What is the best CPU for music production in 2020?

What is the best CPU for music production in 2020? play video
Written by: Dexxter Clark
The short answer: an Intel i7 processor of the latest generation. But how about AMD? is it good for music production? 
Why is a good CPU so important for music production? In this article I’ll explain. 

This article is written from the perspective:  if you have solid basis of information, you can apply it to next year and three years after that. 
For the lazy reader: I have put my short answer above.
For the more educated answer, read along.

Where I’m coming from

I started programming computers when I was 10 years old.
When I studied computer programming for a degree in software engineering (which I have b.t.w.) 
I worked at the local computer store and built computers. 
Over the years I’ve developed a good feeling of how computers work and how we need to interact with them to get the quickest results (this is what the job of a computer programmer is all about).
A feeling that a lot of people lack and rather shout A instead of B out of ignorance instead of thinking why B might be the better option. 


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Why the CPU is so important for music production

When it comes to music production, the CPU is the defining component.
Choosing the right CPU is the difference between quadruple (or not) your time spend on making a song.
Tasks like generating synthesiser sounds and effects (reverb, echo etc) are very heavy tasks for a processor.
These sounds need to be generated in real time when you press play, in contrast to listening to Spotify for example where all the music is pre rendered. 
You can render out your song to save CPU power, but that process can take a couple of minutes.

That couple of minutes is enough to rip you out of your creative flow.
The problem with rendered audio is, that it is fixed and you can’t change anything.
If you want to change one note or tweak the amount of reverb, you have to render out the whole track again, which (again) takes up a couple of minutes.
In order to keep working quick and not render out every time you make a change, you need a fast CPU, so you can render in real time.
You might think that video editing is heavy on the CPU and music production not-so-much.

But this assumption is wrong.
Where in video production it is not a problem to scale down resolution and loose frames in order to render a quick preview, this is a problem on the music production side.
Both solutions drop frames when the CPU can’t keep up, but a frame lost in a video production is just a frame lost and we humans can stitch the end result in our brain together.

In music production a frame lost means a loud pop in the sound, which distracts from the overall sound image.
You simply can’t hear what is going on.
In other words: a frame lost is no go for music production. 


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Can you use an older CPU for music production?

Oh yes.
I can make music on my ten year old Mac without a problem.
Is it fast? absolutely not! Do I loose a lot of precious time waiting on my computer to render? You bet!
If your CPU isn’t optimal for music production doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work.
It’s not a black and white statement. You can assume that every computer from the last decade has the power to produce music with.
If you want to know if your computer is powerful enough, install a free DAW and see for yourself.
More information on free DAWs, you can find here.

What is the best CPU for music production? AMD or Intel in 2020?

For years Intel was ahead of the game and left the competition far behind in terms of compatibility and sheer sales volume.
AMD popped up here and there with processors that were slightly cheaper and slightly quicker.
That didn’t make a dent in Intel’s sales however.

But a lot has changed over the years however.
A couple of years ago AMD started making processors that were more compatible with Intel’s counterparts, significantly cheaper and significantly faster.
AMD adapted the 7nm production process to make CPU’s smaller and less power consuming.
While the whole industry already shifted to this new manufacturing process, industry leader Intel had a hard time to keep up.
Together with the speed and price advantages of AMD, this became embarrassing for Intel.


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Back to processors for music production: What is better: Intel or AMD?
The safe bet is Intel, because it simply works, but might be more power hungry and less powerful.
The less safe bet is AMD, because the compatibility rumors keep hunting AMD’s image.
I heard that some DAW plugins won’t work with AMD processors and also some MIDI keyboards have issues with AMD processors.
I tried to pinpoint which keyboards and plugins by asking music producers, but apparently no one can give a conclusive answer. 
Is it an unfounded rumor?
I can’t tell you. If you have more information I’d love to know.

Realize that AMD cpus are made compatible with a standard that intel set (called the X86 instruction set).
Intel dictates this instruction set.
This instruction set is huge and the book that describes this instruction set is hundreds of pages long.

Computer programs expect that Intel standard and instruct the CPU accordingly.
AMD follows that standard and tries to mimic the results that an Intel processor produces.
Because the behavior to commands is critical for programs, a slight deviation might result in an unexpected result, which we call: a bug.
Programs are simply made for Intel processors not AMD.
The Intels are the originals, the AMDs the compatibles.

What is a AMD "problem", is the support for thunderbolt, because it is technology developed by Intel.
This means that it isn’t available by default on AMD supported motherboards.
An expansion card could fix the problem.


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Backdoors in processors

I can’t talk about processors without talking about the backdoors in processors.
In 2018 and 2019 a slew problems came to light because of built-in backdoors in Intel processors.

Are you more safe with AMD processors than Intel?
Yes and no.
Yes, because not all backdoor exploits used are not transferrable to AMD
No, because a handful of backdoor are transferrable to AMD and on top of that, AMD has its own back doors built in processors.
The backdoors in Intel processors are more effective exploits, because of the sheer amount of processors sold over the last decade.

The reason why these exploits are such a huge problem is because they don’t require your operating system (Windows or MacOS) to run certain programs, they only require the processor and can’t really be fixed by a software update.
It enables the attacker to listen to all your keystrokes for example to sniff your credit card number when you want to use your favorite adult site, even if your information is sent via a secure internet connection.
Just be careful with which software you install, which attachment you click in your email or which website you visit.

I’m not telling you this to scare you, but to make you more aware of the fact that these problems exist and that you should buy a recent processor.

The generation of processor counts


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Newer versions of processors are called a “generation".
Each generation tends to be quicker than the previous one, but also safer.
Because of the security issues over the last years, the more recent processors have fixed more security problems. If you want a computer for music production, choose the most recent generation of processor, because it’s the faster and safer.

Product numbers on Intel processors

You can read the generation of processor in the type number.
For example: a 9600K is a ninth generation processor, because the the number starts with 9.
A 7800K processor is a seventh generation processor, because it starts with the number 7.

If you are in doubt, go to https://ark.intel.com and type in the processor type number in the search bar.

What is the difference between the pentium, Xeon, i3, i7, i9?

I wish that they made this more simpler, Intel made it complicated for no reason. 
Back in the 2000’s we had two types of processors: the Pentium 4 and the Celeron.
The Pentium was the powerful processor and the Celeron was the weaker processor.
The the era of multi core processors came along and intel went processor type-number-crazy.

I’ll try to make it easy by listing them on order of processing power, starting with the lowest:
  • Celeron: too slow for music, don’t bother
  • Pentium: too slow for music, don’t bother
  • i3: slow, but works
  • i5: ok, not optimal
  • i7: optimal price/performance ratio: my recommendation
  • Xeon: good, but expensive
  • i9: good but expensive

The difference between the i7 and Xeon


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The Xeon and the i7 processor are the same processors with a few key differences.

The i7 is meant for home computers, the Xeon for servers.
For that reason there are few differences:
  • The i7 has a built in simple graphics card (enough for music production), the Xeon does not and needs a separate one.
  • The Xeon has models with more cache memory which makes them a bit quicker for repeated tasks. The speed improvement compared to the price is hardly worth the extra money.
  • The Xeon supports ECC (error checking memory) that you don’t need for your home computer, regular memory is just fine.
  • The Xeon supports the possibility to add more Xeon processors if the motherboard supports it. The i7 does not.
Don’t get me wrong, the Xeon processors aren’t bad for music production.
But their performance increase (if at all) is not worth the price increase over the i7. 

How many CPU cores do you need for music production?

As many as possible, but of course there is a limit.
Two cores is a soft minimum requirement.

When we look at the site of Ableton Live, they talk about a dual core processor as minimum requirement.
Also Presonus recommends a dual core processor for Studio One.
Steinberg (Cubase) talks about a multicore processor as a minimum requirement, but doesn’t specify exactly how many cores.

From my experience, two cores works but is bit on the low side.

I would opt for at least four cores, but if you have the financial resources, choose 6 or 8 cores.


16 cores is a better option if you want to be future proof.
But right now, the price difference is hardly worth the performance increase.


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Single core performance vs more processor cores

“Single core performance is more important than more cores!”
Myth!

But like with all myths, there is some truth to the matter.
The myth started when dual core processors first came to market around 2006.
Back then, not much software was optimized to take advantage of multiple cores.
Back then, this was absolutely true.
But we now live in 2020, software manufacturers have caught up.

Single core performance is important to process one audio stream (a track or bus with all plugins).
But there is so much more going on in a DAW than processing just one audio stream (DAW software is very complicated software).
All DAW tasks combined do take advantage of more cores.
Using more cores frees up processing power for other cores to process that one stream of audio.

Compared to other software you can’t take as much advantage of the processing power of more cores.
Because processes have to wait on each other to complete (the output of plugin A feeds into the input of plugin B, the output of plugin B into C etc.) we can’t do as much multi tasking as we would like to.
Other software (take video editing for example) you can speed up drastically by just increasing cores.
With current technology we have a limit on how much cores are beneficial to speed up our music production.


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So, it’s not a versus approach.
You need multiple cores with a lot of single core performance to get the maximum performance out of your CPU.
To say that one is more important than the other is just false.

Image Line (FL Studio) says something along the same line on their website.

How many GHZ is good for music production?

2 GHZ and above.

Don’t fall for the marketing term Turbo Boost.

This technology boosts your clock frequency for a small amount of time.

That is perfect for opening a website or checking your email.

But when it comes to delivering a constant performance (like in music production), you may consider yourself lucky if you hit even the advertised clock speed of your processor.

When I say 2 GHZ, that doesn’t mean that a 1.8 GHZ processor won’t work (it does).
To be honest, a speed difference of 0.2 GHZ isn’t really noticeable.
As stated, the amount of cores is more important than the amount of GHZ.


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The future? ARM processors!

The rise of the ARM processors might make an end to the whole Intel vs AMD discussion. There is a new processor on the verge of breaking through, the ARM processor. 
Yes, those are the processors you have in your mobile phone.
The first notebooks have launched, Windows is ARM ready, Apple is rumoured to be in the process of switching.
I will explain my future predictions of ARM processors in this article.


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photo author dexxter clark
Dexxter Clark
Music Producer / YouTuber

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