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Buying A Ready-made PC Music System

Feature | Tips & Tricks By Martin Walker
Published October 1998

This system case from Millennium Music Software shows one of the advantages of going to a specialist — you can have any combination of more unusual drives pre‑installed, such as the CD writer and Zip drive shown here.This system case from Millennium Music Software shows one of the advantages of going to a specialist — you can have any combination of more unusual drives pre‑installed, such as the CD writer and Zip drive shown here.

Although you can go 'under the bonnet' and put together your own PC suitable for MIDI + Audio recording, buying a complete system could prevent many potential problems. Martin Walker gets bundled up.

I'm still surprised at the number of queries I receive from readers who want advice on where to buy a PC system for making music. Yes, I fully understand that the average PC warehouse outlet has no idea about the subject whatsoever, but there is an easy answer. If you look through the pages of SOS, there is a host of advertisers who will supply fully configured PC systems for music use. Not only do these normally come bundled with sequencer software, and your choice of soundcard, but they also arrive with the soundcard installed, with all the drivers up and running, and the software properly configured to work with it. Also, if the worst happens, and you experience difficulties with some aspect of the package, you immediately know who to contact.

Contrast this with the piecemeal approach taken by so many people: buy a cut‑price PC, learn lots about its internal workings while you try to narrow down the cause of its low performance when running MIDI + Audio software, and then upgrade various components in an effort to improve matters. Yes, I know that you might get your PC slightly cheaper from the mega‑retailer who shifts huge numbers of boxes, but spend a few moments considering how much extra time you might lose if you have problems.

In addition, you will probably experience the ping‑pong effect, as your technical queries are bounced backwards and forwards between the soundcard and sequencer manufacturers (neglecting the supplier of the PC, who probably won't have a clue what you're talking about). Some people never do get a properly functioning PC, and seem forever destined to swap one component after another in a desperate attempt to solve an ever‑more‑elusive fault. Judging by the frustration and even desperation of some of the letters and emails we receive, some owners simply run out of people to ask.

System Solutions

Red Submarine have a wide range of PC systems on offer, and their Professional Series even offers to diagnose problems by remote control, using the built‑in modem (see main text).Red Submarine have a wide range of PC systems on offer, and their Professional Series even offers to diagnose problems by remote control, using the built‑in modem (see main text).

If you are buying a complete system, you may have to justify its price by choosing one suitable for your entire family. This inevitably means that you need a more general bundle of software, but some music retailers can supply this sort of bundle on request, in addition to your choice of sequencer software (it is certainly worth asking, since bundled prices are always keener than buying separately). Unfortunately, one almost inevitable consequence of buying a multi‑purpose or family PC is that games get installed, and these tend to be the most common cause of music‑related PC problems. Given the low prices of many dedicated games machines, it would seem a more sensible proposition to buy one of these in addition, resulting in fewer problems and more time for the serious music‑making PC.

If you want your system primarily for music purposes, you will nearly always save yourself a lot of hassle in the long run by buying from a specialist music retailer.

If you want your system primarily for music purposes, you will nearly always save yourself a lot of hassle in the long run by buying from a specialist music retailer. After‑sales support is something that every business takes into account when choosing a supplier — after all, time is money, and you need the reassurance of an established procedure if and when the worst happens.

By buying the whole package from a single source, you know exactly who to contact if you have any problems. Retailers have an easier task as well, since it is far easier for them to track down the problems if they have experience of every component in the supplied system, including the software and soundcard. Trying to narrow down music software or hardware problems in an unknown PC is never a trivial proposition, simply because of the huge number of possible components involved (and the even greater number of possible interactions between them). Even if you subsequently decide to upgrade, those who have bought complete systems still stand a better chance of doing it with the minimum of grief, since the original system supplier can provide more informed advice, knowing exactly what the buyer already has.

Narrowing It Down

Configuring software and hardware can be a huge initial task. If you're buying a complete system, and don't want to be faced with a plethora of screens like this, let the specialist music retailer's fingers do the walking.Configuring software and hardware can be a huge initial task. If you're buying a complete system, and don't want to be faced with a plethora of screens like this, let the specialist music retailer's fingers do the walking.

Some suppliers offer several standard systems, others use a few standard systems as a basis for a variety of packages, and still others aim to build a machine from the ground up to specifically suit your requirements. Thankfully, you are likely to be spared the hard sell, since these suppliers know that the last thing they want is someone constantly back on the phone with problems.

Mind you, before you contact a specialist PC music retailer, you will need to do a little homework to establish roughly the sort of system you need, since there is still a huge variety on offer. You always tend to get a better price buying a complete system in one go, rather than upgrading in fits and starts, so it is best to try and buy something that has sufficient power to do what you need for at least the next year (although with the current pace of PC technology, this is increasingly difficult).

This, however, must be offset against the fact that prices are forever tumbling. In general, the best compromise is to buy a system one or two rungs below the top of the technological ladder. The latest and fastest systems always attract a premium price — if you can afford this, fine, but whenever a new faster processor comes out, the models just below it have their leading edge prices trimmed significantly, and these therefore tend to be the most cost‑effective.

Since most bundles are fairly flexible, you will need to decide what your system should include. Although a well‑trained salesperson will guide you through the options, there may be many other choices to make apart from the fundamental ones of processor and speed, amount of memory, hard drive capacity and so on. Many dealers can also supply an initially bewildering selection of other components, such as CD‑ROM drives, CD‑R and CD‑RW drives, removable hard drives, built‑in modems, SCSI cards...

The list may seem endless, but if you are likely to need any such options in the near future anyway, you will probably get a considerably better deal if you buy them with your system, rather than purchasing them separately at a later date. And don't forget, the whole point of buying a bundle is to get everything pre‑installed and working properly — make the most of this, and let the dealer do all the initial hard work for you.

Slot Machine

Helpful error messages like this might become a thing of the past if your software is all pre‑installed by experts.Helpful error messages like this might become a thing of the past if your software is all pre‑installed by experts.

Catering for future expansion can be just as important as choosing the right system for today. If you can project your likely requirements a year or more into the future, you will be far less likely to be faced with a dead‑end PC that has to be traded in, or sold second‑hand for next to nothing.

For example, consider the issue of expansion slots, of which there are normally a total of seven in most PCs. Avoid machines with less — such as some of the new Celeron‑powered entry‑level models — however conveniently compact they are, since slots always tend to be in short supply for musicians (who can soon run out of space after installing several soundcards, MIDI interfaces, and SCSI cards.)

Traditionally, PC expansion slots have been of two types: ISA and PCI (often with four ISA slots, and three PCI ones, or three of each with one extra dual‑purpose position which can hold either an ISA or a PCI card). However, Intel would like to phase out ISA cards altogether over the next couple of years (plug and play would certainly become more reliable), and most new cards now tend to be PCI. With this inevitable move to PCI cards, the balance is shifting, and many modern motherboards feature three ISA, four PCI, and one of the new AGP slots (Accelerated Graphics Port — see January's PC Musician for more details).

The important thing when buying a system is to check how many free slots there will be. It may be wonderful to have a soundcard, graphics card, internal modem, and SCSI card installed when you buy it, but this may leave you with no free PCI slots at all for future expansion. There are several ways to ensure that you keep as many of the valuable spare PCI slots as possible. You can make sure that your new system has an AGP graphics card — these are now about the same price as similar PCI versions, avoid possible clogging of the PCI buss with graphics data, and leave a valuable PCI slot free. Also, I have always preferred to use an external modem — apart from saving another valuable expansion slot, these normally provide comprehensive LED readouts that can be a great help if you ever have problems with sending faxes or cruising on the Internet.

External MIDI interfaces that attach to the parallel printer port are also popular; not only do they leave yet another slot available for future expansion, but most of them also provide valuable LED readouts of MIDI Out activity (much like the external modem option).

The Engine

Are these the best settings for your music hardware and software? I've seen every single conflicting option recommended, but a specialist music retailer can find optimum settings to suit a particular combination of PC system hardware and software.Are these the best settings for your music hardware and software? I've seen every single conflicting option recommended, but a specialist music retailer can find optimum settings to suit a particular combination of PC system hardware and software.

The most fundamental choice for any system is that of processor. There are two basic standards on offer, based on the design and pin‑out arrangement of the socket holding the CPU (Central Processing Unit). The older and more established Socket 7 includes Intel Pentium processors (both standard and the more recent MMX variety), the AMD K5, K6, and K6‑2 ranges, and the Cyrix 6x86 and 6x86MX ranges. Intel's newer Pentium II processors, by contrast, use the completely different Slot 1 standard, as well as a different style of motherboard; there is also a cut‑down version of the Pentium II called the Celeron, which is just starting to appear in budget systems.

If you are considering buying a complete system, I strongly recommend that you buy one featuring a Pentium II, unless you have an extremely limited budget, in which case you might be best placed buying one of the many PCs now being sold second‑hand by people upgrading, since this will save you even more money. You will also need to decide which version of the Pentium II to get, since there are models available with clock speeds of 233, 266, 300, 333, 350, and 400MHz. Going back to my earlier comment about the technological ladder, the best value (as I write this in early July) is perhaps the 300MHz model, although you must be guided by the retailer at the time you buy, depending on what you are proposing to do with your system.

If you do buy a Socket 7 system, either new or second‑hand, the order of preference for musicians should, in my opinion, be Pentium MMX, AMD K6‑2, and finally AMD K6. Cyrix processors cannot be recommended for musicians, since although they are fine for general business applications, and will run most musical software, they will probably do it significantly slower than other processors.

Keeping Track

When choosing your system, it can be confusing to simply specify the maximum number of audio tracks you want to record and play back simultaneously. Even a humble Pentium 200MHz MMX machine can manage 16 'CD‑quality' tracks. It's when you start adding real‑time effects that the number of tracks falls, and you have to trade off one against the other. If you want lots of tracks and lots of real‑time effects, you'll need a powerful processor, or a soundcard with DSP on board to provide some extra horsepower for its own effects (such as the Lexicon Studio).

Another vital component for multitrack audio recording is the hard drive. Although EIDE drives are fine for general‑purpose use, and can be used successfully for audio recording, beyond a certain point most people start to specify SCSI drives. One reason is that this can take a significant load off the processor; for musicians, though, the biggest joy of SCSI is the possibility of expansion. Removable drives make audio backups a lot easier, and although there are EIDE versions available (and even models that plug into the parallel port, with generally reduced performance), the best solution always seems to be to use a SCSI drive.

Many CD‑writing packages support only SCSI CD‑R drives, and extracting audio from music CDs is again something that not all EIDE CD‑ROM drives can manage. Although 'going SCSI' means adding the cost of the host adaptor card, in most cases its many advantages outweigh this. SCSI drives can be internal (fitting inside the PC casing just like an EIDE drive) or external (not an option for EIDE devices). Many people find external SCSI drives more versatile — although they are slightly more expensive, they can be easily transported, as well as being pressed into service with a sampler when required.

The whole point of buying a bundle is to get everything pre‑installed and working properly — make the most of this, and let the dealer do all the initial hard work for you.

There are various advantages of having two drives on your system, one for the operating system and applications, and the other solely for audio use. It is easier to keep your audio drive well defragmented on a regular basis (which will improve performance), and it makes backups simpler, since your music is all in one place. Also, the huge files that are generated by audio can benefit from having temporary files on another drive. When applying processing to such large files it can significantly reduce the time taken, simply because source and destination are being updated simultaneously, rather than having the read/write heads of a single drive constantly swapping back and forth between two different positions.

Once again, the beauty of buying a complete system is that the retailer has already done the hard work of sourcing suitable drives, not only in performance terms, but also checking (for example) that their thermal recalibration characteristics won't cause problems during long hard disk recording sessions. They can also find drives that are quiet enough to be used in the recording studio. Anyone who has bought a new drive blindly by mail order may have been unexpectedly disappointed in this respect — most musicians would rather hear roaring coming from their audience than their disk drive!

Some dealers (Red Submarine and others) can even supply special multicore cables (although these are rather expensive) so that your monitor, keyboard and mouse can be 10 metres distant from the base unit, to keep the source of noise well away from your audio monitors.

Other Aspects

Thankfully, many of the other aspects of the PC system specification are easier to tie down. With the currently low price of memory, 64Mb of RAM will be ideal for most people. Its variety will be determined by the motherboard and chipset, but this needn't concern most system buyers. Once again, expansion potential is important, and here you may need to haggle a bit. The cheapest way for most dealers to provide 64Mb RAM for a Pentium II machine is as two lots of 32Mb, but this takes up two memory slots. Try to get a single 64Mb memory card fitted, and this will leave more slots available for possible future expansion.

An ATX‑format motherboard and case allows full‑length expansion cards to be used in every slot, which normally makes adding expansion cards easier, and a Midi‑Tower case design will also provide plenty of space to add more drives in the future if required. Empty drive bays will be available internally for fixed hard drives, and externally for those that need front‑panel access. These include CD‑ROM, CD‑R, and internal removable hard drives, and the occasional soundcard socket module, such as those supplied with the Terratec EWS64 and forthcoming Audio Production Studio from Emu. While we are talking of dimensions, a 17‑inch monitor will suit most musicians (see the July '98 issue PC Musician feature for more details of the options).

When buying a new system, you are unlikely to have a choice of operating system. Once the inevitable kinks have been ironed out, Windows 98 is likely to be supplied with all new machines (especially if the dedicated music retailer has checked compatibility with the supplied music software). Initial reports are that Windows 98 is much more robust than Windows 95 was when it first came out, but since most people regard Windows 98 as an enhanced version of Windows 95, this is hardly surprising. The most important improvement as far as musicians are concerned is that the notorious 11‑device MIDI device limit is no more. This is reason enough for many musicians to throw caution overboard and install the upgrade in their existing PCs.


I contacted a small random selection of dealers to ask them what they saw as important in a ready‑made PC system. Music Connections (0171 731 5993) put together systems based on customer's requirements, rather than having a range of fixed models. Although they can supply virtually any type of PC, they find most people are at the moment buying Pentium II systems with processors of either 233 or 266MHz speeds. When it comes to soundcards, the Event Gina is popular for an audio‑only solution, with the Turtle Beach Pinnacle still selling well if you want on‑board sounds as well. On the sequencer side, most people choose either Logic Audio or Cubase VST.

When I asked about their after‑sales support they pointed out that a lot of effort goes into pre‑sales support as well, to make sure that the customer knows all the options, and that they are happy with using the system before they make the purchase. If there are any problems afterwards, they seem very knowledgeable, and have even been known to visit a customer's premises to help sort out a problem.

Digital Village (0181 597 3585) do publish four suggested system bundles in their ads, but again these are only starting points — any combination of components can be used, depending on the customer's requirements. The most widely sold systems at the moment use Pentium II 233 and 266MHz processors, along with a 'few gigabytes' of hard drive storage, 64Mb of SDRAM, and a 17‑inch monitor. Event Gina soundcards are again recommended, since they have an excellent sound, and seem to cause so few problems. Digital Village say that they recognise that PCs can be significantly cheaper than Macs, but are useful only if they work properly from day one. By supplying the complete solution, this is far easier to ensure, and backup support will then be easier as well.

They also highlighted a perennial concern for music retailers when dealing with customer problems — they are happy to answer telephone queries from anyone who has bought music software from them, but point out that they can only help with associated hardware problems if the system in question has also been purchased from them. Sounds very fair to me!

Red Submarine (01904 624266) advertise a huge range of systems and options to suit both beginner and professional, but a fairly unique feature is their 'On‑Site Software Maintenance Package', included as part of the Professional Series bundle (and as an extra for their other lower‑cost systems). If you run into any problems with software configuration, they can dial into your PC system using its built‑in modem, and fix the problem by remote control. Since describing problems over the phone can be so difficult, this sounds like an ideal solution, but again, only if you buy a complete and known system from a single manufacturer. Apparently 90 percent of such problems are caused by customers installing games on their machines!

Millennium Music Software (0115 955 2200) have been selling PC systems for some years, and provide a free 48‑hour return‑to‑base warranty on them all. If you really can't be without your machine for this long, you can opt for an on‑site warranty, and for music professionals, this is ideal. They also mentioned other benefits of buying from a specialist — your system will arrive with all the appropriate hard drive and system tweaks already made, for optimum performance of a hard disk recording system. Another very worthwhile point is that with a wide range of soundcards and other components on offer, there is never any pressure to buy a particular product — they can remain impartial.

Summing Up

If you want a PC system to give you loads of audio recording and playback channels, as well as multiple real‑time effects, you need a powerful one. Buying from a music retailer should ensure a balanced system which will reliably do what you specify, as well as bypassing initial teething troubles and long‑term support problems. Once you decide just how many channels you want, and hence the PC specification, the biggest decision will be that of soundcard. We have covered the choices in great detail already in our two‑part roundup (in the February and March '98 issues), but new cards are being launched all the time. Choice of music software is very personal, but whatever you decide, make sure that you get a complete set of CD‑ROMs and manuals.

I've gone on record in the past saying that I prefer to deal with local PC suppliers, for ease of support. Over the last year not only have the goalposts moved thanks to the increased interest in hard disk recording; they have also been pulled further apart with a huge range of new and competing products. It is now extremely difficult for a typical local shop to keep up with the mass of information faced by the PC musician, much of which conflicts with the more typical advice given for general office and home use.

Be guided by the PC music specialists — most of them have no axe to grind, and they are likely to stock only products that perform well, are easy to install, easy to use, and cause the minimum hassle for their support staff. I will be putting my money where my mouth is quite shortly.

Upgrading Versus Buying A New Machine

Many people assume that it is easier and cheaper to upgrade an existing PC than to throw in the towel and buy a new one. SOS gets lots of email from readers asking for advice on making their MMX PC more suitable for digital audio recording, but there is always a limit beyond which you are better off, both in performance terms and financial terms, by buying a completely new machine. Let me explain...

If your current machine's processor has a clock speed of 166MHz or less (whether from Intel, AMD or Cyrix), 16 or 32Mb of RAM, and a few gigabytes of hard drive capacity, then you will certainly get a significant increase in performance by buying an Intel 233MHz MMX processor (assuming that your motherboard can cope — mine, at 18 months old, won't run anything faster than a 200MHz model). It is never worth moving up a single clock speed, since the performance improvement is unlikely to reflect the cost involved. Far better to jump two places, for instance between a 166 and 233MHz clock speed. However, a simple processor upgrade may only be postponing the inevitable, and a more drastic course could be needed to give you enough power to last for more than a few more months.

I recently received an email from a reader who was thinking of spending about £500 to upgrade such a machine, by installing a new motherboard housing a Pentium II 266MHz processor (about £300 for the pair), 64Mb of SDRAM (about £70), and a larger and faster hard drive (about £130). Although this would initially seem much the cheapest option, you always pay more to buy a set of parts than a complete bundle, and new Pentium II 266MHz systems start at about £700 without the monitor (which most people have already). For this extra £200 you will also get a new case, graphics card, 32‑speed CD‑ROM drive, floppy drive, keyboard and mouse, and none of the possible hassles of performing open heart surgery on an existing machine. You might even get £200 second‑hand for your old machine as well.

I'm faced with just this situation, and frankly even the latest upgrades installed in my existing PC over the last six months have already been superseded — such is the rapid pace of PC technology. When the crunch comes, it's definitely going to be a complete new system for me.

New Cards For Old

If you already have a variety of existing cards that you are intending to move across to a new system, this may be the opportunity to rationalise and rethink. You may have several ISA cards (such as a soundcard and MIDI interface) that still work perfectly well together, and many people have two or more existing soundcards running side by side. However, although you can amass several MIDI Ins and Outs and multiple audio channels by using several soundcards, this approach can cause problems for audio recording and playback, since most MIDI + Audio sequencers rely on the sample clock from one soundcard to lock everything together and keep it running in exact sync.

Freewheeling a couple of identical cards from one manufacturer will probably be reasonably successful, but the ideal solution is to invest in a single card that fulfils all your needs. If you want your system to be cheaper now, but still leave scope for future expansion (always a sensible option), you can either buy a system with a core card that offers external expansion possibilities (such as the Ensoniq PARIS, or DAL V8), or one that allows you to sync multiple soundcards together.

Some cards allow you to do this by connecting link cables between them internally (such as Yamaha's DSP Factory and SW1000XG soundcards), or by linking the digital out of the first to the digital in of the next (such as the Event Gina); others, like the Midiman Dman 2044 provide drivers that can run several cards simultaneously, although it is worth checking the claims that are being made, since not all such tandem approaches give sample‑accurate sync.