Workstations vs PCs
(Keyboard Workstations vs PC + Plugins)
Two of the most powerful tools for making music are keyboard workstations and computers with plugins, i.e. virtual instruments and effects. But which is best, particularly for a newcomer? This article looks at some of the pros and cons of each system.
First, and most obvious, a keyboard workstation is a fully functioning instrument – a keyboard with hundreds, if not thousands of sounds from the various instrumental families, and a midi/audio sequencer/recorder built in. Consequently, a keyboard workstation is quite expensive, with reputable brands costing in the region of £2000 or more.
The cost of PC setup is much cheaper. Assuming you already have a PC, for a little over £100 it’s possible to buy a small midi keyboard bundled with recording software, and a few plugins thrown in to boot – the Roland A-500S (pictured right) for example, with its 49 full-size keys – and you’re ready to start making music. The quality and range of sound won’t be as good as the £2000 keyboard workstation, but it’s a start; and as you become familiar with the software, and the direction your music is going, you can buy more plugins tailored to your specific needs.
Generally speaking PCs offer a higher level of audio editing. Granted, some of the more expensive workstations do offer extremely good audio editing facilities, but PCs are out in front, particularly when you start to take related attributes into consideration, such as memory and storage capacity.
Screen size is another consideration. No keyboard workstation can compete with the size of even a half-decent computer screen. Roland’s Fantom G workstation with its 8½” wide colour LCD screen (pictured left) is a good workable size for a keyboard , but the average computer screen can show so much more.
One area where it’s hard for a PC to compete though is live work. Of course you could take your PC setup out on a gig, and some musicians do, but it’s fraught with dangers. I think it’s true to say that hardware (keyboard workstations) trumps computers in reliability and ruggedness.
Also, a big, and often overlooked, plus for the workstation is the ease in which you can get an idea recorded. With many keyboard workstations you can get away with doing little more than switching on, hitting record, and you’re ready to go. The same can’t be said for a computer, which has to boot up before you can select your recording software, after which you probably need to set up a few parameters and designate a project folder before you start to record your new idea.
So which is best, a keyboard workstation or a PC with plugins? At the end of the day this all depends on what you want to use them for. For gigging, in my opinion (and some would argue) it has to be a keyboard workstation, and for purely recording a PC with good quality plugins. But ideally – both! A high quality keyboard workstation to provide an extensive range of sounds, some plugins to supplement the sounds that the workstation may leave lacking, and the large screen of the PC for more detailed editing and smoother work flow.
If you are just starting out it can be a tough decision deciding on a workstation or PC + plugins. If your budget is tight then there’s an abundance of second hand gear available. Be very careful buying software second hand though, as often ownership cannot be transferred, making it less than useless when you try to install it on your own computer. But for hardware it’s well worth checking out your local music store, music magazines, Amazon, and eBay, where it’s possible to find some good deal.