If you're shopping for a new CPU, the number of processor cores it has may not be the most important factor in how well it runs your music software. Read on to find out why...
Back in PC Notes March 2008, I discussed the colossal leaps in processing performance we've seen over the last few years, and the growing number of musicians who were already climbing off the PC upgrade bandwagon because they were perfectly happy with the hardware they already had.
My own dual-core PC was built in December 2006. For the previous seven years my rule of thumb had been that a PC musician who wanted to be able to run the latest audio software would, on average, need a major computer upgrade every two years. However, in the column mentioned above I also observed that I felt I'd be unlikely to need to upgrade by late 2008. So has that prediction come true?
Well, yes, it has. I certainly, at one stage, considered swapping my E6600 2.4GHz dual-core CPU for a Q6600 2.4GHz quad–core, but although I've reviewed a few sample libraries and VST Instruments that demand higher than normal processing power (mostly due to convolution features), I've still yet to run out of processing power in my own projects with the dual-core. So I'm perfectly happy with my current PC for the time being.
Those of you who are buying or building music PCs at the moment because you want to run more plug-ins and software synths will tend to automatically migrate towards quad-core or even dual quad-core (octo–core) processors. However, for some music applications, memory bandwidth becomes more important than extra cores, and you may achieve better performance if you opt for a faster clocking dual-core processor that runs with a faster Front Side Bus.
Scott Child of ADK Pro Audio (www.adkproaudio.com) has been carrying out some very interesting tests. His results suggest that if you routinely load lots of sample data into system RAM, a processor such as Intel's E8400, with two cores running at 3.0GHz and an FSB of 1333MHz, will manage to run considerably more voices before suffering audio glitching than a four-core Q6600 running at 2.4GHz with a lower FSB of 1066MHz. (Scott's tests use NI's Kontakt software, running an orchestral mock-up that fills a couple of gigabytes of RAM with sample data.)
For once, available processing power isn't the bottleneck, but rather memory bandwidth: the CPU meter might display plenty of power in reserve, but the sheer volume of data being shifted between the RAM and CPU becomes the limiting factor. Scott's results also suggest that switching from DDR2 to the newer, faster (and more expensive) DDR3 RAM may be of benefit in this particular scenario.
So when you're considering a new PC or an upgrade to an existing one, think about how you're going to be pushing the system. Musicians requiring large numbers of simultaneous audio tracks shouldn't run into limitations as long as they use a 7200rpm hard drive, as most such drives can easily manage many dozens of tracks without breaking a sweat, and they should also get away with a modest processor, unless they want to treat those tracks with lots of software plug-ins. Those wanting to run many heavy–duty VST Instruments through plug-in effects should get the fastest quad-core processor they can afford, or even an octo–core system (although many sequencer applications are still poorly optimised for eight cores, so you may not max them all out before audio glitching occurs). Finally, those who routinely need to load in several gigabytes of sample data should opt for the fastest FSB speed they can manage, and (unless they also want to run those samples through load of plug-ins) should investigate DDR3 RAM even if this means choosing a processor with a slightly slower clock speed to stay within their budget.
Many musicians are now aware of the ground-loop problems that can be created by connecting a laptop with its own earthed power supply unit to other gear in the studio. If, for example, you plug in an audio interface that is also earthed via its own mains cable, you instantly produce a ground loop, and therefore possible background hums or digital noises. Even when you're using a USB or Firewire interface that's powered via the laptop, plugging the output of that interface into a mains-powered mixer or active speakers can result in a ground loop.
Traditionally, the cure is either using balanced audio cables (if both interface output and mixer/amp input are balanced), pseudo-balanced cables (between an unbalanced output and a balanced input), or a line-level DI box between the two offending items (if only unbalanced connections are available). However, a fourth possibility is a suitable replacement laptop PSU. While removing the earth connection from one with a three–wire (earthed) mains cable could be life–threatening if a fault developed, replacing the entire PSU with one that already has a two–wire cable will certainly cure many laptop ground–loop problems, without removing a vital mains earth connection. Double–insulated (aka Class 2) electrical appliances have been designed not to require a safety connection to electrical earth — and, indeed, must not have such a connection. They can be recognised by their 'square within a square' logo.
Entering 'Universal laptop power supply' into an Internet search engine should quickly unearth some models available in your part of the world. 'Universal' means that it will work with any mains voltage (typically from 100 to 240 Volts AC) and with most laptops from different manufacturers, by providing a switchable output voltage (typically varying from 15 to 24 Volts), plus a range of 'power tips' to fit the various laptop PSU sockets. You'll also need to make sure it can supply enough wattage for your laptop. Look on your existing PSU for this figure, and if it doesn't have one, multiply the PSU's output voltage by the rated output current (mine, for instance, states 19 Volts at 3.16 Amps, giving 19 x 3.16 = 60 Watts).
Finally, and most importantly, check that the PSU is double–insulated and therefore requires no mains earth connection. If the retailer doesn't mention this, look for the double square logo, or the typically oval cross-section of a two–wire mains cable (aka 'figure of eight'). Another giveaway is that many of the mains leads supplied with such PSUs have plastic rather than metal earth pins, or a two-pin 'shaver' plug. If the mains cable plugs into the PSU, rather than being captive, it is also likely to have a two–pin connector.
Suitable models can be found in the UK at Maplin (I found a 120W model for £45 at www.maplin.co.uk/Module.aspx?ModuleNo=219259, for example). A much cheaper 120W Taurus SCAC1260 model (www.computex.biz/aamax), widely advertised on eBay for around £25 in the UK, has already solved a few musicians' problems!
Bigger RAM sticks: With the carrot of being able to access additional system RAM, more and more of us are installing 64-bit operating systems such as Windows XP Pro x64 and Vista 64-bit. The four slots routinely available on most motherboards don't make it particularly easy to install vast quantities of memory, but back in mid-2007 Samsung developed a new type of 'stacked' memory that allowed two of their 2GB chips to be placed on one DIMM, effectively producing a 4GB stick. Well, they're at it again, and are now starting to produce 50nm DDR3 memory devices with double the density of current 1GB parts. Mass production will begin by the end of 2008, paving the way for 8GB and even 16GB RAM sticks (www.samsung.com).
High-capacity Flash drives: Meanwhile, those who favour computing on the move will be pleased by news from rival memory makers Corsair (www.corsairmemory.com) of a massive 64GB addition to their Flash Voyager range of USB Flash drives. With an all-rubber, water resistant and shock-proof housing, these USB2 drives are bootable, so you can install Windows on them if you wish. Moreover, with a typical sustained transfer rate of around 30MB/second, these tiny USB drives are as fast as SATA drives of a couple of years ago, and should be well capable of streaming dozens of simultaneous audio tracks, making it perfectly possible to carry around your latest audio projects from studio to studio in a shirt pocket.
1.5TB hard drives: Continuing this theme of storage expansion, Seagate (www.seagate.com) have just introduced a 1.5TB (Terabyte) version of their Barracuda 7200.11 hard drives. However, this time there's more controversy concerning just how many computer users may actually benefit. Many mainstream users already find typical 320GB to 500GB hard drives provide more capacity than they will ever need during the lifetime of the machine. Musicians who routinely record huge numbers of audio tracks at high sample rates, and those who store digital video, will no doubt find a 1.5TB drive a more attractive proposition, especially since sustained transfer rates of an excellent 127 MB per second have been reported. However, spreading your audio data across several smaller drives (one for audio tracks, another for streamed samples, and so on) may result in better performance, as well as being less hairy for backup purposes. After all, if a single 1.5TB drive fails, and you haven't made any recent backups...
Sonar upgrades inside and out: As usual, Cakewalk (www.cakewalk.com) have been busy adding a bevy of new features to the latest version of their Sonar sequencer, v8, including fascinating new synths such as the Beatscape loop performance instrument, and plug-ins including a 'Tube' leveller and a Transient Shaper (see the Sonar workshop article elsewhere in this issue). However, it also promises quite a few 'under the bonnet' improvements, such as kernel–level optimisations to reduce CPU overhead, better performance at low latency, more efficient use of ASIO drivers, and more balanced loading of multi-core processors.
No limit for Mu.Lab: Back in SOS September 2007 I recommended Luna Free from Mutools (www.mutools.com) as part of my round-up of PC freeware sequencers and editors. Now renamed Mu.Lab (see screen below), the free version of this "state of the art, ultra-light music application" still supports a maximum of eight simultaneous tracks of both audio and MIDI recording and playback. However, Mutools have just released a Public Test version of their new Mu.Lab Unlimited version 2 software that runs on the PC under Windows NT, 2000, XP and Vista, and, as its name suggests, has an unlimited track count. It also supports VST plug-in effects, VST instruments and ASIO drivers, and provides both piano-roll and event-list editors. The download is small, at just over 5MB, and the application remains very simple to use.
Chinee Kong adds new instruments: Kong Audio (www.chineekong.com) have released a major update to their flagship Chinee Kong V2 collection of percussion instruments. The V2 version we reviewed back in SOS October 2006 already featured 500MB of Chinese gongs, cymbals, drum sets, wood percussion and bells, but V2+ ups this significantly for a new total of 850MB of content, including new gongs, cymbals, drums and percussion. Even better, this is yet another free upgrade for existing users, who can either download the full installer (328MB compressed) or an updater file containing just the new instruments (130MB compressed).