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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Improving Your PC Music System On A Budget

Feature Tips & Tricks 
Technique : PC Musician

As much as we'd like to buy all the latest PC software, no-one's coffers are bottomless. Martin Walker looks at some of the many free or low-cost alternatives for the PC musician.

There is a recurring theme in many of the emails I receive from SOS readers - they are either saving up for a new soundcard, or have just bought a new soundcard and are now saving up for some decent software to go with it. Musicians have traditionally been hard up, and it's virtually impossible to afford all the things you would like to buy, especially as today's technology is changing so rapidly.

For instance, in an ideal world the most sensible way to buy computer equipment is to decide what you want to do with it, then choose the software that fulfils these requirements, and finally to find out what spec of computer you will need to run it. However, few people have the luxury of this considered approach; most already have a computer with a soundcard already installed, and want to start making music. It does surprise me just how many PC musicians claim to have legitimate copies of Cubase VST when the only soundcard they can afford is an elderly Soundblaster clone, but the fact remains that having got to the stage of having a good sequencer and a passable soundcard, many of us need to make the best of what we already have.

There are many things you can do to improve what you already have without spending a penny, and if you also have a modem and Internet access, a host of low-cost or free products is available to expand your sound library, help you edit existing sounds, and improve the day-to-day running of your PC. Many of the items mentioned in this feature are completely free, but I've included nothing costing more than £50; much shareware seems to be in the £20 to £30 price range. Many small developers create niche products that are sold in this way, and in most cases you can download an almost fully functional version of the software to try out, and then pay a small registration fee to receive the password or serial number to unlock the full feature-set.

I should say at the outset that I'm not going to attempt to provide a comprehensive list of web sites or products in any of the following categories. The idea of this feature is merely to suggest areas that are worth pursuing for the PC musician, to point you in the right direction, as well as mentioning some of the items that I've personally downloaded that have proved useful.

General Purpose Tweaks

Of course there are still various things you can do with your PC to improve audio performance without downloading anything, so before we fire up the modem, it's well worth reiterating a few of the basic points that some people forget. First, and probably most important of all if you are recording and playing back audio files, is to remember to keep your hard drive well defragmented. You may remember from my discussions of hardware optimisation (see the December '98 issue) that the main reason a hard drive is slower during multitrack audio playback than when being bench-tested is that a chunk of each track is read in turn. Since it takes a finite time for the read/write heads to jump between the different positions on the hard drive where each track is stored, the sustained read speed drops considerably when compared with reading a single long file.

Now imagine a hard drive containing lots of fragmented audio files. Since the files are in several parts, each linked to the previous one, the read/write heads have additional jumps to perform. Each jump is as much work for the drive as starting another track, and this is the reason that keeping your hard drive well defragmented is so important. I defrag mine about once a week, and having done before and after tests on hard disk performance, I can assure you that defragmentation can degrade read/write performance considerably if you ignore it for very long. Don't get paranoid about it and defrag after every audio take (like one person I know) - this would only be necessary if you were running very close to the maximum number of tracks supported by your system.

The only reason I can think why some people still don't bother is that the Microsoft defragmenter supplied with both Windows 95 and Windows 98 can be very slow - a badly fragmented drive can take over an hour to finish, especially if it has a large capacity. I use Speed Disk as supplied with Norton Utilities (the latest version of which is reviewed in this month's PC Notes column), which normally takes me about five minutes to run, and is extremely thorough.

"If you have an older model of synth, shareware editor support may be the only available option, since there won't be a huge potential market to entice a commercial developer."

The other great enemies of smooth audio performance are background tasks - screensavers can be amongst the worst offenders. Don't take the risk of getting a glitch in your audio recordings (or a useless CD-R disc due to buffer under-run) - go into the Display applet in your Control Panel, select the Screen Saver page, and then make sure that Screen Saver is set to 'None'. I've written a more comprehensive list of offending background utilities in the PC Music: Frequently Asked Questions area of www.soundonsound.com.

As a final thought in this section, if you are having problems with electrical background noise from your soundcard, it might just be due to a poor earth connection on the card itself. To make sure, open up your PC and check the tightness of the screw clamping your soundcard into position - the metalwork of the backplate is connected to the rest of the PC case at this point, and a dirty or loose connection has been known to cause much higher noise levels than normal.

Manual Dexterity

Given the complexity of modern software applications, it's not surprising that we sometimes miss potentially useful features that we already have, or don't understand how to get the best from them. During the early days of the SOS web site forum I remember someone asking for a suitable sample-rate conversion utility to change Cubase VST mixdown files from 48kHz to 44.1kHz before burning a CD-R. Someone quickly pointed out, however, that VST already has this option built in - the trouble is that with so many manuals now in electronic form, we can't sit down for a detailed browse through them as we used to.

Upgrades & Downsides

Many developers issue a seemingly constant stream of updates for their products, and it is sometimes difficult to know whether to re-install them as and when they appear on the grounds that the newest must be the best, or to leave well alone if the version you already have works fine. This is a tricky decision but largely depends on what has changed in the newer version. I do wish that every developer provided a list of changes for each posted update. If such a thing is available, you can read through it and decide whether any bugs that previously affected you have been cured, if there has been any improvement in general performance, or if any new features have been added that interest you. If none of these proves to be the case, then I wouldn't personally bother to update, since by doing so you might just introduce a new bug.

The other feature that should be mandatory on web sites is that all downloadable files should have their filesize clearly indicated - there is nothing more frustrating than finding that a file is far bigger than you imagined once you start downloading it. In the UK any download over a couple of megabytes should really be left until after 6pm or the weekend if you want to keep your telephone bills down. Finally, make sure you keep a copy of any previously downloaded set of drivers before you de-install them. It has been known for new bugs to make you wish you'd stuck with the drivers you already had, and as long as you can delete the newer ones, you should in most cases be able to re-install an older version with care. Some helpful developers even keep a history of older drivers on their web sites, as well as the drivers themselves - given the almost infinite number of different hardware combinations available to the PC, it's almost impossible to guarantee that every one will work successfully with each and every driver.

The huge plus with electronic documentation is that many applications now have context-sensitive help - if you are unsure how to use a specific feature, pressing the F1 key will often launch a help screen on that very topic. If the manual is in PDF format, you can still launch it alongside the application and quickly switch between the two: this is sometimes better than using the printed version, since the screenshots are larger and more detailed (however, it's not really sensible to leave an electronic manual open when you are recording audio). Another advantage of PDF manuals is that they have a Find function. If you want information on 'sample rate', for instance, you can Find every instance of this phrase in the entire manual far more quickly than you ever could by looking in the index of a printed manual - and that's assuming that the printed manual has an index, and that it is thorough!

Sometimes updated versions of manuals are available for download from the developer's web site, and these can be very useful if you have updated your software and the manual is now out of date. However, possibly the most useful textual information available from developers is the FAQ or Hints and Tips pages, since these provide direct information about common problems which you don't have to wade through the manual to find. I always download these if possible for off-line reference, although this can sometimes be tricky if they extend over multiple pages.


Having highlighted some ways to get more from your existing software and hardware, it's time to switch on the modem and do a little hunting. If you are looking for sounds for your MIDI synth, sampler, or soundcard, a huge range is available free or at bargain prices from a host of developers. One of the best places to start looking is Synth Zone (www.synthzone.com), since this excellent site has links to a whole host of other synth-related sites. For pure samples, their 'Sampling and Sample Sites' page (www.synthzone.com/sampling.htm) contains a wide range of links to get you started, and you can guarantee that a proportion of these will also have links to yet further sites. Most are completely free and run by enthusiasts, but some are likely to be commercial sites with a few free demo files.

Many are in WAV file format, often sampled at 22kHz to keep file sizes down, with others in MP3, AU, and IFF format. As you might guess, the emphasis on most sample sites is drums (mostly analogue beat boxes) and loops, and if these sounds appeal to you then there are lots to wade through. However, don't expect to find too many instrumental and orchestral sounds, as these need to be multi-sampled to be effective, and the file sizes are consequently too large for cost-effective download.

Banks of sounds for specific MIDI synths are widely available from a variety of different sources. The first place to look should be the web site of the appropriate manufacturer, since there are nearly always some freebies on offer here. Further afield you will need to do a bit of detective work by following various links, but for most synths you should be able to find quite a few banks of good sounds, and if there is a user group for a particular model this will often lead you to more relevant sites. Now that so many people are using computers to store all their sounds, fewer are being released on ROM and RAM expansion cards that plug directly into the keyboard or module. This does mean that for older synth models you can sometimes find these same sounds available for download free of charge, since they have in many cases long since ceased to be of commercial value to the original developers.

As I've said on various occasions, SoundFonts have now finally been accepted as a proper sample bank format, rather than as a poor relation. Anyone with a SoundFont-based card, like the Soundblaster range and Emu APS, or a software synth that supports SoundFonts, like Seer Systems' Reality, can find SoundFonts at various places on the Internet. A good place to start looking is the Creative Labs web site itself (www.creative-labs.co.uk), as this maintains a selection of free SoundFonts from various developers to whet your appetite. However, there are also many excellent commercial SoundFonts available at bargain prices. I mentioned the Sonic Implants range from Hruska Audio Productions (www.sonicimplants.com) in last month's PC Notes, and of course Emu themselves market the Module Mania series at £25 each - currently available are the first three Proteus modules (Pop Rock, Orchestral, and World), along with the Vintage Keys and Planet Phatt.

You can even download patches for effects units, both of the stand-alone MIDI variety and presets for plug-ins (although these tend to be somewhat rare). Again the best tactic is to follow links for the specific effect or plug-in - I quickly came across a site for the Alesis Quadraverb, at www.neato.org/qv, which had a page of downloadable patch banks.


Many MIDI and SysEx utilities are available, and since MIDI has been going for so many years even utilities dating from 1996 can prove perfectly usable in many cases! Anyone who works with MIDI will on occasion find that notes refuse to emerge from the synth in question, or that a bank of sounds doesn't get sent to the right place. In cases like these some sort of MIDI monitor is invaluable - either a hardware one such as Deltron's Brighteye or the Studiomaster MA36, or a software utility.

"It's all too easy to end up with 2000 sounds for your synth or soundcard, yet never have them organised sufficiently well to sort out the good from the bad."

I've used the basic Midimon software utility for years, and mentioned it in my very first PC Notes column, way back in May 1997. Midimon was originally written by Microsoft way back in 1991, but was enhanced in various ways and posted in various places on the Internet as freeware. Quite by chance I stumbled on a radically improved version that has been renamed MIDI-OX, since virtually none of the original code remains. The latest version 5.5 is available from various places - I got mine from Cakewalk's ftp site (ftp://ftp.cakewalk.com/pub/Misc/MIDIOXSE.EXE).

Quite apart from the enhanced monitoring of MIDI input and output signals, MIDI-OX can now also be used to send controller messages, send and receive SysEx commands and dumps, use the PC keyboard to send MIDI notes, filter out any specific type of MIDI data, transform one type of MIDI data into another, and play back MIDI files. This is an excellent utility, especially since it remains freeware - I've already deleted various others that I used previously, and can now boot this up with confidence to carry out the majority of my day-to-day MIDI tasks. Many thanks to authors Jamie O'Connell and Jerry Jorgenrud - highly recommended!

Learn To Say No

When searching for suitable downloads it's worth using a bit of common sense, and restricting yourself to items that are genuinely useful. Yes, I know that it's tempting to have 150 VST plug-ins available if you can download the majority free of charge, but if you are unlikely to ever use some of them then it will make selecting the others far quicker and easier.

A similar approach is useful with sound banks. It's all too easy to end up with 2000 sounds for your synth or soundcard, yet never have them organised sufficiently well to sort out the good from the bad. If you find a hoard of seemingly must-have sound banks, create a couple of folders named Good and Bad. Then when you audition each bank, try out each sound in turn, and if any really appeal move the whole bank into the Good folder. If you get to the far end of the bank without being impressed, move it into the Bad folder rather than simply deleting it. Then, once you've waded through all your new finds, the next time you need a new sound you've already got all the appealing ones in the Good folder - this can save a huge amount of time. If you never seem to get around to listening to the contents of the Bad folder then delete them all, but you might just change your mind on another occasion and be glad you kept them.

Another useful utility is MIDIJoY - not a sequencer that works every time without crashing, but a way to convert a game joystick into a versatile two- or even three-way MIDI controller. In addition, up to four 'fire' buttons are supported, which can trigger (among other MIDI events) selected notes, or act as a sustain pedal. If you have a joystick, why not point your browser at www.cs.uwa.edu.au/~skot/vellocet/index.html - with all the current interest in controlling MIDI devices using hardware knobs, this must be one of the cheapest ways to do it!

Synth Editors

Once you have more than a couple of MIDI synths, it pays to organise your banks of patches a little more carefully if you are ever to find a favourite sound again. If you just want to load and save existing banks, a utility like MIDI-OX is ideal, but for creating your own sounds, a computer-based editor can be a lot easier than using the often tiny editing windows in many synths.

There are two design approaches to synth editors: generic (or universal) and model-specific. Generic ones tend to support a wide range of models, and are cost-effective if you have a large range of synths. They also tend to be written by the larger software companies, since developers need access to a huge range of synths to appeal to a large market, and also need to keep updating their synth profiles as new models are launched.

However, many people prefer to use a model-specific editor, since the entire interface will then be designed to suit the particular feature-set of one synth, with all its special features and quirks. Here shareware developers score highly, since often a particular editor will be written by an enthusiast frustrated that no dedicated commercial equivalent exists. I make no apologies for once again mentioning XGedit for Yamaha synths - I have never regretted sending my £25 to register Gary Gregson's editor (www.yme.co.uk/yme/), and have since downloaded at least a further half-dozen free updates over the last few years, as new XG synth models are added to the supported list.

In fact, if you have an older model of synth, shareware editor support may be the only available option, since there won't be a huge potential market to entice a commercial developer. Last year I bought a Korg Wavestation SR, which has been out of production for a long time. I was therefore delighted to find the Canadian developer Intelios (www.soundtower.com), who have dedicated editors for the Korg 01/W, Wavestation, Alesis Quadrasynth, and Waldorf Microwave, along with various other MIDI-based utilities.

Their Wavestation editor (WS SoundEditor), transformed editing my SR into a joyous experience. Anyone who owns one of these synths will know that the complex relationship between Performances, Patches, and Wave Sequences makes even moving a sound from one internal bank to another a major task. A dedicated PC-based editor makes all the difference, and this is a bargain at the price of 35 US dollars (£21.70). It is well worth looking out for and supporting shareware developers like Intelios - also, being smaller they can often respond to user queries much faster than large developers.


One of the most popular formats for audio plug-ins is Steinberg's VST, and because the company made their Software Development Kit (SDK) freely available, quite a few freeware and low-cost shareware plug-ins are now available. Until recently these could only be used by Cubase VST and Wavelab owners, but since the launch of Amulet Software's VST to DirectX adaptor (see last month's PC Notes column), they can be enjoyed by anyone with any application that supports DirectShow plug-ins as well. Even if you are using VST itself or Wavelab, there are still many basic plug-ins that rely on the 'single knob and scrolling parameter list', but using the adaptor gives you a slider for each parameter (see screen on page 206). By the way, the adaptor is now up to version 1.01, which sports a far more attractive graphic interface, as well as some minor improvements and bug fixes (it costs just over £30 from surf.to/amulet, or you can telephone 07808 157967 in the UK).

One of the easiest ways to access free and shareware plug-ins is to point your browser at Dave Brown's Cubase Webring Homepage (www.dbrown.force9.co.uk/webring.html), where you can find a list of sites in the ring (25 at the time of writing), many of which have plug-ins on offer. Although some people will be sceptical about how good free plug-ins can be when some commercial ones cost several hundred pounds, the beauty of the Internet is that you can download them for the price of the phone call and judge for yourself.

"While it's true that you are unlikely to find cutting-edge technology available for next to nothing, there are still plenty of bargains to be had, largely due to the resourcefulness, hard work, and generosity of a host of small developers."

Some types of effects, such as delays, chorus, and flangers don't need a lot of development time since they only need waveform offsets and mixing facilities, and many of the freeware ones fall into this category. More complex plug-ins (which take more development time), fall into the shareware arena, which is only fair. Ultimately, the really complex plug-ins including EQ and reverb are likely to remain commercial, but there is still a wonderful range of others to fill out the gaps in your collection.

Take Care Out There

I've found some extremely useful and impressive software at modest prices or completely free via the Internet, but of course you are also likely to download a lot of items that don't prove to be suitable for your purposes. As I've said before in these pages, installing loads of applications willy-nilly (especially the large ones often found on cover-mounted freebie CD-ROMs) can be a recipe for disaster, since some are not as well behaved as others. If you just leave them installed and unused they may not only clog up your hard drive, but possibly reduce your system performance as well.

The safest thing to do is to try to evaluate each downloaded item the first time you use it after installation. If it looks useful and suitable for your purposes, fine, but if it's obvious that you've either misinterpreted its function, or it simply doesn't perform as you'd hoped, then attempt to uninstall it immediately while you still remember what and where it is.

Thankfully the majority of automatic uninstall routines are far better than they used to be, and nearly always remove the majority of files that were originally installed. Problem areas include drivers that are currently running, since these are more difficult to eradicate - you may receive a warning that it was not possible to uninstall some files because they were in use at the time. If necessary, you can jot down their names and then delete them by hand after rebooting. Your Registry may also still contain references to long-since deleted applications, and over the months this can all have a cumulative effect.

The safest thing to do is to use a dedicated Install monitor utility such as Cleansweep (previously from Quarterdeck, but now at version 4.5 under the Norton banner). I still run this as a matter of course, since it tends to catch items that some automatic uninstallers conveniently forget about. You can buy it through most PC software suppliers for about £40.

I downloaded a selection of freeware ones to try out, and as you might expect they varied greatly, from 'my first plug-in' to several gems that could easily be sold on the open market. Your own plug-in likes and dislikes will largely depend on what sort of music you write, but particular favourites of mine included Vellocet's Reorder, Prosoniq's North Pole, and V. Burel's ppdisto. Reorder (vellocet.ii.net/software.html) is a wonderful concept - it chops any fixed-length audio loop into 16 equal parts, and then lets you re-order them any way you like in real time. You can also specify the level, pan position and direction (forward/reverse) for each part, as well as controlling loop length and feedback. It looks complex initially, but within seconds you're hooked!

Prosoniq have many well respected commercial releases (including the Time Factory and Roomulator), but the North Pole was developed by two of their staff during their spare time, and is completely free (www.prosoniq.com/sms/sprenger.html). It is similar in concept to the Waldorf D-Pole filter reviewed back in SOS November '98, though it is rather more limited, consisting of a 'virtual analogue' filter with resonance, along with an envelope follower, distortion, and stereo echo - the combination provides a whole host of possibilities.

V. Burel's ppdisto (webperso.alma-net.net/burel) is a complex beast providing ping-pong echo, distortion and filtering, and a host of controls (he shows a signal flow chart on his web site to make things clearer). When used in its VST form this makes it slow and cumbersome to set up, but if you have the VST adaptor each control gets its own knob (see screenshot on page 206), which makes it far more controllable. On the shareware front I was also impressed by the quality of the Aphro Verb from the same developer, at least on the basis of the fixed settings in the stand-alone downloadable demo.

Another beauty of all of these plug-ins is that the files are small, and they are incredibly easy to install - you just copy the DLL file into the Cubase\Vstplugins folder. Even if you are not on the Internet, but know a friend who is, it would only take half an hour or so to download a dozen of these to try out, and you could then copy them onto a couple of floppy disks to carry home.

Closing Words

Sometimes not being able to rush out and buy all the latest software can be a blessing in disguise, since it forces you to explore new avenues in your existing applications. And downloading a new sound or effect can spark off fresh ideas when you're feeling uninspired.

There's an old saying that nothing in life is free. While it's true that you are unlikely to find cutting-edge technology available for next to nothing, there are still plenty of bargains to be had, largely due to the resourcefulness, hard work, and generosity of a host of small developers.    

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