Martin Walker advises manual dexterity, speeds up his Internet experience, and finds yet more tweaks for Windows.
This is the first PC Notes column of the new millennium, and to get it off to a useful start I'd like to restate that oft‑quoted advice 'RTFM' (Read the F***ing Manual). One fact that's being missed by a surprising number of people is that if you have an electronic manual in PDF format, as so often occurs these days, you can take advantage of its 'Find' function. As a case in point, a reader recently emailed me to ask where to find the Inspector in Cubase VST. It took me around 30 seconds to launch its PDF manual, enter 'Inspector' in the Find function, and reply that he could find an entire chapter devoted to 'The Track Columns and the Inspector' starting on page 132.
More serious problems can occur when users blindly install and attempt to run new PC software and hardware without even a cursory glance at its documentation, and only resort to browsing through it if they experience problems (and sometimes not even then!). Over the last couple of years I've noticed users becoming increasingly eager to blame major software applications for their hiccups and crashes, when they're often caused by something completely different. For instance, VST for Windows is regularly blamed for crashes that turn out to be due either to soundcard drivers or to corrupted plug‑ins.
While there are acknowledged bugs with some major pieces of software, it's easy for witch‑hunting to get out of hand. This month I came across such a scenario on various user forums. On one, a well‑known software sampler was slated for being badly written and causing numerous crashes. After some gentle probing by other forum users, it turned out that the new user who was making the allegations had blindly installed and run his new software without reading the documentation at all, and had therefore not seen specific instructions in the manual to change several settings of his particular soundcard drivers. A couple of mouse‑clicks later he was in business, full of apologies for his previous vitriolic outburst, and suitably humbled. So, although some say "if all else fails, RFTM", you might avoid more potential problems if you make the manual your first resort rather than your last.
I bought my USR Sportster Flash modem at the time when there were two rival 56kbps technologies battling it out in the marketplace. X2 was available with 3COM/USR products, and K56flex from Rockwell. Both were capable of 56kbps download speeds, but initially some Internet Service Providers supported X2 and others K56flex, and if you wanted to take advantage of the higher download speeds you had to be careful (for a time at least) that your ISP and modem used the same one, since otherwise your download speed would never increase beyond 33.6kbps.
Despite the 56kbps stated top limit of both technologies, few people ever managed such speeds in practice, since speed largely depends on the quality of the telephone line, as well as any overriding regional restrictions (for instance, the FCC apparently limits the top speed to 53kbps on the US telephone network). Most people, therefore, found that the fastest they managed tended to be somewhere between 40kbps and 53kbps.
Eventually an international standard, V.90, was hammered out and people who, like me, bought in the uncertain period before the finalisation of V.90 were promised a free firmware update for their modem. However, since my ISP still supported the X2 standard, I didn't bother to investigate the update until recently. After all, the three 56k standards have the same top speed, and as I was already regularly getting a connect speed of 46666bps, there seemed little point. I also scoured web sites for further information on possible differences in performance between the three standards, but found nothing.
Having recently downloaded the official V.90 flash update for my modem, I was therefore rather pleased to discover that most of my subsequent log‑ons had a connection speed of 52000bps — an increase of over 11 percent! If any of you are in a similar position, it seems well worth exploring V.90 upgrade options, as when line quality is high you could achieve a reduction in your phone bill. Incidentally, if you can get a connection speed of 52000bps, that means a top download speed of 6500 bytes per second (since there are eight bits in a byte). This equates to 381Kb per minute, or a megabyte every two minutes and 41 seconds. At this rate you could download most application updates in under 15 minutes! Sadly, such download rates are rarely maintained.
Many of you will have used the excellent TweakUI utility that Microsoft provide for easy customisation of Windows, allowing you to disable processor power‑guzzling features such as the Active Desktop and various unwanted graphic animations, for example. These and many other changes can also be made by directly editing the Registry, but since it is quite easy to make a mistake while doing this and end up with a PC that won't boot up at all, it makes a lot more sense to use a utility to perform the changes automatically.
For those of you who want to take your tweaking to further heights, there's the wonderful freeware Xteq X‑Setup (a 2.4Mb download from www.xteq.com). In essence, X‑Setup is just a more comprehensive version of TweakUI, but with two different modes of operation. The default is Plug‑in mode, where you navigate through the tweak selections exactly as in Windows Explorer, with a set of nested folders in the left‑hand pane of the single window display. Once you click on a plug‑in item, the other two parts of the display come to life, showing a relevant selection of tick or text boxes, and further textual information in a Description box. If you change any current tick‑box settings you click on the 'Apply Changes' button (or press the F9 key) to carry them out. Some Registry changes take effect immediately, while others need a Logoff or Restart. The reason this mode is called 'Plug‑in' is that further Registry tweaks can be added using the free Software Development Kit available at the same site (for experts only!).
Wizard Mode is easier to use, since it launches a series of windows, each with one or more tick boxes to change aspects of Windows operation. There were 15 Wizards in the version 5.0 that I installed, covering System, General, Appearance, Internet Explorer, and 'Other' categories. Though Plug‑In mode makes it easier to jump to a specific tweak, with so many available it can take a long time to find your way around, so Wizard mode is useful.
Many of the same jobs can be done with TweakUI, but others cannot (such as changing the Name and Company entered when Windows was first installed, and tweaking 'Set Registration Done' so that no data need be sent from your computer to Microsoft before you can use the Windows 98 Update feature). The software also offers a variety of special NT‑only options, and some that are unwise to touch at all (these have warning and Yes/No confirmation screens beforehand), but the majority are tweaks to let you make Windows operate just the way you want it.
This month I've had a few emails about my client management feature in the November '99 SOS. Eamonn O'Dwyer experienced problems running Reaktor inside Cubase VST with Hubi's LoopBack, but these disappeared when he changed to Herman Seib's MultiMid. I'm not sure why, but since both utilities are freely available it's fairly quick to change over — you can find MultiMid at
After a wait of some months, VST Instruments are finally starting to appear. Details of Steinberg's own Model E (a rather tasteful enhanced MiniMoog design) have finally appeared on their web site, although it won't be available until the new year. To keep us going until then, a new improved version of the Neon software synth is available for free download, as is the Karlette 'tape loop' echo emulation plug‑in.
BitHeadz have now posted an update for the PC version of their Retro AS1 soft synth. Version 1.3.0 adds ReWire support, and is free for registered users. A similar update for the Unity DS1 software sampler is promised soon.
Native Instruments have announced that the free update to Reaktor version 2.3 for existing 2.0 owners will be available in December. This offers VST 2.0 compatibility for Cubase owners, DirectConnect for Digidesign Pro Tools, and a MIDI Environment object for Logic Audio users. The entire library of Instruments and Ensembles has also been further expanded and optimised. For those with limited budgets, a preset‑only version, called Dynamo, will also be released, featuring 25 complete 'sound machines' from the Reaktor library.
Arbiter are now distributing the Echo soundcard range in the UK, and new models are to be released by the end of this year. The Layla 24 is a long‑overdue redesign of the original Layla 8‑in/10‑out model, but with more modern 24‑bit/96kHz converters. The brand‑new Mona is rather a departure from the norm, having four analogue inputs capable of mic‑ and guitar‑level as well as line‑level operation, with gain trims and meters on its front panel. It has six analogue outputs, ADAT optical and S/PDIF I/O, a headphone output with volume control, and 24‑bit/96kHz converters. This looks like just the job for the new breed of all‑in‑one computer studio users.
Recently I had to reinstall one of my more elderly applications in two stages, since I had an older version on floppy disks and a more recent update on CD‑ROM. After carefully uninstalling the previous versions from my hard drive, I ran into a small problem while trying to re‑install the older floppy version into my 'Program Files' folder. It didn't recognise any file name longer than the old standard 8.3 format (ie. up to eight letters and numbers, followed by an extender of up to three more letters or numbers, such as 'filename.ext').
If you run into this problem, the solution is to enter the long file name in its abbreviated format. You can find this in the following way:
- Launch a DOS box (from the MS‑DOS Prompt icon in the Programs section of the Start menu).
- Navigate to the folder in question using DOS commands (I covered the common ones in the October '97 PC Musician feature).
- In my case, the 'Program Files' folder appeared from DOS 'PROGR~1', so when I entered this the application still ended up in the 'Program Files' folder where I wanted it.