Windows Washing

Say you've just purchased or inherited a PC that you want to dedicate to audio and music production, but the computer came with all kinds of software already installed on it. You're hesitant to get rid of too much, and you're not sure what you can do without or whether any of that extra software will conflict with your musical needs. Well, don't just stand there! It's time to tune up Windows for music and audio.

Say you’ve just purchased or inherited a PC that you want to dedicate to audio and music production, but the computer came with all kinds of software already installed on it. You’re hesitant to get rid of too much, and you’re not sure what you can do without or whether any of that extra software will conflict with your musical needs. Well, don’t just stand there! It’s time to tune up Windows for music and audio.

The first thing you must decide is whether to configure the computer from scratch (which requires basic computer knowledge and determination) or whether you just want to optimize an existing setup. If you’re able to configure a computer from scratch, then you can consistently maintain the highest possible performance and customization, but at some cost in time and effort. If you’re less adventurous, there are still several things you can do to make your system work better. You should also decide if your computer is to be dedicated to audio alone or if it must be available for other tasks.

If your computer has been used previously, Windows may be less than reliable. A clean installation of the operating system is always the best plan to ensure stability. If you’re not up to installing a fresh copy of Windows, however, I’ll suggest a few strategies that can make your existing installation more streamlined.

Many Shapes of Windows

All versions of Windows are not created equal. Besides the differences among the standard versions–Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000, ME, and XP–Windows can be configured in a number of ways by computer manufacturers. Keep in mind that there is a significant difference between upgrade and full versions. The upgrade usually requires an earlier version of Windows to be installed and probably can’t be used to configure a computer from scratch. (Not all Windows CD-ROMs tell you whether you have a full or an upgrade version.)

Computers from industry leaders such as Dell, Compaq, and Gateway come preconfigured and include a restore CD that can get you back to a baseline setup if your system crashes. Technical support from those companies may require that you use the configuration that they supplied or else you won’t get software support.

If you have a restore disc, you may not have the option of configuring the computer from scratch. (For that you’ll have to purchase the full version of Windows.) Furthermore, restore CDs are often locked to the motherboard with which they were delivered and will not work on another computer model.

Restore CDs typically offer two options. One is to format the hard drive and reconfigure it to the way it came from the factory; the other is to reinstall Windows without wiping out your existing data. Simply reinstalling Windows does not perform a clean sweep; most of the previous settings remain. The only way to start clean is to reformat the hard drive, restore the software from the CD, and then clean out all the extra applications that the restore disc installs.

Warning: Back up any critical data before trying the techniques described in this article. Better yet, experiment on a computer that you can afford to mess up temporarily, in case things go wrong.

Start Scrubbing

Assuming you’re not starting fresh with a clean system, the first step is to weed out stuff that is already installed. Programs listed in the Add/Remove Programs control panel can be removed by selecting them and then clicking on the Add/Remove button. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear what every entry in this panel is.

Some applications, such as QuickTime, have no impact on your system until you actually run them. If you remove those programs, you can recover some disk space, but that’s the only benefit. Other applications, such as virus checkers, typically run in the background continuously and cause disk or CPU activity that might directly conflict with audio tasks. It’s a good idea to disable those programs when running your audio applications so they don’t surprise you during a hot recording session. You should also consider removing them if you’re sure about what function they perform.

Keep in mind that when you install Windows from scratch, no programs should appear in the Add/Remove Programs control panel. However, the moment you begin to add new software, new entries will appear. You might even end up with items in the control panel once you add new hardware; after installing a new multifunction printer recently, I wound up with several new entries that I didn’t know were being installed!

Even if you remove everything from the Add/Remove list, you won’t do permanent harm to Windows. You can probably live without most things that appear in the list, and in the worst case, you can reinstall anything that is needed by some component of your system.

Dicey Devices

The Device Manager section of the System control panel shows the hardware devices that are installed. Go through the list and disable all hardware devices that you’re not using for music and audio production. You can disable devices by double-clicking on their names in Device Manager and checking the "Disable in this hardware profile" checkbox. (Don’t use the Remove button.)

Especially consider disabling scanners, onboard sound chips (unless you are using them), Ethernet cards, and modems. If you’ve inherited your computer, check to see if it has any unrecognizable PCI cards and remove them, as well (they might be causing subtle interrupt conflicts). Make sure that all hard drives and CD-ROM drives have the DMA box checked. If you have installed a new hard drive or reinstalled Windows, it is almost certainly not checked. Checking the DMA box in your disk drive Settings menu can make a huge difference in the number of audio tracks that you can record. If it’s not checked on all drives, audio and MIDI glitching may occur. I’ve heard reports of three- to fivefold increases in maximum hard-disk tracks when DMA is checked.

Musical Dedication

If you’re going to use the computer only for music and audio and you’re not going to be on a network, consider getting rid of things such as virus checkers, screen savers, Internet applications, and so forth. You may need a browser to read program documentation, however, and a virus checker can protect you from an attack through a floppy disk or CD-ROM. If the computer will be on a network or you frequently surf the Net, you’ll probably need to keep many of these programs. Try to minimize the number of applications that run automatically, however, and definitely disable your virus checker before starting your session (and also before installing any new software, by the way).

Once you’ve gone through all the steps I’ve listed previously, restart the computer. When it’s fully restarted, hold down the Control, Alt, and Delete keys at the same time; the Close Program dialog box will appear. It shows the various programs that are running. If a program’s name is cryptic and you’re not sure what it is, try searching for files with that name. When you locate the program, you can right-click on it and select Properties to see who wrote the software and possibly to learn a little bit about what it does. Systray and Explorer should be present, but anything else you see in the Close Program dialog box is an application that is running.

The general rule is don’t let anything else run while you’re doing audio. If the Close Program dialog box shows applications running that you didn’t start, then Windows must have started them. Cancel the Close Program dialog and right-click on the Start button. Select Explore from the pop-up menu. That opens Windows Explorer with the Start Menu Programs folder selected. Open the Programs folder and then locate and open the StartUp folder.

Any application or shortcut that appears in the StartUp folder launches automatically every time Windows starts. For a really clean system, the folder should be empty. If you see a program, ask yourself if you really want that application running in the middle of a recording session. Then remove it.

FindFast, installed by Microsoft Office, is a real problem. It detects things so quickly because it constantly checks your hard drive for changes, creating a search index as it goes. That can result in quite a lot of unexplained disk activity, certainly not the kind of thing you want happening during your next session.

Busy Schedule

The Scheduled Tasks application allows you to launch programs, such as disk-scanning and defragmenting utilities, at regular designated times. But do you really want a disk scan to start up at 5 a.m. during a crucial all-nighter? If you’re not sure of your work patterns, that could be a real headache.

One of your goals is to make sure that the hard drive doesn’t activate except when you expect it to. If the hard drive continuously makes noises when the computer is just sitting there, then you have some background applications running or the computer is swapping out data, which can be a sign that you have too little RAM. For music and audio, as in other areas, the more RAM, the better.

The Scheduled Tasks window includes a virus scanner and three different Web update schedulers. The virus scanner searches every file on your hard drive at scheduled times–not good. The other items are Web update sniffers. They log on to the Web as scheduled and look for recent updates. If they locate an update, they open a dialog box. That is clearly not a good thing in the midst of a recording session. Removing all scheduled tasks is probably the cleanest and safest approach.

Register to Run

Once you’ve cleaned out the StartUp folder and Scheduled Tasks window and rebooted the computer, you should be free of most background applications. However, if you still see programs in the Close Programs dialog box when you press Control + Alt + Delete, Windows is launching those programs from the Run and RunServices sections of the Registry.

View the Registry by left-clicking on the Start menu and selecting Run. Next, type REGEDIT into the dialog box that appears. After that, navigate through the folders to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run.

RealAudio Player is launched and hidden at startup. It’s running 100 percent of the time. In this example, you could uninstall the RealPlayer Basic package; the Registry entry would then disappear.

In a fresh installation of Windows, there is little or nothing in the Run folder. Applications that you find in the Run folder are typically part of something that has been installed and therefore can be uninstalled, removing the associated Registry entries in the process.

If you can’t figure out which application has inserted a particular entry and if you have nerves of steel and aren’t afraid to edit the Registry, you can remove any entry in the Run folder by right-clicking on the object and selecting Delete. That operation, however, has no Undo. (You should back up the Registry before attempting any type of edit.) The RunServices folder also launches applications, such as the scheduler for Scheduled Tasks, but it’s used much less than the Run folder. You should have a good reason to remove an item from the RunServices folder before you do so.

Shattered Windows

Although Windows ME and XP include new safeguards to prevent accidentally trashing Windows, it’s still easy to completely ruin your Windows installation by messing around in the wrong places or by installing applications and hardware that conflict with each other.

Disk-imaging programs, such as Symantec’s Norton Ghost 2002 ( or PowerQuest’s Drive Image 5.0 (, allow you to save the entire Windows installation and hard-drive configuration as one large file. You can then save it on your hard drive or on one or more CDs. It’s difficult if not impossible to back up and then restore a complete Windows installation unless you have a disk-imaging program.

PowerQuest’s PartitionMagic 7.0 lets you establish as many as four boot partitions, so you could have Windows ME configured for music applications and Windows 2000 configured for business applications, both running on the same computer and not interfering with each other.

Stay Clean

In a nutshell, if you’re really serious about setting up a lean, stable system for music and audio, your best bet is to install a fresh copy of Windows on a clean partition and then install the applications that you will be using. Once you get everything working properly, use a disk-imaging program to save an image of the C drive to another hard drive or CD. Later, if the system becomes sluggish or unstable, you can restore to the previous image. As a general rule, try to minimize the number of other things the CPU is expected to do if you want to attain maximum audio performance from your computer.

When he’s not playing reggae or New Orleans funk, David Roach designs real-time host audio applications, ranging from soft synths to voice recognition.