Audio related PC upgrades
This blog entry is a little different from those I would normally post up that would have a direct relationship to recording, mixing or mastering. This one is going to be about computer replacement and hardware/software upgrades. I have commenced some computer upgrades in the studio and office and it is a process that usually fills me with a certain level of justified anxiety. I have been thinking about components and have some trusted favourites that I have been using in my existing PC’s. One beauty of a PC is you can choose what components go into it. PC components vary from the cheap and cheerful to the seriously high end.
I am actually working on 3 PC’s at this time, various upgrades on each… 2 in the mastering studio and a music making machine. The studio office PC is connected to the internet at all times and I use it for file transfers and email, there is a stand alone (offline) DAW PC which I get custom built by a trusted audio PC supplier. I also have been updating a project studio PC that I use for making music in spare time.
For each upgraded/replaced machine I have compiled relevant folders of software application updates and installers which will be stored on an external drive for installation onto the new machines. In addition each folder has notes on issues that maybe encountered and salient points I have discovered through internet searches. Do take note of your existing audio hardware requirements such as PCI/PCI-e/Firewire/USB2.0/3.0 usage.Taking your time to prepare is an important part of a trouble free PC upgrade.
A new custom DAW machine for the mastering studio :
This PC is relatively straight forward as it is pre built and tested by a well known and reputable audio PC builder. It has been delivered and I will take 3-9 months overlap so I can get to trust the machine for daily use mastering clients music. I like to have my new PC in testing for a substantial period of time to try and avoid any down time should their be any issues. One can of course never know for sure but as a general rule new electronic items have tendency to break fairly soon in their service life or not for a considerable period of time. I may be a little optimistic but as I have had almost 7 years from my existing PC I am hoping to make this new one last 10 years.
This machine has a RME card installed just recently and will be connected to the Benchmark conversion via the analogue rack. It will be a case of installing and the testing software that I rely on and ensuring it is all working fine. At a stage later down the line testing will begin on audio I/O and then configuration of preferences within the software. I will be running my older machine in tandem for a period in order to create some overlap for retrieving projects that have completed and burning CD-Rs using Plextor 7xx series drives and using the Plextools error testing software. (This drive may be swapped into the new machine at a later stage). Even though most people acept a DDPi these days I do occasionally get a request for a CD-R pre-master disk.
There is a lot of software that needs to be installed on this machine and this will be done in an incremental manner, most important first and then lesser used applications later. There is a rather loose theory to suggest that if Windows 7 can run software in theory Windows 10 should be able to as well. There is a x86 folder for installing 32 bit legacy applications (of which I own a few – namely Adobe Audition 3.0, this is still one of the best audio restoration applications I am aware of, despite new comers such as RX which I also use. Plextools Pro is also another important piece of software for CD error testing of C1/C2 errors)
Mastering does not typically have high CPU demands so it is not critical to update the CPU every few years. I have made some prudent selections on the new hard drives (SSD’s) I have installed in the machines and also power supplies. Power supplies are not a very interesting item for most people but I always enjoy selecting them. I love Seasonic PC PSU’s for their no compromise, high end approach to design and manufacture. In a word they endure. The mastering DAW has a 850W Seasonic PRIME Titanium PSU installed that has a 10 year warranty. (650W version shown)
A quality power supply means clean, stable 5V and 12V power to all aspects of the PC. The Seasonic Titanium PRIME is the ultimate PC power supply.
In addition the HDD chosen is a Samsung 850 Pro 256GB, this unit also has a 10 year a warranty. Such warranties at least show a manufacturer has confidence in their products. In addition the CPU is passively cooled meaning no fans to break (or overheat the CPU cores) and even fewer moving parts overall. To all intents and purposes it is fully silent.
This machine should also be quiet, green and cool runnning. It is using a 7th generation Intel Kaby Lake CPU which uses 50pct less energy than an older CPU. The Seasonic Titanium is one of the most efficient PC PSU’s in the world. Of course back ups will be made and time will tell if this machine will last its anticipated service life.
Burn-in fumes !
As an aside you should always well ventilate the areas where a new PC is installed. Typically with daily operation it will take 1 month for it to ventilate/evaporate some of the chemicals that are used in electronic component manufacture. Air con premises will be fine but it is worth trying to minimize inhalation of vented fumes/electronic smells that come off the machine as there is evidence to suggest it may be damaging to health. So ventilate or fan away the electronic smells wherever possible.
Less exciting but of course very important for the operation of the studio is the office machine. For this machine I have a Seasonic Gold X-650 series PSU (7 year warranty) along with silent cooling and a Samsung 850 Pro HDD (SSD). I installed a new motherboard memory and CPU in essence it is a brand new machine at component level, only the original case remaining. Unfortunately my 6 year old motherboard no longer supported Windows 10 so it will need to be recycled. Given that a 10 year service life would be the ideal Windows 10 and new hardware makes sense. This machine has a snappy i3 dual core running at 3.9GHz certainly plenty of “oompfh” for what this machine will be doing.
A classic thing to check here is your printer drivers. Boring but vital ! If you are (un?)fortunate to have an old printer that is still working ok do check to make sure that it has drivers that will work with your chosen OS. They may have x64 drivers for Win7/8 which may or may not work. Try a search for your printer name “Lexmark xxxxxx printer not working with Windows 10 64 bit” Be inventive with your search terms to glean as much information as possible. Search deeply and try to understand if some posts are by complete novices or not.
Project music machine
Again this has a Seasonic Gold X-650 series PSU installed as an upgrade. The rest of the machine is functioning well. This machine however will be getting a fresh Windows 10 64 bit and Cubase 8 64 bit install when time permits. This machine has 16GB RAM but encounters Cubase 8 32 bit project issues when the project size reaches around 3 to 4 GB (A limitation of a 32 bit DAW)
Again check your DAW, audio card drivers and all softsynths support x64 (64 bit operation)
As we all know there can be a few “Gotch-yers” along the way of installing a new OS, software and hardware so you need to make a list of all the software you have and for upgrades ensure that your hardware supports any new OS that may be installed. If you are moving from 32 bit to 64 bit also ensure audio card drivers and software will be compatible. Aging cards may have old x64 drivers (Win7 or Win 8) which may or may not work in Windows 10. As I planned well it is not a problem but I have found out that my aging motherboard in the office machine is not officially supporting Windows 10 so I suggest checking if your hardware is fully compatible before making a choice. I could have purchased a copy of Windows 7 new but felt that it was a prudent decision to invest in new hardware (Motherboard, CPU and memory) that will work with Windows 10 as official Microsoft support for Windows 7 is not to last much longer. This is more likely to see the machine make its 10 year anticipated life span. This machine is also being passively cooled. The office machine does not need to be lightening fast so an INTEL i3 3.9GHz will be plenty of power for emails, wetransfer-ing and paperwork !
Things to watch out for : observations
Have an internet connection enabled computer available for troubleshooting
Have a non metallic torch handy for viewing awkward places.
Do not be tempted to over tighten motherboard or CPU heatsink retention screws / Crossthreading anything is a bad thing to do. Tighten so they just meet/pull in and then ever so slightly more.
Make note of the lead wires / motherboard connectors for your HDD LED, Power LED, RESET and Power on buttons. Either put labelled tape round them before removing from your old motherboard or photo them clearly. Check polarity where relevant and refer to new motherboard manual.
Passive CPU heatsinks may cause a “CPU fan not active” error.. for this you will need to disable “Wait for F1 if error” setting in the BIOS be aware you will not receive warnings of fault conditions
Double check the metal rear panel “guard” to ensure they are seated on your VGA/DV-I/USB etc. connectors. They have a habit of not mating perfectly and bits of tin end up in or misfitting your sockets/connectors. So double check these look fine before putting your PSU on or attempting to boot.
Gently double check all connectors are mating well..by seeing if connectors are parallel to the sockets.
Keep safe – keep back ups
The easiest solution to backing up data in my experience is to use a SATA HDD cloning unit. You simply slot the HDD’s into the Master and Copy slots (always be extremely careful and vigilant at this stage) and then double click a button in order to clone 1 drive to the other. Simple and it feels nice to have a hard copy of your configured HDD ready to go should there be future HDD failure.
Always allow a clear day for any significant hardware updates, read and plan before the install date and have an internet connection and PC online is a good plan in case you hit any “head-scratchers”. And as a final note always observe static electric precautions (discharge yourself by touching a plugged in but mains power off machine) and discharge your fingers before handling components that may be static sensitive.