If you are using DAW Software on a computer as the primary tool for capturing your home recordings, then not only the choice of an adequate computer, but some periodic tender-loving-care to proactively maintain that computer’s operating system, so that it performs well, and remains reliable is essential to capturing good recordings. (DAW = Digital Audio Workstation). This should be thought of with the same attitude as changing your guitar’s strings, adjusting the truss rod, replacing the frets when they wear out. Or washing your car, or changing your car’s oil. Engineered devices just work better and last longer when you care for them. I make my living as an information technology professional, with many years of advanced experience in server systems administration, and managing database driven enterprise systems. The same basic maintenance principles apply to desktop workstation computers as with advanced high-availability server systems in a data center environment. These best practices help assure the health and availability of your computing facilities.
My song-writing approach is very much in the tradition of the “singer-songwriter”, starting with acoustic guitar and vocals. I move to the DAW much later, to add other instrumentation and effects. However, the DAW is a creative medium also, and many song-writers start by laying down riffs and tracks in the DAW, building the song idea out, using the software as another instrument. When inspiration strikes, and you are all fired up and ready to record, you want to spent your time recording your musical ideas, not troubleshooting a borked computer or chasing down time consuming, bizarre and inexplicable technical problems. Choosing the right system for your needs comes first. Then, proactive maintenance, understanding some principles of how computer operating systems are designed, and following certain disciplines will allow you to avoid issues in the first place.
Choice of Operating Systems Platform
There are basically 3 choices of computer operating systems in the current environment. Apple’s osX, Microsoft’s Windows, or some or other flavor of Linux. Any technology decision is a trade-off, and each of these operating systems carry their share of pros and cons. It is important to understand your requirements, and to match those requirements to the right technology. Here is a basic review:
You (normally) cannot purchase Apple’s osX unless you also buy an Apple computer. While it is technically possible to either virtualize osX, or with some effort install osX on non Apple hardware, Apple’s EULA only permits this under very specific and limited circumstances. This has allowed Apple to develop an operating system without the concern for building in compatibility with different kinds of graphics cards, sound cards, processors, hard disks and so forth. Since they are only building for one kind of hardware platform this is one of the factors that make Apple computers more reliable. Also, osX is a type of Unix under the surface, which does not require the same sort of disk maintenance, or registry maintenance care regimens as Microsoft Windows computers. The major trade-off of with Apple is that you get a very reliable and well designed computer, but it does cost more than its equivalents, and you are committing to a highly proprietary and arguably inflexible, arrogant business model. This can become expensive when you need to obtain accessories, parts or repairs. If budget is less of an issue and you have little tolerance for technical problems, then Apple is fit for purpose. Otherwise …
Microsoft Windows can be installed on a variety of different hardwares, which means that components can be bespoke. You can purpose build for studio recording. However mixed and matched hardware can also be used to lower the overall costs. When selecting your hardware you can for example purchase a smaller hard disk, a slower processor, or less RAM in order to obtain a better value for money. The pitfall is that many Microsoft Windows computers are purchased with under-resourced hardware because of cost consciousness, and therefore don’t perform well. Microsoft Windows contains a registry database that maintains information about all it’s settings and software. With software installs, uninstalls, and maintenance updates, this registry gradually becomes less optimized and is a source of degraded performance over time. Also the file management system allows files to be saved in dis-contiguous pieces on the disk, which means that accessing that file might take longer, as it assembles the data from those pieces. Malware risks (which exist with any platform but are more prevalent with Windows), the condition of the registry and fragmented disks are the key reasons why Microsoft Windows computers get slower over time. Tools and utilities exist to address these problems, so a commitment to disciplined Internet use, not installing unneeded software, and simple, low effort periodic maintenance activities, will definitely keep the computer running as well as when you first bought it.
Linux is by design very similar to Apple’s osX because they have the same heritage, both being based on Unix. Great free tools exist, and distributions such as Ubuntu Studio are purpose built for sound editing, packaging excellent open source DAW software. OpenSuse (my preferred distro) will require a little more effort, but can be used for DAW activities also. The trade-off is that you are not necessarily tied to a proprietary operating system, escape the inflexibility and costs of Apple, and the inherent design problems in Windows that create more periodic maintenance needs, but vendors don’t always develop software for Linux, or only develop for specific distributions. Software availability and cross compatibility with other platforms are the main issues with Linux.
No matter which OS you use, there are some tips that I can offer for your DAW computer:
- Fan noise is going to be an issue in your studio. Laptops are less inclined to do this. If you enclose your computer in some kind of sound proofing, make sure it can ventilate so that it does not overheat, or even set fire to the sound proofing material.
- If possible, the computer with the DAW installed should only be used as a DAW. Pretend it is not a computer that can do other things, but rather treat it like a one-trick-pony integrated DAW device. The less unneeded software that is installed on a computer, the less resources it will use. As a result, more of the processor, RAM and disk go to the functions of the DAW.
- Don’t use your DAW computer to browse the web, except to obtain software patches and updates for your DAW, and for the OS.
- Keep your system up to date with all the latest patches.
- Optimize the computer’s performance. Before recording, kill any unnecessary processes. For example, shut down your anti-virus, or any other background services or tasks that could compete for resources during the recording. For Microsoft Windows see: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows7/speed-up-your-pc or for Apple osX see: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/how-to-speed-up-your-mac-without-spending-any-cash/
- Purchase a computer with adequate processor speed, RAM and disk. For home recording, I would recommend you get as close to or better than 3 gHz for your processor, and between 4 to 6 GB RAM. You should have at least 500 MB of disk. I would also recommend, if you can afford to do so, purchase a computer with a solid state disk. As opposed to mechanical disks, solid state disks have no moving parts, therefore run without making noises, they also read and write data much faster than mechanical disks.
- If you are using a Windows computer, install a registry clean tool, and a disk defragmenter that can also optimize the placement of files, so that OS files that change infrequently are placed at the start of the disk, with frequently changing files having access to contiguous empty space. Many anti-virus softwares will include such maintenance tools, and Auslogics offer great utilities that are free for the home/non-commercial user. Run these tools periodically to assure the performance of the computer does not degrade over time. A defragmented disk will also reduce disk noise.
New DAW softwares for mobile and touch controlled tablet devices are emerging. These can be useful if you are out-and-about and a melody comes to you, or you want to use audio recording as part of your practice routine. At the writing of this article, I don’t think these are the best choices for serious home recording. Apple’s garage band app on the iPad comes close and could work in a pinch, but touch based mobile software needs to mature some more to offer easier workflows for creating content before these devices will be really useful for this type of activity.