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New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

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New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby AlasdairEaston » Thu Nov 14, 2019 1:46 pm

Hello all. I'm starting to think that I need a new PC. I'm interested in some opinions from you good people who've been through the same debate that I'm having: laptop, desktop or rackmount?

My first thought was "desktop" because I want power, more memory, expansion capability, better cooling, lower fan noise, longer life/room to grow, more I/O and ports, more internal storage, all for a lower price. I also don't use the laptop screen when I'm in my studio (I'm connected to two big screens), or its trackpad or keyboard. But I'm really struggling to let go of the possibility of having a movable set up. I don't really need it to be "everyday" portable. In reality it's probably/maybe/perhaps/who knows? not going to move very often but I'm reluctant to have a setup that's a nightmare/fragile to move. That's what led me to think of the rackmount option. Scan do some nice looking ones, e.g. this one https://www.scan.co.uk/3xs/configurator/3xs-rz370-tour-rackmount-system which I could tweak to suit me.

I know there might be some small compromises about the cooling and perhaps about the amount of storage (I can't quite tell) but it seems like there are no really serious downsides. Am I being naive? Why don't more people choose rackmount? They're not any more ugly than a desktop. Has anyone got any thoughts or experience to share?

Some context to help...
I'm starting to get serious about this music thing, mostly centred on writing, recording and mixing production/library music. That would include live instruments, virtual instruments and synths (notably heavy CPU users like Diva and Massive X). This might on occasion include some collaboration work with other players/singers/bands, maybe at their place.

This is all, so far, done in my home studio (spare room with some basic acoustic treatment).

Current tech includes:
- Zoom UAC-8 interface into an old Marantz hifi amp then into some Ruark Templar hi fi speakers.
- AKG 712Pro headphones.
- Helix and Helix native VST for guitar and bass.
- Audio Technica 2020 for all live recording.
- Roland TD-12 v-drum kit.
- Guitars, bass, etc.

My core software is Reaper, NI Komplete 12 Ultimate, U-he Diva and one or two other assorted plug ins. I am also contemplating getting Spitfire Audio's BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is really the catalyst for this whole new PC question.

Finally, my current PC is an HP Elitebook 8770W laptop. They describe it as a workstation replacement.
- Windows 10
- Intel i7 3720QM CPU
- 16Gb RAM
- half gig SSD for the OS and programs
- 1Tb HDD for everything else.

I call this "The General". It's been brilliant, making no concessions to low weight, low power use or battery life. I bought it used for 600 quid from Teir 1 online a few years ago. Up to now it's munched its way through anything I threw at it (inc 3D modelling and rendering). Ports for everything, space inside for 2 drives, good 3D modelling CAD graphics card for its time. Amazing value.

I'm running 24 bit 44.1kHz with about 10ms latency with no problems... except recently with more synth and helix native use. I'm starting to hit the limits of my CPU at those settings, often reaching 90% CPU usage during playback/recording. Low latency is an absolute essential with helix native for guitar tones and NI drum VSTs being live-played/recorded from the Roland TD-12. I'm willing to work/spend (well, a bit!) to get that latency as low as possible. I feel like the Zoom drivers are good and could go even lower, as long as I can get a system that can feed them data quick enough.

I'm happy I've done all the standard optimizations, and that it really is just the CPU that's the weakest point now. For example, on a complex project, when rendering the final mix audio from Reaper (with obviously no concerns about real-time performance, clicks and pops etc) it's sometimes reporting only 1.1 or 1.2 times real time, with the CPU (and the fan!) thundering along, maxed out. I know it's a complex situation but I'm concluding from that that it's the sheer weight of the computational work that's maxing out the CPU, rather than real-time throughput, interrupt handling or buffer-filling that's the pinch point. I could be wrong (it's happened once or twice in the past). Simpler projects (notably those with fewer instances of Massive X, Diva and Helix native) race through the render at many times real-time.

So my apologies for the massive tome here but I'll give myself the excuse that this discussion might help others in a similar position. Any advice or experience would be much appreciated.

Cheers,
Ali.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby The Red Bladder » Thu Nov 14, 2019 2:19 pm

I've got the giant version of that rank-mount PC from Scan. A true beast with 16 HD slots!

The downside is the size (make sure that you have space for the damn thing! Mine requires a massive 80cm if you include a few cm for cables front and back!)
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Thu Nov 14, 2019 2:32 pm

AlasdairEaston wrote:...But I'm really struggling to let go of the possibility of having a movable set up. I don't really need it to be "everyday" portable.

By the time it's mounted in a case, are you really going to want to move it? It will inherently be a lot heavier and more bulky! And any 'fragility' after relocation normally comes down to the external connectors rather than internal boards and components... so it's really no different for a standard desktop model or a rackmount.

There are good reasons for rackmounting the 'puter in some situations... but I think rarely in a home studio setting. I've had rack-mount PCs before... but personally I don't think the extra cost and impracticalities are worth it for a home studio. Of course... your priorities and requirements may differ...

It obviously depends a lot on how often you need a mobile rig, how powerful the mobile rig needs to be, and how physically manageable. Personally, I'd recommend a powerful silent desktop model in the studio, and make do with a decent laptop for fiddling when out and about.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby The Elf » Thu Nov 14, 2019 2:36 pm

They are huge, heavy things! As I understand it cooling is also a major issue in this format.

I went for rackmount once, but I won't again.

Have a chat with Scan and they'll discuss the pros and cons with you.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby Martin Walker » Thu Nov 14, 2019 2:47 pm

The Elf wrote:Have a chat with Scan and they'll discuss the pros and cons with you.

I concur with this sentiment - Scan sell so many PCs specifically to musicians of all levels from absolute beginner to professional studios that they have experienced all the pluses and minuses of each and every case format.


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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby ef37a » Thu Nov 14, 2019 3:05 pm

Hi Ali, seems to me you already have a very good portable solution?

The latency problem might be that the Zoom is at about its limits?
Will the budget stand an RME Babyface* or one of the 1/2 rack jobbies?

Also, when you have all your stuff installed in the desktop (I agree, a rack is probably not the way to go) maybe you can slim down some programs in the laptop and possibly speed it up a touch.

*I shall of course put in a plug for the NI KA6 but Pete will know if it beats the Zoom for latency.

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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby AlasdairEaston » Thu Nov 14, 2019 4:29 pm

Thanks all for the replies so far. It looks like I was being a bit naive after all on the benefits of rackmount. Thanks for putting me straight. :thumbup:

Dave, you've raised the question about keeping my existing set-up. It does work pretty well most of the time. If I wasn't contemplating the Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra thing then I could probably have put this off for a while. The library and the player are pretty heavy weight, so I'd need some new hardware anyway.

Actually on the Zoom question, I'm pretty happy with the latency and I'm really, really happy with the interface in general. I can get the latency lower for most jobs if I want to. It's when I get to lots of instances of Helix Native, Diva or Massive X that things starts to struggle. They're CPU hogs. I've got a feeling that I could get more out of the Zoom if I had the machine to process the data to/from it fast enough. My (possibly faulty) reasoning is this...

I've read of people experiencing clicks and pops even though their CPU load is pretty low, which suggests that their bottle neck is somewhere other than CPU power. However in my case I've seen me getting perfect audio with my CPU near flat out, 90%+. If I then add more plug ins, synths and what-not then the audio starts to stutter and the CPU's maxed.

To me, that suggests there's nothing much in the system "artificially" constraining the audio performance (poor drivers, too many sluggishly-handled interrupts, etc.). Feels like the CPU is free to ramp right up to it's maximum workload without any of those barriers wrecking the audio stream first. Then of course the CPU itself just can't go any harder, so at some point it falters. Does that make sense or am I thinking about this wrongly?

So if I get myself a whole lot of new processing power then I could maybe push the Zoom and its drivers a bit harder with a lower buffer, perhaps to the point that they become the new bottleneck. :?:

Many years ago I got myself a computer science degree, but a long time has passed and I'm well out of date. My reasoning could be nonsense, so please forgive me. Happy to learn though!

Thanks again,
Ali.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby ef37a » Thu Nov 14, 2019 5:07 pm

Ooo! I tremble to dicker with a computer science graduate!

This old valve amp jockey can only go by what he has learned, 90% from SOS. I see your CPU is maxing out but I seem to recall that some hardware and especially drivers are more efficient in that department? The DAW can have an influence I believe? Reaper for instance has a very low CPU hit to start with.

Re the laptop: I was meaning you have a potential 'grab and go' system for when the guys down the Mucky Duck want a quick demo! I was thinking you would sliim it down a bit once the new tower was flying?

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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby Jack Ruston » Thu Nov 14, 2019 5:09 pm

I've got a Scan rackmount. It's MASSIVE. I wish I'd just got a normal case to be honest.

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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby AlasdairEaston » Fri Nov 15, 2019 10:33 am

The Elf wrote:They are huge, heavy things! As I understand it cooling is also a major issue in this format.

I went for rackmount once, but I won't again.

Have a chat with Scan and they'll discuss the pros and cons with you.

Thanks Elf. I've gotten so used to interent shopping these days that I'd almost forgotten the possibility of asking and getting useful advice from the sellers. Well done for Scan for still offering that. I get a good vibe about them from all the chat here. I think I'll give them a call.

Cheers,
Ali.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby AlasdairEaston » Fri Nov 15, 2019 10:43 am

ef37a wrote:Ooo! I tremble to dicker with a computer science graduate!

This old valve amp jockey can only go by what he has learned, 90% from SOS. I see your CPU is maxing out but I seem to recall that some hardware and especially drivers are more efficient in that department? The DAW can have an influence I believe? Reaper for instance has a very low CPU hit to start with.

Re the laptop: I was meaning you have a potential 'grab and go' system for when the guys down the Mucky Duck want a quick demo! I was thinking you would sliim it down a bit once the new tower was flying?

Dave.

Don't worry, I graduated 26 years ago. A lot has faded! (On a slight tangent, thinking back, in some ways it's surprising how little has changed about the fundamentals of computers.) I only mentioned it so that folks might be less reticent about diving into deep techy advice if that was what I needed.

And I see now what you mean about the laptop as a standby mobile rig. I wasn't really thinking of it that way but it makes sense. Especially if I strip it back a bit, accept some compromises and use it mainly for recording audio rather than running heaps of synths, drums and general VST shenanigans.

Cheers,
Ali.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby CS70 » Fri Nov 15, 2019 10:46 am

My personal experience is that using the same hardware for recording at the studio and on location is a pain in the bottom - and an unnecessary one.

Set up your studio with a desktop, all the hardware and monitoring you need and leave it at that.

For the occasional location recording, get yourself a cheap used laptop and a great small audio interface with great preamps and A/D conversion (the Forte, the Babyface etc) and two pair of really good headphones - one open back, one closed.

Recording audio requires absolutely no computing power, so a basic laptop which has a little RAM, maybe an SSD disk and whose network interface is turned off works just fine.

If you're thinking about mixing outside the studio, yeah you may need a powerful laptop which is expensive as a second machine.. but in that case I'd just use the laptop as a removable studio core.

And honestly why one would want to mix something in an inferior space, having a better space available?

Just my $.10 of course.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby ef37a » Fri Nov 15, 2019 2:43 pm

"Recording audio requires absolutely no computing power,"

And to demonstate HOW little power? We had (till son sat on it) an old HP laptop with an 850mHz (yes! 0.85G) CPU, 500k of ram and a 20G hard drive. 'Twas XP Pro and with an M-Audio Fast track pro son could record electric guitar and mic* perfectly well.
In fact, plugging in an Evo 49 dumb kbd it would play out the sampled software that came with the Evo with virtually no latency!
Latency was however horrendous using Win wavetable.

*The Pro's mic pres were dire, low gain and noisy with it. A dynamic for voice was out of the question but my AKG P150s worked ok.

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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby djangodeadman » Sat Nov 16, 2019 7:55 am

I have a Scan rack mounted PC. As others have said, it is massive and heavy, so not really portable. However, I have a rack with space for it, so I don't have to have a desktop sitting on the floor and getting in the way of my feet, so it suits me just fine. When I need to be portable, which is not very often, I have a MacBook.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby Pete Kaine » Mon Nov 18, 2019 3:44 pm

AlasdairEaston wrote:- Intel i7 3720QM CPU

This gives us a starting point to pull raw performance benchmarks.

3720QM - 8120 - current CPU
8750H - 12404 - current laptop model
9900K - 20192 - Mid-range desktop

AlasdairEaston wrote:I feel like the Zoom drivers are good and could go even lower, as long as I can get a system that can feed them data quick enough.

Quite so from our experience.

Jack Ruston wrote:I've got a Scan rackmount. It's MASSIVE. I wish I'd just got a normal case to be honest.

I think that Alister model linked is the newer case, which is a shorter length than the one I think you have.

https://www.silverstonetek.com/product.php?pid=488

440mm (W) x 170mm (H) x 358mm (D)
17.32" (W) x 6.69" (H) x 14.09" (D)

...and yes there is a number of restrictions with going for the smaller case, which is largely why the bigger cases lived on for so long.

If using a mid-range chip it will get away with using a fairly low profile cooler and you can access all of the drives, but it's tight in there.

If you're using the high-end chips however, it needs the bigger cooler option and that involves removing a drive bay and not being able fit an optical. I skirted around using it until the point that M.2's started to be come affordable and fairly common otherwise it was restricted to two drives, but now we can throw NVMe's in there it's a bit more viable.

Hugh Robjohns wrote:
AlasdairEaston wrote:...But I'm really struggling to let go of the possibility of having a movable set up. I don't really need it to be "everyday" portable.

By the time it's mounted in a case, are you really going to want to move it? It will inherently be a lot heavier and more bulky! And any 'fragility' after relocation normally comes down to the external connectors rather than internal boards and components... so it's really no different for a standard desktop model or a rackmount.

Very true and the only real plus point is being able to rack it in tour setup with your amps and eq's. If you're looking to carry it from studio to studio however, we'll it would seem a little more unwieldy to me.

I'd be more prone to look at options in a small form factor case instead. For example, something like the Node 304 is the size of a large shoe box and you can toss it in an kit bag.

https://www.fractal-design.com/products ... 304/black/

You do end up with the restriction of only being able to fit smaller Mitx boards (so it's no good if you need to fit expansion cards), but the space saving has to be found somewhere.

ef37a wrote:The latency problem might be that the Zoom is at about its limits?
Will the budget stand an RME Babyface* or one of the 1/2 rack jobbies?

*I shall of course put in a plug for the NI KA6 but Pete will know if it beats the Zoom for latency.

The Zoom took it's performance crown at launch and AFAIK still holds at the price point. The Babyface would be a step up performance wise, but the I/O on the current Zoom model seems to be a quite sizable out of the box.

AlasdairEaston wrote:I've read of people experiencing clicks and pops even though their CPU load is pretty low, which suggests that their bottle neck is somewhere other than CPU power. However in my case I've seen me getting perfect audio with my CPU near flat out, 90%+. If I then add more plug ins, synths and what-not then the audio starts to stutter and the CPU's maxed.

To me, that suggests there's nothing much in the system "artificially" constraining the audio performance (poor drivers, too many sluggishly-handled interrupts, etc.). Feels like the CPU is free to ramp right up to it's maximum workload without any of those barriers wrecking the audio stream first. Then of course the CPU itself just can't go any harder, so at some point it falters. Does that make sense or am I thinking about this wrongly?

So if I get myself a whole lot of new processing power then I could maybe push the Zoom and its drivers a bit harder with a lower buffer, perhaps to the point that they become the new bottleneck. :?:

It does makes sense and if it's only breaking up over 90% then yes, you're probably correct about hitting the CPU performance cealing.

What buffer setting are you running the Zoom at currently?
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby AlasdairEaston » Mon Nov 18, 2019 10:49 pm

That's great info Pete. Thanks for taking the time to cover all those details. In answer to your question, I'm usually running the buffer at about 192.

Cheers,
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby Pete Kaine » Tue Nov 19, 2019 10:52 am

Yeah, there shouldn't be any real reason that you can't hit the 64 buffer on that interface other than running out of overhead, the figure of 10ms also sounds in the right ballpark for that buffer setting.

The laptop chip your running, I only mentioned the multicore score and I guess the single core should be noted here too. The QM chip you have pulls about 1800, whereas the newer chips tend to start around 4000, so we're talking about a load more overhead per thread.

The biggest trade off with laptops is that mobile chips tend to have low baseclocks, in this instance the 3720QM runs with 2.6 base clocks and 3.6 single core turbo.

Due to fact that it's rather complicated to split processing chains and tends to introduce lag which wastes resources, sequencers (as far as I'm aware, all of them) will aim to process whole channel chains on the same thread. Then you have to factor in routing will cause dependencies, so for instance side-chains will cause both channels to be linked and processed on the same thread, at this point you should be able to see how it's possible to end up with a number of complicated chains all being processed by the same core whilst the rest might be sat around doing largely nothing.

I tend to find that the slowest core will have an impact in the overall real world performance, so I tend to favour the solution that has the highest. With desktops starting in the mid 3GHz where you current chip finishes and the generational IPC gains (increase in instructions per cycle), I agree that you should be able to get the increase in responsiveness through buffer reduction that you're looking for.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby Mixedup » Tue Nov 19, 2019 1:27 pm

I've had a couple of rackmount machines. They've been fine. But they don't cool as well as towers (heat rises), which might be an issue for overclocks etc?

I've just last week got a new machine — I opted for a tower (from Scan, surprise, surprise!). There's little difference really. Arguably the tower is more portable because it's smaller... just as easy to have a flightcase built to fit. And it has panels that can be opened on all four sides which makes servicing/installing things easier.

The only benefit of a rack case to me would be that I have rackspace available to accommodate it :headbang:
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby Pete Kaine » Wed Nov 20, 2019 12:29 pm

Mixedup wrote:I've had a couple of rackmount machines. They've been fine. But they don't cool as well as towers (heat rises), which might be an issue for overclocks etc?

The older models with larger cases, you could get away with it, but I don't allow overclocks on our current racked machines for this reason.

Admittedly I had less concern when the CPU's were topping out at 95W TDP, rather than the 160w+ bursts we see on the current generation models.
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Re: New PC time. Why shouldn't I go rackmount?

Postby AlasdairEaston » Wed Nov 20, 2019 7:16 pm

Pete Kaine wrote:Yeah, there shouldn't be any real reason that you can't hit the 64 buffer on that interface other than running out of overhead, the figure of 10ms also sounds in the right ballpark for that buffer setting.

The laptop chip your running, I only mentioned the multicore score and I guess the single core should be noted here too. The QM chip you have pulls about 1800, whereas the newer chips tend to start around 4000, so we're talking about a load more overhead per thread.

The biggest trade off with laptops is that mobile chips tend to have low baseclocks, in this instance the 3720QM runs with 2.6 base clocks and 3.6 single core turbo.

Due to fact that it's rather complicated to split processing chains and tends to introduce lag which wastes resources, sequencers (as far as I'm aware, all of them) will aim to process whole channel chains on the same thread. Then you have to factor in routing will cause dependencies, so for instance side-chains will cause both channels to be linked and processed on the same thread, at this point you should be able to see how it's possible to end up with a number of complicated chains all being processed by the same core whilst the rest might be sat around doing largely nothing.

I tend to find that the slowest core will have an impact in the overall real world performance, so I tend to favour the solution that has the highest. With desktops starting in the mid 3GHz where you current chip finishes and the generational IPC gains (increase in instructions per cycle), I agree that you should be able to get the increase in responsiveness through buffer reduction that you're looking for.


Really interesting, thanks Pete, especially the bit about workload sharing between cores and why good single core performance is key. And if I can get down to 64 on the buffer as you suggest then that would be fantastic. I'm going through your range now experimenting with the configuration options. Great website BTW.

Cheers,
Ali.
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