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A Better Computer — For Free!

August 7, 2006

Some lucky cats have full-featured studios. Some of us have only the most basic tools to create, record, and produce music, but there’s no question that using a computer-based setup gives the most bang for the buck. Remember how you used to run out of tracks? And fight with obscure soundcard configurations? Nowadays we have awesome little marvels — just plug a box into a computer via USB, an instrument into the instrument preamp, then click on “record” in your favorite DAW software.

Oh, and let’s establish something from the outset: PCs are not better than Macs. Just to make things clearer, Macs are not better than PCs, either. So there! These days, who is driving the computer matters, not the platform.

Also, let’s admit that the only real rule for computers is “bigger is better.” Of course, we can make very interesting music with simpler machines, especially if you record a limited number of tracks. But as a consultant, the first thing I say to my customers who want to get into computer-based recording is not “go buy the best analog mixer you can” but “buy the most powerful computer you can afford.” This is especially true for laptops, as upgrading a laptop is harder — and more expensive — than upgrading a desktop. It’s worth paying for a gigabyte of RAM instead of 512MB, an optical drive that can write DVDs, and a 100GB instead of 60GB internal drive.

For the most robust operation, keep your machine updated. Regarding your operating system (OS), for PC users Windows XP is the first (some would say only) OS choice, and it’s worth updating to Service Pack 2. To see what you’re running, right-click on “My Computer,” and under the General tab, look for “System.” For Mac owners, OS X 10.4.6 rocks.

It’s also generally best to keep your OS updated as new software appears. With an always-on Internet connection, the easiest way for PCs is to surf to and in the “Microsoft Update” section (Figure 1), allow the computer to auto-upgrade to the latest version. For Mac OS X, just click on the Apple button (menu bar, upper left), then click on “Software Update” (Figure 2).

What about the horror stories of updates that cause more problems than they solve? Truthfully, these are relatively rare with operating systems; and if there is a problem, a patch usually appears within days. With Windows, any update will typically add a system restore point before making any changes anyway.

After updating your OS, with Windows set a system restore point “just in case” (go Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > System Restore and follow the directions), reboot the computer, then check for driver updates for several items: your audio interface, anything related to USB or FireWire, graphics card (crucial), and applications. However, before downloading, check for “known issues” and compatibility notes regarding your OS.

You can often solve stability issues just by updating, so even if the process takes an hour or two, it’s worth the effort. I have found enormous differences between version 4.0 and 4.1.3 on certain programs, and most of these upgrades are free.

Want a faster PC? Nuke all those active icons toward the right of your taskbar. All of them steal some RAM, so it’s a good idea not to have MS Office ready to launch 24/7 (or QuickTime, for that matter). With PCs, go Start > Run, then type MSCONFIG and under the “Startup” tab, uncheck anything that seems unrelated to system functions, virus protection, or your music applications. Or if you’re the daring sort, uncheck everything. Should the computer need something you unchecked, it will call for and load the application when required. (Besides, there’s always Safe Mode.)

I can’t tell you how many clients complain about slow performance, then send me a screenshot of their startup items: MSN, Yahoo toolbar, ICQ, printer managers, and several other active applications . . . and they’re chatting on Skype, downloading music, editing pictures, and trying to mix a multi-track project. Score a big “doh!” here.

Great! Your OS, drivers, and applications are now fully updated . . . so you’ll be ready for next issue’s column.

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