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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Music PCs: Manufacturers' Round Table

PC Musician

Technique : PC Musician

Buying a music computer from a specialist builder is an increasingly popular option for the PC musician. We rounded up some of the leading names in music PCs to find out exactly what they offer.

Martin Walker

Tony Cox (Digital Village): "The most difficult hardware problems are intermittent ones that can only be resolved by a long­term soak test. Fortunately, most hardware faults are detected and resolved at either the build stage or install/testing stage."

There are people posting on PC music forums who insist that anyone can knock up a good music PC in a couple of hours from a list of parts recommended by other forum users, and who can't see what benefits there are in paying a little more for a machine ready-made from a specialist music retailer. It's true to say that if they know what they're doing, are provided with a good parts list, and are prepared to put in a fair amount of detailed research, some people can find the DIY approach works for them. However, it won't ensure that they get a reliable system from day one, with a guarantee and ongoing technical support if anything does go wrong in the future. And sometimes the DIY approach can also go disastrously wrong.

One SOS forum poster was recently trying to track down a problem that prevented his new DIY PC from booting up properly. He was obviously knowledgeable, systematically tried a variety of solutions, appealed to other forum members for further suggestions, and eventually sent back his new motherboard for a replacement, but the replacement gave exactly the same problems. The cause eventually turned out to be due to being sold the wrong sort of RAM, and the poster openly admitted that he'd wasted a total of two months before his new PC was properly up and running.

Such things happen all too often, and with this in mind I thought it would be fascinating to find out how the specialists choose their components, test out incompatibilities, and ensure their systems are reliable, as well as asking what technical problems they run into. I contacted a cross-section of retailers who advertise in SOS, all of whom were very interested in taking part in this 'Round Table' discussion. You can read more about them in the box on page 222.

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Specialist Benefits

Which benefits do you feel your customers obtain from buying one of your systems, as opposed to building their own PC from a recommended list of parts?

Phil Elliott (PE): "I could write a book on this subject! However, I can summarise with two words: service and support. Red Submarine supply fully supported solutions, not just boxes with components in them. If you build your own PC, you are your own technical support and warranty service. If you buy from us, you are forming a partnership with a group of people that understand the purpose of your purchase, have access to a wide range of resources such as spare parts, and maintain direct links with manufacturers."

pcmus Red Phil Elliott.s

pcmus RedSubMiniSub.s

Phil Elliott (Red Submarine): "There are many off-the-shelf systems that make superb office machines, but are unsuitable for musicians because they might have a Firewire chipset or drive controller that wasn't intended for high-bandwidth audio applications."

Robin Vincent (RV): "Peace of mind, I think, is the biggest benefit among many. The knowledge that if it does go wrong you have a professional company that will sort it out for you, and that you'll have a working system in the first place. It's not that difficult to build a computer from parts, assuming, of course, that all your parts work, and that they can work together, and that you're not in any particular hurry. With Carillon you're not taking any risks — you've got a computer with a warranty that will be completely compatible with your soundcard and music software, and we'll install all your stuff for you if you like. If you can move a mouse around, you make music on a Carillon computer — you don't have to be, and you shouldn't have to be, a computer technician."

John Oxley & Joe East (JO): "It's no secret that PCs are easy to build. The hard part is finding out what is wrong when things are not working as they should. We've probably all been there at some point, pulling our hair out, thinking what could possibly be wrong, having tried everything imaginable to make things happen. By purchasing from a company such as ourselves it takes away these stressful moments from the customer. However, if you build a PC yourself you become your own first and last line of support, and if you have a problem with a component then the onus is on you to sort out a replacement with the manufacturer or supplier, sometimes only to find out that the component in question is working perfectly, and that something else is causing the problem."

Rick Holliday (RH): "When a customer buys a system from Millennium, any component failures or potential problems with the setup are sorted out before the customer receives the machine. Many people who build their own machines experience problems they do not have the resources to solve. It can be very difficult to work out which component of a PC that will not boot is faulty without spare components to test. We also spend time thinking from the customer's perspective, to make our machines as easy to use as possible, by setting up templates and example projects."

Phil Rees (PR): "Our customers place a single order with a single supplier, and then we take responsibility for getting all the parts together and assembling them into a properly working machine. We know and avoid potential pitfalls, and our experience helps us to spot when things aren't behaving normally. Our customers also don't have to spend hours installing hardware and software and getting it working, or frustrating hours on the phone or on the Internet, trying to get information — they can just get on with making music."

Dave Elliott (DE): "We have five years experience in building music-based PCs, we use recommended components which have been fully tried and tested, we run an eight-hour burn-in test to ensure components work correctly, and we set up soundcards and DSP cards correctly to avoid IRQ clashing. So the customer receives a PC that is ready to go straight from the box, and no setup or configuring is required on their part. We also have direct access to component manufacturers, to ensure that any faults or incompatibility issues are ironed out before the system is ready for manufacture."

Tony Cox (TC): "Choosing your own system at Digital Village allows you to spec it exactly as you see best, so you get a totally personal and custom system, but without any of the problems of building it yourself."

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Selecting Components

How do you decide which selection of components to use in each of your PCs, and how often do you change this list?

TC: "Our main criterion is stability in use and supply. To maintain quality control we only change the critical components when there is a major shift, for example when a new chipset needs evaluating, or a new CPU model, or type of RAM."

PR: "We read articles, and we pay attention to news of new components in the trade press and from suppliers. We regularly get evaluation samples of new hardware and software into the workshop, where we can put them through their paces. We put significant effort into testing, benchmarking and checking for compatibility. However, we intentionally limit the range of choices that we offer, as we prefer to use quality parts we know we can trust."

pcmus Nusystems John.s

John Oxley

pcmus Nu.s

John Oxley & Joe East (Nusystems): "We offer Intel- and AMD-based systems as an option, but we seem to have fewer problems with Intel-based systems. This may be due to the fact that components and various hardware and software products are produced with Intel processors in mind."

DE: "Our decision is based primarily on the quality of components. Each system we design undergoes a four-week test period to ensure chipsets and components prove to be reliable and stable. In the interest of compatibility, we stick to brands such as Asus and Intel, as these have proved to work best with a large range of soundcards and music software. Each month we review all our systems to ensure our customers receive the latest components and equipment as technology progresses."

RH: "Our decisions about which components to use are based partly on exhaustive research but also on first-hand experience and testing. We try to use components that will make a fast, reliable, easy-to-use PC, but which also represent value for money. We also try to consider the upgrade potential of the PC and the long-term reliability of the components and the system as a whole, probably to a much greater extent than most mainstream PC retailers, as we realise that musicians who use PCs tend to rely on them heavily for their work. When we have identified a candidate for a new component to use, we test it thoroughly with the most popular music software and hardware to be as sure as possible that it is fully compatible. We will consider a new component for use as soon as it is released, so our list of preferred components changes with the market."

JO: "There are many issues for us to consider when deciding which components to use in our systems: reliability, longevity, availability, manufacturer's warranty and returns procedure, to name but a few. We have even had to change components due to the way courier companies handle packages in the past. How do we decide? We test them. We will buy in different components that we come across or hear about, put them together and carry out several benchmark tests to push our systems to the limit. We're always looking to improve and if we see a development that we consider to be a benefit to our customers, we will implement it in our systems. If we can find other components that will do just as good a job but cost less, we will use them instead. It's our aim to bring the cost of a serious digital audio workstation down to that of a standard off-the-shelf PC, or as near to it as possible without compromising on quality."

PE: "Our choice of components is based on compatibility, performance and reliability, and our list is updated as soon as we have verified this information. There are many off-the-shelf systems that make superb office machines, but are unsuitable for musicians because they might have a Firewire chipset or drive controller that wasn't intended for high-bandwidth audio applications. Many companies put too much emphasis on CPU speed, but it's essential in an audio PC that every component is able to deliver sustainable bandwidth."

RV: "Although we like to keep our ear to the ground for new and interesting products, one thing we've learned is that 'reviews' are no more than an indication that something might be worth looking at. How well something actually works comes down to using it for ourselves. We also seem to be in a slightly different world from the rest of the IT community, and things that they consider 'quiet' are quite a long way from what we would consider quiet. Our criteria for components are firstly stability, then performance and noise, then ease of use/install, then lastly price and reputation get a look in. You also have to look past the specs and the numbers and get down to the nitty-gritty of whether any gains are to be found in real life plug-in or track counts — the components we use change with technology once we're satisfied the technology is working."

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Customer Problems

Even specialists occasionally have technical problems to solve, and sometimes very obscure ones — although the fault is not always theirs...

Robin Vincent: "At times you have to assume that the customer knows nothing about anything. We had one customer who called us because she wasn't getting any sound out of the computer. After checking all the settings with her, then dialling in to check the settings too, everything seemed fine and as it should be — we could even see an output indication in the soundcard mixer. After half an hour of fiddling around and scratching our heads we finally asked if the speakers were turned on. This was met by a prolonged silence which ended with 'Speakers?'. Perhaps she was hoping for audio via osmosis."

John Oxley: "We just had a customer wipe out his BIOS trying to flash it. There was no reason to upgrade it — everything was in perfect working order but it was just something he wanted to do. It failed, wiped his BIOS clean out and he now has to fork out for a new motherboard, as this has voided the warranty. We contacted the manufacturer — Asus, in this instance — but they couldn't do anything about it. Often you can replace the BIOS chip but it was not possible for this particular motherboard. We have offered him a replacement at trade cost, as we do feel sorry for him, but it's a good example of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'."

Rick Holliday: "Probably the strangest genuine problem was a PC with a PCI soundcard which would start to stutter and glitch after about four minutes of playback. As it turned out, this only happened if Power Management was disabled on the USB ports of a combination USB/Firewire PCI card. If Power Management was enabled, there were no problems. There was nothing plugged into any of the USB ports. We stopped using those combination USB/Firewire PCI cards immediately."

Dave Elliott: "We had a situation where a new system failed on delivery to a customer. When the machine was set up it began to bleep and not POST (Power On Self Test). The bleep code was checked and this indicated that the graphics card was not present. We had the machine back to base for repair to find it working perfectly. As a safety measure we replaced the VGA card to ensure there was not an intermittent fault with it. When the machine was sent back to the customer it failed with exactly the same fault. After going through a step-by-step diagnosis with the customer (involving unplugging various cables from the machine) it turned out that a bent pin in the PS2 keyboard had caused the machine to suffer an unusual fault with the display card."

Robin Vincent: "The Intel D875PBZ motherboard came with an inbuilt Serial ATA RAID controller allowing us to combine two drives into a high performance RAID0 drive. Unfortunately the earlier versions of the BIOS had a habit of resetting themselves to defaults for no apparent reason. The default setting disables the RAID controller, which results in the entire RAID drive vanishing from Windows. Not a big problem, you'd think, unless you've spent the entire weekend recording a very important session, only to find the whole recording drive missing. We were greeted with death threats from one psychotic producer, but thankfully it took two seconds to fix, once we'd talked him out of the idea of murder!"

John Oxley: "One common problem we come across time and again is due to the customer changing settings, specifically on their audio interface. People tend to set the buffer size to achieve the lowest possible latency figures at maximum sampling frequency, and then they start to have problems. We feel that some people are a bit too obsessed with latency figures and how low they can go. We encourage customers to use their ears. If there's no audible delay, why push the hardware any further?"

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Noise, Heat & Cost

Musicians like low-noise PCs, but these are more expensive to build. How do you come up with the best compromise between noise, heat and cost?

RH: "There are two ways to reduce noise: dampen the noise which is produced, or ensure that as little noise as possible is generated in the first place. We choose hard drives and optical drives that are as quiet as possible while still being reliable, and cases with internal layouts that allow efficient airflow, to make sure that even our 'standard' systems run cool and quiet. Some of our customers want inexpensive but reliable systems, and some are willing to pay a little extra for quieter machines, so we give them a choice of components, and we offer specialist cooling products (such as quiet power supplies and CPU fans) that we feel give good performance for the money. We also subject all our new PCs to stress tests while monitoring temperature and we always allow a little margin for error, as we understand that our test conditions can never represent the extremes of possible use."

pcmus Phil Rees.s

Philip Rees: "We try to deal with support queries in the same way we would if personal friends sought technical help. We will reply by email to technical support queries received by email or via our Online Support Service, and we aim to respond within one working day."

JO: "Low-noise PCs do not necessarily have to be that much more expensive to build — it depends on the individual customer's requirements. If the PC has to be deadly silent then, yes, it is going to cost a bit more, as acoustic case insulation and hard-drive enclosures are required, as well as a good silent CPU fan and power supply. However, at Nusystems we fit silent power supplies and graphics cards as standard, so if the customer is not recording in the same room as the PC or not particularly bothered about the PC being truly silent, we would just recommend a silent CPU fan and then you have a quiet PC that won't break the bank."

PR: "I have made a personal speciality of designing quiet systems. I apply a little theory and a lot of practical experimentation to this on-going project. I'm pleased with the results, and many customers have expressed their satisfaction. All the systems we supply are tailor-made custom solutions, and we can offer an optimised trade-off between low noise and price to suit each customer's requirements. My exclusive central airflow control system makes sure that fans only run as fast as needed, to ensure safe operating temperatures. Also, the fan speeds are co-ordinated to maintain a balanced and efficient stream of air. Its operation is independent of the computer motherboard, so it imposes no overhead on the computer hardware or software."

TC: "The best option for us is to use quality components. They are more expensive than standard items, but by using quality cases, PSUs and fans we can mod these ourselves to achieve the same results as using specialised items, but still keep the build cost down."

RV: "Ideally, you don't want to compromise at all — if a musician wants a quiet PC, that means paying a bit extra. At Carillon we provide the AC1 LE system which is identical to our flagship AC1 system but without the noise-reduction technology. It's a cheaper alternative for people who don't consider noise a huge problem, although there are 'levels' of quietness, and we find that our LE systems are still much quieter than most off-the-shelf PCs. However, with Intel's new Prescott CPUs the heat problem will get worse, and being able to move enough air through the system to keep it cool while keeping the noise under control is certainly a challenge."

DE: "We work closely with our suppliers, Chieftec, to source a high-quality chassis with excellent air flow and heat dissipation, and also standardise on Chieftec power supplies that offer a high output with a low noise level. This helps keep costs down, as we bulk-buy power supplies and cases, and this saving is passed onto the consumer. For noise dampening we use products such as the Zalman 7000 ALCU ultra-quiet cooler and the AcoustiPack foam kit, which helps to reduce high-pitched noises from peripherals such as hard disks and cooling fans. Overall we feel this provides a good balance between noise, heat and cost."

PE: "A number of different components make up a quiet PC. We allow customers to select one, several or all of these, depending on their budget and requirements. In most circumstances we would suggest, in order of noise-reducing effectiveness: PSU; CPU fan; VGA heatsink (if required); acoustic insulation or drive enclosures; case. It's a good idea to get the case right at the start, as this is the most inconvenient component to change later. If a customer wants the quietest system possible, we don't compromise at all."

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AMD Vs Intel

If you only sell Intel-based systems, why is this, and what, if anything, would change your mind? If you do sell PCs based on AMD as well as Intel processors, what prompted this split approach?

TC: "We only sell Intel-based systems using Intel chipsets, simply because this is the only way you can guarantee full compatibility. All hardware and software is tested on Intel systems, and although it is also tested with AMD systems the main problem with these is the variety of chipset permutations that can cause issues — whereas with Intel, as long as you stick with an Intel CPU and Intel chipset you are almost certain to have no compatibility issues. The only change to this will be with the introduction of AMD's 64-bit processor and the eventual arrival of Microsoft's 64-bit Operating System. Once this leap in technology has settled down and is fully embraced by the hardware and software companies in our industry, the gain in performance would be worth making the switch for. On the other hand, Intel are already about to introduce 64-bit instructions to their new CPU range, so only time will tell."

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Dave Elliott (Inta Audio): "The customer receives a PC ready to go straight from the box, and no setup or configuring is required on their part. We also have direct access to component manufacturers, to ensure any faults or incompatibility issues are ironed out before a system is ready for manufacture."

RV: "Intel has worked really well for us over the years. The combination of performance and stability has been unbeatable. AMD has always been of interest to us and we have spent time testing out AMD systems to see if they offer anything worth pursuing. Up until recently the issues of noise, heat and compatibility have made AMD a troublesome choice next to the cool, quiet and compatible running of Intel systems. However, we are currently testing out Opteron and Athlon 64 systems to see for ourselves what steps AMD have taken to address these issues, and testing out the potential performance gains with music applications. Carillon aim to offer the best systems available and if AMD can provide them, we are happy to supply them — but we'll be our own judge of that."

DE: "We sell both Intel- and AMD-based systems. As stockists of all AMD processors and compatible motherboards we are in a strong position to design a workstation that is stable and reliable for music use. Stocking both processors means that the customer has a wider range to choose from."

JO: "We offer both Intel- and AMD64-based systems as an option for desktops and laptops, to give customers the choice. Within our team we have more or less an equal amount of experience in building and supporting both AMD and Intel systems. Intel are far more popular but it often comes down to an individual's past experiences. We seem to have fewer problems with Intel-based systems, and this may be due to the fact that components and various hardware and software products are produced with Intel processors in mind. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to what each individual customer wants, and as long as we still have customers who prefer AMD over Intel, we will continue to build AMD-based systems."

PR: "We intentionally restrict the range of options we offer, so that we sell parts we are sure will work well. Our preference for Intel derives from their chipsets, rather than the processors themselves. This has been especially important for glitch-free streaming audio over USB. Intel are closely involved in the development of important interconnection standards such as PCI and USB. As a result, their implementations tend to be regarded as definitive. We have built AMD systems, including Athlon 64, for evaluation, but found that the benchmarking results did not make a clear case for adopting the platform at this time. If there was a significant price/performance advantage, and we found no compatibility problems, we would reconsider our policy."

RH: "At present we only sell Intel-based systems. Many manufacturers still advise using their products with Intel systems (for example, Digidesign), and many more will unofficially suggest that Intel would be better, if you speak to their technical departments. We want our computers to be compatible with as wide a range of music hardware and software as possible, and we do not want customers in a position where they're using equipment in a way 'not recommended' by the manufacturer. If something goes wrong, they could find themselves stranded. If more manufacturers were willing to endorse AMD systems, we would certainly reconsider. The situation is much less 'black and white' than it used to be."

PE: "We supply both Intel and AMD systems. This approach is driven by customer demand, as AMD has gained a reputation for being very fast, yet cost-effective. Initially, there were problems relating to heat dissipation, reliability and compatibility, but we have solved the majority of these issues now, aside from a few compatibility questions with certain interfaces. However, we no longer supply dual-processor AMD systems, as reliability, compatibility and availability of spare parts presented problems we could not easily solve."

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Reliability & Testing

What steps do you take to ensure that your systems work first time when delivered, and remain working reliably?

JO: "Every system we build undergoes an intensive 48-hour burn-in test, to verify that it is stable and reliable, before being shipped. This is carried out to stress the components of the system, asking them to execute tasks that will highlight any potential problems. Issues with heat, stability and compatibility become evident during this period, and if there is a weak link we have the opportunity to swap out the offending component, which may otherwise have failed in the hands of the customer — a possible disaster for the recording musician. Although all our components are rigorously tested for compatibility before they are chosen, there are occasions when components, specifically RAM, can exhibit glitches or faults which cause intermittent errors such as blue screens or system crashes. The tests we carry out ensure that this will not affect our customers once they have received their system."

pcmus Rick Holliday.s

pcmus Millennium.s

Rick Holliday (Millennium Music Software): "We offer telephone support for any initial problems, although our customers rarely need to use this, partly because we encourage them to send in any software and hardware they intend to install on their machine so we can configure and test it for them."

DE: "Each of our systems is rigorously tested using our burn-in test software. These tests put the hard disks, memory, CPU and graphics under stress for a period of eight hours, to ensure that all components are working efficiently. Once the workstation has passed the tests, we then provide a report for the customer, outlining the test results. At this point, the chosen soundcard and software is installed and configured. We then take steps to ensure that all updates and drivers are complete. Finally, we follow a 22-point checklist that applies all the necessary tweaks to the system. It is then packaged in a specially designed box, to guarantee that it arrives in full working order."

PE: "Firstly, when building the actual chassis we run burn-in tests for several days to ensure stability of every component. A system designed to be very quiet creates additional complications, as we prefer to utilise fewer fans running more slowly. So temperature levels are monitored carefully, as a CPU running a few degrees too hot is likely to result in a shorter life span. During the configuration stage we have a strict test procedure. Many companies clone the Windows installation from a master copy, but we don't do this, as this process also acts as a test for each component, and can highlight potential problems. As all our systems are bespoke, we create a 'ghost' backup image of the specific installation we create. This is useful just in case a user accidentally formats their hard drive. Yes, it does happen!"

PR: "We start with reliable compatible parts, such as Asus motherboards and Corsair memory, which we know are capable of stable performance. We also build the systems as solidly as we can, making sure that parts are fitted securely, and install the latest software and firmware updates. Then we run extensive functional tests, diagnostic tests and soak tests. We test the actual installed software with the actual hardware. Finally, we run Passmark's BurnInTest for at least 12 hours before we ship systems. We believe that this is an excellent way of catching potential instability."

TC: "Once again, using branded components means that we reduce the failure rate to a minimum, and every system is fully set up and tested prior to delivery. Also, to ensure that they remain working, all our systems have a full customer restore option. The most difficult hardware problems to resolve are intermittent ones that can only be resolved by a long-term soak test. These may be caused by a BIOS setting/revision change or a memory issue. Fortunately, most hardware faults are detected at either the build stage or the installation/testing stage, and they are resolved then."

RV: "Testing combined with the use of known components is the best defence we have against unreliability. If you know that your component choices are good in the first place and your testing has borne this out, you've done the hard work already. All our systems are installed by an engineer who then spends time testing and checking the system. That system is then tested and checked by a second engineer as a safeguard. Every input and output, MIDI and audio, is tested, and the music software is run and used during the testing process. When the system's backup recovery disk is created we know that system works, and if something subsequently gets installed that messes up the system, or there's a virus attack — or the more common attack of the six-year-old daughter — you can return the system to a working state in a few minutes by running that recovery disk. Unfortunately, after all our hard work we're left in the hands of the courier who delivers the system to the customer. The small number of DOA (Dead On Arrival) systems we experience are down to extreme bad handling by couriers. For example, one delivery was dropped off the tailgate of a truck onto concrete."

RH: "We subject each new system to a battery of tests. These include hardware stress tests using programs designed for this purpose; individual component tests, such as burning test CDs; performance tests to ensure that, for example, a new hard drive transfers data as quickly as it should; and 'real use' tests — for example, recording audio test tones to ensure that the system records and plays back without glitches. We make sure that any potential problems resulting from the choice of hardware and software are solved before our customer receives their PC."

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Meet The Panel

Tony Cox, PC Sales & Marketing Manager, Digital Village www.dv247.com

Tony first started out working for Francis Day & Hunter, an MI Store in Charing Cross Road in 1983, later moving to Turnkey as Sales Manager. His introduction to using computers for music was via a Commodore 64 using Pro 16 (later to become Cubase) software, followed by an Atari, then PCs in the early '80s. He joined Digital Village in 1999 as Sales Manager of their Croydon store and became DVPC Sales & Marketing Manager in early 2001.

Dave Elliott, Technical Director, Inta Audio Computer Systems www.inta-audio.com

Dave has been interested in making music from an early age. He had his first experience with computers and music back in 1999, and went on to build his first music computer. It was at this point that the idea for Inta Audio began to evolve. With help from other technically minded people, Inta Audio has become a wel-established company known for its outstanding music-based computers.

Phil Elliott, PC Music Specialist, Red Submarine www.sub.co.uk

Having worked for nine years as a recording engineer, Phil joined Red Submarine in 2000 as a sales consultant, covering PCs for music. As a self-confessed 'frustrated musician with perfect pitch' Phil spent many years lending an ear to budding musicians in the studio, and now spends his time lending an ear to people who want their own studio!

Rick Holliday, Managing Director, Millennium Music Software www.millennium-music.co.uk

After releasing a string of albums and singles as part of the '80s band B-Movie, Rick started building PCs for Millennium customers over 10 years ago. His first PC was supplied to a Radio 4 reporter who wanted to edit his own reports in the garden rather than book time in one of the BBC studios. After everything went 'pear-shaped' on the reporter's home PC, Rick was instructed to build him a "PC that would just work!" and did just that.

John Oxley and Joe East, MD & Executive Director, Nusystems www.nusystems.co.uk

John and Joe form the nucleus of Nusystems, with a combined 15 years experience in building computer systems for music production. Nusystems was born with the aim of making dedicated audio PCs more affordable, bringing the cost down as close to a standard PC as possible, while maintaining the superior quality that a dedicated DAW requires.

Philip Rees, Owner, Philip Rees Music Technology www.philrees.co.uk

Philip Rees is an experienced, qualified electronic and computer engineer who established his own business in 1986. He's designed and manufactured a range of MIDI accessories marketed under his own name, and has retained a personal interest in hi-tech music-making. In recent years, he and his team moved into building turnkey music PCs, which is now the main focus of their activities.

Robin Vincent, Technical Director, Carillon Audio Systems www.carillondirect.com

Robin is responsible for ensuring the quality of Carillon PC systems, which includes overseeing production, research and development of new products and continuing development of existing products. He's responsible for the technical support department, dealing first-hand with customers and the occasional on-site installation. He also writes all Carillon's tutorials and documentation, maintains their web sites, and trains all the staff at Carillon and their international distributors. He's also managed to find time to write two computer music books (PC Music — The Easy Guide and The Guitarist Guide to Computer Music, both available from PC Publishing).

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Technical Support

One obvious benefit to customers over a DIY PC is after-sales technical support. What do you offer?

DE: "We offer three years technical support on all hardware and software purchased with a workstation. Our tech support can be reached via telephone, email or fax; tech support hours are Monday-Friday 10.30am to 3.30pm and Saturday 10am to 1pm."

TC: "Digital Village Tech support comes in two tiers. Our customers have the option of either talking to a PC specialist in one of our stores or receiving tech support direct from Digital Village head office, where all our PCs are built and prepared by one of our technicians."

pcmus Carillon Robin Vincent.s

pcmus Inta.s

Robin Vincent (Carillon): "Although we like to keep our ear to the ground for new and interesting products, one thing we've learned is that 'reviews' are no more than an indication that something might be worth looking at. How well something actually works comes down to using it for ourselves."

RV: "We provide 'Carillon How' tutorials, Carillon Fix remote dial-in diagnostic software, and a 'Carillon Recovery' backup image free with every system. Systems that cannot be fixed with the above procedures or have gone down due to hardware failure will be collected and fixed/repaired/replaced at Carillon and returned to the customer free of charge. We also have a dedicated support web site containing all the latest driver and software version information, issues, tutorials and resources, plus office hours phone and email tech support. We have experienced support staff who have come across every imaginable configuration and can use our Carillon Fix utility to dial into a customer's machine and see and operate it remotely. This not only allows us to fix problems but also lets us see how the customer uses the system, which can often show where the problem originates."

JO: "As a new company we are still improving our support, and have a few new features to add to the package. We hope they will be in place by the end of Summer 2004. These will include three years technical support, by phone and email, as standard with all our systems. We already provide support on all aspects of our computers, as well as music software and soundcard configuration. One good thing about dealing with an up-and-coming company such as ourselves is that each system we build is unique and individual and we remember all of our customers. Generally, the person that actually built the PC is always on hand to answer any query the customer may have."

PR: "We try to deal with support queries in the same way we would if personal friends sought technical help. We will reply by email to technical support queries received by email or via our Online Support Service, and aim to respond within one working day. We also respond to technical support queries received by telephone, which is what most customers prefer. The support contract is free for the first year and renewable at charge for subsequent years. The annual charge for renewal of the support contract is currently £25."

RH: "We offer technical support by email for the lifetime of the machine. All our PCs are supplied with the Millennium Help Files, containing comprehensive help, advice and solutions to common problems. We also offer telephone support for any initial problems, although we are proud to note that our customers rarely need to use this, partly because we encourage them to send in any software and hardware they intend to install on their machine so we have the opportunity to configure and test it for them. Finally, our systems are covered by a 'whole system' warranty for the first year, meaning that if, for example, the hard drive fails, we will collect the PC, replace the hard drive, reconfigure and test the machine and return it to the customer ready to use once more."

PE: "Red Submarine have sold audio computer systems for seven years now, and our 10 full-time members of staff are able to draw on this experience to help customers avoid many of the usual pitfalls associated with computer music production. We provide technical support by telephone and email weekdays from 9am to 5.30pm, and customers often speak to the engineer who actually built their machine. If we are unable to solve a problem by email or telephone, the technician will arrange free collection of the machine within the warranty period. We aim to turn around most repairs within five working days."

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Final Thoughts

The answers provided by the retailers who've participated in this article provide an insight into the amount of effort that goes into building bespoke PC systems that should work first time they are switched on and carry on functioning reliably for the lifetime of the machine. You can build a PC from a list of parts, but it's obvious that a considerable amount of research goes into the systems being discussed here, not only in choosing a balanced and reliable set of components, but also sourcing the most reliable suppliers and soak-testing the assembled PCs.  

Roland Octapad - NAMM 2010

Processing Power

PC Notes

Technique : PC Notes
Is PC processing power finally matching the aspirations of PC musicians? PC Notes debates the issue, as well as bringing you another crop of news, tips and ideas.
Martin Walker

As I write this in early 2005, the year is predicted to be one of enormous turbulence for the hi-tech sector, with plenty more mergers, acquisitions, and alliances forecast. I'm sure part of the problem in the domestic PC market is simply that many people already have a computer that's quite fast enough for their purposes, and don't intend to update it in the near future. But are we musicians also getting to the point where processing power is finally keeping pace with our aspirations?

When I first started reviewing software-based PC effects, even a single reverb could only be applied as an off-line process because its CPU overhead was greater than 100 percent. Then, as clock speeds increased and coding algorithms became ever more optimised, real-time audio effect processing became possible (around 1997), and we were finally able to alter software reverb parameters and hear the results while we did so. This was a revelation!

Mind you, a decent reverb plug-in could still consume almost 100 percent of the resources of a Pentium 100MHz PC, and it wasn't until the next generation of processors (in my case, a 300MHz Pentium II in 1998) that we could run several plug-ins simultaneously, as well as a few voices from an early soft synth such as Native Instruments' Generator (the forerunner to Reaktor) or the (at the time) revolutionary Gigasampler, with its sample streaming.

By the time I bought my 1GHz Pentium III PC in 2001, Steinberg's Cubase VST sequencer was up to version 5 and already included a huge plug-in bundle and support for 32-bit/96kHz recording and playback, while real-time physical modelling without dedicated hardware was available from products such as AAS' Tassman, and analogue-style soft synths were even starting to appear from freeware developers. Fast forward another three years to 2004, when many of us were running processors with clock speeds of 3GHz or more, writing songs whose sounds were entirely created within or streamed via software and treated using further software plug-ins. The 'software studio' had finally become a practical reality.
Tiny Tips
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If you let Windows XP continue trying to detect hardware devices attached to every possible connector on your motherboard it can really slow down your PC's boot-up routine. The answer is to disable Auto Detection for devices you know are no longer connected.
How would you like to reduce your Windows XP booting time by more than half? That's what I managed to do this month, after becoming increasingly frustrated with how long I had to wait for the desktop to appear.
Back in April 2003 I described Microsoft's Bootvis tool for examining various aspects of XP's boot process, and at the time stated that after various optimisations my PC took just 37 seconds to reach the desktop. I timed it again this month and even my slimmed-down XP Music partition was taking a massive 100 seconds to boot up. Something had obviously changed, and fortunately it didn't take me long to track down the culprit, since I'd noticed that the boot process seemed to 'hang' at a few points, suggesting that it was searching for something that wasn't there. After changing any of my hard, CD, or DVD drives, I always go into the BIOS and, for each drive position (Primary Master, Slave, and so on) with nothing connected, I change the Type from its default 'Auto' (Automatic detection) to ''Not Installed', so that the BIOS doesn't waste time looking for hardware that isn't plugged in. However, I've discovered that Windows XP now ignores the BIOS settings and searches again anyway, which meant that it was wasting time looking for four devices that didn't exist. The answer was to go into Device Manager, expand the IDE ATA/ATAPI Controllers section, and then open in turn each entry named Primary or Secondary IDE Channel, go to their Advanced pages and, for each instance where the Current Transfer Mode box contained the words 'Not Applicable' (ie. nothing detected), change this Device Type from Auto Detection to None (see screenshot). It's such a simple procedure when you know how, and my boot-up time immediately dropped nearly 60 percent, to just 42 seconds!
The End Of The Dragster?

But have you noticed a change in emphasis from manufacturers? I reported in the January 2005 PC Notes that Intel had cancelled (or at least delayed) its proposed 4GHz Prescott processor due to overheating problems, in favour of dual-core designs where two or more processors of slower clock speeds are run side-by-side on the same chip — a tactic already adopted by AMD.
Meanwhile, nearly all the TV advertising I saw for computers in the run-up to Christmas 2004 was for products of the smaller/lighter/cheaper variety, rather than the traditional faster/more expensive sort. This is partly due to consumers switching from bulky desktop computers to far more convenient laptop machines — but in addition, even mainstream PC manufacturers are beginning to realise that consumers are getting bored and frustrated with the 'dragster' approach for home PCs, where speed is of the essence and no-one worries about all the extra noise. Instead they're beginning to concentrate more on making their machines run quieter and cooler. This has to be a good thing for musicians, although we were already way ahead of this trend.
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Many of us are now spoilt for choice by huge collections of commercial and freeware plug-in soft synths and processors — but do we use them all to their full potential? If not, maybe it's time to downsize.
Similarly, now that manufacturers are starting to put several processors on the same chip for home computers, and home networking is becoming more common (because many families have several computers in the house that all require Internet access), many PC musicians are once again ahead of the times, as they've already set up home networks to run more soft synths and plug-ins using distributed processing.
Great Expectations

So as PC musicians we have a history of pushing the envelope — but does this incredible processing power at our fingertips, along with the comparative silence of our computers, make us content as musicians? In a huge number of cases, it seems not, but I suspect it depends on exactly when you entered the fray. Those — like myself and many other SOS readers and contributors — who started using home computers when MIDI was king, and when playing back a single stream of 8-bit/11kHz audio seemed amazing, have had time to adapt to each new increment of PC technology, marvel at each one in turn, work with and finally conquer them. On the other hand, those coming to the PC within the last few years generally seem to have much higher initial expectations but also face a much more daunting learning curve, with so many new technologies to master in one huge bite — plug-ins, soft synths, host applications, streaming, and so on. We at SOS do our collective best to explain how to get the best out of all these new goodies, but it's perhaps hardly surprising that some musicians quickly become disillusioned when they aren't churning out memorable tracks within a few weeks of buying their new PC.
Small Can Be Good

What can you do if you're in the situation I've just described? Well, one approach that's always worked for me is to slim things down. Although you can produce great songs when running 48 tracks of audio with multiple plug-ins on each one, plus dozens of soft synths, some of the most memorable music of the past was created using eight tracks or fewer.

One of the few positive things about hardware synths being so expensive was that it took you so long to save up for one (or pay back the debt on your credit card) that you had the opportunity to learn it inside out before you could afford to buy another. Nowadays it's just too easy to buy something new every few weeks, or download loads of free plug-ins and soft synths in the expectation of being able to achieve more. Often, all this does is bog you down with yet more choices for every creative decision. However, it doesn't have to be this way. I've noticed, on the forums, a small but noticeable trend for musicians to discard all those plug-ins and soft synths that they haven't used for the last few months and really get to know those that they already use and enjoy.

So don't feel that you have to have the newest and fastest PC in order to make music. I know musicians with strings of successful albums who still rely on three-year-old PC laptops — and perhaps that's one reason why they were able to produce such successful work! And, strangely, those who are still running Windows 98 in many cases seem to be writing more music than those who rebuild their PCs every six months and install every update that Microsoft releases. I'm not knocking DIY or keeping up to date — it's just that it all takes time.

 So when you next feel musically uninspired, don't necessarily reach for your credit card to buy something new for your PC. Instead, why not slim down your plug-in options, explore an unknown function of your existing sequencer, or adopt a radically different approach to kick-start your creativity?

Akai SynthStation - NAMM 2010

Monday, April 14, 2014

Alesis DM10 Studio - NAMM 2010

Hard Drive Defragmentation

PC Musician

Technique : PC Musician

Does defragmenting your hard drives, including the ones you use for recording audio, really result in better PC performance? Opinion is divided, so we take a considered look at the subject, as well as testing some of the most suitable 'defragger' utilities.

Martin Walker

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Fragmented hard disk data as represented in the Perfect Disk defragmentation utility.

Defragmentation is essentially the art of rearranging files on your hard drives to enhance performance, and there are regular queries on the SOS Forums from people asking what is the best 'defragger' utility. Noticing these queries, I thought that I'd investigate a few such utilities and report back with my findings, as part of a more general roundup of software that proves particularly handy for the PC musician. However, during the course of my research I discovered so many conflicting opinions on the actual merits of hard drive defragmentation — ranging from those who recommend 'defragging' after every recording session to those who never do it at all, claiming either that it's unnecessary or that it can even degrade performance — that I decided to explore the whole subject in more detail, with the needs of the musician in mind.

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What's Fragmentation?

Because Windows saves data wherever it can on your hard drives, often in unused gaps between other saved files, some files may end up in several scattered fragments. Reading such a file takes longer than reading one stored in a single piece, as the read/write heads have the additional travel time of jumping from the end of one fragment to the beginning of the next before continuing to read its data. As you carry on deleting and saving files, and particularly as your drive fills up beyond 70 percent or so of its total capacity, fragmentation may get worse.

Defragmenting the contents of your hard drive involves locating all the parts of each fragmented file and bringing them back together, by saving the now contiguous data to another more suitable location on the drive. This means that Windows only has to look in one place for each file, which can help its performance, by avoiding unnecessary read/write head activity, and can result in both Windows and its applications loading more quickly. General file access can also be smoother.

If you adopt the outer 'Current Project' partition and inner 'Project Backups' partition arrangement that I suggested in last month's PC Musician, before you start on any new project you'll be able to delete the entire contents of the outer partition, so that it starts with a clean slate and no fragmentation, for maximum performance. However, if you're maintaining large unpartitioned hard drives holding vast amounts of data, fragmentation can become an increasingly important issue. While your Windows partition may benefit from regular attention, drives containing audio and particularly video files may benefit even more, because they are not only much larger but also more likely to be regularly edited during a project, resulting in further fragmentation.

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Internal Disk Geometry

Many large, modern drives contain multiple platters and four or more read/write heads, so we can't always visualise our files as being best laid-out neatly in one area of one platter — indeed, it may sometimes be preferable to have a single file spread over several platters, so that it's easily accessible to several read heads almost simultaneously. A drive may also feature cache memory of 8MB or more, which can also affect the issue of optimum file placement, because some of the required data may already be present in the cache (although reading and writing audio files nearly always results in large files that will soon swamp any cache).

Some commentators claim that multiple platters and large caches mean that defragger utilities that gather together all the fragments of long files into one neat area will automatically result in worse performance. They also imply that the utility developers are conning the public, because this approach undermines attempts by both drive and operating system to place the data according to their own internal algorithms. However, this view doesn't take into account the fact that defragger utilities are also written by file system experts, and their own algorithms are obviously honed and polished by practical tests with real-world systems. It doesn't matter how much theoretical discussion there is: if you defrag your drive and can measure an improvement in performance, such as an increased number of audio tracks before your audio application conks out, that utility works for you! Unfortunately, in my discussions with defrag utility developers it became clear that their algorithms don't take into account the unique access pattern of multitrack audio applications with large simultaneous numbers of huge audio files — so, as they say, your mileage may vary!

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Defragging Guidelines

Apple state that their users probably won't need to defragment at all if they run the Mac OS X operating system, because the Extended formatting (HFS Plus) of Mac OS X avoids re-using space from deleted files as much as possible, to avoid prematurely filling small, recently freed areas. Windows doesn't yet seem to be quite as clever, so defragging is still useful for the PC Musician. It also seems generally accepted that keeping plenty of free space on Windows drives or partitions (30 percent or more) will help Windows save new files more sensibly, rather than letting it work around gaps between existing files. The general advice given by most PC experts is that anyone who still creates their hard drives in FAT32 format should periodically analyse them to check fragmentation levels. Those who have adopted the more recent (and more secure) NTFS format are less likely to experience fragmentation, but they should also still occasionally check on fragmentation levels.

If you click on the Analyse button of Window's own bundled Disk Defragmenter tool, it will suggest you defragment a partition or complete drive once the fragmentation level reaches a certain threshold (implying a noticeable downgrading of performance) — although you can, of course, ignore its advice and defragment as often as you like, for smaller performance benefits. It certainly makes sense to do so after installing Windows, after installing lots of new software (and, in particular, games, which can sometimes include a huge number of files), or after a good clear-out when you may have deleted lots of files.

You can set up many defraggers to defrag at a specific time and date, but I always avoid such an approach, since my PC isn't switched on 24 hours a day and I don't want defragmentation to start if I happen to be busy doing something important at the time. Others may offer to run quietly in the background, but however clever they claim to be in detecting when the user is asking the PC to perform other tasks, I still err on the side of caution when running audio applications and disable such cleverness, just in case it results in a single click during an otherwise perfect take. I personally tend to instigate a routine manual defrag of my Windows drive once every month or so, if necessary.

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When To Defrag An Audio Drive

Whatever your personal decision for your Windows and application partition or drive, when it comes to those used to store audio and video files even Apple are in agreement that people who create or modify large audio or video files might benefit from defragmentation (even when running Mac OS X). However, there's also a school of thought that says you're better off not tidying up huge audio files into single neat units, as I first explained way back in SOS April 2002 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr02/articles/pcmusician0402.asp). When reading long multiple audio tracks, your sequencer application will access a chunk of each one in turn, before returning for another chunk of each one. So storing them in interleaved chunks of the size your audio application uses may result in less drive activity than having any existing fragments painstakingly reassembled into neat monolithic files, one after the other.

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The Disk Defragmenter utility bundled with Windows XP won't consolidate your free space into one neat chunk, as shown by the large number of white gaps between chunks of data displayed here.

At the time of writing the article mentioned above, I suggested that only the sequencer developers themselves could provide us with a suitable utility to rearrange audio files to suit their particular file requirements. However, in the absence of such utilities, I suggest that if you (for example) record 16 simultaneous live audio tracks into an empty partition and then play them back and do a little editing and mixing, you shouldn't defragment at all — your data will already have been laid down in possibly the best arrangement on the drive.

However, if you do lots of subsequent editing, or store various songs or projects on the same partition or drive, it makes sense to defragment, particularly if you notice any tell-tale signs of excessive drive activity. One classic sign is increased audio drive noise: a series of steady clicks indicates progressive head movements as each chunk is accessed, whereas erratic or frantic whirring suggests that the read/write heads are being thrashed to and fro and the drive may thus benefit from a defrag. Another tell-tale sign of erratic drive activity is occasional spikes on your audio application's disk meter. If these coincide with the start of a new verse or section it may simply be because your song has just started accessing lots of new audio parts simultaneously. However, if these spikes are more random, they may suggest the presence of lots of fragmented files. A defragger analysis will soon tell you. In the case of frantic drive activity you'll probably notice a drop in head noise after defragging — which would confirm the diagnosis.

Defragmented partitions will probably also take less time to back up, and will probably generate audio export files or render video or animation files more quickly. Moreover, consolidating the free space on your drive into one huge chunk can also make audio clicks and pops or dropped video frames during future recordings less likely, because future recordings won't immediately end up wedged into the remaining nooks and crannies. Such consolidation can sometimes prove as beneficial as defragmenting the files themselves.

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Microsoft's Bundled Defragger

Having discussed the pros and cons of defragging your hard drives, we'll turn to what's on offer for doing the job. First, Windows XP and 2000 both include a Disk Defragmenter utility (a cut-down version of Executive Software's Diskeeper product), which can monitor your file activity to work out which files you access most often and then rearrange them on your hard drives to eliminate excessive head seek activity. This 'pre-fetch optimisation' only works if you have Task Scheduler enabled, but if you want to avoid the possibility of file rearrangement happening at an inopportune moment you can manually run the Defragmenter utility whenever you prefer.

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Executive Software's Diskeeper 9 Pro is the 'full' version of the defragger bundled with Windows, and offers far quicker and more thorough performance, but consolidates free space as a separate process.

The Windows Defragmenter is a freebie, which is always nice, but many musicians do become dissatisfied with it, as it has various limitations compared with the full version available direct from Executive Software (more on this in a moment). These limitations include the inability to defragment the MFT (Master File Table) on NTFS-formatted drives, directories on FAT32 formats, the paging file, and certain other system files. The freeware Page Defrag utility from www.sysinternals.com that I first mentioned in PC Notes October 2003 will take care of the paging file, but Microsoft's bundled defragger has still more limitations: it can't defragment more than one volume at a time, or be scheduled to run at a specific time, and these latter options prevent you from easily 'defragging' all your drives overnight, for instance, if you would like to. The utility can also take a long time to defragment a volume, even if it contains minimal fragmentation, and for musicians with huge audio and sample drives this can make 'defragging' an excruciating experience. Moreover, it doesn't consolidate the free space into one neat chunk, so even after defragging your neatly reorganised files may still end up spread across several areas of the drive with space between them — making it likely that the next large file you save will immediately become fragmented!

The Windows Defragmenter also requires a minimum of 15 percent free space on a drive to adequately do its job (not very helpful if you have a well-stuffed drive that could benefit from a tidy-up). However, the most annoying limitation is that it simply refuses to defragment some files, for reasons known only to itself. For instance, on my PC it avoids the 450MB of files that comprise Groove Agent's drum kit. Microsoft are quite open about these limitations (you can read the full list of explanations in their Knowledge Base at http://support.microsoft.com/ kb/q227463), but they leave many musicians wanting to search out a better option.

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Defragging Tips

Ensuring that you have plenty of free space on your drive should always help to keep fragmentation levels low, but also offers another benefit: your files should end up being mostly placed in the 'outer' and therefore faster part of the drive for better performance. Some musicians even buy a drive of the 'next size up' to their immediate requirements, to ensure that this happens. It generally doesn't cost much more.

Creating separate smaller partitions for Windows, data, audio files, sample files and so on allows you not only to back up each one more quickly and easily, but also to defragment them considerably more quickly.

If you maintain a separate 'Current Project' partition for your audio files, you can back it up either by creating an image file to another partition or drive, using a utility such as Norton's Ghost, or simply by dragging all the files across using Windows Explorer. If you feel that the file layout created by your audio application may already be perfect, or may have resulted in a set of interleaved files that possibly provide better performance, an image file will preserve this exact layout for posterity. However, for audio backups you may prefer to use Explorer, since its method of copying all the files across in turn will result in zero fragmentation on the backup, and zero fragmentation if you later move them back for further editing. Using this approach, you may never need to defragment your audio partition.

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Executive Software Diskeeper 9 Pro

A widely purchased alternative is Executive Software's Diskeeper 9 Professional (www.execsoft.co.uk) at £45 including VAT, or $49 from the US web site. I've seen claims from some users that this runs up to 10 times as fast as the cut-down version bundled with Windows. Unlike that version, it also offers complete rather than partial defragmentation (although it still does its work best if you have at least 20 percent of free space left on your partition). In addition, it consolidates free space, deals with critical system files when running its Boot-Time Mode, and can defragment multiple partitions simultaneously. None of these operations are offered by the cheaper Diskeeper Home version, which, although being offered for only £23 on UK and $30 on US web sites, should probably therefore be avoided.

Both Home and Pro versions of Diskeeper offer a 'set and forget' feature that defrags in the background. Most musicians should really disable this, to avoid it cutting in at the wrong moment. (Incidentally, some users have found that despite disabling 'set and forget' mode it is automatically activated after a manual defrag and remains so until the next reboot — so don't defrag your audio drive with it and immediately try recording a huge live performance!)

I was impressed by Diskeeper 9 Pro's straightforward yet thorough approach to both online and offline (ie. performed on the next boot before Windows is loaded) defragging. However, its multi-pass engine may end up taking longer to complete the task on congested drives than some rivals, since it may require several passes to achieve optimum file placement. Moreover, while it does consolidate free space, it does this as a separate, ongoing process as part of 'set and forget' mode, rather than as part of the defragging operation.

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Raxco Software Perfect Disk Workstation

Diskeeper 9 Pro has many contented users, but during my research two other products stood out as having particular strengths for the PC musician. The first is Raxco Software's Perfect Disk Workstation (www.raxco.com/products/perfectdisk2k) which, for about £40, has won a lot of admirers for the thoroughness of its speedy single-pass defragmentation, which nearly always means that all your files will be placed in their new optimum positions in one run. It also works well down to five percent of remaining free space if your drives are well stuffed. Perfect Disk Workstation may also be more suitable for anyone running Windows Server 2003 or a PC network (which normally require a more expensive Server version of most other defragmenters), and will cope with several huge drives of several terabytes in size. It also supports all levels of RAID, for those with more ambitious setups.

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Although it may not provide the most versatile set of options, Raxco Software's Perfect Disk proved to be the fastest and easiest-to-use defragger on test, which should please any musician with several huge drives.

If you want the fastest results, the software's Smart Placement algorithms work well, although they may leave some tiny blocks of free space between files. While it takes a little longer, the 'Aggressively free space consolidation' option makes more sense for audio and sample drives. For the most thorough results, the offline defragmentation option can run on the next boot and (depending on the particular operating system and drive format) can deal with the Master File Table, page file, Hibernate file and directories. I found this option quick, easy and thorough.

However, although the user can specifically exclude certain files or folders during an online defrag, Perfect Disk deliberately doesn't support user-customised placement of files, claiming that "this provides little improvement in file system performance". I ended up having some long email correspondence with one of Raxco's System Engineers about this fact, and he maintained that file/free-space defragmentation has a far greater and measurable positive impact on file system/drive peformance than trying to place files at specific logical clusters in the hope that that they're on the 'fastest' part of the drive. Nevertheless, he did admit that he knew little about audio/video streaming, editing and processing, or the algorithms used by audio and video applications to maximise disk performance.

Overall, I was impressed by the speed and thoroughness of Raxco's Perfect Disk and, like various other people who had downloaded the demo version, I was first offered a 20 percent and then a 25 percent discount by email, bringing the final cost down to a very reasonable £30.

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O&O Defrag 6.5

The other defragmenter that may particularly appeal to musicians, and that regularly seems to top the polls in mainstream PC magazines, is O&O's Defrag 6.5. This is largely because although it can sometimes take longer to perform its magic, it tends to result in lower fragmentation overall, even when its competitors claim not to be able to reduce fragmentation on a particular drive any further. The professional edition for use on a single PC running Windows NT, 2000 or XP also costs around £27, which is probably low enough to make it an essential purchase for many musicians. However, you'll need the more expensive Server version if you've got a network or run Windows Server 2003.

Like Perfect Disk, Defrag 6.5 supports any number of IDE or SCSI hard drives, up to terabytes in size, as well as RAID, and defrags the MFT, Registry and paging file. It offers plenty of background defrag options, such as automatic defragging once a particular drive reaches a pre-determined threshold defragmentation level, and neat twists such as automatically dropping into pause mode if you unplug your laptop from the mains (to preserve its batteries), then automatically continuing where it left off as soon as you plug it in again. Sadly, for the musician automatic functions such as these are mostly to be avoided.

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With a variety of defragging methods on offer, O&O Software's Defrag 6.5 initially seems a perfect candidate for the musician, although on closer inspection the options may not do exactly what the doctor ordered.

It was the software's five optimisation strategies that particularly caught my attention. Stealth mode is the fastest method, most suitable for initial defragmentation and for large file servers. It also performs some free space consolidation, although full details of its strategy aren't explained. Space mode requires far less free space on the drive than the other approaches and it maximises the contiguous free space more thoroughly, whereas the Complete/Access, Complete/Modified, and Complete/Name methods additionally reorganise your entire file placement on the drive, according to when files were most recently accessed or most recently modified, or alphabetically.

I immediately started making plans to measure performance improvements after optimising my Gigastudio streamed sample partition using the Complete/Access mode, so that the instruments I used most often would end up at the beginning of the drive for quickest future access and best polyphony (remember that on most drives read performance drops from the outside to the inside by about 50 percent). It's impossible to guess the practical results of such a reorganisation, because while your most-used instruments will benefit from a faster transfer rate, this might place others used in a particular song further away, resulting in more read/write head activity to access them.

However, my plans were thwarted when I read the help file more closely, since O&O organise files in the opposite way to my desired placement, putting least-accessed files at the beginning of your drive. The rationale is that placing seldom-used files near the beginning makes future defragmentations quicker, as fewer files need to be checked and defragmented. As far as I could see, this is good for the future performance of the O&O utility but not for the musician, and sadly my email enquiry for more information remains so far unanswered.

I did try the Complete/Name strategy on my Windows partition, because this claims to speed up boot times, but on my (admittedly stripped-down) 5GB partition it made no measurable difference after 1.5 hours of file reorganisation. I also found setting up offline Jobs to perform the defragmentation of system files a confusing experience, and while most mainstream and business users will delight at the cleverness of the Activity Guard that monitors CPU usage, to ensure that you can always carry on working while defragging in the background, it again won't suit the musician who demands maximum performance from a PC for audio, and is far more likely to want to perform a defrag during downtime. Overall, I was impressed by Defrag 6.5, but at present I don't think it's the ideal product for the musician.

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HDD Health

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It won't make your hard drive go faster, but the freeware HDD Health from Pantera Soft could alert you to its impending failure.

There's not much point in attempting to squeeze the last drop of performance from your drives if they're about to fail, and advance notice of this is always welcome. HDD Health from Pantera Soft (www.panterasoft.com) is a freeware 'failure-prediction agent' for hard drives that runs on Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000 and XP. Using the SMART (Self Monitoring And Reporting Technology) built in to all modern drives, it monitors various aspects of performance, such as spin speed and error rates, and attempts to predict impending failure. In the past I've always disabled SMART in my BIOS, because of the tiny extra overhead it imposes, but with faster modern drives this overhead ought to be almost undetectable.

Although HDD Health can sit in the System Tray and run in the background, you needn't worry about it impinging on your audio track count, since by default it only polls your drives once every 15 minutes, and you can easily disable it when required or just run it once and exit each time you log into Windows. If it detects any changes that suggest possible problems ahead, it can inform you via a pop-up message, email, net message or event logging.

I've been running this software for several weeks, and although sometimes its announcements of minor changes to one parameter (such as 'Seek Error Rate changes from 79 to 80') on one drive can become annoying, I'm happy to put up with this if it manages to give me notice of impending doom. One SOS Forum user has reported that one of his drives failed disastrously about a week after just such a warning, by which time he'd backed up all data and bought a replacement, just in case. Be warned!

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Final Thoughts

However much I'd like to provide hard and fast answers to the whole subject of defragmentation, the reality is that some of you may rarely suffer from the effects of fragmented files, while others could run into them on a regular basis. Since installing Windows XP I've run the bundled Microsoft defragger every month or so on my Windows partitions, and more rarely on my data ones. Since I don't record huge numbers of audio tracks, this makes sense for me. However, those of you who regularly record multitrack audio (and particularly those who do so at 24-bit/96kHz or higher formats) would be well advised to at least check fragmentation levels on a weekly basis. If you find that your particular regime of recording, playback and editing results in noticeable fragmentation, running a defragger utility on a more regular basis is sensible. Some may notice immediate benefits after doing so, such as audio apps no longer momentarily dropping audio or even stopping altogether during the densest part of a song. It may also result in lower drive noise.

On the other hand, with already low fragmentation levels I can see little point in religiously defragging after every take. Unless your songs are beginning to push the technical limits of your hard drive you're unlikely to notice any improvement in track count if you do this. The one exception is if your drive has less than 30 percent free space. In this scenario, your maximum audio track count is more likely to drop because of fragmentation, and frequent defragging may help — although buying a larger drive is a preferable option.

Having established that defragging is beneficial for most of us at some time, we come to the choice of defragger utility. I personally find the bundled Windows one incredibly slow and tedious for drives larger than a few Gigabytes, and the various limitations discussed earlier further reduce its attractiveness. O&O's Defrag 6.5 might be an ideal candidate for those who want to explore user-configurable file placement, but although this has provided measurable performance benefits for some users, on behalf of musicians I wasn't convinced by the arguments. For me, Raxco's offering was much simpler to use, in both online and offline modes, and was particularly speedy. For those with huge audio drives, I suspect that will be the deciding factor.