For those of you working with digital audio instead of 3D and 2D rendering, there are methods you can use to add slave systems to your primary DAW that can be especially helpful if you are trying to use a large number of virtual instruments for a live performance. Virtual instruments can range from synthesizers like Reaktor 5 to software samplers like HALion 3. Plug-in effects processors run the gamut from reverb and equalization to vocal tuning and other types of advanced audio processing. Soft-synths and effects tend to be processor-intensive. Meanwhile, software samplers need to move multiple streams of audio data from the hard drive through effects and out to your audio I/O, making them more I/O intensive than 3D rendering, but requiring more random accesses than something like video editing. Either type of software package can rapidly tax a system beyond its limits. Naturally, stacking the two together is even more demanding.
The easiest way to create a slave for your DAW is to buy an off-the-shelf device, such as the Muse Research Receptor. Pick one up, put it on your network, install your plugins on it, and then offload them from your primary system. This configuration yields an immediate performance benefit, with no tweaking needed to get it all working. This is great for a musician who isn't so technically-inclined. However, Receptor units are a bit pricey, especially for the hardware you’re getting. In essence, a standard Receptor 2 is a single-core 2.7 GHz Linux box with 4 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, audio interface, and the vendor’s proprietary Linux VST host. Total cost? Roughly $2,000. The Receptor 2 Pro offers a dual-core unit and a larger hard drive, starting at about $600 more.
For those more technically-minded enthusiasts on a budget, it might make sense to look for another solution. Without the audio card, the Receptor 2 base unit is really just a sub-$400 PC, while the Receptor 2 Pro consists of less than $600 in hardware.
If you're willing to lose the dedicated controls on the front, you can use the same approach we’ve applied in building render nodes to building a slave for your DAW. Install FX-Max' FX Teleport on the node, and from your primary DAW you can add plugins that will run on the node. The node doesn't need any fancy audio I/O options because FX Teleport will stream the audio over the network and back to your DAW software.
There are also other solutions, such as ipMIDI, which allow you to send MIDI over Ethernet or synchronize multiple DAWs together for a fraction of the cost of the Muse Research systems. However, you should note that this method would likely mean having additional licenses for your DAW software and VST plugins, while using FX Teleport apparently does not. From there, you can easily build a much lower-priced machine that far outstrips the performance of available Receptor systems. Quad-core DAW slaves, anyone?