Rack Mounting a Live/Recording rig with Laptop

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An article by Todd Simpson


I was writing on the boards about building a computer based, live/recording rig that one could rack mount and use at home or on the road and I'd like to share such info here in our wiki. I was responding to a question from a student about his idea of building his new home studio around a rack mounted PC. I've actually built something similar based on a mac laptop and small firewire interface. So here's the background I have to share user posted image

Rack Mounting a Laptop

There are particular laptops which run WINDOWS 7 and MACINTOSH OSX on the same box and run both natively. This would allow you to run pretty much any software you like. You can run both operating systems at once even and launch applications accross platforms transparently. user posted image

The reason I mention the laptop, is that if you are considering racking a computer, think seriously about some sort of laptop, from any reputable vendor, PC or Mac, for the simple reason that if you put an SSD (solid state) hard drive in it, the machine has very few moving parts and will travel well and can be part of your live rig and your home rig and it's got it's own built in LCD monitor and keyboard/trackpad :)

The laptop in the Sweetwater line (Essentially a 13 inch macbook set to boot windows or mac os. I've got one of these little laptops and it freaking SCREAMS! I've recorded 8 tracks at time with no lag or skips.) is overpriced since they pre install windows and some other bits. I'd say skip this and get any laptop you like, PC or Mac and put your own install on it user posted image

Above and beyond that, you can RACK MOUNT the laptop on a pull out rack drawer! user posted image

And an SKB version for $100

Another handy thing about building a "Portable Studio Rack" is that you can get a great interface and rack it up as well user posted image

For between $250 and $500 you can get a multiple input rack mount interface in either USB 2.0 or FIREWIRE.

Here is the starting end with the Behringer for $250 ( 4 XLR inputs)

The firewire based Presonus FIRESTUDIO for $399 ( 8 XLR Inputs)

and finally the USB SCARLETT for $499 ( 8 XLR inputs)

So to sum up, IT'S A GREAT FREAKING IDEA! user posted imageI myself have started building a computer based rack system for live use. I started with a Laptop and am now thinking about installing a Mac Mini and small touch screen.

It'salso true that already dedicated computing devices like the AXE FX are HUGELY popular. It's essentially a purpose build PC running a single application. Using a generic computer capable of running any application seems like the next logical step. After all, you could control all of your software with a foot controller (as I do) like the LINE 6 MK II and even have wah control in your guitar plugins smile.gif Not to mention you can run a DAW hosting several different plugins and mix the tracks together in real time to create a HUGE sound. I've done this as well and it's sooooooo good user posted image You are in for a real treat.

And a bit on USB VS FIREWIRE user posted image


In general, FireWire devices support a higher bandwidth than USB 2.0, and therefore can send more data faster. This results in the ability to utilize more inputs and outputs, as well as increased performance and stability. This practically would apply only to interfaces with large numbers of inputs and outputs; the difference in performance between a single or dual-channel USB or FireWire interface should be negligible. FireWire streams data rather than packets data. This results in more stable synchronization and performance. A FireWire device can stream data in both directions at the same time, while USB requires the sent packets of data to finish transmission before the device can receive more data. While seemingly a minor technical detail, this can impact performance and stability to some degree.
FireWire is typically dedicated for audio/video purposes, and wouldn't be in use by other services on your computer. Your system will most likely have a single controller for FireWire that shouldn't receive interference from other services or hardware on your system in a normal situation. Conversely, USB is used by a wide variety of hardware peripherals, resulting in an increase in the chance that a conflict could occur.
FireWire devices have the ability to cascade or daisy-chain. This means multiple FireWire devices of the same family can be connected together for additional inputs and outputs. For instance, you can connect two PreSonus FireStudio Projects together for a total of 20 inputs and 20 outputs. USB devices cannot be connected together in this fashion.

USB devices can be used on almost any computer, because almost all computers contain USB ports. Conversely, most modern PCs do not have FireWire ports built-in. One can usually upgrade their computer to support FireWire, but this would require purchasing additional hardware.
There is no form of chipset incompatibility with USB devices. A USB 2.0 interface can be used on almost any USB 2.0 port; however, with FireWire, one must have a supported chipset in order to utilize the device properly. For more information about supported and unsupported hardware, check out this document.

Certain new computers utilize newer USB technology known as "USB 3.0"; PreSonus USB 2.0 audio interfaces should work with 3.0 provided that you are using an operating system that fully supports the 3.0 architecture, and that you have updated your USB 3.0 drivers.

USB devices typically are at a lower price point than FireWire devices, so they may be more attractive to users on a budget.
Certain computers can not be upgraded to support FireWire. If your computer is a laptop and does not have a Cardbus, PCMCIA, or ExpressCard slot, there is no way to add FireWire to the system. If your computer is a desktop but does not have any available PCI or PCI Express slots, you would not be able to add FireWire without removing another device.

Todd Simpson