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PC Maintenance and Audio Tweaks

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:LongLanguages:

Ever wonder why your computer gets audio dropouts? Worse yet getting audio dropouts while recording!? Well, in a world dominated by Macs there are those who still stand by their PCs but may need a little bit of help getting their computers up to snuff. If this sounds like you then read on as we tackle drivers, IRQs, DPC latency, system maintenance, and a host of other things audio computers face in the modern world. Tweaking in excitement? Then lets tweak!


Pre-Reading Notice: MUST READ

This tutorial assumes you will be using Windows Vista or Windows 7 as your primary OS. Some of the tweaks presented in this tutorial are very simple and harmless where as others could be detrimental to your computer if you do not know exactly what you are doing. In addition, the exact execution of some of the more advanced tweaks will vary depending on your computer. To help those who would deal one and not the other, this tutorial will separated into two large chapters, General Maintenance and Under the Hood. Remember every system is a little different so not every scenario can be written out; discretion is advised. Tweak at your own risk.


General Computer Maintenance

Ever wonder why your computer gets slower and slower as time goes on? This can be the result of a dying motherboard or PSU (power supply) but more often than not is a result of a poorly maintained OS (operating system). In this section we are going to go over issues such as file maintenance, startup programs, background processes, and system priority. With that in mind lets clean up this mess!


General Computer Maintenance: Startup Programs and Background Processes

The stuff that starts up as soon as windows has loaded is often times some of the most useless stuff you will ever find on a computer; especially if you have bought a preconfigured computer from a major brand. The amount of processing resources that these programs take up can be astounding in some cases and as such it needs dealt with to ensure the computer focus more on you audio program and not these other tasks. (Remember Windows is a multitasking OS so it will try to do everything at once.)

Startup Programs

  • Open the start menu and click on "Control Panel".
  • Click on "Programs".
  • Under the word "Default Programs" is the option "Stop a Program from Running at Startup". Click this option.
  • From here all startup programs will be listed by manufacturer and by clicking on a program you will be able to choose whether to remove it from startup, disable it for this session, or to re-enable a disabled program.

If you do not sure exactly what the program does...do not touch it!


Background Processes

  • First press Ctrl + Alt + Del and click on "Start Task Manager".
  • After the new window pops up make sure you are under the processes tab.
  • You will now see a whole list of the running processes on your computer. the actual file name is on the left, the basic description should be on your right, and right next to the description should be the amount of memory that a processes is using.
  • If you see a processes that you recognize as harmless you can right click it and choose end process to terminate it.
  • Keep in mind that this is only a temporary fix as next time you start your computer they will reappear, but if you are not comfortable with more advanced control of your processes then this will be a much safer way to go; but still be careful! (We will cover how to permanently keep these changes at later.)


General Computer Maintenance: File Maintenance and System Priority

Now that we have a little more control over our programs we need to start setting some general settings for our computer to better run audio. One of the simplest ways to do this is to set the priority of our program to the highest possible setting. Every process has a priority that the CPU uses to determine who gets processed first. Something to keep in mind however, if your computer is older and not as powerful you may end up slowing it down to a crawl by setting an audio program to a higher priority than a windows essential process.

System Priority

  • First press Ctrl + Alt + Del and click on "Start Task Manager".
  • After the new window pops up make sure you are under the processes tab.
  • Now that we are back into the processes window, with your audio program open, find its process and right click it.

You should see an option called "Set Priority" and if you hover over it you will have a drop down menu with the different levels of priority. Choose the priority that best fits your system so that the audio program runs faster but the system as a whole stays stable. Just like with ending a process, the changes will not stay when you restart your computer. (However I do have a fix you at the end of the chapter if it bothers you.)


File Maintenance

File Maintenance for an audio computer can be a little bit trickier that maintenance for other forms of media. When we are working on mix we are dealing with multiple audio files scattered across the computer; some programs also have fade files as well they need to handle. When we are doing any form of recording, the computer will usually put all the files in order on the hard drive very nicely (not referring to folder structure but physical placement on the hard disk). When they are inline the computer can find the files very quickly and it makes the whole program run smoother. However, if you have EVER defragged your computer you may have offset this order.

Defragging is the means by which we optimize the space on our hard drive. Whenever you delete something, the computer removes that files entry from wherever it was. However there is now a gap in place that only a file the same size or smaller can fit. What defragging does it is closes up all those gaps so the total amount of space is optimized but at the price of file order being disrupted. So if all your audio files in a folder are now scattered everywhere, it will take longer for the computer to find and read them. (In real time no less!)

The best way to maintain files for an audio computer is to have all of your audio files on a separate hard drive and keep all of your programs on the C: drive. After all with how much hard drive space we have now and days, is there a reason to delete any audio files? You never know when you may need them! But there is an added benefit to keeping the two separate; two hard drives work faster than one. If your C: drive only has to worry about running the programs and the audio drive only has to worry about finding and reading the audio files your system will run much faster.

Say you have already defragged your drive however, is there a way to fix it? If you are ready to start using a second hard drive then yes, my friend, there is a way.

  • Start by finding a project that has everything self contained. That includes audio files, presets, save files, etc.
  • On your blank hard drive create some master folder ("Audio" maybe?) that you can put all of your projects in.
  • Next paste your project into the new hard drive.

The computer will now write all of the files to the new hard drive in order since you are pasting them over there in order. Now you will get the benefit of having optimized file orders and using two hard drives. Brilliant! If you cannot get a second hard drive you can copy and paste your project to another location and it should have the same effect but without the added benefit of two hard drives.


General Computer Maintenance: Helpful Software

After all of these procedures have been done you will need a more basic way to maintain your computer to prevent any other problems from arising. Thankfully, there is software already designed to help optimize your computer safely and effectively. Oh and did I mention free?

Advanced System Care from Iobit

The undisputable king of computer maintenance, Advanced System Care from Iobit does everything you need it to do. It comes in two flavors, free and paid but the free version is still stellar. I personally have never found a bad review of it and has worked great for me. From system optimization to file management, if you use this at least once a week your system will stay much cleaner in the long run. In addition, it creates a system backup before it performs any changes just in case they do screw something up. Make sure you turn off any options you do not want to run however if they do not sound appealing to you.

www.iobit.com

Prio from O&K Software

Remember how I said we couldn't keep our process priority settings once we restarted? Well I was not lying to you but I do have a very quick and painless fix. Prio from O&K Software is a simple small install the will keep your priorities saved so you never have to touch them again. The only part of Prio you will see is a new option in the Task Manager called "Save Priority". If this new option has a check next to it, then your priority is saved; simple!

www.prnwatch.com/prio.html



Under the Hood

Now that we have our system as a whole running smoother it is time to start diving into the darker parts of our OS to really fine tune the system for audio. In here we are going to cover the device manager, device drivers (not audio drivers), IRQs, etc. This section will contain more advanced concepts and should not be attempted by beginners; you have be warned (a couple times now actually).


Under the Hood: Device Manager

Every piece of hardware connected to your computer or in your motherboard is considered a device by Windows. Each one is unique to the computer and can be independently controlled on some level. While most home computing machines do not need to worry about all of the devices, we need to make sure all of our resources are going where we want them. To do this we need to use the Device Manager.

  • Open the Start Menu and type in "Device Manager" (without the quotes).
  • Once you see the option for the device manager click it to open it.
  • You should see a window that looks like the screenshot below.
  • If your window looks different click on "View" and select "Devices by Type".
  • Keep this window open as we will be using it for the rest of the tutorial.


Under the Hood: Device Drivers

Now that we are familiar with what the device manager is, let us put it to the test. Many home and project studio users do not have need for an internal PCI-E soundcard and instead opt for Firewire or USB. While we all know how to update our soundcards drivers, did you know that your Firewire ports and USB ports have drivers as well?

One common problem with Firewire soundcards is that there tends to be dropouts despite the higher bandwidth. While it has not been proven definitively, it is generally accepted that the Firewire drivers with Vista and Windows 7 are less than adequate for streaming audio. To make matters worse, it is generally accepted (but not by everybody of course) that only the Texas Instruments Firewire chipset is reliable for real time audio over Firewire.

If you are having stability issues with your Firewire interface then try this tweak to see if your system stabilizes a little better.

Legacy Firewire and Updating Devices

  • With the device manager open, go and open the IEEE 1394 Bus Host Controller tab.
  • In the drop down menu you should see a list of the Firewire ports on your computer.
  • If you have more than available, you will need to figure out which one is your soundcard is connected to. To do this, simply right click the port, and select "Disable" to turn it off. If your soundcard stopped working then you found it. (Be very careful if you have a hard drive plugged into one of these. Turning off the port could be very bad for the HDD; I recommend turning off the HDD first and unplugging it.)
  • With your Firewire port back up and running right click it again and select "Update Driver Software..."
  • In the new window click "Browse my Computer" and then click "Let me Pick from a List..."
  • If your system has the Legacy Driver then you will see an option with (Legacy) at the end, choose this driver.

My system did not have the driver available (Vista 64bit) so if you are running Vista you may or may not have the option. This issue usually pertains more to Windows 7 than Vista.


At this point you will need to stress your soundcard to see if there is any improvement. If not, you can try one of the other available Firewire drivers but DO NOT USE A DRIVER FROM ANOTHER MANUFACTURER.

If you simply want to update a devices drivers then instead of clicking "Browse My Computer" select Search Automatically for Updated Driver Software".


Under the Hood: IRQs

If anyone ever told you that a computer was a democracy then they were lying through their teeth. The CPU is the brain of the computer that performs all the processing for all the devices and their drivers on the computer. While it can multitask well, there is still a pecking order of who gets first priority. Those with a higher priority can essentially jump to the front of the line whenever they wish. What determines this order is the Interrupt Request or IRQ.

There are 16 physical lines on your mother board labeled 0-15 that determines where the signals travel; the higher the number, the higher the priority. Windows however will create virtual IRQs at higher numbers that will eventually have to tie back to a physical line. Some processes and devices are almost always on a specific IRQ while others can be anywhere. But how do you fit all of those devices on only 16 IRQs? They must learn to share.

While having a pecking order of IRQs is bad enough for an audio device that may be stuck on a lower IRQ, the problem becomes worse if it has to share and IRQ with other processor intensive devices like video cards and network cards. To figure out if there is a problem with the IRQ sharing we need to find the IRQs in windows. Follow along if you will...

  • In the Device Manager, go to View and select "Resources by Type".
  • Click on the IRQ tab and you should see the IRQ for every single device on your computer.
  • The number next to either ISA or PCI is the IRQ that the device is presently on. If there is a problem there will be a yellow exclamation point next to indicating there is a problem with the IRQ sharing.
  • Right Click an IRQ for say your Firewire port (IEEE 1394) and select "Properties".
  • Under the resources tab you will see a check box for "Use Automatic Settings", if it is grayed out then you cannot change the IRQs. If it isn't then you can manually address it to another IRQ. BEFORE YOU DO HOWEVER CONSULT YOUR MOTHER BOARD MANUFACTURER TO MAKE SURE YOU DO NOT PLACE THE DEVICE ON AN RESERVED IRQ FOR AN IMPORTANT PROCESS/DEVICE. Remember every computer is different and you will need to find the right information for your own computer.

Windows assigns these IRQs as it sees fit and hopefully you lucked out and you do not have too many devices sharing an IRQ with your soundcard (a USB port on the same IRQ as a USB device is fine). However, if you were unfortunate to find something like the graphics card or network card on the same IRQ but no exclamation point I have bad news for you; there is no simple and direct way to fix this issue. The problem is that as far as Windows cares the IRQ sharing is fine, but since we need to work in real-time, any buffer dropouts from the internet taking over or whatever can be detrimental. The only hope you have to fix this issue is to enter the BIOS of your computer before it boots windows. However, every BIOS is different and you may or may not have the option to reroute the IRQs.

Because of the sheer number of variables in doing this I will not cover how to fix the IRQs via the BIOS. However if you are persistent to fix this problem please consult your computer manufacturer or motherboard manufacturer for details and to make sure you do not void any warranties. I will warn you once more; tweak at your own risk.


Under the Hood: DPC Latency Checker

This handy tool from Theyscon analyzes the drivers running on your computer and will detect if there is one causing excessive latency. It will also tell you if your system is capable of handling streaming audio and video. It cannot however tell you exactly which device will be causing the driver latencies. You will need to disable a device in the Device Manager and then wait to see if the problem persists. If it stops you have found the offending device. Once the offending device is found you then either must update the drivers or keep it disabled. DO NOT DISABLE ANYTHING IF YOU ARE NOT EXACTLY SURE WHAT IT IS.

www.theyscon.de/deu/latency_check.shtml


Conclusion

By now I am sure your brain is half fried by looking at all of these internals to your computer. Some would claim is just isn't worth the tweaking and would rather just by a prebuilt and configured computer or a Mac. But you on the other hand enjoy it, you want to know how your computer works, or perhaps you wanted to save a couple bucks on a DIY.

In any case, keep researching on ways to better streamline your PC. A well maintained car will run longer and better than a poorly maintained car no matter what. Just remember, tweak carefully my friends. Thanks for reading!

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