Setting Up Your First 64-Bit Digital Audio Workstation

Building a digital audio workstation is an exercise in eliminating noise, minimizing latency, and designing for ergonomics. One of the first steps is to realize that the workstation is more than just the PC itself. There are many components to connect and configure. Even the layout of your workspace is important as you fiddle with a keyboard (the musical kind), sing into a microphone, and play a riff on a guitar, all the while easily clicking options with a mouse or punching buttons on an external controller. The good news is that all of the pieces can come together quite nicely as long as you avoid one of the most common pitfalls: using hardware that was never meant to go together in a studio.

Now, before I get started on the workstation design, here’s some background info. As a journalist, I’ve covered many of the best software and hardware options for about eight years. I remember testing one of the first versions of Cubase SX in 2002, and I’ve stayed current by either writing articles on recording or by creating my own songs. I’m a guitar player and songwriter and I also play keys and drums. A few years back, I even went to Nashville to perform for a record label. I use some PreSonus gear (it’s on long-term loan from a friend) mounted in a rack and situated in a separate room in my house.

One of the main lessons I’ve learned is that exceptional equipment does not make you a better musician. However, when you do have a moment of inspiration and creative brilliance, having gear that works well will help you to really appreciate the investment, minus the clicks and pops so common in amateur recordings. That said, it is also really easy to use mismatched gear, such as a microphone that records the subtle frequencies in an upper registry plugged into a low-end audio interface without phantom power capability and recorded with a computer that’s crippled by a slow processor and minimal RAM.

As with any serious computer project, it’s critical to think about the components because there are a few gotchas: a motherboard with a four-pin instead of the more common six-pin FireWire port, for example, or a hard disk drive with loads of capacity but not the cache you need to capture audio accurately.

You might be tempted to go with a small form-factor (SFF) PC. After all, space is usually an issue with a music workstation and in your recording space. The fact is that an ATX case is easier (and faster) when it comes to upgrades, which in my case are frequent. For a simple four-track recording session, I might want to use the main disk partitioned for data and the operating system. I may then decide to add an extra internal drive or two for a more complex project. I also like to be able to adjust fan speed, add or remove more RAM, and replace processors. I like this flexibility for another reason: I don’t always use a music workstation just for recording. I may want to upgrade my rig with an SLI graphics configuration with enormous fans not intended for a recording PC to play the latest first-person shooter.

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  • one-shot
    There are large HSFs designed for to be passively cooled. Have you thought of that as an option? You are running a CPU which doesn't draw much current and it could help to even lower the noise even more as that is your main concern, it seems. No fan should make less noise than A fan, even if that one fan is very quiet.
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  • Anonymous
    REAPER has a 64bit version that's quite lauded (as is the 32bit, for that matter).

    www.reaper.fm
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  • mitch074
    what I find strange though, is the use of a non-real time OS for audio recording; Windows' sound system always introduces latency (when there's no latency, then it introduces clicks); on the other hand, there are optimized Linux distros dedicated to sound recording and processing, that cost nothing, that are 64-bit compatible, and thanks to a well tested kernel patch (I think it entered mainline a while ago) has zero latency: kernel allows real time access to sound hardware.

    You can also forget about disk problems with Linux, as it is and remains light years ahead of Windows in disk access - especially when using low latency file systems.

    So, while your hardware choices are excellent, you cripple your system by using an inappropriate system. It's like putting a truck driver in command of a Formula 1 car: he may be used to drive powerful and costly machines with precision, but not THIS kind of machine.
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  • Anonymous
    Totally agree with mitch074! I've used Ubuntu Studio (ubuntustudio.org) for 32bit audio processing. The (stable) latency I get with that system is unsurpassed (took me a few days to finetune the kernel for this result though...)
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  • mitch074
    just to add something to my previous comment: while you mentioned Ubuntu 64-bit, do realize that the -rt kernel isn't installed by default; its use of PulseAudio (that plays the same role than Vista's current audio stack does) is a pain to configure... Not that it's impossible, but then you'd better look at 64 Studio (Debian-based 64-bit RT distribution) or at the very least Ubuntu Studio (which is already configured for audio use, with several drivers pre-built).

    More data at http://linux-sound.org/ (obviously)
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  • Hamsterabed
    Please examine your power supply bracket a little closer, if you look carefully you will notice 4 tabs sticking up upon both sides of the bracket. You may mount a SSD to these 2.5 inch slots instead of buying a separate one that will be in your air corridor.
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  • Anonymous
    > has zero latency

    That's bull - no system has zero latency - not even DSP-based ProTools.

    All soundcard-hardware has at least 32 samples of latency.

    Apart from that, you will achieve VERY low latency figures by carefully selecting the right PC, with the right add-on-hardware with Windows as well. And if you have the right card with the right drivers, you can even use that 32 sample latency (less than 1msec) for tracking.

    Also IMHO 99% of all virtual instruments/effects existing are Win/OS X only, so you will not have the same range of tools to use when limiting yourself to Linux.

    Dogmatic thinking is never smart. Use the right tool for the right job. Linux is (currently) IMHO not the right tool for DAW work (at least not if you want to work in a somewhat professional level)
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  • vivi22
    to-pseAlso IMHO 99% of all virtual instruments/effects existing are Win/OS X only, so you will not have the same range of tools to use when limiting yourself to Linux.


    Have to agree with this. Linux isn't supported by the majority of major plug in makers, so if you use it you'd be pretty limited in what you had available in that area. I'd also rather not spend any more time dealing with getting drivers that run properly than I already do using Windows.

    Anyway, the article seems like a good intro for those who may be new to building a DAW and it's nice to see Tom's put up an article not geared towards gamers or IT. I didn't think I'd ever see an article relating to music production on here so I appreciate the effort, but there are some things that I would have liked to see mentioned. For starters, Cubase isn't the only 64-bit recording program. Reaper was already mentioned in the comments, and Sonar was 64-bit before Cubase ever made the move. Might be some others that are or are moving to 64-bit, but those were the major ones when I was looking into a recording program last year.

    Also, although I could understand going with a processor that doesn't require some pretty massive cooling when you're going to be recording real instruments or vocals in the same room as the PC, I wouldn't recommend deliberately limiting processing power if someone is working largely, or even completely with midi. Once you start throwing in some VST synths and effects, the processor can be taxed pretty easily. You can get around it by bouncing tracks to wav as you work on other parts, but it can be a pain when you want to edit multiple parts in real time.
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  • Anonymous
    You have a nice rig there, would look at cleaning up the wiring though, its a bit messy in the pic!
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  • Ryun
    This was actually a very interesting article. It's a shame though, I wish you had taken more pictures of the audio hardware and audio connectors instead of the "stock" hardware. I don't really know much about audio hardware or even the theory to work with, so pictures of those would have helped immensely for a noob like myself.
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  • Anonymous
    This is actually my area of expertise, I don't feel that alot of these choices are very good.... That CPU is a tad underpowered, my last 2 DAWs have been quads, any quad ever made is sufficient for audio, they're not power hungry or loud if they're running less than 50% load... That CPU is decent, but you could actually max it out in a big project with lots of plugins. Much less, why do you need the uber-overclocking heatsink for a 45w CPU? Besides, 64bit DAWs aren't ready for primetime yet, 64bit still gotten very little support from plugin vendors... It only makes sense if you have a crap-load of RAM installed, and will actually use it for stuff like massively layered multisampled pianos, etc... I run ridiculously large projects, and barely exceed 1gb of RAM useage for my DAW's process in task manager, not even enough to justify using the /3G boot switch... Any quad ever made, 4gb of ram and 32bit is more than good enough for 99.9% of the audio world....
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  • Anonymous
    @ the people discussing Linux and DAWs: Virtually all plugins run in WINE, all of the NI plugins work(Kontakt2/3 has problems with a memory error message, running your DAW session as root fixes it). Reaper is an excellent DAW, and it runs well in WINE... Setting up ALSA and wineasio for your soundcard does take a bit of Linux know-how, but it can be made to run very well, even slightly better than XP if you compile your own WINE/kernel with the -Native flag...

    FFS, that CPU is a lousy choice if you really do need low latency... Minimum latency acheivable is directly related to CPU power, a fast quad(like a Phenom II 940) would do much better...
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  • Anonymous
    13ms is eternity in audio world. With both M-Audio and RME you can have much lower latencies (2ms) on 32-bit XP.
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  • pocketdrummer
    ............ Tom is really going out on a limb this time. If you want reviews that you can trust, you'll need to go to a site that is more qualified for the job. "I'm not sure if there's any benefit" is not something I want to hear if I'm building a DAW.

    First of all, much of this information is either inaccurate or just plain irrelevant. Let me see a show of hands from the Audio Engineers in here that actually use a Roland SonicCell for their recordings.... anyone?

    On another note, you can take advantage of the 64-bit audio mix engine in Sonar 8 with a 32-bit system. Unless you have stupid amounts of RAM and you know how to really tweak windows vista (barf), then you're only making problems worse for yourself by using a 64-bit OS.

    Also, for the windows nay-sayers out there. Wait for WaveRT in Windows 7. It should help turn the tables on OS-X.

    If you want a good PC for your DAW, look into ADK, Sonica, or Sweetwater. (Rain Recording tends to be more expensive for what you actually get)
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  • pocketdrummer
    To the linux guys, what Sequencer and Interface are you using to record?

    I didn't find many that would even remotely compare to the windows/mac offerings.
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  • Anonymous
    "If you are a glutton for punishment, try Ubuntu 64-bit "

    Only if your DAW process will consume around 2Gb or more when running, the vast majority will get by just fine with 32bit, and it's not THAT hard to get your Alsa drivers working(not sure about 64bit drivers...):

    Install through Synaptic: libalsa(?) alsa-mixer alsa-mixer-gui jackd qjackctl alsa-utils

    Go here and get your Alsa driver, and follow the instructions to compile and install for your specific soundcard:

    http://www.alsa-project.org/main/index.php/Main_Page

    I'd also recommend going the extra mile and installing the latest dev version of wine:

    www.winehq.org

    Then search the internet for the latest wineasio.dll.so file(compiling it requires obtaining the ASIO sdk from Steinberg, major PITA), then place it on your desktop and paste the following command into the terminal:

    cd ~/Desktop; sudo cp wineasio.dll.so /usr/lib/wine; regsvr32 wineasio.dll

    Now you have working Asio drivers for wine applications... Too easy, right?

    You can now download reaper from www.reaper.fm, and install your plugins as normal. If any of them don't work properly, try logging in as root to do it.

    PS: I'll do a Tom's article on how to do Linux audio for $600 :D
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  • pocketdrummer
    L337_DAW_enthusiastThis is actually my area of expertise, I don't feel that alot of these choices are very good.... That CPU is a tad underpowered, my last 2 DAWs have been quads, any quad ever made is sufficient for audio, they're not power hungry or loud if they're running less than 50% load... That CPU is decent, but you could actually max it out in a big project with lots of plugins. Much less, why do you need the uber-overclocking heatsink for a 45w CPU? Besides, 64bit DAWs aren't ready for primetime yet, 64bit still gotten very little support from plugin vendors... It only makes sense if you have a crap-load of RAM installed, and will actually use it for stuff like massively layered multisampled pianos, etc... I run ridiculously large projects, and barely exceed 1gb of RAM useage for my DAW's process in task manager, not even enough to justify using the /3G boot switch... Any quad ever made, 4gb of ram and 32bit is more than good enough for 99.9% of the audio world....


    Very true. Though, I would recommend at least 2gb for newer Sequencers and plugins. In my experience, it's always been the CPU and Hard drives that really bottleneck things while recording.

    (To other readers):
    When building a system like this, you need multiple cores. All worthwhile Sequencers have been designed to take advantage of them, so use it to your advantage. Also, DO NOT use a 64-bit OS unless you are sure the plugins you're using support it. AND, do not use a 64-bit OS with less than 6GB of ram. Why? Because the benchmarks show that a 64-bit OS actually eats up more RAM in the first place. The benefits come with large amounts of RAM... something a 32-bit OS can't take advantage of. Using 4GB of RAM in a 64-bit system is kind of stupid. A 32-bit OS with 4GB will actually be a smidgen faster and much more compatible.
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  • Anonymous
    Audio recording on a PC? Fail. a Mac has far better software support for Pro Audio applications. Far better. Plus it's already fully 64 bit - no guessing game as to whether or not a piece of hardware will work, or if the drivers are 64 bit or not.

    Further, they are whisper quiet from the factory, have all the necessary firewire ports already, and OS X has a far better audio driver stack implementation than Windows could ever dream of.

    Heck, even Linux is a better choice than Windows for pro audio applications lol!! Several pro audio vendors have released their apps on Linux now, and even sell Linux-based recording stations.
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  • gufz
    this is all wrong you guys. i've been waiting a long time for toms's to take a little care of systems built for pro audio and recording studios and this isn't that at all.

    please, use some REAL audio interfaces, you can't play a rig whit 13ms of lag and you can get 2 ms whitout any glitches. It's not about windows audio subsystem, is abuot the ASIO drivers of the audio interface. you can use a little information there.

    you could also give some benchs related for example, to do an audio mixdown in cubase, and how much time it takes in a phenom, c2d, i7, etc.

    please take it seriously. use people who really work whit DAWs
    thanks for everything

    Augusto
    www.mclrecords.com
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  • Anonymous
    wotan: You are an idiot if you think Mac has any superiority in 2009. They had superiority in the G4 days... They haven't had it since... Not to mention the epic fail driver problems Macs have... Since there's only about 3 or 4 people in the entire world that actually know how to program Macs well, there are a huge number of VST/DX plugins that are PC only, and many of the ones that are Mac compatible(like NI VSTs), either use way more CPU than their PC counterparts, or have "Mac only" bugs that tend to never get fixed.
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