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Getting Started With Windows '95/'98 Music Applications

Tips & Tricks By Martin Walker
Published July 2000

Sometimes soundcard mixers are so comprehensive that it can be tricky to determine which combination of controls allows the desired signal to emerge!Sometimes soundcard mixers are so comprehensive that it can be tricky to determine which combination of controls allows the desired signal to emerge!

Even PC experts can find the business of setting up their machines for music pretty complicated, so it's hardly surprising that many new users are bewildered by the vast array of settings and options available. Martin Walker offers a guide through the maze...

Whether you are already a seasoned musician used to analogue recording, are moving sideways after lengthy experience with an Atari ST, or are a complete newcomer to computerised music making, your first few experiences with a PC can be daunting. The whole business of using soundcards as audio I/O devices may be new to you, and the vagaries of the Windows operating system still catch the experts out at times. Most people manage to install their soundcard without too many hiccups, but often lose the plot when trying to get it to work with their MIDI + Audio sequencer. There can be so many settings to configure — and so many conflicting suggestions in manuals and on the Internet — that it's difficult to know what is important and what isn't. Sometimes you may get no sound output at all, and then you're left wondering whether it's the soundcard or the software at fault.

Even when you succeed in recording MIDI and audio data, you may experience the frustration of timing glitches, clicks, and crackles, and only then discover that Windows itself needs to be set up differently for music applications than most other software. Here again, lots of advice is available on the Internet, but when you're starting out you may not know where to look, and even when you do, you may not want to blindly follow long lists of tweaks without knowing what aspect of PC performance they affect, or their performance implications for your other software. So, this month's PC Musician will cover all the basic things you need to get your soundcard up and running with your sequencer, and how to set up Windows to provide it with the smoothest ride.

Checking Soundcard Audio

Setting up audio in your sequencer can be confusing, but not if you know where to look and what settings to enter. These are the MME setup windows for (left to right) Cakewalk Pro Audio, Cubase VST, and Logic Audio.Setting up audio in your sequencer can be confusing, but not if you know where to look and what settings to enter. These are the MME setup windows for (left to right) Cakewalk Pro Audio, Cubase VST, and Logic Audio.

If you have just bought a PC with a soundcard already fitted, or have fitted a soundcard yourself, it's well worth testing out its basic functions to make sure everything is working properly, and that the drivers are correctly installed. Nearly all soundcards are provided with MME (MultiMedia Extensions) drivers, so that they are compatible with any standard Windows applications, and the most basic way to test the audio output is to open up Microsoft's Media Player, load in a WAV file, and then check for correct playback.

Check first in the Multimedia section under Control Panel that your soundcard has been chosen as the preferred option in the Audio page. If it has multiple stereo outputs there will be several entries here, so make sure that your speakers are monitoring the output that is currently selected.

Media Player is bundled with every version of Windows, but there are various versions, and the test method varies slightly depending on which you use. The older version supplied with Windows 95 and Windows 98 is version 4, and provides a simpler interface that includes a Device menu option — you will need to choose the Sound option from this to play WAV files. The latest version 6 (with the video window) selects the appropriate device automatically as soon as you open a WAV file.

Load a suitable WAV file into Media Player and then click on its Play button. If no sound is heard, there may be several reasons. Assuming that you have connected up your amp and speakers correctly, and that the cables between them are not faulty, the most common reason is that a control in the soundcard's software mixer is turned down. However, tracking down the culprit can sometimes be tricky, given the number of features built in to some soundcards.

Soundcard Mixers

Unexpected hard drive activity can cause MIDI timing problems and audio glitching, but one way to minimise this is to create a fixed‑size Virtual Memory.Unexpected hard drive activity can cause MIDI timing problems and audio glitching, but one way to minimise this is to create a fixed‑size Virtual Memory.

There are two types of soundcard mixer: a few cards still rely on the default Windows Volume Control utility, but most are now bundled with a dedicated mixer application. If your card has such a mixer, an icon for it will normally appear on the Taskbar, and double‑clicking on this will launch the mixer. If your soundcard doesn't have one, you will have to use the generic Windows utility. A tiny loudspeaker icon to launch this normally appears on the Taskbar as well; if not, you can make it appear by entering the Multimedia section in Control Panel, and ticking the box at the bottom of the Audio page marked 'Show volume control on the Taskbar'.

Once you have your mixer on screen, you need to check that the output used to play back WAV audio files has its fader turned fully up, and that any associated mute switch is deactivated. There may be several windows full of controls, and some manufacturers have an infuriating habit of replacing text descriptions with rows of inscrutable icons, so you will have to rely on the manual (or use a process of elimination if you don't have one) to discover which fader controls the output level of WAV playback. There is often an overall volume control too, so make sure this is also turned full up. While you're in the mixer it's worth muting or at least turning down the faders of any outputs that you don't anticipate using, since they may add unwanted background noise.

When you hear the WAV file playing back correctly, your soundcard audio hardware and audio drivers are both present and working properly. If changing the fader settings in the mixer doesn't help, however, it's time to follow the manufacturer's fault‑finding instructions carefully. You shouldn't need to check the audio recording capability separately, since it's highly unlikely that a soundcard will be able to play back correctly yet not record, but if you want to check this aspect you can try using Microsoft's Sound Recorder. If you do have recording problems later it's far more likely that a control in the soundcard's mixer utility has been misrouted or turned right down.

Testing Soundcard MIDI

Cacheman is free, and is a handy way to automate the optimum settings for Vcache and the file system.Cacheman is free, and is a handy way to automate the optimum settings for Vcache and the file system.

All consumer soundcards and a lot of more upmarket ones have MIDI facilities as well as audio ones, and you can test out MIDI playback in exactly the same way as audio, by using the Media Player. If you are using the older version, select MIDI Sequencer as the Device. Microsoft don't provide a suitable '.MID' file as part of Windows, but it shouldn't take you long to find one bundled with your sequencer or soundcard.

Once again you will need to check that Windows is using the preferred MIDI device in the Multimedia applet in Control Panel. Confusion can arise here for those with consumer soundcards from the number of options available, and sometimes their fanciful names. For instance, my old AWE64 Gold card has three MIDI Outs: the one labelled 'MIDI for Creative Advanced Wave Effects Synthesis for AWE32' is for SoundFont playback, 'AWE64G MIDI Out' is connected to the external MIDI Out socket, and 'MIDI for Creative Music Stereo Music Synthesizer' is a low‑quality 2‑operator FM synth that is best ignored.

If your soundcard supports more than 16 MIDI channels, there will be a separate MIDI Out for each group of 16. For example, the popular SB Live! card has four outputs named 'A:SB Live! MIDI Synth' and 'B:SB Live! MIDI Synth' (between them these provide 64 voices across 32 MIDI channels), 'SB Live! MIDI Out' (which feeds both external MIDI sockets in parallel), and 'Creative S/W Synth'. Once again, this final option is best ignored unless you are desperate for more than the 64‑note polyphony already provided by the hardware‑based SoundFont sampler.

Most musicians will want to set the default Windows MIDI device to be the one most likely to play General MIDI files correctly using basic Windows music software. In the case of these two Creative cards this would be the one labelled 'MIDI for Creative Advanced Wave Effects Synthesis for AWE32' for the AWE64 Gold, and 'A:SB Live! MIDI Synth' for the SB Live! You should now be able to play back MIDI files successfully using Media Player. If you still don't hear any output in the case of soundcards with SoundFont‑based samplers, you will probably need to check that a default SoundFont has been correctly loaded.

Setting Up Audio In Your Sequencer

Once you are happy that your soundcard and its drivers are working properly, it's time to try it out with your sequencer. Most modern MIDI + Audio sequencers scan for audio and MIDI devices during their installation, find their capabilities, and then make fairly intelligent choices for various parameters, so that the first time you launch your sequencer it will already know what sound hardware you have, and what it can do. Not surprisingly however, conservative choices are made, and you can often improve performance if you know where to look and what to change.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are now three main types of audio driver for the PC: MME, DirectSound, and ASIO. MME drivers are the default ones used by Windows, and provide the lowest common denominator in audio support. By this I mean that they will work, but are likely to have high latency values that make starting and stopping playback sluggish, meter displays that happen 'behind the beat', and give a noticeable delay when recording between your audio input signal and hearing it inside the application.

DirectSound drivers generally have significantly lower latency values, but don't provide recording facilities. They are therefore ideal for many soft synths and soft samplers, and when mixing down multiple tracks in a sequencer, but not for general use. The last of the three standards is ASIO, originally designed by Steinberg for Cubase VST, but now also supported by other sequencers like Logic Audio and some soft synths, such as VAZ Modular. ASIO drivers provide significantly lower latencies than other drivers, and a significant number of soundcards can now manage values below 10mS, which makes possible to monitor input signals in 'real time' with added software effects.

Choosing the best type of driver inside an application can make a huge difference to overall performance. If you want the ability to monitor in real time then you should check for the availability of ASIO drivers before you choose a soundcard, and use any of the Emagic Logic Series 4 range, or Steinberg's Cubase or Cubasis VST. Cakewalk currently supports only MME drivers, although its proprietary Wavepipe technology introduced in the version 9 range does lower MME latency significantly with various soundcards. The main limitation with ASIO at present is that only a single device can be chosen in any application, so if you have two or more soundcards then you will have to revert to MME or DirectSound drivers.

In Cubase you choose the type of driver in the Audio System Setup window, by selecting from those available in its dropdown ASIO Device box. 'ASIO Multimedia Driver' is MME, 'ASIO DirectX Driver' is DirectSound, while any others available will be ASIO‑specific drivers for your particular soundcard. You can click on the 'ASIO Control Panel' button beneath this to adjust driver settings for reduced latency, and see the current value just below it. I covered such driver tweaks in some depth in the PC Musician feature in SOS February 2000. While you are here, note your latency value, and then go into the Synchronisation section in the main Options menu, and enter the same value or higher into the 'System Preroll' box. This should ensure that your MIDI timing is stable.

In Logic you need to open the 'Audio Hardware and Drivers' window from its Audio menu, and unless you have an Audiowerk soundcard, the Yamaha DSP Factory, or a VS recorder, you will simply need to check that the tick box marked 'PC AV' is checked. Then you should click on the dropdown list of available drivers to see what MME, DirectSound, and ASIO options are on offer. You can adjust ASIO latency by clicking on the Control Panel button beneath. There may be several 'virtual devices' here for MME soundcard drivers, using different combinations of inputs and outputs, and you can find out more about their capabilities using the stand‑alone Logic Audio Device Setups (LADS) utility supplied with Logic 4.0. Here you can tweak the latency (Emagic term this 'Granulation'), or try creating 'virtual devices' using I/O from several soundcards, and for once with Emagic products there is a comprehensive on‑line help file.

One thing that often catches out new Logic users is that their audio recordings stop unexpectedly after five minutes. To cure this, open the Audio Window from the Audio menu, and then select 'Set Audio Record Path' in the Audio File menu; you can now increase the maximum recording time to any desired value.

Cakewalk's Audio soundcard setup can be found in the Options menu, under Audio. Here you can choose which combination of MME soundcard drivers to use in the Drivers page. Unfortunately a change here means you always have to close Cakewalk and relaunch it, but at least you shouldn't have to do this very often. You can also adjust latency from its General page, and in the latest version 9.0, you can enable Wavepipe Acceleration to further lower latency with many soundcards.

One important setting in both Cakewalk and Cubase is I/O or Disk Block buffer size, found in Cakewalk's Advanced page in the Audio setup window, and in the Cubase Audio System Setup window. This setting may have a profound effect on the number of simultaneous audio tracks your hard drive will manage. A good default setting is 64K, but you may increase your track count by making it even larger. More details on this topic can be found in December 1998's PC Musician feature.

All three applications also have a variety of other more esoteric settings such as choice of sync reference, read and write caching options, 24‑bit or 32‑bit operation, and so on. You can read all about these in the respective manuals, but your best bet is to visit the web sites of the respective software developers, who normally maintain lists of special settings for use with specific soundcards; if yours is among them (most SoundBlaster cards, for instance, are) then follow their instructions carefully and you should achieve trouble‑free performance.

Setting Up MIDI In Your Sequencer

MIDI is far easier to set up than audio, since there is only one type of driver, and normally you can access any combination of available MIDI devices inside your sequencer. Few musicians find the need for multiple MIDI inputs in a performance situation unless they need several master keyboards, but having multiple MIDI outputs can help a great deal when you have several synths connected simultaneously, by splitting the load between them.

Steinberg's Cubase and Cubasis VST are supplied with a stand‑alone Setup MME utility. Using this, you can make specific MIDI devices active or inactive, shuffle the order in which they appear inside Cubase, and give them more meaningful names, rather than the sometimes overlong and cryptic offerings provided by the soundcard manufacturer. If you are using an external MIDI output to connect another synth, you may find it easier to rename this output so that the synth name appears in your sequencer.

You can select which MIDI devices to use with the Cakewalk range, and the order in which they appear inside the application, by opening up the MIDI Devices window from its Options menu. If your soundcard has inputs or outputs that you don't want to use (such as low‑quality FM synths) it will help to disable them here, to keep your active list shorter.

Logic Audio creates a default set of Instruments — one to each of the standard MIDI channels — when you boot the application, but if you have more than one MIDI interface or synth you may have to create more objects in the Environment page, an often daunting experience for new users. Thankfully Emagic now bundle a useful PDF Guidebook with Logic to help get you started, along with another specifically about the Environmen t. If you want some of your MIDI devices to not appear as options inside Logic you can open up the WIN.INI file (stored in the Windows folder) in any text editor like Notepad. Look for the section labelled [Logic], and beneath this you will find a full list of MIDI devices found by Logic during its installation. At the end of each entry you will see '=1' to indicate an active device — if you change this to '=0' and save WIN.INI, the next time you boot your PC the device will be invisible to Logic.

Checking MIDI Devices

Once you are happy with your choices of MIDI inputs and outputs, it's time to test that they work properly. All the most popular sequencers provide indicators to show MIDI activity, which makes such testing a lot easier. Cakewalk provides an indicator on the Taskbar with two tiny LED‑style indicators for MIDI In and Out activity. Cubase VST has vertical bar‑graph indicators for monitoring MIDI In and Out activity at the right hand end of its transport bar (click on the F12 function key is this isn't already visible), and Logic also sites them on its transport bar (click on Windows\Open Transport to display this), but this time they are text‑based.

In Logic, once you see MIDI In activity when you press a key on your external keyboard, you should also hear sound from your default synth. If you don't then it may be pointed at the wrong MIDI driver. To check this, double‑click on any MIDI track name to launch the environment window, and you should see a 16‑button graphic marked 'GM device'. Click on the MIDI port symbol at its top to select all 16 buttons simultaneously, and you will then see the 'Instrument Parameter Box' on the left‑hand side. Click and hold on its current entry for MIDI driver and you will see a drop‑down list of all available devices. Select your desired default synth here, and you should hear sounds from it when you play your external keyboard.

Adjusting Windows

Once you have basic operation of audio and MIDI in your sequencer, you need to make sure that Windows is also suitably set up to let it operate as smoothly as possible. Windows has been carefully written to appear as responsive as possible to the average user who runs office applications and games, and it does this by giving a high priority to user input. For instance, if you are typing in a word processor it might wait until you have finished pressing keys before loading or saving data to disk. By making such processes invisible to the user it provides an interface that always seems responsive, but relies on pauses during user input to carry out such lower‑priority or 'background' tasks.

MIDI and Audio software has a very different set of priorities since when recording or playing back a song you will probably need it to run continuously for several minutes. Any interruption during this time, however short, could result in an audible glitch in an audio recording, or a timing glitch during playback of either MIDI or audi o tracks. Because of this, music applications have to give higher priority to the continuous processes of recording or playback, and fit in other activities like responding to key‑presses whenever they can fit them in.

So, to get the best performance from any music software, and in particular audio applications, you will need to adjust at least a few Windows settings from their default values. In most cases this shouldn't give a noticeable drop in performance with other applications, but it should prevent you getting clicks in your recordings. In addition, by disabling some of the background tasks that happen at unexpected times, you will end up with a PC that has a more uniform performance, and this will help you achieve the maximum number of simultaneous music tracks from your software.

Dozens of such operating system tweaks have been published over the years, but not all of them are suitable for every PC. Many were recommended a few years ago when processor and hard disk speeds were significantly slower, and may make only a marginal difference with today's machines. Others might actually slow your particular PC down slightly, or make your music software run worse than it did before. Here are the main things to check.

  • Disable Power Management inside Control Panel, by selecting 'Always On' in the drop‑down Power Schemes box. While having your hard drive power down automatically after three minutes of non‑use is sensible in a battery‑powered laptop PC, it could be disastrous for a musician using a desktop system, and the potential saving to your electricity bill from this facility is minimal.
  • Disable System Sounds using the Sounds applet, by choosing 'No Sounds' in the drop‑down Schemes menu. While it may be pleasing to have your every action accompanied by an orchestral flourish, it's the last thing you want while your soundcard is engaged in more serious activities.
  • Disable any screensavers, by going into the Display applet in Control Panel and selecting None as the option in the Screensaver page. Although they may look pretty, it's been a long time since leaving an image on screen for days at a time would permanently damage a monitor screen, so screensavers are a cosmetic frippery. Some of them also take a significant burst of processor power to set up their displays when they kick in, which has been known to stop an otherwise perfect audio recording in its tracks.

• If you're using Windows 98, open the Display applet in Control Panel, and disable the 'Animate windows, menus and lists' box, and make sure that 'Show windows contents when dragging' is enabled.

Memory Management

Once the background tasks have been eliminated as far as possible, a couple of processes fundamental to Windows will need tweaking. The Swap file is an area of your hard drive otherwise known as Virtual Memory, which Windows uses to store data temporarily when you run out of RAM memory. It's a wonderful way to run far more applications simultaneously then you would otherwise be able to manage, but has the disadvantage that Windows occasionally makes it larger or smaller as it sees fit. This results in lots of disk activity, which can interfere with both MIDI timing and Audio recording and playback. The answer is to set Virtual Memory to a fixed amount, so that this never happens.

You can do this in the Performance page of the System applet in Control Panel. Click on the Virtual Memory button, and then change the setting from 'Let Windows manage my virtual memory settings' to 'Let me specify my own virtual memory settings'. Then type in suitable settings for Minimum and Maximum values: since we want a fixed size these need to be identical. Unless you also use lots of graphics packages, I would suggest that 100Mb is a suitable value (see screenshot, top right). You will need to reboot Windows after this change, and defragment your hard drive as well for optimum performance.

Vcache is an amount of RAM that is set aside by Windows to store data recently pulled from your hard drive that might just be required again: retrieving data from RAM is far quicker. The problem is that Windows rarely lets go of this data, and the cache size can keep getting bigger and bigger, making other applications struggle for RAM. Windows may then reduce cache size by saving the data into the swap file on your hard drive, but you can guarantee that it won't be at a suitable moment for the musician. The answer is to fix the maximum and minimum size of Vcache at suitable values, depending on how much RAM you have installed in your PC, and preferably with identical maximum and minimum values so that no resizing ever takes place.

Some music applications alter these settings when they are installed, but may not take account of how much RAM you have in your PC. For instance, Cubase VST suggested that both values should be 32768K (32Mb) on my PC, which seems rather high. I would recommend a setting of around 8192K (8Mb) for a PC with 64Mb of RAM, and between 10240 and 16384K (10Mb to 16Mb) for one with 128Mb of RAM. You can alter these settings by hand, by typing in the recommended values into the SYSTEM.INI file found in the Windows folder. If there isn't already a suitable entry, you will need to add the lines [vcache], followed by MaxFileCache=X on the line below, and MinFileCache=Y on the line below that, where X and Y are the two numbers suitable for your version of Windows and amount of RAM. Then save SYSTEM.INI and reboot your PC for the changes to take effect.

Another memory‑related setting is File System performance, which can be changed by altering the setting for 'Typical Role of this computer' — you can find this inside the System applet by clicking on the File System button in its Performance page. The default setting is normally 'Desktop Computer', but you can change this to 'Mobile or Docking System' or 'Network Server'. Many experts recommend setting this to 'Network Server', since this optimises your PC for a high amount of disk access, by expanding the cache used to store recently accessed directory paths and filenames.

However, there's now a much easier way to carry out both Vcache and file system settings in one go, by using Cacheman, a postcardware utility written by Thomas Reimann, and available for download from This not only automates the changes, but lets you adjust the various values using slider controls. Even better, it checks the amount of RAM you have, and then calculates suitable suggested values for each parameter depending on what sort of user you are. The most suitable preset setting for the musician is probably 'CD Writer', since this use identical maximum and minimum values for Vcache, and increases the File caches in a similar fashion to the 'Network Server' role. If you like and use Cacheman Thomas simply asks you to send him a postcard from your home town.

Armed with all this information, you should be able to get your music applications running more smoothly.

Soundcard MIDI Leads

Most soundcards are bundled with suitable adaptor leads for connecting other MIDI devices, but some consumer cards may not include these, especially if you bought the card preinstalled as part of a complete PC system. However, most of these use a fairly standard 15‑way 'D'‑type connector that doubles as a gameport for attaching a joystick. To record from a MIDI keyboard or play back through an external MIDI module you will need to buy a PC Game lead, widely available from music and computer retailers.

Essential Drive Tweaks

Whether or not you are using your PC for music, one of the biggest improvements you can make to its EIDE hard drive performance is to enable buss master support. Although your drives won't perform any faster, the amount of CPU overhead they take will plummet from anywhere between 40 and 100 percent when the drive is being accessed, down to 2 percent or less. This processor power can then be used far more effectively for other tasks, such as running real‑time effects plug‑ins.

Surprisingly, buss mastering is not enabled for your drives by default when Windows is installed, so you will need to do so by hand using the System applet in Control Panel. Open the Disk Drives section in Device manager, and then double‑click on the entry for each of your EIDE drives, click on the Settings page, and then tick the box marked 'DMA' and then on OK.

You may also be able to do this with your CD‑ROM and CD‑RW drives as well. Open the CD‑ROM section of Device Manager, go to the Settings page in the same way as before, and if the DMA box is not greyed out then tick it. While you are checking your CD drives, disable the Auto Insert Notification box for each one as well — having your drive check periodically to see if a new CD has been inserted is not a recipe for success when recording audio.

Once all the changes have been made, you will need to reboot your PC for them to take effect. If, when you look later, you find that a DMA box has gone blank again, it my be that your particular drive doesn't support buss mastering. I covered this topic in far more depth in the PC Musician feature in SOS December '98, and I've also placed comprehensive FAQs in the PC Music: Frequently Asked Questions conference in the SOS Internet forum." target="_blank

Running In The Background

In addition to background tasks run by Windows, you may have other third‑party utilities running in the background. Some of the most frustrating MIDI and audio glitches that only happen once every few minutes can be caused by such utility programs cutting in unexpectedly. Even worse, you may have absolutely no idea that they have been set up 'behind your back' when installing new software.

Sometimes small utility programs like these can be found in the Startup group, and can often be simply deleted so that they don't always get loaded up whenever you first launch Windows. If this is not the case, you may still be able to close the utility down temporarily by pressing the Ctrl/Alt/Delete keys simultaneously, clicking on the offending program name, and then on 'End Task'. To remove such programs permanently may require you to edit your PC's Registry, and is not recommended unless you really know what you are doing. I've placed more details of such background tasks in the PC Music: Frequently Asked Questions conference in the SOS forum.

PC Music Revisited

For anyone new to music‑making on the PC, I've dealt with many of the topics covered in this feature in more depth in the past, and even if you don't have these back issues they are now available in electronic form from the SOS web site at" target="_blank.

These are the issues to explore:

  • Improving Cubase VST timing (June 1998).
  • Optimising PC hard drives for audio (December 1998).
  • PC Notes — MME, ASIO, and DirectSound drivers (December 1998).
  • Windows tweaks (January 1999).
  • Setting up multiple soundcards (February 1999).
  • Latency (April 1999).
  • Connecting audio & MIDI signals inside PC music software (May 1999).
  • Getting the best out of PCs Old and New (August 1999).
  • Improving specific musical aspects of PC performance (February 2000).
  • Installing & setting up new PC hardware (March 2000).