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Build and Optimize Your Computer for DAW Music Creation

Tips to optimize your computer.

If you're building a new PC or Mac to serve as your primary Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) computer and music creation machine, here are some best practice tips to get the best performance.

1. Computer Specs and Build Setup

a.  CPU Processor Cores:  Processor speed and cores are a determining factor for how many tracks you can run simultaneously, and how many VST instruments and effects can be run at a given time.    If you intend to use lots of VST instruments like synths and VST effects, you'll want to get a good processor.   Most modern DAWs leverage the multiple processor cores and threads on a per track basis.   A processor core is a physical separate processing unit within your CPU, and threads are subdivided sections that the cores are dedicated to for processing.

If you have a six (6) core, twelve (12) thread processor, you can expect that one thread might be dedicated to the master processing, and you may have around 11 more threads that will be divvyed up to separate tracks.   If you have a virtual instrument or plugin per track, or multiple virtual instruments and effects in a given track, they may be all assigned to one of the processor threads.    Note:  Different DAWs handle CPU threads in different manners, but this is generally how cores/threads are assigned.   

If you aren't using many virtual instruments, VSTs or effects, and just taking direct audio from sources, the high amount of processor cores/threads and high processing clock speed might not be as important, but if you're even just adding one virtual instrument, VST or effect per track, you'll want to have a well spec'ed CPU.   Effects like Reverb are very commonly used, and are among the most processor intensive effects you can use.  

b. Memory:  Memory is another key factor, and its vital to have plenty of memory if you want to have large, multi-track projects open.   If your DAW projects consist of ten or fewer tracks, you might be able to get away with 16gb of memory, but if you're building projects with sixteen or more tracks, you will benefit from having 32gb or more of memory.    Memory is also a key factor in how responsive your interface is.   If memory is not high enough, certain elements may be cached to disk rather than saved into fast memory, and that can lead to having a slower, less responsive interface.   Also, if you're using a lot of sample based instruments like Native Instruments Kontakt, or other VSTs or internal virtual instruments based on samples, you'll want to have plenty of memory so all of the samples can be cached into fast memory.   If you can afford it, 64gb of memory is great for handling modern DAW projects with many tracks and lots of sample based instruments

c. Hard Disks:  The best case scenario for setting up your DAW workstation computer is to have separate drives to handle separate types of data.    The optimal scenario would be to have one disk assigned to just the operating system and programs.   This can include your DAW program and VST dlls.    A second drive should be dedicated to being the primary scratch disk for your DAW.  The scratch disk is the location of all the temporary fiiles and working cache for the DAW software.    A third drive can be used for all your samples and sample based instruments, and a fourth drive can be used for all your personal data and projects.  

1. Operating System / Programs - SSD or NVMe Drive

2. Scratch Disk - SSD or NVMe Drive

3. Samples and Sample Instruments - SSD or NVMe Drive, or RAID

4. Your Data and Projects - 7200+ rpm Hard Drive, RAID or SSD Drive

If this optimal setup is too expensive, or you have other constraints (size), you can combine some of these.   For instance, you might combine 2+3 together and have the same hard disk that is the scratch drive also store you main sample library / Kontakt type sample instruments.  

NVMe drives are solid state drives (SSDs) that offer even higher performance than a standard SSD drive.   

d.  Graphics Card (GPU):   Most DAWs don't utilize the Graphics Processing power for internal instrument and VST processing, however, this is a trend that may change in next generations of DAW software.    Even though the GPU is not necessarily being utilized like the CPU for running the DAW processes, you still want to have a powerful GPU to keep your interface running smoothly.   If you're using oscilloscopes, spectral graphs, or other visual interface devices, the GPU will help to accelerate those.   Also, most people are either running dual HD displays, a single UHD (4k) display, or a combination of both.   Make sure you have a modern GPU with more than enough power to handle your display needs.  It's recommended that you don't just get the bare minimum GPU for your intended screen configuration.   NVIDIA's GTX and RTX 10XX, 20XX, or upcoming 30XX series are all good options.   For instance, a GTX 1070 or above should handle your needs, but if you can afford it, go with an RTX 2070 or above if you want a very snappy interface and workflow.   

2. Computer and DAW Options and Settings

a.  High Performance Mode:   On Mac and PCs, if you go into the "energy saver" settings or "power management" settings, make sure you have your computer set for "high performance", and disable screen savers.    High performance mode ensures your processor, gpu, and other components will be given all the power they need to run at maximum speed.   

b.  Disable Anti-Virus:  Anti-virus programs are notorious to causing issues with audio and video software where real time performance and frame rate is vital.   While its generally a good idea to leave anti-virus software running when surfing the web, or installing programs, it is recommended to disable "real-time protection" while you're running your DAW software.   You can create a quick link / desktop shortcut to make it easy to disable the real time protection before your open your DAW.  Just remember to turn it back on later if doing other work on your system.  

c.  DAW Settings, Buffer:   In your DAW, go into your options/preferences, and make sure your scratch disk and plugin locations are correct for optimal hard drive usage, as outlined above.   Also, go to your audio interface settings, and check to make sure you're getting optimal performance from your audio interface.   Most modern audio interfaces have either a proprietary or ASIO based driver that will offer the best performance - make sure that is selected.   

Next, have a look at your Buffer settings for your Audio Device.   The Buffer setting has a direct relationship to the overall input and output latency of audio coming in and out of your computer.   You can generally get by with a 256 sample buffer, and possibly even a 128 sample or less.   That will offer the lowest latency - however, if you hear crackling/distortion when playing audio or multi track songs, then you'll need to raise your buffer settings. 

If you have an Audio Interface with many inputs and outputs, you may find that you'll have better performance if you de-activate inputs/outputs that you are not intending to use.   For instance, if you have a Midas M32, but are not using all 32 inputs, disable the ones that you don't have connected, or don't intend to record.   Same goes with outputs.  If you're just sending output 1/2 to your monitors and not using the other outputs, disable them in settings for your DAW Audio Setup.  

3. Other Considerations

a.  Computer Drivers:   Make sure that you stay up to date with drivers for your computer components, graphics card, and other devices like audio interfaces.   Manufacturer's often update drivers once or twice a year to improve performance, reduce bugs/crashes, and improve compatibility with other hardware.   

b. Audio Software Updates:   Also, periodically check to see if there's a new version of your DAW software or VST instruments.  Software developers often update products to improve stability and compatibility with newer hardware.  

c. Avoid Bloat: Optimally, you will have a computer dedicated to just your DAW and audio software, but if you must use the computer for other programs as well, just beware that as your add new programs, this may cause a slowdown of your DAW working environment.   If your registry becomes bloated and you have more background tasks running, you may find slower performance or bugs over time.   It's recommended to check your startup programs (the stuff that auto-starts when your computer boots up), and disable auto-start on anything that isn't vital.


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