Welcome to the Windows XP, PC Optimization Guide. Here you will find a comprehensive guide to optimization of any Windows XP Machine for use as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
It is important that you read through this documentation as it covers several crucial optimization steps recommended when setting up your DAW. Because Windows XP is meant for an entire spectrum of users, by default, the user interface is designed to have a nice GUI (Graphical User Interface). Many of these GUI settings are nice to look at, but every visual element comes at a price – CPU resources.
This guide is intended to step you through optimizing your machine in preparation for your new Hardware and Software to gain the most out of your system without experiencing the heavy processor loads of poorly optimized machines.
System Performance Tweaks – Stuff to Do After Installing Windows
Under Start > Control Panel > System, select the Advanced tab. Click the Performance “Settings” button and select the Visual Effects tab. Choose “adjust for best performance” and then select the Advanced tab. Under Processor Scheduling, select “Background services” to ensure lowest latency with ASIO-based drivers (ASIO drivers run as background services in Windows). Select “Programs” under Memory Usage to ensure that enough RAM gets allocated to your applications.
Windows defaults to setting virtual memory (sometimes referred to as Page Swap or Swap File) automatically. Under most circumstances this is fine, but for audio it can sometimes be a hindrance to performance. For this reason, we recommend you disable virtual memory. Go to Control Panel > System and select the Advanced tab. Under Performance, click the “Settings” button and select the Advanced tab. Under Virtual Memory, click the “Change” button. Select “No paging file” and press “Set,” then “OK.” It’s also a good idea to defragment your drive after changing virtual memory settings (see below for more on defragmenting).
NOTE: In some circumstances, you may need to enable virtual memory. These situations might include errors related to paging files, not enough physical RAM of an application, or a program that requires the use of virtual memory. If this is the case, then rather than choosing “No paging file,” choose “Custom size” and set the minimum and maximum values to a multiple of 2 (for example, 128, 256, or 512), to a maximum of 512 MB. Be sure to set the minimum and maximum to the same value. Then, choose “Set,” “OK.”
Windows allows for custom configuration of its power settings. This is useful for conserving energy when the computer is not in use. It works by automatically powering down or ‘hibernating’ one or more components of the computer system when the computer has been idle for a predetermined amount of time. This can pose a major problem for users who record long session, as the computer may power itself down in the middle of recording! To optimize the power setting for audio performance, go to Start > Control Panel > Power Options. Under Power Schemes, select, in order: “Always On,” “Never,” “Never,” “Never.” Also make sure that “Hibernate” is unchecked.
You should also allow you peripherals (USB devices and Firewire hard drives) to run off the maximum amount of power available. To set this up, right-click on My Computer and go to Manage > Device Manager > Universal Serial Bus controllers. On all USB Root Hubs, right-click and choose Properties > power Management, and uncheck the “Allow the computer to turn off this device…” box. Then, while still in the Device Manager, click the “+” next to Disk drives. On any Firewire drive, right-click and go to Properties > Policies, and make sure the device is set to “Optimize for Performance.” Click “Okay.”
DMA (Direct Memory Access)
There are several different ways in which data on a disk can be accessed. DMA is one of them. This format is the best and fastest method available, so it is recommended for audio. To make sure you are running DMA, go to your Device Manager by right-clicking on My Computer and selecting “Manage” and then “Device Manager.” Select the “+” next to IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers. Right-click on the Primary IDE Channel and select “Properties.” Under the Advanced Settings tab, make sure that the Transfer Mode is set to “DMA if available” for both Device 0 and Device 1. Press “OK.” Repeat these steps for the Seconday IDE Channel. If there are two of each device listed, do this for all listed Primary and Secondary Channels. After doing this, do not be alarmed if the Current Transfer Mode is either “Not Applicable” or “PIO.” Some devices are unable to run in DMA mode; the goal is to make sure that DMA is on IF available.
NOTE: There is a third class of controller under the IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers. In some cases, changing this listing to “Standard Dual Channel PCI IDE Controller” has been known to increase performance. Note, however, that this is not a known step to optimize your system. It is an optional step that MAY increase performance. For full instructions, see the 7-step process in Sweetwater’s Knowledgebase article #30047.
NOTE: Intel-based PC’s have been known to perform better with updated chipset software. Again, this is only an optional step, but one you might consider. See Sweetwater’s Knowledgebase article #30063 for full instructions.
An on-board device is any device built in to the computer. Examples include built-in modems, audio cards, ethernet devices, etc. Most of these are fairly benign, but some have been known to interfere with digital audio software. The most offending devices are wireless internet cards and audio cards; we recommend disabling these, at least while using your software. On-board wireless internet cards periodically send and receive information when activated, and these bursts of data transfer can cause audible pops and clicks in DAW applications. On-board audio cards can cause driver conflict problems, and are not as high in quality as professional interfaces.
To disable these devices, go to the Device Manager again and look under Network Adapters. All devices in this category can be disabled (right-click on the device and choose “Disable”) EXCEPT 1394 Net Adapters (1394 is shorthand for FireWire). If you need the devices again after your DAW application, simply right-click on them and choose “Enable.” Now look under Sound, Video and Game Controllers and locate and disable your on-board audio card. Make sure you do NOT disable any of the following: Audio Codecs, Legacy Audio Drivers, Legacy Video Capture Devices, Media Control Devices, Video Codecs, any other devices that you regularly use.
Virus Protection, Firewalls, and Other Utilities
While virus protection software is almost a necessity for general-use systems, they often run in the background and can cause problems with audio systems. If you’re running a dedicated audio machine with no or a very limited internet connection, it’s best to not install them at all. If your machine is connected to the web, it’s safer to protect yourself, but try to find utilities that only run when called up. System tune-up utilities are also quite useful in most circumstances, but some tend to optimize according to the needs of general usage, and can change settings that can compromise audio performance. A clean, minimal setup is your best insurance.
Firewalls will have a similar effect as virus protection software, but it is more pronounced in computers with Service pack 2 installed. SP2 includes a Windows firewall (Start > Control Panel > Windows Firewall) that is best left turned off (from the General tab). It it must be left on for securit and protection, then disable the Firewire firewall. Go to the Advanced tab and uncheck “1394 Connection” and press OK.
The display properties affect how Windows handles graphics, video, and the overall appearance of the OS. The processing required to keep the display at its sharpest can interfere with the processing needed to keep audio at its cleanest. Some of these properties are adjusted with the general performance settings, yet a few other small tweaks may still be necessary.
Right-click anywhere on the desktop and select “Properties.” Set the theme to “Windows Classic” if it isn’t already. Screen Savers should be turned to none. Under Appearance, make sure “Windows Classic style” is selected for Windows and buttons; the Color scheme and Font size will not affect performance. Under the Settings tab, adjust your Screen Resolution to the desired size. Most applications work the best with “1024 by 768 pixels” selected; other sizes make make submenus and windows the wrong size for the text within. Finally, your Color quality should be set to “Medium (16 bit)” (also in the Settings tab), unless you have an application that specifically requires or advises higher color depth. Also, in the settings tab, click “Advanced” and make sure you are running at 96-DPI (Dots Per Inch). Keep in mind that these adjustments are optional settings and will likely not make or break your audio performance. They are merely suggestions that will nonetheless give you a boost in resources. If you do a lot of work with video, then these suggestions can be customized, or even disregarded, as the project requires.
Windows XP incorporates a sound scheme in the OS. Essentially, certain functions, such as connecting a device, are signaled by a corresponding short sound. While quite helpful (especially for the visually impaired) in distinguishing between events, these sounds often interfere with normal audio work. We recommend these sounds be turned off. To do this, go to Start > Control Panel > Sounds and Audio Devices and select the Sounds tab. Choose “No Sounds” for the Sound scheme, and press “OK.”
Write caching, or write-behind caching, is a technique that keeps a small amount of data in a cache prior to writing it to the disk. While normally a good thing, performance can be increased by writing data directly to the hard drive, in essence bypassing the cache. Practically speaking, adjusting this will allow your audio to be written immediately to the hard drive, improving speed while recording. To set this, go to the Device Manager by right-clicking on My Computer and selecting “Manage” and then “Device Manager.” Click on the “+” next to “Disk Drives.” Right-click on a drive and choose “Properties,” then “Policies.” Uncheck the box that says “Enable write caching…” and press “OK.” Repeat this for all of your hard drives.
Hard Drive File Systems
A file system is essentially a blueprint for storing data. It determines how the data is arranged on a drive. File systems are often referred to as formats. This is not quite accurate, though; there are many more types of data formats than there are hard drive file systems. While a file system is technically a format, the two terms are not interchangeable. File system is a specific reference to data arrangement on a hard drive. There are a few choices of file systems on the PC, the primary ones being FAT32 and NTFS. All DAW applications will perform the best using an NTFS file system on all drives, and some will actually not work at all without it. You can check what file system your drives are using by double-clicking My Computer, right-clicking on the hard disk drive you wish to check, and selecting “Properties.” The file system in use will be listed near the top of this window. If your drives are already NTFS, skip this step. If you have any drives using the FAT32 file system, you will need to convert them to NTFS. Go to Start > Run, type in “cmd” (without the ” ” marks) and then press “OK.” In the command prompt, type in “Convert C: /FS:NTFS” (without the ” ” marks) and press “Enter.” Close the command prompt when finished.
By default, Windows saves several ‘restore points’ at periodic intervals. These can be used to revert back to a previous image of the OS should anything happen to it, such as a file corruption or a virus infection. Under normal circumstances, using this feature is a smart idea, but unfortunately, it can pose problems for audio applications. The restore process, when activated, is run automatically. It also takes a fair amount of processing to update the restore points. This surge in processing can be enough to crash an application, and thus, ruin a take. To disable System Restore, go to Start > Control Panel > System, and select the System Restore tab. Check the box next to “Turn off System Restore on all drives.” The best solution to maintain a restore point is to image your hard drive using an independent disk imaging application (such as Acronis TrueImage or Ghost). These applications work by creating an image of the entire system drive and saving it either a CD, DVD, or an extra partition on the hard drive. In the event the OS must be restored, the image will completely overwrite the entire system drive, restoring the OS to the condition it was in when the image was created. One downside is that anything saved or installed after the image was created will also be erased. It is a good idea to install everything and make sure it is working before imaging a drive; that way, you will not have to reinstall all of your applications after a restore.
By default, Windows pre-loads applications and services from installed programs and deposits icons in the system tray. The goal is to both decrease load times and provide easy access to a variety of programs. While very helpful in theory, these partially launched applications are a CPU drain. Disabling them helps Windows allocate more resources to running applications. Windows will also load faster, since it is not pre-loading every application during startup. To disable these applications from loading on startup, do the following.
CAUTION: Make absolutely sure you follow the directions EXACTLY as printed below. Startup configuration is powerful stuff, and if used carelessly, can cause problems. Follow the directions, DO NOT treat this section lightly, and you will be fine:
Go to Start > Run, type in “msconfig” (without the ” ” marks)and press OK. When the System Configuration Utility comes up, click on the Startup tab. Press the button to “Disable All.” Click on the Services tab. Check the box at the bottom of the window to “Hide All Microsoft Services.” Press the “Disable All” button, but only AFTER hiding the microsoft services. Press “OK,” then “Restart.” When Windows boots back up, check the box next to “Don’t show this message…” and then press “OK.”
NOTE: After pressing “Disable All,” Pro Tools users must re-check “MMERefresh” in the Startup tab and “Digidesign MME Refresh Service” in the Services tab. GigaStudio users must check “msg32″ in the Startup tab, even if GigaStudio was installed and then uninstalled later. All users will notice that the system tray is now empty (or very close to being empty). If there are certain applications that you would like pre-loaded on startup (and thus back in your system tray), simply go back to the utility and re-check them. Be advised, though, that each application that is checked (and loaded) will draw CPU resources away from your audio applications.
Also, please remember that this process will cause all non-system programs from booting along with Windows, including anti-virus software and, occasionally, utilities used for your computer’s hardware to function properly. General-use computers may need other services and applications in order to function, such as proprietary drivers for mouse touchpads, wireless internet cards, etc. If a particular program that you need stops working after running the msconfig utility, then DO NOT go back and attempt to reinstall the program. Simply choose “Enable All” instead of Disable All” to restore full functionality. Then, you can go through your processes, one by one, to see what needs to remain enabled. You may need to contact your PC manufacturer to be double-check whether or not an application need to be enabled or not.
Make absolutely sure you hide the Microsoft services in the Services tab. This is very critical, and not doing so will cause various Windows features to (temporarily) stop working. Also, be aware that antivirus utilities will also be turned off by using msconfig in this way.
Keep in mind that the msconfig utility is always reversible, but uninstalling and reinstalling software may not be. If your PC malfunctions immediately after using msconfig, then before doing anything else, enable everything to reverse the effects.
Audio Streamlining and File Management – Things to Do to Keep Your Computer Running Smoothly
Now your computer is ready for the intense demands of audio processing. There are still a few things to remember so your system stays in optimal condition. These steps will allow you to work efficiently without having to reconfigure your computer.
Defragmenting your hard drives is recommended in all Windows OS’s, and particularly in systems running and editing large audio and multimedia files. Defragmenting your disks places the data for files next to each other (rather than fragmented throughout the disk), which speeds up reading from and writing to the disk, and increases system stability. In Windows 2000 and XP, regular defragging offers even more benefits. XP and 2000 monitor the files that are used when the computer starts up, and when your most-used applications start. By monitoring those files the OS can “prefetch” them; which means data that is expected to be requested is read ahead into the cache. Prefetching is improved if the files are located next to each other on the outer edge of the disk, and XP/2000 optimizes the location of these boot and application files while the computer is idle. This optimization is done in the background and lasts only a minute or two, but even this activity can cut into audio performance if Windows decides the system is “idle” at the wrong time. The defragger will run this task during disk defragmenting instead, so Windows won’t decide to do it while you’re working. If you have access to a third party defragging utility (like System Suite, Disk Keeper, etc.), it’s preferable to defrag with it, rather than Windows defrag utility, which doesn’t do a true reorder of the swap file. Defragmenting should be done about every 2-3 months.
Windows essentially utilizes three driver modes: MMe, WDM/KS, and ASIO. Of these three, ASIO provides the most stability and least latency (delay). Some older audio cards may not have ASIO support. This should be OK, provided you do not overly tax your CPU. When possible, it is always recommended you use ASIO as your primary driver mode. For more information on the benefits and shortcomings of each mode, see Sweetwater’s Knowledgebase article #29827.
GigaStudio, however, uses its own driver mode called GSIF. If you are planning on using Giga, make sure you have an interface that has GSIF capability.
Plug-ins can take the form of inserts (reverb, compression, etc.) and virtual instruments (synths, rewire applications, etc.). Both types can consume large amounts of CPU resources when instantiated. It is a good idea to use as few instances of each plug-in as possible. Reverbs, typically the most hungry kind of plugins, can be inserted to auxiliary tracks, and audio can be bussed to these tracks from multiple sources. Similarly, multiple MIDI tracks can send to a single virtual instrument. Both methods conserve resources by loading the plug-in, and thus the CPU load, only once. Additionally, analog emulation plugins can take up a large amount of CPU resources. Rather then inserting a modelled compressor on, say, 7 drum tracks, create a group channel for your drums and only insert it once. With this method, you still get the sound you want on the drums, but you save your CPU six instantiations of a plugin. Limiting the amount of active plug-ins has the added benefit of keeping your session smaller and more streamlined.
To monitor how your computer is utilizing it’s resources, right-click in an empty space on the bottom task bar (somewhere between the Start button and the clock). Select Task Manager. The Performance tab will give you a fairly accurate idea of the average load put on your CPU. This meter takes into account everything that is running. Keep in mind that it can be a little jerky; what you are looking for is an average measurement over several seconds. Try to keep the processor at an upper limit of 70-75%. Higher loads than this cause stuttering, dropouts, freezes, and crashes. If the load is too high, you can remove plugins or applications. If this still doesn’t help, then the solution very well could be to increase the amount of RAM installed in your computer.
Saving and File Management
The preferred setup for all audio computers makes use of at least two hard drives. One drive, the system or C: drive, will only have the OS and all applications installed on it. All data will be saved to other drives. This prevents the C: drive from becoming too full and/or fragmented. Full system drives run much slower than their clean counterparts because there is less data to search through when trying to find system or application files. It is strongly advised to save everything (sessions, downloads, documents, EVERYTHING) to a second (or third) hard drive. The general principle is that things you INSTALL go to the C: drive, while things you SAVE go to a different drive. External hard drives are becoming very popular because the data can be easily transported to a different computer. Whichever type of hard drive you opt for, make sure that it has a minimum speed of 7,200 RPM (revolutions per minute). Drives running at 10,000 RPM are ideal, especially when running large sessions (over 24 tracks). Slower drives may not be able to keep up with the demands of recording and streaming audio.
A word on saving: Often, when creating a new session, it is easy to choose the default name and location provided. Be careful NOT to do this! The default settings are usually to name the session “Untitled” and save it somewhere in the C: drive. You will soon get a full C: drive and too many “Untitled” sessions to tell which is which! Use the same amount of care with file management that you do when recording.
Even when taking care to save to a second (or third) hard drive, you can still run short on space. This is especially true if there are many sessions (complete with audio files) on the same drive. A good idea is to archive these sessions. Archiving in this sense means either burning to a removable disk (CD or DVD), or transferring to a backup drive. DVD’s are the preferred method of removable storage because they can hold over 5 times more data: 4.7 Gigabytes on a DVD versus 800 Megabytes on a CD. If you archive to a backup hard drive, make sure to access the drive frequently (every 6 months to ensure smooth operation).
Another reason to archive is to prevent data loss. An entire drive full of sessions can be lost at any time due to a hrad drive crash. Having all of your sessions backed up on removable media will allow you to maintain a copy that can be copied back onto a drive. Removable media has the added bonus of being impervious to data loss; unless you physically lose or damage the disk, your data will not be lost (translated = CD’s and DVD’s don’t crash).
The Manual is Your Friend
All audio applications are complicated, it’s the nature of the beast. However, they all include extensive help files, and in many cases, thorough tutorials. The vast majority of operational questions can be answered from the manual. We strongly advise that you read at least the introductory sections, if not the entire manual, before you attempt to use your software. This will allow you to understand where key tools and menus are, give you insights into what you can and can’t do, walk you through HOW to do things, and ultimately will increase efficiency when making music. If there’s a section you don’t understand, read it several times. Walk through the procedure step by step as you read it. Repeat this as many times as you need. Use the index and table of contents to find areas in which you need to brush. Never assume that will know every feature in any piece of hardware/software. Always read your manual.
Now that your system is optimized and you have the tools to keep it that way, there is nothing preventing you from getting the most out of your gear. If you do get stuck, do not hesitate to use all available support channels to get back up and running.
We hope this guide has been helpful.
- The Sweetwater PC Team