If you've ever been confronted by the dreaded Blue Screen Of Death, suffered random reboots or faced the frustration of inexplicable PC crashes, read on for some preventative measures...
Using a PC to record, mix down and master your own music ought to be a streamlined and pleasurable process, and for many musicians it is exactly that. Indeed, some have run their computers for months or even years without a single problem. However, others unfortunately find that many of their initially creative sessions descend into another round of fault-finding frustration. This month we're going to explore some measures to help the PC musician minimise the chances of crashes, reboots and other interruptions, so that they can simply get on with the most important task — making music!
Fortunately, one of the big improvements gained when you run Windows XP (and both 2000 and NT) rather than Windows 98 is that each application runs in its own 'protected area' of RAM. Should an application encounter problems and crash, you (or, rather, Windows) can safely shut down that particular application without having to reboot the entire PC and potentially lose unsaved data from other running applications. In some cases you can then restart the offending application, although it's generally safer to save any open files and reboot anyway, in case any processes started by the application that crashed are still running.
Despite the above, the dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen Of Death) can still put in an occasional appearance with Windows XP, 2000 and NT. It signals a non-recoverable condition, and that you've lost all data that hasn't yet been saved. This blue screen is still one of the most frustrating aspects of Windows use, since there's absolutely nothing you can do about it except reboot your PC and start again.
The most common reason for blue screens under Windows 98/ME was incompatible versions of DLL (Dynamic Link Library) files, but with Windows 2000/XP blue screens tend to happen because of driver problems, and when using older versions of applications with the latest Service Pack. The last, once again, underlines the importance of either keeping everything up to date or leaving everything well alone.
There's an area in the Windows Startup and Recovery section (Advanced page of the System applet in Control Panel) devoted to what happens if a System Failure occurs. Here you can specify whether or not the event is added to the system log, send an Administrative Alert (not much help to most musicians, who are already the administrator of their PCs), or Automatically Restart. It's helpful to un-tick the last option, since that gives you a chance to read the BSOD.
Further options include various 'Write debugging information' memory-dump sizes, the choices being None, Small (64KB), Kernel and Complete (entire physical RAM). I've chosen None, on the grounds that unless you know how to interpret the memory dump it's not much use to you, and there's no point in cluttering up your hard drive with dump files. However, if you're consistently given a BSOD by (for example) a particular audio interface driver, the manufacturer may ask you to send this memory dump so that their experts can try to analyse what's going on.
If your PC ever presents a blue screen, don't force the PC to reboot immediately: first, note down any file name that may be mentioned, and/or any error number, and try to remember whether you've recently installed new software, a driver update or new hardware. Even if you don't manage to track down the culprit first time, if the blue screen happens again you may notice a common factor that will help to solve the problem.
The quickest way to obtain more information on a specific error message is to visit Microsoft's Knowledgebase (http://support.microsoft.com) and enter the error number that you saw on your blue screen, in the format 'STOP 0x000000D1'. You should then be provided with a long list of possible culprits that, at the very least, will give you more ideas on what might have caused the problem and may point to a specific application that's known to cause it.
Other related web pages that I've found useful include Windows XP Shutdown & Restart Troubleshooting (http://aumha.org/ win5/a/shtdwnxp.htm) and Troubleshooting Windows Stop Messages (http://aumha.org/ win5/kbestop.htm).
While the main causes of untimely interruptions are discussed in the main text, there are various others that can scupper your chances of making music while the inspiration is fresh. Here are some to bear in mind:
Power Management: The phenomenon of audio interfaces spontaneously 'disappearing' from laptops running Windows has been blamed on IRQ sharing but is more likely to be due to power management issues, as I explained in SOS October 2005. For instance, if your USB interface periodically goes AWOL and crashes your laptop, try un-ticking the box labelled 'Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power' in the Power Management page of the USB Root Hub that it's plugged into.
Protect Your System: If you must download and install demo versions of unknown software, create a dual-boot system with one Windows partition that connects to the Internet and has all the demos installed on it, and another that only ever houses your trusted music applications. This is what I do, and it's why my music partition has always been so stable. When your music partition is working reliably, make an image file using a utility such as Norton's Ghost. Then if the partition does become less stable in the future, you can restore that image for an immediate return to normality.
Mouse Muscle: If you have a wireless mouse, make sure you keep spare batteries standing by, and if it's a rechargeable mouse try to get into the habit of leaving it on charge at the end of each session, so that it's well topped up for the start of the next one. There's nothing more frustrating than your mouse dying in the middle of a session! Even better, keep a standby wired mouse plugged in as well. It won't interfere with the wireless one, and if the wireless one dies you won't have to reboot to carry on.
Spontaneous crashes and reboots can be caused by hardware or software problems (see 'Random PC Reboots' box), but some are obviously due to mains power problems. A brownout, for example, is a short-term drop in voltage (your mains light bulbs will dim simultaneously). Depending on its severity, your PC may survive unscathed (I had three or four such 'blips' while writing this feature and my PC didn't grumble at all). However, it depends on how low the voltage dip is, and how long it lasts. Your PC could suffer a 'frozen keyboard', a complete lockup or even a spontaneous reboot.
A blackout, as the name suggests, is a complete loss of power (your lights will go out), and the result is exactly the same as switching your PC off at the wall socket. All data not saved will be lost, and as soon as the power comes back on your PC will either stay in its 'off' state or reboot itself.
Spikes and surges are sudden momentary increases in voltage, either caused by nearby equipment being switched on or (more often) off, or (in more serious cases) by a nearby lightning strike. They can cause catastrophic hardware damage, often burning out motherboards and connected devices. A strike to telephone lines can also easily result in a burnt-out modem if it's connected to them, and can damage the rest of your PC at the same time. I heard of one case where the PC itself was physically unplugged from the mains outlet but its modem was still connected to the telephone line. An incoming transient not only took out the modem, but also the motherboard it was connected to, the processor and most of the other devices, plus all the data on the hard drives.
Many musicians switch off their PCs as soon as they hear a rumble of thunder or notice the first flash of lightning, then physically unplug it and their modem from the wall sockets. Better still, if, like many musicians, your mains wiring is all connected via distribution boards to a single mains socket, pull these plugs from the wall so that all your gear is protected. However, surges can happen at any time, so although PC power supplies generally have integral mains filtering to deal with incoming RF interference, it's sensible to fit some sort of external surge protection for all your gear, to cope with more vigorous influxes. There are lots of mains distribution boards available that are fitted with surge-protection devices, and even a cheap one is better than nothing. However, if possible, avoid those with 'sacrificial' MOV (Metal Oxide Varistor) components that are partially or completely destroyed in the event of a strike, or at least pay a little more for one with indicators that show when the MOVs have failed.
Lots of suppliers stock the respected Belkin range in six and eight-way versions with added protection for telephone and modem, in various configurations, for under £25. These are far better than the anonymous 'under £10' products you tend to find in DIY centres, but for even more protection look for products such as those from SurgeX (www.surgex.com). The next step up from a surge-protected board, to be considered if you suffer from brownouts or regular surges, is a power conditioner, which has the totally different function of filtering out mains noise, as well as stabilising and regulating the output voltage. Stand-alone units are available from companies such as APC (www.apc.com) from about £75. Power conditioners from companies such as Furman (www.furmansound.com) also offer more advanced MOV surge protection that's claimed not to degrade. Models such as their 1U rackmount PL8II E, with 10 IEC outlets, are available from about £170. The more sophisticated AC Line Regulator models can also deliver a constant output voltage of 120/240 volts AC wherever you are in the world.
Lots of musicians now perform live with various sorts of PC, but it has to be said that your computer is probably at its most vulnerable when on stage. I discussed ways of making rackmount PCs more roadworthy in SOS June 2004, and tried to dissuade people from gigging with desktop PCs, which aren't really designed for much bouncing about on long journeys.
The majority of musicians now adopt a laptop as the ideal stage companion — laptops will carry on regardless even if the mains power on stage momentarily sags or conks out during your set. Nevertheless, it's also well worth buffering your stage gear from spikes and other nasties caused by nearby stage lighting and the like. A filtered distribution board is a wise investment, and a power conditioner or UPS is even more sensible.
Another consideration is your choice of audio interface format. A PCMCIA card will also benefit from your laptop's battery backup if anything goes wrong, as will a USB or Firewire interface that's buss-powered. A mains-powered USB or Firewire interface will 'disappear' even during a momentary mains problem, and if your laptop sequencer application carries on smoothly with battery power it will suddenly be without an interface. This will cause the sequencer to stop and you may have to close it down, re-launch it so that the interface is recognised once more, then reload your song. Even worse, your sequencer may crash or completely lock up your laptop, requiring a complete reboot once the power has come back on. Neither of these scenarios is the recipe for a relaxed stage performance!
The ultimate protection for any computer system would allow it to carry on regardless even if the mains disappeared altogether. Given the rarity of power cuts in many countries, most project studio owners just swear if all the lights go out and they lose whatever PC data they were working on, while waiting for the lights to come back on again. However, if you live in a part of the world where power blackouts are more commonplace, regularly suffer from spikes and brownouts that crash your PC, or have a commercial studio where it's simply not an option to risk your clients' data, investing in an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) is a wise move. It's also vital for anyone involved in broadcasting, running Internet servers or any other applications where you just have to keep on trucking!
Anyone who owns a laptop PC will have seen the principle of the UPS in action. While the laptop is plugged into the mains, its internal battery is trickle-charged. If the power fails, or if you unplug the laptop's mains power supply, the battery instantly takes over to provide a smooth continuation of power for as many hours as the battery's charge allows. Some Intel Centrino models can manage four to five hours when running non-demanding office applications, while 'desktop replacement' laptops may only last for an hour or two when running a sequencer and lots of plug-ins and soft-synths.
A bona fide desktop system with multiple drives and expansion devices consumes even more power, making it largely impractical to fit integral batteries for backup purposes. Instead, you'll need a stand-alone UPS, rated such that it can supply enough power to keep your gear going for the required length of time. Some people may be content to protect their PC for just a few minutes (enough to save whatever they're working on), while others may want to keep their entire studio powered up for the remainder of a session.
At the very least, computer hard drives should be allowed to power down gracefully, as modern hard-disk controllers tend to cache data that may be lost in the event of a power loss, causing possible file corruption. Failure to boot after a power cut is usually caused by such corruption or a damaged hard drive. UPS devices usually come with software that communicates with your PC via a serial or USB cable and guides it through an automatic controlled shutdown (generally the cheapest way of avoiding damage or data loss). Several computers can be controlled from one UPS by this means, and for more ambitious setups it's even possible to manage a UPS via an Ethernet network.
The UPS may instruct your PC to enter its Shutdown state, or go into Hibernation. In the latter state, the entire contents of RAM are saved as one big file on your hard drive, and when power returns the system reloads this file and carries on from where it left off. A Standby state is also a possibility (the PC drops into a low-power mode with the monitor and some other devices powered down, but able to quickly resume when power returns). The musician may need to consider these options more carefully than most users, particularly if a Firewire or USB audio interface is being used (see 'The Show Must Go On' box for more details).
Spontaneous reboots can occur as a result of viruses or using elderly driver versions. However, more common reasons are hardware-related. Faulty RAM is one possibility, especially if it wasn't handled carefully during installation. The easiest way to test your memory, to eliminate this possibility, is to run a freeware utility such as Memtest86 (www.memtest86.com) or the two memory benchmarks from Sisoftware's Sandra Burn-In Wizard for at least several hours. Alternatively, temporarily remove or replace the RAM to see if the problem goes away. RAM timing could also be an issue, so avoid overclocking and try reducing the memory speeds in the BIOS.
A poor-quality power supply (or one that's running near to 100 percent capacity) is another possibility, as is overheating, particularly of some CPUs, so check internal temperatures in your BIOS or with a suitable Windows utility to make sure. Even bad contacts can be a cause, so rule this out by re-seating your expansion cards, RAM, CPU and so on, and unplug/re-plug all the internal cables, which should help to clean all the connections.
Although there's not really such a thing as a 'typical' power cut, 90 percent are said to last under five minutes and 99 percent less than one hour, which may make it easier to choose a suitable UPS. Deciding on the VA (Volt-Ampere) rating you will need your UPS to have is simply a matter of deciding which of your gear needs protecting and then totting up the VA ratings that you should find somewhere on the equipment rear panels. Many PCs will be happy with about 500VA, although it's safer to over-specify if you can afford it, as computer and audio gear can draw significantly greater peak currents.
It can be a confusing business trying to find the most suitable UPS, as there are several basic types. The cheapest type is the Standby (off-line) device that makes no attempt to regulate the mains supply while it remains within certain pre-defined limits, and which only switches its inverter (the circuitry that converts DC from a battery into an AC output waveform) on-line after a short break, of typically several milliseconds, in the mains supply, or if the voltage varies significantly from its nominal value. Its normal output waveform is often a square wave. Such UPS supplies are available for loads between about 350VA and 1kVA, and are ideal for keeping your PC going during a power cut if you don't want to spend too much money.
The next step up is a line-interactive UPS. This type of device offers some 'conditioning' of the mains supply, to provide a clean, stable output voltage, free of spikes and electrical noise, that is normally either a sine or stepped wave. Again, this type of supply switches to its inverter circuitry only on mains failure, after a few milliseconds. They're available with power ratings from 500VA to to 5kVA and are suitable if you regularly notice your lights dimming, you suffer from incoming spikes, or you want to prevent your PC from crashing because of poor mains quality or power cuts. However, their output waveform may not suit high-quality audio gear such as power amps, if you want to use such a UPS to power your whole studio, and you may hear an audible click during the change from mains to battery power. Prices for off-line and line-interactive supplies range from £50 to £300, depending on power rating and battery duration.
The ultimate solution (and, therefore, the most expensive, starting at about £350) is an on-line UPS, where the inverter circuitry is permanently in circuit, powered either by the mains or from the battery when mains power isn't present. No audio changeover clicks will be heard and the output waveform is a true sine wave, mostly cleaner and more stable than the incoming mains supply, and regulated to much closer tolerances. This type of UPS is normally the only one of the three that offers an automatic bypass in the event of a fault condition, so your gear should carry on regardless to the end of the session, when you can arrange to get the UPS repaired. It can also be used for 50/60Hz frequency conversion when powering foreign gear. An on-line UPS is the only type of UPS I would recommend for powering studio audio gear as well as your PC. They're available with power ratings of between 700VA and 800kVA.
The length of time for which a particular UPS can run when the full rated power is being drawn from it is, of course, dependent on battery capacity and thus varies greatly from model to model, although some have optional extra battery packs that can extend the nominal time. Recommended UPS manufacturers include APC (www.apc.com), Emerson-Liebert (www.emerson-ups.co.uk), MGE (www.mgeups.co.uk) and Riello Galatrek (www.riello-ups.co.uk), all of whose products can be bought from a variety of computer and electrical suppliers. One of the best suppliers I've come across is UPS Systems (www.upssystems.uk.com/ acatalog/index.html), who specialise in supplying standby power and can provide advice, service and support.