This post discusses the components selected and the philosophy behind my current PC DAW setup.
A DAW to suite demanding criteria.
I wanted to share what has worked for me AND why.
Part 1: Overview and foundation. CPU. Motherboard.
My main focus has always been PC based Midi orchestration so I am speaking primarily to those wishing to sequence complete orchestral mockups utilizing todayís quality libraries such as the EWQLSO platinum play and Vienna Instruments.
I mention these two libraries as they happen to represent a standard for the serious Midi orchestrator covering all 4 sections; Strings, Brass, Woodwinds and Percussion.
They also happen to support a 64 bit operating system.
But this is not just for the Midi Orchestator.
Whilst sequencing orchestral scores has always been regarded as the most demanding both in terms of the necessary skills and the quality of both software and hardware, one may still require a fairly current DAW setup for genres such as New Age, Instrumental, World Music and Popular; perhaps a blend of all. A lot depends on the specifics of your software synths and sample libraries, not to mention how complex you intend your sequences to be.
There are almost unlimited variables for a compatible hardware and software solution so I can only speak to what has worked for me; largely due to trial and error.
Iíve purchased both off the shelf computers and constructed DIY custom systems. With a little knowledge and careful planning one can build a system for less than store bought and it will be superior in every way.
Apart from specialized vendors like ADK Pro Audio that are reputed to build superb DAWs, off the shelf computers from your local retail store are almost useless.
Dell may be the exception here as they can be customized to some extent but again, building your own or finding someone to help is definitely the better path.
There is another reason for doing this; knowledge.
Learning to put together a computer is a rewarding venture and rest assured you will never look at your system in the same light.
Hardware: CPU and Motherboard
I will mention that whilst I prefer Intel chips there are many who successfully use AMD. Itís just a personal choice.
For the past year Iíve been using 4 dedicated E8400 Intel Core 2 Duos running WinXP 32 with 4 gigs of RAM.
Whilst the Core 2 Duo is a powerful CPU, it is not up to the task for serious Midi orchestration; not as a singular solution.
Networking 3 together will enable you to throw a lot its way but the i7 is far superior, as are the LGA 755 socket Quad cores.
Iíve been told (although I have not tried myself) that the overall difference between the Quad and the i7 is only 10% or so.
Some benchmarks utilizing non music software support this claim, at least what I have read.
However there are definite advantages to the i7. Itís designed to utilize faster DDR3 Ram and it also happens to provide far more cache.
Hereís an interesting look at this.
Recently I upgraded 3 of the machines to the Intel i7 920s.
The difference between the Core 2 Duo and the i7 is quite staggering.
The all important chipset is the Intel x58 and although itís early days it appears to be a solid design for audio applications.
For now, I have left one Core 2 Duo on Win XP Pro 32.
For the i7s I moved to Vista 64.
The mobo I chose was an Asus P6T Deluxe V2
It supports 24 gigs of DDR3 RAM via 6 slots in 1x4 gig strips however I couldnít locate 1x4 strips so I just installed 1x2 gig strips.
(I knew this prior to purchasing the board) This gave me 12 gigs of RAM.
When the 1x4 strips are available the cost will be high. For the time being though having 3 networked machines each with 12 gigs of RAM is proving more than sufficient even for the most demanding circumstances.
Most people however will want to get by with a single computer.
The question is just how realistic is that?
The short answer is it depends.
It depends on your checking account balance.
A single i7 machine with 12 Gigs of RAM is certainly a formidable beast but you will not be able to sequencing a complete score running 200 plus Midi tracks with effects and Virtual Instruments. To achieve that you will need 2 of these beasts AND your goal should be 12 Gigs of RAM minimum.
12 Gigs may meet your needs and if it doesnít you can always get more when price and availability is not an issue.
Obviously people have different requirements. Many do not need to sequence 200+ MIDI tracks. For many users who do not require high track counts utilizing high end orchestral or even general libraries a single DAW that offers 12 Gigs of RAM utilizing an i7 or Quad core will probably suffice.
So, for those who need a powerhouse you have 3 main options.
Perhaps thereís even a spare one somewhere around the office
- Purchase a mobo that provides at least 6 Dimm slots.
This way you can start with 12 Gigs of RAM (6◊2) and when finances and or availability permit; 24 Gigs with 6◊4.
- Purchase a server motherboard; some have at least 16 Dimm slots.
This would allow you to buy 2 gig strips that are around $40 each and add as you can afford. Many of them cater for 2 processors also.
If you have 2 x i7s with 12 Gigs of RAM you should be fine.
- This is an option that can work well for the financially challenged. Build an i7 DAW and grab a used Core 2 Duo or two to help take off the load. You can grab one for around $250; spend another 200 or so to bring it up to speed.
Whilst some developers suggest a single DAW have 8 Gigs of RAM, I would argue that 12 be the absolute minimum.
For a single 64 Bit DAW one should plan towards 24 Gigs.
Hereís something that is mind boggling re the Ram issue!
I just saw this todayÖÖ..
Hereís something that is mind boggling re the Ram issue!
The basic cost of this DAW-
Intel Core i7 Quad 920
Asus P6T Deluxe V2
DDR3 PC-10600 RAM 12 gigs
Seagate 160 gig Sata drive
Seagate 500 gig Sata drive x 3
750W Thermaltake Power Supply
Total of $1258
Power Supply Units-
This is a subject that attracts much debate.
Some say you need a gazillion Watts of power whilst others suggest that a 400 watt will suffice. I will say this.
The PSU is about the most critical piece of hardware inside that precious box of yours.
A 400W PSU may prove to be underpowered and hence create an unfavorable scenario; or worse.
Many PSU are NOT rated within industry guidelines and hence you cannot trust their specs.
Spend the money and get a quality unit from manufacturers such as FSP Group, Tagan, OCZ, Thermaltake, Corsair and Cooler Master.
For a modern DAW with multiple drives and USB devices a minimum would be 600W.
More power can produce greater heat and noise though. However, there are some quality noiseless power supplies out there.
Check out this link below, I found it interesting. When I tried it the program suggested my requirements were a 600W PSU.
Fill in all the pertaining details and it will tell you what you need.
Add a couple of extra Sata drives and an extra PCIx card when you fill it out.
However, Iím not completely convinced this is something to rely on.
Do NOT buy generic power supplies from computer stores.
I donít know what the ultimate hard drive is, be it brand, size and type.
I use what works for me. Not withstanding that I will say Iíve tried W.D, Maxtor and Seagate. The first two did not deliver favorable results; Seagate did, so thatís what I use.
It is worth mentioning that ADK Pro Audio who produce high end turnkey DAWs suggest that Seagate are currently the better drives.
Many agree with this opinion.
A word on Raid-
The two reasons for Raid are essentially-
Not withstanding these points there are advantages for general data storage. However there is no real advantage for sample library content users.
- Redundancy. Each bit of data is stored on 2 separate drives for easy backup and recovery if need be. However, sample libraries can simply be re-installed.
- Speed. Transfer of data is spread across drives in parallel, called stripping. But a Raid setup will not increase seek times. Thatís really the most important factor for sample streaming.
A word on 10,000 RPM High Speed Drives-
High speed drives are NOT necessary for Audio and they can be noisy and create additional heat.
(The new 10,000 rpm Western Digital VelociRaptorís are fairly quiet)
The cost is about $270 for a 300 Gig drive.
Again, not required for audio but you could use it as a C: Drive to speed up loading of programs and boot time.
What WILL affect performance significantly are things like file structure, file types, available space, size of drive, temperature, fragmentation, corrupt or missing files and so on.
I only use Sata 3 gbs drives.
Sata 11 drives as many call them which is incorrect.
The following is the best way to organize your hard drives.
You need at least 3 if you wish to accommodate todayís large sample libraries.
On one of these drives I installed ONLY EWQL Gypsy, RA, Silk and Voices of passion. Each is on a separate partition.
- Drive 1: 160 Gig C drive. Windows Vista and programs.
- Drive 2: 500 GB or 1TB each. For library content of your sample library.
(I use three in each machine for my libraries)
Install the actual program on the C drive.
There is much debate about the effects of installing different sample content on the same drive. Perhaps you have a EWQL Play library and the Vienna special edition.
- Drive 3: 1 TB for Audio tracks.
You may if need be add Paging file, backup and mixed sample library content but again you should make partitions.
You may have some older Akai, Giga or Kontakt libraries too.
As far as my older Akai libraries and mixed content I just put them on a separate drive.
If you do have EastWest play libraries or even the older versions I would suggest not installing other brands on that drive/s.
The same goes for Vienna/VSL.
I DO believe in keeping different developers libraries on separate drives as the means to interact with them technically differ.
This method also helps with faster access and load times.
EWQLSO Platinum should be installed and split over multiple drives.
I have split this over 2 computers and 4 drives.
Strings, Brass, Woodwinds and Percussion each on its own drive.
The O/S drive could be a 160 Gig but no more.
You should partition the OS.
Donít fill it up with a lot of crap and keep the file structure as basic as possible.
Donít use too large a C: drive.
It is critical that they are all the same brand and type.
Do not use a high end gaming card. All you need is a 256 Meg dual head so you can take advantage of dual monitors.
You could even use an older 128 Meg card but you probably wonít find one anymore.
Another thing to think about is PCI slots and conflicts.
If you use a PCI based Audio card you should avoid using a PCI video card.
In the early dayís PCI Express caused some concerns and even conflicts but those days are gone as far as I know.
I use a PCI Express card and have had no issues.
Some plugins require Open GL.
I think Waves still does so onboard graphics MAY be an issue.
Also, donít get a video card with a built on fan, more noise is not needed.
The video card is the least important aspect of the DAW.
Iíve tried quite a few over the years but I love RME.
There are many other quality interfaces on the market; brands such as Echo, MOTU, Digidesign, M-Audio and Lynx.
Generally the price difference between similar interfaces that support a similar feature set will be due to the converters and overall build quality.
Decent converters are fairly cheap now. Really good ones are expensive.
The better converters being stand units such as Apogee.
The majority of Interfaces/Audio cards that are on the market today work well. Whilst there are audible differences with many there are a few that stand out and not all of them are expensive. Some are under $500.
Whatís important first is to decide what protocol you wish to utilize.
Letís look at them in order of performance.
I for one do not like using too many USB devices on my DAW.
- PCI: This is still the best Iíd say. It will be phased out though and replaced with PCI Express.
Most of todayís mobo have limited PCI slots; usually 2.
If you wish to use PCI think about other expansion cards you may require.
- PCI Express: This is going to be the new PCI as it already is happening.
- Firewire: The next best thing and most motherboards have dedicated IEEE1394
- USB. Not the best option in my opinion. Especially with version 1.1 due to its bandwidth limitations. If you wish to record above 24-bit/48kHz formats than you may run into some issues but with USB 2.0 this should not be a concern. Many of the lower end cards use this protocol.
These are the interfaces Iíve used with Cubase 5 and had great success with-
RME Fireface 800
RME Multiface 11
Echo Layla 3G
Echo Gina 3 G
The popular Delta 1010 and a few other USB interfaces returned somewhat negative results for me. Stable, yet it was a sound issue primarily.
The best I have ever used in terms of performance and sound would be RME. The Layla is very nice too and I would place it firmly in the upper mid level market. For those requiring multiple analog and digital I/O I would take a serious look at it.
As far as budget interfaces go I would have to vote for another Echo product; the MiaMidi.
At around $175 itís a great performer, also has Midi.
Almost every popular audio card is going to produce at least decent results. A $150 audio card will work but there is a difference in sound and performance between $150 and $500. You DO get what you pay for and when it comes to a DAW itís worth spending as much as possible on your audio interface.
I would argue that given a budget that would allow $1000 split on an audio interface and monitors; I would spend about $500 on the audio interface.
Hereís a good link to some useful information re audio interfaces.
One of the best methods of learning is pursuing the forum pages of your sequencer. Cubase and Sonar cover a lot on hardware and software issues; you can learn a lot from end users.
Part 2 Link. Software-