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Streamlining Your PC Studio

Tips & Tricks By Martin Walker
Published December 2000

If you create a customised template in your sequencer, complete with all your favourite user preferences, Screen Sets, preset instruments and plug‑in effects, you can save yourself a lot of time when starting new songs.If you create a customised template in your sequencer, complete with all your favourite user preferences, Screen Sets, preset instruments and plug‑in effects, you can save yourself a lot of time when starting new songs.

Your PC can be a hugely powerful recording tool — but if it's not set up properly, the number of hoops you have to jump through before you actually get to do any recording can be intimidating. Martin Walker explains how to smooth the path.

Computers offer many advantages for recording and sequencing — a large‑screen editing environment comes top of the list — but they're far from immediate when you have an idea and want to get stuck in. First you wait at least a couple of minutes for your PC to finish booting up and launch your sequencer application. Once the sequencer has finished initialising you will be faced with an opening screen containing a hundred or more menu options, and even once you create a new blank song you will probably have multiple choices for MIDI or audio Ins and Outs, hundreds of possible soft‑synth and plug‑in presets to choose from, locators to set up, the choice of a suitable tempo and the setting up of a suitable metronome click to let you play in time...

You get the idea. By the time recording has actually started, it can be that whatever idea you had has dissipated. However, there are lots of things you can do beforehand to streamline these processes and remove potential frustrations, so that when you do get a good idea you can be up and running quickly and smoothly.

General Maintenance And Housekeeping

A fault‑finding utility like WinDoctor Wizard from Norton Utilities, shown here, can help track down problems and help you to put them right before they cause too many headaches.A fault‑finding utility like WinDoctor Wizard from Norton Utilities, shown here, can help track down problems and help you to put them right before they cause too many headaches.

You can start by making sure your PC isn't suffering from any basic problems, as the last thing you want to happen during a music‑making session is a crash caused by something you could have sorted out in advance. Of the various general purpose fault‑finding utility suites available for the PC, the most widely available is Norton Utilities 2000. I regularly use its WinDoctor section to check my system for a wide range of problems. It scans various parts of the Registry for valid entries, checks that the files referenced there are actually on your hard drive, and then suggests possible solutions by searching for any missing files and shortcuts.

Microsoft's ScanDisk and Norton's Disk Doctor in NU2000 check your hard drives for errors in the Partition Table, Boot Record, File Allocation Table (FAT) and Directory Structure, and will find problems such as cross‑linked files where two files both claim to reference one or more of the same clusters, or lost clusters that are marked 'in use' but aren't claimed by any file in the FAT. Problems like these can happen if you suffer a crash while files are open, and can cause problems unless you deal with them. In fact, it's a good idea to periodically clear out any unwanted files to keep your drives free of unnecessary clutter. This includes the contents of the Recycle Bin, which you can empty permanently by right‑clicking on its desktop icon and choosing the Empty Recycle Bin option. Another candidate for deletion is the contents of the Internet Explorer cache, which stores recently used pages and their graphic images to speed up any subsequent visits to the same pages.

There may well be plenty of other temporary files lurking about — some are left by badly behaved applications that don't clean up after themselves, while others are left behind if your PC crashes. You can find most of these in the Windows\Temp folder, the contents of which can generally be deleted en masse. However, there could be plenty more dotted about on your hard drives, and generally it's easier to use a dedicated utility to weed these out automatically for you. Norton Utilities used to have a very useful one, but this has disappeared in the latest version. Norton's Cleansweep has a useful Fast and Safe Cleanup option that deals with temporary files, the Internet browser cache, and the Recycle Bin, and Windows 98 has a Disk Cleanup utility that performs the same function. Far more comprehensive is the freeware EasyCleaner by Toni Helenius. This looks for a much wider range of temporary files, and in every folder on your hard drives, as well as finding duplicate files and redundant entries in your Registry. You can download it from

Talking of the Registry, it's well worth using Microsoft's own RegCleaner to clear out unwanted or corrupted entries. I discussed its use in PC Notes April 2000, and you can find it at Periodically I also use Norton's Optimisation Wizard, which can configure your swap file for optimal performance and optimise the Registry by looking for deleted entries and then packing the data more efficiently. This can make for an appreciable reduction in the overall size of your Registry. Always make sure that you back up the Registry before you make any changes to it so that you can restore the old one in case you get any problems.

I also use Microsoft's System File Checker (part of the excellent System Information utility supplied with Windows 98) about once a month to see whether any of my system files have changed. This may happen during a new program installation, but normally only newer version numbers get installed. If System File Checker finds an older version of any file than when last run I do tend to try to track down which application changed it, although this can be tricky unless you use an installation monitor like Cleansweep.

Once your PC is running smoothly after any faults have been dealt with, temporary files deleted, and Registry optimised, you should defragment your hard drives to make sure that you're getting the fastest performance from them. I do this about once a week using Norton's SpeedDisk, but you can also use Microsoft's own Disk Defragmenter, although it's very much slower.

Finally, it's worth periodically visiting the web sites of your expansion card manufacturers to see if there have been any newer drivers posted for your soundcard or graphics card. In nearly all cases using the newest version will give you better performance or extra features, and will therefore be well worth installing, although in a tiny number of cases the new drivers might cause a conflict with something else in your PC.

Smoothly Does It

Think how much time you would save choosing your sounds from a menu like this, rather than wading through bank and program change numbers, or peering into a tiny synth display.Think how much time you would save choosing your sounds from a menu like this, rather than wading through bank and program change numbers, or peering into a tiny synth display.

Once you know that your PC is performing reliably, has no hidden problems up its sleeve, and is running the latest version of your cards' drivers, you can start optimising your music applications as well, to get the most from your particular hardware. First of all, make sure that you follow the general advice I gave in SOS July 2000 about setting up Windows for audio applications, and checking that your MIDI and audio devices are working correctly. Then carefully read any relevant sections of your MIDI + Audio sequencer manual for advice on getting the best performance. Once again, I've covered many of the points in great detail in previous PC Musician features (see Further Reading box for more details). Particularly important is making sure that your hard drives are bus Master DMA enabled, as this will not only make a significant difference to the maximum number of simultaneous audio tracks you can manage, but also release a massive chunk of processor power for plug‑in effects or VST Instruments that would otherwise be consumed in the disk reading process.

Also important are the correct settings for soundcard buffer size, since these determine the trade‑off between latency and smooth performance. The value you choose will depend on the make and model of soundcard, as well as on the speed of the remainder of your PC, and is best adjusted by playing back a song with a typical number of tracks, effect plug‑ins, and soft synths, and listening to the audio quality. As you reduce the size of the buffers the latency will reduce in proportion, but eventually you will hit a value where the audio starts to stutter and glitch. This means that your system can no longer move the data about reliably without larger buffers to cushion it, and you should then increase buffer size by one notch for your optimum smooth performance setting.

Environmental Issues

If you create a set of folders, one for each plug‑in effect and VST Instrument, you'll be able to find specific presets and sounds far more quickly without getting confused.If you create a set of folders, one for each plug‑in effect and VST Instrument, you'll be able to find specific presets and sounds far more quickly without getting confused.

Once your PC, soundcard, MIDI + Audio application, and soft synths are all running smoothly together, giving you a stable and reliable computer environment, it's time to add the finishing touches that streamline this and make it quicker and easier to use on a daily basis. Many musicians find the quickest way to start a new song is to load in another that they've been working on, delete all the Parts contained in its tracks, and then use this as a template. This avoids all the rigmarole of choosing the number of audio tracks, assigning different MIDI tracks to various external synths, assigning basic effect plug‑ins and so on. However, to speed things up even more you can create a blank template that's always ready for instant use, with all your normal settings pre‑wired.

This is essentially what the Logic sequencer range creates with its Environment, by making you specify a sort of virtual patchbay that lets you deal direct with your MIDI synths by name, rather than having to remember which MIDI interface and channel they are connected to. Although it takes some effort to set this up in the first place, and is often bewildering to new users, the end result is the removal of a complete layer of technicality that interferes with the creative thought process. Similar approaches can be used to streamline any MIDI + Audio sequencer — in Cakewalk you can use the Assign Instruments function in the Options menu, and in Cubase you can click directly on the Instrument box in the Inspector and choose the Setup Instruments option.

Your template can be extended in various other time‑saving ways. For instance, one of the beauties of a hardware‑based studio with a real mixer and rackmount effects is that you can start your sessions with all Aux 1 sends pre‑wired to a reverb for global use, and perhaps Aux 2 routed to another commonly used effect such as chorus. With a complex setup you'd probably have a patchbay as well, but once again this is likely to have sensible default settings to save you time and patch cords.

Similar reverb/chorus effect buss routing is often provided on soundcards with built‑in synths, especially those with General MIDI soundsets, but since there are some effects, such as reverb and chorus, that are nearly always useful when available on a global basis, why not save your default sequencer song file with suitable VST or DirectX plug‑ins already pre‑wired in the same way? As long as you leave their 'power switches' deactivated in the software effect rack they won't take any processing power until you actually need them.

Other parameters that are well worth saving in advance are Logic screensets and Cubase Window Sets, which allow you to instantly recall a particular arrangement of multiple windows, neatly lined up for specific requirements such as editing, arrangement, mastering, and so on. Choosing a standard set of colours for different parts such as bass, lead, pads, guitars, and vocals can also make it far easier to take in arrangements at a glance.

When you have a little time to spare, why not also peruse the many user preferences available in your sequencer — adjusting these to your taste from their default settings can make a noticeable difference to how smoothly the application works for you. Many sequencers also let you define your own keyboard shortcuts to carry out different tasks, or create a toolbar with a set of user‑definable icons for your favourite functions. All of these can make using your sequencer a more pleasurable experience.

The Naming Of Patches

With your sequencer customised to your specific requirements, and your MIDI instruments predefined, the next step is to make their patch names available as well. Many people end up twisting and bending to peer into tiny synth display windows and repeatedly stabbing ± keys to scroll through hundreds of sounds to find the one they want. However, on a computer screen it's easy to display an entire bank of sounds by name, which makes it possible to select a particular patch at a glance. This makes finding and choosing sounds a doddle, so that you can get on with the more important task of playing the music. It also makes it far easier to try lots of alternative sounds in context while your song is playing back.

Some people rely on dedicated universal synth librarians like Unisyn and MIDI Quest to help them catalogue their patch collections: most such utilities also have extensive sound‑editing facilities to help you create new ones. However, launching a stand‑alone editor or librarian will complicate your setup — unless your MIDI Ins and Outs have multi‑client support you'll need to install and configure a utility such as Hubi's Loopback (I covered this aspect in some detail in SOS November '99). In addition, unless your configuration sends the bank and program change data from your librarian to your sequencer, it won't know what sounds you've chosen.

Unless you really do need comprehensive editing facilities, a far more elegant solution now provided in most sequencers is patch naming. In Cakewalk you can use the Assign Instruments window to Define new instruments, and the easiest way to do this is using the Import button to load in one of the many ready‑made definitions available, either from the CD‑ROM or downloaded from the Cakewalk web site. For instance, the Roland.ins file on the CD‑ROM contains details of many Roland products, from standards like the JV1080 through to more unusual models like the Boss SE50 and SE70 multi‑effects modules — you simply click on any that you want to import, and then link them to the appropriate MIDI output and channel(s). Then when you right‑click on a MIDI track and select Track Properties you can choose an instrument, and then open its Patch Browser window to directly choose sounds sorted by name, bank, or patch number.

Similarly, in Logic you can add patch names to any of your instruments in the Environment, by double‑clicking on them to launch their Instrument Window. Here you can type in all the names by hand (tedious) or use cut and paste commands to transfer them into the correct banks from a preset environment or text file. Up to 15 banks of up to 128 program names are available, and if you can't find the patch names for any of your instruments on the Emagic CD‑ROM there are quite a few ready to use ones courtesy of the Logic Users' Group at

Cubase's Studio Module, which has been a part of the program for some time, lets you load and save SysEx dumps to each of your synths as well as choosing patches by name. However, it can take a fair amount of setting up to get the SysEx dumps running smoothly. The beauty of the new Instrument system in Cubase 5.0 is that there are several possible sources of patch names: you can get them from a previously set up Studio Module, direct from a SoundFont or VST Instrument, or from a Patchname script. Scripts contain patch names as specially formatted text strings, and lots of them are supplied on the CD‑ROM for different instruments.

VST Instruments And Presets

No doubt you'll soon find yourself with loads of presets for plug‑in effects and VST Instruments as well, and unless you organise them it may take ages to find the one that you're after. Often the problem here isn't having to wade through hundreds of patches on a few effects units, but that of wading through hundreds of different plug‑in effects and VST Instruments, each with a few banks. If you've got six reverb plug‑ins, a file named 'reverbs02.bnk' could belong to any one of them, and without some organisation you'll end up loading in things at random to see if they belong. This shouldn't cause any harm, but it'll certainly waste time that could be better spent composing. I've also noticed that many musicians grumble that their DirectX plug‑ins get scattered to the four corners of their hard drive, which can make locating their presets extremely tedious.

My solution to the twin problems of easily finding MIDI synth banks and software presets is to create two folders on my hard drive named 'SysEx Banks' and 'Plug‑in Presets'. The first contains further folders for each of my hardware synths and rack effects; within these I have yet more folders with names like Factory (for the original sounds shipped with the synth), Untested, and Favourites. The Plug‑In Presets folder contains separate folders for each VST Instrument and plug‑in effect (see screenshot), such as Model E, Trueverb, and Choirus, and each of these contains individual patches and banks, including the default bank.

The beauty of this scheme is that when you click on a Load Bank button inside your sequencer, all your sounds are in one organised region, so it's easy to find any file within several seconds. Moving all your preset files into this one pair of folders also has the huge advantage of making it quicker and easier to back them up en masse.

Further Reading

If you want to find more on specific aspects of streamlining your PC, I've already covered many relevant topics in greater depth in SOS. As well as being available in back issues from SOS Mail Order (+44 (0)1954 789888), you can also find these articles on the SOS web site at" target="_blank.

  • Improving Cubase VST timing (June 1998).
  • PC Notes: MME, ASIO, and DirectSound drivers (December 1998).
  • Windows tweaks (January 1999).
  • Setting up multiple soundcards (February 1999).
  • Latency (April 1999).
  • Connecting audio and MIDI signals inside PC music software (May 1999).
  • Reducing unwanted background noise in the studio (January 2000).
  • Improving specific musical aspects of PC performance (February 2000).
  • Installing & setting up new PC hardware (March 2000).
  • Getting started with Windows 95/98 music applications (July 2000).
  • Splitting your PC data across multiple drives and partitions (August 2000).

Background Noise

Even when you've got your PC running perfectly, the amount of physical noise its activity puts out can be hugely distracting. Back in SOS January 2000 I covered many ways to minimise computer fan noise, hard drive whines, and even transformer buzzes, as well as the removal of physical vibrations with self‑adhesive damping pads.

Optimising Soundcards & Soft Synths

Despite recent advances in integration, some of the most interesting soft synths and soft samplers — such as Gigasampler and Gigastudio from Nemesys, Reality from Seer Systems, Tassman from AAS, and VAZ Modular — still need to be run as stand‑alone applications alongside your MIDI + Audio sequencer. This causes plenty of frustration, and can not only seriously hamper your music making, but waste an awful lot of time and energy in the process.

By far the easiest solution is to buy a second soundcard you can dedicate to such soft synths, since then you bypass any possible conflicts when attempting to allocate two applications to a single soundcard. Given the right choice of soundcard and a powerful enough PC, however, the most elegant solution is to use a single soundcard with multiple outputs, and dedicate some stereo pairs to audio track playback, and others to running one or more soft synths and soft samplers. The secret is to do your homework — some soundcards are far more suitable than others — and here a visit to the relevant web sites can reap dividends. Some soundcard manufacturers seem more interested in supporting products like Gigasampler than others, so if, as on the Echo site for instance, you find detailed instructions on how to get Echo soundcards working with Gigasampler, Reality, and Reaktor, alongside other applications like Cubase VST, then you know you're on safe ground.

If there's no mention of them you'll have to turn to the soft synth web sites, which may have compatibility information (Nemesys now maintain an extensive list of soundcards compatible with their products, for instance), or visit forums dedicated to the specific model of soft synth — most have at least one, and this will be regularly frequented by lots of knowledgeable users who should be able to tell you whether your particular hardware configuration might cause problems.

I can't give a definitive list of possible problems, since there are just too many soundcards, soft synths, and sequencers involved, but I can offer a few guidelines. First, if you're using a stand‑alone soft synth or soft sampler, nearly all soundcards will insist that every applications runs at the same sample rate. It's nearly always safer to launch the soft synth before the sequencer, and essential in the case of applications like Gigasampler. You will also have to spend a little time finding out what driver options are available for your choice of soundcard and software. For instance, Cubase always grabs channels 1 and 2 of any soundcard it sees, so you will have to avoid these for stand‑alone soft synths running simultaneously. As an example, I've just incorporated Gigastudio 160 into my studio, and have allocated channels 7 and 8 of my Echo Gina soundcard to it, and been able to successfully devote the remaining six channels to Cubase VST. Fortunately, the Gina still lets me use ASIO drivers in VST while running Gigastudio, as long as I don't enable channels 7 and 8. This isn't always the case, and other soundcards may force you to resort to the ASIO Multimedia drivers in VST, disable the relevant channels using ASIO Multimedia Setup, and suffer much larger latency figures. So, if you're about to buy a new piece of gear, or want to make the most of your existing setup, do a little research first to see what the manufacturers recommend and how other musicians have got on.