Setting Up & Using Multiple Monitors For PC Music

Published in SOS May 2002
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Technique : PC Musician

If you've got a recent PC, the chances are that you can add a second display without breaking the bank -- and you may be surprised at how much easier your life is...

Martin Walker

For years, Mac owners have been able to run two monitors from one computer, as Paul White never fails to remind me. However, modern PCs are now equally capable of doing this, and the increasing popularity of dual-monitor setups has driven prices down. Nowadays you can buy a good-quality 19-inch monitor for around £300, a 17-inch one for well under £200 and a 15-inch one for under £100; you can even buy luxury models with a multiple array of connected LCD displays on a single stand.

For musicians, the most common application for multiple monitors is to have the sequencer Arrange page on the main or largest display, with the various audio and MIDI mixer pages on the other. When you're working with complex songs using lots of tracks, extending the mixer across both screens also enables each and every mixer channel to be displayed simultaneously, which helps enormously in dealing with automation; and there are plenty more options, such as using the second screen for audio and MIDI edit windows, synth editors or soft-synth interfaces, while retaining an overview of your song in the main window. If you're running 'close to the edge' on your PC with lots of active plug-ins, you can avoid having to use the Alt-Tab key shortcut to switch between your applications -- having to redraw the entire screen display can cause glitches, especially if you're also a bit short on RAM.

Multiple screens are also ideal for those musicians who design their own web pages and album artwork. For instance, I've found the ultra-crisp picture of my flat-screen monitor ideal when designing CD artwork, but always view the final results on my old 17-inch CRT monitor to check the colours, since CRT technology can still reproduce colours that are far more faithful to printed work.

Choosing Monitor Screens

Having whetted your appetite, let's consider what you need for multiple-monitor support. The first requirement is to be running a suitable version of Windows. Extended Desktop support was first introduced in Windows 98, and even from the outset theoretically supported up to nine monitors simultaneously (although Microsoft didn't explain how we were to fit this many graphics cards in our PCs). Every OS since then has offered multiple-monitor support, including Windows 98SE, ME, NT 4.0, 2000 and XP.

When it comes to choosing suitable monitors for your multi-screen display, the world's your oyster. If you want to expand one display across multiple screens, it makes sense to use similarly sized mo

  Graphics Acceleration  
  In the world of music applications, 3D graphics performance is largely irrelevant, and 2D performance is what counts. 2D Graphic Acceleration speeds up basic aspects of screen drawing such as dragging an icon, scrolling text, line drawing, or filling areas with colour. It will probably also provide off-screen caching for such things as fonts, since this lets them be used again and again without accessing the slower system memory. Since nearly all modern graphics cards provide excellent 2D performance, it's simply not worth buying an expensive graphics card with 3D Graphics Acceleration unless you want to play games on the same PC (hopefully from the safety of a different Windows setup in another partition from the one with your music applications).  
nitors for each section, and preferably identical models so that the colours are well matched (but see the Colour Profiling box). However, musicians with less ready cash are more likely to have one main monitor, and then press into service an old one that's been kicking around in a cupboard for the last couple of years.

Bear in mind that the area between your speakers should remain relatively uncluttered, and that filling it with a row of computer monitors won't help your sound at all, since they will cause loads of early reflections that will give a confused stereo image. Raising the speakers on stands can help, and of course using compact flat-screen LCD monitors will also help if you can afford them. If you intend to use two or more CRT monitors side-by-side, there's also a possibility of interference between them when they are close together. This is often visible as a moving pattern, or a horizontal line moving up or down one or both screens (the latter can also be caused by nearby flourescent tubes), and can often be reduced by making sure that each monitor has a different refresh rate. This can normally be changed from its default Optimal setting in the Advanced section of Display Properties. For instance, you might find that running monitor one at 100Hz and monitor two at 85Hz solves all your problems, whilst still keeping them above the rate at which screen refreshes become visible as flickering.

Failing this, you can either move the monitors slightly further apart, or place a magnetic screen between them. A baking tray sometimes works in this capacity, especially if you attach it via a crocodile clip and earth wire to a piece of exposed metalwork on the back of your PC, but a better option might be a sheet of mu-metal. This is more expensive, but still easy to use -- you can just cut it to the required size and shape using scissors.

The only hard and fast requirement for each monitor you plug in is that it has a connector compatible with the ones available on your graphics card(s). The most common is the HD15 (high-density 15-pin D-type) used for analogue monitors, and the majority of CRT and LCD models feature this. Nearly all graphics cards will feature one of these, and some also have an additional DVI digital port to connect to the digital inputs featured on some flat-screen monitors. Some graphics cards also provide the option for a TV output in PAL, NTSC, or SECAM formats: for this you'll usually need a TV or video recorder with a composite video (RCA) or S-video socket, and in most cases those with a SCART connector can also be used with a suitable adaptor cable.

Twin Graphics Card

You'll also need a way to connect up your second PC monitor, and there are two possible approaches: adding a second graphics card to your existing setup, or replacing the existing ca

  Colour Profiling  
  As soon as you use more than one monitor simultaneously, you'll find that not all are made equal. Colours may vary significantly from one model to another, as will contrast, brightness, focus, geometry, colour balance, colour temperature and so on. Unless you're doing graphics work, the differences aren't important, but it makes sense to at least try to make the image on each screen as similar as possible.

Physical characteristics such as focus, geometry, and picture distortions need tweaking following the instructions in your monitor's manual, but it helps to have a few test screens to help get the crispest, sharpest picture. You can create these fairly simply with a suitable graphics package, but the easiest solution is to download a few from a suitable web site such as These will also help you set up brightness and contrast controls to make the most of the maximum range of shades available.

Unless you're using identical models for each monitor, you'll also notice differences in colour between them -- what's red on one may look rather different on another, and so on. By adjusting each of the CRT guns (red, green, and blue) separately, along with the overall colour temperature, you can tweak your colours to provide the most neutral display. This is known as colour profiling, and is an integral part of Windows. You'll find the Color Management page in the Advanced section of Display Properties, and many monitors are supplied with suitable preset profiles. Your graphics card utility may also provide a page where you can create your own profile (for the primary monitor at least), while utilities such as Adobe's Gamma let you create your own custom profiles for any monitor.

rd with a single card that provides dual-monitor support. Although plenty of people have taken the first option, it's not without problems due to possible conflicts between the two cards, and the fact that you'll need at least two IRQs.

Of course it makes sense to make one of the cards an AGP model to minimise use of the PCI buss, but the second will always have to be an older PCI model -- which, as many of us will remember, can give rise to audio glitches when sharing the PCI buss with a soundcard. Using two PCI cards is therefore not recommended for musicians, but if you do want to try this, you'll need two dissimilar models, so that their drivers don't conflict (just like multiple soundcards). Some motherboards only support graphics cards in a couple of specific slots (check your manual), or demand that you place them in adjacent slots. It may also be possible to use a single graphics card alongside an integral motherboard graphic chipset, although here again there are various restrictions, so you'll have to play it by ear.

For the most common combination of one AGP and one PCI card, you'll need to choose which of the two cards becomes your 'primary' graphic controller, and which the 'secondary'. During Plug and Play configuration, the PCI and AGP slots are initialised in a specific order, and the first display adaptor to be initialised receives a complete set of VGA and accelerator resources and become

  Swapping Graphics Cards  
  Your current graphics card may have dozens of driver files, as well as various references in the Registry, so when replacing it with a dual-head model it's important to do this as cleanly as possible. The safest way is first to remove any graphic card utilities. These appear either as an icon in the system tray on your Taskbar, or as extra tabbed options in the Advanced section of Display Properties in the Control Panel. If your card has these, there should be an appropriate entry (probably starting with the manufacturer's name) in the Add/Remove Programs list. Click on this, followed by the Add/Remove button, and then follow the instructions to reboot your PC.

Next, in the Display Properties/Settings/Advanced/Adapter page, click on the Change button, select the option to choose from a list, and then click on the 'Show all hardware' radio button. Now you can highlight the topmost entry labelled 'Standard display types', and then select 'Standard PCI Graphics Adaptor (VGA)'. You'll be prompted to restart Windows, and when it reappears your screen display will have a low 640x480 resolution with 16 colours.

Reboot your PC, hold down the Ctrl key, and choose Safe Mode from the list of options that appears. You can now safely delete all files relating to your old graphics card from the following folders: windows/system, windows/system32/drivers, and windows/nf/other. Hopefully they should be fairly obvious -- all the files for ATI cards start with the letters 'Ati' for instance. If you want to be thorough, you can now use Regedit to remove references to the old card in the Registry, but as always, be extremely careful, and make a backup before you start. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE/
Software and delete the entire folder relating to your graphics card. You can now power down and install the new card and its drivers, knowing that no trace is left of the old one.

Some graphic card manufacturers provide a far quicker and safer way in the shape of a dedicated uninstall utility. Matrox have one on their web site (the Powerdesk Uninstall utility), so see if you can download one of these before you start, as using it provides fewer opportunities for mistakes to be made.

s the Primary display adaptor. This is the one that will display the Windows startup logo when you first boot, and any log-on screen.

Your BIOS will normally have an option named Primary VGA BIOS, which will let you choose which gets priority when booting. The default is normally 'PCI/AGP', which means that if a PCI graphics card is detected, it will provide the Primary display. As soon as you have both you will probably need to change this setting to the 'AGP/PCI' option so that your normally more advanced AGP card is given priority. However, some motherboards may not supply this option, in which case your PCI card will always be the primary display.

Not all video cards or chipsets can be used as a secondary display adaptor. For instance, most older ATI and S3 cards won't work in this way in Windows 2000, although you can often still use them by forcing them to become the primary card in the BIOS. Microsoft include a file named Display.txt with Windows 98, which has a section on Multiple Display Support, with a list of graphic cards that can be used with a secondary monitor. This has since been greatly updated, and the latest list can now be found on the Microsoft web site, along with others relating to Windows 2000 and XP. The easiest way to find all this information is at -- just enter a search for your operating system along with the words 'multiple monitors', and you'll find loads of relevant information.

Another source of information for anyone entertaining the use of two graphics cards is the excellent Multimon web site (, where you will find a huge amount of information relating to the whole subject, including a database of over 3000 working systems using between two and 15(!) monitors.

Dual-head Cards

A far easier solution is to replace your current graphics card with a new one that supports at least two monitors simultaneously. Various manufacturers offer suitable models, including ATI's Radeon series, the Matrox DualHead models, and Nvidia's GeForce ranges. Both the Radeon and GeF

  Laptops & Multiple Screens  
  If you have a PC laptop, it may already have a suitable VGA port for an external second monitor, and perhaps an S-Video port to attach a TV display. Many have built-in Dualview support allowing you to switch between the various display modes using a combination of Function keys. The only difference between using multiple monitors and Dualview is that with the latter, the laptop's own LCD display is always the primary monitor. If you're running Windows XP on your laptop, make sure you get the latest drivers though, since the bundled ones may not have multi-monitor support. I'm also told that most laptop video chipsets have no Windows 2000 drivers capable of multi-monitor support.

If your laptop doesn't support an external monitor as standard, you may be able to add one in one of two ways -- by plugging in a PCMCIA video card, or by using a docking station with video-card support.

orce models are popular among gamers, due to their fast 3D performance, but this is totally irrelevant to most musicians (see Graphics Acceleration box). Both ranges apparently have a few limitations when running under Windows 2000, and I've come across reports of problems of conflicts between the Nvidia and Via chipsets.

In general, you should beware of buying any state-of-the-art 3D card, since it will probably cost you more, its advanced features will be redundant with music applications, and it's likely to generate a lot more heat. The fastest graphic processing chips often need large heatsinks, and some even require noisy cooling fans.

For excellent 2D graphics capability for music and other general-purpose applications, the Matrox DualHead range has emerged as almost a standard for dual-monitor support. Their G400 model was the first that introduced a single chip to output two physically separate images simultaneously to two different output devices, and many musicians use the second-generation G450 cards, which have an almost identical specification. Both series, along with the more recent third-generation G550 range, support either two standard monitors or a standard monitor and a digital flat-screen monitor. They also have the option of a TV output, either on board or using a separate module: those with multimedia leanings can use one output to view a full-screen DVD movie on your TV, independent of your main display, or output a cl

  Dual-screen Foibles  
  The most common problem encountered when working with two monitors is being unable to drag a window from one screen to the other. This is nearly always because the window is already maximised: just click on its Restore icon, and you'll then be able to move it where you like. You may also have forgotten the orientation of your monitors -- make sure you're dragging it in the correct direction. There are a few programs, mostly DOS applications and games, which can be displayed only on the primary monitor.

Windows remembers the size and position of application windows across both displays, and if you ever unplug your secondary display then any applications that were previously displayed on it will probably be invisible the next time you launch them. However, you can still get them back by right-clicking on their Taskbar icons, and then on Restore if the Move option is greyed out. Next, select the Move option, and then you can use your cursor keys to position the window so that it reappears on your Primary display.

A handy hint for those who anticipate changing the resolution of their secondary display fairly often is to keep their desktop icons to the primary display -- this makes it easier to change resolutions on the second screen 'on the fly' without them disappearing off the edges.

Windows 2000 can be tricky to use with multiple monitors, since without special workarounds, a single dual-head chipset used to drive both displays may appear as a single large monitor instead of two. Although this still gives you a larger screen area, you can't use different resolutions on each screen, windows get maximised to the desktop rather than the monitor, the taskbar gets extended across both monitors instead of remaining in one, and dialogue boxes often appear in the centre of the desktop so that one half appears in the left-hand display and the other in the right. If you're running Windows 2000, check the driver situation before buying a dual-head card.

Any problems normally affect applications running on the secondary display, and some examples I've come across include tool tips that open in the correct position, but on the wrong (primary) screen. This can also happen with some drop-down menus and dialogue boxes that are programmed to appear in a fixed position every time, and therefore always appear on the primary screen. Some users have reported that when changing Cubase tools using the right-click menu, the new tool sometimes doesn't get updated properly until you move it to the other screen, although this worked fine on my system. Problems like these can only be remedied by the application developer, and are nothing to do with Microsoft.

one of your computer desktop to a large-screen TV for presentations. Most models are £100 or less, but if you're particularly ambitious in the visual department, and have funds to match, the Matrox G200 series at between £400 and £600 supports up to 16 simultaneous monitors in its Quad incarnation.

The G400/450/550 series all use the same drivers, which are now available for all Windows platforms. The only down side I've been able to discover is that some musicians have claimed that after changing from a basic card like the ATI Rage series to a Matrox DualHead model, without changing any other aspect of their PC, they have subsequently managed slightly fewer simultaneous audio tracks. Despite the fact that these cards use the AGP buss, this suggests some kind of PCI buss overhead, but I suppose we can't have our cake and eat it.

Getting Started

Using multiple monitors can be a bit disorienting at first, especially since you get so many new display options. I now have a Matrox G450 DualHead card, and since this range seems to be the most popular among musicians I'll concentrate on its features. Most cards will offer similar options in any case.

After you've installed the card's drivers, little will happen until you power down and plug in your second monitor. When you reboot you should see the message 'Matrox software has detected a secondary device (for example, a monitor or TV) connected to your DualHead device', along with a tickbox for 'Use DualHead Multi-Display'. Once you've ticked this, Windows must be restarted, and you'll then see your second monitor in the Settings page of Display Properties.

If you activate the 'Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor' tick box it will get powered up, and then you can select the number of colours and resolution for each of your monitors individually, as well as choosing different colour profiles (see Colour Profiling box) for them in the Advanced section. As long as you've ticked the 'Apply the new color settings without restarting' box in the General page of the Advanced section, you can also change these settings 'on the fly' at any time.

Once you have enabled the extended desktop, your mouse pointer will move beyond the right-hand edge of screen one and reappear on the left-hand side of screen two. This is the default for the physical arrangement of your two monitors, but you can drag the monitor icons on the Display Properties page into any other configuration you please -- above and below, or side by side but staggered in height, for instance -- and if you give them differing resolutions this will also be reflected in the icons, and the way the mouse moves from one to the other.

You can drag a non-maximised window anywhere you like on either screen, or extend it across both by dragging one of its edges in the usual way. The taskbar appears by default in its previous position on the primary monitor, but you can now drag it to any of the four sides of either display. Maximising a window makes it fill the screen in which the majority of it is currently displayed.

This is the standard DualHead Multi-Display mode, and although there are sometimes a few restrictions on placement, you can nearly always get round them. For instance, Cubase VST owners can drag their transport bars, SMPTE clocks, and AVI windows anywhere they like outside the main application window, but can't do this with the Arrange or Mixer pages. The answer is to drag the edges of the non-maximised Cubase main window so that it fills both screens, whereupon you can place any of its other windows anywhere you like within it. The same approach works with Sonar and Logic Audio, and of course once you've carefully sized and positioned all your windows to take advantage of the extra screen area, you can save them as a Cubase Window Set or Logic Screenset.

Matrox DualHead cards also have various other display options available via keyboard shortcuts. You can set these, as well as all the other special parameters, once you've selected the primary monitor icon in Display Properties, when an extra DualHead page will appear in its Advanced section. DualHead Zoom mode lets you define the size of the area you wish to appear in enlarged form in your second screen. The zoomed image can either follow your mouse movements or be fixed, and for musicians it can be a useful way to provide features such as huge Cubase level meters when recording. DualHead Clone mode places an identical image on each screen (often called mirroring), which is ideal if for instance you want to use a projection screen or large monitor so that other people can look at what you're doing. DualHead DVDMax mode lets you play digital video in a window on your primary display and simultaneously view the same video full-screen on the secondary one, which may be useful for working to film.

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