Print Page

Musical PCs

8/1/2000

The past year has seen the coming of age of the computer preconfigured for audio. While vendors have been building specialized computers for industries such as CAD/CAM and video for years, musicians have had to buy mass-market machines or else build their own. Now, however, four companies-Audio Computing, FAQ Systems, IQSystems, and Wave Digital-are offering customized PCs designed from the ground up for the demands of digital audio. Each company takes a slightly different approach to system design, yet all four strive to overcome the all-things-to-all-people PC paradigm that's responsible for most of the desktop musician's technical headaches.

After speaking with all four vendors, the first thing I noticed was that the odds of talking directly to the person in charge are quite good. If you're like me, that's one of the key reasons for doing business with small independent companies instead of mass manufacturers. That doesn't mean that these are one-person operations, but you'll certainly never have to suffer the uninformed guesses of a salesperson who doesn't know MIDI from maxi.

The second thing I noticed was that each vendor believed that a computer should behave like any other piece of gear in your studio. You don't spend hours sorting out IRQ conflicts on a new mic preamp, so why should you have to do that with a new computer?

TIME EQUALS MONEYKen Fennell of FAQ Systems in Norcross, Georgia, says that a big reason musicians buy computers from him is that it saves them time: "Commercial studios are too busy to worry about building and configuring their own systems, and musicians setting up their own personal studios would rather spend their time making music."

We all know from painful experience just how time-consuming it can be to set up a new computer with a new audio interface and software. If you've bought a mass-market computer, your first task is to undo all the idiot-proofing and "ease-of-use enhancements" the manufacturer has saddled your machine with. You then remove AOL, Microsoft Office, and a half-dozen other programs from the Startup group so they're not running all the time, take out all the cute little icons from the System Tray to reclaim 25 percent of your system resources, then run the System Configuration utility to ferret out all the other little resource parasites hiding in the background.

Don't forget to turn off Fast Find and any antivirus programs, because these can hijack your hard drive when you're in the middle of recording. Also be sure to modify your virtual memory settings; the general- purpose defaults are the direct opposite of the optimal settings for hard disk recording. (Check with your audio software manufacturer for more specifics.)

On your second week of vacation, assuming your motherboard has an open PCI slot, you install the new audio card, run its setup program, and cross your fingers. You did remember to disable the motherboard's integrated game-compatible audio to avoid IRQ conflicts, didn't you? If at this point you're lucky enough not to have to reinstall Windows or reformat your hard drive, you still need to scour the card manufacturer's Web site for software and driver updates, each of which can have potentially crippling side effects.

In the best-case scenario, configuring your machine will take you two hours. Usually, though, it will take you half a day or more. To decide whether a preconfigured system is right for you, simply calculate the cash value of your time and effort.

THE VALUE OF EXPERTISEJust planning a hardware purchase can consume an enormous amount of time and mental energy. First you need to research the basic specs of the gear you're considering, then surf the print and electronic media to see whether the hardware is living up to its advertised claims. What's the latest word on video cards interfering with PCI audio cards? Which audio cards have been updated to 24-bit, 96 kHz capability? Which have ASIO 2.0 or Gigasampler drivers? Wouldn't it be great to know someone who has already done all that research for you?

Tim Kirk is the brains behind Innovative Quality Systems (IQSystems), the sibling of Innovative Quality Software, which makes the SAW line of digital-audio programs. Kirk has tested and used major audio hardware products and has some hard-earned opinions on which devices work best with the SAW-based systems that his company designs. He can recommend a video card that not only doesn't interfere with the digital audio stream but will allow you to connect a second video monitor. The audio interface he recommends has a latency of just 128 samples, or 2.9 ms at 44.1 kHz.

Ever stop to consider the structural rigidity of your DAW's case? Gil Griffith of Wave Digital points out that a cheap chassis can allow the motherboard to flex, leading to loose connections with cards and possibly even the processor. To prevent this, Griffith uses a heavy-gauge, extruded sheet-metal chassis. If you call a mass-market computer maker, can the salesperson tell you with certainty that their computer chassis will hold a full-length PCI card such as the Lexicon Core 32 or the Pro Tools Mixplus? A vendor of preconfigured audio computers can tell you, even if you didn't know enough to ask.

Are you planning to include a CD-R drive in your new computer? Is it compatible with your chosen CD- burning software? By building systems from a set of components they've tested for compatibility with each other and with audio hardware and software, preconfigured-system manufacturers save their clients from having to reinvent the wheel.

THE LITTLE THINGSAll four vendors offer turnkey systems that are ready for recording straight out of the box. They've installed the hardware, loaded the software, and configured everything to work together from the start. Fennell of FAQ Systems says his company's goal is for the client's questions to be of the "How do I do this?" variety instead of the "How do I fix this?" ilk.

In addition to custom configuring the software environment, FAQ takes great care to label everything clearly as each system is packed for shipping. That kind of forethought cuts the amount of end-user confusion, yielding more productivity for the client and less time and money wasted on needless tech support for the vendor.

One of the ways these specialized vendors save their customers configuration headaches is by preventing unnecessary programs from running at startup. Wave Digital figures it frees up several audio tracks just by providing a System Tray that's uncluttered compared to a mass-market machine. Audio Computing points out that something as simple as running your ATA hard drive in DMA mode can improve performance significantly. To keep your audio setup pristine, FAQ Systems suggests you run your business applications from a second hard drive partition that has a separate installation of Windows; and, of course, they are happy to set that up for you.

To ensure reliability, systems are typically "burned in" for 24 hours after assembly and then tested before shipping. Since most component failures occur early on, this burn-in period weeds out problems before they can become a customer's nightmare. For commercial studios and live performance installations, the increase in reliability alone is worth the cost premium of a customized system.

SERVICE AND SUPPORTTo provide quality service after the sale without driving up costs, these vendors offer a variety of free tech support options. While phone support isn't toll-free, you won't be kept on hold forever, and you'll get personalized attention. Most important, you'll never have to explain to a technician what a dongle or a MIDI channel is, which you probably would have to do when dealing with a major PC manufacturer.

When a session isn't hanging in the balance, you can reach tech support by e-mail and should get a response the next day. While nitty-gritty software support is ultimately between you and your software manufacturer's tech support experts, your vendor can often steer you to the right spot on the software maker's Web site or even research a question for you. All four vendors' Web sites have extensive links to support sites for the hardware and software they sell.

For a small fee, IQSystems will set up your system for remote technical support using PC Anywhere. That way, Tim Kirk can see exactly what's going on with your machine and take care of it firsthand rather than have you read error messages to him over the phone.

You may find that the biggest payoff in buying a computer preconfigured for music comes at upgrade time. For example, if you're feeling the inevitable RAM pinch, you'll be glad your motherboard has three slots with a maximum capacity of 768 MB. When you want to add a MIDI interface, you'll appreciate the fact that your machine has two USB ports and ample PCI slots. All four vendors will help you upgrade for a reasonable fee, saving you the time and trouble of being your own technician.

Upgrades are handled on a case-by-case basis, and support depends on the nature of the upgrade. At least one of the vendors is contemplating a trade-in program to help customers recoup some of their investment when upgrading. These companies are eager to build long-term relationships with customers, so don't hesitate to ask how they can help you with a planned upgrade.

There are other advantages to doing business with specialty shops like these. As you'd expect, IQSystems works very closely with its software counterpart to provide comprehensive SAWPro and SAWPlus32 support. For those just getting started in desktop music, FAQ Systems has made arrangements with Alexander Publishing to bundle online training courses with its systems. And for anyone with the need and the budget for high-end gear, Audio Computing is an official agent for CreamWare's SCOPE system and the officially recommended supplier of turnkey systems for Steinberg's Nuendo. All four vendors offer rack- mounted versions of their computers, and IQSystems even has a portable system for remote recording.

THE PRODUCT LINESIf you're considering buying a preconfigured computer system, your first step is to check out these vendors' Web sites. Each is chock-full of information on the vendor's qualifications, preferences, and product lines. You can choose from well-thought-out bundles or request a quote on a custom configuration. There are too many options to cover fully here, but below are a few examples to whet your appetite. (Monitors are not included except where noted.) Keep in mind that pricing and availability change constantly.

Audio Computing's Web site (www .audiocomputing.com) has a line of computers to work with your existing audio hardware (see Fig. 1) and a line of turnkey systems, most of which are named after jazz musicians. The Wynton III is a well-equipped entry-level turnkey system with a 600 MHz Pentium III processor, 128 MB of RAM, a 6.8 GB Ultra-DMA 66 drive for the O/S and your software, and a separate 10.2 GB Ultra-DMA 66 audio drive. Audio and MIDI I/O are handled by Midiman's Delta 44 (4 in/4 out) and USB Midisport (2 in/2 out), respectively. Cubasis VST 3.7 and a custom bundle of audio and MIDI software complete the package for $1,639.

For those with bigger budgets, the Mulgrew II features a 750 MHz Pentium III, 256 MB of RAM, a 9.1 GB Ultra/160 SCSI O/S and program drive, an 18.2 GB Ultra/160 SCSI audio drive, and an 854524 CD-RW drive. Audio and MIDI functions are handled by CreamWare's Pulsar system, including the Sonic Rocket Booster (which adds four more DSP chips), the A16 analog I/O interface, and a software bundle that includes Steinberg's Cubase VST/24, WaveLab, Free-Filter, and Waves' Renaissance Compressor. The price of all this power is $7,095.

Wave Digital Systems (www.wavedigital .com) lists its product line by software bundle and hardware horsepower. An example of its entry-level line is the Cubase Basic system, which offers a 500 MHz Pentium III processor, 64 MB of RAM, and a 10 GB Ultra-DMA 66 hard drive (see Fig. 2). Steinberg's Cubase VST and Midiman's Delta 44 complete this $1,899 system.

Wave Digital Systems' product line includes dual-drive systems in EIDE or SCSI variants and peaks out with the aptly named Ludicrous models. The Cakewalk Ludicrous system combines a 750 MHz Pentium III, 256 MB of RAM, a 9 GB Ultra/160 SCSI program drive, and an 18 GB Ultra/160 SCSI audio drive. Cakewalk Pro Audio Deluxe and MOTU's 2408 mkII bring the total to $5,079.

IQSystems (www.iqsys.com) takes a no-compromise approach to system design with an "entry-level" machine called the SP-1 550 that starts at $3,500. It's a 550 MHz Pentium III with 256 MB of RAM, a 20 GB EIDE audio drive, and a 13 GB EIDE program drive running Windows NT. The price includes the LynxONE audio interface and a 17-inch monitor but does not include the SAW software.

For remote recording, IQSystems' portable "lunch box" system, the SPL-P3500, combines a 500 MHz Pentium III processor, 512 MB of RAM, two 40 GB Ultra-DMA 66 hard drives, an integrated flat-panel monitor, and Windows NT (see Fig. 3). Audio I/O is provided by the Sonorus StudI/O 16-channel ADAT Lightpipe interface. The SPL-P3500 is ready for expansion, too, with four drive bays and up to seven available expansion slots. This degree of portability will set you back $8,500 without software.

FAQ Systems (www.faqsys.com) has built a series of machines that are tailored to the needs of the Nemesys GigaSampler line of products. The SCSI GigaSampler model comes with a 600 MHz Pentium III, 256 MB of RAM, a 9 GB SCSI program drive, and an 18 GB SCSI audio drive. Add a Frontier Dakota interface and GigaSampler, and the price comes to $3,269. For $275 more, you can have it rack-mounted (see Fig. 4).

The "budget" end of FAQ Systems' lineup is the GL series, which includes a 550 MHz Pentium III processor with 128 MB of RAM, a 13 GB Ultra-DMA 66 program drive, and a 20 GB Ultra-DMA 66 audio drive. With Sonic Foundry's Vegas and a Delta 44 audio card, the total damages run to $2,379.

Don't hesitate to ask vendors about different software or different audio and MIDI interfaces. You may get a well-thought-out explanation of why the suggested program or interface is better, but ultimately any of these vendors will put together the machine that you want.

If you've already made a substantial investment in audio hardware, you can have a new computer built around your existing gear. Pricing and support naturally vary depending on the specific circumstances, but you shouldn't think of preconfigured computers as all-or-nothing solutions. You can continue to use your favorite gear with the advantage of expert setup and testing, and you get to spend your time making music instead of performing computer surgery.

So how much does all this expertise and attention to detail ultimately cost? It varies, but the prices above represent an added premium ranging from $200 to $1,000 or more, depending on the complexity of the system. When shopping, however, be sure you're comparing apples to apples. That $500 Pentium III at your neighborhood superstore probably doesn't have a second audio drive, four full-length PCI slots, or Intel- certified RAM. If a preconfigured system will save you costly downtime or if you'd rather spend your time being a musician instead of a technician, that premium could be money well spent.

Brian Smithers is a musician and conductor at Walt Disney World. He also hosts a Web site devoted to making music with laptops at http://members.aol.com/notebooks1.

  Print Page