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Monday, March 31, 2014

The Studio SOS team build a vocal booth - Part.1

Intel Macs & Music

Apple Notes

Technique : Apple Notes

With another major transition occurring in the Mac world this year, it's time to consider the real ramifications of moving from Power PC to Intel-based Macs for musicians and audio engineers.

Mark Wherry

This month's Apple Notes was going to be about the new Intel-based iMac, but, as I eagerly unpacked the machine, I soon realised that an evaluation from a musician and audio engineer's perspective might be a little premature. Don't get me wrong: it's a clearly a great machine, running cooler, quieter and faster than the G5-based iMacs. But as I started to hook up various peripherals and install software for testing, it became clear to me that there are going to be some big questions for users investigating new Intel-based Macs, concerning applications, drivers and plug-ins. In the following article we'll try to answer these questions and offer a guide to navigating this latest transition for Mac-based musicians.

What's The Problem?

When programmers write the code that becomes the music and audio software we use on a daily basis, it is eventually compiled into a form that the computer can actually execute, using instructions specific to the type of processor used by the computer. So the biggest problem with changing the processor family in a platform such as the Mac is that no existing software will run. Even though Apple engineered OS X from the beginning to be a cross-platform operating system that can easily be ported to different architectures (such as Intel's), an application compiled for a Power PC version of OS X won't run on an Intel machine running OS X.

This window reveals something 'About This Mac' that most Apple observers probably never expected to see.

This window reveals something 'About This Mac' that most Apple observers probably never expected to see.

This is obviously a pretty big problem, since it means that every developer must, at the very least, recompile their code to run on an Intel version of OS X. Furthermore, if a developer used instructions or techniques in their code that were specifically for Power PC processors, these parts of the programme must be rewritten (or ported) to an Intel-equivalent instruction for the application to be recompiled.

One of the most often-cited differences between the Power PC and Intel architectures is the Jonathan Swift-inspired issue of Big and Little Endian byte orders. In computer-speak, a bit (or binary digit) is an element that can be either 1 or 0. A byte stores eight bits, so a 16-bit number requires two bytes of memory to be stored. In a Little Endian architecture, the 16-bit number is stored with the first eight bits in memory first, followed by the last eight bits, while a Big Endian system stores the same number in the reverse order: the second byte followed by the first.

Since computers still deal with bytes, the order in which these bytes are stored in a program is obviously pretty crucial, so for code to work correctly on both Intel and Mac systems it must be 'Endian aware', or preferably 'Endian independent', so that it works on either system. This is just one simple example, and the good news is that most modern applications already deal with it, especially those that are cross-platform by design (ie. those that have a version for Mac OS X running on Power PC processors and one for Windows running on Intel processors or processors that use the Intel instruction set).

A larger problem is that of optimisation. General computer processors are so great for running DSP algorithms on audio these days largely because of technologies such as the Altivec instruction set (or Velocity Engine), originally introduced on the G4, which provides instructions designed to speed up mathematical operations used heavily in DSP. Although Intel chips offer an equivalent to the Altivec instruction set, known as the various SSE (Streaming SIMD Extensions) sets, converting Altivec code to SSE does require a little work. Again, though, with many applications already being cross-platform, it's likely that developers already have suitable SSE optimisations from the Windows version that can now be used in the Mac version as well.

The Finder's Get Info window now specifies what architecture a file (whether it's an application, a bundle or a plug-in) is built for, under the 'Kind' heading. 'Universal' indicates a Universal Binary, whereas 'Power PC' and 'Intel' refer specifically to those architectures.

The Finder's Get Info window now specifies what architecture a file (whether it's an application, a bundle or a plug-in) is built for, under the 'Kind' heading. 'Universal' indicates a Universal Binary, whereas 'Power PC' and 'Intel' refer specifically to those architectures.

From a programming perspective, Apple have another solution. Instead of converting Altivec instructions to SSE, there's an aptly named Accelerate framework that provides similar commands for high-speed maths operations. The idea is that the commands in the Accelerate framework are independent of the actual processor hardware, so you can write code with these commands that does the hard work of telling Altivec or SSE what to do without having to worry about writing specific instructions.

Intel have a similar programming library, known as Integrated Performance Primitives (IPP), for tasks such as signal processing (and more besides). Although IPP code won't run on Power PC chips, it does illustrate another advantage to Apple's new relationship with Intel: namely, Intel's highly-regarded development will be available to Mac developers as well. At the time of writing, IPP and development tools such as Intel's own C/C++ compiler are in beta.

As a footnote, it should be pointed out that Altivec is often used for optimisation, and much code has the provision to run with slower, alternative, non-Altivec code if necessary. This code should be more easily compiled for Intel chips, but won't offer the performance benefits of the same code optimised for SSE.

Rosetta To The Rescue

If all of this sounds like a bit of a nightmare, the good news is that Apple have created a large amount of infrastructure to help users and developers get through the transition as seamlessly as possible. To begin with, there's an emulation technology called Rosetta, which we first discussed in August 2005's Apple Notes (www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug05/articles/applenotes.htm). Rosetta is based on technology that basically gives applications compatibility with a different type of processor instruction set to the one for which they were originally developed. It does this by dynamically translating the code at run time. So with this technology included as part of OS X for Intel Macs, Power PC code is translated into instructions that the Intel processor can understand. The technology behind Rosetta was developed by Transitive (www.transitive.com), a company originally spun off from the University of Manchester in the UK.

This screenshot was taken on an Intel-based iMac. The Get Info windows on the right are for one application, Rax, and two Audio Units, Automat and Zoyd. Notice that Rax is a Power PC application, Zoyd is a Power PC Audio Unit and Automat is a Universal Binary Audio Unit. What this screen demonstrates is that an application running in Rosetta — in this case, Rax — can access Power PC Audio Units whether they're Power PC-only Audio Units (Zoyd), or Universal Binary Audio Units, which contain Power PC code accessible to Rax through Rosetta. Compare this with the Garage Band 3 screenshot (overleaf) taken on the same system.

This screenshot was taken on an Intel-based iMac. The Get Info windows on the right are for one application, Rax, and two Audio Units, Automat and Zoyd. Notice that Rax is a Power PC application, Zoyd is a Power PC Audio Unit and Automat is a Universal Binary Audio Unit. What this screen demonstrates is that an application running in Rosetta — in this case, Rax — can access Power PC Audio Units whether they're Power PC-only Audio Units (Zoyd), or Universal Binary Audio Units, which contain Power PC code accessible to Rax through Rosetta. Compare this with the Garage Band 3 screenshot (overleaf) taken on the same system.

Rosetta makes it possible for an Intel-based Mac to run Power PC applications in a way that's almost completely transparent to the end user: Apple refer to the technology as "the most amazing software you'll never see". However, because the translation process during run time obviously takes quite a bit of processing overhead itself, the performance of the translated application is lower than if it was running natively. For many applications, this dip in performance is not especially significant: Microsoft Word running on a new Core Duo iMac doesn't feel significantly slower than on a Power Mac G5, for example.

The early versions of Rosetta started off as G3 emulators, for the most part, meaning that there was no support for the Altivec instructions used heavily for DSP operations in music software. Rosetta as it ships today, though, offers G4 and Altivec support (along with Open GL support), which will increase compatibility significantly. However, it's important to note that although Altivec instructions can now be emulated via Rosetta, applications using Rosetta won't achieve the same performance increase when running Altivec instructions. This additional support is purely for compatibility, not for performance.

Although I haven't done any real testing yet myself, Propellerhead Software (www.propellerhead.se) tested their main applications with Apple's Developer Transition Kit (DTK), the system shipped to developers last June to give them a head start in preparing Intel-compatible code. According to Propellerhead, "Reason will continue to run in Rosetta, but the performance loss is similar to running Reason on a G3," while "Recycle runs fine in Rosetta, with no measurable performance issues," and "Rewire works, as long as all applications in the session are Power PC-based." It should be noted that the DTK was powered by a single-core 3.6GHz Pentium 4 chip, and Rosetta has presumably since been optimised for the new Core Duo processor used in the first Intel-based Macs.

Not every company in the music and audio space is quite so open to the use of Rosetta, however. Native Instruments, as one example, offer the following warning on their web site: "Native Instruments does not recommend, or offer technical support for, using its products within the Rosetta environment on Intel-based Macintosh computers.

While Rosetta will probably be helpful for mainstream applications, it will be less so for those requiring specialised performance — with music and audio applications, for example. G5-level performance won't be attainable and G5-specific applications won't run at all. Intel-based Macs will actually be the final nail in the coffin for OS 9 users (or, at least, those who want to upgrade to a new Mac but stay with OS 9), since Classic isn't supported or compatible with Rosetta on Intel Macs.

Universally Challenged

Given the general unsuitability of Rosetta for music and audio applications, the solution for all developers is to ship Intel-compatible code as quickly as possible. But it's worth remembering that since this is a transition, developers are going to have to support one operating system — OS X — on two different hardware platforms for quite some time. To help with this, Apple have presented a distribution method referred to as a Universal Binary, which is a package that contains code for both Intel and Power PC architectures. From a user's perspective, working with Universal Binaries won't be any different from working with Power PC applications today: when you run an application, OS X will automatically run the appropriate code, depending on whether your Mac is Intel or Power PC based.

For developers already working with Apple's latest Xcode development tool, creating Universal Binaries should be relatively painless. In some cases, setting a flag to create a Universal Binary and simply recompiling the program's code is all that's necessary, assuming that there's no Power PC-dependent code. For those working with older development systems (notably, Metroworks Codewarrior, which was used to create most Mac software in the OS 9 era), porting large projects to Xcode is going to take some time, even before they can start worrying about Intel vs. Power PC code.

While Apple are undoubtedly hoping that most developers create Universal Binaries, for the convenience of users, someone reminded me recently that Universal Binaries aren't the only way for companies to distribute Mac-Intel-compatible software. It's perfectly possible for a developer to create separate Power PC and Intel versions of the software if they wish, making it possible for these versions to be shipped (and priced) separately. I hope this isn't something the majority of developers will choose, though, as distributing applications, plug-ins and drivers as Universal Binaries will make life easy for those with a mixture of Power PC and Intel systems. Maybe you'll keep your Power Mac G5 for a while and add a Mac Book Pro for mobile work, as an example.

Important issues for users will be at what point developers decide to end support for Power PC Macs and how Universal Binary development costs are passed on. Extra testing and development time do cost money, so many companies — including Apple — will charge small fees for Intel-compatible Mac versions, although, fortunately, some companies will make this more bearable for users by incorporating this charge into the cost of the next major version in some way. Unfortunately, that means that some users will be unable to run Intel-native versions on new Macs before the end of the year.

Who's Gonna Drive Your Mac-Intel?

The abiility to connect external MIDI and audio hardware to their computer is essential for pretty much every Mac-based musician and audio engineer. As with applications and plug-ins, drivers also need to be made available with Intel-compatible code, either as Universal Binaries or stand-alone Intel-only drivers. Here's the driver status of a selection of hi-tech music companies:

Access: At the NAMM show, Access announced that they intend to "release a Universal Binary version of all Virus TI software components, to be compatible with the new Intel Macs" before April 2006.

Emagic: Apple supply a Universal Binary driver for Emagic's Unitor, AMT and MT4 MIDI interfaces, and Universal support files (firmware updater and Preference Panel) for the A26 and A62 audio interfaces, with the Logic 7.2 installer. A specific audio driver isn't required, as this is handled by the generic Core Audio driver. These files weren't available on Apple's web site at the time of writing.

M-Audio: The start of NAMM coincided with M-Audio's release of beta versions of Mac-Intel drivers for their range of Firewire products, such as the 410, 1814 and the new ProjectMix I/O, and the Fast Track USB and Fast Track Pro interfaces. M-Audio engineering staff are apparently hard at work on compatible drivers for all other USB devices.

MOTU: At Macworld in January, Mark Of The Unicorn announced Mac-Intel-compatible drivers for their range of Firewire and USB MIDI and audio interfaces. These drivers are now available for download from the MOTU web site.

RME: RME were one of the first companies (if not the first) to create an Intel-compatible driver, with the release last year of a driver for the company's Fireface 800 interface that was compatible with Apple's Developer Transition Kit. Since Apple haven't released (and are unlikely to release) an Intel machine with PCI-X slots to accommodate RME's other products, the company will presumably support both Intel and Power PC architectures with future PCI Express audio cards.

Roland: Roland have been testing USB drivers with Apple's DTK, and report that these have beeen stable in recent months of testing, without any problems. The drivers should be released once tests have been completed with the iMac and Mac Book Pro. However, not all Roland products require new drivers: the Firewire-based FA66 and FA101 are supported by Core Audio drivers, and USB mass-storage support for products such as the Fantom-X is also handled by the operating system.

No Performance Without Applications

As I was writing this article, the only major application available as a Universal Binary was Garage Band 3. While this app is based on the same audio engine as Logic, I'm not sure to what extent it has been optimised for the Intel Core Duo processor. Logic Pro and Express 7.2 will be available as Universal Binaries by the time you're reading this and, as mentioned in last month's Apple Notes, I was told at the NAMM show that a great deal of effort has gone into optimising Logic for the Core Duo.

Crossgrades can be ordered from www.apple.com/uk/ universal/crossgrade: Logic Pro users can simply pay the £35 fee on-line and order the upgrade CD, while Logic Express users have to pay the £19 fee and then send their original install DVD back to Apple in order to receive the new 7.2 installer. Final Cut Studio users will also need to send back their original DVDs when crossgrading, since only Logic Pro offers dongle-based copy protection.

Garage Band running natively on an Intel Mac with the Automat Audio Units plug-in, which is available as a Universal Binary. This is the same Mac system used for the Rax screenshot on the previous page. Note that Zoyd doesn't show up as an available plug-in in the pop-up menu, because Intel-native applications are unable to run Power PC plug-ins.

Garage Band running natively on an Intel Mac with the Automat Audio Units plug-in, which is available as a Universal Binary. This is the same Mac system used for the Rax screenshot on the previous page. Note that Zoyd doesn't show up as an available plug-in in the pop-up menu, because Intel-native applications are unable to run Power PC plug-ins.

The recent NAMM show turned out to be a big event for announcements concerning compatibility with Intel-based Macs. Ableton announced Live 5.2, an update that specifically brings Mac-Intel compatibility and will be available as a Universal Binary in February for $49. For bug-fixes and other small improvements, Live 5.2 will be a free update for those not requiring Mac-Intel-compatibility. The good news for people who take the plunge and run Live 5.2 as a Universal Binary is that the cost will be refunded later in the year against the cost of upgrading to Live 6. Additionally, the 5.2 Universal Binary update will be free for those new users who purchased Live after the Core Duo-based iMac and MacBook Pro announcements on January 10 at Macworld.

Celemony also announced imminent support for the new Mac-Intel systems, stating at NAMM that compatibility would be offered in the upcoming Melodyne Uno 1.5, which was to be available in February, and in the version 3.1 releases of Melodyne Cre8 and Studio due in the spring. All Mac-Intel updates of Melodyne will be free to registered users.

Many companies in the industry have indicated support for Mac-Intel, but have been more vague as to their intentions regarding releasing compatible software. Steinberg's Director of Product Management, Claus Menke, has stated that the company "will be offering full support in later versions of Cubase and Nuendo in 2006" and that there are already working test versions of both applications on the Mac-Intel platform. Similarly, with the release of suitable drivers for Mac-Intel systems (see 'Who's Gonna Drive Your Mac-Intel?' box), MOTU announced that they were "currently qualifying MOTU software products for use with the new Intel iMac and Mac Book Pro." Presumably, the recently announced Digital Performer 5 will support Mac-Intel in the same way that OS X support was added to the version 4 release.

In Apple's Xcode development system, developers can choose to build a project for either the Power PC or Intel architectures: if both are selected, Xcode builds a Universal Binary that contains the appropriate code for both systems in one package.

In Apple's Xcode development system, developers can choose to build a project for either the Power PC or Intel architectures: if both are selected, Xcode builds a Universal Binary that contains the appropriate code for both systems in one package.

A few companies have been even more vague about Mac-Intel intentions, such as Propellerhead, who stated: "No Universal Binary versions of our software are announced as of now. However, rest assured that Propellerhead Software is still fully committed to the Mac OS platform." On the plus side, as mentioned earlier, at least Reason and Recycle will run under Rosetta on the new Core Duo-powered Macs.

While Digidesign have made no official announcement regarding the company's position on Mac-Intel support, it's reasonable to expect this to be forthcoming at some point this year, hopefully starting with Pro Tools LE for mobile users wishing to use a Mac Book Pro. Digidesign and Apple obviously have a long history of working together and the recent release of Logic Pro 7.2 offers compatibility with the latest Pro Tools HD 7 audio engine. However, it's worth noting that while Logic Pro itself is a Universal Binary, this doesn't mean you can run Logic 7.2 on a Mac-Intel system with Digidesign hardware. Digidesign cautions users that "Although Logic Pro 7.2 is a universal version that runs natively on both Intel- and Power PC-based Mac systems, Digidesign hardware and Pro Tools software are not yet compatible with Intel-based Mac systems. Pro Tools HD hardware currently requires a Power PC-based Mac system or a Windows XP system." Not that there's any commercially available Mac hardware that supports HD hardware, but should Mac-Intel systems with PCI Express slots appear before a Mac-Intel-compatible version of Pro Tools HD — which seems likely, since Digidesign have no reason to release a product that can't be used by anyone — this warning will still be valid.

Although I haven't tried this yet, score-writing software such as Finale and Sibelius should be capable of running in Rosetta. The only incompatibilities should, in theory, stem from both programs' playback abilities, rather than the actual score-writing features. However, Make Music's Chief Marketing Officer, Ron Raup, recently commented that the company wants to "let all our Macintosh users know that we're committed to supporting this important and exciting development for Macintosh in Finale 2007, once it is released later this year."

On the non-commercial front, shareware and freeware developers have also begun to offer Mac-Intel support: v0.9.1 of Plogue's Bidule (www.plogue.com), for example, is available as a Universal Binary. But since these developers typically have fewer resources than larger software companies, it will presumably take time for them to purchase new machines or find suitable testers to verify compatibility.

A Smaller Nano

Moving away from Macs, Apple released a new 1GB iPod Nano this month that retails for just £109 and includes all the features available in the 2GB and 4GB models. (The latter are still available for £139 and £179.) For the same money last month you could have purchased a 1GB iPod Shuffle, but with the introduction of the smaller-capacity Nano, Apple have reduced the price of the 512MB and 1GB iPod Shuffle models to £49 and £69 respectively.

Plug It In, Plug It Out

In some respects, application support for Intel Macs isn't something to worry about: it's likely by the end of the year — once Apple's entire product line has 'transitioned' — that most major applications will be available as Universal Binaries. If they're not, you won't be able to buy a new Mac to run applications such as Pro Tools, Cubase and so on, making it a fair assumption that third-party companies will rise to the challenge. What actually might be a more serious issue, as in the journey from OS 9 to OS X, is that of plug-in instruments and effects. Like applications, plug-ins also need to be recompiled as Universal Binaries and optimised for Intel processors. Unlike applications, however, they won't really be helped by Rosetta.

Photos courtesy of Apple

Launched at the Macworld show back in January, the iMac and the Mac Book Pro (pictured overleaf) are the first Apple Mac products, both featuring a Core Duo chip, to use Intel processors.

Launched at the Macworld show back in January, the iMac and the Mac Book Pro (pictured overleaf) are the first Apple Mac products, both featuring a Core Duo chip, to use Intel processors.

Earlier in this article, I mentioned that Propellerhead had stated that Rewire in Rosetta only works if all the applications you want to run with Rewire are running with Rosetta — in other words, if all the applications are Power PC-based. Similarly, Power PC-based audio plug-ins will only run with Rosetta if they are being hosted by an application that is itself running with Rosetta. So if your host application is running with Intel-native code (either as a Universal Binary or stand-alone application), none of your existing Power PC plug-ins will be usable. And, of course, you absolutely want your host application to be running with Intel-native code (and not with Rosetta) in order to achieve maximum performance.

This is obviously bad news because, once again, as with the transition from OS 9 to OS X, we'll have to wait for plug-in developers to make their products compatible by transforming them into Universal Binaries — there's no way to create a 'wrapper' for Power PC plug-ins, like the method that lets you run VST plug-ins in Logic as Audio Units plug-ins, for example. But how difficult is it going to be for developers to port their plug-ins, and how long will it take?

The OS X-specific code, such as the user interface, shouldn't be an issue in most cases; but problems will arise if the plug-in's audio algorithm was written with the Power PC in mind and makes heavy use of Altivec instructions for performance. As with applications, in cases where the plug-in is already cross-platform it may be possible for SSE code written in the Windows version to be used instead. In the case of the Mac-only plug-ins out there (such as the many Audio Units ones), developers will have to work on porting their code to SSE or one of the higher-level frameworks.

Another factor to bear in mind is that the issue of creating a Universal Binary applies to all plug-in formats: Audio Units, RTAS, TDM, VST, MAS, and so on, must all be recompiled. Furthermore, the developers of these formats must provide Intel compatibility in the SDKs (Software Development Kits) for plug-in developers to be able to create Universal Binaries. The good news here, though, is that the Audio Units SDK is already ready to go and Audio Units plug-ins such as Alphakanal's Automat are available as Universal Binaries. Steinberg also announced Universal Binary compatibility with the VST 2.4 SDK update released at the NAMM show, and although Digidesign's and MOTU's plug-in SDKs aren't freely available, I'm sure these companies are working on upgrades.

Unfortunately, some plug-ins that need to be recompiled for use with Intel-based Mac music systems will get lost along the way because the product is unsupported or the developer is no longer active, or for a similar reason. I know someone who still makes use of the plug-ins that came with TC's legacy audio-editing application, Spark, for example, but obviously these will no longer work in Intel-native host applications, and as Spark is no longer under active development it's probably time to find some alternatives.

Plug-in manufacturers have been fairly quiet so far on the issue of porting their products for Intel-based Macs, probably waiting for host manufacturers to release Intel-native versions for testing. However, Native Instruments have announced a 'preliminary release schedule' for their products. Existing ones will be made Intel-compatible in various stages and will come in the form of either a dedicated Mac-Intel update for a small fee, or as part of a major product update for all platforms. Expect Guitar Rig, Guitar Rig Combos, Traktor DJ Studio, Kontakt, Absynth, FM7 and Reaktor to be available during the second quarter of this year, with Bandstand, Akoustik Piano and B4 to follow by the end of that quarter. Pro 53 will be available during the third quarter, with Battery at the end of the same quarter, while Vokator and Spektral Delay aren't expected until the end of the year. All new Native Instruments product releases, which will presumably include the forthcoming Kore, will be supplied as Universal Binaries out of the box.

Intel Inside

Unlike the previous transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, when Apple made it clear that OS 9 was dead and should no longer be considered in third-party developers' plans, the transition to Intel processors is going to require third-party support for Power PC-compatible code for much longer. The reason is fairly simple: while OS 9 users could, in most cases, easily install OS X on their Mac and carry on working once suitable software was available, there won't be such an easy upgrade for putting an Intel chip in your current Mac. In fact, there won't be an upgrade at all: you simply have to buy a new machine.

This means that there's going to be a fairly large number of Mac users running Power PC-based systems for quite some time, perhaps as long as three to five years. Bearing in mind that there are many people still running Pro Tools on the 'Quicksilver' G4s from 2002, it's reasonable to expect people to still be using Power Mac G5 systems four years from now, especially those machines that are still being purchased and installed at the moment. In addition, companies such as Native Instruments are already reassuring users of continued support, stating that "product releases and updates will continue to support Power PC-based G4 and G5 Macintosh computers until further notice."

Another transition is probably the last thing Mac-based musicians and audio engineers want. But while the last transition brought a modern operating system — I think it's fair to say that few Mac OS X users would ever want to see OS 9 again — the move to Intel promises to bring back the raw performance Macs (and especially mobile Macs) have been missing for the past couple of years. This performance is especially useful for music and audio applications, so coupled with an operating system that has arguably more under the bonnet for these applications than any others, the future of the Mac in this part of the world is looking pretty good.

Unity Audio Boulder - Musikmesse 2010

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Thermionic Culture Freebird - Musikmesse 2010

Core Duo Laptops: Battery Life

PC Notes

Technique : PC Notes

Intel Centrino laptops, especially those using the brand-new Core Duo processor, offer much to the PC-based musician but can suffer a reduction in their usually generous battery life under certain circumstances. We investigate.

Martin Walker

Intel's Centrino laptop design has proven incredibly popular with the PC Musician. Its Pentium-M CPU offers impressive processing power coupled with low power dissipation, allowing musicians to run lots of plug-ins and soft synths without the need for noisy cooling fans. In fact, coupled with low-noise hard drives, many Centrino laptops are almost silent during normal operation, and can provide battery life of three hours or more when running typical music applications.

Coming soon to a laptop near you. Intel's new Core Duo processor range offers the increased capability of dual-core processing and even longer battery life, but may only achieve its full potential if the Windows XP USB 2.0 drivers are rewritten.

Intel released their first-generation Centrino Mobile Technology back in 2003 with the Pentium-M 'Banias' processor, which is what I have in my Centrino 1.4GHz laptop, bought from Millennium Music in December 2003 and still going strong. This CPU has a Level 2 cache of 1MB, runs on a 400MHz front-side buss (FSB) and was released with clock speeds from 1.3 to 1.7GHz. About a year later, Intel released the Dothan, which ran with an identical FSB but increased the L2 cache to 2MB and was available at clock speeds from 1.5 to 2.1GHz. In early 2005 Intel introduced the Sonoma, with a jump to a 533MHz FSB and clock speeds from 1.6 to 2.26GHz. That model is still used as the basis of most specialist music laptops.

The next big hope for the Centrino line is the Core Duo processor (code-named Yonah). The first laptop models using this latest technology started to trickle out from various manufacturers in January 2006. As its name suggests, the new processor is a dual-core model, already the saviour of many a desktop musician's PC, as it offers significantly faster performance than a single-core equivalent could manage (a Core Solo version with single CPU core is also available, but not likely to be as popular). The Core Duo processor has also been used by Apple in their Mac Book Pro laptop, which is said to be four times as powerful as the Power Book G4.

The Core Duo processor features a 2MB Smart Cache that is dynamically sized, allocated according to the requirements of each core, and features 'Enhanced Deeper Sleep' and 'Dynamic Power Coordination'. Together, these features can place either or both cores into an idle state to save power, and they provide significantly greater processing muscle and even longer battery life. AMD are also poised to release a dual-core version of their mobile Turion CPU, based on the same architecture as their already popular Opteron and Athlon 64 ranges, but this isn't likely to be available until at least July 2006.

However, if you're desperately waiting to buy a Core Duo PC laptop to make music now, be aware of an unfortunate bug that could considerably reduce its battery life if you plug in any USB device, and that probably affects all Centrino laptops, albeit not to the same extent. You probably won't notice the problem when running your laptop with a high CPU overhead (as you probably will with music applications), but it may become more obvious with more typical office-style activities.

The bug was first noticed by the engineers at the Tom's Hardware web site when they were testing the battery life of an Asus Core Duo laptop that was in for review. Although this initially measured an excellent 4.5 hours, the laptop ran out of juice after just three hours once they had plugged in (but not accessed) an external USB 2.0 hard drive. A double-check with a Sonoma-based laptop also showed a drop, but this time it was considerably smaller (from three hours and six minutes to two hours and 51 minutes). In both cases, the current drain caused by having the drive connected was negligible, at about one Watt.

After further investigation and discussions with Intel about this (apparently) Core Duo issue, eventually Microsoft acknowledged the problem, which is allegedly due to a Windows XP driver and has been known about for some time. All Centrino laptops have a set of 'sleep' states that I discussed in PC Notes December 2003. If various components aren't being used, they switch to one of these sleep states to reduce power consumption and therefore extend battery life. The Core Duo introduced an even deeper sleep mode designed to further increase battery life.

It seems that Windows XP SP2 installs a USB 2.0 driver that prevents the laptop from entering any of the three deepest sleep modes once a USB device is connected. What makes the problem worse is that the power drain is triggered as soon as you plug in a USB device (even a USB 1.1 mouse or a memory stick), even if you're not actively using it. Subsequent tests confirmed that the problem also occurs with USB motherboard devices, such as an integral USB 2.0 camera, even if this is disabled and without drivers, so anyone buying a Core Duo laptop with such a feature may never experience the long battery life that they should!

Fortunately, there is an official but hitherto secret Microsoft registry tweak that can fix this fault on many (but not all) systems. It has been anonymously posted at http://it.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=175466&cid=14588517. However, if you ever put a Duo Core laptop into suspend mode the problem recurs as soon as you reactivate it, and is only cured by a reboot.

The issue probably affects all Centrino laptops to some extent when they are in deeper sleep modes, but is more obvious on the latest Core Duo models because they are otherwise so clever at extending battery life. Since it's related to a Microsoft driver, the problem is unlikely to affect Apple's Mac Book Duo, even though the latter uses the Core Duo processor. Let's hope a proper fix is produced as a matter of urgency, now that this is out in the open.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Are PC Musicians ready for Windows x64?

The 64-bit Question

Technique : PC Musician

With advantages such as more efficient processing and the ability to address up to a Terabyte of RAM, Windows XP Professional x64 has a lot to offer PC-based musicians — in theory. We put the fully 64-bit system idea to the test.

Martin Walker

The phrase '64-bit computing' has caused a lot of confusion among PC users, and it's not hard to see why. For several years we've had various 64-bit-capable processors to put in our music PCs — AMD's Athlon 64 and Opteron, or Intel's Xeon, for example — but partnering them with Microsoft's 32-bit Windows XP operating system totally ignored these 64-bit capabilities (although this didn't stop plenty of users from being convinced that they had fully-functional 64-bit systems).

Meanwhile, the marketing departments of various audio-software developers began to plaster the phrase '64-bit' all over their new products, this time referring to something completely different: the internal precision of their audio processing or mixing algorithms. Now, although having 64 bits of internal audio precision may (or may not) result in higher audio quality, the vast majority of such software still runs as 32-bit applications. No wonder people have become confused!

64-bit Requirements

There are two carrots associated with a 64-bit operating system: more efficient processing and larger RAM limits. Windows XP can theoretically support up to 4GB (although only 2GB is normally available to applications), but x64 extends this limit to one Terabyte (a massive 1024GB). Those musicians who are currently frustrated that they can't load as many samples and loops as they want into system RAM are therefore champing at the bit for x64. In addition, the x64 architecture also provides more internal registers and improved floating-point arithmetic, both of which can result in more efficient audio processing.

Basically, for a fully 64-bit PC you need a 64-bit capable CPU and a suitable 64-bit operating system to go with it, plus a suitable 64-bit driver for each and every hardware device in your PC, which includes PCI/PCI Express and AGP cards, Firewire and USB peripherals, MIDI interfaces and all of the motherboard devices. MIDI synths, keyboards and controllers plugged into MIDI ports won't need these drivers, but they will if connected via a Firewire or USB port.

The only visible signs that you're running Windows XP Professional x64 are a new desktop background and the General page of the system applet.

The only visible signs that you're running Windows XP Professional x64 are a new desktop background and the General page of the system applet.

The only visible signs that you're running Windows XP Professional x64 are a new desktop background and the General page of the system applet.

Let's start with the operating system, as there's really only one choice — Microsoft's Windows XP Professional x64 (I'll shorten this to Windows x64 for convenience). Unlike the standard 32-bit Windows XP, there is no cheaper 'Home' version, on the grounds that this 64-bit O/S will only benefit those currently running into performance or memory limitations on 32-bit PCs, and these people are likely to be using their PC professionally. The only other 64-bit candidate is Windows Server Standard 2003 64-bit, which is significantly more expensive and not designed for individual users.

Windows x64 is designed to work with 64-bit AMD and Intel processors that support the x64 extensions to the x86 architecture, including the Athlon 64 (single- and dual-core models), Athlon 64 FX, Mobile Athlon 64, Turion 64 and Opteron models, plus Intel Xeon and Pentium models with EM64T (Exended Memory) technology, which covers the Prescott 600 and 'F' series, 'D' dual-core series and several Extreme Edition models. Recent models that aren't compatible include AMD's Sempron, Athlon and Athlon XP, Intel's Celeron and Pentium 4 500 series, Intel's Itanium and the Pentium-M of Centrino laptops.

Windows x64 has been out for a year, but although lots of people now have fully 64-bit capable PCs, as just described, few have upgraded to this operating system. This is partly because there's still so much confusion about what music software and hardware runs in its 64-bit mode, what will run in its 32-bit legacy mode (without the 64-bit advantages) and what won't run at all (mostly hardware).

Expectations are also extremely varied. Some people remain convinced that 64 bits will automatically provide twice as much performance as 32 bits (not true!), while others can't yet find enough enthusiasm to upgrade from the now four-year old XP Home/Pro, whatever the claimed advantages of a 64-bit system. After all, it takes a significant amount of effort to switch from (say) Windows XP to the x64 version, since you can't upgrade an existing installation: you need to start from scratch and reinstall existing applications. I've just done exactly this, to guide SOS readers through the process, test the 64-bit waters and see if it's time to take the plunge.

Audio & MIDI Hardware Drivers

Anyone who has invested a considerable amount of money in an audio or MIDI interface will find that their decision on whether or not to move to X64 (and Vista, when it finally arrives) will be tempered by driver availability. Microsoft were encouraging hardware manufacturers to build 64-bit drivers as far back as May 2004, so that x64 would be supported from day one. While some manufacturers have indeed done so, some others have not. Moreover, there may be some hardware that will never get 64-bit support and will therefore have to be abandoned when you move to a 64-bit system. With this in mind, I investigated the current situation regarding various audio manufacturers.

M-Audio were the first manufacturers to announce 64-bit drivers for their Delta and Firewire interface series, and Edirol also stepped in fairly quickly with drivers for lots of their UA-, UM- and PCR-series products. Creative Labs also have drivers for their SB Live! and Audigy series at their public preview site (http://preview.creativelabs.com). Others offering 64-bit support include Emu, for their DAS (Digital Audio System) interfaces and their Xboard USB/MIDI controller keyboard; Lynx, for their Lynx Two, L22 and AES16 range; RME (only for their Fireface 800 at present); and Terratec, for most of their EWS, EWX, DMX and Phase series.

If a manufacturer has announced drivers suitable for Windows x64, don't assume that this means universal support across their whole range. The main casualties seem to be MIDI interfaces, with popular multi-port models such as Steinberg's Midex 8 and M-Audio's Midisport 8x8 having no 64-bit driver support as yet.

Interface manufacturers that don't yet have any 64-bit support at all include Echo, ESI Pro and MOTU. Neither TC Electronics' Powercore or Universal Audio's UAD1 DSP cards are yet suitably equipped for 64-bit systems, which prevents many power users from going 64-bit.

Another raft of popular plug-ins will unfortunately be ruled out by the lack of 64-bit drivers for Pace's iLok dongle, which will stop them from being run inside 32-bit host applications that are running under Windows x64. Fortunately, Syncrosoft's dongles do have 64-bit drivers, which is why Cubase (amongst other products) can run on x64 in 32-bit compatibility mode. However, do check that you install the very latest driver version, as discussed in this month's PC Notes column.


For the easiest install, first use your existing 32-bit PC and the Internet to track down all the 64-bit drivers you're likely to need and save them onto a dedicated data partition or external drive, or to portable media such as CD-R or DVD-R. I use the same approach after downloading any 32-bit drivers, so that if I ever have to reformat a Windows partition prior to a fresh install I won't have to find them all over again.

Windows XP Pro x64 has two folders for 'Program Files'. The 64-bit applications are automatically housed in the main one (highlighted) when you install them, while the x86 folder stores 32-bit 'legacy' applications.

Windows XP Pro x64 has two folders for 'Program Files'. The 64-bit applications are automatically housed in the main one (highlighted) when you install them, while the x86 folder stores 32-bit 'legacy' applications.

Unless you're installing on a brand-new PC with an empty hard drive, I would also thoroughly recommend leaving the existing Windows XP installation alone, and putting the new x64 one into a different partition, so that you have both to choose from in a dual-boot configuration. As you'll see, I found this approach painless. You'll still be able to reboot into 32-bit XP whenever you need to, if you do have to access the Internet in search of extra 64-bit drivers.

Those who have already carefully created separate data partitions for their music, update files, documents, plug-in presets and so on, or have this data stored on other drives, can now jump straight to the hardware part of this article. Their data will remain totally undisturbed during the x64 installation and can be accessed from it immediately afterwards. Those who still insist on placing Windows, applications, songs, documents, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all into one huge partition will now have to move their personal data elsewhere or face not being able to easily access it from x64 — it's up to you!

The final stage before x64 installation is to power down your PC, unplug all USB, Firewire and other external devices, including printers and scanners, then open it up and remove all PCI or PCI Express expansion cards, except for the graphics card. This may seem a bit of a pain, but Windows x64 can't possibly come with 64-bit drivers for all such devices, so quite a few may otherwise end up being displayed inside Device Manager as 'Unknown Device' after the install, making it more difficult to see what's what. If you temporarily remove as much hardware as you can, you'll be sure that any Unknown Devices that show up must be on the motherboard, and can find drivers for them first. Then, and only then, is it time to physically install third-party hardware, one item at a time, when you can also systematically follow its manufacturer's installation instructions as you install the new 64-bit drivers (some items prefer to have their drivers pre-installed before you physically plug them in, while others are quite happy to be plugged in and let Windows detect the new hardware and deal with it). This should ensure the most painless results.

Personal Experience

Just to give you an idea of one fairly typical Windows x64 hardware experience, while I was using x64 for the purposes of this article my Emu 1820M soundcard worked fine, but I couldn't use my Echo Mia or Yamaha SW1000XG soundcards, or my M-Audio Midisport 8x8 interface, due to lack of 64-bit drivers. However, I didn't find any software in my collection that wouldn't install under Windows x64 in 32-bit compatibility mode.


Installation of Windows XP Pro x64 is very similar to all previous Windows installs, except that you can't perform an 'over the top' upgrade by running the Setup program from within an existing 32-bit Windows version, and Windows Startup floppy disks can't be used any more. The latter is because, according to Microsoft, the new Windows x64 kernel is over the 2MB limit for a floppy disk.

Cakewalk's Sonar 5 x64 Edition is still the only major MIDI + Audio sequencer that offers both 32-bit and true 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM.

Cakewalk's Sonar 5 x64 Edition is still the only major MIDI + Audio sequencer that offers both 32-bit and true 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM.

The only option is to boot from the Windows x64 CD-ROM. Most of the installation steps will be familiar to anyone who has installed older versions of Windows: you press F8 to agree to the licensing terms, whereupon various files are loaded into memory. Then you'll reach a screen showing the existing drives and/or partitions and you can choose to clear an existing partition, prior to installing x64 into it, create a new partition in unpartitioned space, or just install x64 into any existing partition. Setup then offers to reformat the partition in FAT32 or NTFS file systems or leave it as it is (mine was already in NTFS format, so I left it as it was), and then starts to copy files into its new Windows Installation folders.

Once the initial batch of files has been installed, your PC will reboot automatically and the familiar Windows flag logo appears. The install process continues, this time along with a few point-by-point features that you'll soon be experiencing. Your monitor may occasionally go blank for a second or two during this part of the install, while various hardware devices are interrogated and device drivers installed, but eventually you'll reach the Regional and Language Options page, where you can specify your location and keyboard layout, name and organisation, and then enter the 25-character Product key from the x64 box.

Next, you can (optionally) enter an Administrator Password and adjust date and time settings, then Windows continues its install, registers components, saves various settings and reboots again. I was pleased to note, during this final reboot, that Windows XP Pro x64 had correctly recognised my existing Windows XP Home installation, already housed on another partition on the same drive, and provided this as an alternative on its boot menu. Finally, the x64 boot adjusts your screen resolution, based on its hardware findings, and then you'll arrive at the Windows XP desktop with its new background bitmap image. The installation took my PC about 45 minutes overall, and occupied only 1.6GB of disk space.

Initial Tweaks

Now's the time to perform the usual operating-system tweaks, disabling any unwanted graphic frills (I still choose the 'Adjust for best performance' setting in the Advanced System settings, remove the background image and disable the screen saver); switch Processor Scheduling to 'Background Services', for better ASIO driver low-latency performance; disable System Restore, Automatic Updates, Hibernation and System Sounds; change the Power Scheme to 'Always On'; and so on. All this follows standard practice and is exactly the same as for 32-bit Windows XP. In fact, you won't notice any obvious differences while exploring, apart from the new background image and 'Microsoft Windows XP Professional x64 Edition' on the main System page.

For more obscure tweaks that require manual changes to the Registry (not a wise thing to attempt unless you're sure you know what you're doing), Neosmart have a new 64-bit version of Microsoft's famous TweakUI utility (www.neosmart.net/Products/TweakUI64.htm).

Further Information

Short Media (www.short-media.com/download.php) host a small but useful collection of mainstream 64-bit audio, chip set, IDE/RAID, network and graphics drivers for those with motherboard sound chips and other mainstream hardware devices, although it's always best to source them direct from the manufacturer's web site if possible.

Extended64 (http://extended64.com) have a more comprehensive selection of 64-bit drivers, plus a selection of forums covering installation, 64-bit applications and running 32-bit apps within x64.

DOSBox (http://dosbox.sourceforge.net) is an emulator that lets you run elderly 16-bit applications under Windows x64.

Device Drivers

At this stage, most people will find that although Windows has done its best to install 64-bit drivers for all the hardware components it has interrogated, some will be flagged in Device Manager as 'Unknown Devices'. Likely candidates are soundcards, network cards, printers, scanners and some graphic cards. You may run into a few problems if there aren't any drivers available for a particular piece of hardware. Obviously, if you know a particular scanner or printer hasn't got suitable drivers there's no point in even plugging it in, but if it's a motherboard device you have no choice. On the PC I was using, just two devices showed up as 'driverless' in Device manager — one an 'Unknown Device' and the other a driver required for a High Definition Audio motherboard chip, which I simply disabled.

At this stage, don't assume that Windows x64 has installed the best drivers for the hardware. It tries its best, but it is still well worth replacing some drivers with the latest versions available direct from the hardware manufacturer, which might be further optimised. For instance, the Nvidia Geforce 6200 graphics card I was using appeared in Device Manager as 'Standard VGA Graphics Adaptor'. While the default driver installed by x64 worked, it suffered from excruciatingly slow screen updates. Now you reap the rewards of tracking down the latest 64-bit drivers in advance. I simply accessed my data partition and ran the file I'd already downloaded from Nvidia.

Installing & Running Software

Windows x64 supports two application modes: the full 64-bit mode and a 32-bit mode for compatibility. The latter runs via a layer of emulation code that Microsoft named WOW64 (Windows On Windows 64). When you install software, x64 automatically recognises which type it is. It then stores 64-bit programs in its 'Program Files' folder and 32-bit programs in a separate 'Program Files (x86)' folder.

Cakewalk have performed extensive benchmarking tests with the 32-bit version of their Sonar audio sequencing application running on both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows platforms and have found no significant difference between the two. This suggests that the emulation layer has no impact on the performance of 32-bit applications, which is reassuring for those who want to continue running their existing 32-bit applications with Windows x64.

Cakewalk's Sonar 5 Producer Edition already ships with 32-bit and 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM. Let's hope we get similar options from many more software developers soon!

Cakewalk's Sonar 5 Producer Edition already ships with 32-bit and 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM. Let's hope we get similar options from many more software developers soon!

However, a frustrating area of software compatibility is that while many 32-bit applications will install and run perfectly in 32-bit mode, some have older 16-bit installation routines (previously handled by Windows XP's WOW32 emulation layer). Sixteen-bit software is no longer supported under x64, so the install won't run even if the software itself is 32-bit compatible. Possibly the greatest frustration is that you'll only find out whether a program suffers in this way by trying the install, to see if you get an error message.

For applications to run in 64-bit mode, they must be specially compiled to do so, but there's an added complication for any that employ third-party add-ons, extensions or accessories, since all of these have to be 64-bit as well. This, of course, is of particular relevance to musicians, since it means that a 64-bit sequencer application can only normally access 64-bit plug-ins and soft synths. Cakewalk's Sonar x64 removes this restriction, courtesy of its Bit Bridge technology, which lets you use all your existing 32-bit instruments and effects, but other sequencer applications may not be so helpful.

Consequently, x64 software compatibility remains a bit of a minefield, and some 32-bit applications may install but not be usable for other reasons. This is a particular problem for manufacturers who provide a generous software bundle with their audio interfaces. A good example is Emu, whose audio interface range (0404, 1212M, 1616M, and 1820M) has had 64-bit drivers for some time. The stand-alone version of their Emulator X soft sampler will run in 32-bit compatibility mode, but the VSTi version won't run inside fully 64-bit applications. The bundled Wavelab Lite will work as long as it's operating in 32-bit compatibility mode, but Amplitube LE and T-Racks EQ won't install at all (presumably they have 16-bit installers). Finally, the Discwelder Bronze package will install and run, but you can't currently use it because it doesn't include the necessary 64-bit drivers for DVD burning.

You can see why moving to a 64-bit system can be confusing and potentially frustrating, which is why it's so helpful when manufacturers like Emu provide so much detail about such matters on their web site. Without it, you could waste hours trying to figure out what works and what doesn't!

Cakewalk Sonar 5 x64 Edition

Let's cut to the chase with the results of some tests on the only major MIDI + Audio sequencer to be yet made available in a native 64-bit version — Cakewalk's Sonar 5. Cakewalk have themselves performed extensive tests running example songs on the same PC, first using the 32-bit version of Sonar under Windows XP, and then again using the 64-bit version under Windows x64. With a few songs, the results were almost the same, but where there was an improvement it was somewhere between 20 and 30 percent — well worth having.

I tried a batch of tests on a PC equipped with an AMD X2 4400+ processor, to confirm these results for myself, using the demo songs bundled with Sonar 5.01. Sure enough, two of the songs (the Public Enemy and Justin Lassen tracks) both performed about the same on both platforms, but a third track (Nock, Play With Me), which was easily the most intensive, with 39 audio tracks, two soft synths and lots of plug-ins, measured 45 percent CPU overhead on Windows XP and just 36 percent with the 64-bit version on Windows x64. That's an improvement of exactly 20 percent, which is equivalent to upgrading a 3.0GHz processor to a 3.6GHz model.

Cakewalk are to be commended for their hard work, but they are still hampered by a few third-party limitations: Microsoft have yet to provide 64-bit support for MP3 and Windows Media Video, so these import/export options are unavailable in the x64 version, and Apple have yet to release Quicktime for Windows x64, so Quicktime import/export is similarly unsupported. Support for 32-bit Direct X plug-ins, Rewire and the Dreamstation DXi2 instrument is also unavailable.

Other 64-bit Music Software

Turning to the availability of 64-bit software from other music developers, FASoft have released a native 64-bit version of their popular N-Track Studio, including 64-bit versions of most of its bundled plug-ins, but it can't run 32-bit or VST plug-ins. However, I didn't find any other true 64-bit music software, and it's not hard to see why.

In Windows x64, the Task Manager will show you the processes that are running in 32-bit compatibility mode using the WOW64 emulation layer, such as Emu's Patchmix DSP utility, highlighted here.

In Windows x64, the Task Manager will show you the processes that are running in 32-bit compatibility mode using the WOW64 emulation layer, such as Emu's Patchmix DSP utility, highlighted here.

A typical view is that of Wavelab author Philippe Goutier, who thinks that the forthcoming Windows Vista will be the 64-bit O/S of the future, rather than x64, and openly admits that he hasn't yet started 64-bit development of his popular audio editor. Many other companies also seem to be waiting for Vista. Goutier is also currently of the opinion that 64-bit processing is more of a marketing device than a real benefit for his particular application — after all, you'll normally require 64-bit plug-ins to run within it, and these are very thin on the ground as yet. It's a Catch 22 situation. Waves told me that they will require a few more 64-bit audio host applications to be released before they make their plug-ins officially support x64, for example.

Steinberg did announce the release of the VST 2.4 Software Development Kit in January 2006, which includes support for both double-precision (64-bit) floating-point audio samples for higher resolution audio processing and native 64-bit application support, but a native 64-bit version of Cubase has not yet been announced. Nevertheless, the current 32-bit Cubase SX3 already runs happily under Windows x64, with the handy carrot of an increase in maximum supported RAM from 2GB to 4GB (although real-world limits may be rather lower). Many users have noticed significant reductions in their CPU overhead after loading projects created in 32-bit Cubase SX into exactly the same environment running on a 64-bit system. Some have reported up to a 30 percent reduction. However, when I did some tests of my own, running the 'Five Towers' and 'Blofelds-DSP40' benchmarks, both platforms measured about the same. Only with the 'Thonex II' test did I measure a change in the CPU meter, from 56 percent to 51 percent on my test machine. It's an improvement of just nine percent, but it's still very welcome.

Final Thoughts

I must admit to not being that excited about 64-bit PCs before I started researching this feature, but a reduction in CPU load of between 10 and 30 percent in some projects is a huge improvement, while the prospect of being able to install between 4GB and 16GB of RAM in many motherboards will be truly liberating to many musicians.

Considering that Windows XP Professional x64 was released over a year ago, I'm surprised at how little native 64-bit music software has yet been released to go with it — although, given that such a small proportion of musicians have yet installed x64, the market is obviously tiny at the moment. Still, 64-bit PC systems are definitely the future, especially in view of some of the potential performance improvements I measured, and I'd be amazed if most music developers weren't already gearing up for the admittedly higher-profile Windows Vista 64-bit operating system, currently expected in late 2006. Cakewalk deserve praise for almost single-handedly paving the way for everyone else, not only with their own 64-bit application development, which has stimulated some 64-bit enthusiasm among musicians, but also with public seminars discussing the benefits of the x64 platform and the intricacies of the required coding.

I'd also like to thank those audio-interface manufacturers who have already released 64-bit drivers. Judging by the many forums I visit, a lack of suitable drivers for a particular interface or DSP card is the only thing preventing many musicians from installing x64, so let's hope more manufacturers produce some soon. There are already rumblings from some musicians who are considering changing their existing interface to one with 64-bit drivers!

Telefunken AR51 - Musikmesse 2010

Small Form Factor (SFF) PCs For Music

PC Musician

Technique : PC Musician
The Small Form Factor (SFF) PC is a useful halfway house between the flexible but bulky desktop PC and the very portable but expensive and not easily upgradeable laptop. But how well does the SFF PC fit the bill for musicians? We find out.
Martin Walker

More and more musicians are relying on laptops as their main music PCs, but they don't suit everyone, for various reasons. For example, most remain fairly fragile and not really up to the rigours of regular gigging unless handled very carefully and given their own padded bag or dedicated flightcase. If they do become damaged, there are few user-serviceable parts inside, with the exception of RAM and the hard drive, and for the same reason they are mostly difficult to upgrade. Finally, of course, they have no PCI slots, which restricts the audio interfaces you can use to PCMCIA, USB or Firewire, all of which mean another item of gear to cart about.

But there is another way. If you're in the market for a PC that's easily 'luggable', like a laptop, yet rather more robust, takes up far less space than a desktop or tower model, yet retains many of the latters' advantages, such as easy upgrading and largely user-replaceable parts, you may like to contemplate a rather different approach.

The Shuttle PC

The SFF (Small Form Factor) PC was virtually invented by Shuttle back in 2001 when they launched their XPC SV24 model, which featured a stylish, brushed-aluminium, cube-like case approximately a quarter the size of a typical desktop PC (typically 18 x 20 x 30cm). Shuttle now market a large family of such XPC products that will run both Intel and AMD processors, available either as complete systems or as 'XPC Barebones' kits pre-fitted with an integrated proprietary motherboard, special power supply and patented ICE (Integrated Cooling Engine) heatpipe cooling system. Over a million have been sold so far, and judging by the SOS Forums quite a few musicians have already taken advantage of them to save space and become more mobile. Shuttle cases are also extremely stylish, and the range now encompasses much of the latest PC technology, including PCI Express graphics slots and support for dual-core processors. You can carry them around easily in a bag or backpack, fit replacement motherboards yourself if you ever fry a port, or install a suitable PCI adaptor card with extra ports.
Small PCs need small motherboards and, as you can see, the Mini-ITX format used by Shuttle PCs is far smaller than the ATX one found in most desktop/tower PCs, leaving little room for expansion slots.

Slimline Features

Of course, reducing size by a factor of four does entail some compromises. Firstly, Shuttle PCs use a Mini-ITX-format motherboard that can also be found in the set-top boxes that sit on top of TVs to provide them with Internet and games capability, and even in in-car PC systems. As you can see from the photograph and the table on this page, the Mini-ITX motherboard is far smaller than the more usual ATX format found in the majority of desktop/tower PCs.

Some Mini-ITX motherboards (like the one in the photograph) simply provide a single PCI expansion slot (although most Shuttle PCs can also house a standard AGP or PCI Express graphics cards — single or dual head). Those used to having between four and six PCI slots in their desktop PCs might consider a single one extremely restrictive, but for many musicians the days of needing multiple slots are over. Looking back at the PC systems I've reviewed in the last couple of years, the only ones I've received with more than one PCI slot occupied were simply using a second one to add Firewire ports to a motherboard that didn't have this feature, and all Shuttle motherboards already have integral Firewire and USB 2.0 ports. Nevertheless, those hoping to fit a PCI soundcard in a Shuttle PC must bear in mind that their choices will be more limited than normal. Some of the longer soundcards, including models from Creamware and Lynx, will have to be ruled out straight away, as well as ones like the Emu models that require a second backplate position for a daughterboard.

The Shuttle PSU also has to be a lot smaller to leave enough room in the case for all the other hardware items, but with fewer expansion slots this is made easier because you only need a lower-wattage device: few Shuttle PCs offer power supplies with more than a 250W capacity. Although the 40mm power-supply fans of early Shuttle models could also be fairly noisy, more recent models feature much quieter power supplies designed by SilenX, while other Shuttle models, such as the ST62K, provide an external fanless line-lump PSU, which also gives the extra advantage of leaving significantly more room for expansion inside the PC case itself.
The Mini-ITX format used in Shuttle PCs is just 39 percent of the size of the standard AT-format motherboard found in the vast majority of PCs.

A typical example from the Shuttle range is the SN95G5V3, designed for 'power-hungry' users, which has a smart black aluminium chassis, 240W SilenX PSU, ICE heatpipe CPU cooler with 92mm fan and speed control, and a proprietary motherboard. The last features an Nvidia Nforce 3 chip set supporting AMD Socket 939 processors (including Athlon 64, FX and X2 models), up to 2GB of PC3200 RAM, one PCI slot and one AGP 8x/4x graphics slot, one front and one rear 6-pin Firewire port, up to six USB 2.0 ports and space for one 5.25-inch drive (such as a CD-R or DVD-R model) plus two 3.5-inch drives (either one internal hard drive and one front-panel floppy drive or two internal 3.5-inch hard drives). It also supports RAID 0, 1 and 0+1 drive arrays.

At just under £200 from some suppliers, this isn't that much more expensive than a quality tower case, PSU and motherboard combination, and you just need to add your choice of CPU, graphics card, SATA hard drive, optical drive and RAM. The total price should come to well below most laptops offering similar performance, especially if you already have a suitable monitor screen, keyboard and mouse.

Shuttle Noise
Unlike a typical tower case, which normally ends up mounted on the floor under your desk, a Shuttle or other mini-PC is fairly likely to be placed close to you, like a laptop, which will make the noise from any cooling fans more annoying. Shuttle do publish extensive Acoustic Reports on all their XPC models, which you can read at http://global.shuttle.com/Support/Support_AcousticReport.asp.
Serious silencing requires volume to fit acoustic foam and large fans, so a Shuttle PC is never going to be as quiet as the quietest tower or rack cases. Nevertheless, Shuttle's target for their quiet systems is 30dBA at a distance of one metre, which is not that much louder than a typical specialist music PC, and 
it's possible to make them really quiet with various tweaks.
The most important thing is to choose the most appropriate Shuttle model. If you're really keen on low noise, select a processor and other hardware that don't require a lot of cooling. For instance, you can buy a Mini-ITX motherboard with a Pentium-M processor identical to that found in Centrino laptops, such as the one used in Shuttle's SD11G5 model. You can also keep cooling requirements down by by fitting a modest graphics card that doesn't have its own cooling fan and doesn't generate a lot of heat of its own.
There are also various modifications you can carry out to further improve acoustic noise levels. For instance, cutting and fixing a sheet of Acoustipack or similar acoustic foam to the bottom of the case to decouple hard-drive noise from your desk can help, as can fitting a Fanmate speed controller on the outside back panel and running its cable inside to the CPU cooling fan. You can even try bolting a larger cooling fan onto the Shuttle rear panel, over the existing exhaust grille, using rubber damping mounts, and using it with a Fanmate controller that just keeps it ticking over but boosts airflow. With these mods it's possible to reduce acoustic noise levels to as far down as 16dBA at one metre — perfectly acceptable for recording in the same room with a microphone.

Specialist Music Mini-PCs
Starting life as nine pounds of solid aluminium, then painstakingly hand-polished and chrome-plated, the Cubit 5 case is about as glamorous as you can get in the world of mini-PCs.

If you want to build your own Shuttle PC, plenty of suppliers stock the Barebones systems, but one UK company that's regularly recommended for parts, support and rapid email advice is Kustom PCs. When I last looked at their web site they had a choice of eleven Mini Barebones systems and lots of accessories. However, for those who want a mini-PC that's already ready to rock, many of the specialist music PC suppliers have one in their range, and this approach will avoid any of the Firewire controller-chip incompatibilities that still plague those buying laptops. If you buy from a specialist supplier you shouldn't run into any problems, and if you do they can help you sort them out. Systems will also be soak-tested before despatch.

Red Submarine (www.sub.co.uk) offer the Micro Sub, a Shuttle design featuring one PCI Express and one PCI slot, a Pentium 4 processor of up to 3.8GHz clock speed and up to two hard drives. By the time you read this, Inta Audio (www.inta-audio.com) should have their new web site up and running, displaying the Shuttle-based systems that they have been shipping for some time. Millennium (www.music-pc.com) have the nicely named Musicube in their range, and although this looks like a Shuttle it actually uses a rather different compact case from motherboard manufacturer AOpen. Based around an Intel 865PE chip set and offering a choice of Celeron D 300-series or Pentium 500- or 600-series processors running at up to 3.4GHz, up to 1GB of RAM, one hard drive, one optical drive and one floppy drive, it features one AGP slot and one PCI slot.

Sleek & Chic
With the Be Blu cases your PC can look exactly like a mini hi-fi system. They're available in complete Media Center systems and as empty cases suitable for housing your choice of mini-ITX motherboard.

While Shuttle PC cases are undeniably stylish, the ultimate in chic must be the Cubit 5 case range from UK design firm Hoojum (www.hoojum.com). Manufactured from 4kg of solid aluminium and then either mirror-chrome plated or finished in one of nine matt pastel colours, these cases are not cheap items, ranging from £115 to £300 depending on finish (black is cheapest, and chrome the most expensive). However, they look gorgeous and will certainly become a talking point in your studio, although such beauty is perhaps best not exposed to the vagaries of the average gig.

Hoojum cases are available from a variety of suppliers in the UK, including Kustom PCs (www.kustompcs.co.uk) and Scan (www.scan.co.uk/hoojum). You can either buy them complete with an AMD Socket A or Intel Socket 775 motherboard, or use them to upgrade an existing Shuttle PC. One or two hard drives can be accommodated, although you need a special slimline optical drive. Moreover, Scan also offer both Shuttle and Cubit 5 Audio Workstation systems through their Scan 3XS (http://3xs.scan.co.uk) outlet, featuring Pentium 4 processors up to 3.8GHz clock speed.

Another stylish option for those who want a truly tiny PC is from Be Blu, whose anodised aluminium cases in black, silver, blue or gold are also available as stackable mini hi-fi-format Media Centre systems (see next section). For the enterprising DIY builder, their tiny bb012 computer case supports the Mini-ITX format and a single hard drive, and is powered by a 150W DC-DC converter. Those requiring less powerful processors can choose the completely passive cooling option, which uses the case as a heatsink. However, some compromises are inevitable, and only 'short' expansion cards are supported.

Suitable Screens
This 17-inch Shuttle monitor screen features a scratch-resistant glass front panel, a strong aluminium frame and integral carrying handles, which make it easily luggable yet robust.
One huge advantage of a laptop is that its built-in screen display is largely protected once you close the lid. A mini-PC can, of course, be partnered with a standard TFT monitor screen, but many can be awkward to transport, as well as fragile, with the screen surface itself being prone to scratches and cracks.
If you're concerned about robustness, an AG Neovo LCD monitor (www.neovouk.com) with hardened optical glass built on top of the LCD panel might fit the bill. On their web site these screens are claimed to be stronger than a knife, with an image of someone cutting through an apple using a screen as a chopping board, so they ought to survive gigging quite well. At a typical price of £176 for their E17 17-inch model, these screens won't break the bank either.
Shuttle have a range of portable monitors to partner their XPC computer range, and two of them (namely the XP17 Temp AR and Temp AG models) also feature scratch-resistant glass panels to protect the TFT surface. The monitors can be used in landscape or portrait orientation and also have the added advantages of a strong aluminium frame, a stand that folds flat for travelling, and integral carrying handles, which together make them much tougher gigging companions.

Micro ATX Format

If you simply want a smaller PC than normal but don't demand a tiny one, you may find the Micro ATX-format motherboard more suitable. At 9.6 inches square, Micro ATX provides more expansion possibilities than Shuttle PCs, with most such motherboards offering one AGP and three PCI slots, which of course makes it easier to install soundcard/daughterboard combinations while still leaving a slot free for such things as extra Firewire ports or a PCMCIA adaptor. Also, unlike Shuttle PCs, which tend to provide a proprietary combination of motherboard and case, there's a much wider selection of suitable motherboards from various well-known manufacturers such as AOpen and Asus.
If you want a luggable PC with more card expansion possibilities than a Shuttle, a Micro ATX-format motherboard, partnered with a case like the Aspire X-Qpack shown here, may fit the bill.

There are several styles of case to suit the Micro ATX format. If you want a small PC that fits more neatly into the living room you could investigate Media Center (sic) PCs, which run Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, are aimed at the 'home entertainment' market, and have a user interface and dedicated remote control (rather than a mouse) for accessing digital music, photos and DVDs, plus facilities for recording and watching TV programmes.

While you can buy many Media Center PCs as complete systems in standard desktop and laptop cases, they are also available as 'PC Lifestyle' components in a other styles, such as slimline towers, built into the TV monitor, or masquerading as hi-fi separates, mini hi-fi systems or video recorders. Because these PCs need to fit into homes, manufacturers also tend to take more care over acoustic noise levels.

For DIY builds, there are plenty of empty cases in 'video recorder' format, often labelled as HTPC (Home Theatre PC). For instance, Quiet PC (www.quietpc.com) have quite a few available from companies such as Zalman and Ahanix, and while many in their range suit full-sized ATX motherboards, some models, such as the Ahanix MC301/2, are for the Micro ATX format and are styled like upmarket hi-fi components. However, although there's plenty of space to fit two internal hard drives and an optical drive, their low height (105mm) restricts them to half-height expansion cards. This will prevent many PCI soundcards being fitted, but this won't worry you if you intend to use a USB or Firewire interface.
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Taking your mini-PC on the road needn't be a worrying experience if you buy a suitable carrying case, such as this one from Shuttle.

For those musicians interested in complete systems in the 'video recorder' format, Red Sub's Mini-Sub system (reviewed back in SOS August 2003) is now up to a MkII version with upgraded audio and PCI Express expansion. It offers three PCI slots, one PCI Express x1 slot, and one PCI Express x16 graphics slot. You can either choose a black or silver Lian-Li PC-9320 case or a red case with Mac-like integral carrying handles, and at just over 130mm high both of these cases can house a fair range of expansion cards. Another advantage over the Shuttle format is that there's enough spare room inside to fit acoustic foam and specialist CPU silencing options.

A more portable Micro-ATX system could take advantage of the low-profile of the larger cube-like cases, such as the aluminium Aspire X-Qpack, available in a variety of colours. It has a built-in 420W ATX PSU, five drive bays, a 120mm fan and a handy carrying handle, measures 350mm x 284mm x 228mm and costs just £76 (available from Kustom PCs, among others).

Carillon (www.carillondirect.com) have a similarly styled Micro ATX-format Cube model in their range of specialist music PCs. This can house up to three PCI cards and one AGP graphics card, and also has a more powerful 300W PSU than Shuttle PCs, as well as one external 5.25-inch drive bay and three internal 3.5-inch ones for up to three hard drives (one ATA and two SATA).

Final Thoughts

If you don't want your PC to dominate the room or you're specifically looking for a portable machine, this feature should at least have whetted your appetite, and may even have provided the perfect solution for your requirements. However, while investigating bijou solutions, don't forget to consider the number or size of expansion cards you need, and remember also that you're likely to place them a lot closer to your ears (see 'Shuttle Noise' box), so even if acoustic noise levels are low, they are unlikely to be as low as full-sized systems stuffed to the gills with specialist cooling solutions and lined with acoustic foam. If you're building your own mini-PC, also take care to check that both the motherboard chip set and its Firewire controller chip are compatible with whichever audio interface you want to use. If you're unsure, or don't fancy the DIY approach, there are plenty of ready-to-use mini systems available from specialist music PC suppliers.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thermionic Culture Earlybird - Musikmesse 2010

PC System Overload Problems & Workarounds

PC Musician

Technique : PC Musician
There are many factors that can cause your PC to struggle when playing back your songs - including RAM, your hard drive, your CPU and your system settings. But how do you know which is to blame, and do you have to upgrade or can you work around the problem?
Martin Walker
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You don't need to make 'guesstimates' about how much of your system RAM is being used in total by all your currently running applications — just use a freeware utility such as Cacheman, shown here.

In my PC Musician feature of SOS June 2003, I explained how the various PC resources (CPU, RAM and hard drive) are used up by audio tracks, soft synths, soft samplers and so on, to help PC users decide on the spec that would meet their needs when buying or building a new model. However, many musicians face the opposite dilemma: they have a PC that has problems running some songs and are not sure whether they need to upgrade their soundcard, install more RAM, buy a faster processor or get a larger, faster drive to resolve them.

As you can see from the SOS Forum survey results in the box on page 70, there's no such thing as a typical song, so if you're in the situation described above you need to do a little detective work to find out what's causing the problems in your particular case. To help, I decided to take some typical problems reported by SOS Forum members, explain their most likely cause and point out the best solution, as well as offering temporary workarounds for those who can't afford to upgrade at the moment or have a project that urgently needs to be finished.

Running Out Of RAM

The Problem: "I'm having big problems ever since I bought Spectrasonics' Atmosphere to plug into my Fruity Loops Studio software. It takes up a lot of space on my hard drive (3GB) and it's now come to the point where, if I add more than, say, six channels of it into FL Studio, the whole piece stutters so much that I can't play it for more than three seconds. The CPU meter also hits 100 percent every time it starts stuttering. I have 512MB RAM in my computer. Should I get more? I think my processor is running at 3.19GHz. If I don't need more RAM, would an external soundcard be the answer? (I have a laptop.)"

The Diagnosis: This user suspects his RAM, processor and audio interface. As an Atmosphere user myself, I instantly know which of these three is the real culprit: lack of RAM. This is simply because Atmosphere (and its stablemate Trilogy) load their patches entirely into system RAM and each one can consume up to 125MB. With six instances, a PC that has 512MB RAM could well be struggling, and once the RAM is nearly all in use Windows will start to ferry whatever data it can to virtual RAM (a cache on your hard drive). Thus every time the song tries to access a different Atmosphere patch, some of the data may have to be retrieved from the hard drive — hence the severe stuttering. The CPU meter hits 100 percent because the PC can no longer process the song in real time, due to the extra time it takes to keep reloading that data.
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Many musicians don't realise how much soft synths vary in their RAM consumption. Here's a chart showing how some of the ones in my collection compare. This demonstrates that while simple analogue-style synths may only take a few megabytes, those that rely on samples can take considerably more, while synth 'designers' such as Native Instrument's Reaktor can vary considerably from Ensemble to Ensemble. Notice also that multitimbral synths such as Edirol's HQ Orchestral, Emu's Emulator X soft sampler, Korg's M1 and Steinberg's Hypersonic may take lots of RAM for the first patch, but no more when you access several instruments on different MIDI channels using the same engine.

If you suspect that lack of RAM may be the cause of your own problems, there's never any need to guess, or to blindly upgrade just in case — just load in your most complex songs and monitor their RAM usage for yourself. You can read the Available Physical Memory in Kilobytes from the Performance page of Windows Task Manager. However, I've always found that the freeware Cacheman utility (www.outertech.com) provides a much clearer and easier-to-use display of both Physical and Paging File memory, as a percentage bar-chart, so you can see at a glance what proportion of your RAM is already used and what remains (see screen on left). Just launch this periodically to see how much RAM is still available.

Out of interest, I ran Cacheman as soon as I reached the Windows XP desktop on the Internet-enabled General Purpose partition of my PC, and 300MB (30 percent) of my 1GB total had already been used up. However, on my stripped-down, music-only partition, only 200MB (20 percent) had been used. An extra 10 percent of available RAM is well worth having, and it's yet another reason to create a multi-boot setup.

Once I'd loaded Gigastudio 3.1, the 'RAM in use' percentage rose to about 30 percent, and to about 40 percent once I'd launched Cubase SX 3.1, leaving my system with 600MB for instruments. My typical projects have about half a dozen soft synths and the same again of Giga instruments. As long as I'm careful, I can keep loading stuff in until the Cacheman memory gauge reads 99 percent without any juddering or other mishaps.

The Workarounds: Once a RAM shortage is indicated, the obvious cure is to install more RAM, although there are some limitations when running Windows XP, if you need more than 2GB (see PC Notes May 2005 for more details). Some soft samplers offer engine adjustments that reduce RAM consumption in favour of more CPU load, which may be worth a try if you're a heavy sampler user.

If you're running close to the edge with RAM, try saving your song, closing your sequencer, and then relaunching it and reloading your song. If you've been making lots of edits and trying lots of soft synths, Windows may be caching unused data that will be released using this method. However, the easiest way to release RAM is to choose different soft synths — as you can see from the chart below, some can need only a few MB per instance, while others can swallow 100MB!

The Typical Song?
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Here are the results of an SOS Forum survey I set up to find the typical content of a PC musician's typical song. As you can see, the biggest variable is soft synths, which can also consume the biggest proportion of your CPU power. The reason why there are fewer votes in the soft synth and soft sampler categories is that some musicians run none of them.
I think it's fair to say that each PC musician will approach each of their songs in a completely unique way. In the case of sound sources, for instance, some people will exclusively record audio tracks, some will mostly rely on triggering external MIDI synths, some will solely use soft synths and others will rely almost totally on software samplers (particularly for orchestral creations). Where effects are concerned, some purists may rely totally on mic positioning to capture the live audio sounds they want, and not use a single EQ, compressor or other effect, while others may load an EQ, compressor and gate plug-in on every audio channel, as well as other insert and send effects.
With this in mind, some months ago I organised a small survey on the SOS PC Music Forums, to find out just what the spread was. You can see the results so far in the screenshot on the right, and if you want to add your votes you can still do so, at www.soundonsound.com/forum/showflat.php? Cat=&Board=PCMus&Number=217340.
As you can see, a large majority of musicians who replied seem to use between 10 and 30 audio tracks and mostly one or two plug-ins per track, but occasionally three or four, and very few software sampler instruments. However, there's a huge variation in the typical number of soft synths used in each song, although most people seem to use less than eight.
Given the very different demands of specific soft synths, few musicians are therefore likely to stress their PCs in exactly the same way. However, if your PC is set up sensibly, and isn't running loads of background tasks, we can deduce from the results of the survey that everyone who took part should find a lowly single 5400rpm hard drive quite sufficient to fulfil their audio track requirements and would probably get away with 1GB of RAM (although 2GB is always welcome, as memory doesn't cost that much nowadays).
The limiting factor in most cases is likely to be processing power, which is why so many musicians find their sequencer 'freeze' functions so handy, as these let you return the CPU overhead of a track to the pool, by converting the track to a new processed audio version.

Hard Drive Dramas

The Problem: "My Cubase SX audio glitches when it's playing back just one audio track, when there are another 52 muted. I'm using my Audiophile 2496 ASIO driver and have a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 PC with 1.5GB RAM."

The Diagnosis: Here's an intriguing one. You wouldn't expect any PC to have problems replaying a single audio track. The twist in this tale is that while the muted audio tracks aren't contributing to the mix, they are still being streamed by Cubase, just in case you hit those mute buttons and want the tracks instantly added to your mix. Whichever sequencer you use, you can confirm such behaviour either by watching its Disk Meter load, or by saving your song, deleting all but the one track and trying again. Your hard drive should now show minimal loading. Even the CPU overheads of plug-ins used by muted tracks are still weighing down your song, whether you hear them or not, although in this case you can temporarily disable them via their on/off switches.

So in reality this person is running 53 audio tracks and, assuming that these are 24-bit/96kHz, is beginning to aproach the limits of most single 7200pm hard drives. I've personally managed to run 76 mono 24-bit/96kHz tracks on my Seagate Barracuda SATA 80Gb ST380013AS audio drive before it ran out of steam, but this was with long tracks, each lasting the whole duration of a song. With shorter parts being dropped in and out, some audio editing and some inevitable file fragmentation, this figure will certainly drop.
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In this Cubase SX Project, you can see that the Disk Meter (lower left) is displaying an overload, even though only a single audio track is actually playing. Muting the other 50 or so tracks makes no difference, because they are still being streamed in anticipation of you un-muting them and wanting to hear them immediately.

If you're also running a soft sampler such as HALion or Kontakt inside your sequencer, this can greatly increase the load on your hard drive. You need to be especially careful if you're running a separate soft sampler such as Gigastudio, since its additional load (both CPU and Disk) may not show up on your sequencer's performance meters.

There's another fairly common reason for a hard drive to conk out when it's only playing back a couple of dozen audio tracks. This problem is often exhibited as intermittent glitches (even though the sequencer's CPU meter displays a low overhead reading), and it's due to an unsuitable Buss Master DMA mode. You can check this inside Device Manager:

Select 'View Devices By Connection'.

Locate the Storage Controllers on the list, expand their entries, and you'll find your hard drives and optical drives attached to either Primary or Secondary Channels.

Right-click on the Channel connected to each drive and select 'Properties'.

Click on the Advanced Settings tab. For each of the two devices that can be connected to each channel you'll find a Device Type (normally set to 'Auto Detection'), and a Transfer Mode, which should read 'DMA if available'.

If it reads 'PIO Only', your hard drive will be running well below par, so change it to the other setting, click on the OK button and then reboot your PC. (When this Transfer Mode does read 'DMA if available', the 'Current Transfer Mode' box beneath it should typically display 'Ultra DMA Mode 5'.)
A quick way to check the performance of your hard drive is with a utility such as Dskbench (www.sesa.es/us/dl/dskbench.zip) or HDTach (www.simplisoftware.com/Public/index.php?request=HdTach). These will show up whether or not your hard drive is using the most suitable DMA mode. You should achieve an average or sustained read speed of at least 40MB/second with most modern hard drives, with a CPU utilisation of two percent or less.

The Workarounds: If your hard drive is operating in the correct mode but you still regularly find it beginning to struggle, there are several ways forward. For a start, defragmenting your audio drive may improve matters (although occasionally this may make things worse — see PC Musician June 2005 for more details).

If you're running a VST soft sampler and have plenty of spare system RAM, you may be able to offset some drive load into this, courtesy of its disk-streaming parameters. Alternatively, it may be time to investigate the partitioning options I discussed in the 'Partition Decisions' feature in SOS May 2005. Creating a separate partition just large enough for the current project, on the fastest 'outside' portion of your drive, may let you run more audio tracks without spending any more money at all, assuming that you've already got a suitable partition utility, such as Symantec's Partition Magic, Paragon Software's Partition Manager, or Acronis'  
Disk Director Suite.

In the long term, you should also ask yourself whether you can actually hear the improvements offered by higher sampling rates such as 96kHz on your system. Remember that not only will these more than double the hard-disk load over using a 44.1kHz sample rate, but also that any plug-ins and soft synths you use will consume more than twice as much CPU overhead, as proportionally more calculations are needed per second. At the very least, anyone whose final format is to be Red Book Audio CD should consider moving from 96kHz to 88.2kHz on future projects, if their audio interface offers that sample rate. This will reduce drive loading by over eight percent.

If you're running absolutely loads of audio tracks (one SOS Forum poster admitted to a song containing 330, but with only 50 to 75 at any one time!) you should perhaps take a closer look at your working methods, unless you're mocking up an orchestral score and layering multiple instruments for each part. If this isn't the case, perhaps rethinking your working methods will result in significantly less hard drive torture.

However, ultimately it may be time to invest in faster hard drives: a 10,000rpm model should boost your audio track count significantly, or you could investigate RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) by installing two identical drives configured as RAID 0, to potentially double the overall transfer rate. Just remember that your data is more precarious on such a system, because it's spread across multiple drives. Also bear in mind that both 10,000rpm and multiple drives are likely to increase the overall acoustic noise level of your PC.

Soft Synth Overheads
As discussed in the main text, running out of processing power is probably the most likely reason why songs might start glitching or coming to an untimely halt. Buying a faster processor, or a completely new PC with faster everything, is the obvious answer. However, not all of us can have that luxury, and fortunately there are various other things you can do to stretch the CPU you do have as far as possible.
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Here's a chart showing how some of the soft synths in my collection compare when running on my Pentium 4 2.8GHz processor, arranged in ascending order of CPU 'appetite'. In each case I either ramped up the polyphony to its maximum value, using a specially prepared sequence, or took it to a point where the CPU load was fairly high. In the fourth column I've calculated the relative amounts of CPU power that each would need to play 16 simultaneous notes. It's quite revealing, so choose your instruments carefully!
Cap polyphony: Many soft synths let you set a maximum number of playable notes, and you can often greatly reduce CPU overhead by simply reducing this number. Solo the track in question, slowly reduce the number of notes until you hear the first signs of note-stealing, and then advance the setting to the next highest value. You may be surprised at how low you can go without this capping becoming audible, and it may even (depending on the algorithm used) clean up your mix by removing notes late on in their decay phase that contribute little to the composition.
Adjust Sequencer Settings: Some sequencers (Cubase, for instance) provide a similar 'Restrict Polyphony' function, this time shortening any overlapping notes when required, to avoid overstepping the mark. However, this may produce audibly different results than directly capping the soft-synth polyphony, because the soft synth may have more sophisticated algorithms at its disposal to determine which notes are least likely to be noticed when removed.
Examine Sustain: If you've used a sustain pedal during your performance, it can often be difficult to know what the true polyphony of your track is, so look for special functions in your sequencer, such as Cubase's 'Pedals to Note Length', which scans for MIDI sustain controller on/off commands, lengthens affected notes to match the pedal 'off' position and then deletes the sustain commands. Once you see the true length of your notes it may become obvious why a particular track is so resource-hungry!
Select Appropriate Instruments: Each soft synth takes a different number of CPU cycles for each note, depending on how many oscillators, filters, LFOs and so on it uses, or the complexity of its physical modelling. Spend a little time getting to know the appetites of your favourite soft synths, so you can bear this in mind when choosing your sounds. For instance, I love the AAS String Studio software, but its physical modelling can eat processors for breakfast, so I only use it for exposed 'lead' instruments. Take a look at the chart below for a breakdown of how a selection of different soft synths compare.

Processor Pitfalls

The Problem: "I have a PC laptop with a 2.8GHz P4 processor and 1GB of RAM. Recently I've been using a lot more VST Instruments than I usually use in Cubase SX 2 and also in Fruity Loops. My CPU use hits around 50 percent and is fine for a couple of minutes, then will suddenly jump to 95 or 100 percent, where it stays (slowing the computer down immensely) until I finally close Fruity Loops or Cubase (stopping the song from playing doesn't help). I've loaded the same song on my housemate's 1.8GHz Athlon desktop, it only registers 40 percent on his CPU meter and the spikes and crashing aren't an issue. What's going on? Is this a Pentium 4 issue, an overheating issue, or possibly a problem with some software on my computer?"

The Diagnosis: Some PC laptop owners have experienced their CPU meter slowly rising for no apparent reason, and the surprising cause turns out to be overheating due to dirt and muck completely clogging up the cooling fans underneath the laptop. As the processor temperature rises, the processor clock speed is automatically throttled down to prevent damage. The cure in such cases is either to have the computer dismantled and properly cleaned by the manufacturer, or to attempt DIY cleaning using compressed air or a vacuum cleaner.

However, in this case the CPU rise is sudden, which points instead to 'denormalisation' problems (discussed in PC Notes October 2002 and affecting several processors, most notably the Pentium 4 range). Most plug-ins have long since been tweaked to avoid the issue, but if your CPU usage suddenly jumps at the same specific point in the song each time, this could be when an elderly plug-in causing the problem has an extremely low audio-input level or silence to deal with. You can track down which one by selective disabling, and cure it by inserting a corrective plug-in such as Sascha Eversmeier's freeware Normalizer (www.digitalfishphones.com/binaries/normalizer_PC_Win.zip).

Another major cause of laptop CPU problems is the increasing sophistication of technologies such as Speedstep, Smart CPU and Cool 'n' Quiet, used by processor manufacturers to minimise the power consumption of their products. These work by throttling CPU clock speed down to a lower value when you're not using 100 percent of your processor, as well as in some cases reducing CPU voltage and fan speed, keeping temperatures and fan noise down and extending laptop battery life.

Although these are wonderful features for most computer users, unfortunately musicians have to battle with the audio consequences of them — such as clicks, pops or longer interruptions. These normally happen when the CPU clock speed is ramped up or down, so the safest option is to disable such behind-the-scenes trickery and leave your CPU at its top speed. Some laptop users have also found their CPU being reported by Windows as having a much slower clock speed than the one they bought — once again, this could well be due to throttling.

The easiest way to ensure maximum performance is to open the Power Options applet in Control Panel and select the 'Always On' Power Scheme. If you want a more versatile way of switching between the various Power Scheme options, including those normally hidden from the user by Windows XP, try downloading the Speedswitch XP utility (www.diefer.de/speedswitchxp/index.html) that I discussed in some detail in PC Notes December 2003. You may also want to disable any special drivers involved in throttling, if there's such an option.

The Workarounds: Apart from the issues just mentioned, most CPU 'maxing out' problems are simply a result of attempting to run more plug-ins or soft synths than your PC can handle. Since soft synths are the most likely culprits, I've dedicated a box to Soft Synth Overheads (on page 72). Elsewhere I also mention track 'freezing' and reducing project sample rate, as the most radical cures.

However, there's another step you can take before having to get out your credit card to upgrade your processor or buy a DSP card such as the TC Powercore or Universal Audio UAD1. It's now fairly well known that below about an audio buffer size of about 12ms the CPU load rises due to ASIO driver overheads, so if you're running out of CPU and using a latency of less than this you'll reclaim processing power by changing the latency value. If you're running at 3ms or below you may be able to reduce your CPU load by 50 percent or more!