Recently I have been considering an upgrade for my PC, and whilst rethinking my approach to improving my studio and live setup I thought about getting a laptop computer. However, I am not too sure about their usefulness for creating computer music. For instance, how difficult is it to sort out MIDI connections? And can one find a decent soundcard for a laptop computer without spending the earth? Any help on this matter would be very much appreciated.
I was wondering if you might be able to advise me... What I need is a PC suitable for touring and stage use. I presume there must be a significant number of musicians out there doing this already and I'm hoping you might have heard from them. Is a laptop computer reliable enough or are full‑sized components the way to go?
Martin Walker replies: You are entering very murky waters here, since laptops and music don't necessarily mix. If you don't want to end up 'spending the earth', remember that a laptop computer itself will cost considerably more than a desktop PC with a similar specification — you might find yourself paying up to twice as much for the benefits of the smaller size and weight, and the decreased noise in the studio. Another major difference between the two is that you can't install one of the wide range of PCI soundcards in a laptop to give you MIDI and audio capabilities, because they have no PCI expansion slots. You can buy a 'docking station', which plugs into the laptop, to provide a couple of PCI slots, a charger and external speakers, but these tend to cost several hundred pounds.
You can't rely on the built‑in sound chips provided with most laptops either, as many have high levels of background noise and audio quality on a par with early Soundblaster soundcards. Certain models may also exhibit ticks and pops when the disk drive is accessed — this is because the components in a laptop are very close together, and there may not be enough space for proper shielding between them. Even if the laptop features a built‑in MIDI synth, you won't find a MIDI In or Out socket, as you would on a standard PCI soundcard, for connecting external synths or keyboards.
Instead, most serious laptop musicians use external MIDI and Audio peripherals, and send the data in and out of the laptop using one or more of the available connectors. Nearly all laptops have a serial port and a parallel port, along with one or more PCMCIA slots for expansion cards, and most newer models also have a couple of USB ports.
For audio work the most elegant solution is to buy a PCMCIA device like Digigram's VXPocket digital audio card (reviewed in SOS February 2000). PCMCIA cards are marvels of miniaturisation but they have a considerably smaller market than PCI soundcards, and their price reflects this — the VXPocket weighs in at a hefty £511. USB peripherals are the only other serious choice for audio work, and as these can be used with desktop PCs and Macs as well as laptops they tend to be considerably cheaper. However, some users have experienced USB audio glitches with both desktop and laptop machines, and unlike desktop PCs, where any component within reason can be upgraded or changed if you get any conflicts with music applications, laptop components are hard to upgrade or modify. It can also be difficult to find out whether a specific laptop model is likely to have such problems until you try it out for yourself.
If you are primarily interested in MIDI then the situation is a lot easier. There is a wide variety of interfaces available that plug into the serial, parallel, or USB ports, and if you only want to work with a MIDI sequencer then any laptop with a 200MHz Pentium or faster processor should be sufficient. This brings the overall cost of the system down considerably, although you won't be able to run any audio applications on a laptop with this spec, and you can't upgrade your processor later on to do this either.
If you want to buy a laptop specifically for music purposes, I recommend you visit the Musical Notebook Computer web site. This is run by an enthusiast, and while it doesn't have definitive recommendations, it does have a user forum where lots of musicians trade information on what works and what doesn't. If you want a laptop guaranteed to work with both audio and MIDI from day one, I would approach a specialist music retailer with experience in this area.