Progressive Rock Artist seeks Audience

Category: Computers

ROSSINI is the new KABUKI

This little piggy, thinks he deserves an upgrade. – The Prodigal Sounds, “The God Program”

ROSSINI is the name I have given to my new Digital Audio Workstation computer. It’s a Dell Studio XPS 9000, with an i7-920 processor and 8 GB RAM running 64-bit Windows 7.

First, the good:

It’s a great case, with plenty of room. I specifically ordered it with only one hard drive. My older DAW, KABUKI, has two hard drives: the OS and software lives on the primary disk, and the SONAR projects and music archive and related files reside on the second. My plan was to lift drive 2 out of KABUKI and install it as the second drive in ROSSINI. This plan worked perfectly.

There was one drawback (dawback?): I also transplanted the PCI audio interface (M-Audio Delta 66) from KABUKI into ROSSINI, but ROSSINI only has one PCI slot, and it is right at the edge of the motherboard, which means that the back panel – the metal strip with the connections on it – is located in the last available slot, right at the bottom of the tower case. The 15-pin D-connector couldn’t actually be plugged in because the curved plastic base panel of the tower case overlapped too far, preventing the plug from aligning with the socket. 

You can sort of see where I’m talking about, in this picture from the Dell web site:

Not a problem: Set big-ass soldering iron to “imolate” and perform case mod. Now there is a nice (well, “scorched”) cutaway in the plastic lip, just the right size for the D-connector.

One reason for the upgrade is because M-Audio finally came out with 64-bit drivers for the Delta-66 (and the other interface I use, the Midisport 2×2 USB). I love the Delta, it’s been rock-solid under Windows XP in KABUKI for the last 5 or so years, so I didn’t see the point in upgrading until I could go fully 64-bit.

A word about Windows 7. I’m only using it because I want 64-bit. Under Windows XP, even if I had maxed out the computer with 4 GB RAM, Cakewalk’s SONAR could only access a maximum of 3.5 GB, and of course it is sharing the 4 GB with Windows itself. Under 64-bit windows, any 32-bit process can access a full 4 GB, if available. And of course, a 64-bit native application is not limited at all.

SONAR 8.5 is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but I am planning on sticking with the 32-bit version for now. I use a lot of 32-bit plugins – VST and DXi effects and synthesizers – that, although they would probably mostly work in 64-bit SONAR, would require a translation layer. I’m fine with the 32-bit version. A 4 GB memory limit is still more than twice what I was getting on KABUKI. In upgrading to ROSSINI, my sonar projects also have twice as many processor cores to abuse. (KABUKI was dual-core, ROSSINI’s i7-920 has four cores – eight if you count hyper-threading which I’m not sure that I do).

So far, everything is running O.K, although I suspect some kind of memory leak is going on, possibly in the audio driver. After about 30 minutes of working and recording takes, I get a nasty burst of digital noise every time I press RECORD and SONAR stops playback. Well, it keeps advancing along the time line as though it *was* playing back, but no sound is emitted. I’m still working on diagnosing this – there are a lot of places the problem could be stemming from.

Listing VST plugins used by a SONAR project

Cakewalk SONAR and similar DAW applications allow you to use third party “plugins” such as effect processors or “soft” synthesizers. These plugins – usually VST or DXi format – take the form of DLL files (on Windows anyway), installed somewhere on your local file system. I use several commercial plugins, but there are also many free, high-quality offerings from many different vendors both professional and amateur, available for download from the Internet. After a while, your hard drive can be littered with DLL files in various locations. In my case, many of these I have downloaded, installed, evaluated, and rejected, but left around in case I ever want to try them on something else.

So when it comes to backing up your system, it would be nice to know which plugins you are actually using! Unfortunately, in SONAR at least, there is no convenient way to list the plugins in use in a project. I asked this question on the SONAR forum, and received a couple of helpful replies, but I am happy to report that I have found another way:

You will need a utility called Sysinternals Process Explorer, which you can download from that link.

  • Run SONAR and load up your project (or projects).
  • Run Process Explorer. You will see a list of all the applications and processes currently running.
  • Locate and high-light SONARPDR.exe in the list. (That’s Sonar Producer. I do not know what name Sonar Studio would have.)
  • Press Ctrl-L to toggle the display of the lower pane, then Ctrl-D to display DLL files(instead of file handles).
  • Right-click on the column headings and choose Select Columns… and enable the [x] Path checkbox.

At this point you might see something like this:

This shows all the DLL files that SONAR has referenced as it loaded the project. I’ve clicked on the Path column to sort the list by file location, to make it easier to see the plugins differentiated from the other support files that SONAR uses. At that resolution it is difficult to read the text, so here is a portion of the image at normal size:

Here we can see that the project I have loaded is using TruePianos, Vintage Channel 64, pretty much all of the Sonitus FX suite, and Arturia’s awesome CS-80V. Oh, and a free audio “chopper” effect I downloaded from somewhere on the Internet called Gate3.

Once I’ve noted these down, I can switch to Sonar and load a different project, then switch back to Process Exporer and refresh the list with the F5 key. I will see a different set of DLL files. 

Interesting point: It seems that when you close and open a new project, not all the plugin DLLs will necessarily be closed. For example, when I switched to a project that used XLN Addictive Drums but did not use Arturia’s CS-80V, the AddictiveDrums.dll showed up in the list, but the CS80VDx.dll stayed visible (the CS80V.dll, however, did not remain in the list.). So if you want to be completely sure to see only those plugins used in the project, close SONAR and repeat the steps above for the next project.

Audio Hard Drive Hell

Maestro, my music PC, was acting up. It would stop recording, stutter, or just plain fail to perform its function of being a digital audio workstation. I finally did what I should have done a while back: benchmarked exactly how many stereo 24-bit audio tracks it could handle before suffering from “dropouts” which is when the software halts because it is too busy to keep up with the audio flow.

The answer was 8.

I thought this sounded a little low, so I did some research on other users of the software to see what was acceptable to them. They were pretty shy about it, citing things like “well, it depends on your hardware, etc etc” (even the KEYBOARD magazine review of the software wouldn’t say), but eventually I found a review online that came out and said 72.

72!!!

OK, so maybe they were mono tracks. So, in stereo that’d be… 31.

I got 8.

The online review went on to say that with tweaking, he could get 110. (I’m sure they were mono tracks.)

Aaughhh! As Charlie Brown would say.

After much audio parameter tweaking and changing cluster sizes and posting on the newsgroup for advice, I was still unable to record a 9th track without the “disk activity” meter pegging at 95% followed by a dropout.

Clearly, the wonderful choice of a Ultra-Wide SCSI-only disk subsystem for Maestro when I specified it two years ago just wasn’t cutting it any more (I don’t think the data throughput rate went *down* exactly, it just wasn’t the right choice for audio applications.

After some consideration of budget, size and speed, and desirable goals of having at least two useable PC’s at the end of the day, we ordered (1) ATA/100 60GB Hard disk and (1) ATA/100 controller card. (ATA-100 is a fast but different kind of hard disk interface from SCSI.)

Last night I dismantled Derek’s old PC (we dubbed it “Athena”) and Maestro, threw all the hard drives into the air and held out a PC chassis in each hand, catching the drives as they fell. (ok, not really!)

End result: Athena has the SCSI system, with the two hard drives, CDR, and CDRW originally from Maestro. As primary boot disk she has the 15GB IDE drive. The case is pretty full, but it seems to be working.

Maestro has the motherboard IDE controller disabled, as before, but now has the ATA/100 controller card in a PCI slot. He’s running the 6GB drive from Derek’s old PC as a boot device (operating system and other audio software) along with the CDROM on one IDE channel, and the new ATA/100 disk on the other channel, as a dedicated audio storage drive and back up drive. 

End result? After reinstalling all the drivers, software, etc, and loading up my test project, I got it playing back 20 stereo tracks, with the disk activity meter hovering pretty steady around 38%. Say 40%. I didn’t continue, but I conservatively estimate 40 stereo tracks would be a safe top end for this configuration. That’s much more in the ballpark.

So, happy happy. Studio work continues.

The Music Heats Up

The other day I was creating a CD on Maestro, my music studio computer, when I noticed hot air being exuded from the open CD drive. I reached down to feel the side of the PC. It was hot! Very hot! I took the side panel off and took a closer look. The power supply fan had seized up, and the power supply looked like it might melt at any time – I could not rest my fingers on it, in fact it was spit-sizzling hot if you want a graphic description. I quickly shut down the open applications and turned off the computer. I was suprised it was still running ok, but I guess the processor fan was still ok, so it didn’t malfunction.

Anyway, that afternoon I made some phone calls to see if any place local had a 250W ATX power supply, and none did. I knew the place that would have it: PC Club on Sahara, or failing that, next door at CompUSA, a larger store in a popular chain.

At 4:30 I jumped in the car and drove 20 minutes down the freeway and walked in to PC Club.

Here’s an aside: It must have been about 7 years ago that I made a trip from NZ to the States to visit Lisa, and we drove to Vegas to visit her Dad, and of course Stan had computer problems – probably a RAM upgrade – and he took us to PC Club which is where he got the machine from, or something like that. Anyway – my point is a) it’s cool that a small hobbyist kind of place is still in business 7 years later, and b) never in a million years would I have imagined going there for my own PC needs. But I digress.

PC Club had lots of Power Supply Units (PSUs) sitting on a shelf, so I grabbed one, opened the box and checked that it was the right size, and bought it.

It was about 6:15 when I got home again. Traffic was a little stinky given the hour of the day… but I figured I had an hour before I wanted to start cooking (Farscape was on the SciFi channel at 8:00 and we’ve kind of got into the habit of watching it with dinner), so I lugged Maestro onto the kitchen table and disconnected the power supply, putting on the table next to the new one.

That’s when I noticed that I had bought an AT-style power supply instead of an ATX one. (Basically, the connections to the motherboard are all different). Argh!

After some meditating, I decided to drive back out and see if I could swap the PSU for a more suitable one. I really didn’t feel like driving back down the valley, but on the other hand, I wanted to get this out of the way – I didn’t like the thought of Maestro being out of commission.

Traffic was lighter heading South on ’95, and I took a slightly different route, having figured out on the last trip that there was an easier way to go. I walked in to PC Club and the clerks laughed at me as I held up Maestro’s PSU saying “I made a mistake. I need one of these instead!” (This is a really newbie mistake, I was really annoyed at myself for getting confused.)

“Well, let’s see,” said John the sales clerk. “It looks like we don’t have any 250W ATX PSUs,” he observed, checking the shelves. “We do have these 350W ones, but they look like they’ll be too big. We’ll have some new ones delivered tomorrow, I think, do you want to call in and see?”

“Ah, well, I guess I could call,” I replied, grumbling. I really didn’t want to waste the second drive down and then drive down yet *again* the following day. I got a card with contact details and took my dead PSU and the new (wrong) one back the car and resigned myself to the inevitable.

It’s a stupid driveway – you have to exit on to Sahara the wrong way, then do a U-turn to head back to Valley View in order to get back on the ’95 Northbound freeway. After making the U turn (waiting for a gap *forever*, the traffic having gotten worse for some reason) and heading back to the intersection I see the red neon of CompUSA (which was next door to PC Club).

“Hang on,” I thought. “They might have the right PSU. I should check them out.” So I did *another* U-turn and headed back East on Sahara, pulling into the CompUSA parking lot.

I was still holding the dead PSU, dangling by its connector cables. They put a sticker on it at the door so that no-one would think I was stealing dead power supplies from CompUSA.

CompUSA did not have any 250W ATX power supplies. They did have two: a 400W and a 500W respectively. In frustration I opened one of the boxes to observe that they were the same size as the dead 250W one.

I discovered that CompUSA have display cases which are just the right height for beating one’s forehead against.

I walked back to PC Club, still clutching Maestro’s dead PSU. The sales clerks laughed a second time.

“OK, I’ve just seen 400W and 500W PSUs in CompUSA that are the same size as this one. Can we open one of the boxes of your 350W units to see if they are actually the same size?”

We did, and it was, and I made the exchange. OK, a bit more expensive than I’d thought, but it couldn’t hurt to have a good quality and more capable power supply in Maestro anyway.

Once again, I drove out the wrong way, waited for a gap, made the U-turn, and headed for home.

Maestro is running nice and cool now.

RAM

Computer RAM prices were at the lowest they’ve been for a while, so I decided to order some DIMMs and max out all the machines we own. Maestro, my music studio computer now takes 2 minutes to go through it’s power on memory check, and I have to do a double take when I see it’s got 640kB – wait, that’s 640 MB – of RAM. Not to boast or anything. But I have on occasion processed an entire CD’s worth of audio (cross-fades, E.Q., that kind of thing) and it is fun to load the whole thing into RAM and get the performance boost from not having to page on and off hard disk. So it’s utility, not frivolous <g>.

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