With the availability of an ever increasing amount of VSTs, VSTis and DAWs all fighting to take up your computers processing power its no wonder that many people find themselves trying to create a track while their PC is slowly grinding to a halt, their audio card is glitching and the system fans are going full speed and sounding like a jumbo jet at take off.
We all want to push our systems to the max and get the most out of them but what most people dont realise is that they have set themselves up for a fall before they even booted up their music software. There are a number of things you can do to get the most out of even the most basic of systems that wont cost you any money and might leave you wondering why you never thought them your self.
As I have always worked with PCs all the tips Ill give you here will be based on Windows systems but the idea behind many of them should work regardless of your operating system.
Some tips require you to make changes to your operating system and some require you to open up your PC and make adjustments to your hardware.
As with any advice given here you follow at your own risk. You should never perform any hardware or software maintenance if your not comfortable doing so and never, never with the system plugged in. If your not 100% comfortable doing anything mentioned here take your system to your local PC store or find a friend who's in the know and ask them to do it for you.
These tips are things I do myself and have worked for me and my setup. The chance of you causing any real problems following any of these tips is very slim but all the same be careful and dont blame me if you break something :-)
Keep your system cool and clean
Those fans and air vents on your computer are not there for show so make sure you pay them some attention every now and again. Over time your PC can become clogged up with dust and bits and fluff that get sucked in through the air vents as the fans spin to keep the system cool. If your system sounds like a tumble dryer then the chances are that the fans either need a clean, are worn out or cheap and nasty to start with. The fans are there to help keep the processor, hard drives and other items in your system cool. The harder you push your system the hotter the chips etc get and the more work the fans do to keep the temperature down. Dirty fans and blocked air vents stop them from doing their job of circulating cool air and cause your system to overheat. If you system gets too hot it will grind to a halt and at worst will result in irreversible damage. A well built system wont have missing drive bays or have the side panel left off but will be clean, well ventilated and positioned in a cool place. It might sound obvious but dont place the system in direct sunlight, next to a radiator, next to other gear that gets hot such as amps etc.
If your system is full of dust then you can get that fixed simply enough by using a soft paint brush or old tooth brush or something similar to loosen the dust from the fans, heat sink and air vents and then remove the dirt with a hoover or specialist PC cleaning tools. Your PC is a complex and delicate piece of kit so treat it with care and you wont break anything.
If your fans are noisy and seem to be working too hard even after cleaning them then you might want to look into getting better quality fans. Some fans are sold as being silent and in my opinion are worth that little extra. The other option is to use a water cooling system. These are more expensive but have the advantage of no moving parts and for the most part its the movement of the fans that makes the noise. Water cooling systems do also need a little maintenance though to keep them running well.
Uninstall programs that you dont use or need
Remember when you first fired up your brand new PC and you said "wow, see how fast it loads" but these days you switch it on, go make a cuppa then come back and get comfortable while it finishes booting. Yeh we've all been there. There are a few reasons why its taking so long to even boot the system these days and one of them is the fact that you have installed all sorts of software since you got it home.
If you take a look at the list of installed software you'll probably see that you dont even use the majority of it. At this point you should ask yourself what you use the computer for. Is it for making music or is it a one size fits all system that is used by everyone and has to do everything. If its just for making music then I would say that copy of Office, the half a dozen games you never play, Skype, MSN, and the list of crappy trial version software that came pre installed dont need to be there. Whats the problem you might ask. Well, apart from the fact that its taking up space on your hard drive its also littering your registry and in some cases running in the background even when your not using it. For those that dont know the registry is where your Windows operating system stores all the info for your software. Its like a big database of all your systems settings and whatever else. As with any database the bigger they are the longer it takes to get the info out and so the slower things go.
I also mentioned that some thing run in the background even when your not using them. Things such as Skype, MSN, BitTorrent software, Dropbox, antivirus software even gimmicks like the desktop widgets all use up a share of the system resources. You could switch on your system, open up the resource monitor (look in start / programs / accessories ) and then take a look at all those processes and bits of software busily working away while your sitting there doing nothing. Now switch some stuff off and see how much difference it has made. Dont get me wrong some of them are there for a reason but some are there because you installed them and no longer use them or dont need them.
To work some magic here open up the control panel and choose the option to uninstall software that you dont need. If your in any way unsure of what a program does then leave it but for those that your happy you dont need uninstall them.
Switch off programs that you dont need to make music
If you dont want to uninstall things like Skype or MSN and you feel that you need to have download software on your PC then fair enough. That doesn't mean though that you need to have all this stuff running while your focused on mixing a track or recording some guitar. Anything that doesn't need to load when your system loads should be set not to. This will help speed up boot times and you can load them when you need them. The same goes for anything else you dont need.
If you're recording, mixing or writing you dont need your browser open, messaging software running, windows explorer sat there doing nothing or your email client checking for mail every five minutes. You dont even need to be online or have WiFi or bluetooth enabled. Turn them all off and use your computers power to make music. You would be surprised how much juice gets used up with software your not even using. Also remember to switch off any screen savers you might have waiting to interrupt your recording.
Optimise Windows settings for performance
Some parts of Windows are there to make it look all pretty and easier to use and by doing so use up some vital resources that you could be using to make tunes. Go right click on the my computer icon and choose the Advanced tab and then the performance settings option. Set the visual effects option to "Adjust for best performance". This will make things look more basic and loose all those pretty rounded corners and semi transparent windows but improve performance that little bit more.
Whilst still on the "Performance Options" window choose the "Advanced" tab and set processor scheduling to Background Services. If your using Windows 7 next choose "Virtual memory" from this tab. If you took the earlier advice of using more then one hard drive then adjust the settings for the paging file so that the only place you have a paging file is your store drive. This will take the strain from your C: Boot drive and work drive.
Click OK and you'll be back at the System properties window. This time choose the "Remote" tab and un check the option to allow remote assistance.
Next up go to your control panel and choose the settings for Sounds. If your using XP set No Sound in the sound scheme option. In Windows 7 this is in the personalization settings.
If you're using a laptop adjust the power configuration so that its not trying to cope with being mobile. If your laptop is sat on your desk it doesn't need to worrying about the battery running out and powering down your drives or your screen.
Tidy up your desktop and empty the bin
Is your desktop littered with icons and folders ? If so get the duster out and clean it up. While your at it get rid of that high res photo you use as a desktop background, switch off those fancy gadgets that tell you the time in countries you'll never go to and kill off your screen savers. Move all the files you have stored on your desktop and put them neatly away into your storage drive / partition. Did you know that by default anything you store on your desktop is saved in with your OS and so in line to be lost forever if you need to restore your system. Your desktop should only have the essential icons you need to live and not be like a teenagers bedroom with everything thrown on the floor.
Keep your hard drives organised
Another key item in the chain is your hard drive. The most efficient way to manage your storage of files is to keep one drive for your operating system and installed software and another separate drive for your working files such as samples and loops. If you dont have two drives you can split a single drive into multiple partitions. By splitting a single physical drive into partitions you end up with multiple virtual drives that not only help you keep things organised but also give you a performance boost as it groups relative items together on the disk. Any time I have ever set a single drive system up I have always created a boot partition (C: Boot) a storage partition (D: Store) and a work partition (E: Work) . My OS goes on the C: drive , all my backups and samples are kept in the store drive and the tunes I'm working on live on the E: work drive. Keep things organised, keep your OS separate from your personal files, delete stuff you dont need and keep the recycle bin empty.
There is much more I could say about the reasons for splitting things up but the most important is the fact that if you mix your own files with your OS files when things go bad you have lost the lot. If you keep them separate and have to format your C: drive and restore your OS none of your work files are effected or lost and you wont throw the PC through the window.
Optimise your IDE or SATA hard drives
If your using SATA drives or IDE drives its worth running the disk cleanup and defragment utilities every now and then. Hit Start / accessories / system tools and choose Disk Cleanup or run the command "CLEANMGR" from the command prompt. Choose a drive to clean up and this utility will scan through and find all the files you no longer need. Things such as tmp files, internet browser clutter and old log files. if you have never run this you might find a load of files that are doing nothing more then wasting disk space. Again if you're unsure about what to delete be careful or do a quick Google search.
Once that's done you can run the Disk Defragmenter. This utility will go through and organise the files on your hard drive so that they can be read quicker. An important thing to remember here is that you should NEVER defragment a SSD drive as this will do nothing but wear it out quicker.
More performance tips coming soon
This is part one in a series of tutorials that will try and help you make the most out of your audio PC system and help to keep things running as quick as possible. Make sure you are following us on twitter and facebook and you'll be updated when the next post is ready.
Should you have any questions or on anything mentioned here or have tips of your own you would like to share leave a comment below.