Whatever version of Windows you're running, the chances are you can streamline it with a few simple tweaks.
All PC users like their machines to run as fast as possible, and musicians are no exception. In general, the number of simultaneous audio tracks you can achieve is dependent on the sustained transfer rate of your hard drive, while the processor's clock speed determines how many simultaneous plug-ins or soft-synth notes you can run in real time, so the best way to make your PC 'go faster' is to buy a new drive or a new processor with a higher MHz rating.
Overclocking might also seem an easy way to give yourself a faster PC, although there can often be repercussions: you'll render any hardware guarantee null and void, and it could also result in instability and even component damage if you don't really know what you're doing. With care and knowledge, overclocking can provide you with a big performance boost, especially if you buy a CPU with a particular 'sweet spot' clock speed, along with a motherboard that has suitable features. However, there are also various other ways to accelerate various aspects of PC performance without breaking any 'rules' or compromising reliability.
At the heart of every PC is a motherboard, and at the heart of every motherboard is a chipset. Since the chipset controls the flow of data to and from key components of the PC, including the CPU, memory, and any devices attached to the PCI buss and IDE channels, its performance is fundamental to the system, so having optimised drivers is important.
Each version of Windows will always include support for a wide variety of motherboard chipsets, but like the default Windows graphics drivers, these drivers are unlikely to be the latest versions available from the original manufacturer. So, while installing Windows on your PC will normally get everything working, there's a good chance that finding the most up-to-date chipset drivers may improve performance. Although there are dozens of different chipsets, there is only a small number of chipset manufacturers, notably AMD, Intel, SiS and VIA, and they have mostly made it comparatively easy to download the latest drivers from the web.
For instance, AMD's Driver Pack will automatically detect your OS and hardware and install or update the proper drivers, while VIA's 'four in one' drivers are the same for all VIA chipsets, and contain IDE Buss Master drivers that will run on Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000 and XP. According to the VIA web site they will provide pre-fetch enhancement, and also add ATA133 support under both Win 2000 and XP. Some musicians have found that soundcard crackles have disappeared after installing them, and VIA also provide an IDE Tool, which is handy for changing your drive mode settings.
Although it's been available in various versions for some time, there still seems to be quite a bit of confusion among musicians about the enticingly but confusingly named Intel Application Accelerator. Many people come across it for the first time on the CD-ROM bundled with a new motherboard, but you can also get it from Intel's web site.
First of all, IAA is only suitable for motherboards featuring various Intel chipsets (more details in a moment), and despite its glamourous name is essentially a set of replacement IDE drivers that improve performance, along with a configuration utility. While any recommendation by a motherboard manufacturer to install specific drivers should normally be heeded, Intel don't have an unblemished record where Buss Master drivers are concerned, as I found back in SOS December 1998. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that some of us are now a little cautious about IAA, but since so many musicians have PCs featuring Intel chipsets, I decided to investigate further on my own machine.
The official description of IAA is that it "reduces the storage subsystem bottleneck, enabling the processor and other system-level hardware to be more productive and efficient", but in more practical terms it provides accelerated disk I/O, pre-fetch optimisation for P4 processors that results in a significantly faster boot time (more on this later), support for drives of 137GB and larger, and automatic selection of the highest DMA transfer mode supported by each of your drives.
It runs on Windows 98, 98SE, ME, NT 4.0 (Service Pack 3 and higher), 2000 and XP, although pre-fetch is only supported under Windows 2000 and XP. It's generally recommended that you install it immediately after installing Windows, and before any specific hardware drivers, although I had no problems doing it later on. It's now up to version 188.8.131.524, and all links on the Intel web site for the various Windows versions of the IAA actually point to the same download file, which is named 'iata_enu.exe'. You can find an up-to-date list of supported chipsets on Intel's web site; essentially, it includes the 810, 815, 820, 840, 845, 850 and 860 series, but excludes the 815EM. This list covers most Pentium III and 4 systems since 1999.
If you're not sure what your motherboard uses, Intel also has a page devoted to various ways of finding out, including the Intel Chipset Identification utility — a simple 104kb download, which runs as a stand-alone application and installs no other files. Even though IAA does have an uninstall option, at this point in the proceedings I'd recommend saving an image file of your WIndows partition before going any further, just in case of any unforseen hiccups.
If your chipset is supported then Win 98, SE, ME and 2000 users should next download and install the Intel Chipset Software Installation utility, which will correctly identify the various chipset components and properly configure your system.
It's not compatible with Windows NT4, and not required under XP. Finally, you can run IAA itself. Once this is installed correctly, Device Manager should show an entry under Hard Disk Controller along the lines 'Intel 82801AA (or BA) Ultra ATA Controller', followed by two entries labelled 'Primary Ultra ATA controller' and 'Secondary Ultra ATA controller'. If you see 'dual fifo' appended to entries two and three the driver is not installed correctly.
And the result of all your efforts? Intel show benchmarks claiming more than 30 percent general improvement, and nearly 60 percent decrease in booting time with a Pentium 4-based PC; I suspect this is partly due to pre-fetch and SSE2 optimisations, so Pentium III owners won't benefit from these. The general consensus seems to be that IAA doesn't offer much of a performance boost with Windows 98, and a few users have reported getting occasional erroneous drive errors that eventually go away. However, it does take the guesswork out of setting up the appropriate DMA Mode for your various drives, since this is now done for you automatically.
It's well worth installing under Windows 2000 and XP, when it can provide noticeable improvements. Not everyone measures any increase in I/O throughput, but most P4 owners experience significant reductions in boot-up time — around 40 percent seems to be common. On my PIII 1GHz Windows XP system, though, it shaved just 6 percent off my booting time, from 50 to 47 seconds, while Dskbench showed no noticeable change in sustained transfer rates.
Like the dual fifo IDE drivers that many musicians may already be using, the IAA ones also let different IDE or ATAPI devices on the same drive cable be independently configured for their optimum transfer rate. The IAA Diagnostic utility is installed along with the drivers, and you can run this to confirm the transfer modes currently being used for each device, as well as manually changing them if you get problems, and any AAM (Auto Acoustic Management) features supported by your drives. It even displays the type of cable (40 or 80 conductor) connected to each drive.
A few final points are worth raising. Under Windows 98 your DMA tick box in Device Manager will disappear, and similarly, XP's Advanced Settings page in the IDE Channel Properties will no longer be there with its current transfer mode display — don't worry about this, since the IAA Diagnostic utility now takes care of these options instead. Also, if you've already got IAA installed on a Windows 98/ME or 2000 system and are about to upgrade to XP, you should uninstall it first, and then reinstall the correct version afterwards. A few people have had compatibility issues with certain CD-RW drives, and occasionally devices disappear from the My Computer window. Also, although there's a Live Update patch available for Norton Utilities 2002, older versions of Norton's Speed Disk are incompatible with IAA, and will throw up error messages. You can download a PDF file containing full details of all reported IAA compatibility issues from Intel.
Overall, Pentium 4 users running Windows 2000 and XP will notice the biggest improvements, while Pentium III users like me will notice a smaller gain, and Windows 98/ME users may not find it worth the hassle, especially if they run an older version of Norton Utilities.
Although IAA can make a big difference to the time it takes to boot up, you can also accelerate this process in other ways (so welcome back to non-Intel chipset users). Some unsuitable BIOS settings can slow the boot process down considerably, as I explained quite recently (see SOS December 2002). Disabling Quick Power On Self Test on my PC added over two tedious minutes to the boot-up time, so make sure you have this set to Enabled. On my PC bypassing the drive Auto detect routines, disabling Boot Up Floppy Seek, and making sure C was the first device in the boot list also made very minor improvements.
Even if slow booting doesn't bother you, it's worth pointing out that it can be an indication of problems initialising some devices, particularly for those with SCSI-based PCs, or of unnecessary searching for non-existent ones — make sure you set the 'Include in BIOS Scan' setting for any SCSI device ID that isn't used in your system to No in the SCSI BIOS, to avoid infuriating extra delays.
On a similar tack, if you have a motherboard that supports RAID then you don't have to use this feature (I'm not convinced it provides any benefits for most musicians), but can normally disable it and still use the extra IDE channels, so that each of your drives gets its own channel without any chance of conflicts with anything else. Depending on your individual drive configuration, this can speed up disk-to-disk transfers of large audio files, but can also have the side effect of significantly reducing boot time.
Beyond the BIOS initialisations, the boot process continues with Windows detecting all the devices (including the CPU, disk drives, and the like), initialising them, loading Windows code and the registry, setting up the page (or swap) file, setting up the appropriate video resolution, and finally loading any remaining Windows code, services and so on.
One obvious way to shave some more time off these processes is to make sure you're not loading anything unnecessarily, such as unwanted devices. If you run a multi-boot system, and don't need a particular device in any boot, then disabling it in the BIOS will shorten both the initial BIOS boot process and the subsequent Windows initialisation, whereas selectively disabling it in different partitions will still speed Windows initialisation by a small amount. These tweaks have another beneficial side-effect, since you regain some interrupts that may prevent IRQ sharing — a bugbear for many musicians.
Windows startup tasks and utilities are the next area to check. You can see what's being run each time you boot by looking in the Startup page of the System Configuration Utility (type msconfig in the Run dialog to launch this), and what tasks are currently running by pressing Ctrl/Alt/Delete. I covered these in Windows 98 in some depth as part of Resource Management in SOS December 2001, and the same rules apply to the more recent Windows XP. Not only do these add slightly to the start time, but many of them continue running behind the scenes and can disturb the real-time performance of your music application, and are therefore well worth rooting out if not absolutely necessary.
Those who have taken the plunge and installed a multi-boot system with a separate streamlined partition for their music applications will be hopping between partitions on a more regular basis, and you can judge to some extent how successful your music streamlining has been by how much faster your music partition boots, particularly when running Windows 98SE. To give you a practical example, after the 16-second BIOS initialisation that my PC takes to reach its Boot Magic menu, my Windows 98 General partition takes 37 seconds to reach the desktop, while my streamlined 98 Music partition takes just 23 seconds. While a difference of 14 seconds isn't going to change anyone's life, it shows how much less is being loaded and initialised, which also means slightly more RAM left for music applications, and less likelihood of conflicts when trying to achieve consistent low-latency performance with real-time audio.
As mentioned earlier, Windows XP and 2000 users can also benefit from various pre-fetch optimisations that will speed up both boot time and application launches. After the BIOS has finished doing its thing, the Windows XP boot loader (the ntldr file you may have noticed in the root folder of your drive) caches file and folder details according to which have been most recently used, with the result that it can apparently be four to five times faster than Windows 2000 in reading the necessary files to start the whole process off. Pre-fetching is then used to read in large chunks of data from the hard drive, some of which won't be required until slightly later on. Then, rather than requesting individual driver files and initialising each device in turn, it not only already has the required code in memory, but also overlaps the initialisation processes where possible, by doing them for several devices in parallel. This reduces both disk seek time and initialisation time.
Exactly the same pre-fetch optimisation is available to boost the launch time of applications. If you want to check whether XP pre-fetching is enabled on your system, run Regedit and take a look at the value of the parameter shown in the screenshot: a value of 0 is disabled, 1 pre-fetches for application launches and 2 for the boot process; 3 is the recommended value, since it does both.
Although I've covered the various aspects in some detail, optimising your bootup process shouldn't take long whatever version of Windows youre running, and only really needs to be done once. On my Windows XP partitions the various tweaks provided a total improvement of 13 seconds, which is well worth having, especially considering how often I switch between them.
Once you're reaching the desktop more quickly, and have the latest and best system drivers for your motherboard chipset, there are still a few fundamental changes that can speed up various aspects of music PC performance. I've discussed the Windows swap file (page file) on many previous occasions, but having plenty of RAM always makes its location less important, and some of us with 512MB or more have now disabled it altogether, particularly under Windows 98 and ME.
There is one other setting that can make a huge difference to music application performance: the location of any temporary files folder. Now that so many applications offer multiple Undo features, this becomes even more important, since changing your mind about an edit may involve the shuffling of some very large files.
Although multitrack audio applications often default to storing all the different audio file versions in the same folder as the originals, to keep things tidy and preserve the Undo options between sessions, most stereo pre-mastering applications like Wavelab and Sound Forge routinely recommend that you create a special folder for temporary files, since this makes it easier to remove any stray files after a mammoth editing session or a crash. You'll need to choose a partition or drive that has plenty of space, since the amount will determine how many stages of Undo are available to you, and it also makes sense to use the fastest drive or partition you have available.
However, if you can choose a different drive from the one used to store your audio files, you can sometimes shave a huge amount off the time it takes to carry out certain operations. Imagine youve just trimmed off the first couple of milliseconds from a huge audio file. Even with nondestructive editing, where you hear the results of all your edits instantly, the final version of the entire file still has to be saved before you exit the application. I tried some quick tests on my system using Sound Forge 6.0, and moving the temporary file to a different drive from the source file improved final save times by 54 percent. Syntrillium even suggest using two temporary folders for Cool Edit Pro, ideally each on a separate drive. Just follow whatever advice is given by your applications help file, and you could make your editing experience far more streamlined.