PCs get a bad rep with the viruses and hardware conflicts, crashings oh noes! But the truth is, if you play it safe and know how to setup a solid system, you should have no problems running a healthy PC. And that goes double for DAWs.
The first thing to understand when you run audio software on a PC that also doubles as a personal workstation is that even though you may not be running anything but your DAW software at the time, you’re still running all of your personal stuff in the background. And that eats up valuable resources, lots of them.
If you’ve ever been annoyed by those little pop ups at the bottom of your Windows task bar that tell you that you need to update something, you know what I’m talking about. Every time you load a program onto your computer, a smaller program also gets installed that runs in the background that actively checks online for updates, amongst other things. These updater programs use RAM and CPU that could be freed up for your DAW.
Tip – Pressing Ctrl + Alt + Delete and then selecting the task manager from the Windows dialogue box will give you good insight into the resources your programs are using. For more information, research Terminate and Stay Resident programs online.
Obviously the next step is that you want to free up those resource for when you’re running your DAW software and unfortunately, the answer is easier said than done. You’ll need to have two separate Windows installations: one with your personal and general use software and one with only your DAW and related programs. This will take some thought on your part on what’s the best solution for you, but its well worth in terms of system stability.
Lets take a look at some options…
Buy another computer –
OK this can be expensive, although it doesn’t have to be, so hear me out.
Obviously, you have a computer you’re happy with either for personal use, music or both. Rather than have to wipe out a perfectly healthy system to dedicate it to your music, why not consider the purchase of a laptop that will run your DAW software? If you want to perform live this may be an option well worth looking into as you’ll be able to write and perform from the same computer.
If performing live isn’t on the table for you, how about buying a netbook or inexpensive small form factor for personal use? That way you can free up your larger laptop or desktop for your DAW. I know I personally benefit from having separate work areas; a home office and a musical corner. Unless you’re heavily into games, a smaller PC should be able to run personal productivity software with ease.
Dual booting & partitions –
It is possible to have two separate Windows installations on the same hard drive and that may be the way to go if you’re short on space or just don’t need a separate PC. Now let it be said that I’m not a big fan of tricks such as this because I like to err on the side of caution and keep everything separated, either on individual computers or hard drives (which we’ll get to next), due to the slightly more than average wear and tear on your hard drive.
Dual booting basically means that you install two separate Windows installations onto the same local hard drive (usually c:\) and when the computer starts, you select the version of Windows you want via a menu. That way you can have one Windows installation for personal use and then one optimized for studio use.
Partitioning involves setting up your hard disk into virtual drives, or partitions. This really helps out in terms of housekeeping as you can keep all your files separated in their own drives along with the Windows partition they use. This is also probably the safest in terms of data security of the two methods. By having everything separated into drives, you don’t run the risk of programs being confused and reading the wrong files (some crazy things can happen with Windows) or by user error and accidentally deleting something critical on accident.
There are a few methods for dual booting and partitioning, both 3rd party and Microsoft supported. Unfortunately, I won’t cover them here, but I did want to make you aware of them as options. You can read the Microsoft support article or search around for more info.
I promise I won’t bring up a topic and leave you high and dry thereafter! So please visit our forum for help, suggestions or tips on this or anything else you may have a concern about!
Multiple hard drives –
I prefer this method of separating your music and personal workspaces because everything for each is physically separated by being on separate drives. That means even if you pick up some disk damage or virus on your personal drive, it doesn’t affect your DAW drive.
For desktop computers, there are several options on the market. They range from hot swappable USB hard drive docks (I just found out about these actually! They’re very cool, look them up!) to cages that fit into your 5.25 bay and allow you to physically swap drives, or control them internally for booting.
If you’re running a laptop and the HDD is easily accessible, you can simply buy another HDD tray for your laptop from online and add another HDD and then simply swap out as needed. If not, you’ll have to dual boot from the same drive or use an external, if your laptop supports it.
Installing your DAW –
On your DAW drive, you want to only install what you need for your DAW and audio programs along with the necessary, correct and updated drivers for your computer and hardware. Personal productivity programs such as photoshop, office etc need to be left on your personal drive. This also goes for anti-virus programs, personal firewalls and such. They eat up valuable RAM and CPU and if you’re behind a firewalled router you won’t need them anyway since you won’t be browsing online from your DAW drive or computer. You can update your software and browse trusted sites, however you should keep casual browsing for your personal drive. It will not only keep your DAW safer, but it will increase your productivity.
This next bit applies more to the laptop folks, but it’s also an important thing to consider for you desktop based guys as well. After you get everything up and running in your OS and DAW installations, the next best thing you can do after running an lean and mean OS is to go through Windows deceive manager and manually disable all of the system devices that aren’t necessary to running your DAW. This is includes, but is not limited to to the on board CD/DVD drive, Bluetooth, wireless and SD readers. All of these things will stick their foot in the revolving door of your OS and cause clicks and pops in your audio, especially if you’re using a USB sound card. I guess it goes without saying at this point to NOT disable your USB devices either! But fear not, if you do need something, you can always re-enable the device.
If you plan on burning CDs, it’s also a good idea to to add all your CD authoring and audio editing tools to your DAW drive. There will be less clutter on your DAW drive and it will make defragging easier. Always defrag before you burn!
When installing, be sure to update all of your software and drivers to the current versions as provided by your software and hardware manufactures. This goes for your DAW, audio & video card as well a motherboard and BIOS drivers.
The final and best thing you can do overall to save yourself from unwanted crashes and damage is to regularly backup your project and audio files along with samples, downloaded software installers and keys and anything else you deem as valuable onto a portable hard drive or network file server. Also be sure to keep your original install disks, manuals and paperwork in safe location.
And One More Thing –
One last big tip here and it’s for the PC users in the crowd. Before the gig, make a map of your computer and the USB ports and what’s connected to them. Windows has this weird thing where if you plug in something into a different port, it has to re-install it for that port. So that means when you get to the gig and you accidentally plug your controller into the wrong port, Windows will have to re-install it and you’ll also have to re-map it in your DAW! So make sure you’ve got it all mapped out before you leave.
As I said, it’s not hard to keep a clean and stable system running, but it does take a little work and awareness. As always, feel free to stop by our forum for advice!