Every time I upgrade to the latest and greatest computer, I’m tempted to think, “That’s all I’ll ever need for pro audio.” But my DAW’s new daddy is barely out of the box before a new technology is launched and I’m forced to consider whether I need to upgrade yet again. Do I really need Thunderbolt, quad-channel memory or (fill in the blank)?
That depends. Someone who tracks only acoustic and electric instruments needs a lot less muscle than a film composer or high-definition video editor. It makes no sense to buy more computer than you’ll need. On the other hand, as music-production studios branch out into adjunct fields of operation to broaden their revenue streams, it might be professional suicide to assume an outdated or bush-league computer is going to be up to executing new tasks.
In this article, we’ll examine what practical advantages new technologies for Macs and PCs are bringing to pro audio. We’ll scrutinize the guts of off-the-shelf computers offered by big-box manufacturers like Apple and Dell. We’ll also look at how boutique, turbo-charged PCs made by Rain Computers—rigs purpose-built for content creation—are meeting the needs of pros who require extraordinarily high bandwidth and stability. But first, we’ll take a whirlwind tour of the new Mac OS X 10.8 (code-name Mountain Lion) and Windows 8.
MINOR LEAP FORWARD
Judging from information available at press time, there are no earth-shattering new developments related to pro audio in Mountain Lion or Windows 8. Most of the new features seem geared toward providing a more streamlined and user-friendly experience. For example, Windows 8 includes several new taskbar options to improve multi-monitor support. In Mountain Lion, you can back up your project files in Time Machine to multiple locations. And if you want to share with your fans an excerpt of your band’s last gig that you shot with your camcorder, QuickTime X will let you trim the AVCHD-formatted video.
Which platform, Mac or PC, is superior? Some would argue the Mac OS still presents a slightly more user-friendly look and feel to the complete novice, but Windows 8 has made the differences practically non-existent. If you’re fairly knowledgeable about and experienced with computers, both platforms offer equal power. They use essentially the same hardware components. The only clear differentiators are that Macs are virtually immune to viruses and Apple, according to the August 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, offers significantly better tech support compared to the big-box PC vendors, though Rain and other boutiques are known for their high-quality response and service. “It’s really a very level playing field,” says Tim Dolbear, North America Product Specialist Samplitude and Sequoia at Magix. “People need to stop worrying so much about [the differences] and just make music. I think the Mac/PC debate is over at this point.”
A more salient consideration might be whether or not your DAW supports the 64-bit memory addressing that modern operating systems offer. If not, you may have trouble loading virtual instruments that use large sample libraries.
The theoretical limit for DRAM access with 32-bit operating systems is 4 GB, although in practical terms it’s closer to 3 GB. (DRAM is dynamic random-access memory; it constitutes the main memory modules in your computer and is often referred to simply as RAM.) A virtual instrument comprising huge multi-samples and alternate samples can easily exceed the 4GB limit and refuse to load. That said, most computers offer up to four RAM slots that can each accommodate 8 GB of RAM, for a total of 32 GB, still plenty for most music applications. The newer 64-bit operating systems offer a theoretical limit of 128 terabytes of memory—essentially limitless.
If you’re not using large sample libraries or doing video work that uses a lot of RAM, you don’t necessarily need 64-bit memory addressing. “You’re not gaining anything except [the ability to use more] RAM,” says Dolbear. “It’s not going to do anything sonically for you. You’ll never notice any difference.” [Editor’s Note: There are some in the online forums and communities who tend to argue this point.]
In fact, using 64-bit plug-ins makes your computer work harder, which can generate more heat and make its fan kick on more often. For that reason, and to accommodate users who have plug-ins that don’t yet support 64-bit operation, 64-bit DAWs like MOTU’s new Digital Performer (DP) 8 offer an alternative 32-bit mode.
High-def video editing also requires a lot of RAM and hence 64-bit memory addressing. But for simple audio post-production applications, 32-bit mode works fine. For example, 64-bit mode won’t make any difference in opening and playing a video in DP’s Movie Window, as that window just streams the content off your hard drive.
To increase the speed of data transfer between the RAM and the computer’s memory controller (which manages the flow of data between the motherboard or microprocessor and the memory modules), modern computers also employ multichannel memory. In theory, the specified data-transfer rate becomes multiplied by the number of channels a multichannel memory configuration affords. Most computers, whether employing a 32- or 64-bit OS, use dual-channel memory. The Intel i7-9x series and Xeon chipsets (used in Apple’s aging Mac Pro) support triple-channel memory. Rain Computer’s Element V2 high-end video-editing workstation uses cutting-edge quadruple-channel memory and 12 RAM slots, allowing it to access a whopping 96 GB of RAM. For the film composer working with huge orchestral sample libraries, having this much RAM available means not having to constantly load, unload and reload small groups of instruments as arrangements are tweaked. Multiple articulations can be kept at your fingertips at all times. To attain the full speed boost multichannel memory promises, you must install your RAM chips in groups of three (for triple-channel memory) or four (quad-channel memory), and they must all be rated identically in capacity and speed.
NEED FOR SPEED
Until recently, the inherent speed of CPUs—microprocessors that, along with other components, determine how fast a computer executes tasks—had historically increased over time. But CPUs operating faster than 3 GHz generate so much heat that we’ve hit a speed ceiling. To continue improving performance, manufacturers have taken another tack: putting more than one microprocessor core on each chip.
Using multicore processors physically places the cores closer together than they would be on separate processors, thereby increasing the speed at which electrical impulses—and data—travel between them. More important, all multicore processors employ multi-threading, a process in which individual tasks are sent simultaneously to multiple cores. The upshot is that a quad-core computer can perform four tasks at once instead of just one.
In addition to multi-threading, high-end processors—regardless of their core count—might employ hyper-threading, a process advanced by Intel, that dynamically creates an additional “virtual” core for each physical core by utilizing any unused power in each processor. For example, Rain’s Element V2 uses two high-end 8-core processors and hyper-threading to run 32 cores (16 physical and 16 virtual) at once. It’s important to note that each DAW uses your computer’s CPU and implements multicore support differently, and not all can use multi-threading or hyper-threading.
The size of a CPU’s Level 3 cache (its built-in memory) also affects how efficiently it processes data. Due to the cache’s close physical proximity to the processor core, data stored in it can be accessed by the processor faster than data stored in the computer’s main memory modules.
Of course, it hardly matters how fast your computer is if your hard drives can’t keep up with it. Apple still uses SATA revision 2 (second-generation Serial ATA) hard drives, which stream at a theoretical 3 Gbit/s rate. Rain computers use SATA revision 3 drives (either mechanical or solid-state), resulting in double the theoretical data-transfer rate (6 Gbit/s). As a further boost to performance, Rain also uses up to 1600MHz memory, faster than the 1066MHz and 1333MHz RAM Apple uses.
Despite the speed boost SATA 3 affords, mechanical (platter-type) hard drives face eventual obsolescence. Blazing-fast solid-state drives (SSDs), which do not require caches, are becoming more popular as their prices drop. Much faster than mechanical hard drives, SSDs also run cooler, produce no noise and are thought to be more reliable for touring because they have no moving parts that can fail due to physical shock.
Because they currently offer much less storage capacity and cost far more per GB than mechanical drives, most people are currently using SSDs for their operating systems (which don’t require a ton of storage capacity)—an SSD will boot up a computer in just a few seconds. But if you need broad and lightning-fast access to large sample libraries and are willing to pay a premium price for that convenience and performance, SSDs are the best storage option.
No matter the type of drive, the size of its buffer also affects streaming performance. Rain uses 64MB buffers on their hard drives to prevent glitches and dropouts, whereas Apple still uses 32MB ones. Rain finds that a drive that delivers 7200-rpm spindle speed, combined with SATA 3 and a 64MB cache, offers better performance than using a 10,000-rpm drive, which incurs heat and noise issues.
The speed of the bus that connects your hard drives to your computer also impacts performance. The aptly named Thunderbolt interface offers a theoretical 20 Gbit/s data transfer rate—25 times faster than FireWire 800. Thunderbolt is a serial data interface that combines PCI Express and the Mini DisplayPort digital audio-visual interface to connect peripheral devices such as hard drives and monitors to a computer via an expansion bus. Thunderbolt can use hubs or daisychain up to seven devices to run audio, video and data on one cable.
Do you need Thunderbolt? That depends on whether or not your studio does video production. “Video has hefty bandwidth requirements,” notes Jim Cooper, MOTU Director of Marketing, “but for pro audio, Thunderbolt [offers] ten times more I/O bandwidth than we’ll ever need—[more than sufficient] for 100 channels of 192k.” USB 3, which at up to 5 Gbit/s transmission speed is ten times faster than USB 2 (480 Mbit/s) and a little over six times faster than FireWire 800, offers more than enough bandwidth for the typical music-production studio.
WORKING IN THE STRATOSPHERE
For film composers who demand absolutely cutting-edge performance, Rain has custom-configured a couple large-capacity (up to 480 GB) SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration to have it function like RAM. (RAID—Redundant Array of Independent Disks—is a collection of drives configured to write half the data it receives to one drive and the other half to a second drive.) RAID 0 doubles the throughput at the cost of halving the drives’ combined capacity. In combination with SATA 3, this setup allows a humongous sample library to be loaded into memory and accessed with a theoretical 12 Gbit/s throughput (not including other overhead). Only the most high-end, demanding applications (including broadcast-quality video editing and animation) require RAID 0; for most work, a fast mechanical hard drive will more than suffice.
THE END OF TOWERS?
In light of Apple’s much higher profitability on the consumer side (with its iPad, iPhone and iPod), the Mac community has become increasingly worried about whether the company intends to sustain its commitment to serving the niche market of pro audio. The worry is possibly groundless but magnified by the fact that Apple has yet to upgrade their flagship desktop computer, the Mac Pro, to incorporate the latest technologies. The Mac Pro still uses a chipset that was released way back in Q1, 2010, practically prehistory in the computing world.
In the meantime, laptops are quickly replacing towers. “We’re getting performance out of smaller computers that only the big towers used to provide,” Jim Cooper observes. “An i7 Mac Book Pro is just as fast if not faster than an 8-core Mac Pro tower from just a couple years ago.”
Smaller and faster is good, though the engineer still needs to take into account other considerations, such as availability of expansion slots and heat generation. No matter what your needs, there’s a svelte racehorse ready to help you meet your creative goals.
Mix contributing editor Michael Cooper (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording) is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Ore.