Flavio Buonerba wrote into the Pro Tools Expert podcast, telling us all about his incredible self-build cross-platform Pro Tools host computer. Flavio gave so much detail and great tips, that we decided that it would best serve the community to publish his experience in full detail, for everyone to enjoy and learn from. So, over to you Flavio!
My Self-Build Experience
I've been following the stories about replacing someone's current machine and I've been listening to all the different opinions with much interest. I wanted to share my own experience. In early 2016 I started to think about replacing my mid-2012 MacBook Pro as it wasn't cutting it anymore and I wanted to exclusively use that machine for location recording purposes.
My requirements were that I mix almost exclusively in the box and I needed power. Buying a maxed out iMac or a Mac Pro was out of my price range and I didn't particularly like the hardware they have for the price. Furthermore, as you discussed several times, those 2 models have certain limitations and I wanted something more versatile and modular in terms of ports and PCIe slots. I decided to build my own tower with everything I needed and, since I wanted a specific OS, I went the "H" route.
Do Your Research
Since I don't like to waste money I spent about 3 months reading a ton of articles and forum posts, looking for the exact components I would need for my build. I collected all the useful material in a folder so I could access it quickly when needed. I'm extremely happy with the end result. I admit I was very nervous but the entire process was easier than I expected given the amount of research I did. I'm not a genius but I believe with the right amount of preparation anyone can do it.
It wasn't obviously a walk in the park. It took about 2 days to get it up and running and about another week to install everything. I admit there were moments of intense swearing but part of it was for pure pleasure rather than real frustration. I love building things, I used to love Lego and now I just play with a different kind of toy. I admit that my build is somewhat an overkill one as its main specs are:
Asus X99 Deluxe II motherboard (New)
Intel i7 6950X Processor (New)
EVGA GeForce GTX 980Ti Hybrid (Used)
Fractal Design Define R5 case (Used)
Sonnet Allegro FW800 Card (Used) for legacy external drives and my previous audio interface.
Asus Thunderbolt EXII/Dual (Used) - This was a real gamble as in theory it’s not supported by my MOBO but it works, just ask my UAD Apollo 8.
Corsair H115i cooler (New)
Corsair HX1000i power supply (New)
Samsung 950 Pro 512GB MacOS and apps M2 system drive (New)
2 x Crucial MX300 1050GB SSDs as Media Drive and Sample Libraries Drive (New)
Crucial MX300 525GB SSD for Windows (New)
8 x 16GB Modules of Crucial Ballistix DDR4 RAM (New)
Other WD drives previously owned
USB 3 and 3.1 (3.1 not enabled until I decide to install High Sierra)
I still have 2 PCIe slots free but in case you fancy building this yourself, be aware of the PCI lanes speed and possible PCI bus conflicts.
My build smokes a current high specs Mac Pro for less than a third of the price, as these benchmark scores show...
I got a poorer CPU Geekbench 4 score on Windows than on OSX. I don’t know the reason why but honestly it makes me quite happy. Instead, the GPU score is higher on Windows, which was expected because of the drivers for NVidia being better on Windows. The machine is quiet enough to have right next to my work area. This is the noise level at one meter -
Don't Forget Your Backup Strategy
This may seem like overkill to some readers, but as this is my main work machine, I like to have multiple fail-safes in place -
1 clone drive of the latest working version of my preferred OS drive. Every time I install something I check that it works and if it doesn't create issues for a week, then I clone the drive, otherwise, I revert to the latest working version. This drive has also a bootable clone of the EFI.
1 USB stick with only a bootable clone of the latest working EFI.
Time Machine backups of everything
Manual backup of work and important documents However if all of this fails during a session I can just boot in Windows and carry on working within 2 minutes.
Luckily it never happened so far but I'm touching wood while I write this. I'd strongly suggest to anyone that is building or buying a new computer to set several fail-safes in place. Especially people who would want to chose a configuration that is not officially supported. You're spending quite a bit of money for a new machine, so there's no reason to avoid grabbing a licence to Windows 10 (especially since you can find them quite cheaply). This is my fail-safe OS. Furthermore, you'll need Windows to enable the Thunderbolt cards and if you buy certain models of coolers you can use clever bits of software to optimise the fan speed curve to be as efficient as possible for your needs.
Careful With That "Upgrade" Button
On a normal computer bought off a vendor, I wouldn't update the OS straight away but I'd wait about 3 months after release. On this machine, since it's not officially supported, I wait about 6 months or until the huge community of users manage to fix most issues
There is seriously very little loss of functionality from the latest release and you'll sleep better. My main aim is stability. My machine works great. It flies through everything I can throw it and it's very stable (Only massive post-production sessions can slow it down). And that's because of the amount of research I did and the fail-safes I put in place.
Other Suggestions For Self Builders
Check the price of components on pricespy.co.uk. You'll save a lot of money
Don't build your machine straight after the Brexit referendum
Don't buy everything new. You can save a lot of money by buying used things like the case, the power supply, the GPU (there are a lot of gamers selling amazing GPUs at a decent price) and some less important PCIe cards (I got my FireWire card for £6)
Don't try to rewrite the laws of physics. Gravity and fluid dynamic laws always win. If your design has fans on the top, have them extract the air from the machine. It will work in conjunction with the hot air going upwards and you'll have the benefit of having way less dust settling on top.
Having a real Mac available helps during the process of preparing the Installation USB sticks and troubleshooting if needed
A very useful feature of Macs is the screen sharing feature, it’s great for troubleshooting. It’s good practice to enable it as soon as the OS is installed and running. If you’re having troubles, like the infamous Black Screen issue, it’s possible to fix it in minutes by screen sharing the hack onto a real Mac to see what you are doing.
Another very helpful tip is booting up the machine in verbose mode until you are sure everything is right. If something is wrong with the PCIe devices it will show.
The most useful page in my research was this one on TonyMacX86
As I said I'm definitely not a genius, I just did my due diligence before spending money. I bet most of you do the same when buying monitors and/or hardware in general. I'll be more than happy to continue the conversation if you have any follow up question. Thank you, Pro Tools Expert for being awesome!
Let Us Know What You Think
Well Flavio, we think you've been particularly awesome in undertaking this build and sharing all the details and tips with the community.
Have you undertaken a self-build? What do you think of Flavio's rig? Let us know in the comments section below.