Building Out a Powerhouse PC


The ADK Quad Xtreme features a 6 Core i7 Extreme, an Intel X58 chipset USB 3 and SATA 600.

Thinking about putting together a PC-based DAW? If so, what kind of numbers did you have in mind, and unless you’re a geek, have you thought about where you’ll go to have your workstation built? Questions surrounding the practicality of 64-bit DAWs and whether or not Windows 7 is ready for prime time abound. I went out and got some answers for you.

I won’t, however, get into the Mac vs. PC slugfest. If you’re dedicated exclusively to the Mac platform, this piece probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’ve used PC machines or are intrigued by Windows 7 and are looking to extend your network, you may find something of value in the research I conducted while deciding whether this was the time for me to discard the dual Opteron I’ve been using for the past five years. I did purchase a quad-core Windows 7 machine in December 2009, and the results have been extremely gratifying, though as you’ll see, moving into the 64-bit world is not a trouble-free procedure.

Three major players in the digital audio workstation industry provided critical input as I researched this article. Why anyone would want to slog through the unavoidable hassles involved in integrating software from multiple companies with hardware and a new operating system is beyond me. Mark Nagata and Ryan Ouchida of VisionDAW, ADK Pro Audio’s Chris Ludwig and Tom Bolton of PCAudioLabs were on top of every issue relating to the state of the DAW industry. The advice and post-purchase support you’ll get from a respected vendor makes the margin they add to the ticket price well worth the investment.

I priced out three systems from each manufacturer. All of the companies’ computers were in the same general price range, but there were differences in the cost structure. (We’ll let you kick the tires for yourself when you’re ready to make a purchase.) Most striking was how inexpensive the technology has become and how modest the difference in cost is between the beefiest computers (intended for the full-blown audio post composer in particular, who has high-res video requirements) and the more modest units, which also deliver performance radically superior to anything previously available.

The information I received from Vision DAW, ADK Pro Audio and PCAudioLabs was almost entirely synchronous. All were extremely helpful, and I thank them for participating. Please note that the pricing of these computers does not include a keyboard, mouse or monitors. (Full Disclosure: I purchased my computer from ADK Pro Audio based on the relationship I’ve had with this company over the years.)

Before you begin pricing systems, are you even sure you need a new PC? In my case, I should note that mine was one of the earlier 2.1GHz dual Opterons. Sixty-four-bit operating systems like Windows 7 allow you to load as much memory inside an application as you have in your computer, but adding RAM to take advantage of this was not an option because the processors inside vintage dual Opterons can’t handle the cycles. However, if you purchased a dual Opteron in the past year or two, throwing in a total of 8, 16 or even 24 gigs of RAM, updating the driver on your audio interface and getting the 64-bit applications of your favorite software (which are becoming more available all the time) might make a lot of sense. Even my antiquated computer had no problem loading multiple soft synths, including all of the Native Instruments modules that are a staple in the Komplete 6 bundle that many composers rely on. (It did creak when I loaded bulked-up products like Omnisphere.) The point is, you may be able to make a minimal investment and garner the advantages of working in the 64-bit realm.

If you’re a composer who works in the film and television world, do you use a balanced mixture of soft synths and samples, or is your template heavily weighted toward orchestral samples—including large libraries like the Vienna Symphonic Library Cube and East West’s PLAY Engine–based products? If you fall into the latter category, you’ll want to take advantage of the fact that hard drives have dropped dramatically in price. The rule of thumb today is that it’s best to leave at least a third of any given hard drive empty. Spreading your large libraries across multiple drives that haven’t been saturated with samples yields the best streaming and I/O performance.

Thinking ahead is always a good idea. Ryan Ouchida of VisionDAW says, “Ninety percent of our clients find the need to add additional workstations to their studio.” If you’re purchasing a new interface rather than porting over one you already own, make sure it has I/O capacity that will allow you to expand easily in the future. You may even want to turn your current computer into a strictly mixing environment; that way, software like the Waves line, which is not yet available in a 64-bit format, will remain inline.

The impact chassis was designed for the audio professional from the ground up by the engineers at PCAudioLabs.

The impact chassis was designed for the audio professional from the ground up by the engineers at PCAudioLabs.

SYSTEM ONE ($2,000 TO $2,500)
You get a lot more for this amount of money than ever before, as I can readily attest. Expect to cop an Intel Core i7 860 2.8GHz processor, eight gigs of RAM, a couple of 500-gig SATA drives, Windows 7 Pro 64-bit OEM (some manufacturers distinguish their systems in part by those including only the 32-bit version of Win 7), a DVD burner and a hard disk management system—all loaded into a tower or rackmounted box that is much quieter than the one you may currently own. Because I don’t have film producer clients walking into my home studio, I saved about $150 by going with a garden-variety video card. Check out the warranty that comes with your system, in particular the length of time that you’re entitled to phone tech support.

By the way, there’s no need to get overly obsessed in trying to compare processor speeds from machines built in different eras. I was surprised to learn that a quad core like the one I eventually bought (running with a 2.8GHz processor) would allow me to do up to 10 times more work than the 2.1GHz machine I previously owned, but Ludwig says it’s possible to overvalue this spec. “Actually, the processor speed has never been the most critical factor compared to the memory and chip set speed and efficiency,” he explains. “When AMD was in the lead, they had a slower CPU speed but a faster memory and chip set technology. Intel recently improved the speed of the underlying chip set, memory controllers and overall bus communication. As a result, clock speed doesn’t have to be cranked up so high, which, among other things, adds to the heat that the computer generates.”

I used to create full-blown orchestral scores using instruments from VSL Cube, East West’s Symphonic Orchestra and the SONiVOX Symphonic Instruments collection. It’s hard to believe, but I’d load one VSL patch (from the double basses up) at a time—maybe two—record a section of eight bars or so as discrete audio tracks, build up from there and move on to the next section.

I was in the middle of writing a woodwind quintet when my new computer arrived, and I loaded up VSL Level Two presets of all of these instruments into a Cubase 5 64-bit project. Level Two presets include lots of samples I don’t use (scalar runs, for example), but I wanted to see how many I’d be able to load into my machine, which I purchased with eight gigs of RAM. Why not 12, 16 or 24 gigs? RAM buying is essentially a futures market. Right now, it’s fairly expensive. I’m betting that it will drop in the future, at which time I’ll add more.

After loading up all five instruments, plus one instance of Altiverb 6 (to which Cubase 5 gains access through its own bit bridge because Altiverb currently exists only in 32-bit format), I checked the Win 7 RAM meters (little icons that model old European-style automobile gauges) and found that I was using less than 60 percent of my RAM and my processor was taking less than a 20-percent hit. Wow, what an improvement!

Start climbing up the price scale, and your Intel Core i7 860 processor gets swapped out for a 950 running at 2.8 GHz. How much difference will this make?

Back in the Stone Age, if you bought a synthesizer or an early synth/sample playback unit like the Korg M-1 or Roland D50, you knew exactly what you were getting in terms of memory and the number of sounds that could be loaded at one time. Today, none of the sample manufacturers will go on record making recommendations with respect to any one computer nor tell you precisely how much RAM is required to use their products because each musician creates his/her own workflow, which is impossible to predict. The ratio between CPU cycles, RAM and even the answer to the gold-plated question—whether we’ve finally arrived at the point where a single DAW is sufficient—is to a large degree dependent on what libraries you use.

“Depending on your configuration, 24 Gigabytes in a single DAW may be the way to go,” says VisionDAW’s Nagata. “Your system will not be processor-bound because of the efficiency of the VI sample engine, for example, if that’s the sound set you primarily rely on. If you’re like David Newman and have a sound set dedicated to one sample engine [PLAY, in his case], then we can configure a system to load that template onto one machine and play it all with some overhead—processor, audio interface and OS tweaks. But, say you have PLAY orchestra with all the keyswitched patches, VI, NI and Aria all loaded with orchestral libraries. In this scenario, you’ll more than likely become processor-bound extremely quickly. In this case, all the loading into memory capability won’t help because you are out of CPU cycles. You would be better off with multiple sampler workstations, dividing the load without trying to load up a single massively configured workstation.”

The new Windows 7 operating system

The new Windows 7 operating system

SYSTEM THREE ($3,800 TO $4,400)
At this point, you’re most likely going to own a dual Intel quad-core Xeon E5520 processor-centered machine running at 2.26 GHz. This will effectively give you 16 CPU cores using Intel’s hyperthreading technology. Major audio programs such as Cubase 4/5, Nuendo 4 and SONAR will all take advantage of Xeon’s multithreading. You now have at least 16 Gigabytes of RAM loaded into your box, a higher-res video card and the ability to load and organize up to four screens at one point.

These are theoretical models, but the distinctions blur once you begin to tailor a computer to your needs. For example, you may not need the fastest processor but will require extra drives. Mixing and matching components to taste is the key.

Getting closer, and not soon enough. I had no problem finding 64-bit drivers for my RME Fireface 800 interface and MOTU MIDI Timepiece. Many companies—Spectrasonics, VSL and East West among them—offer both 32- and 64-bit drivers for their products, but be careful because some companies (though none of those I just mentioned) are less clear about driver installation than they should be. While installing products from several companies that to date only offer 32-bit versions of their material, I made the error of placing the .dlls into Steinberg’s 64-bit VST plug-in folder, making a copy of these .dlls and dropping them in the 32-bit VST plug-in folders. A no-no, according to Chris Ludwig, who took a look at my system via a remote-control session several weeks after I bought the computer.

“Many of these manufacturers assume that the customer has knowledge he shouldn’t be expected to have,” Ludwig says. “This is a good example. Putting 32-bit .dlls in Steinberg’s 64-bit VST plug-in folder may work, but in the long run, it will bog down the system and lead to instability.” Ludwig helped me out of another deep hole. The CD Burn function of WaveLab 6 wasn’t working, and Steinberg tech support simply told me that WaveLab 6 doesn’t support Windows 7. During our remote session, Ludwig navigated his way to Steinberg’s FTP site and downloaded a component that rectified the problem.

“I would like to see the end of 32-bit operating systems altogether,” adds PCAudioLabs’ Tom Bolton. “It’s time that we move on to 64-bit computing completely. Offering 32-bit versions of new operating systems such as Windows 7 allows the audio hardware and software industry to drag its feet on releasing 64-bit versions of their products, which is seriously stifling innovation. By continuing to offer 32-bit operating systems, the move to 64-bit is optional and therefore tends to be considered unnecessary.”

What if you want to make the move to the 64-bit universe but need to access some of your 32-bit plug-ins? Your main sequencer may, like Cubase 5, have its own method of addressing them, but there are other options. If you rely heavily on VSL products, you may want to check out Ensemble Pro, VSL’s hosting and mixing environment. This app lets you load up VSL products and those from many other manufacturers. I created a template that included Absynth 4, Stylus RMX and Omnisphere—all 64-bit plug-ins. Side-by-side with the 64-bit version of Ensemble Pro, you can run a 32-bit instance to shelter all of your 32-bit plug-ins. Ensemble Pro acts like a wrapper within your host, giving even a 32-bit digital sequencer the ability to use 64-bit plug-ins. Best of all, you can invoke the Preserve function and move between projects without having to reload the samples that form your template, even if they’re residing in a network comprising multiple computers.

There is value to mining deeper into the science and theory that girds computer technology. It can help you decide whether you want to build a computer with 7,200 rpm SATA drives or climb up to the 10,000 rpm level. But before you make a decision, you should do some research, ask the experts a few questions and make a purchase based on confidence and price—and have someone to yell at if things don’t work out!

Having tried to create complex sampled scores on single-computer DAWs for years, I can report that we have finally arrived at the point (notwithstanding the advantages of multicomputer networks that Nagata mentioned) where a single computer can handle enough detailed sample sets in real time and with effects to make that dream a present-day reality—even if you choose to purchase the least expensive computer designed for sample-based compositions.

Gary Eskow is a contributing editor to Mix.