Recording music on a laptop has never been easier. For the uninitiated, there is all manner of software allowing you to do everything from replicating a guitar amp through to full multi-track sessions with total creative control over recording, mixing and mastering. These days, even the best budget laptops for music production possess enough in the way of performance to get you going.
It can be tricky, if you’re new to the entry-level laptop world, to know where to start though. Perhaps you’re new to recording and don’t want to – or have – a huge amount of cash to spend. Or maybe you’re rekindling an old passion and have seen the world has moved on from tape machines. Whatever your journey to this point, we can find a laptop for recording music to suit your needs. And, while most – if not all – modern laptops will do a job, there are certain things that separate the best budget music production laptops from the rest.
Audio work requires a specific set of features that differ from gaming, for example, or everyday computing. In this guide, we’ll point out the things you should prioritise when choosing the best budget laptop for music production (head straight to our buying advice section for that), along with offering some recommendations to get you started – including our choice for the best laptop for music production under $300/£300.
Best budget laptops for music production: Product guide
Taking into account the holy trinity of music production laptop specs – CPU, RAM and storage – the Acer Aspire 5 is a great choice for the vast majority of people on a budget. The Intel i5 processor will chug along nicely, while 8GB of RAM means you can be reasonably expansive with your arrangements.
Adding in a USB-C port means you can take advantage of faster data transfer speeds, although its 512GB SSD is a real bonus at this price point. You’ll struggle to find a better Windows machine for under $500/£500.
ASUS has plenty to offer in the mid-range market, but we’ve opted for the ASUS VivoBook Flip. While it might look a bit gimmicky, essentially what we’ve got is a nicely specced convertible laptop/tablet, which runs full Windows 10 and has a decent baseline spec for music production.
Using a touchscreen to control a DAW like Ableton does come with its benefits – and occasional drawbacks – but for the budget-conscious producer who likes to leave the studio every now and again this is a solid, versatile entry-level option.
Interest in the Surface line-up gathers pace with each new iteration, but for budget-conscious producers the Microsoft Surface Go 2-in-1 is worth consideration. Admittedly, you’re not going to be crafting extensive compositions on its small touchscreen – the low-end Intel Platinum processor will see to that – and having only one USB port means hubs will be required, but on paper it’s still an impressive proposition.
8GB of RAM on the top-line model, along with a 128GB solid-state drive, means using the Surface Go as a musical sketchpad is a viable option. It comes pre-installed with Windows 10 S, which restricts what apps can be installed, but this can be changed to offer full-fat Windows 10 Home easily in the settings.
Bit of a curveball, this one. The Samsung 4+ Chromebook won’t run regular digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Ableton Live, Cubase or Pro Tools. It doesn’t have banks of power to draw from. But it does offer a glimpse at what the future might look like for computer-based audio production.
With Chrome OS, you are essentially limited to apps that can be found in Google’s Play Store, or run via a browser – assuming you don’t want to go down the Linux route, that is. On the Play Store there is a slimmed-down version of FL Studio which works a treat, while online you’ll find services like Audiotool and the Spotify-owned Soundtrap which give tech-savvy beatmakers the chance to produce tracks directly through a cloud-based browser interface.
Chromebooks aren’t going to be the first choice of most producers, particularly those recording and working directly with raw audio, but for anyone content to play around with loops and virtual instruments it’s definitely worth investigation.
As one of the bigger names in computing, it’s reasonable to expect HP would have a decent offer in the low-to-mid range. The HP Pavilion x360 fits the bill, serving up a nice set of base specs which would suit anyone learning their craft. The non-music headline comes in the shape of the touchscreen; fold the Pavilion back on itself and it becomes a tablet device.
Realistically, other than as a party piece, the touchscreen doesn’t immediately jump out as being useful to a producer – your mileage may vary – but if the device is going to serve other purposes than music creation then the Pavilion x360 is a sound choice.
Music production is a broad church, and for every composer looking to build complex multitrack sessions with 400 plugins running, there are an equal number of producers who simply want to crack open Splice or Loopmasters and sit layering premade loops together into songs. If that sounds like you then the Lenovo V145 is a great choice, as it packs in a large solid-state drive to store your samples, and as audio doesn’t require as much processing power as MIDI it’ll plough ahead quite nicely.
If, in the future, you think your setup may expand to include softsynths and external controllers then you might want to look elsewhere for something with a beefier processor, but for simple lego-builder style loop compositions, this Lenovo will cope just fine.
The Dell Inspiron range has been the first laptop many bedroom producers use to start them on their recording journey. Packing in some respectable spec, and the peace of mind that comes from using a trusted brand like Dell, the Inspiron range is definitely worth a look.
The model we’ve opted for features 8GB of RAM, which can be upgraded in the future quite easily, and a dual storage method that provides 1TB of HDD storage with 128GB of solid-state offering the best of both worlds. We’d have liked a USB-C port, as that’s the way the world’s going, and the Intel i3 isn’t what you’d call a powerhouse, but you can’t go far wrong with the Inspiron.
We’ll end the list on something aspirational. Just shy of $600/£600 may seem excessive for a ‘budget’ laptop, and it’s something we’re aware of, but we’re of a mind to keep it here simply because it’s worth highlighting the jump in overall performance capability you get when you wander north of this price bracket.
The HP 15-ef0023dx (laptop brands have the worst product naming conventions) offers 12GB of RAM, making it ideal for large arrangements or tracks using a lot of recorded audio. It has a speedy solid-state drive for accessing files, and the Ryzen 5 CPU performs consistently well under testing. Yes, it costs a bit more, but the increased spec means it could end up serving you far longer than some of the other cheaper models on test today.
Best budget laptops for music production: Buying advice
What are your budget music laptop essentials?
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Laptops used with music production in mind tend to focus on three key features; CPU, RAM and storage. Where gamers or video editors prioritise graphical and visual elements, for audio we need only focus on how fast the laptop processes things (CPU), its short-term memory (RAM) and its ability to access data quickly (storage):
- The CPU is what powers the laptop as it processes commands. In music terms, this dictates how many virtual instruments you can run at the same time, or how many effects you can add, or how quickly you can export your finished tracks. Intel and AMD have the monopoly here, and you get what you pay for. For audio and music production we would recommend looking at Intel’s i5 line, or AMD’s Ryzen 5 line, although the lower-end CPUs will suffice if budget is a sticking point – you might just be staring at progress bars a bit longer.
- RAM is a bit more straightforward. It dictates how large the arrangements you can create are, and how many audio files you can work with at a given time. A laptop with 4GB of RAM will technically allow you to open music production apps like Garageband or Ableton Live and create short, basic arrangements, but you’ll quickly run into a wall where the laptop can’t cope with what you’re asking it to do. Look for a minimum of 8GB here.
- Storage will come down to one of two options; HDD or SSD. Hard-disk drives are cheaper and can hold large volumes of data, but are typically slower which means streaming sample libraries isn’t ideal. SSDs, on the other hand, are lightning quick but do cost more.
The one other essential non-laptop component for music production is a USB audio interface; this effectively outsources the laptop’s sound card and allows you to record electric guitars, microphones and other instruments into the computer, as well as hooking up a pair of studio monitors or studio headphones to listen back to your work.
What are the non-essentials?
If you’re buying a laptop for general use, with a bit of music production thrown in occasionally, then you will likely have other factors to consider. The size and resolution of the screen, for example, or the battery life. These are all worthy considerations and shouldn’t be discounted, but bear in mind that the more non-negotiable things you have on your wishlist, the higher the cost will be. If the laptop is being bought with music production, and only music production, in mind then you should keep your focus on performance over aesthetics.
Many Windows-based laptops come stuffed with non-essential software and apps – known as ‘bloatware’ – which you’ll want to discard. And, while it might sound strange in an article about music production to tell you to ignore the laptop’s speakers, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. For watching YouTube videos or holding video calls, laptop speakers are fine but for audio and music production they’re not going to give you the results you want (whatever you spend). So, while it might sound appealing to have B&O or Beats speakers in your laptop, in reality they aren’t going to have much of an effect on your music production so don’t make them a deal-breaker.
What are the ‘nice-to-haves’?
As your recording career progresses, you may find you want to add to your studio with extra gear like MIDI keyboards, home studio mixers, drum machines and more. Most kit these days connect to your computer via USB, so you’ll want to ensure you have a decent number of USB ports. Increasingly brands are looking to incorporate USB-C into their gear so look out for these ports where possible too. This is also useful when using an external hard drive for music production, where the combination of USB-C and an external solid-state drive (SSD) makes light work of large audio or sample files.
Another ‘nice-to-have’ element is the option to upgrade components in the laptop yourself in the future. This won’t be possible on every laptop, but having the ability to chuck in a couple of extra sticks of RAM can have a significant impact on overall performance.
Start small, start clever
Realistically, not everyone can afford the latest M1 Apple MacBook Pro or Dell XPS. Hence, we all have to sometimes make compromises in what we want versus what we can afford. It would be great to have a touch-enabled 4K screen, all-day battery life, plenty of horsepower, and all those other headline features. But we have to cut our cloth accordingly, right?
That’s not to say music production can’t be done on a budget laptop. It absolutely can, as we’ll outline in our recommendations in this guide, but just be aware that certain concessions may have to be made. Start small, before working your way up. This way, when you reach the skill level where you are making 72 track arrangements featuring a symphony orchestra, you’ll know the equipment inside out and have a handle on what’s really important from a music production laptop.
Put simply, a decent budget laptop for home recording will focus on power, performance and speed above anything else. If you can park those desires for shiny features and other pointless-but-quite-cool elements, you should end up with a machine that will serve you well as you take your first steps into music production.
How we test budget laptops for music production
The criteria for testing a budget laptop for music production differs slightly to how we’d test higher-spec machines. At the entry-level end of the spectrum, small tweaks to a laptop’s internal spec can have a huge impact on its ability to perform. Rather than becoming a jack of all production trades, budget laptops tend to be better chosen when they have an end goal in sight.
For example, if your setup involves using lots of loops and samples, then the speed at which the laptop can grab them from your external storage will be paramount. For users with lots of MIDI tracks in their compositions, CPU is king. Using any DAW, we are quickly able to build template sessions which test a variety of real world situations, and from there can assess the suitability of a machine for a particular user group.
With it being a laptop, there are other factors which may come into a buying decision, so we look at these too. Things like battery life, and screen viewing angles or brightness levels, are all easy to test so we take those into consideration when making our recommendations.
Find out more about how we test music gear and services at MusicRadar.