It seems that my series of articles on Windows machines has inspired a lot of our readers to have a go at building their own Windows based Pro Tools computer systems.
Firstly, hats off to you all - this isn't a procedure to take lightly, and mistakes early on in the process can lose you a lot of time and money. So with that in mind, here are my top tips for building your own Windows Pro Tools machine.
There are five major parts that are worth spending as much money on as you can -
1. Power Supply
There's no point having a great processor and a storming graphics card if they can't access those all important volts reliably when they need to. I would go for at least a 600w rated unit, and try to get one with a modular power cable system, so you can be sure of having enough power outlets for any GPU or PCIe card that might need it. Bear in mind that good graphics cards often need extra power supply.
It is worth getting the very latest motherboard you can. If you get a 8 core supporting motherboard but can only afford a quad core, the door is still open for you to upgrade at a future point. You could double your processor power without having to replace the whole system. Also keep an eye on support for Thunderbolt 2, 3 and USB 3.1. Asus are a brand I would recommend, as they keep up with latest developments but have a good range of price points, with good upgrade paths. For instance I bought the X99-A, which required an extra board to support Thunderbolt. Had I bought a more expensive X99 it would have been built in. Make sure it supports the latest revision of RAM handling (the DDR revision). This will cost you more for RAM in the short term, but make the system more future proof.
Again, best you can afford. At least an i7 Quad Core. I have had mixed results with Pro Tools and AMD processors. Different revisions of the i7 processors have varying reputations for reliability. You can find out the latest opinions on these by searching online, but as with anything, it's important to read between the lines of anything you might hear about one revision or the other. Also get the best cooling you can for your processor.
The very minimum is 8GB, but for a good Pro Tools experience I would strongly recommend at least 16GB. Be sure it is matched to your motherboard, and always try to use even numbers of matched RAM chips, with equal capacity, to maximise the motherboard's dual or quad channel features.
Get the best you can afford. Something like a NVidia GTX650 or higher. The Pro Tools GUI is fairly graphics intensive in itself, even more so if you have several plug-in windows open, so it's important your GPU has enough grunt to handle this without needing to rob processor cycles and RAM from the main system.
A Clean Slate
Once you've assembled your new system, go online with another computer and go to your new motherboard manufacturer's website and download all the latest chipset and motherboard drivers for your model, to a USB stick.
This is very important - on the latest motherboards, the Windows installer understandably does not include drivers for the latest devices, including things like ethernet drivers - essential if you want to get your new system online. By downloading all the essential drivers to a USB stick, you can easily install them as soon as your Windows installation finishes.
Buy A New SSD System Drive
SSD drive prices are at an all time low. They can completely transform a system. You shouldn't need one larger than 256GB, but if you do, just today I saw an offer of a 500GB SSD for £80.
If you are installing Windows 8 or higher, go into your motherboard BIOS menu and switch the SATA interface to AHCI mode. This gives much faster performance with SSD drives. On the old IDE setting, my Samsung 850EVO was performing at around 200MBs. With AHCI enabled, it jumped to 520MBs. Think how much faster Windows will be when it can access data twice as fast.
Always start with a clean OS install. I have never heard a happy ending from someone "upgrading" their OS with existing software installed. Make a clean start. If you don't have a clean install disc and licence for the operating system you want to install, OEM and full versions can easily be purchased online. It's a worthwhile investment which will save you a lot of time and agro in the future.
Recently I installed Windows 10 Pro from scratch, using an ISO image downloaded from Microsoft, and a licence key purchased online. It took me less than two hours to go from blank SSD to working Pro Tools system. It has been rock solid so far. However, I tried upgrading an existing Windows 7 install to Windows 10 using the Microsoft tool, and it took sixteen hours just to upgrade. It's still not right. Now that my licence key has been updated to a Windows 10 key, through the process of the upgrade, I might well reinstall from scratch using the ISO image I downloaded.
It Starts With A K.I.S.S
Both when building the hardware, and installing your software, one principle should remain at the fore of your mind. "Keep It Simple, Stupid". In fact this principle applies to audio engineering in general.
Keep in mind what the primary use of your system will be. If it's your main audio PC, don't go installing lots of games, or webcams. Only install software that you need, and make sure your system is free of bloatware.
Another factor is the order in which you install certain drivers and software. For instance, make sure you have the latest drivers for your audio interface installed, and working, before installing Pro Tools. The same applies for your graphics card.
There can be unexpected twists though - with BlackMagic cards, you have to install the drivers after installing Pro Tools, or the BM installers don't install the necessary Pro Tools specific components if they don't see an existing Pro Tools installation.
Phone A Friend
My last, and probably top tip, would be to seek out a good IT retailer, who understands what you are trying to achieve, and your budget. I have had very good results in the UK with YoyoTech and Scan Computers. Both of them understand the specific needs of audio PCs, and are good at helping make that fit your budget.
Seek out someone who has done the same. Take a look at the DUC - there is a thread hundreds of posts long there about i7 builds.
There's probably a little too much information out there, but as long as you use common sense, there's a whole world of good value for money, reliable Pro Tools fun to be had out there. Enjoy!