Monday, June 22, 2015

Building a New Computer for Music Production (June 2015 Edition) Part 2

This is the second article about my new Haswell-E-based Digital Audio Workstation PC. In part 1, I covered the part list, hardware assembly, and BIOS settings. In this post, I'll talk about my choice of operating system, which drivers I used (and where to find the right ones), OS and BIOS tweaks, and the performance of this computer, as compared to my previous DAW PC.


I chose to install the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional on this system. I prefer the Professional SKU of Windows 7 because unlike the Home versions, it includes the ability to operate as a Remote Desktop server, but it also doesn't include all the extra bloat that the Ultimate SKU brings with it. (The Pro versions and above also allow access to more than 16GB of RAM.)

As a professional software developer, I've programmed for every version of Windows since 3.1. I'm intimately familiar with Windows system internals, and I normally start programming for new Windows versions even before public tech preview editions of them are released (we get early builds directly from Microsoft). Even though my job requires that I use Windows 8 and Windows 10 on a daily basis, I still usually prefer Windows 7 for home use. Here's why:
  • There's not a single new feature in Windows 8 (or 10) that I need in order to make music or perform my day-to-day computing tasks. Not only do I have no use for touch controls on a desktop, the Modern UI, or Microsoft's anemic Windows Store, even with Start button replacements like ClassicShell, Windows 8 made some tasks that used to be really trivial on Windows 7 (like restarting Windows in Advanced mode- something that I have to do quite frequently as a developer) much more onerous and complicated. Also, many elements of the user interface provide less information than in previous operating systems; they've streamlined the UI to the point of opacity.
  • Windows 7 provides better compatibility with the software and devices I already own. Since Windows 8's official release, I've purchased six different off-the-shelf computers for home use. In each case I initially tried to use their preloaded Windows 8 installs, but I encountered incompatibility problems with several games, utilities, and devices that forced me to reformat four of those computers and install Windows 7 instead. (Two of those six computers are still running Windows 8 with no problems.) I have experimented a fair amount with Windows 8 for music use, and while I did encounter some driver-related issues with audio interfaces when it was first released, I have never had any showstopping problems with Windows 8 when it came to my music applications or devices (so long as the drivers were Windows 8-ready).
  • Windows 8 does not improve music production performance. I have conducted numerous benchmarks between Windows 7 and Windows 8 on the same hardware and found that on average, Windows 8 performs about the same as Windows 7. (You can see the results of my most recent test in my article about the Intel NUC, under "Windows 7 versus Windows 8.1.") In some cases it's a tiny bit worse, in some cases it's a tiny bit better. But there is definitely not an across-the-board improvement in any measure of computer performance that I have seen. Yes, Windows 8 can boot faster and launch applications faster than Windows 7 on the same hardware, but it simply does not improve DAW performance in any measurable way. I do not expect that to change with Windows 10.
This is a personal choice that's based on my own real experiences with software and hardware on both Windows 7 and Windows 8. I use Windows 7 because I know it works, and I know I'm not missing anything by avoiding the newer operating systems.


This is entirely up to you. Most modern music apps that I'm aware of work properly on Windows 8, and most newer devices have drivers that should work in that environment well. If you know your apps and drivers are compatible and you like the new features Windows 8 includes, go ahead and use it. It's fine.


I've seen a lot of guides on how to optimize Windows for music production, and many of the tips these things provide are outdated, irrelevant to music production, or sometimes just plain wrong. For Windows 7 and later, there's actually very little you have to do in order to make your DAW PC production-ready. Here are the only performance tweaks I ever make:


Select the High performance power plan in the Power Options control panel of Windows. (It might be hidden when you first open the control panel. Click the arrow next to Show additional plans to reveal it.) This power scheme includes a number of hidden performance tweaks that aren't exposed in the Windows UI. In other words, you can't, for example, take the Balanced plan and edit it so that it exactly reproduces the behavior of the High performance scheme. This is the single most important Windows setting you can change to ensure stable music-making performance.


After you've installed all your required drivers and applications, you'll probably have a number of unnecessary task tray programs and background processes starting up. The fewer of these things running at any time, the more juice your system has to devote to delivering reliable audio.

Windows 7 has a built-in System Configuration tool (just run msconfig from the Start menu) where you can uncheck undesired programs from the Startup tab. You can see below that among other things I disabled the Intel(R) USB 3.0 Monitor (iusb3mon.exe). That process doesn't do anything essential.


I usually leave all the default Microsoft/OS services alone, but lots of applications and devices install Windows services that you don't necessarily need. You can use msconfig to disable these, too. What I like to do is open msconfig to the Services tab and check Hide all Microsoft services, so only the third-party ones are showing. Then I sort the list by the Status column and uncheck any services with the status of Running that don't seem to serve any essential purpose. If you see "Stopped" services that you haven't explicitly disabled, that usually means they're not set to load automatically when Windows starts, and instead will only be used as needed by their associated applications. I generally just leave these be.


If your computer has an Internet connection or you ever plug in USB drives that have had contact with other Internet-connected computers, you MUST have some kind of anti-virus installed. It is no longer true that simply being a tech-savvy computer user is enough to protect your computer from infection. There are just way too many attack vectors these days.

So which package to choose? For Windows 7, I use Microsoft Security Essentials. It's free, it's updated regularly, and it is nowhere near as obtrusive or bloated as many consumer alternatives. For a commercial solution, many music producers swear by ESET NOD32 Antivirus. It's not very well-known in the United States, but it is well-regarded both for providing solid anti-virus protection, and also for having a small system footprint.

Do NOT install consumer versions of any Symantec/Norton or McAfee products. They do their jobs, but they are much more intrusive, usually trigger a lot more needless warnings and notifications than other products, and simply don't allow your PC to perform as well as it would with other solutions. Both of these companies make enterprise solutions that are much better behaved.

Note: Windows 8 and beyond don't really need a third-party Antivirus. Windows 8 has Microsoft Security Essentials built-in, although it goes under the name of Windows Defender in that operating system. Windows 7 also has a "Windows Defender" feature, but it is not as comprehensive as Microsoft Security Essentials or the Windows 8 version of Defender.


All of my drives are configured with just a single data partition, and all SATA drives are configured to run in AHCI mode (so no RAID), and the Intel 750 series drive is NVMe. I do not split my drives up into multiple data partitions, since doing that doesn't provide any performance or data safety benefits.

I had a three-drive setup in my previous DAW PC (all using traditional SATA hard disks) that looked like this:
  • Drive 1 (2TB): OS, Data, and Applications. Unlike some music folks, I did choose to use my system drive for all personal files, including music projects. It worked fine.
  • Drive 2 (2TB): Samples and Downloads. This is where all sample libraries and things like Reaktor and Kontakt instruments went. Additionally, my Downloads folder is where I keep all purchased software and patches, so it is enormous.
  • Drive 3 (2TB): Backups. I have wasted a LOT of time and effort evaluating different backup packages and approaches, and I have yet to find a commercial backup product that works to my liking (if it works at all). I ended up writing custom backup batch files that run every day via the Windows Task Scheduler, and I set this drive up as a compressed Windows drive (with the "Compress this drive to save disk space" option) to increase its backup potential.
This layout worked fine, but I had a couple of complaints about it that I wanted to fix when I set up the new computer. I also had some physical constraints, due to the small storage capacity of my SSD drives. So here's how I decided to set up the new system:
  • Drive 1 (400GB PCIe SSD): OS and Data. This drive only contains Windows, my personal files/projects/etc, and any applications with crappy installers that don't let you pick a custom install location.
  • Drive 2 (480GB SATA SSD): Programs and Plugins. I never disable Windows User Account Control, because I like being notified when processes are requesting admin access to my machine. A drawback to leaving UAC enabled, however, is that it causes poorly-written software that doesn't follow Microsoft's design guidelines (which they have recommended ever since Windows XP) tries to save preferences or other data under the Program Files folders it fails (sometimes silently, or with misleading errors). This goes for plugins as well, since the default install location for many VST plugins is C:\Program Files\VstPlugins. By sandboxing all my programs and plugins to their own drive, I'm working around the limitation of their bad design by placing them into folders that won't trigger UAC alerts, but I'm still getting the general system protection that User Account Control offers.
    Here's what the root of my Programs and Plugins drive looks like now.
  • Drive 3 (2TB SATA HD): Samples and Downloads. (Same purpose as on my other DAW PC.)
  • Drive 4 (3TB SATA HD): Backups. Compressed drive, same as before. Since this drive exceeds 2TB in size I had to use GUID Partition Table (GPT) layout instead of Master Boot Record (MBR) when setting the drive up. More on this in the note below.
  • Drive 5 (500GB SATA HD): This is just an extra drive I was using as an alternate boot drive when troubleshooting some problems with my setup. It is a 2010 model WD Caviar Black versus my other two WD Black drives, which are brand new. I don't have any immediate plans for this drive.

The default partitioning scheme for Windows 7 is MBR, which effectively has a 2TB limit for any individual partition. Because I wanted my 3TB WD Black drive to have only a single data partition, I chose to use the GPT scheme when setting up the drive. All editions of Windows 7 and later support using GPT for data drives, but in order to boot from a GPT drive, you need a 64-bit edition of Windows and a computer with UEFI support.

Note that the partitioning scheme is different from the file system; all my drives are formatted with the NTFS file system, regardless of whether they use MBR or GPT partition types.


Locating the right versions of the right drivers for this system took quite a bit of time. Here are some notes I collected during the process.

Please note: The following information is accurate as of June 21, 2015. You may have to double-check the versions and driver locations as time progresses.


Like with any fresh Windows installation, the Intel Chipset installer should be the very first thing you install. The version at the Intel Download Center is newer than what's currently at the ASUS site or on the ASUS X99 Series disc. I got version 10.0.27 of the chipset installer (SetupChipset.exe) from here. Reboot after installing this one.


After running the Intel Chipset installer, you will probably still see a number of unrecognized devices in the Device Manager control panel. Here are the ones I found, along with which drivers fixed them:
  • Corsair Dongle. This is the USB Dongle for the Corsair AX860i power supply. Install the latest Corsair Link software to get the correct driver. You may have to restart Windows before this device shows up correctly in Device Manager.
  • Ethernet Controller. This is the Intel(R) Ethernet Connection I218-V device on the ASUS X99-A USB 3.1 motherboard. The latest installer packages for Windows 7 are at the Intel Download Center. I installed version 20.1 of the PROWinx64 package from here. Note: Whenever I install Intel network drivers, I always uncheck everything except the driver itself. Windows generally has all the network management tools I need.
  • C610 series/X99 chipset xHCI Host Controller (8D31). For this you need to install the Intel USB 3.0 eXtensible Host Controller Driver for Intel 8/9 Series and C220/C610 Chipset Family. I used version from here.
  • PCI Simple Communications Controller. This is the Intel Management Engine Interface. Strangely enough, I couldn't find something that looked like an appropriate match for my board at the Intel Download Center, so instead I installed the Management Engine Interface entry from the Drivers tab of the ASUS X99-series disc. Windows Update can install a newer version of this driver once you install the ASUS one.
  • USB Controller. This might only show up for the USB 3.1 version of ASUS boards. It's the ASMedia USB 3.1/3.0 controller. NOTE: As of this writing, the version of this driver on the ASUS disc is actually newer than the one available at the ASUS downloads page for this motherboard. I installed the one from the disc. "Asmedia USB3.1/3.0 Driver" from the Drivers tab.
  • Unknown device. If you see something just listed as "Unknown device" it could be lots of things, but if you look at its properties and see that its Hardware ID is ACPI\PNP0A0A, then that's the "AMDA00 Interface" device that ASUS uses for some of their software. You can install this driver by picking ASUS Probe II Sense Driver from the Drivers tab of the ASUS X99 series disc. I think I had to reboot Windows after installing this in order for the driver to take effect.
  •  The Intel Download Center had a more recent version of the driver for the SSD 750 Series drives than the one included on the mini disc that shipped with the drive. You need the disc for installing Windows 7, but once Windows is fully installed, you'll probably want to get the most recent version of the Intel Solid-State Drive Data Center Family for PCIe drivers from here.
  • For my GTX 960 graphics card I had to download the GeForce 900 Series driver from NVIDIA's downloads page.


Although I've had a couple of laptops and a mini computer with SSD drives, my new DAW PC is my first-ever desktop with SSD storage, and I was eager to see how much of an improvement my new drives delivered compared to traditional SATA hard disks in the same PC. I used the 64-bit version of CrystalDiskMark 3.0 (latest official version is 4, but you can still get version 3 here) to test each drive installed in my system.

CrystalDiskMark performs both read and write tests of four different types:
  • Seq: Sequential read/write with 1024KB blocks.
  • 512K: Random read/write with 512KB blocks.
  • 4K: Random read/write with 4KB blocks.
  • 4K QD32: Random read/write with 4KB blocks and a queue depth of 32. (This uses Native Command Queuing to test how well optimized the drive is.)
Here are the compiled results for all drives installed in my system:

It does appear that I picked the right drive for my boot device! My 400GB Intel 750 Series PCIe SSD drive scored from 10 to 831 times faster than my slowest traditional hard drive, depending on the test, and it scored from 1.4 to 14 times higher than my 480GB Intel 535 Series SATA SSD drive. This thing is fast.


To assess my new computer's performance, I looked at three different things:
  • Windows Experience Index: This is the built-in computer rating system in Windows 7. The idea was to judge a computer's suitability for running Windows 7, and it performs tests on CPU, RAM, graphics, and storage. The Experience Index has an artificial cap of 7.9; no single metric measured on a computer can receive a score higher than 7.9. (Microsoft raised the cap in Windows 8, but they also decided to hide the Experience Index from the Windows 8 user interface, for some reason.)
  • DAW Bench (Cubase tests): DAW Bench is a suite of DAW projects designed to push a DAW PC to its DSP limits. There are two projects that use Native Instruments Kontakt to detemine a computer's maximum polyphony, and there are also a series of DSP tests which load huge numbers of specific plugins to see how many simultaneous instances you can run. I ran two Kontakt tests, one using Kontakt's convolution reverb (with CV) and one without reverb (no CV). The DSP test I ran uses the Cockos ReaXcomp compressor plugin.
  • Passmark PerformanceTest: PassMark PerformanceTest 8.0 is a large suite of performance tests that test many aspects of PC performance, from CPU and RAM to graphics and even UI speed. While it produces very detailed test results, for simplicity's sake, I just recorded the overall "PassMark Rating," which is a combined total of all test results.
The two systems under test were:
On the old computer (Antec P183), SpeedStep/EIST, C-States, and Turbo Boost were all disabled. On the new computer (Antec P280), all features were enabled. I didn't make any explicit overclocking tweaks to either computer, so the following just represents baseline performance.
DAW PC comparison. Higher scores are better.
As you can see, once you reach a certain point the Windows Experience Index isn't very useful for measuring a computer's performance. It does its job of indicating Windows 7 suitability, but doesn't give any hint to the true scope of the performance differences between these two machines. My 2010 DAW PC was a very fast computer when I first built it, and the GTX 570 graphics card was a top performer the year it was manufactured.

The true differences become much more clear when we look at the DAW Bench scores. On average, the new computer was able to support nearly three times as many simultaneous plugins or notes of polyphony as the older PC.

The results of the PassMark tests were similar, with the new computer's overall performance rating 2.4 times that of the older system.

Note: The DAW Bench tests were all done with 64-bit Cubase 7.5.2 and a Roland Duo Capture EX USB audio interface, at 44.1kHz/288 samples. I have also used my MOTU Track 16 (USB) and RME FireFace UFX (FireWire) on this computer with excellent results.


Back in the Bloomfield days (i7-920, i7-950, etc.), there were a number of common processor tweaks that usually led to better, more reliable audio performance on DAW PCs. Disabling the EIST (Enhanced Intel SpeedStep Technology) and "C-States" power management features led to the biggest gains, while disabling Turbo Mode could stabilize performance, improving the reliability of audio streams. Some folks even disabled Hyperthreading since it can sacrifice a little bit of a core's performance, which isn't necessarily desirable if you're working with software that doesn't utilize multiple threads.

Well, those days are over.

As CPUs have evolved, so have their supporting technologies, and all of the things we used to automatically turn off now either don't harm audio performance, or, in some cases, even improve it. I performed the ReaXcomp/RXC DAW Bench DSP test on my new DAW PC, first at the BIOS defaults (with all of the aforementioned features enabled), and then with each individual feature disabled. I did not do any tests with combinations of the features disables; I only tested them one-at-a-time. This test measures the number of live instances of the Cockos ReaXcomp compressor plugin could be enabled before the audio stream broke down.

Note: All tests were performed with the High Performance power plan selected.

Higher scores are better.
As you can see, disabling EIST and Turbo Mode had no effect on the results (indicating that both of these features allow your computer to reach its full potential when needed), and disabling the C-States had a very slight negative effect. Disabling Hyperthreading, however, had a huge negative impact. Don't do that!

So, at least with the Haswell-E processor family, it looks like this is the current recommendation:
  • EIST/SpeedStep: Enabled
  • Turbo Mode: Enabled
  • C-States: Enabled
  • Hyperthreading: Enabled


I don't want to admit how much time I put into building this computer. I'm very pleased with the results, though, and confident that this thing will last me another five years like my first DAW PC did. I sincerely hope that some of the information I've provided in these two posts is useful to someone. Goodness knows it took a lot of research and trial-and-error to figure out.

I haven't looked into any hands-on overclocking procedures, but I imagine a skilled and patient person could wring even more performance of a computer composed of the same parts with the right tweaks. If you're brave enough to try it, I'd love to hear what you did, and how things turned out.

But for now, enjoy and rock on!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Building a New Computer for Music Production (My DAW PC Specs, June 2015 Edition)

I built my first DAW PC in early 2010, and while it served admirably since that time, I was getting frustrated with having to bounce or freeze tracks on any somewhat complicated project in order to conserve CPU resources. After a solid five years on my old i7-950-based system, it was time to move on...

It turns out I had so much to say about this new build that it's simply too much for a single blog post, so I broke it into two parts. In this first post, I list all the different parts I used in my new computer, and then I go into detail about the hardware and BIOS configuration steps I performed. In the next post, I talk about which drivers I had to install, where to find the correct versions, optimization tips, and finally I'll provide some benchmarking numbers to show how this new PC compares to my 2010 build.


My high-level goal when building this system was to have a fast, stable, and quiet PC that would enable me to run more simultaneous plugins and/or play more simultaneous notes of polyphony without any pops, dropouts, or other glitches in my audio than I could get with my old PC.

I had some more specific requirements, too:
  • Must support the latest generation of Intel desktop processors.
  • Must have a mix of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, because not all USB 2.0 devices work very well on USB 3 buses.
  • Must have enough expansion slots that I can add a FireWire card (for my RME FireFace UFX), a PCIe graphics card, and a PCIe-based SSD drive.
  • Must support a minimum of 5 internal SATA devices (two optical drives and three hard drives or SSDs).
  • Must have enough DIMM slots that I can add memory as needed over time.
  • Must have at least one fast Ethernet port, and none of that garbage "Killer Networking" crap.
  • Whatever video card I get must have at least one HDMI port and one DVI port to support my existing monitors.


I was really pleased with most of the components I had put into my original DAW PC, so my first thought was to seek out the latest and greatest components by the same manufacturers who made the parts I had used in that first computer. But there were problems...
  • The one Gigabyte board that had all the features and ports I needed (the GA-X99-UD5) had almost universally bad user reviews relating to stability issues and malfunctioning features. Even positive reviews cited some problems that many users would probably consider showstopping bugs. Sadly, Gigabyte was out.
  • The Plextor optical drive I'd set my heart on, the PX-880SA was no longer available, and I had a hard time locating the replacement model, the PX-890SA, in stock at a place with good shipping times/prices. Optical drives are virtually a commodity these days, though, so not a huge loss.
  • Kingston wasn't on the list of approved RAM manufacturers for the ASUS motherboard I ended up choosing, so I picked one of the brands that they recommended instead.
After a few days of research, this is the list of parts I ended up ordering:
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-5930K. This is the second-most powerful of Intel's current generation of desktop processors (the Haswell-E family). It has only 6 cores (compared to the flagship Core i7-5960X), but a faster clock speed. This processor also costs nearly half as much as the 5960X, while delivering only around 20% less performance. It's a better value. I chose the 5930K over the entry-level Haswell-E processor, the Core i7-5820K, because of the 5930K's faster clock speed. The 5930K also has more PCI Express lanes (40), which means more expandability potential. In my case I could have skated by with the 28 lanes that the 5820K provides (I use x16 for graphics, x1 for FireWire, and x4 for my PCIe SSD drive, for 21 lanes total), but 28 lanes on the 5820K rules out the possibility of a dual-graphics card solution with most high-end cards.
  • Cooling: Corsair H60 High Performance Liquid CPU Cooler. The Haswell-E family of CPUs don't include factory heatsinks like the old Bloomfield processor in my previous computer did. You can get an Intel-manufactured heatsink for these processors (the Intel Thermal Solution Air BXTS13A), but after-market manufacturers like Corsair deliver quieter solutions, which are attractive to anyone working in music.
  • Motherboard: ASUS X99-A/USB 3.1 ATX. The Haswell-E processors require motherboards that support the LGA2011-v3 socket and the X99 chipset. This board met these and all of my other requirements, and although it was so new there weren't many reviews for it when I was shopping, its sibling board, the non-USB 3.1 X99-A was very well-reviewed. The only difference between the two (I believe) is that my model has an additional USB 3.1 host controller not present on the regular X99-A.
  • Case: Antec P280. This case seemed to be the closest in form and function to the P183 case that I'd used for my first DAW system. This one turned out to be a little wider than I'd expected (it was a very tight fit under my desk!) but had plenty of room for a ton of drives and big expansion cards, in a very sturdy, quiet case. I also really like the "tool-less" 5.25" drive bays for optical drives and the removable drive trays that support both 3.5" hard disks and 2.5" SSDs. Antec makes a windowed version as well, but I prefer opaque cases.
  • SSD storage: I have never owned an SSD drive before, and I wanted to finally bite the bullet this time around. I went with the 400GB version of the Intel Solid-State Drive 750 Series (model SSDPEDMW40) for my boot drive. This is a super-fast PCIe device that only works on motherboards that include NVMe support. I also picked up the 480GB version of the Intel 535 Series (model SSDSC2BW480H6), which are standard SATA drives. I'm using this one for applications and plugins, and the PCIe drive for the operating system and documents.
  • Hard disk storage: I also got a 2TB WD Black drive for samples and downloads and finally a 3TB WD Black drive for backups.
  • Power Supply: Corsair AX860i Digital ATX Power Supply. I loved the Corsair power supply I'd used in my previous system, both because it was quiet and because of the wonderful modular cable system. I actually originally bought the less expensive Corsair HX850i for my new PC, but was unable to properly fit the 24-pin power cable it came with into the ASUS motherboard's power connector. Corsair shipped me a replacement cable, but in my impatience I went out and picked up the AX860i, which uses different cables from the other models- and this one worked. I don't know if the replacement cable Corsair sent me for my HX850i would have solved my problem. I have to be honest in saying I'm not sure I fully understand the difference between Corsair's AX and HX lines. I think the AX models are supposed to be quieter and more flexible for overclocking, but that's really tough to determine from the specifications. You might also notice that they have "AXi" and "HXi" lines versus their own "AX" and "HX" lines. The "i" models have digital connectors that plug into a USB header on your motherboard so you can use their special Corsair Link software to monitor your system. Nice, but probably not essential.
  • RAM: I got a 16GB kit that included two 8GB sticks of Crucial CT8G4DFD8213 DDR4 2133 MT/s RAM. This particular model was on the ASUS QVL (qualified vendors list) for my motherboard. There's a 32GB (4-DIMM) kit of the same model. Since I'm using 2 sticks of RAM, I'm getting dual-channel memory support. If I added another two matched sticks, I could get quad-channel support, but the jury's still out on whether that makes any difference for music production.
  • Optical: There's not a lot of difference between optical drives these days, they mostly have similar specs and they're almost all dirt cheap. I initially just ordered a LITE-ON iHAS124 optical drive, but I ended up also picking up an LG Electronics Internal Super Multi Drive (GH24NSC0B) at a local shop to speed up some install operations.
  • Video: EVGA GeForce GTX 960 4GB FTW ACX 2.0+. I do play a game now and then, so I wanted a graphics card that could at least handle moderate gaming without making too much noise. As of this writing, the GTX-960 is right in the middle of the NVIDIA product line in terms of both price and performance. You might think the GTX-960 was an odd choice for a DAW PC considering that it has two giant fans on it, but get this: The fans don't even come on unless the video card reaches 66 degrees Celsius (151 degrees Fahrenheit). If you're not actually doing any 3D graphics or pushing your system very hard, the fans might never spin at all. NOTE: If you're looking to save a bit of money in your DAW PC build, graphics is definitely one area where you can skimp. Just about any PCI Express graphics card with the right monitor connections will do just fine for music production purposes. (The ASUS X99-A boards do not include on-board video; you must add your own.)
  • FireWire: Rosewill PCIe FireWire 1394a Card 2+1 Ports (RC-504). My old Gigabyte board had on-board FireWire with a Texas Instruments chipset, but it's hard to find modern boards with 1394 ports. I wanted to keep being able to use my RME FireFace UFX interface as a FireWire device, so I picked up this inexpensive card with a VIA chipset. I know, I know, people always say "Get TI," but it works just fine with my interface. I have also recently heard that there might be incompatibilities with TI-based FireWire cards and some modern boards, so you might want to look into this more if this is an area of concern for you.
  • Wi-Fi: EnGenius Technologies 4-Port Wireless N300 Media Bridge (ERB300H). I do not like most desktop solutions for Wi-Fi. Internal solutions usually have poor range to begin with, which only gets worse if you keep your computer under a desk or in a closet. Also, the external antennas for some desktop Wi-Fi cards often have very short wires, making placing them difficult. Wi-Fi transmissions can also cause interference with audio gear (particularly reference monitors), so that can be a hassle as well. Rather than install Wi-Fi in a desktop, I prefer to run a cable from the computer's Ethernet port out to an external wireless bridge, like the ERB300H. I'm running Ethernet from three different computers in my studio to an ERB300H that's wall-mounted several feet away, where it causes no interference with my monitors. All my computers now get super-fast network connections without any of the Wi-Fi-related reception or performance troubles that many desktop users deal with.
The total retail cost for all these parts (on June 23, 2015) is around $2,600 USD. The six most expensive components, in order from highest to lowest are: CPU, NVMe SSD, motherboard, graphics card, power supply, and SATA SSD. Each of these components was over $200 USD (well over, in the case of the CPU and the NVMe drive).


It took several days to get everything assembled and running properly. Part of the long setup time was because of the problems I had with the motherboard power cable on the original power supply I ordered, but a lot of it was figuring out which ports to use, which BIOS settings were required, and which drivers to install. I'm presenting all of my findings below. This is by no means a replacement for the various quick start guides and manuals that come with the various components (trust me, you will need that stuff), but in the rest of this post I'll cover a lot of things that aren't in the manuals.

But first, here's what it looks like inside with everything wired up:


Placing the motherboard and other components in the case was pretty straightforward, but here are some notes and observations:
  • The only documentation that ships in the Antec P280 box is a 1-page product overview. You can find the full PDF manual here.
  • Antec was not overly generous in the selection of screws and zip ties they provided, but they did include just enough for me to install my gear. The case ships with 10 brass colored motherboard standoffs (little posts that support your motherboard). Six of the standoffs were already installed in the case, but I had to screw in three more in order to have a place for each of the nine screws required to install the ASUS motherboard.
  • Some of the individual screws are a little hard to tell apart! I recommend separating them by appearance to the best of your abilities. There are four screws for mounting your power supply (they have wide, flat heads with a ridge on the edge), and ten screws for installing the motherboard. Don't confuse the motherboard screws for the six (optional) drive bay screws or the eight 2.5" tray-mount screws; the thread patterns aren't exactly the same, but they're close enough that you can get mixed up.
  • The case comes with two top exhaust fans and one rear fan. They are nice, quiet fans, so I kept the top two, however I replaced the rear fan, using that slot for the fan that came with my cooling solution. The case fans are powered with a single standard 4-pin Molex plug. It appears that they always spin so long as the computer is running; there may be a way to control this in the Corsair Link software or BIOS settings. But they're incredibly quiet, so I haven't bothered.
  • The manual doesn't mention that in order to install optical drives into the 5.25" bays, you have to remove a metal panel that sits between each bay and the plastic cover on the front of the case. It is not particularly fun removing this panel (basically, I just rocked it back and forth until the metal gave way), but you need to do this in order to pop off the front covers. Once the panels and covers are off, though, installing the drives is a breeze.
  • The case includes two little slots between the 3.5" rack and the 5.25" bays just for 2.5" drives. Even though it's very convenient to be able to slip a little SSD into those 2.5" slots, they aren't recessed back far enough to make the SATA power connections very easy if you're installing other drives in the 3.5" rack. Instead I opted to mount all my 2.5" and 3.5" drives in the trays below. The Corsair AX860i and HX850i power supplies both came with two cables for delivering SATA power. I used one cable to power my two 5.25" optical drives and the other to power the rest of the drives. I ran the second cable through one of the rubber-ringed cable routing holes for easier access to the back of the 2.5" and 3.5" drives. This required removal of the right side of the case, which thankfully was just as easy as removing the left.
  • It was a little bit of a challenge popping the ASUS board's I/O panel into place at the rear of the case, but it ended up working out. The board itself holds the panel in place once it's tightened down.
  • Don't overlook the fact that the ASUS motherboard has two power connectors: an 8-pin connector at the top edge, and a 24-pin one on the upper-right. The Corsair power supplies come with the correct cables to connect to both. (For the 24-pin connector, the Corsair cables have a 2-part connector that you must fasten together in able to connect to the X99-A boards.)
  • The first time I installed Windows on this system, I encountered very severe latency issues when trying to do audio, and I have reason to believe that it was at least partly due to my SATA configuration. The X99-A boards have three banks of SATA connectors: A, B, and C (this is how the User Guide labels them- I don't think they're marked this was on the board). At first I was using the A bank for my two optical drives and the B bank for two of my other drives, and the top ports of the C bank for the rest. After doing some web searches on similar problems with ASUS boards, I learned that there might be some issues with the B-bank of ports. On the motherboard they are labeled as "SATA Express." The final time I installed Windows on the system, I changed the connections so that my 2.5" and 3.5" drives were all connected on the bottom-most ports in the C bank (ports 7-10). There is a note in the User Guide that these ports do not support Intel Rapid Storage Technology or RAID configuration. I wasn't interested in either, so this wasn't a problem for me. I haven't had any issues with this new configuration, however I don't have any hard evidence that the SATA ports alone were the cause of the initial instability. (Note: At BIOS defaults, all of the board's SATA ports are set to run in AHCI mode, which is what I wanted.)
  • When I was working with the Corsair HX850i power supply, several of the modular cables were difficult to pop into place on the unit itself. You might find it easier to connect the cables you need to the back of the unit first before mounting it inside the case. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I had significant problems with the the HX850i's 24-pin power connector. Not only was it difficult to seat in the back of the unit, but I simply could not get it to make a firm connection to the motherboard's connector. It wouldn't lock into place, and eventually came loose, cutting power to the computer, several times. Corsair did ship me a new cable, but I had already moved on to the AX860i by then.
  • Both Corsair power supplies I worked with had special Corsair Link connectors. Whereas the HX850i included a USB cable that connected directly to a USB header on the motherboard, the AX860i included a small device called the Corsair Link USB Dongle that connects to the power supply with a special cable, but also connects to a USB header on the motherboard.
  • The Corsair H60 cooler ships with a thin layer of thermal paste on the underside of the pump, which will fuse to your CPU once everything's connected and powered up. So you don't need to buy your own thermal paste unless you ever detach the pump and need to re-connect it later.
  • The Quick Start guide that came with the H60 was a little bit too minimal, and I'm not sure if there's an actual full-length user guide for it. I'll just note that if you're using a Haswell-E processor with the LGA2011-v3 socket, you don't need to worry about installing a back plate to your motherboard; that's only for older processors. For LGA2011 processors, all you need to connect the pump to your CPU are the standoff screws (make sure to use the LGA2011 ones, they are shorter on one side than the other), the mounting bracket that fits over the pump, and the thumb screws.
  • The single most confusing and worst documented part of the entire build was installing the cooler- specifically, figuring out where to connect the cooler to the motherboard. The Corsair H60 cooler has two major components: There's the "fan" section, which is really a fan attached to a small radiator that actually looks like a miniature car radiator, and then there's the "pump" section that attaches to the top of your CPU. Both the fan and the pump have their own power connectors, and they have different requirements. The pump needs constant and consistent current in order to function properly. It's not meant to ramp up and down in power like an actual CPU fan might. The fan, however, even though it's not directly attached to your CPU, can and should be controlled to adjust speed as needed. The good news is that the X99-A motherboards have a bunch of different fan connectors to suit every possible cooling need. The bad news is that there is pretty much no information in the manual or ASUS's site about what's different between the connectors or when you should use which connectors. But basically, here's what I was able to determine: The best place to connect the H60's fan seems to be the ASUS board's CPU_FAN connector at the upper edge of the board. The best place to connect the H60's pump is to one of the chassis fan connectors (CHA_FAN1 or CHA_FAN2, near the left bank of DIMM slots). You can control how the fan connectors operate in the BIOS, but for now I'm just using the BIOS defaults.
  • The ASUS X99-A boards have four 16-lane PCI Express slots. Since a PCIe graphics card is mandatory with these motherboards (due to their lack of on-board video), this means that PCIe slot 1 (the one closest to the CPU) is going to be occupied with your graphics card.
  • The physical installation instructions for Intel's PCIe NVMe Solid-State Drives says that the closer to the CPU you install the SSD card, the better the performance, however they also say that the slot furthest away from the CPU might be the best to use "if you are having detection issues." I didn't want to have to do any PCIe troubleshooting, so I just placed my SSD card in slot 6, the 16-lane slot nearest the bottom edge of the board.
  • Even though my graphics card only occupied one PCI Express slot on the motherboard, it is a double-width card, and it ended up covering the 4-lane PCIe slot #2. This meant that my only option for installing the FireWire card (which can only use slots 2 or 5, because they're the ones with PCIe 1.0 compatibility) was slot 5.
  • That leaves me two 16-lane slots (3 and 4) unoccupied and accessible and since I have one of the 40-lane CPUs, I have 21 lanes available (which means I could add a 16-lane card and a 4-lane card, or two cards that were 8 lanes or less).

The first time I configured this system, I was running the BIOS version the board shipped with, which was version 0401 from March 2015. After Windows was installed and I was troubleshooting the various audio performance problems I was experiencing, I started looking into how to upgrade the BIOS to the latest version. Wow- what a headache that turned out to be! The User Guide lists FOUR different ways to update the BIOS, however not a single one of the methods is described completely accurately. The one I ended up using was the "ASUS EZ Flash 2" method.

The way this method works is, you need to copy the BIOS image that you download from the ASUS help desk page to a USB thumb drive, plug it in, and then go to the ASUS EZ Flash Utility in the Advanced mode of BIOS. The thing they don't tell you is that the Flash Utility will only let you upload BIOS images that are named a specific way (and the files you download from are NOT named the correct way). If you try to select your downloaded BIOS file and it isn't named properly, you'll get an error that makes it sound like you downloaded a corrupt image, when in fact it's just a simple filename problem.

People familiar with ASUS might already know that ASUS sometimes provides a "BIOS Renamer" utility that takes a selected file and gives it the appropriate name for your motherboard- but as of this writing, ASUS has not published a renamer for the USB 3.1 version of the X99-A boards, and the regular X99-A version of the program does not work for the USB 3.1 boards.

The correct filename to use for the X99-A USB 3.1 board doesn't appear to be published anywhere on the Internet- well, until now: The correct filename to use for this board is X99AU31.CAP. If you have the regular (non-USB 3.1) X99-A, the filename is X99A.CAP. I only figured this out when I was taking a look at the contents of the disc that came with the motherboard. It has a number of CAP files (BIOS images) for the different X99 series boards in its root directory.

*begin rant* Here's my biggest complaint about ASUS: Even though this motherboard appears to be really good and solid, and the paper manual it shipped with contained a lot of crucial information, they provide almost no other useful details anywhere on their site or in the downloads for these motherboards. I haven't seen a single readme for any of the downloads on the site. It was really infuriating when I was trying to figure this stuff out. *end rant*

Note that when you upgrade the BIOS, this appears to wipe out any customizations you may have made to the settings. This was immediately apparent to me, because whenever I installed a different BIOS, I'd have to reconfigure it to boot from my NVMe SSD drive.


If you're using one of Intel's 750 Series PCIe/NVMe SSDs as a boot drive, you will definitely want to bookmark this page, where the most recent drivers and documentation for the drives. Download the "Boot Guide for NVMe PCIe SSD" PDF from this page. While there isn't currently information specifically about the X99-A or X99-A USB 3.1, the "ASUS X99-Deluxe" section is close enough. You should read it very carefully and do what it says, although the BIOS Configuration section of the document does not mention one very important thing!

After updating the CSM settings in BIOS to instruct PCI-E/PCI expansion devices to use the UEFI driver first, you need to tell BIOS which device it should boot from- the problem is, the Intel PCIe SSD drive will not show up in any of the "Boot Option" menus until you do this: Scroll down the BOOT page past the CSM stuff to where it says Hard Drive BBS Priorities and click that. In the Boot\Boot screen that appears, select your SSD device for Boot Option #1. When you return back to the main Boot page you'll see that your SSD is now selected as the default boot device.

After you save your changes and restart, you can continue with the Windows-specific sections of the document. One of the reasons I bought an additional optical drive is so that during Windows setup, I could have my Windows 7 disc in the top drive, and the SSD driver disc in the bottom drive. You will absolutely need this disc in order to be able to install Windows on your SSD drive. Make sure to pick the Custom install option in Windows setup in order to locate the Load Driver button mentioned in the Intel documentation.

Note that the driver on the disc included with the SSD drive is pretty old- although it works just fine for Windows installation. After Windows is installed you can upgrade to the latest one from the Intel page I mentioned earler.
That's it for Part 1. Proceed to Part 2 if you dare!