Computers in the Studio (Part 1)

Musician or IT professional?

It seems today’s musicians must be part artist and part IT professional. It’s a difficult dance that requires knowledge, time, and patience in order to achieve a level of success. The intention of this series of blog posts is to help with the IT part or the equation. My goal is to help with questions related to system optimization, maintenance, organization, networking, and other IT-related concerns important to musicians in the 21st century.

In this first post I’d like to talk about basic practices for achieving a smooth running PC-based DAW. I’ll also offer my thoughts and suggestions on OS “tweaking” or “tuning”. In subsequent posts we’ll get deeper into specific areas and talk about other aspects like organization and networking. Most of these tips will assume you’re running a PC with Windows 7 installed.

Here are some general rules of thumb I’ll offer right off the bat:

1. Have an exit strategy. Consider a backup imaging system like Acronis or at least set a System Restore point for a stable system configuration. It will allow you to get back to a stable working system in the event of something going terribly wrong. I’ll say this though: this seems to happen increasingly rarely with modern setups and I wouldn’t get too hung up about making backups unless you rely on your system for paying clients. For me, System Restore has generally been sufficient.

2. Keep your system updated. While the latest driver isn’t always the best driver, it’s substantially more likely to be better than an old driver. In the vast majority of cases, the latest driver for your hardware is the best option and probably offers the best performance, stability, and compatibility. This is particularly true of on-board system devices but also likely true of your audio devices, MIDI controllers, etc. I say stay updated , and only revert to an older driver if you have a problem. Outdated drivers are quite often the cause of problems and not vice versa.

3. Check your DPC Latency. Improperly implemented drivers can cause delays or latency in what are known as Deferred Procedure Calls. This is often the cause of crackles, pops, and dropouts in your audio software. Wireless adapter drivers are notorious for this kind of thing, but other system drivers can cause it as well. Luckily, it’s free and easy to check for. Just run DPC Latency Checker or LatencyMon. Either of these tools will give you a good idea whether or not you should be able to expect proper, low-latency performance from your DAW. If you see problems, fix these first.

4. Keep Windows updated. Sure, every update may not be absolutely necessary and you might want to pick and choose. But a woefully out-of-date Windows installation won’t help anybody. Your mileage may vary, but I always keep my Windows 7 installation up-to-date with the latest patches and I believe this is the best practice in general.

5. Keep your software updated. SONAR update available? Install it. Kontakt update available? Install it. Sure you can do some cursory research to see if it’s posing problems for others, but in general, updates fix more problems that they cause. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but I can’t think of anything I have on my system at this very moment that isn’t updated to the latest and greatest.

6. Only install what you need. This is a big one. The more stuff you have on your system, the more potential for problems. Don’t deny yourself a cool instrument or effect that you think you’ll need, but beware of that extra level of virus protection, or download manager, or free plugin that you’re not sure what it actually does. Ideally a DAW should be a DAW and not share duty as an office computer or general purpose machine for web-browsing and social media. This is where a lot of problems start. Can it be on the net? Sure, with certain precautions and judicious use. Should you install Norton and Office and dredge around in the backwaters of the internet? I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

7. Careful with that tweak Eugene. There’s a lot of information on the internet about tweaking or tuning your OS for audio. A lot of it is outdated (applies to older operating systems and hardware) and some of it is downright erroneous. So take it with a grain of salt. To tweak, or not to tweak, that is the question. If you follow the other steps in this list you’ll do more good than most any OS tweak can do. But there are some valuable changes you can make that might make your system run more efficiently and predictably. Going deep into this is outside of the scope if this post, but I’ll say a couple things on the issue: 1) Don’t stress over this if you have modern computing hardware and Windows 7. Windows 7 is pretty lean and should at least function practically well out-of-the-box, and modern hardware systems can handle minor background tasks far better than their brethren of yore (see point #8). 2) If you do want to tweak the OS, get familiar with MSConfigservices.msc, and perhaps most of all Black Viper. The latter is very well researched and has become the de-facto authority on information about various Windows services. Use it to identify what a service does and what effects, if any, disabling it will have on your system. Service tweaking can seem like a black art. When you’re ready head down that path, Black Viper can help lead the way. Be careful and be aware of what you’re doing in case you run into trouble (see point #1).

8. Consider an upgrade: If you’re running a single core system with Windows XP from early last decade you’re going to need to squeeze as much as you possibly can from it and that probably means heavy tweaking. If you’re running a 64-bit, multi-core monster with dual digit RAM and SSD you probably don’t have much to worry about. Many users fall somewhere in between. But if you find yourself having to constantly tweak your system in order to enjoy making music then consider upgrading. Massive leaps in performance can be had for a lot less than you might think. Your music deserves it and you’ll be happy you did.

9. Stay Organized: If you find installation files and sound banks and plugin folders strewn all over your system you’re just asking for trouble. Devise a system and stick to it. Keep your installation, updates, and drivers organized and in one place. Clean up your downloads folder. Sort your loops, sound banks, and sample content. Keep your plugin folders to a minimum and know where these kinds of things are without thinking. Nobody likes to work in a messy studio – and your DAW is at the heart of your studio. In fact, you could argue that your DAW is really a microcosm of a complete physical recording studio. So keep it tidy and know where to find stuff. You’ll work faster and better if you do.

10. Stay on top of things. Know your DAW intimately and keep it maintained. This means everything from checking for updated drivers to opening the computer and blowing out the dust now and again. I generally hate computer/car analogies, but sometimes they’re inevitable. This is one of those times. Maintain what you have if you want it to get you from point A to point B reliably.

Careful consideration of these points, some of which are common sense,  should serve you well in pursuit of a fast, reliable DAW that suits your creative needs. In future posts, we’ll get deeper into some of the individual points and delve into other areas like networking and asset management for the personal studio.

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