – as differences are marginal at higher price ranges. But don’t try to save money on your CPU because someone on the internet, who never put together his own computer, advises you to spend all your money on 128GB of RAM.
After you decided on which CPU to buy, you can look for a matching motherboard. Every few years new CPU designs are developed which all have their own socket design, so make sure you pick a motherboard that works with your CPU. The motherboard is what connects all the components of your computer together. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a motherboard, just figure out how much USB or Thunderbolt ports you need and what video connections you’d like to have.
Speaking of video, most motherboards come equipped with a graphics chip so an extra graphics card isn’t absolutely necessary for music production. But if you ever decide to connect 4 displays on a later date you can always fit the board with an extra graphics card.
As you know by now, the CPU and motherboard are tied together. Getting a new CPU probably means getting a new motherboard at the same time. With RAM this isn’t the case. Most motherboards come supplied with 4 RAM slots. RAM slots are set-up in pairs so for better performance make sure you buy 2 sticks of the same brand and size.
RAM is easy to install, just pop it in and you are all set. And if you think about it, you can start out by using only one pair of RAM cards. You don’t need to use all 4 slots immediately. One thing you should be careful about is to get the right sort of RAM. Most new motherboards probably use DDR4 RAM slots so make sure to buy this type of RAM or it won’t fit. Luckily RAM types aren’t developed as fast as CPU sockets so you will likely be set for a couple of years. And, if you are building a Windows pc or Hackintosh, make sure you get the 64-bit OS version or you’ll be stuck at 3GB of RAM.
Now to the real questions
So, how much RAM do I actually need? Well, it depends on your needs. If you are an electronic music producer that only uses software synthesizers, drum samples and loops, lots of RAM isn’t really necessary. Your DAW and a couple of software synths will probably not even use more than 3GB or 4GB of RAM.
But if you are building a new computer now, I would recommend getting 2x 8GB. This will give you plenty of headroom and also gives you the option to buy 2 more slots later on to increase your total memory to 32GB.
If, however, you compose music with samples libraries of real instruments, a tad more space is probably a requisite. Sampled instruments are made by recording each note of, let’s say a piano, at multiple velocities, with multiple microphone setups, and with different articulations. As these libraries are sometimes even recorded at a sample rate of 96KHz, memory suddenly becomes an important factor to take care of.
Some sample libraries are over 50GB in size, but only part of this is sent over to RAM. Each time you load a new preset, new information is sent over to memory. But even then, one piano library can easily use up to 4GB of RAM. And this is just one library!
Imagine if you want to make orchestral mockups that would require tens or hundreds of instances of sample libraries. This time, the danger of running out of RAM is getting real.
Now, you probably won’t be running out of RAM from one day to the next, so it’s good to know that you can always upgrade your memory anytime. By the time you are about to reach a limit, component prices have dropped dramatically so for the same price you get 8GB now you can probably get 16GB 4 years later.
A thing about storage
All the parts of a computer need to work together in harmony. So, if you get the fastest CPU in the world with the newest type of RAM but still use an old 5400 RPM hard disk drive, loading times will still suffer. Especially with large sample libraries, performance can increase drastically by using SSD’s or Solid-State Drives. They can run 10 times as fast than traditional drives and the newer PCI SSD’s can even run 25 times as fast.
The only drawback to these fast SSD’s is their price. If you got Native Instruments’ Komplete 11 Ultimate, for example, you’ll need at least 500 GB of storage room. You have to decide for yourself if these faster loading times are worth the cost.
One last thing
While I originally only wanted to write a little article about RAM, this article has gotten a bit longer. But to finish of the component list for building your own music production computer, there is one-part left.
As modern music production puts a lot of strain on your new CPU it is important to keep things cool. But you don’t want loud computer fans running in the background of your acoustic guitar or vocal recording. So, as a final tip, I recommend you’d get a CPU cooler tower made of a heatsink and two fans. The heatsink will dissipate most of the heat while, two fans run at a lower speed then just one and therefore reduce the ambient noise of your studio.
If you get a large cooler like this, make sure your motherboard is big enough to still fit the RAM cards and PCI devices like graphics cards and USB expansion cards as this is not always the case.