Optimising Your Computer For Music Production
There’s no doubt that modern computers have made audio production faster, easier and more accessible than ever before. With so many powerful plugins and programs at our finger tips, we often find ourselves pushing the limits of our computers.
In this post we will cover how to spot the signs that our system is being overloaded, we’ll explore the affect that background tasks, hard drive types and buffer size have on our audio playback.
First of all, lets cover what we should look for when our system is struggling to handle a particular session. The audio will often drop out, glitches or noises may be introduced to the signal path and sometimes the audio will stop entirely when our system is being asked to do too much.
In DAW’s such as Ableton Live, there are a number of indicators such as the CPU Load Meter (reading 0% below) and the Hard Disk Overload indicator (the letter D to its right).
Simply the CPU meter shows Ableton’s ability to process the audio and plugins in our current session and we can start to have problems upward of 80%. The HD overload is simply an indication that audio files are not being read fast enough from our hard drive and will often result in a sound or a number of sounds not playing for a period of time.
So lets have a look at a few simple settings which can help with these issues.
Minimise Background Tasks
Computers have a finite amount of processing power and an audio session with lots of plugins can easily use 70% + of it. Most internet browsers, audio editing programs, antivirus and even backups can be fairly CPU intensive simply running in the background and therefore can interfere with the operation of your DAW.
By closing everything except your DAW, you will minimise the chance of a background tasks taking CPU power away from your DAW and interrupting your audio path.
Available Disk Space
Hard drives are often thought of as a storage devices for your files and folders, however your system drive also plays a vital role in the operation of your computer. The more full the drive becomes, the slower and more laboured the computers operation becomes.
Producers and engineers often have one drive for programs / operating system and another for any audio sessions / samples. Simply clearing out unwanted files from your drive as often as possible is another way of making sure your system is running at its optimum. Once a drive is more than 50% full, it’s efficiency decreases exponentially as the drives fills up.
There is a myriad of technical settings inside your DAW which most producers are unaware of. A very useful (yet often overlooked setting) is the buffer size.
Without getting too technical, the buffer size simply controls the size of packets of information sent between our computer and sound card.
In operation, a short buffer size will make our system very responsive - this is great if we want to record a live performer as the DAW will have the least amount of delay / lag in the headphones of the artist. The downside is the audio will (likely) start to break apart (clicks and pops) under heavy CPU load.
A long buffer size will allow our system to handle more CPU intensive sessions but as a result, will introduce a delay between when you press play and when the music comes out of your monitors. This is great for mixing and mastering when the amount of delay doesn’t impact our session and we need our system to run smoothly with high cpu demand.
The buffer is a measure in samples and is often set at 512 by default. To set the buffer size correctly, simply choose the setting at which there are no drop outs, clicks or pops.
TECH CORNER - Bonus Round
So far all of the above suggestions are easily implemented into any system as they are changes within the software. So what do we do when we have used every trick and our computer is still running slow? We have to look at the hardware
Ram is vital to the smooth operation of any computer but especially important when working with lots of audio samplers, soft synths and plugins.
By ensuring we have a lot of RAM in our computers, we speed up the process of reading and writing files which occurs a lot during a production or mixing session.
Hard Drive Type
There are three types of Hard drives commonly used in all computers at the moment HDD, SSD and SSHD. Lets take a look at the advantage and drawback of each kind.
Traditional magnetic hard drives are quite slow in operation but they are reliable, have very high storage capacity and relatively cheap.
Recently Solid state drives have gained in popularity due to the fact that they have no moving parts and are extremely fast. The only drawback is they are still very expensive and often have limited storage space compared to traditional drives often maxing out at 256GB compared to 4-8 TB. There is also a finite number of ‘writes’ into each location in these drives. Although measured in millions of operations, a smaller drive over time will reach this limit long before the magnetic surface of an HDD.
Hybrid or ‘Fusion’ Drives
Like many things in audio, a compromise is the best solution. Hybrid drives have a traditional magnetic drive for large storage as well as a small amount of solid state storage to ‘buffer’ and therefore speed up the read/write process.
This allows the drive to function much faster than a traditional HDD while keeping the cost down and maximising drives storage.
Note: when SSD’s expand their storage and their price comes down they will still be a more reliable and faster solution. At the time of this article the Hybrid drives are the most cost effective and efficient solution for audio production.