VIVALDI is the new ROSSINI (Part 2)

In which we upgrade our DAW and experiment with PCIe-PCI adapter cards.

ROSSINI has four internal hard drives:

  • C: (SSD 256G) OS and applications
  • D: (SSD 256G) audio projects
  • E: (HD 1TB) backups, rips, temp
  • H: (HD 600G), mp3 library; leftover stuff from the last DAW migration 8 years ago

Every time I upgrade my DAW I end up with a new primary OS drive and then I move over the drives from the older machine. ROSSINI was the third generation, and only some of the drives are transitioning to VIVALDI. E: and H: still have gobs of free space.

VIVALDI has a 512 GB SSD as the primary drive (it's a tiny thing mounted directly on the motherboard!) and room for three additional full-size drives.

First up, some file management to back up the contents of D: to H: and also put everything I'll need (installers, product keys, license files, sound libraries) on E:.

Then, D: and E: transferred cleanly into the new chassis:

image

I also upgrade the power supply, replacing the no-brand Dell 450W unit with a brand new SMART 600W from Thermaltake. I purchased this from PC Plus in town. Support your local retailers, guys.

(I always upgrade the PSU in my DAW computers, but this time I had an additional reason that I'll get to later.)

There's a free bay on the bottom left, but I'll keep C: and H: in ROSSINI for now to serve as a backup machine for now, and eventually as a perfectly serviceable general-purpose PC. (The 4-core i7-920 is no slouch, really, and it has 16 GB RAM.)

Next Step: Powering up; cleaning up the Windows 10 Pro default installation (I can't believe the number of options you have to disable to make it bearable); and installing my suite of audio applications, VSTs, and libraries.

That took about a full day.

Now it's time to see how the Focusrite 6i6 USB 2.0 audio interface performs (see previous post for details of testing in ROSSINI):

Computer: VIVALDI
Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 USB2.0
 

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 25.5 ms 1102 samples 0.037 sec
128 13.1 ms 578 samples 0.020 sec
64 8.2 ms 362 samples 0.013 sec

The RTL latency tested out exactly the same as ROSSINI! I was expecting better performance but it seems that RTL is not affected by processor speed or core count.

However, if you recall, playback of a large project on ROSSINI at 256 did result in clicks and pops. On VIVALDI, the same project played back smoothly at 128 but started clicking at 64.

Bottom line: It appears I could use the external USB 2.0 Focusrite 6i6 on VIVALDI and get almost the same RTL performance as the ECHO Layla 3G internal PCI card on ROSSINI. I'd call it acceptable.

But we're not done yet. A few days earlier, a timely post from John Kenn on the Cakewalk SONAR Hardware forum suggested an interesting alternative: using a PCIe -> PCI adapter card. Perhaps we could use the ECHO Layla in VIVALDI after all?

Checking the specs on the Layla PCI card: it's a half-height/low profile universal voltage PCI card (3.3V/5V).

Worth experimenting with, I think. Ahead of time, I ordered this PCI Express to PCI Adapter Card from StarTech.com for $60, and it arrived just before VIVALDI was shipped:

image

One catch: I needed a spare molex power connector to supply additional voltage to the adapter card. The generic PSU in the new XPS 8930 did not have any molex leads!

No problem. I was going to upgrade the PSU anyway, I'd just make sure I got one with standard molex as well as the usual MB, FAN, and SATA connectors. The SMART 600W from Thermaltake fit the requirements.

The adaptor card fit snugly into a spare PCIe x4 slot on the motherboard:

image

It's sufficiently distant from the GPU fan that I don't think there'll be an issue there. (I don't plan to drive the GPU too hard anyway).

The ECHO PCI card piggy-backs on to the adapter card without trouble:

image

In the picture above it looks as though the PCI card is having trouble sitting firmly in the PCI socket, but that's on me - when I took the photo I hadn't firmly located the two cards together. It's tight, but they mate well together without using excessive force.

In fact, I recommend connecting the two cards together outside the chassis and then inserting them as one unit into the PCIe slot.  Just for kicks, I'll show you the result:

image

Yeah, that's not going to work as-is. The full-size back plate on the ECHO PCI card is going to have to be modified, or...

The solution is to remove the back-plate from the PCI card, and swap the back-plate on the adapter card with an alternative one that ships with it:

image

Without a back-plate of its own, the PCI card has more movement than I'm comfortable with, but luckily there's a lip on the alternative back-plate that the card can rest against, and a convenient hole in the card that I could use to hold the PCI card in place using a little bolt with washers on either side.

Nice, just like a bought one.

Final assembly:

image

Not bad.

Power up; install ECHO drivers (they still work well in Windows 10 despite only being certified for Windows 7).

Works perfectly. Measurements are IDENTICAL to ROSSINI:

Computer: VIVALDI
Interface: ECHO Layla 3G PCI via PCIe adapter

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 13.7 ms 602 samples 0.015 sec
128 7.8 ms 346 samples 0.010 sec
64 4.9 ms 218 samples 0.007 sec

That's fantastic. Thanks John Kenn for the suggestion to investigate PCIe-PCI adapters. Apparently they work.

VIVALDI is the new ROSSINI

This little piggy, thinks he deserves an(other) upgrade. - The Prodigal Sounds, "The God Program"

"VIVALDI" is the name I have given to my new Dell XPS 8930 tower. It's a i7-8700 6-core processor with 32 GB RAM because, why not.

It replaces - or will replace - "ROSSINI" which is a Dell Studio XPS 9000, with an i7-920 4-core 8 GB RAM (recently upgraded to 16 GB).

Long-time readers will be experiencing deja vu at this point.

image3

PCI or USB? Or Firewire?

ROSSINI has been super-stable for me over the last 8 years with a PCI-buss audio interface from ECHO, the Layla 3G. 8 inputs, 8 outputs, SPDIF I/O and MIDI... it's the perfect interface for me.  Ideally, I'd just move the audio card over to the new computer, along with the hard drives.

However, the new boy does not have a PCI card slot. (Good luck finding a modern motherboard that has one!) It only has PCIe, which are smaller and not plug-compatible with the older standard.

I could go on a rant here about how it's been a long, long time since computer hardware companies gave a damn about backward-compatibility... but nobody's got time for that.

I was prepared to say goodbye to my beloved Layla, if only I could find an alternative that worked. Not being able to afford a PCIe based interface from RME, I decided to experiment. USB 2.0-based audio interfaces are super-popular right now, because they are relatively cheap, and computers have become fast enough to handle the overhead of pushing the bits around.

I found a good price on a mid-range USB 2.0 device, the Focusrite Scarlett 6i6, 2nd Gen. They've had pretty good reviews, but I still didn't really have an understanding of the relative real-world performance between modern USB-based and PCI/PCIe interfaces.

"Performance" can mean several things in the context of digital audio interfaces:

  • digital-to-analog conversation accuracy
  • signal-to-noise ratios (noise or hiss generated in the analog circuitry)
  • data transfer latency (how fast can you get audio in and out of the computer?)

DAC quality is probably the least of our problems, it's kind of a solved problem at any reasonable level of affordability.

S/N ratios are interesting because you definitely get what you pay for, especially when amplifying low input levels (such as required of microphone pre-amplifiers). That's why you'll see advertising blurbs talk about how "best in class" the mic-pres are on interfaces that offer such features, but no-one really cares about the DACs.

For my purposes, the ECHO Layla's two microphone inputs have done me just fine, and this is from an interface that was introduced back in a time when having any mic pres  at all was a big deal, let alone who designed them or what the specs were.

I'm really only interested in measuring and comparing the total "round-trip" latency (RTL) of the interface: How much of a delay is introduced by the analog input and output circuits; the Digital to Analog conversion stage, and how the bits are pushed through the buss, in and out of the CPU and hard disks?

There's more than one way to skin this particular cat (ASIO? WASAPI? WDM?) , so to keep things manageable, I'm comparing two ASIO interfaces, and just varying the buffer size to see what we get. (smaller buffer size = shorter delay; larger buffer size = longer delay but more stability)

Before I took ROSSINI apart, I took some measurements. The ASIO driver can report the latency to the audio software but you can also measure it by feeding an output of the interface back into an input; recording a transient (i.e. a snare hit) and then measuring the delay between the original audio clip and the resulting recording. By swiping in the time-line in SONAR/Cakewalk,  I can read off a measurement in seconds:

image8

Results:

Computer: ROSSINI
Interface: ECHO Layla 3G PCI

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 13.7 ms 602 samples 0.015 sec
128 7.8 ms 346 samples 0.010 sec
64 4.9 ms 218 samples 0.007 sec



Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 USB2.0

Buffer Size ASIO Reported RTL Measured RTL
----------- --------------------- ------------
256 25.5 ms 1102 samples 0.037 sec
128 13.1 ms 578 samples 0.020 sec
64 8.2 ms 362 samples 0.013 sec


Some observations:

  • The measured RTL delay is slightly more than what the ASIO driver is reporting;
  • It takes the USB-based 6i6 roughly twice as long to push audio data around the loop than the PCI-based Layla3G.

Conclusions:

  • Perhaps there's another layer of processing outside of what the driver can measure. Disk read/write?
  • 11 ms is right around the point at which the delay is imperceptible to humans, and in order to get that on the Focusrite 6i6 I would have to reduce the buffer size down to an unstable level.

A less scientific test was next: I tried loading up one of my projects and playing back through the Focusrite 6i6. Even at a buffer size of 256 , I was getting a regular click or stutter every 8 seconds or so. However I have to acknowledge the caveat that this was not a normal configuration - i was reading the project data from a different location than normal:  H: drive is spinning-metal hard drive and not my usual D: SSD audio drive. So I am not drawing any conclusions from that test. It would have been nice if it had played back flawlessly under those conditions, though, wouldn't it?

Next step is to see how the USB-based interface performs in the new DAW, with substantially more CPU power available to it. My understanding is that a higher-powered CPU will affect the performance of a USB-based interface more than a PCI- or PCIe-based one, due to the different amount of work performed in software for USB vs. the PCI architecture.