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Roundup – The Performance Laptop

January 10, 2013

Laptops have made it possible to bring your computerbased studio to the stage, but the needs of musicians are quite different from salespeople lugging around laptops to corporate offices so they can run spreadsheets and do PowerPoint presentations. You want power, performance, and portability—and you want it all now.
I’ve been doing laptop-based performances for more than a decade, and learned a lot in the process. So why reinvent the wheel? Read on, and save yourself the hassles of learning the lessons I learned the hard way. And, pick up some helpful gear suggestions for the tasks at hand.

Plan for the Worst The show must go on, so if your act is laptop-based and your laptop goes down, unless you’re really, really good with acoustic guitar, singing, and kazoo, you’ll want a Plan B. And assume your computer will die, because it will—the only variable is when.

The Mirrored Computer The ultimate backup is to have two laptops with duplicated contents. No matter what happens to computer 1, just slide in computer 2 and keep on going. (It can be impractical to carry around two computers, and fortunately, there are other options, so keep reading.)

Fig. 1. Yes, this illustration is recycled from a recent Craig’s List column, but it bears repeating: Choose a computer for the job you need to do, not for its logo.

Mirroring the System Drive Many laptops make it fairly easy to remove an existing system drive and replace it. A system drive is not only the most crucial part of any computer but also the most likely element to fail (unless it’s a solid-state drive, which we’ll address later), so making an image of your system drive is inexpensive, and usually effective, insurance.

Mirroring to a New Computer The next best option is being able to mirror your computer on demand. If the problem involves not just a drive but something like a motherboard failure, you will likely need to buy a new laptop or borrow one. The best way to be prepared for this scenario is to bring all data necessary to reconstruct your set, as well as any host programs or plug-ins you use. Thankfully, the days of having to insert a CD-ROM for verification are behind us, but you will need serial numbers and activation codes to install from a set of backup discs or from online.

Fig. 2. Adapters like Belkin’s Thunderbolt Express Dock let Thunderbolt drive a host of legacy devices.
When creating your backup data set, be aware of any “gotcha” data. Some crucial data may live in a documents folder on your system drive, so make sure you have all of the data and preferences a program needs—a “file not found” error message during soundcheck is a buzzkill.

Don’t overlook demo versions as a possible way to save your act. For example, the demo version of Ableton Live (the software I use for live performance) does everything except save. So, if anything happens to the registered version on my computer, I can download the demo, perform my set, use all the effects and instruments, and carry on.

Fig. 3. An extension cable keeps dongles from sticking out from the motherboard, which invites breaking them off at the base—and could necessitate a pricey motherboard replacement.
Backup Cloud storage is wonderful—except when your hotel’s internet connection makes dial-up look blazingly fast. You often need a gigabyte or more to reconstruct everything needed for your set, and that can translate to hours of download time. So, while having cloud backup is prudent, have a physical backup as well.

USB sticks or SD cards often have sufficient storage capacity for backup, which, given their robust nature and fast transfer times, makes them ideal. For really large amounts of data, external drives are inexpensive and plentiful. Solid-state external drives (SSDs) are even better, as they’re pretty much immune to mechanical shocks, and can tolerate the rigors of the road better than platter-based, mechanical hard drives. Call me paranoid, but I use the cloud and carry some kind of drive and DVD-ROMs . . . then again, I’ve never had to cancel a performance.

Fig. 4. Kensington’s MicroSave DS keyed notebook lock fits the standard Kensington security slot found in 99% of notebooks and computer devices.
Mac vs. Windows For many people, their platform of choice is like a religion, but bear with me (Figure 1). For live performance, computers are basically appliances dedicated to running your software of choice. Sure, there are differences in the operating system between Windows and Mac—but onstage, the first thing you do is leave the operating system and open your fave application. Programs like Native Instruments Traktor, Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live, and so on look and feel pretty much the same regardless of the platform you use.

For about a decade, I used nothing but Apple gear for live performance. Apple makes great computers, and the older models were much easier to maintain tha Windows machines. Now, I use Windows products live simply because if anything goes wrong, it’s easier to replace a Windows machine. Apple has about 250 Apple Stores in the U.S., and also sells through Best Buy (with about 1,055 stores) and local authorized dealers. But you can buy Windows laptops not only at Best Buy, but also Target (1,740 stores), Office Depot (1,100 stores), Staples (1,575 stores), OfficeMax (almost 1,000 stores), and various other outlets.

Also, while Apple makes gorgeous laptops, they can be overkill for live performance. You’re paying for the extra battery life (which doesn’t matter, for reasons we’ll explain later), the lighter weight, the retina display, and Industrial Design of the Gods. You’re more likely to be able to afford two Windows machines and have a mirrored backup than two fully loaded Macs.

Fig. 5. For the best performance, run your processors to the max under AC power.
Use whatever you want when you get home. However, some considerations could sway you toward one platform or the other for live performance.

With Windows, you’re on your own as far as tech support—don’t expect the salesperson at Target to provide much help. With Apple, you can bring any laptop under warranty to any Apple store, anywhere. Apple also maintains a database of names and serial numbers, so you don’t even have to bring any paperwork, and they’ll know if your particular production run was prone to any problems.

Another problem with Windows machines from “big box” stores is they usually come loaded with junk, like trial versions of software you don’t need, bloated “assistance software” that’s just a waste of drive space, and the like. These can slow down performance, and what’s worse, you may not receive the actual Windows OS discs, which would let you wipe the hard drive clean, install Windows, and start over. Learning how to get rid of the bloatware isn’t difficult, but if you don’t know how to do it, you’ll likely run back screaming back into the comforting arms of an Apple store.

But there’s much to be said for the low replacement cost of Windows computers, and the ability to get them up and running in very little time. Furthermore, companies like PC Audio Labs, Rain, and ADK make laptops designed specifically for musical applications. They’re more expensive than a cheapo Toshiba from Office Depot, but they basically you give you an Apple-type, optimized experience on the Windows platform.

Fig. 6. Disable wi-fi and other performance drains using Windows’ Device Manager.
In any event, you want to choose the right laptop, so check for the following.

  • With non-Retina MacBook Pros, pay the extra money for an internal 7,200 RPM drive, or do the DIY upgrade for less. The same is true for Windows. The extra speed compared to a standard 5,400 RPM drive means everything happens faster and audio streams better.
  • Solid-state system drives are appealing, but be careful. 250 or 500GB may sound like a lot of storage, but you’d be amazed how fast that gets eaten up with today’s programs and media, particularly sample libraries if you use virtual instruments. If you do get an SSD, factor in an external drive to hold library data and the like, even though this reduces portability somewhat.
  • A bigger screen is worth the extra bucks and portability hassles. You just can’t look cool on stage if you’re squinting.
  • Don’t worry about battery life. Laptops have all kind of power management schemes for squeezing the last possible drops of energy out of batteries, but these degrade performance. Run off AC power when you’re onstage, and set the power options for maximum performance, not minimum power consumption.
  • Don’t skimp on RAM. Extra RAM and additional processor cores are investments that pay rich dividends.
  • Make sure you have the ports you need. This is important enough that it deserves its own discussion.
  • Fig. 7: The window on the left uses DPC Latency Checker to show a laptop’s performance prior to performing the system tweaks mentioned in the text; the red spikes in particular will almost certainly cause dropouts at lower latencies. The window on the right shows performance after turning off unnecessary devices, closing unnecessary programs, and changing the look from Aero to Classic.
    Interfaces Avoid a computer’s internal audio if possible, which implies adding an audio interface. If you’re thinking of FireWire, also think back to when Roland Reagan was president, Human League was topping the charts, and Dell introduced a computer with a blazingly fast 16MHz processor—because that’s when FireWire was born (although both it and USB came into prominence in the mid-’90s). FireWire has had a great run and will continue to serve us well, but it’s getting harder to find laptops with FireWire ports. Some Windows laptops have ExpressCard slots where you can insert a FireWire card, but that’s kind of a kludge, and not particularly stable (from a mechanical standpoint) for live performance.

    Although USB is the most universal solution these days, Thunderbolt is now being built into Windows laptops as well as Macs. Thunderbolt is an extremely fast (10Gbit/second data transfer), low-latency interface protocol, although currently, the only audio interface available for Thunderbolt is Universal Audio’s Apollo, and as of this writing it’s Mac-only—although that may have changed by the time this issue hits the streets.

    One of Thunderbolt’s great features is that with various adapters (Figure 2), you can easily run FireWire, Ethernet, USB, and even PCI cards from the interface; your older gear won’t become a doorstop. It’s entirely possible that someday, the easiest way to run a FireWire interface will be through a Thunderbolt adapter.

    Laptop Security The same element of portability that makes laptops so desirable for live performance also makes them easy targets for theft, and 97% of stolen laptops are never recovered. But there’s more to security than theft, like making sure your laptop doesn’t go crashing to the floor, or damaging the motherboard by catching a dongle on something. Here’s a grab bag of tips to keep your laptop safe.

  • Never leave a laptop, or computer bag, visible in your car when it’s parked. Keep your computer in the trunk, or hidden in a brown paper shopping bag.
  • At the airport, when you have to take the computer out of its bag, put it on the X-ray machine’s conveyor belt last, after your belt, shoes, carry-on, etc. It’s almost impossible for someone to take your laptop and go out the way you came in, but if it’s the first thing off the belt, it’s all too easy for someone to grab it while you’re being wanded or felt up by a TSA worker.
  • The computer can build up a static charge when it goes through the X-ray machine. Don’t touch any of the ports when picking up the computer; touch the cover first to discharge any static electricity.
  • On the plane, put the laptop under the seat in front of you. All you need is for someone to put the carry-on with their rock collection on top of your laptop bag in the overhead bin. Also, contents in the overhead bin can shift; someone might open it, and if your bag ends up leaning against the bin’s door, it can crash to the floor.
  • At the gig, if possible, secure the laptop to a table or stand with bungie cords. Many laptops have a flat area between the keyboard and screen, or between the keyboard and touch pad, where bungie cables can sit without getting in your way.
  • Keep the laptop’s cover closed unless you’re performing. This protects both the screen and the keyboard.
  • Use cable extensions between laptop connectors and the outside world. For example, use a short USB extension cable with dongles (Figure 3), and an extension cord between audio outs and the cables going to the front of house mixer. The goal is to have all your cables configured so that if someone trips over them, they’ll pull out of the extension rather than out of your computer. Use duct tape to affix the extensions to your playing surface so they’re held securely in place.
  • Kensington locks aren’t foolproof—no anti-theft device is—but they can be a good deterrent (Figure 4). These work by attaching a difficult-to-cut cable to your computer; you then thread the cable around something permanent or difficult to move, like a table leg bolted to the floor.
  • Optimizing Performance The live performance laptop should be dedicated to only one task: Making you look good on stage. All it needs to do is the minimum necessary to run your programs as quickly and efficiently as possible, so relieving it of its other duties can increase performance and reduce latency. The following tips relate to Windows machines, but some of the concepts apply to Macs as well.

    Always run the laptop from its AC adapter, and disable power-management schemes. In Windows, create a power plan for live performance: Select Power Options from the Control Panel, pick a plan, and click on Change Plan Settings. Set “Put the Computer to Sleep” to Never, then click on Change Advanced Power Settings. Expand the Processor Power Management section, and set both the minimum and maximum processor states to 100% for both AC power and battery (Figure 5). While setting them to maximum is important, setting the same value for each is also important. One laptop I used produced an audible click every time the processor switched to a higher- or lower-performance state. Next, open Device Manager from the Control Panel, expand the various trees, and disable (do not uninstall!) devices you won’t need onstage. Start with internal wi-fi (Figure 6), which can have a major negative impact on performance. But you also don’t need the onboard camera, internal sound card, Ethernet port (except in rare instances), fingerprint sensor, and the like.

    While in the Control Panel, click on System then click on Advanced System Settings. Click the Advanced tab and under Performance, click on Settings. Under Visual Effects, select Adjust for Best Performance. This basically turns off all eye candy. Although in most cases a dedicated chip offloads graphics tasks from the CPU, from time to time I still find audio programs that don’t function as well under the Aero look as they do under the simpler Classic Windows theme.

    Now click on Start and in the Search box, type msconfig and open msconfig.exe. Click on the Startup tab, and uncheck any frivolous startup programs. (Do you really need Adobe updater to check for updates to Acrobat when you’re playing a DJ set?) This frees up CPU memory and distractions. As you’ve already disabled the wi-fi and won’t be checking your email while performing, turn off anti-virus programs, as they may decide to scan at an inopportune moment and slow down your system.

    Finally, download the free DPC latency checker utility from latency_check.shtml. This monitors your laptop’s realtime performance and displays CPU spikes, which reduce performance, or worse yet, can cause audio dropouts (Figure 7).

    USB RAM Sticks As RAM Disks With some programs, you can use USB RAM sticks as external disks, and stream data from them. Although USB sticks aren’t fast when writing, they read very well. For example if you use a virtual instrument that reads samples from a library, load the library on a RAM stick, and point the program to the library.

    My favorite application for this is running Ableton Live; using this technique increases performance so much you can even use laptops with slower 5,400 RPM drives. First, invoke Save Live Set As and navigate to a USB 2.0 stick to create a project folder. Then go to File > Collect All and Save, and click “Yes” to all the options.

    Open the .ALS Live project file from the folder on the USB RAM stick, and select all audio clips by drawing a rectangle around them. Select Live’s Clip View, and under Samples, uncheck RAM.

    Now Live will think the clips are disk clips, and stream them from the USB stick. But note that now, Live no longer has to stream anything from the laptop’s hard drive, and doesn’t store these clips in system RAM either, because the program doesn’t think they’re RAM clips. So basically, you’re streaming all that audio without it taking up any of your laptop’s RAM, or stressing out your hard drive. Is that cool or what?

    Laptop Love So there you have it: a survival guide to using laptops live. In all my years of laptop-based performances, so far, the show has indeed gone on. Treat your laptop kindly, and it will return the favor.

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