Millennium Music are one of several UK companies who specialise in building PC systems to musicians' individual requirements. Martin Walker test‑drives their service...
I have mentioned the benefits of buying a complete PC system from a specialist retailer many times in SOS, so I was pleased to have the chance to inspect one more closely for SOS. Millennium Music Software are one of the longest‑ established suppliers of hi‑tech music products, and have been selling specialist PCs to musicians since 1992. During this time they have also built themselves a good reputation for service and support. Like most specialist music retailers, Millennium custom‑build their PCs to suit each musician's particular requirements, and therefore don't have a standard range of models. If you're not sure what specification of PC will suit your needs, you can tell them what you want to achieve with your computer, and they will suggest a suitable list of components.
For my review I wanted a fairly self‑contained system, and so decided on the Emu APS soundcard with E‑Drive (reviewed in SOS January '99), to give me a 64‑voice sampler as well as mic and line inputs for hard disk recording, and Cubase VST v3.7 to partner it. This has apparently been a popular combination with Millennium customers. Shortly before this review went to press, however, Emu announced that they would no longer be supporting the APS, a decision which has upset many of those who bought the card — particularly since it now looks as though Windows 2000‑compatible drivers will not be forthcoming. Of course, when I ordered the review system, there was no way that Millennium could have known this, and they are keen to point out that they would now spec same‑cost alternatives (ie. at around £400) such as Creamware's Powersampler, or, for those prepared to pay a little more, the Soundscape Mixtreme, which is now available bundled with a MIDI + Audio sequencer and Gigasampler LE for £699.
Since I also wanted to run plenty of software plug‑ins and a soft synth or two, Millennium suggested a 700MHz Pentium III processor, and although many customers would find 128Mb of RAM perfectly adequate, they suggested 256Mb, since I would be using 32Mb of this for my Emu sample banks. In line with my request for a self‑contained system, I opted to have an 8‑speed CD‑RW drive installed, so that I would have a PC not only capable of creating complete songs without any other hardware, but also of burning them direct to CD.
The rest of the system was more standard: an ATX Midi Tower case, a pair of EIDE hard drives (one for Windows and its applications, and the other dedicated to audio), with a 17‑inch high‑resolution monitor screen, built‑in modem for Internet and fax use, and a 52‑speed CD‑ROM drive. However, Millennium offer plenty of other choices, including more expensive coloured and rackmount cases.
The Ordering Process
Millennium were keen that I should experience the ordering and delivery process as any other customer would, so after our initial discussions about the proposed spec of the review PC, I received an information pack containing a written quotation listing every component of the proposed system, its individual cost, and the overall cost with and without VAT. Also bound into the same booklet were leaflets with lots more information about both Cubase VST and the Emu APS. At this stage Millennium are still quite happy for you to change your mind and make amendments or additions to the proposed system — they will then send a revised quote.
Unlike some retailers, Millennium build their computer systems in‑house. Every system is built to order, your choices of hardware and software installed, and then everything is individually tested before dispatch. The only disadvantage of this thoroughness is that you won't get next‑day delivery from any specialist retailer. Millennium quote a typical turnaround of 10 working days, although they can sometimes deliver more quickly if they aren't already building to capacity and all the parts you choose are in stock.
About a week after confirming my order I received a phone call to tell me that my PC would be available the following Monday, and to arrange a convenient delivery date by courier. If you prefer to pick up your system in person, Millennium are happy to plug it in and take you through it.
The Millennium PC arrived by courier in three large boxes — one containing the tower case, the second for the 17‑inch monitor, and a third containing the keyboard, mouse, and all the software. I was pleased to see that, although the software and hardware I'd ordered had already been installed, the original boxes for the CD writer, Cubase, and the Emu APS soundcard were all included, containing the manuals, original CD‑ROMs, and bundled extras such as blank CD‑Rs for the CD‑writer, Neato applicator and labels. These are often omitted when you buy a complete system from mainstream outlets.
I was also pleased to see a Windows 98 SE CD‑ROM included along with the Getting Started manual: some suppliers simply copy the contents of the Windows CD‑ROM as an image file onto your hard drive, but don't provide the CD itself. The final touch was the inclusion of the Wizoo Guide to Cubase VST Windows, a well‑written 164‑page book and CD‑ROM to help get musicians started.
Attached to the tower case box was an envelope containing a copy of my original order showing a breakdown of every item included in the PC system, to make it easier to check that nothing was missing. Even more useful was a photocopy of the technician's build checklist, showing the tests and checks made during assembly. These included formatting and activating bus Master DMA for each drive, recording a one‑minute test tone to check for audio crackles, moving windows during audio playback to check for any audio interference, testing MIDI Ins and Outs, and even test‑burning a CD. Windows had also been specially set up for audio, with appropriate settings for virtual memory and caching, and UK regional settings for clock and keyboard had also been correctly set.
The Millennium MIDI Tower ATX case has a detachable front fascia, and once this is removed you can access the innards by removing a single screw, pulling the side plate forward an inch or two, and then swinging it out. Inside, the wiring between motherboard and PSU, drives and indicators was neat and tidy. My system already had three 5.25‑inch drive bays occupied by the CD‑ROM drive, CD‑R drive, and Emu APS E‑Drive, leaving a single one for future expansion. All three 3.5‑inch drive bays were occupied by the floppy drive and two hard drives. Despite this amount of installed hardware, however, none of the cabling obscured vital areas on the motherboard, so it would be easy to add extra RAM or install other expansion cards in the future.
My PC was based around a Gigabyte GABX2000+ motherboard, which supports Celeron, Pentium II, and Pentium III processors from 233MHz to 800MHz, with buss speeds of either 66MHz or 100MHz. The chipset used by this board is Intel's 440BX; although newer designs are available from other manufacturers, this one is still capable of excellent performance. This motherboard is generally regarded as one of the fastest 440BX performers available, as well as one of the most stable (even when overclocked). It also suffers from few compatibility problems with peripherals, making it a good solid foundation for the system.
Some of you may be wondering why Millennium didn't use a different motherboard chipset that supports the higher speed 133MHz front‑side buss, and fit PC133 memory. Well, the difference in real performance is tiny — typically just 3 percent better in tests I've seen — and the only real alternative chipset is VIA's Apollo Pro 133A; some users have experienced USB audio problems reported with VIA support chips, as well as conflicts with various soundcards. With this in mind I think Millennium made the most reliable choice.
The BX2000+ features one AGP, one shared PCI/ISA, five PCI expansion slots, and there are four DIMM slots for fitting up to 1Gb of SDRAM memory. The 256Mb of RAM I requested had been installed as two sticks of 128Mb PC100 SDRAM, which still left two empty slots for further expansion if needed. The front‑side buss speed and clock multiplier settings are adjusted using DIP switches rather than from the easier‑to‑use BIOS, which would make for easier upgrading, but the Pentium III 700E Coppermine processor fitted in the review model would provide enough CPU power for some time.
The BX2000+ also has a couple of more unusual features, including a novel dual‑BIOS system that provides a secondary BIOS chip in case the first ever gets corrupted; if this happens, the contents of the backup are copied across automatically. Opinions are divided about its usefulness, since this is rather unlikely to happen in practice unless you suffer from a particularly vicious virus. A far more useful feature is the inclusion of the Promise chipset to support an extra pair of Ultra DMA 66/33 IDE channels, so that up to eight IDE devices can be connected in total.
My system came with two EIDE drives: an 8.4Gb Seagate U8 5400rpm model with Windows 98SE already installed along with my choice of music applications, and a dedicated 20Gb Seagate Barracuda ATA II 7200rpm drive for audio storage. Both are ATA 66‑capable drives, and were connected to the motherboard using 80‑way cables to the Primary and Secondary Ultra 66 IDE ports. In addition to any advantage provided by Ultra 66, this also lets the CD‑ROM and CD‑RW drives be connected to a completely different IDE channel, so that there's no possibility of a compromise in performance. The Hewlett Packard CD‑Writer Plus drive is a popular model, featuring 8x write, 4x rewrite, and 32x read speeds, and almost makes the 52x read Creative Labs CD‑ROM drive redundant.
As with nearly all modern PCs, an AGP graphics card had been installed (the ATI Xpert 2000 16Mb model). The Emu APS card was sensibly placed a couple of slots away from the graphics card, and the internal modem a couple of slots further on, leaving three spare PIC slots and one shared PCI/ISA one, although one of these spaces was already occupied up by the extra Emu backplate with its MIDI I/O connector. On the back panel all of the sockets had been labelled by Millennium, including those on the soundcard, and even the parallel port had been thoughtfully labelled 'dongle' — this saved time wading through the manuals before connecting everything up.
I was initially a little disappointed that no attempt had been made to reduce acoustic noise by damping the case side panels, since I know that some other specialist retailers are starting to do this, but was nevertheless pleasantly surprised when I actually fired up the PC for the first time — the amount of acoustic noise generated by the PC was very low, and the most obvious sound was the gentle whine of the processor fan. In fact Millennium could reduce the total noise generated by their PCs still further if they sourced a quieter one.
Both hard drives were extremely quiet when idling, thanks to their quoted noise figures of 32dB and 34dB respectively, and even when actively seeking data, neither drive was obtrusive. They also stayed comparatively cool, which reduces the need for noisy fan cooling as well. Thankfully, the CD‑ROM and CD‑RW drives both remained totally silent until I inserted and accessed a CD, whereupon it sounded as if someone had switched on a vacuum cleaner in the next room!
I didn't run any Windows benchmark tests, since the majority of these have little relevance to the special requirements of hard disk audio recording. However, I did run the DskBench utility to test out hard‑drive performance, and was frankly amazed at how fast the two drives were compared to my own two‑year‑old Fujitsu models. The 5400rpm boot drive measured sustained read and write speeds of 19 and 19.7Mb/second respectively, and could theoretically run up to 92 44.1kHz/16‑bit tracks with 128K disk block buffer size, or 51 tracks with 64K. The dedicated audio drive measured an excellent 23Mb/second sustained write speed, and 28Mb/second read speed. With 128K buffers it could theoretically support a staggering 141 tracks, and this only dropped to 112 tracks with a 64K buffer size. Frankly, with performance like this, who needs SCSI? Even running at 24‑bit/96kHz the audio drive should still be capable of up to 47 tracks!
Both hard drives had been formatted using FAT32 — with 8K clusters in the case of the boot drive, and with 16K clusters for the audio drive. These are reasonable values, but most people would recommend 4K for the boot drive, and 32K for the audio one for a tad more performance.
The 17‑inch high‑resolution monitor gave a crisp stable image, and was capable of an 85Hz refresh rate for flicker‑free viewing using the recommended resolution of 1024 by 768 pixels. I also tried it at its top resolution of 1280 by 1024 pixels, and it still looked very good to my eyes, although it can only manage a maximum refresh rate of 60Hz, and at this frequency some people may perceive flicker and even experience headaches after long‑term viewing. Personally, I always use the lower resolution on my 17‑inch monitor, and so I would be perfectly happy with this setting. The keyboard and mouse felt fine.
For those who want to start making music as soon as their PC arrives, this system would be ideal. Within five minutes of first switching on the Millennium PC I was recording tracks in Cubase, and the only thing that had me initially flummoxed was lots of distortion during playback. This turned out to be due to the Emu APS configuration — I soon discovered that distortion had been added as an insert effect to Wave playback in its Mixer Control utility, and removing this gave me the clean audio I was expecting.
I then took a closer look at the installed software. In addition to my choice of Cubase VST, and the Emu APS's utility software, there was Wavelab 1.6 (included in the Emu bundle), along with Adaptec's Easy CD Creator and Sonic Foundry's Acid Music (both courtesy of the HP CD‑R bundle). I was pleased to see that not only were the supplied CD‑ROMs the latest versions available, but that any subsequent updates had also been installed. For instance, the Cubase VST CD‑ROM was version 3.7 revision 1, but launching Cubase showed that the downloadable patch to 3.7 revision 2 had been added. Each application had a shortcut on the desktop for easy launching, and even a total PC novice could be up and running within a few minutes.
The ASIO drivers for the Emu APS had been selected in Cubase, and set to a sensible buffer latency of 40mS, and a demo song was already installed on the audio hard drive. I took a look at the Windows 98 SE settings to see what had been tweaked for music applications, and most of the changes were suitable. Active Desktop, Screen Savers, System Sounds, Power Management, and Task Scheduler had all been deactivated, auto‑insert notification disabled for both CD drives, and nothing was automatically loaded by the Start Menu.
A fixed‑size virtual memory Swap file of 320Mb had been created. This was 125 percent of the system RAM size, which is a useful rule‑of‑thumb value, and I doubt that any user would need one to change this. However, vcache size had been fixed at a rather generous 64Mb, and I think this could be dropped down to at least 32Mb, although again, with 256Mb of RAM installed, I doubt that anyone would notice much difference in performance.
My only niggles were that scrolling menus were still enabled (these do take extra CPU overhead, despite looking pretty), and that both Read Ahead Optimisation and Write Behind caching had also been disabled. Disabling both of these is often recommended for music applications, but neither is relevant if the hard disk audio application uses its own hard disk buffering system (as Cubase does), since in this case the Windows file cache is bypassed, and disabling them is likely to slow down non‑music software slightly.
I found the Millennium PC stable and reliable. It may not have the latest 133MHz SDRAM memory (133MHz is not officially supported by the 440BX chipset anyway), but with a 700MHz Pentium III and 256Mb of RAM this system is already powerful enough to run a huge number of hard disk audio tracks and plug‑ins simultaneously. Processor type and speed aside, the most important component in a PC designed for hard disk recording is a fast, quiet audio hard drive. Millennium have made a sensible choice in the Seagate Barracuda II range, which offers excellent performance and low acoustic noise.
With a total price of £2100 including VAT, this PC system will seem good value to Mac users, but might seem expensive to those used to high‑street PC prices. However, it's important to compare like with like — this Millennium system contains two drives and 256Mb of RAM, plus a specialist soundcard and software, and is priced accordingly. Without the Emu APS soundcard, Cubase and CD burner the overall price of the PC alone would drop to about £1525, and if you restrict the system still further to a more typical high‑street spec of 128Mb of RAM and single hard drive, the price would be about £1300. This puts things rather more into perspective, especially since you wouldn't expect to buy a made‑to‑measure system for the same price as one off‑the‑peg.
I was impressed with this system — its high performance and low acoustic noise even made me consider upgrading my own computer. If you want to be making serious music within minutes of unpacking your PC, a custom‑built system like the Millennium is well worth serious consideration.
Review PC Spec
- Case: Millennium ATX Midi Tower.
- Processor: Intel Pentium III 700E Coppermine.
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GABX2000+ with Intel 440BX chipset.
- System RAM: 256Mb SDRAM.
- Boot Hard Drive: 8.4Gb Seagate ST38410A, 5400rpm, Ultra ATA66.
- Audio Hard Drive: 20Gb Seagate ST320420A, 7200rpm, Ultra ATA66.
- Floppy drive: 1.4Mb 3.5‑inch.
- Graphics Card: ATI Rage 16Mb AGP.
- Monitor: 17‑inch high‑resolution SVGA (unbadged).
- CD‑ROM Drive: 52‑speed Creative CD5233E.
- CD‑R/CD‑RW Drive: Hewlett Packard CD Writer Plus 9110i.
- Modem: Diamond Supra Express Internal 56000 Fax Modem.
- Keyboard: Logitech Deluxe with optional clip‑on wrist support.
- Mouse: Flextronics 2‑button Trekker.
- Installed Soundcard: Emu Audio Production Studio version 1.5.
- Installed Software: Cubase VST 3.7 revision 2.
Millennium provide a three‑year warranty against hardware failure, excluding external peripherals, and labour and return carriage charge are also included in the first 12 months. If you get an unexpected hardware problem Millennium will simply send a courier to pick up your system, and in most cases can have it repaired and returned to you within 48 hours.
Customers can also use a telephone technical support number between 10am and 2pm on weekdays, and 10am to 12 noon on Saturdays. This is a separate line from the sales number, and will be answered by one of the dedicated technical support staff. Calls may well be answered outside these times if someone is available, but if you get a problem in the middle of the night or on a Sunday the best thing to do is describe the symptoms in an email and send it to the dedicated email support address, where it will be read first thing the following working day. As you might expect, technical support only applies to hardware and software supplied by Millennium — they won't help you solve problems with your Internet Service Provider, or with any software installed after your system is delivered.
- Works very well with audio applications straight from the box.
- Very low acoustic noise.
- Thorough testing of all system components before delivery.
- Knowledgeable customer support line.
- Motherboard would need changing to significantly upgrade the CPU.
- A few of the OS tweaks could do with updating.
- The acoustic noise would be even lower with a different CPU fan!
The Millennium review PC system was powerful yet quiet, and worked well with audio applications from the first moment it was switched on. What more could you ask for?