A key component in any computer system, the CPU (Central Processing Unit) is where it all comes together. The CPU is the brain of the system where all the data is collected and processed to carry out whatever task you wish the computer to perform. When it comes to dealing with audio applications CPU speed dictates how much performance overhead you have available and as such just how many tracks of plug in effects and VST is you can work with inside of the project.
The PC processer market is strongly dominated by Intel, which leads the way with high performance solutions, AMD by comparison offer a number of strong CPU options at the low and mid-range segments for the consumer marketplace. These can be cost effective if a budget is tight and requirements are low, such as systems designed for basic tracking and editing duties, they don’t match up in the performance stakes for users working with CPU intensive plugins inside of the box.
When considering CPUs you’ll quickly observe that they are advertised with core counts and clock speeds being the key concern of the specification. For a lot of users this can be confusing as the clock speeds don’t appear to have advanced much over the last few years, and it’s entirely possible that your looking to replace a 2.8 GHz Core i7 CPU and the system you might be looking at now might also appear to have a 2.8 GHz Core i7, so what exactly is going on here?
Every year to 18 months Intel aims to either refresh or refine its processor range, working on a “Tick-Tock” model with each of those "ticks" represents a shrinking of the process technology of the previous microarchitecture and every "tock" that designates a new architecture, meaning a complete cycle can take almost 2-3 years. During the refresh part of the process, we often see new supporting chipsets introduced which themselves can offer a leap in performance and features, so gauging CPUs of cores and clocks can be rather misleading if we don’t understand what’s going on in the background.
In comparison AMD advertises CPUs with larger core counts at far lower price points, so on paper at least these can look tempting and in some segments such as gaming they can prove to be quite effective for certain tasks, although for audio applications we haven’t seen those sort performance levels. One key issue for example is AMD’s 8 core processors, whilst they have 8 processing cores they are sharing 4 FPUs (floating point units) between those 8 cores and this causes a real-time bottleneck for the sort of applications we run in the studio, where effects like delays and reverbs rely upon a lot of real-time maths to get things done.
There is an argument here that this should be no different to Intel’s HyperThreading technology, which enables a CPU to process more than one thread simultaneously. However, superior software optimisation means that audio applications tend to favour Intel's approach to virtual multithreading.
32 (buffer setting)
64 (buffer setting)
128 (buffer setting)
256 (buffer setting)
Intel i7 6950X @ 4.0GHz
2x Intel E5 2670 v3 @ 2.3GHz
Intel i7 6700K @ 4.4GHz
Intel i5 4690 @ 3.9GHz
Intel i7 6950X @ 3.0GHz
Intel i7 5960K @ 3.5GHz
Intel i7 4790K @ 4.4GHz
Intel i7 4710MQ @ 2.5GHz
Intel i7 6900K @ 4.1GHz
2x Intel E5 2620 v3 @ 2.4GHz
Intel i7 3770K @ 4.3GHz
Intel i7 2600K @ 3.8GHz
Intel i7 6900K @ 3.2GHz
Intel i7 6800K @ 3.4GHz
Intel i7 6700K @ 4.0GHz
Intel i5 6600K @ 4.4GHz
Intel i7 5960X @ 4.1GHz
Intel i7 5820K @ 4.2GHz
Intel i7 6700TE @ 2.4GHz
AMD FX9590 @ 4.7GHz
Intel i7 6800K @ 4.2GHz
Intel i7 5820K @ 3.6GHz
Intel i5 6600K @ 3.9GHz
Intel i7 930 @ 2.8GHz
When comparing processors the are a couple of ways to benchmark CPUs that can help us establish how much performance may be gained by going for an upgrade. The most commonly referenced comparison page is https://www.cpubenchmark.net/ which allows you to compare results obtained via the Passmark Performance test suite that help show how your current CPU might compare up against the latest and greatest and indicate how much of an improvement you may see through going for that upgrade.
The DAWBench test found at http://dawbench.com/ is another useful benchmark and is specifically made for audio production. Scan uses this benchmark to show how CPU performance increases from generation to generation. The DAWBench test is designed around stacking multiple instances of a compressor plugin, until such a point as the CPU runs out of processor overhead and the audio starting to breakup in playback. A simple test, but one that lets us work to a baseline and generate a result that helps us quantify any improvements.
To keep the testing environment fair and even, we use the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 USB interface in all testing. Through our own in house testing we’ve established that this is a great performing solution for the price and in easy reach for new users wanting to make music. Whilst more expensive interfaces may offer better performance the important point in testing is to ensure we have a stable baseline and users of higher grade interfaces may find themselves receiving suitably scaled up performance at each of these buffer settings.
Taking a look at the graphs above the first thing to note if we’re working from the bottom upwards we see the inclusion of 'U' series CPUs. These ultra-low power CPUs are designed for thin and light laptops and mini PCs such as the Intel NUC. The Core i3 4010U is a very popular CPU in this market, with this type of chip itself being aimed squarely at the office & recreational user on the go, making it perfect for doing some word processing or watching a movie, although leaving it rather lacking in raw processing capability for those wishing to produce on the go. It does however stand up to for putting together a multi-track and basic editing before saving type of setup if you require something for multi-tracking on the go with a little more capability than a more basic multi-track hard disk recorder.
Also included is the Core i7 4710MQ, a quad-core high-end laptop CPU and one of the most common chips found in laptops around the £1000 mark. Whilst it has a few more CPUs above it in the range, they have only marginal clock speed jumps and the price does raise up quite rapidly as you progress through the models meaning that the 4710MQ offers the great bang per buck and so offers a decent performance level out on the road for when you need to take your studio with you.
You'll also find several historical CPUs included in the chart. Although these are no longer manufactured, you can use these results to compare the performance of your existing workstation with current processors.
For instance, there is the Core i7 930 which was one of the more popular CPUs from the 2010 and one a lot of people are possibly quite familiar in studio use as it did represent a sizable leap in performance on its launch over the older Core series of CPUs. As such it is included as a good benchmark to see how the performance has improved over the last few years of processor advancement. Also included for historical comparisons is the Core i7 2600K which was the top of the range Sandy Bridge CPU in 2011. The graph also includes results for the Core i7 3700K, which was the top of the range Ivy Bridge CPU in 2012.
The only two AMD CPUs included in the graphs are from the company's high-end FX-series. Historically over the past few years AMD has been falling behind Intel in the performance stakes when it comes audio applications and whilst the current CPU’s look to offer reasonable bang for buck, their high power draw makes them less than ideal for cooling quietly which remains a large concern for most recording environments.
Coming back to the more current solutions both the Core i3 and Core i5 ranges from Intel have always been aimed more at the office and general purpose machine market with the Core i5 being the CPU of choice in the gaming market where GPU performance is often prized over raw CPU processing power.
The Core i3 4370 on the chart comes in cheaper than the AMD options and while running cooler doesn't give very good bang per buck for audio users. The Core i5 4690 comes in around the same price point as the AMD processors listed and once again it slightly under performs the AMD chip options but runs far cooler and quieter overall trading off a small bit of performance for being a more suitable package overall where noise levels are a crucial consideration.
This takes us up to the most popular options for the home studio segment in the shape of the Core i7 series. The Core i7 4790S edition is a special low pow model that is a popular choice for passively cooled workstations as makes for a much quieter workstation. The performance hit is minimal as it is still capable of running at its 4 GHz turbo clock speed in a well designed workstation. Its big brother the fully unlocked Core i7 4790K CPU also runs well at its 4.4 GHz on all cores turbo clock setting and can be pushed further with a bit of careful tweaking of the voltages, making it the best bang per buck overall.
Above the mid-range we move on to what is commonly regarded as the enthusiast segment and one which we find prove popular in studio installs where the extra processing performance and memory capabilities can be made very good use of.
These Core i7 Enthusiast CPUs use the Intel X99 chipset, which has double the memory bandwidth of the other Intel chipsets, making them the ideal platform for film and TV scoring work or any other type of work that relies on larger sound banks and higher quality audio libraries.
The three current chips in this segment are the Core i7 5820K, 5930K and 5690X. The first of those two are 6 core (with HyperThreading) solutions with little to differentiate between them other than an increase in PCI-E lane support when stepping up to the 5930K. Whilst critical for high bandwidth video processing and gaming the lack of PCI-E bandwidth doesn’t tend to impact audio users and both CPUs overclock to similar levels, making the 5820K a respectable choice when putting together a 6 core setup.
The top of the range 8-core Core i7 5960X tops our chart with an astounding set of results especially if you choose to overclock it. The price of this CPU scales along with the performance level up from the mid-range choices, but for those users pushing the limits processing wise, it still offers a great performance to cost ratio over the next bracket up which are systems based around Xeon CPUs.
Xeon CPUs are designed for the server and workstation markets and so provide huge memory bandwidth, memory capacity, superior reliability and more CPU cores than the consumer platforms. Whilst popular in the past the cost and limited benefits of the current Xeon platform and indeed sheer power offered by the Core i7 Enthusiast CPUs have made Xeons less popular overall.
The downsides of this platform is the lack of overclocking support and the reliance of using the more expensive ECC registered memory, although the trade-off there is that if you absolutely require lots of memory there really is no other platform more suitable for memory intensive work such as VSL, as the registered memory standard allows you to use more high capacity sticks on these server boards that are already flush with far more memory slots than their smaller desktop siblings.
Unfortunately along with the lack of overclocking, Xeons will have a bigger impact on your budget than their more consumer oriented versions, meaning that you have to spend a lot more on server grade motherboard and memory sticks themselves in order to match performance wise what can be done with the 6 and 8-core Core i7 Enthusiast CPUs mentioned previously. On the other hand lately we’ve starting to see 14 & 16 core solutions come through and given that a pair of those can be placed in the system with the aforementioned large amounts of RAM, users of packages who do need as much performance as possible as least have this option to consider.
So having gone through all the technical info, now for a quick summary and conclusion. If you’re doing most of your work outside of the box, working with instruments and perhaps only recording small to medium sized bands with the minimum of post processing, the Intel Core i5 range of CPUs your best choice.
If you’re recording and doing more heavyweight processing, perhaps alongside some in the box sound design using modern high performance plug in and larger track counts in the 20 - 30 channel region, the Intel Core i7 models found at the top of the such as the 6700K is where you should be looking. These CPU can also be perfect if you’re working entirely in the box although some heavier synths such as DIVA or Serum, may require you to occasionally bounce down to conserve CPU on some particular intensive patches.
The Intel Core i7 Enthusiast models such as the 5820K are perfect for intensive in the box work and can handle large track counts where CPU intensive synths and effects are being stacked on in real time. The top-end 5960X offers more power than most users will need, although users of packages such as Vienna Sound Library where track counts can run in the hundreds of channels with real time processing, are likely to be the type of user who can really benefit from the processing overhead available with this CPU.
Whatever your choice, do remember that with each sequencer update and new plugin performance requirements will grow over time, so do remember to allow a bit of overhead to ensure you can keep running the latest and greatest tools for many years to come.