[LAU] Laptop for live performance and recording

Ken Restivo ken at restivo.org
Wed Jan 2 03:31:26 EST 2008

On Wed, Jan 02, 2008 at 12:59:26AM +0100, julien lociuro wrote:
> Hi all,
> As you probably know from my previous post (MacBook Pro or not..) I plan to
> buy a laptop for audio work.
> Here some questions that arise after some investigation.
> 1) It is recommended to have 2 separate hard drives. One for os/programs and
> one for audio files.
>     Is it though necessary to have the first one, say the internal one at
> 7200rpm, if the second one (external, USB-2) used for audio files is 7200?
>     Problem is that most of laptops have 5400rpm for their internal drive.

I've got only one drive and no problem. It's a 7200RPM drive-- not supported by my laptop BIOS. If you're going to be streaming recording or playing 48 tracks simultaneously, you might need separate drives. I'm mostly doing softsynths so CPU was more important than disk.

Also, MAKE SURE that your BIOS supports 7200RPM drives. Mine does not. Linux does, but it's annoying for the BIOS to complain about no disk being present, every time I boot.

> 2) A thing I've read is that one of the biggest downsides to Linux on
> portables, especially Apple portables (assuming the LCD and other
> peripherals are basically
> working) is poor support for power management - sometimes dangerously poor.
> Can anybody tell me if this is still true, and what does this mean?

You generally want to turn off power management when doing audio.

ACPI is fine (suspend, resume, battery monitoring), but definitely don't even build the CPU throttling into your kernel. Likewise, disable or remove any power management daemons other than acpid.

The Mac Mini I had a year ago, didn't support sleep/suspend/resume. I don't know if they do now or not. I just left the thing on all the time instead.

> 3) As an audio card I was thinking about the FireWire Edirol FA-66, which is
> "reported to work" under linux, and is supported under mac osx.

I had it, it worked great using FreeBoB.

> 4) What do you think of these laptops? Especially built for audio. But, can
> we trust them..?
> http://rainrecording.com/products/livebook

Heh. That's a generic ASUS laptop. I've got the same one:

ASUS ships barebones laptops without any nameplates (or CPU, or disk, or DVD, or RAM), so that system integrators can put in what they want and slap their own badge on there.

> http://www.musicxpc.com/prodtemplate.asp
> 5) Not all laptops have a firewire port. Most have an extension card slot
> (express, etc..) which can be used to have firewire. But from what I've
> heard, linux doesn't have (good) drivers to support those cards. Most of
> laptops which have firewire have a 4-pin (not ok if you want the 2
> additional to have power supply for the card, which is nice for live
> performance). MacBook(Pro) has a 6-pin firewire port.

It's unlikely to be a powered 6-pin, though, so you'll probably still need the power cube to run the FA-66.

> 6) As it has been told, a Texas Instrument firewire 1394 chipset is needed
> to get proper performance with the soundcard.
>     MacBooks have this chipset. But it seems that not a lot of other laptops
> do have this chipset (it seems like Dell don't have), some HP have. Anyway
> it's difficult to find the information. So here, the MacBook would anyway be
> a good choice.

Or a US$60 ExpressCard with TI chipset, which is what I ended up having to buy. It gave me two 6-pin (unpowered) ports too.

> 7) some interesting laptops include Asus V1s, Lenovo ThinkPad T61, Dell
> Lattitude D830. Anyone using one of those for audio under linux? Do they
> have a TI firewire chipset?

It helps if the firmware lets you assign interrupts to devices! I'm told that the Dells have sane assignments of interrupt pins, and the ThinkPads let you change them in firmware. I have an ASUS and it works great, because I use USB for audio, and it does a good job of separating the different USB devices onto different interrupts. But it slops all the interrupt pins for all the built-in devices onto one pin and then doesn't let you change them. That sure sucks.

Also, if you buy a Core Duo laptop, get a SATA drive. The Intel chipset for my laptop supports SATA only, natively, but ASUS cheated and supplies "PATA support" using some weird bridge chip. I had trouble with it-- the BIOS on my laptop does NOT see my PATA drive at all! But Linux does, so it works, after I escape out of the BIOS screen telling me I don't have any drives.

> 8) would a 13" screen be ok..? There is this MacBook (not Pro) which is
> dual-core but only at 13". It seems to have great performance (and 700€ less
> that the MacBook Pro). 13" has 1280 x 800 resolution. Is that reasonable or
> would I freak out..?:-)Most consumer laptops with 15.4" screens have the
> same resolution as 14" and 13.3" screens (1280x800). So if possible
> customize a workstation machine with a higher resolution display... like a
> dell lattitude or a lenovo thinkpad. These machines will allow you to
> configure the machine with a a 15.4" display that has a resolution of
> 1440x900 or 1680x1050

Only you would know that. They are your eyes.

My ASUS laptop is a 15" LCD, but it doesn't do 1440x900, only 1280x800. I hook it up to an exteral 19" LCD which does ONLY 1440x900, and somehow the VGA BIOS copes with that. The 19" is much nicer to work with, especially for apps with lots of knobs and buttons, like Ardour and PHASEX, or which require lots of real estate, like PD, Patchage, Ingen, etc.

> 9) The mac book has a Intel GMA X3100 graphic card (with 144 MB SDRAM DDR2)
> shared (not dedicated) with main memory. Is this a problem for audio
> processing only? Also, is this card supported under linux? mac book pro on
> the other hand has an NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT, which would be more supported
> I think.

If you won't be gaming, don't worry about it. I picked my laptop specifically because it has the INTEL video chipset-- probably the worst-performing crap out there, but at the time it was the only one open and free and supported in Linux with Free Software drivers, and that is very important to me.  My computer isn't just my instrument and studio and communications device, and life, really, but it is also a political statement for me. I haven't yet seen an audio app that requires proprietary 3D video acceleration, for example, so I wasn't missing much. 

> 11) I see that some audio applications are ported to MacOsX. Jack,
> freewheeling, zynaddsubfx. Although no midi support for zynaddsubfx. Ardour
> I think too.
>      A dual-boot mac osx, 64-studio would be necessary.

Before I bought the ASUS laptop, I had a Mac Mini that I ran Debian on and used for audio. I tried to use OSX for audio, and I think I lasted a day. It drove me nuts. GarageBand was fun to play with, but then it didn't support exporting MIDI! And the latency was horrific-- like 100ms for some softsynths. Then I started installing Linux audio apps like the various JACK-based ones that have been ported: Ardour, Fluidsynth, etc. It quickly became obvious that I was trying to make a Mac behave like Linux, and contain all the Linux things I'm used to, and at that point I said to hell with it and wiped the drive and installed Debian instead. Used that for about 6 months until I sold it and bought the laptop. It's been all Linux since then.

One very nice thing about Macs in general is that they're little more than trendy-looking hardware copy-protection dongles for OSX, so they retain their value very, very well. I bought the Mac Mini used, from a kid that had bought it with his student discount, and I ended up selling it 6 months later for more than I paid for it. If you buy a MacBook and you don't like it, there are probably plenty of people who would buy it from you.


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