Many UK music technology retailers are now building specialist PCs to order, and Digital Village are no exception. Their Pentium 4 systems promise careful optimisation at a very competitive price.
Digital Village have supplied Power Mac systems for music for some years now, but they're also building up a thriving business in PC construction. While Macs are guaranteed to contain a fixed set of parts that provide a reliable known spec for audio applications, the once-humble PC can now achieve a similar level of reliability as long as suitable high-quality components are used, and in most cases at a considerably lower price than a Mac with equivalent performance. Talking of which, the latest Digital Village PC systems sport a new tower case that makes them look rather like a Mac G4. Whether this is by accident or design, it certainly suggests that PCs are no longer thought of as the poor relation, even by pro Mac dealers! Digital Village assemble their own PCs in-house, and claim to spend several hours on installation, setup and operating system tweaks for each machine they build.
Those who already have a soundcard and music software, perhaps with an existing monitor screen, will probably be most interested in a Digital Village barebones system. The tower version is an extremely competitive £799, while the more rugged rack version at £899 will probably suit those who want to cart their system from place to place, or incorporate it into an existing studio setup. Perhaps surprisingly, customers can also have their existing soundcards and software installed and configured free of charge, as long as they are compatible. Those who want a complete system just have to choose a soundcard, software and monitor, and specify any changes to the barebones feature list such as additional hard drives or a faster processor. Various example packages are detailed in their ads and on their web site.
For this review, Digital Village supplied me with one of their barebones PCs with added Neovo 15-inch TFT monitor, Echo Mia soundcard, Joe Meek MQ1 mic preamp/optical compressor, and Steinberg's Cubase SX MIDI + Audio sequencer. This of course meant that the operating system had to be Windows XP, but Digital Village are now installing this in all of their systems unless otherwise specified, since it is now widely recognised as the most stable for musicians. However, other OS and multi-boot options are available on demand.
The Suntek tower case is very attractive, and is available in both silver and blue versions. It does look reminiscent of a Power Mac G4, and its transparent acrylic outer shell performs the similar double function of damping case vibrations and reducing transmission of internal noise. The side panels are easily removed for internal access using one thumbscrew and two catches, while the top panel sports a handy slide-out carrying handle. The back panel provides a fairly standard complement of PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, USB ports 0 and 1, two serial ports and one parallel port, plus a motherboard Game/MIDI port, along with an BIOS-disabled trio of audio line in and out, and mic in ports.
However, the front drive bays are more unusual. The thickness and design of the front panel means that any device installed in any of the four 5.25-inch drive bays is recessed by about half an inch. The case designers have used this to add a special cover for a CD/DVD drive mounted in the topmost bay which sits over the CD drive's panel and folds down as the CD tray emerges. It all looks very slick, and provides the distinct advantage that any drive noise is significantly muffled by the extra bulk of the second panel, but it does obscure any other CD controls, including headphone socket and volume control (I rarely use these, as signal/noise ratio is typically only 70dB) and activity LEDs (more important for some). There's a similar drop-down panel at the bottom of the front panel, which hides USB ports 2 and 3 and a FireWire port. The floppy drive is also hidden behind a recessed panel.
The review machine had a Lite-On CD-R/W drive fitted in the top drive bay, featuring recording speeds up to 32 times and read speeds of up to 40 times, along with a vibration absorber system to reduce acoustic noise. Below this, the Joemeek MQ1 mic preamp/optical compressor was mounted in another drive bay, leaving two empty bays for future expansion.
Inside the case there was plenty of room, with space for another 3.5-inch internal drive, and three 5.25-inch internal bays, one of which was already occupied by the Seagate Barracuda hard drive. All nine drive bays were provided with lock/release catches for quick assembly and removal, and the wiring had been neatly assembled into looms and anchored to the case.
The motherboard was from Taiwanese company Soltek, who have been receiving some excellent reviews in the PC press recently. The SL-85DR2-C board used here is a very new model, only released this May, and features Intel's 845E chipset, which supports Intel's 478-pin Pentium 4 and Northwood processors. However, like many other Soltek boards, possibly its most striking feature is its colour — in this case Glacier Silver.
It provides two DDR (Double Data Rate) DIMM slots to house up to 2GB of unbuffered DDR 266/200 SDRAM (see box for technical discussion), and this Digital Village system came with a single 512MB stick of PQI-brand DDR 266 SDRAM. Both Hyundai and Samsung brands may also be supplied, and all three have a god reputation for reliability. The processor fitted was a 2.0GHz Pentium 4 Northwood 'A' model, which means that the system buss was running at 400MHz (100MHz quad-pumped), although it also supports the very latest 'B' models that use the higher 533MHz setting.
There are six PCI buss master slots, and one AGP 4x slot, in which an ATI Radeon 7000 dual-head graphics card had been fitted in the review model. This has both an HD15 analogue socket (compatible with the supplied Neovo F215 LCD monitor), and a DVI digital port for a second monitor. A DVI-to-HD15 adaptor is also supplied to plug a second analogue monitor into the graphics card.
PCI slot two had been fitted with a Spire internal fax/modem card, which had twin telephone connectors plus a mic input and speaker output for its speakerphone functions. PCI slot four housed a FireWire card with a generous four ports — three were on the backplate, while the fourth was attached internally to the lower front panel as mentioned earlier. The Echo Mia soundcard was installed in PCI slot five, while the sixth and final PCI slot was empty, although its backplate position was occupied by the I/O panel of the Joemeek MQ1: its XLR mic input with phantom power option is provided on a flying lead, and this had been carefully clipped to the PC's back panel.
Delving into the AMI BIOS showed that the Seagate Barracuda hard drive had been installed as Primary Master and the Lite-On CD-R/W drive as Secondary Master. Sensibly, Power Management had been disabled, while in the PNP/PCI Configuration page the Echo Mia had been forced to use IRQ 9. Although the motherboard also features an Avance AC97 Audio Codec, this had sensibly been disabled in the Integrated Peripherals page to avoid any conflicts with the more professional Mia. The one parallel port was left enabled, as was the COM1 serial port, but COM2 had been disabled to reclaim an IRQ. However, both the onboard MIDI port and Gameport had been left active. Providing a single MPU401-compatible MIDI In and Out, the MIDI port can be connected via the supplied Gameport adaptor lead, and will give you a MIDI latency as low as any PCI soundcard port, and probably lower than serial, parallel or USB interfaces.
During boot-up the 80GB Seagate Barracuda hard drive was correctly shown as using Ultra DMA Mode 5, with SMART (Self Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) disabled, for a small performance boost, at the expense of no warning in the unlikely event of an impending hard disk disaster. Using Partition Magic, I determined that it had been divided into two partitions — a 20GB one housing Windows and applications, and the remaining 56GB one devoted to audio use. Both had been NTFS formatted, which makes sense when the Windows 98 platform isn't involved; in any case, you cannot format a volume larger than 32GB using FAT32 under Windows XP.
Once the desktop had appeared I was able to check how Windows XP had been set up. In advance of the imminent Service Pack 1 I was pleased to find that various Microsoft 'hot fixes' had been installed. Device Manager also showed that Digital Village are not keen on ACPI: the machine had been set up as a 'Standard PC' to avoid any possible IRQ sharing conflicts with some soundcards. This does mean that you have to power down the PC by hand when the 'It is now safe to shut down your computer' dialogue appears, but this is a small price to pay for possible extra stability and performance.
My investigations showed that most settings had been appropriately tweaked for the PC musician — Windows Classic Theme, no system sounds, background or screen-saver, and a 1024x768-pixel resolution with 16-bit colour. Visual Effects had been set to 'Adjust for best performance' to remove all animated and other graphic frills, although I was surprised to note that Graphic Hardware Acceleration had been set to None. Digital Village told me that this setting had circumvented several audio problems in the past, and that it doesn't make a noticeable difference to music applications, but it's quick enough to change back if you intend to run any serious graphics applications. The Power Scheme had been altered to Always On, with hibernation disabled (which prevents a 512MB file being created on your hard drive).
On the multitasking side, Task Scheduler had been disabled, Processor Scheduling changed to favour 'background services', and System Restore had been turned off on all drives. Virtual Memory had also been altered to a fixed 250MB size (which is normally safer than leaving its size under Windows' control), and quite a few Services had also been disabled, although the full list is far too long to print here.
Part of the motherboard bundle is a very useful software CD-ROM containing Partition Magic 6.0SE to manage your hard drive contents, Drive Image 4.0 to back them up, Virtual Drive to emulate a CD-ROM drive so that you can run CD-ROM applications without loading the CD each time, and PC-cillin 2000, an anti-virus utility that's the only one in the bundle probably best left off your music partition. There's also a printed manual for these applications. Many of the other peripherals also have software bundles: the CD-R/W drive provides the Nero 5.5 CD burning utility, as well as a blank CD-R and CD-RW disc, and I was also pleased to see an official Windows XP Home Edition CD-ROM.
A separate pouch contained a bag of motherboard accessories such as extra screws, spacers and brackets, a MIDI/Gameport adaptor cable with useful five-pin DIN sex-change adaptors for extending the length of the MIDI cables, a FireWire cable, telephone-to-modem cable, a phono-to-phono cable, and two high-quality one-foot long Van Damme TRS-wired jack-to-jack leads ideal for looping the Joemeek outputs through to the Mia inputs. This shows care and attention to detail.
With a 2.0GHz Pentium 4A processor, 512MB of CAS2 DDR SDRAM and a fast and quiet Seagate Barracuda IV hard drive, I wasn't expecting this Digital Village PC to be a slouch, and I wasn't disappointed. Visuals were good too: like all TFT monitors, the Neovo F215 provided a pin-sharp display, and any musician who hasn't yet investigated a flat-screen monitor should do so as soon as possible.
The Dskbench utility gave good results for the hard drive, which were almost the same as those I measured with the 60GB model I tested in the Millennium PC in SOS January 2002. The C partition gave sustained transfer rates of 37MB/second write and 40MB/second read, while the inner D partition dropped only slightly, to 36MB/second and 38MB/second respectively. Both partitions could support over 100 simultaneous tracks at 16-bit/44.1kHz with 128K buffer size, and inside Cubase SX, DV had selected a generous five disk buffers of 256kB in size, which with a 24-track test song displayed no disk overhead reading at all.
The internal cooling arrangements consisted of a standard Intel cooler heatsink/fan combination attached to the Pentium 4 processor, and a specially chosen fan inside the 300 Watt Suntek power supply unit (a 330W model is fitted in Digital Village's rack case option). However, the acrylic side panels muffled internal sounds so effectively that the only noise I could hear was from the PSU exhaust fan, and DV have taken to running this at a slower speed, which keeps noise levels down even further. Even once the review PC had warmed up thoroughly and the fan speed rose, it was still very quiet, and by using standard cooling components Digital Village manage to keep their system prices keen.
Processor overheads for the P4 2.0A model were slightly lower than the original 1.7GHz model I measured in SOS January 2002, and some Reaktor soft synths did show improvements of between 11 and 18 percent. However, compared with my Pentium III 1GHz, the release of version 3.5 of the Waves plug-ins changes the situation far more. Waves C4, which ran slightly slower on the P4 1.7 model than my P3 1GHz (83 percent), now beat it by 7 percent with the P4 2.0A processor. The increase would have been greater except that the 3.5 version also benefited my P3 by a huge 50 percent over the previous 3.2.1 version. However, Waves Rverb version 3.5 gave about a 50 percent improvement, while Trueverb was nearly 60 percent better, which may be partly due to the double L2 cache memory of the newer 'A' version Pentium 4. The 845E chipset used by the motherboard is also capable of running the new Northwood 'B' processors with 133MHz buss, which provides useful expansion potential should you ever wish to install a faster processor, while it would also be easy to fit a second dedicated audio drive if you wished.
For the braver among you, the Soltek motherboard BIOS also features 'Redstorm Overclocking Tech', a way to increase the CPU clock frequency automatically until the system conks out, whereupon it restarts the system at the next lower setting. Using this I managed to increase buss speed from 100MHz to 114MHz, giving me a 2.3GHz CPU clock speed. Hand on heart I can't say that I recommend this approach, particularly since some graphics cards and soundcards may grumble at their nonstandard buss speed, but it's fairly painless to try out if you wish.
As I fully expected, Digital Village have been careful to put together a system that works straight out of the box for musicians. The case boasts striking good looks, and with its specially chosen PSU fan, also helps to keep acoustic noise levels down.
They have also been careful to keep their prices keen, primarily by using a motherboard supporting DDR SDRAM instead of RDRAM memory, and by employing standard cooling components rather than exotic ones, which drops the overall price by several hundred pounds compared with many similar systems. Although RDRAM may be faster, in real-world tests with music software the improvement isn't likely to be very noticeable, and certainly won't run into double figures, percentage-wise.
No corners are cut in other areas either — there's a generous 512MB of RAM and a spacious 80GB hard drive, while the FireWire ports are handy, as is the dual-head graphics card, and the wireless keyboard and mouse can really make a musician's life easier.
This Digital Village PC provides more than enough power for most musicians, and the price differential between the barebones machine and many other specialist systems would buy you a soundcard and a little software as well. There's still potential for future expansion with a faster Northwood 'B' processor or second hard drive, but I suspect that most musicians will be perfectly happy with the current spec for some time to come. I was impressed by Digital Village's straightforward but flexible approach, the fast yet quiet performance, but particularly by their competitive prices. Clever stuff!