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 impact chassis was designed for the audio professional from the ground up by the engineers at PCAudioLabs.

The impact chassis was designed for the audio professional from the ground up by the engineers at PCAudioLabs.

SYSTEM ONE ($2,000 TO $2,500)
You get a lot more for this amount of money than ever before, as I can readily attest. Expect to cop an Intel Core i7 860 2.8GHz processor, eight gigs of RAM, a couple of 500-gig SATA drives, Windows 7 Pro 64-bit OEM (some manufacturers distinguish their systems in part by those including only the 32-bit version of Win 7), a DVD burner and a hard disk management system—all loaded into a tower or rackmounted box that is much quieter than the one you may currently own. Because I don’t have film producer clients walking into my home studio, I saved about $150 by going with a garden-variety video card. Check out the warranty that comes with your system, in particular the length of time that you’re entitled to phone tech support.

By the way, there’s no need to get overly obsessed in trying to compare processor speeds from machines built in different eras. I was surprised to learn that a quad core like the one I eventually bought (running with a 2.8GHz processor) would allow me to do up to 10 times more work than the 2.1GHz machine I previously owned, but Ludwig says it’s possible to overvalue this spec. “Actually, the processor speed has never been the most critical factor compared to the memory and chip set speed and efficiency,” he explains. “When AMD was in the lead, they had a slower CPU speed but a faster memory and chip set technology. Intel recently improved the speed of the underlying chip set, memory controllers and overall bus communication. As a result, clock speed doesn’t have to be cranked up so high, which, among other things, adds to the heat that the computer generates.”

I used to create full-blown orchestral scores using instruments from VSL Cube, East West’s Symphonic Orchestra and the SONiVOX Symphonic Instruments collection. It’s hard to believe, but I’d load one VSL patch (from the double basses up) at a time—maybe two—record a section of eight bars or so as discrete audio tracks, build up from there and move on to the next section.

I was in the middle of writing a woodwind quintet when my new computer arrived, and I loaded up VSL Level Two presets of all of these instruments into a Cubase 5 64-bit project. Level Two presets include lots of samples I don’t use (scalar runs, for example), but I wanted to see how many I’d be able to load into my machine, which I purchased with eight gigs of RAM. Why not 12, 16 or 24 gigs? RAM buying is essentially a futures market. Right now, it’s fairly expensive. I’m betting that it will drop in the future, at which time I’ll add more.

After loading up all five instruments, plus one instance of Altiverb 6 (to which Cubase 5 gains access through its own bit bridge because Altiverb currently exists only in 32-bit format), I checked the Win 7 RAM meters (little icons that model old European-style automobile gauges) and found that I was using less than 60 percent of my RAM and my processor was taking less than a 20-percent hit. Wow, what an improvement!

SYSTEM TWO (AROUND $3,200)
Start climbing up the price scale, and your Intel Core i7 860 processor gets swapped out for a 950 running at 2.8 GHz. How much difference will this make?

Back in the Stone Age, if you bought a synthesizer or an early synth/sample playback unit like the Korg M-1 or Roland D50, you knew exactly what you were getting in terms of memory and the number of sounds that could be loaded at one time. Today, none of the sample manufacturers will go on record making recommendations with respect to any one computer nor tell you precisely how much RAM is required to use their products because each musician creates his/her own workflow, which is impossible to predict. The ratio between CPU cycles, RAM and even the answer to the gold-plated question—whether we’ve finally arrived at the point where a single DAW is sufficient—is to a large degree dependent on what libraries you use.

“Depending on your configuration, 24 Gigabytes in a single DAW may be the way to go,” says VisionDAW’s Nagata. “Your system will not be processor-bound because of the efficiency of the VI sample engine, for example, if that’s the sound set you primarily rely on. If you’re like David Newman and have a sound set dedicated to one sample engine [PLAY, in his case], then we can configure a system to load that template onto one machine and play it all with some overhead—processor, audio interface and OS tweaks. But, say you have PLAY orchestra with all the keyswitched patches, VI, NI and Aria all loaded with orchestral libraries. In this scenario, you’ll more than likely become processor-bound extremely quickly. In this case, all the loading into memory capability won’t help because you are out of CPU cycles. You would be better off with multiple sampler workstations, dividing the load without trying to load up a single massively configured workstation.”






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