If you are thinking of using a PC for audio, or are currently using a PC and having issues, this guide is for you. In general, the goal when working with audio is to have an uninterrupted experience. The last thing you want when inspiration hits is to have glitches, dropouts, random shutdowns and other no-fun crap. This guide goes through everything necessary to tweak your Windows system for an optimal audio experience.
Audio glitches and dropouts can happen for a number of reasons. Understanding where the stress points are can definitely help in troubleshooting. There are four basic systems that can experience failure.
- Hard Drive
When recording audio, your hard drive is constantly working to permanently store the stream of data being fed from your audio interface. In general, the basic rules apply for recording audio.
- Ideally, your OS & Software drive should be separate from your recording drive. Write your files directly to a secondary internal hard drive or an external hard drive.
- If using an external hard drive, make sure the drive connector is either Firewire, Thunderbolt, or USB 3.0. Thunderbolt is preferred.
- The drive itself should be either a SSD or minimum 7200 RPM drive. 5400 RPM drives are too slow for serious multi-tracking.
Generally, DAW’s have separate indicator lights or will give you a ‘disk too slow’ error message if you have a hard drive problem.
Not only does audio recording tax your hard drive, it also requires lots of calculations from your CPU. In general, you’ll be hard pressed to tax the CPU resources if you’re just multi-tracking, but once you start adding plugins and soft-synths and all those awesome sounding things, it’s a different story. Here are a few general principles about CPU usage during audio.
- Digital audio is specified by a few parameters
- Bit Rate (16 bit or 24 bit)
- Sample Rate (44.1khz, 48khz, 88.2khz, 96khz, 192khz)
- This has been debated to death, but most people don’t notice the difference between 44.1khz and 88.2khz, whereas most people do notice the difference between 16 bit and 24 bit
- The higher the bit and sample rate, the more data. The more data coming in from your audio interface, the more processing power & hard disk throughput needed to process the audio.
- Buffer size is the parameter which controls the amount of time allotted to allow the CPU to process audio data before it’s delivered to your outputs; the higher the buffer size, the longer the delay (latency) between the audio coming in and going out.
What we want is high-resolution, low-latency audio. If you’re doing heavy multi-track with effects and running into problems, I’d suggest recording at 44.1khz, 24 bit with a buffer size of 256. If you’re doing very simple stuff, up the sample rate to 96khz and lower the buffer to 128.
In general, you should be able to get by with 8gb of ram, whereas 16gb should be more than enough. Your computer needs enough memory to store fast-access data from the operating system and the DAW. Memory requirements go up when you’re using anything that’s sample based (often times the samples for a digital piano sound are stored in memory to keep them low-latency). If you have memory problems, try limiting the number of sample based instruments in your session. If you often do orchestral scoring work or something of that sort which requires huge sample libraries, invest in 32gb of ram.
Last but not least, we are limited by the port that the audio interface is connected to. USB 2.0 works, but can experience issues with large numbers of tracks. Thunderbolt is ideal, Firewire is a close second.
Without Further Ado…..Here’s a list of PC Tweaks!
In the never-ending quest for increasing audio performance using intense plugins with near zero-latency, I’ve been through it all. After recently switching from a 2012 MacBook Pro to a Dell Precision 5520 (Windows 10), I found that things didn’t just ‘work’ like they do on a mac. Many hours later and I have this list.
DISCLAIMER : After spending probably 20-30 hours doing every optimization I could find, I still found that my 2012 MacBook Pro performed better despite its inferior specs. I have since started the return process on the PC and am moving back to Mac, even though I think they’re the devil. One thing to note if you’re on a laptop; these changes may significantly reduce your battery life.
Optimize BIOS Settings, for optimal audio performance!:
The BIOS are a pre-os boot menu that allows you to modify deep system settings. You can enter BIOS on startup often with a key combination. On Dell PC’s, hold F12 while the machine is starting. Here are some things to check for in your BIOS.
- Disable Intel SpeedStep in BIOS
- This is HUGE; Speed Step varies the processor speed depending on the demands of the software, and often times messes with the audio thread. Disable this and you will notice a huge performance boost.
- Disable C-States in BIOS
- Another power saving measure, this allows the processor to enter low-power mode. Disable this, we want our processors working at full capacity and not changing.
- Any other ‘power saving, CPU reducing stuff’
- Disable it! We want our CPU’s to be available 100% for real time audio processing.
Optimize Power Plan Settings
By default, windows selects a ‘balanced’ power plan, which allows the processor to slow down if heavy demands are not put on it. We don’t want this. We want our processors to be available at max power 100% of the time. Here’s how to do that:
- Before you mess with the power plan, I’d recommend enabling the ‘Check Core-Parking’ setting, which you can follow this guide to do.
- In Cortana, type ‘Power Plan’, then select ‘Choose a Power Plan’
- Select ‘High Performance’
- Press ‘Change Plan Settings’
- Press ‘Change Advanced Power Settings’
- Under hard disk, change ‘Turn off Hard Disk After’ to 999 minutes
- Next, under USB Settings, disable ‘Selective Suspend’
- Under ‘Processor Power Management’ change ‘Processor Performance Core Parking Min Cores’ to 100%
- Next, under ‘Processor Power Management’ change ‘Minimum Processor State’ to 100%
- Under ‘Processor Power Management’ change ‘Maximum Processor State’ to 100%
- Under ‘Display’ change ‘Turn off display after’ to 999 minutes
- Click ‘OK’
Optimize Graphics Usage
This differs from computer to computer, but the idea is that you want to use the dedicated GPU for everything so our processor is completely free for audio. *This applies if you have an nVidia card but your experience may vary if you have a different video card*
- Disable the screen saver, it can mess things up if it turns on during a session.
- If you have an nVidia card, open the nVidia control panel.
- Go to ‘Adjust Image Settings with Preview’, select ‘Use My Preference Emphasizing’ and slide the slider all the way to performance.
- Go to ‘Manage 3d Settings’
- In ‘Global settings’ tab, select your hardware processor (nVidia) as the Preferred Graphics Processor
- If you are still experiencing performance issues after this, take the following steps:
- Open Device Manager
- Double click on ‘Display Adapters’
- Find the ‘Intel XXX Graphics’ Driver (will differ from PC to PC), double click on the device and click ‘Disable Driver’; this will force the PC to use the dedicated graphics card for everything (it helps).
It’s dumb simple, but this is actually a really important step. Out of date drivers are often a huge reason why things fail.
- If you have a Dell, install the ‘Support Assist’ app and go through their prompts to update things. UNINSTALL THIS APP WHEN YOU’RE DONE!
- If you can’t find a driver update utility, do it manually. Standard culprits for poor performance are Network and Graphics drivers. You can often times just go into the Device Manager, click on the device, and click ‘Update Drivers’ and search automatically & it will update for you.
- Update Windows
Turn off the Crap
- If you open the Task Manager, you will see that there’s a ton of crap running. Exit out of everything you can and see if anything is drawing a high amount of CPU or Memory. If there’s something non-system essential, turn it off and make note of it so we can eliminate it from startup tasks in a moment.
- In Cortana, type ‘msconfig’ (system configuration). This will allow us to select what starts up by default when the computer turns on. We want as little as possible running while doing audio.
- Select ‘Selective Startup’
- Go over to ‘Services’ and scroll through the list. Every machine is different, but if you see some crap that you are certain can be disabled, by all means disable it. Generally, leave system processes alone. There’s a handy ‘Hide all Microsoft Services Button’ to help.
- Go to the startup tab & open “Task Manager”
- Go through everything in the Startup tab in Task Manager and disable what you don’t need. Be judicial!
- Windows 10 by default forces updates, which means all kinds of downloading of nonsense can happen in the background. You can fix this by staying disconnected to the internet when recording or following this guide to disable automatic updates.
If All Else Fails
If you have done all this stuff & still aren’t achieving the latency you want, there’s a few last ditch effort things you can do.
- Reduce your color bit depth (yes things will look crappier)
- Check if your dropouts are HD or CPU related (usually if it’s a disk problem, there will be some ‘disk too slow’ error or a little light that goes off in your DAW. If this is the case, use a fast (FireWire or Thunderbolt) external HD.
- If you’re doing heavy soft synth stuff, limit polyphony.
- Work in 44.1K
- If you’re hell bent on chasing down latency (I was), you can use this free software, called LatencyMon to detect possible driver conflicts. You can then go & disable whatever drivers you may think are causing issues, losing some hardware functionality along the way. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole.
- Make sure your DAW has multi-core support & it is enabled!
- Use a 64-bit DAW
- When all else fails, raise your buffer size and use your audio-interface’s zero latency mixer to monitor. Yeah I know, it sucks.
Hopefully this helps someone! I spent way too long trying to get my PC working as well as my Macbook Pro.