CPU Recycling Tutorial

Congratulations you've just bought a brand-new computer! In your enthusiasm over your latest purchase, however, you probably haven't considered what to
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Congratulations — you've just bought a brand-new computer! In your enthusiasm over your latest purchase, however, you probably haven't considered what to do with your old computer. You could sell it, but you'd be lucky to recover a quarter of its original cost, even if the system is only two years old. Furthermore, the specialized peripherals you bought just to make that stock computer usable for music-related work may not be transferable to your newly upgraded computer without some additional expense. For example, new Macs no longer have serial ports, which means you can't use older serial MIDI interfaces with them unless you also purchase a serial-to-USB adapter. And despite their potential for accommodating legacy technologies, new Windows PCs work best when used with the latest, fastest peripherals.

Although your old computer may not have much resale value, it's far from worthless. After all, it's a finely tuned machine that you've configured over time to operate at peak efficiency. You know what it's capable of doing, so why get rid of a familiar and valuable computer just because it's no longer your fastest system? With a little effort, planning, and maybe a small cash investment, you can still find plenty of uses for your aging computer.

TAKING INVENTORY

Before deciding what to do with your older computers, take an inventory of each machine's processor, RAM, operating system, and ports (see the table “Taking Inventory”). That should be easy to do, because computer users generally update their systems according to the platform path they started on. For example, Pentium 4 owners are often former Pentium III users and were often Pentium II owners before that — they might even have an old 486-based system lying around. Likewise, current Mac G4 owners were probably G3 owners and might also have a 604e or Quadra system somewhere in a closet.

Next, take stock of all the software and peripherals that you own and make note of their connection protocols. If you're like me, you've collected a number of sound cards, MIDI interfaces, and many versions of software over the years. In addition, you probably have older versions of the same programs that may be best suited to specific system speeds and operating systems. That's especially true for Mac users, and it's becoming more common for Windows users, as well (see the sidebar “Tales of the OS”).

Also, note the connection protocols that each system currently supports or can potentially support. From that, you can determine how easily your current computers can work with each other and what type of investment you'll need to make to enable current and future systems to interact. For example, all my Pentium systems have USB ports, and my Pentium II/450 MHz and Pentium II/300 MHz are also set up to share external SCSI devices.

Although I could also configure my Pentium III to share SCSI devices, I want to invest in hot-swappable FireWire peripherals for the Pentium III and any future systems. Fortunately, the Pentium II systems also have the required CPU speed, expandability, and operating systems to employ FireWire devices. Even though the initial cost may be greater, configuring all three systems for FireWire technology extends their usefulness further into the future.

Making a detailed list of your computer systems, hardware peripherals, and software will help you to determine when it's feasible to take advantage of used or closeout technology for your older machines. For example, Mac users who had NuBus systems were able to pick up reconditioned NuBus versions of Pro Tools systems at bargain prices a few years ago when Digidesign introduced PCI-based Pro Tools systems.

As always, there are plenty of good deals that extend the scope and power of older systems. However, remember that products become closeouts for one of three reasons: an improved version is about to be released, the product never met sales expectations, or the product doesn't work well. Thoroughly investigate the item in question before you buy.

PRIMARY TASK

Once you've taken inventory of all your older systems, consider what the primary task of your new computer is. For example, many musicians use their fastest system for multitrack hard-disk recording and use a slower computer for MIDI sequencing. Some musicians, however, use their fastest systems for playing virtual synthesizers and samplers because it takes more processing power to play virtual instruments than to perform hard-disk recording.

In addition, ask yourself if you need to network your computers to share information (for a detailed discussion of LANs, see “Linking Up” in the August 1999 issue of EM) or if you'd prefer to treat each system as an independent platform. I treat each of my computers as an independent platform because doing so offers greater flexibility, and I can distribute tasks among different computers in a way that takes advantage of each system's strengths.

As you read about applications for slower computers, keep in mind that older and slower are relative terms. Some of you might find it difficult to view a Pentium II/300 MHz or a G3/266 MHz as a slower system if that's the fastest system you own. However, speed (or the lack thereof) isn't the point. You need to think in terms of what you can do with your various computers and the role that each computer can play in your studio.

PROPER SEQUENCE

You can use just about any computer for MIDI sequencing as long as you have the appropriate software and MIDI interface. For instance, musicians who perform live and rely on presequenced material often use an older laptop or a compact desktop computer, such as a Mac Plus or a Performa, purely as a playback sequencer. An entire setlist can reside on a few floppies or on the computer's hard drive, and some sequencing programs include file-playback utilities that allow you to organize your setlist.

A word of advice, however: if you create your sequences on your new desktop system, be sure that the sequence files you generate are supported by the sequencer version you're using on the older system. Many programs change their native file format as they update, and they aren't always backward compatible. The safest bet is to use Standard MIDI Files for live work.

Older computers with multiport MIDI interfaces can also control MIDI lighting systems in sync with MIDI instrument playback and MIDI-controlled effects processors. However, sometimes it's better to use separate computers for sequencing and lighting, depending on the amount of MIDI data each application generates. After all, you don't want your show to suddenly stop or go dark because the MIDI data stream got clogged. Just be sure that both systems have at least dual-port MIDI interfaces, so you can set one computer as the slave to the other using MIDI Clock.

Older computers can also work very well in a studio setup. For instance, despite the capabilities of computer-based digital audio workstations (DAWs), some studio operators still prefer to lay down tracks on tape because they don't have to deal with the problems associated with computer-generated noise. Using a quieter, older laptop or tabletop system to synchronize virtual MIDI tracks with physical tape tracks may reduce computer noise to manageable levels. Better still, using an older, air-cooled computer such as an Atari 1040ST eliminates computer-noise problems altogether.

SYNTHS AND SAMPLERS

Computers have been potential synthesizers ever since the first sound cards were installed, and the sound quality of those cards has steadily improved since the early days when cheesy FM synths were the norm. Now sound cards use system RAM to play back high-quality sampled instruments. Granted, you may have to record and play back the instrument parts through a sequencer running on the same platform as the installed sound card, but you can also use MIDI Clock to slave the sequencer to the sequencer running on your faster machine.

Furthermore, hardware-based synths and samplers for computers aren't just limited to inexpensive multimedia cards. Professional products such as Symbolic Sound's Kyma sound-design system or Digidesign's Sample Cell II use PCI cards and run on modest Pentium and Mac systems. You may even manage to come across ISA or NuBus versions of those products.

Nowadays, though, standalone software synthesizers and samplers are the norm, and computer requirements for those virtual instruments vary widely. In addition, the number of parts the synths and samplers can play simultaneously depends on platform performance. Although some software instruments perform adequately on a Pentium/166 MHz or a modest G3, you can expect polyphony to increase in proportion to increases in processor speed. A faster processor also means you'll be able to play progressively more complex instrument patches.

Some software synthesizers and samplers are actually total music-production programs. Propellerhead's ReBirth 2.01, for example, includes emulations of two Roland TB-303s, a TR-808, a TR-909, and a 16-step, 32-pattern sequencer for each part. The program has relatively minimal system requirements — a Pentium/75 MHz PC or a Macintosh with a 601-based 66 MHz processor — and can sync to other sequencers using MIDI Clock. More sophisticated music-production programs such as Arturia's Storm, Sonic Syndicate's Orion Pro, and Propellerhead's Reason have more demanding system requirements but can still function adequately on modest Pentium II and G3 systems. Their sequencers can also sync to incoming MIDI Clock, thus expanding the main sequencer's virtual tracks to another platform.

ROUND AND ROUND

If you own a digital-audio-editing program that lets you assign MIDI note numbers to sound files or sound-file regions, you have a ready-made simple phrase sampler that can easily run on older computers. You can precisely trigger drum loops with Note On data or improvise with loops and phrases using Note On and Note Off messages to change phrase lengths. You can also use such a setup to drop in sounds on the fly, triggering them with MIDI or with a keystroke.

With a faster system, you can create loop-based music arrangements. For instance, Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro 3.0 performs quite well on Pentium II systems and can synchronize to an external MIDI Clock (see Fig. 1). A similar program, BitHeadz Phrazer, works with Mac G3 systems. It not only synchronizes to MIDI Clock but also uses MIDI Note On messages to trigger phrase loops and to mute and unmute loop tracks.

CREATE AN EFFECT

While most DSP-based computer DAWs usually include some form of effects processing on their cards, standalone card-based effects processors have been a rarity. The Lexicon NuVerb and the DSP-FX PowerFX cards are excellent NuBus and ISA effects-processor cards and make great acquisitions if you have older systems that are able to accommodate them.

Currently, though, most effects processors are host-based plug-ins and require the appropriate digital-audio application. Many plug-ins process only recorded digital-audio tracks, although it's becoming more common for programs to allow users to process incoming audio if it is being simultaneously recorded. Software that can process live audio without recording it is even common. DSound's RT Player Pro for Mac and Windows, among others, turns computers with VST plug-ins into real-time multi-effects processors (see Fig. 2). As a bonus, RT Player Pro also lets you play VST Instruments as standalone synths and samplers in real time without a host application.

I LIKE IT LIKE DAT

It's a given that eventually you have to mix down your music to a stereo format. If you work exclusively with digital-audio tracks, you can record a virtual mix directly to a stereo file on the same platform. However, if you record on an MDM or combine audio with MIDI tracks, you probably mix down to a separate DAT deck and then transfer the digital audio back to the computer for final mastering.

Why not eliminate one step in that process and mix down directly into an older computer? A computer that's equipped with a high-resolution audio card and the appropriate software could allow you to mix your music with 24-bit resolution. You could use the same computer to perform the necessary edits and side sequencing without tying up your main computer. With an onboard CD-R drive, you could even burn your master right there or archive the sound files and session settings onto a CD-ROM.

Moreover, an old laptop computer could substitute for a portable DAT deck. With a high-quality PC Card or USB digital-audio interface, you could easily record 24-bit stereo files live and perform all the editing and processing on location, if necessary. Tote a CD-R drive along and you can hand the client a finished CD right on the spot.

THAT'S SHOWBIZ

So far, all the uses mentioned for older computers have centered on ways of making music. However, the music business is a business, and it's a good idea to keep business-related applications — such as accounting, word-processing, contact management, and scheduling software — on a separate system. Most business applications really don't demand a fast computer, and you don't need a fast computer to run a basic telecommunications center that handles voice mail and faxes.

You might also want to use an older computer if you do a lot of Web browsing and file downloading. That secondary system can act as a fire wall that allows you to check downloaded files for viruses and to verify that downloaded programs decompress and run properly. Once you determine that the programs are safe to use, you can transfer the downloaded files to the appropriate work system.

OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS

The preceding examples demonstrate just some of the ways in which you can make your older computers work for you. In some cases, they extend the capabilities of your fastest setup. In other cases, they provide an alternative means of performing a particular task. Either way, it should be apparent that your older computers still have plenty of life left in them as long as you give them a reason for living.

Zack Pricespends way too much time playing with the ghosts in his machines.

Taking Inventory

This table lists my current collection of older computers. It shows each system's specs, so I can determine how easily the computers can work with each other and which tasks they are best able to perform.

CPU RAM OS Ports

Pentium III/1 GHz512 MBMEstandard, USBPentium II/450 MHz256 MBMEstandard, USB, SCSI-2 (external devices only)Pentium II/300 MHz (laptop)160 MB98SEstandard, USB, SCSI-2 (external devices only), PC Card (2)Pentium MMX/200 MHz64 MB98SEstandard, USB, SCSI-2 (internal devices only)40486 DX2/66 MHz (laptop)20 MB95standard, PC Card (2)Atari 1040STe1 MBTOS 1.4serial, parallel, DMA, MIDI, In/Out

TALES OF THE OS

Following a single-platform path makes you familiar with the history of its operating system, which is important when you're trying to determine what software you should use with a particular computer. Mac computers and operating systems, for example, have historically had major upgrades on a regular basis. Major Mac OS changes in the past have often caused big problems for users running older software and hardware. Some programs didn't function in fast machines with Mac OS 8, for instance, but worked just fine in a slower SE30 running Mac OS 7.5.5. Furthermore, some old installers wouldn't work with OS 8, so you couldn't reinstall those programs if you had a disk crash. OS X is the latest significant release, and it isn't providing a very smooth transition for Mac-based music makers, either.

In general, OS changes have not been as much of a problem on the Windows side. Software that worked in Windows 3.1 usually works in Windows 95, 98, and ME. The only programs that don't follow an upward path are applications such as disk utilities, which work with a specific version of the operating system. On the other hand, Windows programs are not necessarily backward compatible. For example, an application written specifically for Windows 95 might not work under Windows 3.1.

Windows musicians have had other troubles to contend with, as well. It was often difficult to find audio and especially MIDI programs that worked well in Windows NT. One reason was that many audio cards and MIDI interfaces didn't have NT drivers, so even if the software could run, there was little hardware support. Also, NT had serious MIDI-timing problems, which prevented an otherwise robust OS from working with many music applications.

However, Windows 2000 and the recently released Windows XP rectify many of those problems. MIDI-timing problems have been corrected, and the development of WDM drivers offers a simpler and faster way for the OS to interact with audio cards and MIDI interfaces. Some programs will have to be updated to take advantage of WDM, and card developers will need to update drivers to the WDM standard to stay current with XP and 2000 software. Fortunately, the transition to 2000 and XP seems relatively smooth for Windows users. Even so, hang on to your older operating systems. You never know when you'll need them.