Friday, December 27, 2013

My Desktop DAW PC Specifications (December 2013 edition)

UPDATE 2015.06.21 - I built a new PC in June of 2015. Go here to learn all about it. The following post is all about my previous rig.

While it's only been six months since my previous post on this topic, I've made a number of improvements to my setup that I figured were worth mentioning.

I'm still using the same home-built PC from early 2010. There have been some changes, but it's the same processor, motherboard, case, and power supply that I've been using for nearly 4 years now. It's held up surprisingly well. I routinely produce projects that have 30-50 tracks of mixed VSTi and audio, and dozens of processing plugins with smooth, consistent operation. I've done a number of completely ITB (in the box) productions in the past year, and several times I've had to freeze VST tracks when the project got too busy for my CPU to handle. The only thing a new PC would get me is the ability to run more VSTi instances simultaneously, but as long as I'm able to freeze tracks, that's a low priority.

PC Hardware
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-950 @3.06 GHz (Bloomfield family, 4 cores, 8 threads). I'm using the factory heat sink.
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5. Plenty of room and plenty of slots. Also has Texas Instruments FireWire, which is considered to be the best chipset for digital audio. Socket 1366 supports Intel Gulftown and Bloomfield processors.
  • Case: Antec P183. Quiet and sturdy with isolated areas for power supply and hard drives, to reduce noise. I'm using the fans that came with the case.
  • Hard drives: I replaced all three of my original 500GB drives with 7200RPM 2TB drives by Seagate and Western Digital. I got these all out of necessity, and in emergencies due to space requirements. Worth noting: One of the Seagate Barracuda drives I bought last year to replace my 500GB system drive started failing a couple weeks ago (large downloads were always corrupted). I just replaced it with a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black, and everything's back to normal.
  • Power Supply: Corsair HX650. Relatively quiet, with all the power this computer will ever need. Wonderful modular cabling; you only use exactly the number of wires you need.
  • RAM: Two Kingston DDR3 1333 sticks @ 6 GB each, for 12 GB total.
  • Wireless: Linksys WMP600N Wireless-N PCI Adapter with Dual-Band. Reliable connection, with good range. I do not have any of the audio problems some people report with their WiFi adapters.
  • Optical: Plextor PX-B320SA Blu-ray Disc Combo. BD reader, and super multi writer.
  • Video:  Currently using an ATI Radeon HD6450 graphics card to run two monitors. The drivers for the NVIDIA card I had before were conflicting with the drivers for my PCIe audio interface on both Windows 7 and Windows 8. This card is actually a downgrade in terms of graphics power, but it uses less electricity and is quieter than the NVIDIA card, and I hardly ever play games these days. It has both HDMI and DVI outputs, which is perfect for me since one of my monitors is HDMI only and the other is DVI/VGA.
Audio and MIDI Hardware
  • MIDI Controller: I sold my AKAI keyboard controller for a much simpler Roland A-49 keyboard controller. I thought the AKAI was a fine device, but it was enormous due to all of its pads and faders and other controls which I simply never used. I traded the AKAI's enormous feature set for the Roland's light, slim design to reclaim some serious desk space.
  • Audio Interface: Over the summer I purchased a number of current-model prosumer audio interfaces to do some "shootout" tests (which I will likely post about eventually). I ordered a RME Fireface UFX, as it is pretty much the pinnacle of prosumer interfaces, fully intending to sell it off after my tests were complete. Problem is, the thing is so great, what with all the I/O options and the awesome TotalMix routing software, that I couldn't bear to part with it. Anyway, that's my current interface of choice. I'm using it via FireWire, but it works just fine via USB as well. The UFX replaces my MOTU 24 I/O PCIe Core System , which is still a great, solid performer.
  • Patch Bays: Since I no longer have as many analog I/O ports as I did with the MOTU interface, I've rewired my rig so that every one of my hardware instruments goes into one of two DBX PB-48 patch bays in one of my racks. Each bay has 24 in/out columns in a half-normalled configuration. (You can invert the individual boards to disable normalling.) This model also supports TRS/balanced connections, so I have to be careful which kind of cables I'm using when connecting up older synths with unbalanced outputs. (There are various recommended ways to do this, but I'm just making sure to use unbalanced interconnect and patch cables with them, and balanced cables from the patch bay to my interface.)  
  • DAW Controller: I'm 90% a Cubase user these days, so I upgraded to the Steinberg CC121 Advanced Integration Controller for most DAW controlling needs. (It works with other Steinberg products like Wavelab too.) It integrates wonderfully with Cubase, and is pretty much a must-have in my day-to-day use, now- especially when tracking vocals. The bad news is that it is Steinberg-specific, and can't be programmed to work in third-party DAWs.
  • DAW Controller: KORG nanoKontrol2 . I got this because I wanted a physical device with transport controls for Ableton Live. It has built-in templates to integrate with all major DAW packages, and also includes buttons for setting and navigating markers/locators in audio projects, plus 8 rows of channel strips which map to tracks inside your DAW. A really handy little controller, at an unbeatable price. Even though I'm mostly using Cubase these days, I still have this little guy wired up because it makes my life easier whenever I happen to be working in Live.
  • Monitor Controller: Three things I like to have within reach at all times are a headphone jack, a monitor volume control, and a monitor mute switch. The SM Pro Audio M-Patch V2 gives me all of this and more. You can switch between two different monitor sets, and even switch between two sets of inputs (one balanced, one unbalanced), and it's got a stereo/mono toggle for checking your mixes. This thing's big and weird looking, but it sounds great and has everything I need. I've heard some folks complain about the clicky master volume encoder. Well, the M-Patch even comes with a traditional pot-type volume knob that you can pop in if you don't like the encoder.
  • Reference Monitors: A few months ago I was shopping for a compact pair of active monitors that I could take with me for some music production demonstrations. I wasn't really looking for "flat response" true reference-quality speakers. Just something small that sounded nice. I was most impressed by the Presonus Eris E5 active monitors. But then the tweeters blew on my JBL passives, and now the E5s ARE my reference monitors! This things are pretty nice, although I will probably pick up some JBL LSR305 or JBL LSR308 monitors in the coming year, for a flatter response and lower noise floor.
  • Sub woofer: Going from hefty 8" JBLs to the compact Presonus 5" speakers cost me a fair amount of low end, so I picked up the JBL LSR2310SP Powered Studio Subwooferto round out my sound. I don't have much experience with woofers, but the way this one's designed, you route sound from your audio interface's stereo outs to the subwoofer, and then from the sub to each of your active monitors. You set the crossover frequency on the subwoofer, so the monitors only receive the mid/high frequencies. It works really nicely, and has actually improved my mixing a bit. I discovered I had been mixing in too much bass before when I was working with the old setup.
  • Operating System: Windows 7 Professional 64-bit, with Service Pack 1. The 64-bit version of Windows 7 delivers the best balance between power and performance, and gives you access to as much RAM as you're able to cram into  your computer. Most DAWs have 64-bit versions these days, and an increasing number of plugins come in 64-bit formats as well, offering more memory flexibility and occasionally faster performance. I've only recently made an across-the-board move to 64-bit applications and plugins, although this means I've had to turn my back on a number of plugins that still don't have 64-bit support. (I'm not interested in bridging solutions at this time.)

    Note: I often see people asking whether they should upgrade to Windows 8 for DAW use. I've actually done a LOT of benchmarking work between Win 7 and Win 8, and my answer is this: If you are buying a brand new computer that already comes with Windows 8, it works just fine. If you've got an existing computer running Windows 7 and you are happy with how it works, just stick with Windows 7. The various performance tweaks Microsoft made to Windows 8 do not have anything to do with audio/DAW performance, and some devices do not have drivers that are fully compatible with Windows 8. So there's nothing wrong with Windows 8, but it is NOT a must-have for music production.
  • DAW: Steinberg Cubase 7 . I've been a cubase user since the very first release on Mac in 1994, although the Cubase of today is wildly different from the MIDI-only Cubase of the early 90s. After some tweaking I seem to have 64-bit Cubase 7 running pretty stably. Version 6.5 seemed a little bit more reliable, but I'm doing okay for now. I believe that if you buy retail Cubase 7 now you get a free upgrade to the latest version, 7.5.
  • DAW: Ableton Live 9 Suite . With version 9, Ableton Live added some really interesting new features and significantly improved a number of their built-in effects. I've completed several productions in Live 9 and have found it to be a really enjoyable environment. Both Live 8 and 9 offer 64-bit versions now, too! I just really wish Live had VST 3 support; a number of plugin developers only offer 64-bit plugins in VST 3 format, so Live's VST compatibility isn't the greatest.
  • Audio Editor: Steinberg WaveLab 8. I've used a number of free and commercial audio file editors, and none of them have matched WaveLab for features and ease of use. It's a mature product that has tons of editing, processing, metering, and analysis tools. Apparently some previous versions of WaveLab were criticized for lacking proper documentation, but that's no longer the case. Steinberg has full PDF manuals available for download.
  • VST Instruments: Far, far too many to mention. I can strongly recommend the Native Instruments Komplete packages (especially Komplete 9 Ultimate ). They really cover all the basics for software synthesis, and include a growing number of solid effects, too.

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