Those of us who do not have the luxury of large commercial spaces for our recording studios basically have two choices: We can make do with the space we have, or carry our recording equipment to where the “good spaces” are. While it is sometimes surprising just how much you can do in a spare bedroom, a garage, or a basement, there are some situations that simply won’t work in those spaces. There are also times when we need to go out and “capture” a live performance, or some other sound that simply cannot travel to us.
One very popular idea these days is to base a remote recording setup around a laptop computer. After all, a laptop is, by definition, small, light, and easily portable, and there are a number of small USB and Firewire audio interfaces that are made specifically for this kind of use. When I decided last year that I really needed a road rig, I thought about setting up a laptop-based system, but soon realized that I did not have the budget to make that work. This forced me to be more creative about the project, and along the way I discovered that, not only did I not NEED a laptop for road use, but I was actually better off without one.
As small and cute as laptop computers can be, they have some real disadvantages, especially if you want to do full multi-track recording. Let’s start with the “generic” differences.
First of all, for the same power and performance, laptop computers cost more than desktop machines. The need to keep things really light and compact means that a laptop has to be much more “customized” in its general construction than a desktop machine. Ever notice that there isn’t a big variety of generic empty laptop cases on the market? Since every laptop model is something of a proprietary box, there isn’t a lot of aftermarket competition brining the price of components down, and the makers of laptop computers know that they do not have to compete with the economies of the “do it yourself” market.
Next is the matter of upgrades and maintenance. Sooner or later, something in your computer will wear out or otherwise fail. Just about any replacement component needed for a desktop machine can usually be found in stock at a local retail store, and pricing on these parts is competitive. While it is possible to get spare parts for laptops, it is not nearly as easy or as cheap to do so as it is for a desktop machine. Also, when it comes to features and performance, with a laptop, you get what you started with, and that’s about it. If there is a part of a desktop machine that you wish was better, you can pretty readily buy a better replacement and, if you are OK with using simple tools and following directions, you can install it yourself.
Part of keeping things small enough for a laptop involves compromising the user interface. For example, if the display gets above a certain size the computer becomes a bit too big to keep on your lap, so you may be stuck with a display that is smaller than you want. The keyboard of a laptop computer usually does not have a separate number pad (my DAW software has special features that work primarily with the number pad), and the layout of some special function keys can be awkward compared to the standard 101 key desktop keyboard. If you like certain ergonomic features like those of the Microsoft Natural keyboard, you will NOT find them in a laptop. Then there is the matter of the pointing device. If you are lucky, your laptop has a trackball, but it will be really small and awkwardly placed. The touchpad used on many laptops can be a real pain for certain DAW control functions. There is, in fact, a very good chance that you will end up using an external mouse or trackball of some kind, which you would use just as easily with a desktop style machine.
In fact, in terms of actual use for a road recording rig, I can think of only one real advantage that a laptop has: with its built-in battery, if there is a brief power problem the computer will most likely not even notice it, much less crash. If security from that is especially important to you, it is not that difficult to bring along a UPS for your desktop machine.
Even if the cost of the computer itself is not an issue, the external sound interface required for multichannel recording with a laptop is more expensive than the internal PCI card equivalent that you would install in a desktop machine. The internal sound card in my DAW machine normally sells for about $600, while the nearest equivalent Firewire type of external box can go for double that amount. For the difference in price between the two devices, I could build another entire computer (except for the sound card). I have also seen reports that internal PCI interfaces are more stable, especially with multiple channels, than some of the Firewire devices.
A good desktop DAW does not need to be especially large and heavy. My latest DAW can easily be carried under one arm. I used a microATX motherboard that I installed in a cheap mini-tower case to keep it as small as possible while still having room for the sound and video cards I needed. Of course, I also have to carry around a keyboard, trackball, and a 19” flat panel display, but these fit into an old suitcase that I keep just for that purpose. I know of at least one person who uses a desktop machine for his road recording rig, partly because he prefers to work with dual monitors, and partly because it lets him handle 48 channels with a single computer.
Notice that I did not claim that a desktop setup is as small and light as a laptop computer. My computer and the accompanying suitcase are about 3 times the weight and 4 times the size, in terms of car space, as a laptop, but I find this difference is not nearly as great as you might think. In fact, if you consider the external equipment that you use, along with microphones, cables and stands, the size and weight of the computer is not all that big a deal. Switching to a laptop would actually do very little to ease the overall burden on my creaky knees, and the operational advantages (not to mention the cost savings) far outweigh the extra load going into and out of the gig.
If you are getting ready to set up a road recording rig, don’t be seduced by the laptop computer idea. It may seem sexy at first, but you will be a lot better off building a good small desktop DAW.