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Creating Multiple Booting PC Environments

Tips & Tricks By Martin Walker
Published May 1998

One quick way to have two virtual PCs is to use two drives and a swappable drive bay, just like Fostex do on their D160 hard disk recorder, shown here.One quick way to have two virtual PCs is to use two drives and a swappable drive bay, just like Fostex do on their D160 hard disk recorder, shown here.

Music and games software doesn't normally tend to mix very well on the same PC. Martin Walker tries out a selection of ways to achieve harmony.

Various readers have either written to or emailed SOS over the last few months with suggestions as to what I can do with my PC. Fortunately, these were all helpful rather than malicious, and related to a common problem — how to run all those games and other tasty programs without slowing your music applications down to a crawl. There have been many mentions in SOS of the benefits of keeping your computer free of games if you want to get the best results when running music software, and this applies to Macs as well as PCs. However, many people do want to run games on their machines, as well as trying out the shareware and freebie programs that fall off most computer magazines nowadays.

If you want to do this, and have plenty of money, the easiest thing is to buy a second machine exclusively for music use, only ever install music software, and sit back with the satisfaction of knowing that your sleek machine probably goes significantly faster than the bloated test‑bed of your games machine next door. However, most people don't have this luxury.

An alternative approach, and one that SOS Mac columnist Martin Russ is very keen on, is to keep your older machine when you upgrade to a more powerful computer, and use it for running utility software. This is a great idea, considering that second‑hand computers have a relatively low resale value. I used to use my Atari 1040STF for sorting out MIDI problems, since it made looking at signals coming from my PC quite easy. Unfortunately, other considerations eventually demanded that I found it another home, since booting it up once every few months didn't really justify the space it took up in my studio. Moreover, using two PCs in this way isn't normally a viable option either, as games playing needs as powerful a PC as hard disk recording (but with rather a different bias).

The cheapest and most space‑efficient solution is to look at ways of giving your current PC a Jekyll and Hyde character, so that it can be two machines in one. When you want to play games, you have one configuration, and when the muse takes you, you boot up into a different, stripped‑down, environment that gives you the maximum performance possible. Ironically, the fastest games machine will probably benefit from being stripped down as well, but many games still run from DOS, and can therefore take over the machine completely, which they can't do when running in Windows 95, and this demands a different approach.

Plug In And Play?

Partition Magic, shown here in the earlier version, allows you to add, change or move disk partitions without having to re‑install anything.Partition Magic, shown here in the earlier version, allows you to add, change or move disk partitions without having to re‑install anything.

One of the easiest ways to get two computers from one is simply to buy a second hard drive. I've known people to use two standard EIDE drives and simply swap the data and power connectors from one drive to the other before switching on their PC. Both drives have Windows 95 installed, but one holds only music software (and plenty of spare recording space), while the other has all the bloat‑ware, including games and cover‑mounted freebies. The beauty of this approach is that if you fancy a quick look at a demo, or are tempted to install yet another game, you're not left paranoid at the possibility of ruining the carefully honed performance of your MIDI + Audio sequencer.

For occasional use, this approach would certainly work well, and the November '97 Crosstalk included a letter from Russ Hurley, who employs this technique for emergency backup. Using the Drive Copy utility program (which I first mentioned in the September '97 SOS), he suggests copying your entire drive to an identical second one, then working with this until something gets corrupted. If this happens, there's no need to panic, as you just retrieve your old drive and plug it in to carry on regardless. Mind you, while this idea would get you out of a hole, you'd probably get better performance from your music software by using the two drives to keep two separate sets of contents, and you would be less likely to get a mangled music hard drive in the first place. It would also be sensible to use an additional third hard drive for data only, as otherwise you would lose any files that had been changed or added since the last time you had to swap.

A Biosed Approach

Creating Multiple Booting PC Environments

One problem is that EIDE hard drive connectors are just not designed for repeated unplugging, and you may eventually damage something. Also, although you should have no problems swapping two identical models, if they're different you will have to change the appropriate BIOS entry when you next boot up the PC. You also need to keep removing the PC casing to get at the connections. An alternative for some people was passed on to me recently by Craig Anderton, who uses it himself when reviewing software. Apparently the newer Award BIOS (Basic Input Output System) versions have an option to boot not only from the A: (floppy) or C: (main hard drive), but also from any IDE hard drives designated D:, E:, or F:, or a SCSI or CD‑ROM drive. All you need to do is to enter the BIOS during the boot‑up procedure (normally by pressing the Del key) and then choose a different order of booting. In this way you can use several drives, each containing a version of Windows 95 (or other operating system).

Sadly, my version of the Award BIOS (4.51PG) doesn't allow this. Although it is possible to upgrade a BIOS in flash ROM, I would advise you to be extremely careful if attempting this, since any mistakes made during the upgrade may leave your PC needing surgery.

Docking Procedure

Creating Multiple Booting PC Environments

A far more universal option if you want to try the two‑drive approach is to find a source of plug‑in hard drive housings. These accommodate any standard 3.5‑inch hard drive, and come in two parts. The base unit fits into a 5.25‑inch drive bay in your PC (exactly the same as a CD‑ROM drive), and you attach the inner data and power cables from your machine to it. The other half holds the drive itself, and plugs into the base unit using a special edge connector. The removable part normally also features a handle, to make docking easier, and often also has a locking key that ensures that the drive is fully home before power can be applied to it.

You buy the two parts as a single unit, and these cost about £25 + VAT for the pair. One thing to watch out for is that although they can be bought from many suppliers, cartridges from different manufacturers are unlikely to dock with base units from others. So if you want to plug several different drives into the same PC, you'll need to buy several drive bay pairs at the same time — for instance, to plug in two alternative drives, you buy two bays with two base units, but only use one of the base units. When you order, make sure that you specify IDE/EIDE or SCSI, and in the case of SCSI you will need to specify either 50‑way connectors to suit SCSI‑2 drives, or 68‑way for fast/wide devices. They are variously called Removable Drive Bays, Drive Racks, or even Docking Ports — I phoned around a selection of PC suppliers, and have given details of a couple that sell these in the Info section. You will have to handle the drives carefully when they're out of the PC, as there are no shock‑mounting components in the bays to cushion the drive.

Although some people say you can 'hot swap' drives (with the power on), in many cases you're likely to have a disaster if you attempt to remove or install any drive before powering down, unless the bay and drive are specifically designed for this. True hot‑swappable drive bays are only likely to be for storage use anyway, since your main drive will be holding the current swapfile, temporary files, and other such transitory data, and you simply cannot remove the drive and expect Windows 95 to carry on without falling over.

If many applications get loaded every time you boot up, less memory is available for other things, and more load is placed on the processor.

Quick And Mix

The docking technique is also ideal for people who need quick‑change facilities for data drives when swapping between projects, or for use with any multiple‑user system. If someone wants to have a quick half an hour's editing to tidy up a mix that was supposedly finished last week, the thought of backing up your entire drive and restoring the contents of another one won't appeal at all. But powering down, swapping to the data drive that was in use last week, and then powering up again only takes a minute or two.

Although for many project studios a 1Gb Jaz drive performs the same task, with proper removable cartridges, the advantage of the docking bay approach is that you can use a selection of drive sizes. If a particular project needs the capacity of the latest 11Gb drive, just buy one of those, and carry on using a selection of other smaller drives for other projects. Using removable drives gives you the added security of being able to remove your work at the end of each working day, so that it doesn't get accidentally trashed when a cleaner unplugs the PC to use the vacuum cleaner. Don't get too complacent about this extra security, though — remember that this is not supposed to be a substitute for backing up your audio data.

Hiding The Evidence

Although plug‑in drives each containing a different PC environment may suit some people, the plug‑in approach is likely to be far more useful for audio storage purposes. The best, and ironically the cheapest approach to the split‑personality PC is to use a clever property of the latest partitioning software.

All drives can be formatted in one huge chunk that normally ends up as drive C:, but you can instead split them into several 'partitions', each of which is recognised by the operating system as a separate logical drive with an identifier such as C:, D: or E:. There are several reasons for doing this: for audio use, keeping an entirely separate area for hard disk recording is likely to give better performance and, using the older FAT16 storage method used by the earlier version of Windows 95, it can also make more efficient use of the hard drive space (see the September '97 SOS for a full explanation of this).

I've talked about partitioning on various occasions, primarily as a means of dividing up the storage of a single large drive, so that Windows 95 and your application software are kept separate from audio files. However, it's also possible to create 'hidden' partitions, that cannot be seen by the partition which is running Windows 95. You might think that not being able to see some of your hard drive is just wasting space, but it's possible to install another operating system into these hidden partitions and, using a special utility program at the time of booting, hide the partition holding Windows 95 and show the one containing the other operating system.

This makes it possible to have (for instance) both Windows 95 and Windows NT installed on the same PC. If you attempted to install them both in the same partition everything would get screwed up, but having each in its own partition, hidden from the other, gives the option of booting your PC into either a Windows 95 or NT environment every time you switch on. It's possible to have up to four partitions on a single hard drive, each occupied by a different operating system. And as long as you keep your data in yet another partition, it can be seen by whichever operating system is running. Readers may remember Martin Russ working with multiple operating systems a month or two back, in the Apple Notes column, using BeOS so that he could run the Audio Elements application on his Mac.

A Helping Hand

Of course, this selection of operating systems is great for technical support people who need to rapidly change their OS, or developers checking compatibility of their programs across various platforms, but I suspect that, given the option, many of us would have installed Windows 95 in a separate partition, keeping our Windows 3.1 installation intact, if only until we had received updates for all our existing applications, to overcome any Windows 95 bugs.

The hidden partition option is especially useful for musicians, as it allows us to install a second version of Windows 95 on another place on our hard drive. Suddenly, there's the option of booting into the sleek, lean Windows 95 for music, or the Windows 95 for games — all on the same drive!

Doing something like this would be a nightmare if you had to reformat your hard drives and install everything again from scratch, but regular readers will already know of the famous Partition Magic utility (reviewed in the April 1997 SOS), which allows you to add, change or move partitions without having to re‑install anything, leaving any existing data untouched. The latest version of Partition Magic (3.04) also provides the Boot Manager utility (originally from IBM), to select between multiple operating systems. Unfortunately Boot Manager can be rather convoluted in operation, and also needs to be installed in its own new partition. However, anyone who has already bought Partition Magic has this free of charge, and full details are provided in the manual.

Staying In Command

When I mentioned to several people that I was covering multiple booting of operating systems, the unanimous recommendation was to look at System Commander, written by V Communications, and distributed in this country by Koch Media. There are two versions of the program: the basic System Commander performs all the basic operations, including menu‑driven multiple OS support, while the Deluxe version also has the OS Wizard, which suggests the best configuration for your system if you want to add an additional OS, and creates and resizes partitions (with no risk to your existing data, just like Partition Magic).

I had a look at System Commander Deluxe, which comes on two floppy disks, along with a very helpful manual which gives lots of information about partitions and multiple operating systems. Since this software alters some pretty fundamental aspects of your hard disk, an uninstall option is also provided, so that you can return your system to exactly the same state as before, if you wish.

System Commander installs either from DOS or while running Windows 95 (or other OS). A full backup of selected system files is copied from your PC onto the System Commander floppy disk, and this ensures that the uninstall option is thorough. After installation, I performed a warm boot and found that I couldn't re‑enter Windows 95 from the selection screen. I switched my PC off, and after donning my specially reinforced brown trousers (in case of accidents), I switched on again. This time, choosing Windows 95 from the boot selection options worked faultlessly. Now it was time to think about adding a second operating system.

I decided to try adding Windows 95 OSR2 (the latest version with the FAT32 option), so that I had two installs of Windows 95 on my machine, and this gave me the opportunity to try out the OS Wizard option. After performing various tests on my system, the OS Wizard created a new partition and re‑booted the PC into this partition, ready to run the Setup.exe file on the Windows 95 CD‑ROM — simplicity itself. Personally, I prefer to know what is going on, and used Partition Magic to see how my hard drive had been altered.

The Wizard had actually made some very sensible decisions, and my previous 1Gb Windows 95 C: partition, and 1.5Gb D: data partition had been changed as follows: the C: partition was left alone and the D: reduced in size to about 1Gb, leaving enough space for a new 500Mb E: partition to be created for the new operating system. When this new E: partition was selected via System Commander during boot‑up, it was renamed as C: (so that it became the boot partition), with the other OS partition then appearing as E:. You can also hide selected partitions from any OS, since trying to run applications installed in a non‑boot partition will normally cause problems — you need to install applications again in the new partition to access them.

This probably sounds a bit confusing, but in normal operation you simply get a choice of two C: drives, each containing a different operating system and set of applications.

All in all, System Commander performed transparently, and the OS Wizard made installing the second OS quite painless. I'd certainly recommend opting for the Deluxe version, to use the Wizard, unless you're already happy creating and re‑sizing partitions using Partition Magic or an equivalent utility.


To my mind, the easiest way to have a two‑boot machine is by using two hard drives and one of the latest BIOS upgrades. You get all the advantages of two separate environments, but with the advantage that you can carry on even if one drive gets completely trashed. Multiple boot programs such as System Commander and Boot Manager are also a good solution, especially if you have a single huge drive and want to run Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows NT on the same machine. The choice is yours. I shall certainly be using a multiple boot to add Windows 98 to my PC when the time comes, so that I can retain Windows 95 in that dreadful interim period while software developers frantically write patches so that their applications work properly with the new operating system.

The Slow Boot

Many people think that the reason their PCs boot up quickly when first purchased, and take longer and longer to get as far as the desktop over the years, is solely due to the bloating effect of software. In fact, boot‑up time is more likely to be dependent on hardware than software. Many hardware items, such as CD‑ROM drives and SCSI devices, are initialised during the boot‑up procedure, and this can sometimes take several seconds in each case. In fact, some SCSI controller cards can stall for 30 seconds or more if you have no SCSI devices plugged into them, because they just keep trying to find something until they time out. If a new PC reaches the desktop in a few seconds, this is probably not because it's super‑powerful, but because it doesn't have much hardware and software installed yet.

Drive Image

Once you start considering the use of multiple drives or multiple partitions, it becomes even more important to have a full backup of the information on your drive, just in case of any unforeseen disaster. I mentioned Powerquest's Drive Copy utility back in the September 1997 issue of SOS, and this is ideal for copying the contents of an entire internal drive to another internal one inside the same PC, to make things easier when upgrading to a new, faster or bigger hard drive. At a street price of about £29, this is the perfect way to move between two drives, but it's not really designed for regular backups. For this, Powerquest's Drive Image is the one to go for, since it can copy individual partitions or the whole drive, and both create and restore hard drive image files. It uses its own intelligent SmartSector technology to copy only used sectors on the drive, which speeds up the backup process by a claimed two to three times, and saves space. It supports partitions of Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT, DOS, and even more unusual ones such as OS/2. Probably more important for musicians, it allows you to span image files across multiple Jaz, Zip, or Syquest cartridges, so that you can save the entire contents of a large drive onto several pieces of removable media. If the worst happens and your operating system won't boot up at all, you can restore the most recent backup simply by downloading the appropriate image file.

Drive Image is a DOS‑based utility that can be run from your hard drive in DOS, or from a floppy disk after booting into DOS. It has to do this because Windows 95 and Windows NT have open files when they are running — it's only possible to save an accurate image when the hard drive is completely inactive, and then you get an exact copy. Running from a DOS floppy disk also means that even if your hard drive has been completely corrupted, you should still be able to restore a previously saved image file.

During installation of the software, you get the option of sending it to the hard drive, and/or floppy disk. Since the software needs to run from DOS anyway, I found it easier to put onto floppy, since you can then boot up using a Windows 95 Startup Disk (preparation of which I discussed in the September '97 issue) and then insert the new floppy to run Drive Image. The software is simplicity itself to use, and gives you the option of compressing the disk image at one of three levels (the more compression, the longer the image takes to create — the Low level gives approximately a 2:1 compression ratio). If the software detects that you're saving your image to a removable drive, it enables a media spanning feature so that you can save it across several disks.

The Restore Image procedure is just as simple, and you can restore to a different drive, although it only makes sense to so this on the same computer, since the Registry information contained within the image file holds all the details of the motherboard and other hardware of your PC. You can also use Disk To Disk Copy, which effectively performs the same function as the Drive Copy software. An additional utility program called MagicMover allows you to move applications from one partition to another.

Why Does The PC Slow Down?

Software, and in particular games, tends to slow down your PC for many reasons, but they all boil down to memory usage and processor overhead. The more memory your sequencer has available, the better its performance is likely to be, and with 16Mb of RAM you'll really be struggling, since Windows 95 itself will grab most of this for its own use. With 32Mb you'll probably find that Windows still takes a sizeable proportion (see diagram), but at least a typical application will probably run without using virtual memory.

Many games still need to run from DOS, and unless anything has changed since I last had games on my PC, many of them need drivers running for soundcards, CD‑ROM support, and other special features; you often find extra entries in your AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files to accomplish this. The problem is that Windows 95 rarely needs these two files at all, so you tend to have drivers permanently loaded into your memory that have no function at all when running Windows programs, or even worse, you're still running DOS drivers inside Windows 95, when the Windows equivalents would perform better. Your processor also has a finite power, and if many applications get loaded every time you boot up, less memory is available for other things, and more load is placed on the processor. Thankfully, most background utilities take little processor overhead when inactive, but it still can add up.

However, the worst effect of the games and freebie syndrome is not the individual programs themselves, but the fact that programs tend to be installed on your PC in an indiscriminate fashion. Over the months and years, bits and pieces are left behind on your system as the must‑have titles become the must‑delete titles. It becomes more and more difficult to delete anything, just in case it still needs to be used by some obscure program, and your PC begins to resemble a scrapyard. It's hardly surprising that under these conditions your machine won't give peak performance.

Fancy Or Fast?

Once you have two installations, each can be optimised in different ways, to suit the main application. For your fancy all‑singing, all‑dancing boot you may want to reinstate various options that are removed to make your sequencer go faster. Here is a short list of tweaks that will help your music applications, and which you can totally ignore on your other installation.

  • If you have a fancy graphic background on your desktop, every time a window is opened or closed, the portions of this that still show must be re‑plotted, which slows down screen redraws. Use no background patterns or wallpaper in your music boot.
  • Avoid screen‑savers (which may kick in during long recording or CD‑burning sessions).
  • As we saw last month, graphic card drivers now have optimisations that may cause clicks in audio applications, and these will need turning off.
  • Any items in your StartUp Menu that are not required for music may be stripped out, giving a bit more memory for your MIDI + Audio sequencer.

Prices & Contacts



Partition Magic 3.0 around £43; Drive Image around £43; DriveCopy around £29.


System Commander around £40; System Commander Deluxe around £50.‑

All prices include VAT.