Which CPU is right for you?

A key component in any computer system, the CPU (Central Processing Unit) is where it all comes together. The CPU is responsible for getting the work done and when it comes to dealing with audio applications the CPU performance decides how many tracks of plug-in effects and VSTi’s you can work with inside of your projects.

A common question raised is often which metric is more important, single or multicore performance? Historically, the best advice for the smooth running of effect chains has often been to pay attention to the single core, but the advice is often given without the entire context as to why.

Most DAW software works by processing entire channels on the same core or processing thread. This means that not only will the audio or VSTi with all of the effects within a channel be processed together, but also often it proves most efficient to also process associated channels together. This means that grouped instances and side-chained tracks may all end up being processed together for efficiency, as it would simply generate too much latency by splitting and recombining the signal to be processed smoothly.

In any system the CPU’s base speed should be sufficient enough to handle any complex chain that you might require. Once you have that baseline established, the scope for performance turns to adding more cores and allowing you to process more channels at a time.

CPU performance tested

Over recent years, we have seen a rapid growth in the number of cores to be found within the available chips and this has proven a boon for anyone wishing to work with audio. Since AMD brought it’s high core count Ryzen range to market there has been a steady escalation in the number of cores as well as a downward trend in pricing from both firms, making now a great time to invest in a system upgrade.

Crucially, the majority of DAW firms appear to have kept up with this trend, with 32 core support being common and number of packages going even beyond that. This brings us to our key question, which CPU offers the best performance value.

We test here in Scan with the DAWBench suite, using Reaper and an RME Babyface as the basis for our testing platform. There are two versions of the test, with the first being the classic DSP test where we look to apply instances of the Shattered Glass Audio SGA 1566 tube mic preamp emulation, until the audio starts to overload and distort. Similarly, the second test is built around Kontact, with a large memory footprint and loading up instances of polyphony until it overloads.

On the DSP test, we see the Intel’s are putting in a strong performance amongst the lower end chips at the tightest buffer setting. Then as we relax the ASIO buffer, we see the AMD’s quickly make up ground as they adopt a more standard performance curve. With the higher end chips the AMD’s take a convincing, lead much as we would expect with both of those chips scoring well in more generalized CPU testing.

Switching over the Virtual Instrument test and the results are not so clear-cut. The Intel chips here fall behind AMD at the lowest buffer setting but then scale up better as we switch up the buffer rate. The 3950X makes a strong showing for its price point, although with more PCIe lane support for expansion possibilities and a higher maximum RAM ceiling the X299 feature set still makes the platform well suited for many scenarios.

Notable on both tests are the close results between the lower AMD chips, with the same core count and slightly raised clock rates on the 3800X it places both chips into a similar performance range. This is further narrowed by AMD’s turbo setup pushing both chips to a similar level, meaning that perhaps the bargain for anyone wanting a great value budget could be the 3700X.

The lower 10700K and 10900K Intel’s feature the fastest single core speeds in the testing and as such might prove attractive for anyone wishing to process audio in real-time where single core performance proves important. In comparison, the AMD’s look to offer more performance spread over their cores and would lean more towards in the box production and mixing at the relevant price points.

With the higher end chips see AMD with a price advantage and again looking great for mixing work or anyone looking to do sound design in the box and more complex electronic music production. With the higher end Intel chips, they find themselves with the more mature platform featuring a higher allocation of PCIe lanes to support extra features including additional M.2 storage and a total memory usage of 256GB. With the strong showing in the VI testing, this would suggest that these would remain a solid choice for composers and anyone working with larger sound libraries or scoring and editing to film.

There is no denying that all of the chips we have looked at are a sizable step up from even a few years ago, offering some superb upgrade paths for the modern day power user. We are constantly testing the latest hardware in Scan and if you have any further questions on how pick your perfect studio P.C. please do contact to discuss any questions you may have.

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