AMD Dual Opteron DAW

[$5,500, amd.com]
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I’m mostly a mobile workstation kind of guy, but the opportunity to play with the latest and greatest in consumer CPUs was too tempting, so I agreed to receive a dual-dual core workstation into my home studio for the holidays. The 50+ pound rackmount unit that I found on my doorstep did not put my mind at ease, however. As soon as I picked it up I knew this thing was serious. When I pulled it out of the box, I had a minor breakdown. It seems the bulk of the weight is due to the ridiculously overbuilt pcAudioLabs case this thing is housed in.

I’m not sure who decided that audio computers have to have gigantic steel cases with locked gates, but it’s not high on my list of priorities for a workstation. Regardless, the first challenge was finding a place to put this behemoth. At this weight, it would crush my SKB racks, even if they were deep enough to contain this beast, which they’re not. A weekend woodshop session resulted in a piece of furniture suitable for the dual-dual and I was off to the races.

Powering up is a mystical experience, similar to that scene in Frankenstein when Herr Doctor throws the giant switch to bring the creature to life. My hair was raised in anticipation as the machine’s many fans kicked in. Given that I have a one-room studio, the sound proved to be a problem. It’s LOUD, and the foam-lined gate on the overbuilt case does nothing to quiet it down. This unit was clearly designed for a production studio with a separate equipment room, but for most project studios and home setups, this thing might be a bit much. Nonetheless, remote operation is a relatively easy thing to accomplish these days. If nothing else, a small baffled-foam soundproofing setup will clear up the worst of it for monitoring. Close miking and low-noise ambient recordings are still best done in a separate room, though.

I must admit that the first thing I did was load in Unreal Tournament and slap on a pair of headphones to use with the onboard nVidia nForce soundcard. The Dual Opteron rocked it all at maximum speed. The nForce is actually a pretty nice sounding card, way better than a SoundBlaster, for sure, but I knew I would need more than the 1/8" I/Os when I got to the real work. Latency was also an issue with the nVidia, so I brought in an RME HDSP PC card with a Multiface II interface and got down to business.

Oh my, oh my! This thing is faaast! After running some of the fastest laptops around, I thought I had an inkling of what this thing might do, but I still haven’t seen anything like a dual-dual core before. I plugged in the RME, opened ACID, and ran it at 24-bit/96kHz while playing Unreal Tournament. It didn’t even blink. Loading Cakewalk’s Project5 on top of all that did result in a slight increase in fan speed, but installation was hassle-free and the program ran with no noticeable performance reduction or increased latency. Over the next few days, I loaded as many effects as I could, and eventually I did need to close the video game while I was working. The AMD was still capable of some rather extreme multitasking, though, with ACID, Project5, and a dozen VST effects going at once.

Video games aside, this unit certainly provided the best digital audio that this home-studio hack has ever worked with. I did run some benchmark utilities on the unit, just to see what the numbers were. This proved to be pointless for comparison because the dual Opteron is the benchmark. The unit actually came with some over-clocking software, too. I didn’t have time to use it, anyway, but frankly, I was a little scared to try. I mentally compared it to putting a nitrous injector in a Dodge Viper. Sure, it’ll accelerate that much faster, but can I control it? That is a question best left to more intrepid souls than myself, however.

The AMD’s generous 2GB of RAM provides plenty of room for those I-need-it-now files with no noticeable decrease in performance, even on large projects. There’s also an 80GB primary hard drive, giving one plenty of room to load in, say, an entire laptop hard drive, if so inclined. The 320GB RAID drive provides generous, reliable storage as well. If that’s not enough, there’s room in the case for another hard drive, and even another couple small drives (provided you can figure out how to open the case). Given all this, my usual collection of USB and FireWire drives seem positively glacial in comparison, but the unit has two USB ports on the front panel, and four more on the back, with one FireWire port on the back. That and the array of PCI slots (both 64-bit and 32-bit) make for plenty of connectivity.

Overall, the unit’s performance more than makes up for any of my petty complaints. Probably most impressive, however, is the list price of $5,500. That’s not pocket change, I know, but it’s well within reach of many home and project studio users, and well worth the money. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include installation, but it does include high-powered digital production performance. Keep your eyes peeled for dual-core AMD laptops, too. Rumor has it we’ll be seeing them any day now. In the meantime, I’ll be saving my box tops.

THE MATH
2 x dual-core AMD Opteron processors
+ 2.41GHz clock speed
+ 2GB RAM
+ 80GB hard drive
+ 320GB RAID secondary hard drive
= 60 pounds of ass-kicking, dual dual-core digital audio processing power