I used the CEntrance Latency Test Utility for my benchmarks. This is an industry-standard tool that most home-studio engineers use, although there are benchmarking utilities included with some software programs as well, such as ProTools. To run these tests, you connect a cable from the input of the audio interface to the output of the audio interface, which creates an audio loop. CEntrance sends a single pulse and records latency (if you do these tests, make sure you turn down your speakers).
In the Roland SonicCell test on the 64-bit workstation I built, latency measured 13 ms, which is very low. I could “feel” this low latency when I played on the Roland SH-201 synthesizer connected to the SonicCell recording live audio (not USB or MIDI from the synthesizer). When I played notes, they recorded very accurately in Cubase 5, which means the quality of the recording was better and my performance was better because what I played was recorded quickly. It’s like a well-tuned engine, with the 64-bit processing ensuring accurate results.
To compare my latency results, I also used an AMD machine I had already built for another purpose: running Vista 32-bit but with a faster processor (an AMD Phenom II) and a similar RAM and storage setup. You would think the faster CPU would help, but the latency was actually higher. Using a PreSonus FireStudio with 32-bit drivers, the latency measured about 33 ms. I also did a sanity test with a Creative EM-U 0404 interface and the latency was very similar to FireStudio’s results, running at 27 ms.
There is more to an audio workstation than the PC and audio hardware. You’ll need microphone stands, good lighting, and music stands—the list goes on and on. There’s no need to build every element into the studio right away, but it is a good idea to have a plan. I drew out a workstation area on a piece of paper and added the components that were the most important, but I plan to add more in the next few months. I didn’t touch on mix-downs, mastering, and burning CDs as much. These are all important steps, but you can actually do them easily enough on a laptop with Cubase 5 and a pack of blank discs.
In recording, the rule is the same for data processing: garbage in and garbage out. I’m a big supporter of having the lowest-latency equipment you can afford on the front end and then either mixing by hand or sending the raw tracks to a professional studio for the mix down (which usually requires an ear for EQ adjustments and frequency levels). In the end, it is all a learning experience, but be sure to have fun on the ride.