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Music PCs: Manufacturers' Round Table

PC Musician
Published September 2004
By Martin Walker

Buying a music computer from a specialist builder is an increasingly popular option for the PC musician. We rounded up some of the leading names in music PCs to find out exactly what they offer.

There are people posting on PC music forums who insist that anyone can knock up a good music PC in a couple of hours from a list of parts recommended by other forum users, and who can't see what benefits there are in paying a little more for a machine ready-made from a specialist music retailer. It's true to say that if they know what they're doing, are provided with a good parts list, and are prepared to put in a fair amount of detailed research, some people can find the DIY approach works for them. However, it won't ensure that they get a reliable system from day one, with a guarantee and ongoing technical support if anything does go wrong in the future. And sometimes the DIY approach can also go disastrously wrong.

One SOS Forum poster was recently trying to track down a problem that prevented his new DIY PC from booting up properly. He was obviously knowledgeable, systematically tried a variety of solutions, appealed to other forum members for further suggestions, and eventually sent back his new motherboard for a replacement, but the replacement gave exactly the same problems. The cause eventually turned out to be due to being sold the wrong sort of RAM, and the poster openly admitted that he'd wasted a total of two months before his new PC was properly up and running.

Such things happen all too often, and with this in mind I thought it would be fascinating to find out how the specialists choose their components, test out incompatibilities, and ensure their systems are reliable, as well as asking what technical problems they run into. I contacted a cross-section of retailers who advertise in SOS, all of whom were very interested in taking part in this 'Round Table' discussion.

Meet The Panel

  • Tony Cox, PC Sales & Marketing Manager, Digital Village www.dv247.com

Tony first started out working for Francis Day & Hunter, an MI Store in Charing Cross Road in 1983, later moving to Turnkey as Sales Manager. His introduction to using computers for music was via a Commodore 64 using Pro 16 (later to become Cubase) software, followed by an Atari, then PCs in the early '80s. He joined Digital Village in 1999 as Sales Manager of their Croydon store and became DVPC Sales & Marketing Manager in early 2001.

Dave has been interested in making music from an early age. He had his first experience with computers and music back in 1999, and went on to build his first music computer. It was at this point that the idea for Inta Audio began to evolve. With help from other technically minded people, Inta Audio has become a wel-established company known for its outstanding music-based computers.

Having worked for nine years as a recording engineer, Phil joined Red Submarine in 2000 as a sales consultant, covering PCs for music. As a self-confessed 'frustrated musician with perfect pitch' Phil spent many years lending an ear to budding musicians in the studio, and now spends his time lending an ear to people who want their own studio!

After releasing a string of albums and singles as part of the '80s band B-Movie, Rick started building PCs for Millennium customers over 10 years ago. His first PC was supplied to a Radio 4 reporter who wanted to edit his own reports in the garden rather than book time in one of the BBC studios. After everything went 'pear-shaped' on the reporter's home PC, Rick was instructed to build him a "PC that would just work!" and did just that.

John and Joe form the nucleus of Nusystems, with a combined 15 years experience in building computer systems for music production. Nusystems was born with the aim of making dedicated audio PCs more affordable, bringing the cost down as close to a standard PC as possible, while maintaining the superior quality that a dedicated DAW requires.

Philip Rees is an experienced, qualified electronic and computer engineer who established his own business in 1986. He's designed and manufactured a range of MIDI accessories marketed under his own name, and has retained a personal interest in hi-tech music-making. In recent years, he and his team moved into building turnkey music PCs, which is now the main focus of their activities.

Robin is responsible for ensuring the quality of Carillon PC systems, which includes overseeing production, research and development of new products and continuing development of existing products. He's responsible for the technical support department, dealing first-hand with customers and the occasional on-site installation. He also writes all Carillon's tutorials and documentation, maintains their web sites, and trains all the staff at Carillon and their international distributors. He's also managed to find time to write two computer music books (PC Music — The Easy Guide and The Guitarist Guide to Computer Music, both available from PC Publishing).

Specialist Benefits

Which benefits do you feel your customers obtain from buying one of your systems, as opposed to building their own PC from a recommended list of parts?

Phil Elliott (Red Submarine).Phil Elliott (Red Submarine).Phil Elliott (PE): "I could write a book on this subject! However, I can summarise with two words: service and support. Red Submarine supply fully supported solutions, not just boxes with components in them. If you build your own PC, you are your own technical support and warranty service. If you buy from us, you are forming a partnership with a group of people that understand the purpose of your purchase, have access to a wide range of resources such as spare parts, and maintain direct links with manufacturers."

Robin Vincent (RV): "Peace of mind, I think, is the biggest benefit among many. The knowledge that if it does go wrong you have a professional company that will sort it out for you, and that you'll have a working system in the first place. It's not that difficult to build a computer from parts, assuming, of course, that all your parts work, and that they can work together, and that you're not in any particular hurry. With Carillon you're not taking any risks — you've got a computer with a warranty that will be completely compatible with your soundcard and music software, and we'll install all your stuff for you if you like. If you can move a mouse around, you make music on a Carillon computer — you don't have to be, and you shouldn't have to be, a computer technician."

John Oxley & Joe East (JO): "It's no secret that PCs are easy to build. The hard part is finding out what is wrong when things are not working as they should. We've probably all been there at some point, pulling our hair out, thinking what could possibly be wrong, having tried everything imaginable to make things happen. By purchasing from a company such as ourselves it takes away these stressful moments from the customer. However, if you build a PC yourself you become your own first and last line of support, and if you have a problem with a component then the onus is on you to sort out a replacement with the manufacturer or supplier, sometimes only to find out that the component in question is working perfectly, and that something else is causing the problem."Phil Elliott (Red Submarine): "There are many off-the-shelf systems that make superb office machines, but are unsuitable for musicians because they might have a Firewire chipset or drive controller that wasn't intended for high-bandwidth audio applications."Phil Elliott (Red Submarine): "There are many off-the-shelf systems that make superb office machines, but are unsuitable for musicians because they might have a Firewire chipset or drive controller that wasn't intended for high-bandwidth audio applications."

Rick Holliday (RH): "When a customer buys a system from Millennium, any component failures or potential problems with the setup are sorted out before the customer receives the machine. Many people who build their own machines experience problems they do not have the resources to solve. It can be very difficult to work out which component of a PC that will not boot is faulty without spare components to test. We also spend time thinking from the customer's perspective, to make our machines as easy to use as possible, by setting up templates and example projects."

Phil Rees (PR): "Our customers place a single order with a single supplier, and then we take responsibility for getting all the parts together and assembling them into a properly working machine. We know and avoid potential pitfalls, and our experience helps us to spot when things aren't behaving normally. Our customers also don't have to spend hours installing hardware and software and getting it working, or frustrating hours on the phone or on the Internet, trying to get information — they can just get on with making music."

Dave Elliott (DE): "We have five years experience in building music-based PCs, we use recommended components which have been fully tried and tested, we run an eight-hour burn-in test to ensure components work correctly, and we set up soundcards and DSP cards correctly to avoid IRQ clashing. So the customer receives a PC that is ready to go straight from the box, and no setup or configuring is required on their part. We also have direct access to component manufacturers, to ensure that any faults or incompatibility issues are ironed out before the system is ready for manufacture."

Tony Cox (TC): "Choosing your own system at Digital Village allows you to spec it exactly as you see best, so you get a totally personal and custom system, but without any of the problems of building it yourself."

Selecting Components

How do you decide which selection of components to use in each of your PCs, and how often do you change this list?

TC: "Our main criterion is stability in use and supply. To maintain quality control we only change the critical components when there is a major shift, for example when a new chipset needs evaluating, or a new CPU model, or type of RAM."Tony Cox (Digital Village): "The most difficult hardware problems are intermittent ones that can only be resolved by a long­term soak test. Fortunately, most hardware faults are detected and resolved at either the build stage or install/testing stage." Tony Cox (Digital Village): "The most difficult hardware problems are intermittent ones that can only be resolved by a long­term soak test. Fortunately, most hardware faults are detected and resolved at either the build stage or install/testing stage."

PR: "We read articles, and we pay attention to news of new components in the trade press and from suppliers. We regularly get evaluation samples of new hardware and software into the workshop, where we can put them through their paces. We put significant effort into testing, benchmarking and checking for compatibility. However, we intentionally limit the range of choices that we offer, as we prefer to use quality parts we know we can trust."

DE: "Our decision is based primarily on the quality of components. Each system we design undergoes a four-week test period to ensure chipsets and components prove to be reliable and stable. In the interest of compatibility, we stick to brands such as Asus and Intel, as these have proved to work best with a large range of soundcards and music software. Each month we review all our systems to ensure our customers receive the latest components and equipment as technology progresses."

RH: "Our decisions about which components to use are based partly on exhaustive research but also on first-hand experience and testing. We try to use components that will make a fast, reliable, easy-to-use PC, but which also represent value for money. We also try to consider the upgrade potential of the PC and the long-term reliability of the components and the system as a whole, probably to a much greater extent than most mainstream PC retailers, as we realise that musicians who use PCs tend to rely on them heavily for their work. When we have identified a candidate for a new component to use, we test it thoroughly with the most popular music software and hardware to be as sure as possible that it is fully compatible. We will consider a new component for use as soon as it is released, so our list of preferred components changes with the market."

JO: "There are many issues for us to consider when deciding which components to use in our systems: reliability, longevity, availability, manufacturer's warranty and returns procedure, to name but a few. We have even had to change components due to the way courier companies handle packages in the past. How do we decide? We test them. We will buy in different components that we come across or hear about, put them together and carry out several benchmark tests to push our systems to the limit. We're always looking to improve and if we see a development that we consider to be a benefit to our customers, we will implement it in our systems. If we can find other components that will do just as good a job but cost less, we will use them instead. It's our aim to bring the cost of a serious digital audio workstation down to that of a standard off-the-shelf PC, or as near to it as possible without compromising on quality."

PE: "Our choice of components is based on compatibility, performance and reliability, and our list is updated as soon as we have verified this information. There are many off-the-shelf systems that make superb office machines, but are unsuitable for musicians because they might have a Firewire chipset or drive controller that wasn't intended for high-bandwidth audio applications. Many companies put too much emphasis on CPU speed, but it's essential in an audio PC that every component is able to deliver sustainable bandwidth."

RV: "Although we like to keep our ear to the ground for new and interesting products, one thing we've learned is that 'reviews' are no more than an indication that something might be worth looking at. How well something actually works comes down to using it for ourselves. We also seem to be in a slightly different world from the rest of the IT community, and things that they consider 'quiet' are quite a long way from what we would consider quiet. Our criteria for components are firstly stability, then performance and noise, then ease of use/install, then lastly price and reputation get a look in. You also have to look past the specs and the numbers and get down to the nitty-gritty of whether any gains are to be found in real life plug-in or track counts — the components we use change with technology once we're satisfied the technology is working."

Customer Problems

Even specialists occasionally have technical problems to solve, and sometimes very obscure ones — although the fault is not always theirs...

Robin Vincent: "At times you have to assume that the customer knows nothing about anything. We had one customer who called us because she wasn't getting any sound out of the computer. After checking all the settings with her, then dialling in to check the settings too, everything seemed fine and as it should be — we could even see an output indication in the soundcard mixer. After half an hour of fiddling around and scratching our heads we finally asked if the speakers were turned on. This was met by a prolonged silence which ended with 'Speakers?'. Perhaps she was hoping for audio via osmosis."

John Oxley: "We just had a customer wipe out his BIOS trying to flash it. There was no reason to upgrade it — everything was in perfect working order but it was just something he wanted to do. It failed, wiped his BIOS clean out and he now has to fork out for a new motherboard, as this has voided the warranty. We contacted the manufacturer — Asus, in this instance — but they couldn't do anything about it. Often you can replace the BIOS chip but it was not possible for this particular motherboard. We have offered him a replacement at trade cost, as we do feel sorry for him, but it's a good example of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'."

Rick Holliday: "Probably the strangest genuine problem was a PC with a PCI soundcard which would start to stutter and glitch after about four minutes of playback. As it turned out, this only happened if Power Management was disabled on the USB ports of a combination USB/Firewire PCI card. If Power Management was enabled, there were no problems. There was nothing plugged into any of the USB ports. We stopped using those combination USB/Firewire PCI cards immediately."

Dave Elliott: "We had a situation where a new system failed on delivery to a customer. When the machine was set up it began to bleep and not POST (Power On Self Test). The bleep code was checked and this indicated that the graphics card was not present. We had the machine back to base for repair to find it working perfectly. As a safety measure we replaced the VGA card to ensure there was not an intermittent fault with it. When the machine was sent back to the customer it failed with exactly the same fault. After going through a step-by-step diagnosis with the customer (involving unplugging various cables from the machine) it turned out that a bent pin in the PS2 keyboard had caused the machine to suffer an unusual fault with the display card."

Robin Vincent: "The Intel D875PBZ motherboard came with an inbuilt Serial ATA RAID controller allowing us to combine two drives into a high performance RAID0 drive. Unfortunately the earlier versions of the BIOS had a habit of resetting themselves to defaults for no apparent reason. The default setting disables the RAID controller, which results in the entire RAID drive vanishing from Windows. Not a big problem, you'd think, unless you've spent the entire weekend recording a very important session, only to find the whole recording drive missing. We were greeted with death threats from one psychotic producer, but thankfully it took two seconds to fix, once we'd talked him out of the idea of murder!"

John Oxley: "One common problem we come across time and again is due to the customer changing settings, specifically on their audio interface. People tend to set the buffer size to achieve the lowest possible latency figures at maximum sampling frequency, and then they start to have problems. We feel that some people are a bit too obsessed with latency figures and how low they can go. We encourage customers to use their ears. If there's no audible delay, why push the hardware any further?"

Noise, Heat & Cost

Musicians like low-noise PCs, but these are more expensive to build. How do you come up with the best compromise between noise, heat and cost?

RH: "There are two ways to reduce noise: dampen the noise which is produced, or ensure that as little noise as possible is generated in the first place. We choose hard drives and optical drives that are as quiet as possible while still being reliable, and cases with internal layouts that allow efficient airflow, to make sure that even our 'standard' systems run cool and quiet. Some of our customers want inexpensive but reliable systems, and some are willing to pay a little extra for quieter machines, so we give them a choice of components, and we offer specialist cooling products (such as quiet power supplies and CPU fans) that we feel give good performance for the money. We also subject all our new PCs to stress tests while monitoring temperature and we always allow a little margin for error, as we understand that our test conditions can never represent the extremes of possible use."

John OxleyJohn OxleyJO: "Low-noise PCs do not necessarily have to be that much more expensive to build — it depends on the individual customer's requirements. If the PC has to be deadly silent then, yes, it is going to cost a bit more, as acoustic case insulation and hard-drive enclosures are required, as well as a good silent CPU fan and power supply. However, at Nusystems we fit silent power supplies and graphics cards as standard, so if the customer is not recording in the same room as the PC or not particularly bothered about the PC being truly silent, we would just recommend a silent CPU fan and then you have a quiet PC that won't break the bank."

PR: "I have made a personal speciality of designing quiet systems. I apply a little theory and a lot of practical experimentation to this on-going project. I'm pleased with the results, and many customers have expressed their satisfaction. All the systems we supply are tailor-made custom solutions, and we can offer an optimised trade-off between low noise and price to suit each customer's requirements. My exclusive central airflow control system makes sure that fans only run as fast as needed, to ensure safe operating temperatures. Also, the fan speeds are co-ordinated to maintain a balanced and efficient stream of air. Its operation is independent of the computer motherboard, so it imposes no overhead on the computer hardware or software."John Oxley & Joe East (Nusystems): "We offer Intel- and AMD-based systems as an option, but we seem to have fewer problems with Intel-based systems. This may be due to the fact that components and various hardware and software products are produced with Intel processors in mind." John Oxley & Joe East (Nusystems): "We offer Intel- and AMD-based systems as an option, but we seem to have fewer problems with Intel-based systems. This may be due to the fact that components and various hardware and software products are produced with Intel processors in mind."

TC: "The best option for us is to use quality components. They are more expensive than standard items, but by using quality cases, PSUs and fans we can mod these ourselves to achieve the same results as using specialised items, but still keep the build cost down."

RV: "Ideally, you don't want to compromise at all — if a musician wants a quiet PC, that means paying a bit extra. At Carillon we provide the AC1 LE system which is identical to our flagship AC1 system but without the noise-reduction technology. It's a cheaper alternative for people who don't consider noise a huge problem, although there are 'levels' of quietness, and we find that our LE systems are still much quieter than most off-the-shelf PCs. However, with Intel's new Prescott CPUs the heat problem will get worse, and being able to move enough air through the system to keep it cool while keeping the noise under control is certainly a challenge."

Philip Rees: "We try to deal with support queries in the same way we would if personal friends sought technical help. We will reply by email to technical support queries received by email or via our Online Support Service, and we aim to respond within one working day." Philip Rees: "We try to deal with support queries in the same way we would if personal friends sought technical help. We will reply by email to technical support queries received by email or via our Online Support Service, and we aim to respond within one working day." DE: "We work closely with our suppliers, Chieftec, to source a high-quality chassis with excellent air flow and heat dissipation, and also standardise on Chieftec power supplies that offer a high output with a low noise level. This helps keep costs down, as we bulk-buy power supplies and cases, and this saving is passed onto the consumer. For noise dampening we use products such as the Zalman 7000 ALCU ultra-quiet cooler and the AcoustiPack foam kit, which helps to reduce high-pitched noises from peripherals such as hard disks and cooling fans. Overall we feel this provides a good balance between noise, heat and cost."

PE: "A number of different components make up a quiet PC. We allow customers to select one, several or all of these, depending on their budget and requirements. In most circumstances we would suggest, in order of noise-reducing effectiveness: PSU; CPU fan; VGA heatsink (if required); acoustic insulation or drive enclosures; case. It's a good idea to get the case right at the start, as this is the most inconvenient component to change later. If a customer wants the quietest system possible, we don't compromise at all."

AMD Vs Intel

If you only sell Intel-based systems, why is this, and what, if anything, would change your mind? If you do sell PCs based on AMD as well as Intel processors, what prompted this split approach?

TC: "We only sell Intel-based systems using Intel chipsets, simply because this is the only way you can guarantee full compatibility. All hardware and software is tested on Intel systems, and although it is also tested with AMD systems the main problem with these is the variety of chipset permutations that can cause issues — whereas with Intel, as long as you stick with an Intel CPU and Intel chipset you are almost certain to have no compatibility issues. The only change to this will be with the introduction of AMD's 64-bit processor and the eventual arrival of Microsoft's 64-bit Operating System. Once this leap in technology has settled down and is fully embraced by the hardware and software companies in our industry, the gain in performance would be worth making the switch for. On the other hand, Intel are already about to introduce 64-bit instructions to their new CPU range, so only time will tell."Dave Elliott (Inta Audio).Dave Elliott (Inta Audio).

RV: "Intel has worked really well for us over the years. The combination of performance and stability has been unbeatable. AMD has always been of interest to us and we have spent time testing out AMD systems to see if they offer anything worth pursuing. Up until recently the issues of noise, heat and compatibility have made AMD a troublesome choice next to the cool, quiet and compatible running of Intel systems. However, we are currently testing out Opteron and Athlon 64 systems to see for ourselves what steps AMD have taken to address these issues, and testing out the potential performance gains with music applications. Carillon aim to offer the best systems available and if AMD can provide them, we are happy to supply them — but we'll be our own judge of that."

DE: "We sell both Intel- and AMD-based systems. As stockists of all AMD processors and compatible motherboards we are in a strong position to design a workstation that is stable and reliable for music use. Stocking both processors means that the customer has a wider range to choose from."

Dave Elliott (Inta Audio): "The customer receives a PC ready to go straight from the box, and no setup or configuring is required on their part. We also have direct access to component manufacturers, to ensure any faults or incompatibility issues are ironed out before a system is ready for manufacture."Dave Elliott (Inta Audio): "The customer receives a PC ready to go straight from the box, and no setup or configuring is required on their part. We also have direct access to component manufacturers, to ensure any faults or incompatibility issues are ironed out before a system is ready for manufacture."JO: "We offer both Intel- and AMD64-based systems as an option for desktops and laptops, to give customers the choice. Within our team we have more or less an equal amount of experience in building and supporting both AMD and Intel systems. Intel are far more popular but it often comes down to an individual's past experiences. We seem to have fewer problems with Intel-based systems, and this may be due to the fact that components and various hardware and software products are produced with Intel processors in mind. At the end of the day, though, it comes down to what each individual customer wants, and as long as we still have customers who prefer AMD over Intel, we will continue to build AMD-based systems."

PR: "We intentionally restrict the range of options we offer, so that we sell parts we are sure will work well. Our preference for Intel derives from their chipsets, rather than the processors themselves. This has been especially important for glitch-free streaming audio over USB. Intel are closely involved in the development of important interconnection standards such as PCI and USB. As a result, their implementations tend to be regarded as definitive. We have built AMD systems, including Athlon 64, for evaluation, but found that the benchmarking results did not make a clear case for adopting the platform at this time. If there was a significant price/performance advantage, and we found no compatibility problems, we would reconsider our policy."

RH: "At present we only sell Intel-based systems. Many manufacturers still advise using their products with Intel systems (for example, Digidesign), and many more will unofficially suggest that Intel would be better, if you speak to their technical departments. We want our computers to be compatible with as wide a range of music hardware and software as possible, and we do not want customers in a position where they're using equipment in a way 'not recommended' by the manufacturer. If something goes wrong, they could find themselves stranded. If more manufacturers were willing to endorse AMD systems, we would certainly reconsider. The situation is much less 'black and white' than it used to be."

PE: "We supply both Intel and AMD systems. This approach is driven by customer demand, as AMD has gained a reputation for being very fast, yet cost-effective. Initially, there were problems relating to heat dissipation, reliability and compatibility, but we have solved the majority of these issues now, aside from a few compatibility questions with certain interfaces. However, we no longer supply dual-processor AMD systems, as reliability, compatibility and availability of spare parts presented problems we could not easily solve."

Reliability & Testing

What steps do you take to ensure that your systems work first time when delivered, and remain working reliably?

JO: "Every system we build undergoes an intensive 48-hour burn-in test, to verify that it is stable and reliable, before being shipped. This is carried out to stress the components of the system, asking them to execute tasks that will highlight any potential problems. Issues with heat, stability and compatibility become evident during this period, and if there is a weak link we have the opportunity to swap out the offending component, which may otherwise have failed in the hands of the customer — a possible disaster for the recording musician. Although all our components are rigorously tested for compatibility before they are chosen, there are occasions when components, specifically RAM, can exhibit glitches or faults which cause intermittent errors such as blue screens or system crashes. The tests we carry out ensure that this will not affect our customers once they have received their system."Rick Holliday (Millennium Music Software).Rick Holliday (Millennium Music Software).

DE: "Each of our systems is rigorously tested using our burn-in test software. These tests put the hard disks, memory, CPU and graphics under stress for a period of eight hours, to ensure that all components are working efficiently. Once the workstation has passed the tests, we then provide a report for the customer, outlining the test results. At this point, the chosen soundcard and software is installed and configured. We then take steps to ensure that all updates and drivers are complete. Finally, we follow a 22-point checklist that applies all the necessary tweaks to the system. It is then packaged in a specially designed box, to guarantee that it arrives in full working order."

PE: "Firstly, when building the actual chassis we run burn-in tests for several days to ensure stability of every component. A system designed to be very quiet creates additional complications, as we prefer to utilise fewer fans running more slowly. So temperature levels are monitored carefully, as a CPU running a few degrees too hot is likely to result in a shorter life span. During the configuration stage we have a strict test procedure. Many companies clone the Windows installation from a master copy, but we don't do this, as this process also acts as a test for each component, and can highlight potential problems. As all our systems are bespoke, we create a 'ghost' backup image of the specific installation we create. This is useful just in case a user accidentally formats their hard drive. Yes, it does happen!"

PR: "We start with reliable compatible parts, such as Asus motherboards and Corsair memory, which we know are capable of stable performance. We also build the systems as solidly as we can, making sure that parts are fitted securely, and install the latest software and firmware updates. Then we run extensive functional tests, diagnostic tests and soak tests. We test the actual installed software with the actual hardware. Finally, we run Passmark's BurnInTest for at least 12 hours before we ship systems. We believe that this is an excellent way of catching potential instability."

Rick Holliday (Millennium Music Software): "We offer telephone support for any initial problems, although our customers rarely need to use this, partly because we encourage them to send in any software and hardware they intend to install on their machine so we can configure and test it for them." Rick Holliday (Millennium Music Software): "We offer telephone support for any initial problems, although our customers rarely need to use this, partly because we encourage them to send in any software and hardware they intend to install on their machine so we can configure and test it for them." TC: "Once again, using branded components means that we reduce the failure rate to a minimum, and every system is fully set up and tested prior to delivery. Also, to ensure that they remain working, all our systems have a full customer restore option. The most difficult hardware problems to resolve are intermittent ones that can only be resolved by a long-term soak test. These may be caused by a BIOS setting/revision change or a memory issue. Fortunately, most hardware faults are detected at either the build stage or the installation/testing stage, and they are resolved then."

RV: "Testing combined with the use of known components is the best defence we have against unreliability. If you know that your component choices are good in the first place and your testing has borne this out, you've done the hard work already. All our systems are installed by an engineer who then spends time testing and checking the system. That system is then tested and checked by a second engineer as a safeguard. Every input and output, MIDI and audio, is tested, and the music software is run and used during the testing process. When the system's backup recovery disk is created we know that system works, and if something subsequently gets installed that messes up the system, or there's a virus attack — or the more common attack of the six-year-old daughter — you can return the system to a working state in a few minutes by running that recovery disk. Unfortunately, after all our hard work we're left in the hands of the courier who delivers the system to the customer. The small number of DOA (Dead On Arrival) systems we experience are down to extreme bad handling by couriers. For example, one delivery was dropped off the tailgate of a truck onto concrete."

RH: "We subject each new system to a battery of tests. These include hardware stress tests using programs designed for this purpose; individual component tests, such as burning test CDs; performance tests to ensure that, for example, a new hard drive transfers data as quickly as it should; and 'real use' tests — for example, recording audio test tones to ensure that the system records and plays back without glitches. We make sure that any potential problems resulting from the choice of hardware and software are solved before our customer receives their PC."

Technical Support

One obvious benefit to customers over a DIY PC is after-sales technical support. What do you offer?

DE: "We offer three years technical support on all hardware and software purchased with a workstation. Our tech support can be reached via telephone, email or fax; tech support hours are Monday-Friday 10.30am to 3.30pm and Saturday 10am to 1pm."Robin Vincent (Carillon).Robin Vincent (Carillon).

TC: "Digital Village Tech support comes in two tiers. Our customers have the option of either talking to a PC specialist in one of our stores or receiving tech support direct from Digital Village head office, where all our PCs are built and prepared by one of our technicians."

RV: "We provide 'Carillon How' tutorials, Carillon Fix remote dial-in diagnostic software, and a 'Carillon Recovery' backup image free with every system. Systems that cannot be fixed with the above procedures or have gone down due to hardware failure will be collected and fixed/repaired/replaced at Carillon and returned to the customer free of charge. We also have a dedicated support web site containing all the latest driver and software version information, issues, tutorials and resources, plus office hours phone and email tech support. We have experienced support staff who have come across every imaginable configuration and can use our Carillon Fix utility to dial into a customer's machine and see and operate it remotely. This not only allows us to fix problems but also lets us see how the customer uses the system, which can often show where the problem originates."

JO: "As a new company we are still improving our support, and have a few new features to add to the package. We hope they will be in place by the end of Summer 2004. These will include three years technical support, by phone and email, as standard with all our systems. We already provide support on all aspects of our computers, as well as music software and soundcard configuration. One good thing about dealing with an up-and-coming company such as ourselves is that each system we build is unique and individual and we remember all of our customers. Generally, the person that actually built the PC is always on hand to answer any query the customer may have."Robin Vincent (Carillon): "Although we like to keep our ear to the ground for new and interesting products, one thing we've learned is that 'reviews' are no more than an indication that something might be worth looking at. How well something actually works comes down to using it for ourselves."Robin Vincent (Carillon): "Although we like to keep our ear to the ground for new and interesting products, one thing we've learned is that 'reviews' are no more than an indication that something might be worth looking at. How well something actually works comes down to using it for ourselves."

PR: "We try to deal with support queries in the same way we would if personal friends sought technical help. We will reply by email to technical support queries received by email or via our Online Support Service, and aim to respond within one working day. We also respond to technical support queries received by telephone, which is what most customers prefer. The support contract is free for the first year and renewable at charge for subsequent years. The annual charge for renewal of the support contract is currently £25."

RH: "We offer technical support by email for the lifetime of the machine. All our PCs are supplied with the Millennium Help Files, containing comprehensive help, advice and solutions to common problems. We also offer telephone support for any initial problems, although we are proud to note that our customers rarely need to use this, partly because we encourage them to send in any software and hardware they intend to install on their machine so we have the opportunity to configure and test it for them. Finally, our systems are covered by a 'whole system' warranty for the first year, meaning that if, for example, the hard drive fails, we will collect the PC, replace the hard drive, reconfigure and test the machine and return it to the customer ready to use once more."

PE: "Red Submarine have sold audio computer systems for seven years now, and our 10 full-time members of staff are able to draw on this experience to help customers avoid many of the usual pitfalls associated with computer music production. We provide technical support by telephone and email weekdays from 9am to 5.30pm, and customers often speak to the engineer who actually built their machine. If we are unable to solve a problem by email or telephone, the technician will arrange free collection of the machine within the warranty period. We aim to turn around most repairs within five working days."

Final Thoughts

The answers provided by the retailers who've participated in this article provide an insight into the amount of effort that goes into building bespoke PC systems that should work first time they are switched on and carry on functioning reliably for the lifetime of the machine. You can build a PC from a list of parts, but it's obvious that a considerable amount of research goes into the systems being discussed here, not only in choosing a balanced and reliable set of components, but also sourcing the most reliable suppliers and soak-testing the assembled PCs.

Published September 2004