Your PC may well be the nerve-centre of your studio, so keeping it in top condition is worth a bit of effort. Read on for the SOS guide to inner and outer PC cleanliness.
There's no need to periodically reformat your PC and reinstall everything from scratch to regain peak audio performance. Giving it a good spring-clean will keep your hard drive error-free and your personal data secure, relieve your drive of unwanted junk data and eradicate hundreds and sometimes thousands of redundant entries in your Windows Registry, which can slow Windows performance and sometimes cause crashes.
Even physical cleanliness can make more of a difference to performance than many musicians realise. Keeping your PC clean on the inside will help it run cooler and reduce acoustic noise, by giving the cooling fans less work to do, and may even prevent long-term crashes. Just follow these tips to optimise your computer so that it never grinds to a halt and runs cooler and more reliably than ever before.
Some musicians seem to take a perverse delight in never cleaning their computers, but keeping your PC physically clean can have more significant health benefits than many people realise. Studies have found that a PC keyboard can end up contaminated with 400 times more germs than the average toilet seat. A primary cause of this shocking health risk is that so many of us eat near our computers, with the result that germs and bacteria grow between and underneath the keys, as they do on any other surface that's regularly handled, including your mouse, telephone, and so on. This can result in ear, nose and eye infections, and I've seen it estimated that up to 60 percent of time off work may be caused by contracting germs from dirty office equipment. The most germ-ridden item in many offices is the printer button, so it's fair to assume that studio germs will also gather on the various sliders and rotary knobs of our mixers and synths. If you run a commercial studio the health issues resulting from lots of clients handling your computer and audio gear may be even worse (especially since some people don't seem to wash their hands after visiting the bathroom!).
For general cleaning of PC casework, a simple rub-down with a cloth dampened with washing-up liquid and water, followed by a quick polish with a dry cloth, is often sufficient and won't leave smears like some general-purpose cleaning products. For more details, have a look at our feature on 'Refurbishing Your Old Equipment' in SOS December 2006 (www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec06/articles/cosmeticsurgery.htm).
Other PC-related items that will probably benefit from a routine clean include floppy drives (with a dedicated cleaner disk) and CD/DVD optical drives, especially if you're experiencing unreadable disks or audio stutter. In the case of the latter, cleaning the laser lens assembly may help. You can do this using a dedicated lens-cleaner CD, but sometimes a better long-term solution is to open up the drive and clean the lens manually, using a cotton bud and isopropyl alcohol (SOS reader and studio owner Tim Rainey has a helpful guide to the latter on his web site at www.kymatasound.com/Optical_drive_fix.htm).
Your computer and other often-handled items in your studio will generally benefit from dedicated cleaning products that not only avoid smearing but also have anti-static and anti-bacterial properties. Most PC component retailers stock some, but one range that particularly caught my eye is from Durable (www.durable-cleaning.co.uk), especially as they promote awareness of health issues with their 'Computer Cleaning Week' (17th to 22nd September), which also has its own dedicated web site (www.computercleaningweek.com).
The Durable product range includes Superclean sachets and anti-bacterial wipes that are suitable for PC and music keyboards, mice, telephones, faders and knobs, plus Screenclean, for streak-free cleaning of all types of monitor screen and other glass surfaces on scanners and photocopiers. Meanwhile, to eject crumbs and other detritus from inside your PC keyboard, try a Powerclean Airduster canister. The dedicated Durable PC Clean Kit 5718 contains both Superclean and Screenclean fluid, cleaning cloths, and keyboard swabs and cleaners that reach between the keys to remove grime.
I was impressed when I tried out samples from the range. When I up-ended my PC keyboard and tapped it, all manner of food crumbs and dead skin particles dropped out, but the Powerclean Airduster dislodged plenty more (it may help to use the soft brush of a vacuum cleaner attachment to help remove any further debris). To clean the keys themselves, I used neat Superclean with both swabs and the supplied lint-free cloths, and it was surprising just how much grime ended up on them, even though the keys looked superficially clean.
I found Superclean moist wipes perfect for cleaning and sanitising mice (don't forget to wipe off the ingrained dirt found on the 'skids' underneath), while anyone still using a ball mouse should open it up and clean the ball itself, along with the rollers, which will keep your mouse action smooth and sure. The moist wipes also worked very well on telephones, rotary knobs, fader caps and music keyboards. I was particularly shocked at how much dirt came off the last!
Desktop and laptop monitor screens may already have anti-reflective or anti-static coatings, so don't be tempted to use domestic glass-cleaning products that may strip these away. You can try a damp clean cloth, but I found Durable's Screenclean not only easily removed stubborn marks and left my screens clean and shiny with no smear marks, but its anti-static properties really did seem to prevent further muck accumulating. Overall I can highly recommend the range, which is widely available at reasonable prices.
Once the outside of your PC and peripherals are clean, the next stage for the desktop PC user is to remove one of the case side panels, to inspect the inside for any build-up of dust and dirt. You'd be amazed at how much muck can build up on heatsinks and cooling fans, and the problem may be particularly bad if you smoke or burn joss sticks in the studio (so don't do it!).
Unfortunately the build-up of dirt generally occurs so gradually that you may be surprised when you eventually suffer a major calamity. Even a thin layer of dust on heatsinks and cooling fans reduces their effectiveness, so the operating temperatures of your CPU and other components in your PC will gradually creep up, which in turn may increase acoustic noise as fan speeds increase to counteract the higher temperature.
Without a good clean, more severe symptoms are eventually likely to appear, including songs suddenly glitching due to high processor overheads (because the CPU has automatically throttled its clock speed down in an attempt to cool it), or unexpected shutdowns. In the worst case a PC will boot up fine, run for just a few minutes, and then shut down and refuse to boot up again until it has cooled down. The latter is often what happens when the gaps between the heatsink 'fins' become completely solid with dirt, or when the cooling fan is so clogged up that it can no longer rotate.
The diligent can monitor their CPU, motherboard and hard-drive temperatures, along with fan speeds, using suitable software utilities (for more details, read 'The SOS Guide To Keeping Your PC Cool, Quiet, and Stable'; see the 'Further Reading' box). However, a routine internal inspection a couple of times a year makes more sense.
Unplug the PC from the mains and use a soft brush and a vacuum-cleaner brush attachment to remove as much muck as you can find from all the obvious places. These include the CPU fan and heatsink, any case fans and any air filters (often placed before the intake fans at the front of a PC). Don't forget to clean any other heatsinks you find on the motherboard, or on expansion cards (modern graphics cards require large heatsinks, as do some soundcards). For inaccessible fans, such as those inside PC power supplies, moisten a cotton bud and use it to wipe the fan blades, or blow an Airduster (described in the previous section) into the PSU from the back of the PC to loosen the internal dust, which should then get blown out by the fan.
Finally, for DIY desktop PCs, while you're inside the case, see if it's possible to use cable wraps and ties to neaten up the wiring loom connecting the PSU, motherboard, floppy, hard and optical drives. If you can streamline the airflow by carefully forming the cables into neat bundles, you may shave several degrees Centigrade off your CPU temperature, and therefore be able to tun your cooling fans at slightly lower speeds, for less noise in the studio. I heard of one PC user who, after cleaning his machine and tidying up the wiring, measured reductions of five degrees Centigrade for his CPU temperature, eight degrees for his motherboard and a couple of degrees for his hard drives!
Laptops are often more difficult to open up for access to the air vents and internal cooling fans. The procedure also varies considerably from model to model, and may involve the removal of dozens of tiny screws or struggling with lots of confusing clips. If you suspect overheating due to an internal build-up of dust and dirt clogging your laptop fans, and can safely get inside, clean the fans as above, then use a blast of Airduster through the intake vents to dislodge any other dust. It's best to do this outdoors, since you may get a sizeable cloud of dust flying out.
If it's not obvious how to open up your laptop, one useful web site linking to DIY instructions for many different models can be found at http://repair4laptop.org/notebook_fan.html. Failing that, it may be safer to return the laptop to the manufacturer or a local repair company for cleaning. If you're considering an upgrade, such as having more RAM installed, asking the company to give your laptop a good clean while it's already opened up may be significantly cheaper.
For quite some years now, the vast majority of hard drives have featured SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology), which provides feedback about performance parameters including error rates, spin-up time and temperature. Although in older computers the extra overhead slowed performance slightly and resulted in many people disabling SMART monitoring in the BIOS, with modern PCs this overhead is almost undetectable.
When any of the parameters mentioned above changes significantly, it may indicate impending failure, so you might as well take advantage of the information to find out how your drives are performing and whether or not they are likely to fail in the near future. I've previously mentioned HDD Health (www.panterasoft.com) in PC Notes as a useful utility that sits in your system tray and predicts impending failure of your drives, but another I've recently discovered is HD Tune (www.hdtune.com). This utility not only provides SMART health status on demand, but also offers drive benchmark tests and a useful error-scan function that will find defects (bad blocks) on your drives.
Hard drives are sealed to prevent dust getting inside, so physical cleaning isn't necessary. However, the data they hold can be subject to errors, so it's well worth doing some routine health checks using Microsoft's CHKDSK utility (supplied with Windows NT, 2000, and XP). This utility runs automatically when you boot up your computer after it's had any problems shutting down, has crashed requiring a reboot, or after a power cut. However, it's sensible to run CHKDSK at other times to check for errors, and sort them out if any are found. I suggest you do this routinely two or three times a year, as well as immediately before defragmenting your drives (most defragmenters will abort if drive errors are discovered).
The easiest way to access CHKDSK is to right-click on a drive partition in Windows Explorer and select the Properties option. The dialogue that appears has a Tools page that includes an error-checking option. You can use this to scan for possible errors, but you can't, unfortunately, use the 'Automatically fix file system errors' option while within Windows, since many system files will already be open and therefore 'active'. An error message will pop up and offer to instead run CHKDSK the next time you boot up before Windows starts, just as it does after a crash.
If, for some reason, you can't run CHKDSK on automatic reboot, try running it from the Windows XP Recovery Console. First, boot your PC from the Windows XP CD-ROM, and once the 'Welcome to Setup' screen appears, press 'R' to launch the Recovery Console. If you have multiple XP or 2000 installations, you'll next have to choose one to log into.
With either of these alternatives you then need to type in the appropriate text command. To scan for and fix hard drive errors you'll need to type in 'chkdsk c: /f' and press return (change the 'C:' parameter if you want to fix other partitions). There are also various other CHKDSK options. For detailed descriptions, pay a visit to www.microsoft.com/resources/documentation/windows/xp/all/proddocs/en-us/chkdsk.mspx.
Once you've run CHKDSK and it's discovered no errors, it's the ideal time to defragment your Windows drives. Defragmentation is essentially the art of rearranging files on your hard drives to enhance performance, and the pros and cons of doing this on audio drives is a complex subject that I discussed in great depth back in SOS June 2005 (see the 'Further Reading' box). However, there are nearly always benefits to defragmenting Windows drives, such as both Windows and its applications loading more quickly, and smoother general file access.
When you delete files on your hard drive, all that happens is that the entry pointing to the data is removed, leaving the data itself intact. Although Windows will now happily save new data over the top of the old, some of your deleted data may still be intact months or even years after its deletion. Even reformatting your hard drive simply removes its 'table of contents', and using suitable software tools you could still recover much of it.
This can be a life-saver if you ever accidentally delete some data you later want reinstated, but is extremely worrying if you have personal information on your PC that you need to permanently erase, such as client data, tax records, credit card numbers and web-surfing history. A study by the University of Glamorgan on 105 hard drives bought on Internet auction sites showed that data could be retrieved from 92 of them, including passwords, National Insurance numbers, and financial information such as sales receipts and profit and loss reports.
Security experts say the only really successful way to ensure that no-one can ever retrieve personal data from a discarded hard drive is to drive a six-inch nail through it, crush it or incinerate it, but utilities designed to securely wipe complete partitions and drives of all their data by overwriting them a number of times with random patterns of data do make the hacker's life a lot more difficult. So if you want to permanently erase personal data from a hard drive, either for routine personal security, before you sell it, or before you donate your old PC to a local charity, it's well worth taking a little more trouble to make sure your deletions are permanent. After all, identity theft can be a costly business!
If you want to permanently delete the contents of an entire hard drive, there are plenty of commercial products available, including the $50 Acronis Drive Cleanser (www.acronis.com), the $30 Paragon Disk Wiper (www.disk-wiper.com), or the $40 VCom Secur Erase (www.v-com.com). One freeware alternative is DBAN (Darik's Boot And Nuke), a self-contained boot floppy disk that you use to boot up the PC in question. It will completely delete the entire contents of any hard drive it can detect, making it ideal for use prior to disposal of a PC but highly dangerous in the wrong hands.
Since a number of passes are normally required for secure deletion, it may take some hours to completely wipe an entire hard drive using such utilities, but they should prove extremely useful if you or your company periodically disposes of old computers. If, on the other hand, you need to securely delete specific files, or want to 'clean up' the supposedly empty areas of your hard drives on a more routine basis, I can thoroughly recommend the Eraser tool (www.heidi.ie/eraser). It's free (although you can send a donation of a suggested 15 Euros to support further development) and can be be run on demand to delete specific files, folders or the empty areas of your drive, or be used inside Windows Explorer as a right-click option instead of the Recycle Bin or normal delete options. It also deals with 'cluster tips' (unused areas at the end of the final cluster used for each saved file, which may still contain data belonging to a file that previously occupied that cluster).
Even if your hard drive is healthy, it may be storing a considerable amount of junk data that you no longer need. Temporary Internet files, those left behind during software installs or by applications with multi-step Undo functions, old backup files and unwanted log files can soon amount to many megabytes unless you take steps to eradicate them. You may also prefer to remove evidence of your Internet surfing activities, including cookies and URL history files of sites you've visited.
Windows XP includes its own Disk Cleanup utility, but it's not very thorough. There are also plenty of commercial utilities that do better, but the one I regularly use and recommend is CCleaner (www.ccleaner.com), which runs with Windows 95, 98, ME, NT4, 2000, 2003, XP and Vista. It cleans the Windows Recycle Bin, Recent Documents, temporary files and log files, plus the temporary files, URL history and cookies from Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera browsers.
CCleaner also deletes temporary files belonging to many third-party applications and offers optional secure deletion, with one, three or seven passes, so you're certain of removing sensitive data for good (although it doesn't eradicate the file names — Eraser is still more thorough in this respect). It also has a basic Registry cleaner (more on this shortly) and, best of all, it's totally free! The only area that CCleaner doesn't cover is comprehensive scanning for non-Windows junk files across all your drive partitions. If you want a good clearout of these, Iomatic's $30 System Medic is certainly versatile, offering a user-configurable list of junk-file types, plus separately configurable lists of Inclusions and Exclusions for specific folders, as well as a choice of which drives to include in your searches. Such a utility can deal with many unwanted files extremely quickly, but you have to be extremely careful what files you include in its scans. It's very easy to accidentally delete all your song backups, for instance!
Your Registry is another area where a good spring clean may reap dividends, since it could potentially contain thousands of redundant entries. Some Registry entries may point to non-existent files, and may be deleted, or alternatively amended to point to the correct file, to avoid crashes.
Although I'm against disabling Windows Services, since the measured benefits are tiny but the risks of causing instability are great, my experience with Registry-cleaning utilities is rather different. I use several on a regular basis on my own PCs, removing rogue Registry entries, followed by Registry compaction, either using a tool built into some registry cleaners or the freeware NTREGOPT (www.larshederer.homepage.t-online.de/erunt), typically reducing the size of my Registry by around 10 percent. This can only improve Windows performance, but all the utilities I use provide backup options, so if necessary you can reverse any Registry changes you make.
In my experience, every Registry cleaner finds a slightly different collection of issues, so I tend to run each in turn. First up is Microsoft's own RegClean (no longer supported by Microsoft, but still available as a free download at www.soft32.com/download_239.html). It's by no means as thorough as most other tools, but can remove a significant swathe of redundant data on its first run and a smaller amount on subsequent runs.
Next up is RegSeeker (www.hoverdesk.net/freeware.htm), which, among its many other features, has a Clean function that always finds lots of unused extensions and 'open with' references, as well as references to non-existent files. Its excellent 'Find in Registry' function is handy or stripping out all old soundcard references that won't be removed by the standard uninstall routines.
The other two utilities I use and recommend are Iomatic's Registry Medic (www.iomatic.com) and PC Tools' Registry Mechanic (www.pctools.com). Registry Mechanic offers a Smart Update function to ensure you're using the latest version, a background monitor that you can use to spot unintended changes to your Registry (although for optimum performance it's wiser to disable this while running audio applications), an Optimise function for applying various registry tweaks and a Registry 'compacting' feature. Registry Medic has similar features.