Getting the Right Computer Gear for Virtual Guitar

October 1, 2009

COMPUTERS WEREN’T DESIGNED FOR REAL-TIME operation, but that’s what guitars want, so performance is key. Although desktop Macs give high performance out of the box, companies making custom, music-oriented PCs (such as ADK, MusicXPC, PC Audio Labs, Rain Recording, Sonica, and Sweetwater) often deliver exceptional performance at a lower price. Want to hedge your bets? Intel Macs can also run Windows programs (but the reverse is extremely difficult).

Laptops are super-convenient for live performance. MacBook Pros are sweet, but pricey. Office supply store PCs are iffy, so far safer choices come from companies specializing in laptops for music. If treated carefully, laptops are reliable. I’ve used Macs and PCs onstage since the ’90s, and I’ve never had a meltdown. If ruggedness is paramount, Panasonic’s Tough- Books (PC only) are expensive, but almost indestructible. Some guitarists run amp sims on Netbooks, but try before you buy, as that’s pushing the technology. Still, at sub-$300 prices, you can buy a backup Netbook, and still spend less than a laptop.


Although laptops have built-in audio, quality is consumer-grade, and you won’t find 1/4" jacks. You’ll need an audio interface to get audio in and out of your computer. The crucial interface feature is a high-impedance, guitar-friendly input. Line 6, Native Instruments, and IK Multimedia make guitar-centric interfaces— some of which include pedals and footswitches. IK’s Stomp I/O, for example, is a versatile pedalboard/interface that’s built like a tank, and it can minimize dealing with your computer during a set. Some standard audio interfaces (such as MOTU’s 8Pre, which connects through FireWire) also include instrument inputs, and Cakewalk’s V-Studio 100 is a multipurpose interface/control surface/ mixer/recorder that’s ideal for gigging guitarists.


The interface typically connects to your computer via a single FireWire or USB cable. To avoid stressing the computer’s connector, put your laptop on a stable surface, and tape down the interface cable. You’ll need a standard guitar cable to connect your instrument to the interface input, as well as output cables to go to your amp or a mixer. For laptops, a USB mouse can be easier to use than the built-in touchpad. Also, get a rugged, hardshell computer case—although computer bags from companies such as Targus are reasonable alternatives. Don’t forget to practice data safety by being redundant. Store important files on a USB memory stick—not just your computer’s hard drive.


To improve your laptop’s real-time audio performance, disable anything unneeded: internal wi-fi (important!), automatic index updating for search functions, etc. Also, disable “sleep” mode so your computer runs at full-tilt, and don’t run off your battery. Most laptops downgrade performance to increase battery runtime.

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