Tech Tip:The Latest Laptops - You Can Take Your Studio With You
Why don't we do it on the road?
By Craig Anderton
Musicians have been using laptops for portable music-making for years, but there was always the tacit understanding that they couldn't do what hot desktops could do. Often optimized for battery power, the processors were a bit slower, hard drives didn't spin as fast and had less capacity, and any onboard audio had little to do with high fidelity.
But now you don't have to go through withdrawal when you're away from your studio: laptop computers have evolved into serious music-making tools. Dual-core machines are becoming commonplace, and if you're willing to spend a bit more, you can outfit your machine with a 100GB hard drive that spins at 7,200 RPM (most laptop hard drives spin at 5,400 RPM, which limits the number of tracks you can stream from it). For audio, USB and FireWire ports allow adding high-quality external audio interfaces, such as those made by MOTU, PreSonus, Yamaha, Echo, and many others. Furthermore, some interfaces (like the Echo Indigo and E-MU 1616) insert in the computer's card slot, which ties in more closely with the "guts" of the system than an external interface.
Not only can the latest generation of laptops operate as studios unto themselves, they make perfect "satellites" for your main studio—and offer enough power for most types of remote recording, editing, and composing projects.
MAC OR WINDOWS?
Although hardcore partisans would likely disagree, I think it really doesn't matter. Many applications are cross-platform, and for those that aren't, roughly equivalent programs exist on both platforms. Mac laptops are great for audio and video; even an older G4-based laptop will let you record/play back plenty of tracks, and the newer Intel-based MacBooks not only run Mac programs but can boot up in Windows as well. While PowerBooks used to be much more expensive than Windows equivalents, the price differential continues to narrow.
Windows notebooks are now available in more media-savvy versions, and some companies (such as ADK, Rain Recording, Digital Audio Wave, Alienware, and others) make laptops designed specifically for audio. But even a standard laptop designed for business will usually do a decent job with multimedia.
THE SOFTWARE BLUES
A thornier issue is copy-protected software. If you're miles from home and need to insert a CD periodically for authorization, you better hope you remembered to bring the CD with you. Most software license agreements prohibit running programs on multiple machines; applications that tie protection into running on a specific hardware configuration are especially problematic, because you can't easily uninstall/reinstall every time you want to move from desktop to laptop.
There are a few workarounds. Most companies don't have a problem with installing a program on both a desktop and laptop, because if you're using only one machine at a time, it doesn't violate the spirit of an "only one machine" license. Sometimes you can call the software company, explain your situation, and get another install as long as you're a legit user. Companies generally don't want to upset paying customers; they just want to discourage the ones who aren't.
Dongles may or may not be a good solution. Those who use several programs with iLok or Syncrosoft copy protection can stick all their authorizations on one dongle, bring their distribution media with them, and install wherever they like—desktop, laptop, or even when guesting at another studio. Multiple dongles are harder to manage; adding a USB hub reduces portability. In any event, if you use USB dongles, buy a USB extension cable so the dongle doesn't plug directly into your machine. It's way too easy for a dongle to break off when you're on the road.
If you're into serious multitracking, make sure there are at least USB 2.0 or Firewire ports so you can add a fast external drive if necessary. Granted, it will take you a long time to fill up a 100GB drive. But if nothing else, an external drive allows for easy backing up of your main drive – laptop drives tend to fail more quickly than desktop ones (for starters, they're subject to more vibration), so backing up is crucial.
To boost drive performance, create separate partitions for program files and audio, and defragment often. Also note that USB 2.0 memory sticks look like disk drives to the computer, so you can use them as a temporary drive for audio files.
Buy a really rugged case for your computer and a quality CD wallet with heavy outside padding, as you'll likely be carrying valuable distribution and data disks. Throw an extension cord and a 3-2 AC adapter in your luggage, as outlets may not always be where you want them.
And don't forget cool software accessories – check out some of the downloads at www.propellerheads.se > Downloads > Reason > Reason Extras.
You'll find QWERTY-to-keyboard applets so you can use the keyboard keys to trigger notes, programs that assign joystick motion to controllers, and so on. I particularly like Florian Bömers' Mouse Keyboard (Windows only, unfortunately) because it lets you trigger chords as well as notes, and includes virtual mod and pitch bend wheels you can control with a mouse's scroll wheel.
So go ahead and rock that laptop—they're not just for businesspeople who want to run PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets.