Thursday, 31 December 2009

Building a New PC for Music - Part 4: Benchmarking

I wanted to test how fast this new MAESTRO-2 PC is. Found an interesting benchmark site: PassMark. They offer a software for benchmarking your own PC; unfortunately this is only free for 30 days, then one has to pay $24 to activate the software. I tried the free version (fortunately there is a Windows 7 64bit version available) and ran the benchmarking: the overall PC system score is not at the top: it is at 1553, out of the current best one which is currently at 6258. My CPU benchmark is at 5931, which is not bad compared to the current top at 7298, especially since I run the CPU without any tuning: no overclocking, no higher voltage. In terms of HD the ranking of my system is at 1631 - the RAID really shows off here, compared to the overall top scores of 1724 and 1639. In the web page, only scores are shown which come from a minimum number of sampled systems; since my system appears to be unique, it is not shown there - but it would be overall on #3! There is no web comparison of the memory, but one can download individual benchmark reports uploaded by other users. The memory score of MAESTRO-2 is 2533, which is close to the upper end of a few selected systems with which I compared the data. The graphics data are as expected in the mid ranges, as well as the CD date. But I do not need any of those scores to be high - important are CPU, HD, and memory.

Building a New PC for Music - Part 3: Windows 7

After 3 1/2 hours of getting the hardware ready (I took it easy, without rushing), it is now time to install the OS: Windows 7, 64 bit.
  1. I insert the DVD into the DVD tray. "Windows is loading files". ... Done after 20 minutes. Went well without any problems.
  2. Now installing all the software from those disks that came with the hardware. First from the CD that came with the motherboard: but just running the autorun did not work, "incorrect OS version". I begin to realise that this PC will be quite lonely: none of my software will work on the 64 bit OS, only the software which has specifically been built for 64 bit will run. I explore the disk and find a few 64bit drivers. Install first the audio driver, SoundMax from Analog Devices. Then reboot: error message: "ADI driver is not intended for this OS". Well, the problems start to creep up... I realise that the date of the files on the driver disk is 26.12.2008 – this is too early for any Windows 7 driver. I will have to go online to download the native Windows 7 versions. So I uninstall the SoundMax software. Fortunately the uninstall works proper, despite of components of the software not being the correct version.
  3. First overall impression: the PC runs very quiet. Windows 7 runs smoothly. But so far there is nothing yet installed that could cause any problems – I will have to see later when the "real" software is to be installed, all the audio processing etc. The HD speed appears to be ok, but not too exciting; in fact it appears to be disappointingly slow. I had copied a few files from the DVD drive to the HD, and it appeared to be not really blazing... I will have to do some exact benchmarking test later.
  4. Next step: to get internet. Got a cheap Wifi USB adapter, plug it in – it installs automatically, drivers appear already present. No problem at all.
  5. Windows 7 has "one open issue": I do not have any antivirus protection. I will cover this later, will try to install AVG, if that exists as a 64 bit version.
  6. Last hardware installation: the ASUS Xonar Essence STX soundcard. This is to be the main component for the creation of the music later, when the right software is there. For now I just want to make sure that there are no conflicts in the system, and that it runs ok. I place it into the small PCIe slot, then reboot - no issues.
  7. Tried to install ASUS Xonar soundcard drivers from the disk. Went to the directory /Vista, but the setup did not work – gave a cryptic message that "//XP/Setup" (or similar) was not present... so I went one level deeper into another "Vista" folder and ran the setup from there. A screen with the Xonar logo comes up, but nothing else. The mouse cursor can still be moved, but nowhere to click or to install anything. Will have to wait until proper drivers are available. When going into the task manager, I realise that a window is just waiting for my input... so I continue the installation. This is strange that this input window did not put itself into the foreground automatically.
  8. After a restart, the PC appears fine, except that the Wifi has no network access... only after a few minutes it comes back. But clicking on the Internet Explorer icon now does not result in IE starting up... What have I done wrong now? After uninstalling the ASUS Xonar software and uninstalling a strange software that I had not even been aware that was installed (OpenAL), the MS IE runs again as it should. Very strange... Finally the Wifi login works (the long delay is an unrelated problem with the BTfon setup to which I am subscribing). First I download the Windows updates. 13 files, 17.8 MB. In parallel I do the activation – works ok.
  9. I visit the ASUS website, begin to download the Win7 64bit drivers. This goes through a P2P software "DNA" using a torrent; DNA is installed. In parallel I install Google Chrome and Firefox 3.5, all ok as 64 bit versions. Suddenly I realise that I have not yet installed any virus checker. The firewall warns that the DNA accesses the PC – I allow the access. Visit the Microsoft website for suggestions re. virus software, and decide again to use the well proven AVG: is free, and is less annoying than the Norton software (which has those installers which never can be removed) and is less performance-killing than the McAfee (this is just a heuristic statement, based on my experience at work where the background virus check seems to interfere with software running): I never had any bad experience with the AVG antivirus software, and I have used the free version already since several years. Maybe it is time to reward AVG and buy their full version, since they do such a great job.
  10. Installed AVG ok. Found the proper version through Google which led me to The direct download from their site (which would choose automatically the proper version for Windows7 64-bit) was quite slow through my WiFi, so I got the 70 MB installation file through a Ethernet-connected internet line at work. Installed it, did a scan, no problems.
  11. I also downloaded a few of the ASUS motherboard files for Windows 7. Among them a program “EPU-6 Engine”. After installation I rebooted, and to my dismay the message appeared “Location not bootable”… I was quite shocked, feared already that I had to redo the whole Windows 7 installation, until I realised that I had forgotten to remove that USB memory stick which I had used for the file transfer, and which was now assumed to be the first boot device. What a relief when Windows 7 booted fine after I had removed that USB stick.
  12. The next steps will be installing a few free Windows 7 64 bit software bits, for various system purposes. And the last major step is to install the audio software (Sonar 8.5 and Personal Orchestra 4) and the MIDI interface. Unfortunately CCL did not have any of the software upgrades available, and the music retailer in town did not have anything either in stock, so I went online to Dolphinmusic. I already had ordered in the past from them and had good experience. The software is available, but the MIDI interface not yet – there will be a delay of 2 weeks. Why would I need a new MIDI interface anyway? Well, the reliable MIDISPORT 4x4 from M-Audio which I have used for many years, does not have a Windows7 64bit driver available, so I have to purchase a new interface. The successor of this device, the MIDISPORT 4x4 Anniversary, does have these drivers. I read in some discussion forums that the drivers for this device do not work for the legacy device, so I do not have any other choice than to buy this too. In about two weeks I will then be ready to make some music on this 64 bit system – I am really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Building a New PC for Music - Part 2: Assembly

At home the big unpacking started. The case makes a nice impression, although it is quite budget-priced: £ 30. Had to get a power supply separately, as no one is included. I was told that a steel case is quieter than aluminum, but that aluminum conducts heat better. Since my emphasis was not on overclocking-gaming but on music, I was fine to go with a steel case. The case has two thick screws in the back for removing the side wall, so this can be done by hand without the need of a screw driver.

  1. Affix the power supply into the case. 4 screws were provided with the power supply, no problem attaching it in the upper rear corner. I am surprised to see so many power leads coming from the power supply. 6 years ago there basically was just the connector for the main board and the usual 12/5V connectors for the disk drives, but now there are a lot of connectors which are yet unknown to me. I guess I will find out what they are for.

  2. Unpack motherboard and processor.

    Mount processor in slot. Affix gigantic cooling fan on top of it. Is simply done by clicking the 4 corner connectors in the 4 holes around the processor. The cable from the fan to the connector on the mainboard is quite short, but just fits exactly. The thick fan provides a convenient handle to lift the whole board.

  3. Identify the 8 locations where the motherboard needs to be screwed into the case. Put those 8 brass socket screws in place into the case.

    Affix cover plate for external connectors in the back. It just clicks into the cut-out, no further affixment necessary.

    Then I mount the motherboard onto these 8 base socket screws into the case.

  4. Connect power supply to mainboard: 24-pin, and 8-pin EATX12V (no idea what the latter one is for; the old boards 6 years ago did not need that).
  5. Connect the rear fan to mainboard CHA_FAN1; this meant I had to remove the standard power cable that was plugged into the fan cable, and connect the fan cable directly to the motherboard.
  6. Plug the graphics card into the first PCIe slot. I then realised that the huge cooling metal of that graphics card blocks the adjacent small PCIe slot, which I had reserved for the audio card... so I move the video card into the PCIe2 slot. The manual states that for performance reason one should put the video card into the first slot... maybe I should get a card with a smaller cooling metal.

  7. Install the memory. I ensure that each of the two triplets in which the memory was sold is installed in the same colored slot, although I think it does not really matter.
  8. Now I want to see if the system works in principle. Connecting the power and the display: the fans begin to rotate. First nothing, then I realise that I need to press the illuminated "start" button on the board. Text on the monitor appears. No keyboard connected, no boot device, so is waiting for input. Pressing "reset" on the board results in the screen getting black, but no continuation; also pressing "start" again does not help, I need to switch off and on at the power supply switch. Screen comes on after about 10 seconds. Text stays there very short only, I can read that the setup can be reached by pressing the "DEL" key. This is what I will do when I start up the system next time.
  9. Connect front USB of case with USB78. Connect front panel audio (audio HD) with AAFP on board. Put the cable connectors from the case (power, LED, reset, etc.) into the one loose white labeled connector, which then can be plugged onto the board. Only the connector labeled "AC’97" is not plugged in anywhere.
  10. Install 2 SATA HDs. For being able to connect both sides mechanically, the 2nd wall of the case needs to be removed, giving access to the screw-less attachment mechanism. Connect power from case and SATA cables from mainboard (use SATA1 and SATA2).
  11. Remove front panel of case. Is just clicked into the case. Remove upper front grill of uppermost 5.25 slot from front panel. Install DVD drive in uppermost slot. Connect power from case and IDE cable from mainboard. Instead of using the screwless attachment mechanism, I use the screws, to be able to adjust how much the drive protrudes, in order to show a matched front face.

  12. Now the first "real" Power up: in BIOS only SATA2 appears to be installed. Is a problem with cable connector; I swap the connectors, seems to work now, both SATA drives are recognised. I am not sure when to set the HDs to RAID: now or after the OS install. I try to set it now, because I figure that this should be done before Windows is installed; otherwise, all installed files would need to have to be moved or rearranged, and I want to avoid that. A message on the screen appears after reboot, that disks are not RAID drives. Neither disk is yet formatted. After bootup, press Ctrl-I to setup RAID volume, and the Intel Matrix Storage Manager shows up. I choose RAID-0 (stripe), because I want the fast disk access. Create a RAID volume with these two disks. Seems to work ok.
  13. The final piece of hardware to be installed is the LCD display. Would have been better to install it earlier, when the back panel for the connections was not yet installed; now the whole interior is quite cramped, and it is very difficult to put the connector into the plug on the motherboard, between the wall and the 8pin power connector. But it eventually works, and now the LCD shows text messages during boot-up, and afterwards it shows the time. The complete hardware installation is done after 3 1/2 hours.

Building a New PC for Music - Part 1: Purchase

The last time I "built" a PC was sometime 2002/2003, I do not remember exactly when that was, because at that time I experimented a lot and had started a couple of PC projects which were never really completed and finished, with cables hanging from the case, open side for constantly changing configurations. I think the last really completed PC project was when I put that Shuttle PC together (the computer "MAESTRO"), which since then served as my main music computer for sequencing, sampling, and recording. It had fine components in it: a Delta Audiophile 2496 sound card for recording from the external synth, the Gigastrings and the Garritan Personal Orchestra sample libraries, all controlled by good old Sonar 4 Producer. A nice workhorse with the very stable Windows 2000, which did its job very well for many years. But recently a few problems emerged: the audio recordings became choppy, and despite me trying all kinds of settings regarding buffer size, I could not remove this problem. It especially occurred when many instruments in parallel would be played; so I had to resort to recording them individually one by one. Eventually also this did not help, and I considered replacing the computer with a new system. One very strange problem had also occurred: when I had tried to install an upgrade of the Personal Orchestra Samples and the Kontakt Player, nothing happened – the old files just were not overwritten at all, and I could not find anywhere the location of the new files. Something very mysterious – I tried several times, the progress indicator showing a proper install, but then there was nothing... well, this would seem to confirm the concerns which some people in the music community have against using Windows for any music production activity...

When browsing options for the replacement, I considered buying one off-the-shelf system that appeared to be reasonable. But then I encountered that the bre-built systems did not satisfy my requirement for fast (and lots) of memory and fast disk drives. I considered building one at Dell. I remembered that a few years ago the options for all the components seemed endless. Now, however, there many more pre-configurations, and one has less choice in creating an individual custom configuration. In some cases there was no option to choose custom components at all. I found the XPS Studio line quite appealing, but then the resulting system still was somewhat sub-optimal: no full use of the 12GB tri-channel memory, only Vista was offered, not Windows 7 (although on some other pages there was a note that one could upgrade to Windows 7, but I wanted Windows 7 right from the start, without the uncertainty and possible instability of the upgrade). There was the other line of Alienware, suited to the extreme gamer. Great components, but my dream machine ended up to cost over 4000 pounds – definitely too much for me now.

So I explored CCL, a computer online shop nearby in Bradford, which also has a store outlet. They do have good prices, and there is the option of either ordering everything online, or just going there and buying things right there. Even in case of an online purchase, I could just go and pick it up, without charge for the shipping.

I looked at their online offerings, selected the components without ordering, and drove out there to buy them. The store is a bit strange: very little displays, more like a warehouse counter. One gets into queue to talk to a service person and orders the parts which one needs. There are PCs setup for browsing their web site (and others) and for selecting what one needs. I hesitated for a while – should I really plunge into this and buy a new PC, built from parts? Maybe I should wait a little until things became cheaper? Until the end of the depression? But then I decided that this is an investment, I really needed this new PC for making music again, and so I went ahead and lined up in the queue. The sales person was quite knowledgeable, could give advice on different items. With regard to some items I was determined to get something near the high end (processor, motherboard, memory, HD, audio), for other items it did not matter (graphics, keyboard, case), so I got whatever was cheapest. When the order was done, I still had to wait about 15 minutes until everything was brought from storage. I realised that I had forgotten to add a DVD drive – quite essential for installing OS and other software. But at the point of order receipt it was not possible to order again – I would have again to go into the queue, and I was too lazy for that. So on my way home I stopped at PC World and got a reasonably priced internal DVD drive.

These are the items I got:
  • CoolerMaster Elite 330/331 case
  • SilverPower SP-55500 500W power supply
  • CPU: Intel i7-920 processor
  • Motherboard: ASUS Rampage II Gene
  • Graphics card: PEAK ATI Radeon HD4350, 512 MB
  • Memory: 2 x 6 GB (3x2GB) DDR3, Corsair XMS3
  • Hard disc: 2 x HD Seagate Barracuda, 7200 rpm, 250GB
  • DVD/CD drive: LG 22x DVD+-RW
  • WiFi: Edimax wireless nLite USB WIFI adaptor
  • Soundcard: ASUS Sonar Excellence STX Asio