Building Out a Powerhouse PC

Jul 9, 2010 1:12 PM, By Gary Eskow

COMPLEX SESSIONS, 64-BIT, FROM A SINGLE WORKSTATION

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The ADK Quad Xtreme features a 6 Core i7 Extreme, an Intel X58 chipset USB 3 and SATA 600.

The ADK Quad Xtreme features a 6 Core i7 Extreme, an Intel X58 chipset USB 3 and SATA 600.

Thinking about putting together a PC-based DAW? If so, what kind of numbers did you have in mind, and unless you’re a geek, have you thought about where you’ll go to have your workstation built? Questions surrounding the practicality of 64-bit DAWs and whether or not Windows 7 is ready for prime time abound. I went out and got some answers for you.

I won’t, however, get into the Mac vs. PC slugfest. If you’re dedicated exclusively to the Mac platform, this piece probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’ve used PC machines or are intrigued by Windows 7 and are looking to extend your network, you may find something of value in the research I conducted while deciding whether this was the time for me to discard the dual Opteron I’ve been using for the past five years. I did purchase a quad-core Windows 7 machine in December 2009, and the results have been extremely gratifying, though as you’ll see, moving into the 64-bit world is not a trouble-free procedure.

Three major players in the digital audio workstation industry provided critical input as I researched this article. Why anyone would want to slog through the unavoidable hassles involved in integrating software from multiple companies with hardware and a new operating system is beyond me. Mark Nagata and Ryan Ouchida of VisionDAW, ADK Pro Audio’s Chris Ludwig and Tom Bolton of PCAudioLabs were on top of every issue relating to the state of the DAW industry. The advice and post-purchase support you’ll get from a respected vendor makes the margin they add to the ticket price well worth the investment.

I priced out three systems from each manufacturer. All of the companies’ computers were in the same general price range, but there were differences in the cost structure. (We’ll let you kick the tires for yourself when you’re ready to make a purchase.) Most striking was how inexpensive the technology has become and how modest the difference in cost is between the beefiest computers (intended for the full-blown audio post composer in particular, who has high-res video requirements) and the more modest units, which also deliver performance radically superior to anything previously available.

The information I received from Vision DAW, ADK Pro Audio and PCAudioLabs was almost entirely synchronous. All were extremely helpful, and I thank them for participating. Please note that the pricing of these computers does not include a keyboard, mouse or monitors. (Full Disclosure: I purchased my computer from ADK Pro Audio based on the relationship I’ve had with this company over the years.)

LOOK BEFORE LEAPING
Before you begin pricing systems, are you even sure you need a new PC? In my case, I should note that mine was one of the earlier 2.1GHz dual Opterons. Sixty-four-bit operating systems like Windows 7 allow you to load as much memory inside an application as you have in your computer, but adding RAM to take advantage of this was not an option because the processors inside vintage dual Opterons can’t handle the cycles. However, if you purchased a dual Opteron in the past year or two, throwing in a total of 8, 16 or even 24 gigs of RAM, updating the driver on your audio interface and getting the 64-bit applications of your favorite software (which are becoming more available all the time) might make a lot of sense. Even my antiquated computer had no problem loading multiple soft synths, including all of the Native Instruments modules that are a staple in the Komplete 6 bundle that many composers rely on. (It did creak when I loaded bulked-up products like Omnisphere.) The point is, you may be able to make a minimal investment and garner the advantages of working in the 64-bit realm.

If you’re a composer who works in the film and television world, do you use a balanced mixture of soft synths and samples, or is your template heavily weighted toward orchestral samples—including large libraries like the Vienna Symphonic Library Cube and East West’s PLAY Engine–based products? If you fall into the latter category, you’ll want to take advantage of the fact that hard drives have dropped dramatically in price. The rule of thumb today is that it’s best to leave at least a third of any given hard drive empty. Spreading your large libraries across multiple drives that haven’t been saturated with samples yields the best streaming and I/O performance.

Thinking ahead is always a good idea. Ryan Ouchida of VisionDAW says, “Ninety percent of our clients find the need to add additional workstations to their studio.” If you’re purchasing a new interface rather than porting over one you already own, make sure it has I/O capacity that will allow you to expand easily in the future. You may even want to turn your current computer into a strictly mixing environment; that way, software like the Waves line, which is not yet available in a 64-bit format, will remain inline.






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