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PCRECORDING.COM - Woebegone Windows Worries Workarounds

There are few things in life that are certain - - death, taxes and Windows worries. I, like many others, have experienced problems with Windows that have left me frustrated and perplexed. With www.pcrecording.com, I am constantly in and out of my machine, installing devices to review, test or conduct experiments. As a result, I have seen my system blow up, reboot, or simply stall more times than I can remember. In the process, I have learned a few tricks and workarounds that may be helpful to others. The bottom line is Windows can be stable if configured correctly. However, being prepared for the worst never hurts. Remember prevention is worth a pound of cure. Inevitably something will happen - - with some forethought, getting up and running again can be quite easy. But first, some preliminary concepts and suggestions.

Stress, Stress, Stress

You ever wonder why some people can handle stress easier? Oftentimes, it is a matter of their preparation for conflict that gives them seemingly extra resources to handle a problem. The same thing applies to PCs and Windows applications, particularly in digital audio work. Audio applications put a tremendous load on your DAW, its software, hardware and motherboard. When your system is processing a lot of audio tracks, applying CPU-hungry plugins, and writing to drives, your system is working at its maximum capacity. As a result, it is quite vulnerable to failure. Preparing it for these loads can prevent, or at least limit, failures at critical times. Preparing yourself to fix failures that may happen can help too.

Streamlining the demands on your system, preserving its power for critical applications is the most efficient way to prevent crashes. For instance, Windows tends to turn everything on so you will not have to later. Go to Start>Programs>Accessories>System Tools>System Information>Tools>System Configuration Utility>Startup - - you will see a list of all the programs and utilities that load up when you computer starts. These programs use up resources that could otherwise be used in your audio application. Turn off all that are not needed but never turn off Systray.

Back up your data

Regularly back up your data, every day, every hour, before each session, after each session, and whenever it occurs to you. Be sure to back it up to a safe storage medium. I suggest a CD-R because of its speed and portability. Pay special attention to important emails, and updated drivers that may not reside on your original disks. When things go bad, they are likely to occur right at your most creative point, or during a heavy mixdown session. It would be a shame to lose your hard work at that point. Back it up.

Eat your vegetables

Quality in equals quality out. Remember your mother telling you to eat your vegetables so you could grow up big and strong? Quality hardware components are very important to system stability. If you go cheap, you will likely get cheap results. Buy the best you can afford. Do without an extra bell and whistle if it means getting a solid base for your system. Each component plays a role and the weakest one will set the upper limit of your system performance capability. Therefore, I recommend building your own if you have the requisite skills, or working closely with your vendor to ensure what actually goes into your system. For digital audio systems, I do not recommend an off-the-shelf system, or even one from Dell/HP/Gateway - - every part matters and you need to be certain of what goes in. In addition, built-in flexibility to reconfigure your system is critically important - - something off the shelf systems seriously lack.

Using quality components is not limited to hardware. Poorly written software can wreak havoc on your system by overwriting necessary files, in particular, newer .dll files. I cannot tell you how many times I have had an email from a reader who says, "I downloaded this free plugin off the Web from North WhoKnowsWhere and it does not work and now my audio files won't play". You get what you pay for, and you may ultimately pay for what you do not. That is not to say you should only buy expensive stuff, just be sure of your source.

Fortunately, there is some relief if you use Windows 98 System File Checker utility. System File Checker will check your system for changed/altered files - - simply click on Start>Run, type in sfc, click on OK, select "settings", enable "check for changed files" and "check for deleted files." Then run the utility which will let you know which default Windows 98 files have been changed/deleted and prompt you to choose to whether to keep the new one or restore the old one. Keep in mind that some default windows files are already out of date, so choose accordingly. To avoid future problems, regularly check the Windows website for updates and upgrades.

Is it hot in here?

Heat is bad, bad, bad. Heat dissipation is very good. The case you choose is an important factor in how well heat is dissipated from your system's CPU. The case design and configuration is critically important in how heat is dissipated from the CPU to outside the case. Most systems now are in the ATX form-factor which allows for more room for extra fans and better cooling. An extra case fan can do wonders for reducing heat in you computer - - two is better. Put one in the front of the case blowing in, and one on the back blowing out, don't forget the one on the CPU too.

Be a front-seat driver

The single-most important stability issue/solution is having the latest drivers for everything in your system. By that I mean, your CD-Rom, the harddrive, the motherboard, the ATA devices, the video, the modem and the soundcard. As you may have suspected, many manufacturer's release systems and components that have known and unknown issues, then begin to work on bug fixes and updates to remain compliant with developments. In addition to bug fixes, the latest drivers oftentimes introduce new support for other devices/operating systems such as GSIF and ASIO. Video card drivers are particularly important - - many system problems arise when the video card hogs the PCI data flow for which the audio application is competing. As a result, the audio has to wait until some CPU cycles are available, resulting in digital dropouts. Keep in mind that driver updates can occur frequently, do not rely on the drivers that came with the installation CD to be current. I can guarantee you, they are not.

Beware the protectors

Many users rely on virus utilities and various crash protection utilities to "protect" their systems. Unfortunately, many of these programs cause problems and will be troublesome at best. I do not recommend using any of them on your system. Rely on frequent backups of your data and screen your viruses elsewhere before they get into your system. For instance, download files to a separate computer and run a virus checker there then transfer over to your DAW system.

You know what IRQs me?

Windows 98 features Plug and Play installation and supports IRQ sharing. Sounds good eh? Unfortunately, IRQ conflicts remain a common problem when installing a new card. While most recent motherboard chipsets, BIOS and soundcards allow for IRQ sharing, all is not perfect every time. Check if your motherboard allows for IRQ assignment by entering the BIOS (usually the delete button), or referring to its manual. In addition, Windows can tell you a lot about your configuration as well. For more on this read my IRQ article.

Cap'n, I'm giving this bucket of bolts all she's got

The cumulative demands of your harddrives, floppies, CD-Roms, CDRs and soundcards put heavy power loads on the power supply. If you have a cheap power supply, it may not be able to keep up with these demands. In addition, cheaper power supplies may have less-robust RF filters built-in to their wiring and can cause significantly higher levels of RF interference inside the case. Make sure you have a good quality power supply, ideally greater than 230 watts from a reputable maker. The case should be made of good quality metal as well. Many of the cheaper ones have very thin-gauge metal which provides little protection or structural integrity.

My Motherboard knows how to get around

Motherboards come in a variety of configurations and price ranges. As you might expect, you get what you pay for. After all, the motherboard is the foundation of your system, through which all things must interact. There are many motherboard options, ones that are compatible with Pentium III, Athlon, 133 bus speeds, different chipsets and ATA66 drivers. While outright speed is important to DAW applications, stability should not be overlooked. The single greatest contributor to project speed is stability. The chipset used by the board can be critically important - - some new ones are having compatibility problems that are not conducive to digital audio. In that light, motherboards based on the Intel 440BX chipset have withstood the test of time and are still capable of rocking the boat. In this instance, giving up a little bit of speed in exchange for stability is what I would recommend. I personally use a Soyo motherboard with a 440BX chipset - - it has been very stable for me. Keep in mind that you will likely want to expand your equipment options, so make sure that you have plenty of PCI slots available in your motherboard of choice.

I'll CPU one Pentium

The speed of the CPU and the harddrive transfer rate will determine how many tracks you can simultaneously run and what level of plug-in effects you may use. Digital audio recording is a mathematical process utilizing floating point algorithms. Obviously, if your processor can do more math in a given time, its performance will be higher. For a given task, the faster your CPU is, the easier it can perform the required calculations. If the calculations are easier for the CPU to finish, it will be less stressed than a CPU working harder. After all it is only 1's and 0's but I like it.

For digital audio, there is an ongoing debate about the Athlon and the Pentium performance levels. Generally speaking there are more compatible systems for the Pentium II/IIII series than the Athlon. That is changing slowly. Again, while speed is important, the idea in this article is to improve stability and uptime. It seems senseless to get a very fast CPU with limited compatibility. Stick with the Intel until more motherboard manufacturers get caught up on Athlon incompatibility issues.

I RAM what I RAM ma'am

The stronger your system is, the greater load it can handle with less stress. 64MB is the bare minimum in a DAW, 128MB, 192MB or 256MB would be better. System demands that exceed the amount of RAM you have turn to the harddrive and use what is called "virtual memory" (swapping to harddrive as if it were RAM). The default Windows "virtual memory" settings dynamically change levels as processing occur. This can lead to digital dropouts while using audio. Set your "virtual memory" settings to equal amounts by clicking on Settings>Control Panel>System>Performance>Virtual Memory. Double your system RAM in each of the Minimum and Maximum windows and click OK. Windows will give you a dire warning that this will potentially make your system unstable. Click OK, it is all right. You can always go back and change it.

I see I see

While the latest and greatest video card may seem a necessity to a gamer, in a DAW system you really need one that knows its place and when to get out of the way. For DAWs, a stable card that has up-to-date driver support and knows not to hog the PCI throughput is best for recording. I would not worry about 3D and such, or mega-fast refresh rates. All those things tend to do is use up resources you are trying to preserve for your system. Ensure that the video driver's do not "lock up" the PCI bus when video loads are placed on the system. I use a Matrox Millenium II and is works very well - - it is not fancy but it works.

Scotty, I need that throughput now!

Throughput capacity is critically important for DAW applications - - again you get what you pay for. The bigger and faster your harddrive is, the better. Your options are EIDE or SCSI. While Ultra-2-SCSI drives can claim the fastest specifications, the new EIDE drives are plenty fast. EIDE drives come in ATA/33 and ATA/66 configurations. At present there is little real-world performance advantage of ATA/66 over ATA/33 in DAW applications. Nonetheless, get one that is ATA/66 capable so you can upgrade as performance levels improve - - you can always use it at ATA/33.

I got problems with my E I/O E I/O

Many, if not most, soundcard I/O problems are the result of old drivers. Just make sure when you install your digital sound card that you have the latest drivers for it. Have I mentioned the importance of drivers yet? Simply put, drivers make the card go, providing the roadmap to new features, the traffic signals to route Windows data traffic, and a whole bunch of other silly metaphors. Drivers matter, be kind, keep them new.

When everything goes wrong

Sometimes, even if you have taken care of things as I suggest above, you may need to reinstall Windows. Generally, I believe it is a good idea to reinstall Windows fairly regularly - - this keeps things clean on the harddrive. Windows installation has become highly automated, you put in your CD and click go. Windows largely installs itself and recommends that you allow Windows to configure your system for you. This is convenient to be sure. However, there are certain things you can and should avoid during this installation process that would make your DAW perform better. The following is a set of suggestions about how to go about doing this and then some strategies to save you some time should you ever need to do it again.

  • Before the disaster you backed up your data right? You need not have worried about backing up your program files because you have those on your discs. Label your data accordingly, to prevent searching for them at critical reinstall times. Hopefully you had already separately saved your latest sets of drivers for ready access when needed. Check each components website regularly to see if new drivers have been posted. Go to your harddrive manufacturer's website and download its latest harddrive utility (most good harddrives have this). Put all of these on floppies and set aside for later. Make a Windows 98 Startup floppy (if you have not already). Lastly, go to your video and motherboard manufacturer sites and download the latest BIOS for each. Flash the BIOS for each as directed by their respective instructions.

    Then, go back into BIOS and make sure that the UDMA function is on. There are a couple of other things you can try, such as, turn on Block Mode, Read Ahead to maximum and try turning on the S.M.A.R.T. features and see if it makes a difference. The caveat here is to do these things sequentially, one at a time, and then check to see if it works better. When in doubt, don't do anything, go back to default settings in your BIOS. Remember the biggest time saver is stability. After all is done turn off your computer and unplug the power cable.

  • Take out all hardware in the computer except the video card, harddrive, CD and floppy. Be sure to temporarily store all removed hardware in a safe manner. While you are at it clean the dust out of the system as well. A clean computer will run cooler and better than a dirty one. Check to see if the cabling inhibits airflow, rubs the cooling fans etc. and adjust as appropriate. Generally inspect your system for any obvious possible problems, loose wires, the fans are blowing the right direction, etc.
  • If you have had your system loaded up with a lot of software and had experienced some odd problems, you may wish to consider running a diagnostic program typically available from your harddrive manufacturer. Hopefully you have downloaded one from their respective website or use the one on the floppy that came with the drive. Usually these utilities fit on a floppy and are bootable. Boot to the utility floppy, run a diagnostic and see what the condition of your harddrive is. You may end up wanting to "write zeroes" to the drive to completely clean it. Follow the instructions in you utility program to do this. You will end up with a clean disk ready for partitioning and formatting.

    Next, boot from your Windows Start-up floppy (you did make one right?), answer Yes to CD support. At the A: prompt, type FDISK and partition your hard drive. If you have a large drive, you may wish to partition your harddrive into several drives with C: as the primary DOS partition. The advantage of this is you can put your day-to-day programs on a partition separate from your audio programs. When you are done, reboot your computer with the Windows Startup floppy in the A: drive, at the A: prompt type FORMAT C: to format the drive. If you have additional partitions, you need to format them as well. The FDISK utility will have named them as separate drives, typically D:, E: and so forth.

  • There are two ways to setup Windows. First you can simply type Setup at the A: prompt and Windows will automatically begin the installation process. However, it will run a scandisk and ask you to create boot disks in the process - - thing you need not do if you just cleaned the drive and already had a boot disk. Another way, is to switch to the Win9x directory of the Windows CD and type "setup /ie /id /is /im". Windows 9x will then setup but leave out the scandisk and boot disk creation prompts. You can then install Windows as normal.
  • After Windows is done installing you will then begin to update the drivers. This is a tedious process, install a driver and then reboot after each one. Begin with the latest drivers for your video card and then reboot. Next, install your modem with the latest drivers. Configure your internet access and download all current Windows critical and recommended updates from the Microsoft website, in particular, the operating system, bug fixes and security updates. Ignore anything that you do not need. Reboot your system.
  • Next, you need to configure your hardware. Click on Start>Settings>Control Panel>System>Device Manager and double-click on your CD-ROM. Click on the "Settings" tab and deselect "Auto insert notification". If your CD-ROM supports DMA, select the "DMA" option. Go back to Device Manager and ensure that there are no exclamation marks by the IRQ settings. Go back to Device Manager and double-click on your harddrives. Select DMA, if they support it (which I hope they do). You now have completed installation of a very basic Windows system which normally takes up the bulk of reinstallation time. Reboot your system.
Casper had it right

Norton Ghost is a disk imaging program that will take an image of your system and compress it, store it in a place of your choosing, and will decompress it on command when needed. There several other similar programs by other vendors. I prefer Ghost. Why is Ghost a good thing? The program stores everything that is in your system at the time it is run, the registry, the installations, the settings, everything. If you suffer a catastrophic crash, you simply need to boot to Ghost, locate the file you had imaged, restore your system by directing it to dump onto the drive of your choice. The system is then completely restored, the registry, programs, settings, etc. are completely overwritten. Caution: Ghost and similar products do completely overwrite your system, so anything on the drive before you restore your system will be lost. Therefore, it is always a good practice to regularly backup your data, as you surely know.

Do the DAW

Now since you have safely established a baseline system you can go ahead and load your DAW card with its latest drivers and reboot. Check for conflicts in Device Manager and then install multi-track software. It is up to you whether to make another Ghost image or not at this point. You will then have a more advanced "image" of your system in the event of a major crash. Follow the install, conflicts check and reboot sequence for each and every device you install. Do the same for each software package as well. In this way, by checking each device and software after it is installed you should be able to tell if your system has become unstable. If it is unstable after an installation be it hardware or software, try to figure out why. If you cannot, get rid of it.

Recap redux

The most important concepts are recapped below:

  • Latest drivers
  • Latest Bios for motherboard and video
  • Clean system, with adequate cooling
  • Enough horsepower, CPU, RAM, Harddrive and Power Supply
  • Clean install of hardware and software
  • Data backups of necessary systems
Conclusion

If you follow the advice here you should be able to enjoy a stable system. In the event that you have a problem you should be able to use Ghost to restore the system in minutes. Lastly, say the title of this article three times in a row without messing up. If you succeed, it will be time for you to go.

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