All posts by Pete

Intel i9 7940X & 7960X Dawbench Testing.

Today we have a few more models from the Intel i9 range on the desk in the shape of the 14 core 7940X and the 7960X. I was hopeful that the 18 core would be joining them as well this time around, but currently, another team here have their hands on it so it may prove to be a few weeks more until I get a chance to sit down and test that one.

Now I’m not too disappointed about this as for me and possibly the more regular readers of my musings, the 16 core we have on the desk today already is threatening to be the upper ceiling for effective audio use.

The reason for this is that I’ve yet to knowingly come across a sequencer that can address more than 32 threads effectively for audio handling under ASIO. These chips offer 28 and 32 threads respectively as they are hyper-threaded, so unless something has changed at a software level that I’ve missed (and please contact me if so), then I suspect at this time the 16 core chip may well be well placed to max the current generation of sequencers.

Of course, when I get a moment and access to the larger chip, I’ll give it a proper look over to examine this in more depth, but for the time being on with the show!

Both chips this time around are advising a 165W TDP figure, which is up from the 140W TDP quoted back on the 7920X we looked at a month or two back. The TDP figure itself is supposed to be an estimate of the power usage under regular workloads, rather than peak performance under load. This helps to explain how a 14 core and 16 core chip can both share the same TDP rating, as the 14 core has a higher base clock than the 16 core to compensate. So in this instance, it appears that they have to some degree picked the TDP and worked backward to establish the highest performing, clocks at that given power profile point.

Once the system itself starts to push the turbo, or when you start to overclock the chip the power draw will start to rise quite rapidly. In this instance, I’m working with my normal air cooler of choice for this sort of system in the shape of the BeQuiet Dark Rock Pro 3 which is rated at 250W TDP.  Water-loop coolers or air coolers with more aggressive fan profiles will be able to take this further, but as is always a concern for studio users we have to consider the balancing of noise and performance too.

Much like the 7920X, we looked at previously, the chips are both rated to a 4.2GHz max two core turbo, with staggered clocks running slower on the other cores. I took a shot at running all cores at 4.2GHz but like the 7920X before it we could only hit that on a couple of cores before heat throttling would pull them back again. 

Just like the 7920X again however if we pull both of these chips back by 100MHz per core (in this instance both to 4.1GHz) they prove to be stable over hours of stress testing and certainly within the temp limits we like to see here, so with that in mind we’re going to test at this point as it’s certainly achievable as an everyday setting.

As always first up is the CPUid chip info page and benchmarks along with the Geekbench results.

Intel i9 7940X @ 4.1GHz

7940x CPUid 7940x CPUid Benchmark

Geekbench 7940x

Intel i9 7960X @ 4.1GHz

 

7960x CPUid7960x CPUid Benchmark

 

Geekbench 4 7960X

Both chips are clocked to the same level and the per-core score here reflects that. The multi-core score, of course, offers a leap from one chip to the other as you’d expect from throwing a few more cores into the equation.

Geekbench Comparison Chart
Click To Expand

The DAWBench classic and newer DSP test with Kontakt follow this and once again as there isn’t a whole lot I can add to this. 

DAWBench Classic
Click To Expand

 

7960x DB6
Click To Expand

The added cores give us improvements across both of these chips as we’ve already seen in the more general purpose tests. The 7960X does appear to offer a slightly better performance curve at the higher buffer rates, which I suspect could be attributed to the increase in the cache but otherwise, it all scales pretty much as we’d expect. 

Given the 7940X maintains the roughly £100 per extra core figure (when compared to the 7920X) at current pricing that Intel was aiming for at launch, it does seem to offer a similar sort of value proposition as the smaller i9’s just in this case more is more. The 7960X raises this to roughly £125 per core extra over the 7940X at current pricing, so a bit of cost creep there but certainly not as pricey as we’ve sometimes seen over the years on the higher end chips in the range.

The main concern initially was certainly regarding heat, but it looks like the continued refinement of the silicon since we saw the first i9 batches a few months ago has given them time to get ahead of this and ensure that the chips do well out of the box given adequate cooling.  

With the launch of the CoffeeLake’s in the midrange, some of the value of the lower end enthusiast chips appear to have quickly become questionable, but the i9 range above it continues to offer performance levels henceforth unseen by Intel. The’s a lot of performance here, although the price matches it accordingly and we often find ourselves at this time where more midrange level systems are good enough for the majority of users.

However, for the power user with more exhaustive requirements who find that they can still manage to leverage every last drop of power from any system they get their hands on,  I’m sure there will plenty here to peak your interest.

Previous CPU Benchmarking Coverage
3XS Systems @ Scan

First Look At The Intel 8700K As The i7 Range Gets A Caffeine Injection.

I’ll be honest, as far as this chipset naming scheme goes it feels that we might be starting to run out of sensible candidates. The Englishman in me wants to eschew this platform completely and hold out for the inevitable lake of Tea that is no doubt on the way. But alas the benchmarking has bean done and it’s too latte to skip over it now. 

*Ahem* sorry, I think it’s almost out of my system now. 

Right, where was I? 

Time To Wake Up and Smell The….

Coffee Lake has been a blip on the horizon for quite a while now, and the promise of more cores in the middle and lower end CPU brackets whilst inevitable has no doubt taken a bit longer than some of us might have expected. 

Is it a knee-jerk reaction to the AMD’s popular releases earlier this year? I suspect the platform itself isn’t, as it takes a lot more than 6 months to put together a new chipset and CPU range but certainly it feels like this new hardware selection might be hitting the shelf a little earlier than perhaps was originally planned.

Currently its clear that we’ve had a few generations now where the CPU’s haven’t really made any major gains other than silicon refinement and our clock speeds haven’t exceeded 5GHz from the Intel factory (of course, the more ambitious overclockers may have had other ideas), the obvious next move for offering more power in  the range would be to stack up more cores much like the server-based bredrin in the Xeon range.

What is undeniable is that it certainly appears even to the casual observer that the competitor’s recent resurgence has forced Intel’s  hand somewhat and very possibly accelerated the release schedule of the models being discussed here.

I say this as the introduction of the new range and i7 8700K specifically that we’re looking at today highlights some interesting oddities in the current lineup that could be in danger of making some of the more recent enthusiast chips look a little bit redundant. 

This platform as a whole isn’t just about an i7 refresh though, rather we’re seeing upgrades to the mainstream i7’s, the i5’s and the i3’s which we’ll get on the bench over the coming weeks.

The i7’s have gained 2 additional physical cores and still have the hyperthreading meaning 12 logical cores total. 

The i5’s have 6 cores and no hyperthreading.

The i3’s have 4 cores and no hyperthreading.

Positioning wise Intel’s own suggestions have focused towards the i5’s being pushed for gaming and streaming with up to 4 real physical cores being preferred for games and then a couple extra to handle the OS and streaming. The i3’s keep their traditional entry-level home office and media center sort of positioning that we’ve come to expect over the years and then that gives us the 6 core i7’s sat at the top of the pile of the more mainstream chip options. 

Intel traditionally has always found itself a little lost when trying to market 6 cores or more. They know how to do it with servers where the software will lap up the parallelization capabilities of such CPUs with ease. But when it comes to the general public just how many regular users have had the need to leverage all those cores or indeed run software that can do it effectively? 

It’s why in recent years there has been a marked move towards pushing these sorts of chips to content creators and offering the ability to provide the resources that those sort of users tend to benefit from. It’s the audio and video producers, editors, writers and artists that tend to benefit from these sorts of advances. 

In short, very likely you dear reader.

Ok, so let’s take a look at some data.

8700K CPUz at 4.7GHz

CPUz 4.7 Benchmark

At base clock rates the chip itself is sold as a 6 core with Hyper-threading and runs with a clock speed of 3.7GHz and a max turbo of 4.7GHz. For testing, I’ve locked off all the cores to the turbo max and tested with a Dark Rock 3 after testing various models before starting. With the cooler in hand, it was bouncing around 75 degrees after a few hours torture testing which is great. I did try running it around the 5GHz mark, which was easy to do and perfectly stable, although with the setup I had it was on the tipping point of overheating. If you updated it to a water cooling loop I reckon you’ll have this running fine around the 5GHz and indeed I did for some of the testing period with no real issues, although I did notice that the voltages and heat start to creep up rapidly past the 4.7GHz point.

8700k at 4.7

Geekbench 4 8700K
Click to expand

The Geekbench 4 results show us some interesting and even slightly unexpected results. With the previous generation 7700K being clocked to 4.5GHz when I benched it and the 8700K being run at 4.7GHz I was expecting to see gains on the single core score as well as the increase in the multicore score. It’s only a few percent lower and I did retest a couple of times and found that this was repeatable and I had the results confirmed by another colleague.

The multicore score, on the other hand, shows the gains that this chip is all about with it not only exceeding the previous generation as you would expect with more cores being available. The gains here, in fact, highlight something I was already thinking about earlier in the year when the enthusiast i7’s got a refresh, in that this chip looks to not only match the 7800X found in the top end range but somewhat exceeding its capabilities at a lower overall price point.

DAWBench DSP 8700K
Click to expand
DawBench vi 8700K
Click to expand

In the testing above both the DAWBench DSP and the DAWBench vi tests continue to reflect this too, effectively raising questions as to the point of that entry-level 7800X in the enthusiast range.

The is almost price parity between the 7800X and 8700K at launch although the X299 boards tend to come in around £50 to £100 or more than the boards we’re seeing in the Z370 range. You do of course get extra memory slots in the X299 range, but then you can still mount 64GB on the mid-range board which for a lot of users is likely to be enough for the lifecycle of any new machine.

You also get an onboard GPU solution with the 8700K and if anything has been proven over the recent Intel generations, its that those onboard GPU solutions they offer are pretty good in the studio these days, perhaps also offering additional value to any new system build.

Grinding Out A Conclusion

I’m sure pricing from both sides will be competitive over the coming months as they aim to steal market share from each other. So with that in mind, it’s handy to keep these metrics in mind, along with the current market pricing at your time of purchase in order to make your own informed choice. I will say that at this point Intel has done well to reposition themselves after AMD’s strongest year in a very long time, although really their biggest achievement here looks to have been cannibalizing part of their own range in the process. 

That, of course, is by no means is a complaint as when pricing is smashed like this then the biggest winner out there is the buying public and that truly is a marvelous thing. Comparing the 8700K to the 7700K on Geekbench alone shows us a 50% improvement in performance overheads for a tiny bit more than the previous generation cost, which frankly is the sort of generation on generation improvement that we would all like to be seeing every couple of years, rather than the 10% extra every generation we’ve been seeing of late.

Whether you choose to go with an Intel or an AMD for your next upgrade, we’ve seen that the performance gains for your money are likely to be pretty great this time around on both platforms. If your current system is more than 3 or 4 years old then it’s even more likely that the will be a pretty strong upgrade path open to you when you do finally choose to take that jump. With hints of Ryzen 2 being on its way next year from AMD and the likelihood that Intel would never leave any new release unchallenged, we could be in for an interesting 2018 too!

All DAWBench Testing

3XS Audio Systems @ Scan

The Intel i9 7920X On The Bench

Back in June this year we took a look at the first i9 CPU model with the launch of the i9 7900X. Intel has since followed on from that with the rest of the i9 chips receiving a paper launch back in late August and with the promise of those CPU’s making it into the publics hands shortly afterward. Since then we’ve  seen the first stock start to arrive with us here in Scan and we’ve now had a chance to sit down and test the first of this extended i9 range in the shape of the i9 7920X.

The CPU itself is 12 cores along with hyper-threading, offering us a total of 24 logical cores to play with. The base clock of the chip is 2.9GHz and a max turbo frequency of 4.30GHz with a reported 140W TDP which is much in line with the rest of the chips below it in the enthusiast range.  Running at that base clock speed the chip is 400MHz slower per core than the 10 core edition 7900X. So if you add up all the available cores running at those clock speeds (12 X 2900 vs 10 X 3300) and compare the two chips on paper, then the looks to be less than 2GHz total available overhead separating them but still in the 7920X’s favor. 

So looking at it that way, why would you pay the premium £200 for the 12 core? Well interestingly both CPU’s claim to be able to turbo to the same max clock rating of 4.3GHz, although it should be noted that turbo is designed to factor in power usage and heat generation too, so if your cooling isn’t up to the job then you shouldn’t expect it to be hitting such heady heights constantly and whilst I’m concerned that I may be sounding like a broken record by this point, as with all the high-end CPU releases this year you should be taking care with your cooling selection in order to ensure you get the maximum amount of performance from your chip.

Of course, the last thing we want to see is the power states throttling the chip in use and hampering our testing, so as always we’ve ensured decent cooling but aimed to keep the noise levels reasonable where we can. Normally we’d look to tweak it up to max turbo and lock it off, whilst keeping those temperatures in check and ensuring the system will be able to deliver a constant performance return for your needs.

However, in this case, I’ve not taken it quite all the way to the turbo max, choosing to keep it held back slightly at 4.2GHz across all cores. I was finding that the CPU would only ever bounce of 4.3GHz when left to work under its own optimized settings and on the sort of air cooling we tend to favour it wouldn’t quite maintain the 4.3GHz that was achieved with the 7900X in the last round of testing without occasionally throttling back. It will, however, do it on an AIO water loop cooler, although you’re adding another higher speed fan in that scenario and I didn’t feel the tradeoff was worth it personally, but certainly worth considering for anyone lucky to have a separate machine and control room where a bit more noise would go unnoticed.

Just as a note at this point, if you run it at stock and let it work its own turbo settings then you can expect an idle temperature around 40 degrees and under heavy load it still should be keeping it under 80 degrees on average which is acceptable and certainly better than we suspected around the time of the 7900X launch. However, I was seeing the P-states raising and dropping the core clock speeds in order to keep its power usage down and upon running Geekbench and comparing the results that my 4.2GHz on all cores setting gave us an additional 2000 points (around 7% increase) over the turbo to 4.3GHz default setting found in the stock configuration. My own temps idled in the 40’s and maxed around 85 degrees whilst running the torture tests for an afternoon, so for a few degrees more you can ensure that you get more constant performance from the setup.

Also worth noting is that we’ve had our CAD workstations up to around 4.5GHz and higher in a number of instances although in those instances we’re talking about a  full water loop and a number of extra fans to maintain stability under that sort of workload, which wouldn’t be ideal for users working in close proximity to a highly sensitive mic. 

Ok, so first up the CPUz information for the chip at hand, as well it’s Geelbench results.


7920X CPUz
CPUz 42Ghz bench7920X Geekbench 4

More importantly for this comparison is the Geekbench 4 results and to be frank it’s all pretty much where we’d expect it to be in this one.

7920X geekbench 4 Chart
Click to expand.

The single core score is down compared with the 7900X, but we’d expect this given the 4.2GHz clocking of the chip against the 4.3GHz 7900X. The multicore score is similarly up, but then we have a few more cores so all in all pretty much as expected here.

Dawbench DSP 7920X
Click to Expand
Dawbench 6
Click to Expand

On with the DAWBench tests and again, no real surprises here. I’d peg it at being around an average of 10% or so increase over the 7900X which given we’re just stacking more cores on the same chip design really shouldn’t surprise us at all. It’s a solid solution and certainly the highest benching we’ve seen so far barring the models due to land above it. Bang per buck it’s £1020 price tag when compared to the £900 for the 10 core edition it seems to perform well on the Intel price curve and it looks like the wider market situation has curbed some of the price points we might have otherwise seen these chips hit. 

And that’s the crux of it right now. Depending on your application and needs the are solutions from both sides that might fit you well. I’m not going to delve too far into discussing the value of the offerings that are currently available as prices do seem to be in flux to some degree with this generation. Initially, when it was listed we were discussing an estimated price of £100 per core and now we seem to be around £90 per core at the time of writing which seems to be a positive result for anyone wishing to pick one up.

Of course, the benchmarks should always be kept in mind along with that current pricing and it remains great to see continued healthy competition and I suspect with the further chips still to come this year, we may still see some additional movement before the market truly starts to settle after what really has been a release packed 12 months.

The 3XS Systems Selection @ Scan

First look at the AMD Threadripper 1920X & 1950X

Another month and another chip round up, with them still coming thick and fast, hitting the shelves at almost an unprecedented rate.

AMD’s Ryzen range arrived with us towards the end of Q1 this year and its impact upon the wider market sent shockwaves through computer industry for the first time for in well over the decade for AMD.

Although well received at launch, the Ryzen platform did have the sort of early teething problems that you would expect from any first generation implementation of a new chipset range. Its strength was that it was great for any software that could effectively leverage the processing performance on offer across the multitude of cores that were being made available. The platform whilst perfect for a great many tasks across any number of market segments did also have its inherent weaknesses too which would crop up in various scenarios with one such field where its design limitations being apparent being real-time audio.

Getting to the core of the problem.

The one bit of well meaning advice that drives system builders up the wall and that is the “clocks over cores” wisdom that has been offered up by DAW software firms since what feels like the dawn of time. It’s a double edged sword in that it tries to simplify a complicated issue without ever explaining why or in what situations it truly matters.

To give a bit of crucial background information as to why this might be we need to start from the point of view that your DAW software is pretty lousy for parallelization. 

That’s it, the dirty secret. The one thing computers are good at are breaking down complex chains of data for quick and easy processing except in this instance not so much.

Audio works with real-time buffers. Your ASIO drivers have those 64/128/256 buffer settings which are nothing more than chunks of time where the data is captured entering the system and held in a buffer until it is full, before being passed over to the CPU to do its magic and get the work done.

If the workload is processed before the next buffer is full then life is great and everything is working as intended. If however the buffer becomes full prior to the previous batch of information being dealt with, then data is lost and this translates to your ears as clicks and pops in the audio.

Now with a single core system, this is straight forward. Say you’re working with 1 track of audio to process with some effects. The whole track would be sent to the CPU, the CPU processes the chain and spits out some audio for you to hear. 

So far so easy.

Now say you have 2 or 3 tracks of audio and 1 core. These tracks will be processed on the available core one at a time and assuming all the tracks in the pile are processed prior to the buffer reset then we’re still good. In this instance by having a faster core to work on, more of these chains can be processed within the buffer time that has been allocated and more speed certainly means more processing being done in this example.

So now we consider 2 or more core systems. The channel chains are passed to the cores as they become available and the once more the whole channel chain is processed on a single core.  

Why?

Because to split the channels over more than one core would require us to divide up the work load and then recombine it all again post processing, which for real-time audio would leave us with other components in the chain waiting for the data to be shuttled back and forth between the cores. All this lag means we’d lose processing cycles as that data is ferried about, meaning we’d continue to lose more performance with each and every added core something I will often refer to as processing overhead.

Clock watching

Now the upshot of this means that lower clocked chips can often be more inefficient than higher clocked chips, especially with newer, more demanding software. 

So for just for an admittedly extreme example, say that you have the two following chips.

CPU 1 has 12 cores running at 2GHz

CPU 2 has 4 cores running at 4Ghz

The maths looks simple, 2 X 12 beats 4 X 4 on paper, but in this situation, it comes down to software and processing chain complexity. If you have a particularly demanding plugin chain that is capable of overloading one of those 2GHz CPU cores, then the resulting glitching will proceed to ruin the output from the other 11 cores.

In this situation the more overhead you have to play with overall on each core, the less chance the is that an overly demanding plugin is going to be able to sink to the lot in use.

This is also one of the reasons we tend to steer clear of single server CPU’s with high core counts and low clock speeds and is largely what the general advice is referring too. 

On the other hand when we talk about 4 core CPU’s at 4GHz vs 8 core CPU’s at 3.5GHz, in this example the difference between them in clock speeds isn’t going to be enough to cause problems with even the busiest of chains, and once that is the case then more cores on a single chip tend to become more attractive propositions as far as getting out the best performance is concerned.

Seeing Double

So with that covered, we’ll quickly cover the other problematic issue with working with server chips which is the data exchange process between memory banks. 

Dual chip systems are capable of offering the ultimate levels of performance this much is true, but we have to remember that returns on your investment diminish quickly as we move through the models. 

Not only do we have the concerns outlined above about cores and clocks, but when you move to dealing with more than one CPU you have to start to consider “NUMA”  (Non-uniform memory access) overheads caused by using multiple processors. 

CPU’s can exchange data between themselves via high-speed connections and in AMD’s case, this is done via an extension to the Infinity Fabric design that allows the quick exchange of data between the cores both on and off the chip(s). The memory holds data until it’s needed and in order to ensure the best performance from a CPU they try and store the data held in memory on the physical RAM stick nearest to the physical core.  By keeping the distance between them as short as possible, they ensure the least amount of lag in information being requested and with it being received.

This is fine when dealing with 1 CPU and in the event that a bank of RAM is full, then moving and rebalancing the data across other memory banks isn’t going to add too much lag to the data being retrieved. However when you add a second CPU to the setup and an additional set of memory banks, then you suddenly find yourself trying to manage the data being sent and called between the chips as well as the memory banks attached. In this instance when a RAM bank is full then it might end up bouncing the data to free space on a bank connected to the other CPU in the system, meaning the data may have to travel that much further across the board when being accessed. 

As we discussed in the previous section any wait for data to be called can cause inefficiencies where the CPU has to wait for the data to arrive. All this happens in microseconds but if this ends up happening hundreds of thousands of times every second our ASIO meter ends up looking like its overloading due to lagged data being dropped everywhere, whilst our CPU performance meter may look like it’s only being half used at the same time.

This means that we do tend to expect there to be an overhead when dealing with dual chip systems. Exactly how much depends on entirely on what’s being run on each channel and how much data is being exchanged internally between those chips but the take home is that we expect to have to pay a lot more for server grade solutions that can match the high-end enthusiast class chips that we see in the consumer market, at least when it comes to situations where real-time related workloads are crucial like dealing with ASIO based audio. It’s a completely different scenario when you deal with another task like off line rendering for video where the processor and RAM is being system managed on its own time and working to its own rules, server grade CPU options here make a lot of sense and are very, very efficient.

To server and protect

So why all the server background when we’re looking at desktop chips today? Indeed Threadripper has been positioned as AMD’s answer to Intel’s enthusiast range of chips and largely a direct response to the i7  and i9 7800X, 7820X and 7900X chips that launched just last month with AMD’s Epyc server grade chips still sat in waiting.

An early de-lidding of the Threadripper series chips quickly showed us that the basis of the new chips is two Zen CPU’s connected together. Thanks to the “Infinity Fabric” core interconnect design it makes it easy for them to add more cores and expand these chips up through the range; indeed their server solution EPYC is based on the same “Zen” building blocks at its heart as both Ryzen and Threadripper with just more cores piled in there.

Knowing this before testing it gave me some certain expectations going in that I wanted to examine. The first being Ryzens previously inefficient core handling when dealing with low latency workloads, where we established in the earlier coverage that the efficiency of the processor at lower buffer settings would suffer. 

This I suspected was an example of data transference lag between cores and at the time of that last look we weren’t certain how constant this might have proven to be across the range. Without having more experience of the platform we didn’t know if this was something inherent to the design or if perhaps it might be solved in a later update. As we’ve seen since its launch and having checked over other CPU’s in testing this performance scaling seems to be a constant across all the chips we’ve seen so far and something that certainly can be constantly replicated.

Given that it’s a known constant to us now in how it behaves, we’re happy that isn’t further hidden under-laying concerns here. If the CPU performs as you require at the buffer setting that you need it to handle then that is more than good enough for most end users. The fact that it balances out around the 192 buffer level on Ryzen where we see 95% of the CPU power being leveraged means that for  plenty of users who didn’t have the same concerns with low latency performance such as those mastering guys who work at higher buffer settings, meant that for some people this could still be good fit in the studio.

However knowing about this constant performance response at certain buffer settings made me wonder if this would carry across to Threadripper. The announcement that this was going to be 2 CPU’s connected together on one chip then raised my concerns that this was going to experience the same sort of problems that we see with Xeon server chips as we’d take a further performance hit through NUMA overheads. 

So with all that in mind, on with the benchmarks…

On your marks

I took a look at the two Threadripper CPU’s available to us at launch.

The flagship 1950X features 16 cores and a total of 32 threads and has a base clock of 3.4GHz and a potential turbo of 4GHz.

CPUz AMD 1950x
CPUz Details for the 1950X
CPU z AMD 1950x benchmark
CPUz details for the 1920X

 

Along with that I also took a look at the 1920X is a 12 core with 24 threads which has a base clock speed of 3.5GHz and an advised potential turbo clock of 4GHz.

CPUz AMD 1920XCPUz AMD 1920X benchmark

First impressions weren’t too dissimilar to when we looked at the Intel i9 launch last month. These chips have a reported 180W TDP at stock settings placing them above the i9 7900X with its purported 140W TDP.

Also much like the i9’s we’ve seen previously it fast became apparent that as soon as you start placing these chips under stressful loads you can expect that power usage to scale up quickly, which is something you need to keep in mind with either platform where the real term power usage can rapidly increase when a machine is being pushed heavily.

History shows us that every time CPU war starts, the first casualty is often your system temperatures as the easiest way to increase a CPU’s performance quickly is to simply ramp the clock speeds, although often this will also be a  cause of an exponential amount of heat then being dumped into the system because of it. We’ve seen a lot of discussion in recent years about the “improve and refine” product cycles with CPU’s where a new tech in the shape of a die shrink is introduced and then refined over the next generation or two as temperatures and power usage is reduced again, before starting the whole cycle again.

What this means is that with the first generation of any CPU we don’t always expect a huge overclock out of it, and this is certainly the case here. Once again for contrast the 1950X, much like the i9 7900X is running hot enough at stock clock settings that even with a great cooler it’s struggling to reach the limit of its advised potential overclock.

Running with a Corsair H110i cooler the chip only seems to hold a stable clock around the 3.7GHz level without any problems. The board itself ships with a default 4GHz setting which when tried would reset the system whilst running the relatively lightweight Geekbench test routine. I tried to setup a working overclock around that level, but the P-states would quickly throttle me back once it went above 3.8GHz leaving me to fall back to the 3.7GHz point. This is technically an overclock from the base clock but doesn’t meet the suggested turbo max of 4GHz, so the take home is that you should make sure that you invest in great cooling when working with one of these chips.

Geekout

Speaking of Geekbench its time to break that one out.

Geekbench 4 1950X stock Geekbench 4 1720X stock

I must admit to having expected more from the multi-core score, especially on the 1950X, even to the point in double checking the results a number of times. I did take a look at the published results on launch day and I saw that my own scores were pretty much in-line with the other results there at the time. Even now a few days later it still appears to be within 10% of the best results for the chip results published, which says to me that some people do look to have got a bit of an overclock going on with their new setups, but we’re certainly not going to be seeing anything extreme anytime soon.

 

Geekbench 4 Threadripper
Click to expand Geekebench Results

When comparing the Geekbench results to other scores from recent chip coverage it’s all largely as we’d expect with the single core scores. A welcome improvement from the Ryzen 1700Xs, they’ve clearly done some fine tuning to the tech under the hood as the single core score has seen gains of around 10% even whilst running at a slightly slow per core clock. 

One thing I will note at this point is that I was running with 3200MHz memory this time around. The were reports after the Ryzen launch that running with higher clocked memory could help improve the performance of the CPU’s in some scenarios and it’s possible that the single core clock jump we’re seeing might prove to be down as much to the increase in memory clocks as anything else. A number of people have asked me if this impacts audio performance at all, and I’ve done some testing with the production run 1800X’s and 1700X’s in the months since but haven’t seen any benefits to raising the memory clock speeds for real time audio handling. 

We did suspect this would be the outcome as we headed into testing, as memory for audio has been faster than it needs to be for a long time now, although admittedly it was great to revisit it once more and make sure. As long as the system RAM is fast enough to deal with that ASIO buffer, then raising the memory clock speed isn’t going to improve the audio handling in a measurable fashion.

The multicore results show the new AMD’s slotted in between the current and last generation Intel top end models. Whilst the AMD’s have made solid performance gains over earlier generations it has still be widely reported that their IPC scores (Instructions per clockcycle) are still behind the sort of results returned by the Intel chips.

Going back to our earlier discussion about how much code you can action on any given CPU core within a ASIO buffer cycle, the key to this is the IPC capability. The quicker the code can be actioned, then the more efficently your audio gets processed and so more you can do overall. This is perhaps the biggest source of confusion when people quote “clocks over core” as rarely are any two CPU’s comparable on clock speeds alone ,and a chip that has a better IPC performance can often outperform other CPU’s with higher quoted per clock frequencies but a lower IPC score. 

….And GO!

So lengthy explanations aside, we get to the crux of it all.

Much like the Ryzen tests before it, the Threadrippers hold up well in the older DawBench DSP testing run.

DawBench DSP Threadripper
Click To Expand

Both of the chips show gains over the Intel flagship i9 7900X and given this test uses a single plugin with stacked instances of it and a few channels of audio, what we end up measuring here is raw processor performance by simply stacking them high and letting it get on with it.

The is no disputing here that the is a sizable slice of performance to be had. Much like our previous coverage, however, it starts to show up some performance irregularities when you examine other scenarios such as the more complex Kontakt based test DawBenchVI.

DawBench VI Threadripper
Click To Expand

The earlier scaling at low buffer settings is still apparent this time around, although it looks to have been compounded by the hard NUMA addressing that is in place due to the multi chip in one die design that is in use. It once more scales upwards as the buffer is slackened off but even at the 512 buffer setting which I tested, it could only achieve 90% of CPU use under load.

That to be fair to it, is very much what I would expect from any server CPU based system. In fact, just on its own, the memory addressing here seems pretty capable when compared to some of the other options I’ve seen over the years, it’s just a shame that the other performance response amplifies the symptoms when the system is stressed.

AMD to their credit is perfectly aware of the pitfalls of trying to market what is essentially a server CPU setup to an enthusiast market. Their Windows overclocking tool has various options to set up some control and optimize how it deals with NUMA and memory address as you can see below.

AMD Control Panel
Click To Enlarge

I did have a fiddle around with some of the settings here and the creators mode did give me some marginal gains over the other options thanks to it appearing to arrange the memory in a well organized and easy to address logical group, but ultimately the performance dips we’re seeing are down to a physical addressing issue, in that data has to be moved from X to Y in a given time frame and no amount of software magic will be able to resolve this for us I suspect.

Conclusion

I think this one is pretty straight forward if you need to be running at below a 256 ASIO buffer, although there are certainly some arguments for mastering guys who don’t need that sort of response.

Much like the Intel i9’s before it, however, the is a strong suggestion that you really do need to consider your cooling carefully here. The normal low noise high-end air coolers that I tend to favour for testing were largely overwhelmed once I placed these on the bench and once the heat started to climb the water cooler I was using had both fans screaming.

Older readers with long memories might have a clear recollection of the CPU wars that gave us P4’s, Prescott’s, Athlon FX’s and 64’s. We saw both of these firms in a CPU arms race that only really ended when the i7’s arrived with the X58 chipset. Over the years this took place we saw ever raising clock speeds, a rapid release schedule of CPU’s and constant gains, although at the cost of heat and ultimately noise levels. In the years since we’ve had refinement and a vast reduction of heat and noise, but little as far as performance advancements, at least over the last 5 or 6 generations.

We finally have some really great choices from both firms and depending on your exact needs and price points you’re working at the could be arguments in each direction. Personally, I wouldn’t consider server class chips to be ultimate solution in the studio from either firm currently, not unless you’re prepared to spend the sort of money that the tag “ultimate” tends to reflect, in which case you really won’t get anything better.  

In this instance, if you’re doing a load of multimedia work alongside mastering for audio, this platform could fit your requirements well, but for writing and editing some music I’d be looking towards one of the other better value solutions unless this happens to fit your niche.

To see our custom PC selection @ Scan

To see our fixed series range @ Scan

Casting an eye over the Intel i7 Skylake X editions.

Following on from our first look at the i9 7900X, we’ve now had a chance to take a look over a few more interesting chips from this enthusiast class range refresh. 

We have before us today two more chips with the first being the i7 7800X which is the replacement for the older 6800K, once more offering us 6 physical cores with hyper-threading giving us a total of 12 logical cores to play with. It’s running a 3.5GHz base clock and features an all core turbo of 4GHz although being the 6 core it offers us the most potential to overclock we’ve seen within this range.

The second chip we have here is the 7820X and on paper it looks to be the most interesting one for me on this generation due to its price to performance ratio. Replacing the 6900K from the previous generation but coming in for around £350 less, this chip offers 2 more cores and a higher all core turbo rating along with a 1/3rd more cache than the 7800X edition.

For reference the current price at time of writing for the 7800X is £359 and the 7820X currently retails for £530.

I’m not going to go too much into the platform itself this time around, I gave some background to the changes made on this generation including possible strengths and flaws back in the i9 7900K first look over here. If you haven’t already checked that out and wish to bring yourself up to speed, now is the time to do so before we go any further.

Everyone up to speed? Then let us begin.

The Long Hot Summer

The first question I had from the off was one of how are these going to handle given the heat we saw with the 10 core? The quick answer is surprisingly well compared to the earlier testing we carried out. The retail releases I’ve been playing around with here are allowing us to drop the voltages on them to almost half the level that we expected to see with the previous generation and certainly a  few notches lower than we saw in the earlier testing we carried out.

So whilst I did hope for some marked improvements on the final release I didn’t quite expect to see it quite so quickly, normally these sorts of improvements take a few months of manufacturing refinement to appear and its great we’re seeing this right now. It certainly gives me some confidence that we’ll be seeing improvements across the range over the coming batches and I’m now far more confident that the larger i9’s that they have already announced should hold up well when they do finally arrive with us in the future.

 If I was to give a rough outline of the state of these Skylakes i7’s I’d say they are still running maybe 10% hotter than the last generation Broadwell-E clock for clock. However Intel has these designed to throttle at 105 degrees, essentially giving it 10% more overhead to play with so they do seem to be confident in these solutions running that much hotter in use over the longer term.

One thing I noted in testing was that we were seeing a lot of micro-fluctuations across the cores when load testing. By that I mean we’d see temperatures bouncing up and down by anything up to 6 or 7 degrees as we tested, but never on more than a core or two at the time and it would be pulled straight back down again moments later only for another core to fluctuate and so on.

Behind this is Intels new PCU (Package Control Unit) that has been added to Skylake X series, and whilst I did note the ability to turn it off inside of the BIOS by doing so we’d also see some additional rise in the temperatures with it disabled. One of the strengths of the PCU and these new P-States appears to be the ability to load manage well and it actively aims to offer the smoothest experience as far as power saving goes. It’s certainly welcome as it does seem to offer more control over the allocation of system performance and doesn’t appear to be causing the same sort of C-State issues we saw when that first appeared so this looks to be another welcome feature addition at this time.

Once again we’re seeing the same sort of 99% CPU load efficiency across the board as we saw when testing in Cubase on the 7900X. This I suspect is in no small part down to the board and CPU trying their hardest to strike that power to performance balance I mention above and is great to see.

Hit The Bench

On to the figures then and first up the standard synthetics in the shape of Geekbench 4 and the CPU-Z benchmark.

7800K CPU-Z 4 @ 4.4GHz

7800X CPUZ test

7800K Geekbench 4 @ 4.4GHz

Geekbench 4 7800K

The obvious comparison here it to line it up against the previous generations 6 core solution. The 6800K saw Geekbench single core scores in the region of 4400 and multi core scores around the 20500 mark, meaning that these results are sitting in the 10% – 15% increase range which is pretty much where we expect a new generation to be.

7820K CPU-Z 4 @ 4.3GHz

i7 7820X CPUz

7820K Geekbench 4 @ 4.3GHz

7820X Geek4

In a similar fashion we can take a look at the last generation 6900K which had a Geekbench score in the 4200 range and the multi-core was sitting around the 25000 level. Once again we’re looking at around a 10% gain in these synthetics, which is pretty much in line with what we’d expect.

Hold the DAW

So far, so expected and to be honest the isn’t any real surprises to be had here as we start with the DAWBench DSP test.

Skylake i7 Dawbench 4

With the 7800X can see small gains over the previous 6800K chip which is just short of the 10% mark so even perhaps just a little lower than we would have expected. In fact in this test the 7820X offers similar modest gains over the older 6900K model and doesn’t do much to surprise here us here either.

7900x DawbenchVi

The DAWbench VI test tells a similar story at the lowest buffer setting with the 7800X and 7820X both sitting roughly where we expect. What proves to be the one point of interest beyond this however is that both chips scale better than their previous iterations once you move up to the larger buffer sizes. Whilst testing these chips much like the high-end 7900K, we saw them managing to hit CPU loads around the 99% mark, but you can see that each chip scaled upwards with better results overall when compared not only with their previous edition but also when placed up against the chip above them in the previous range. 

We saw a similar pattern with the Ryzen chips too and their infinity fabric design is similar in practice mesh design found in the Skylake X CPU’s. The point of these newer mesh style designs are to improve data transference within the CPU and allow for improved performance scalability, so with both firms looking to be moving firmly in this direction we can expect to see further optimizations from software developers in the future that should continue to benefit both platforms moving forward.

Conclusion

Looking towards the future and the are already plenty of rumours already circulating regarding the expectation of a “Coffee Lake” refresh coming next. This includes a new mid-range flagship that is shaping up to offer us a contender against the 7800X and might prove to be an interesting option for anyone looking for a new system around that level, but doesn’t currently find themselves needing to pick up a new system right away.

Also we’re expecting Threadripper to arrive with us over the next few months which is no doubt the comparison that a lot of people will be waiting on. It’ll be interesting to see if the scaling characteristics that were first exhibited by Ryzen get translated across to this newer platform.  

The entry level enthusiast chips have long  proven to be the sweet spot for those seeking the best returns on the performance to value curve when considering Intel CPU’s.  This time around however whilst the 7800X is a solid chip in its own right, it’s looking like the the extra money for the 7820X  could well offer a stronger bang per buck option for those looking to invest in a system around this level. 

Click here to can see the full range of Scan 3XS Audio Systems

Intel i9 7900X First Look

Intels i9 announcement this year felt like it pretty much came out of nowhere, and whilst everyone was expecting Intel to refresh its enthusiast range, I suspect few people anticipated quite the spread of chips that have been announced over the recent months. 

So here we are looking at the first entry to Intel’s new high-end range. I’ve split this first look into 2 parts, with this section devoted to the i9 7900X and some discussion of the lower end models as the full range is explained. I’ll follow up in the near future with a forthcoming post to cover the i7’s coming in below this model, just as soon as we have the chance to grab some chips and run those through the test bench too.

There has been a sizable amount of press about this chip already as it was the first one to make it out into the wild along with the 4 core Kabylake X chips that have also appeared on this refresh, although those are likely to be of far less interest to those of us looking to build new studio solutions.

A tale of two microarchitectures.

Kabylake X and Skylake X have both launched at the same time and certainly raised eyebrows in confusion from a number of quarters. Intels own tick/tock cycle of advancement and process refinement has gone askew in recent years, where the “high-end desktop” ( HEDT chips) models just as the midrange CPU’s at the start of this year have gained a third generation at the same 14nm manufacturing process level in the shape of Kabylake. 

Kabylake with the mid-range release kept the same 14nm design as the Skylake series before it and eaked out some more minor gains through platform refinement. In fact, some of the biggest changes to be found were in the improved onboard GPU found inside of it rather than the raw CPU performance itself, which as always is one of the key things missing in the HEDT edition. All this means that whilst we have a release where it’s technically two different chip ranges, the isn’t a whole lot left to differentiate between them. IN fact given how the new chip ranges continue to steam ahead in the mid-range, this looks like an attempt to help bring the high-end options back up to parity with the current mid-range again quickly which I think will ultimately help make things less confusing in future versions, even if right now it has managed to confuse things within the range quite a bit.

Kabylake X itself has taken a sizable amount of flak prior to launch and certainly appears to raise a lot of questions on an initial glance. The whole selling point of the HEDT chip up until this point has been largely more cores and more raw performance, so an announcement of what is essentially a mid-range i5/i7 grade 4 core CPU solution appearing on this chipset was somewhat of a surprise to a lot of people. 

As with the other models on this chipset range, the 4 cores are being marketed as enthusiast solutions, although in this instance we see them looking to capture a gaming enthusiast segment. The have been some early reports of high overclocks being seen, but so far these look to be largely cherry-picked as the gains seen in early competition benchmarking have been hard to achieve with the early retail models currently appearing.

Whilst ultimately not really of much interest in the audio & video worlds where the software can leverage far more cores than the average game, potentially the is a solid opportunity here for that gaming market that they appear to be going after if they can refine these chips for overclocking over the coming months. However early specification and production choices have been head-scratchingly odd so far, although we’ll come back to this a bit later.

Touch the Sky(lake).

So at the other end of the spectrum from those Kabylake X chips is the new current flagship for the time being in the shape of the Skylake 7900X. 10 physical cores with hyper-threading give us a total of 20 logical cores to play with here. This is the first chip announced from the i9 range and larger 12,14,16,18 core editions are all penciled in over the coming year or so, however, details are scarce on them at this time.

intel-core-x-comparison-table

At first glance, it’s a little confusing as to why they would even make this chip the first of its class when the rest of the range isn’t fully unveiled at this point. Looking through the rest of range specifications alongside it, then it becomes clear that they look to be reserving the i9’s for CPU’s that can handle a full 44+ PCIe lane configuration. These lanes are used for offering bandwidth to the connected cards and high-speed storage devices and needless to say this has proven a fairly controversial move as well.

The 7900X offers up the full complement of those 44 lanes although the 7820X and 7800X chips that we’ll be looking at in forthcoming coverage both arrive with 28 lanes in place. For most audio users this is unlikely to make any real difference, with the key usage for all those lanes often being for GPU usage where X16 cards are the standard and anyone wanting to fit more than one is going to appreciate more lanes for the bandwidth. With the previous generation we even tended to advise going with the entry level 6800K for audio over the 6850K above it, which cost 50% more but offered very little of benefit in the performance stakes but did ramp up the number of available PCIe lanes, choosing instead to reserve this for anyone running multiple GPU’s in the system like users with heavy video editing requirements. 

Summer of 79(00X)

So what’s new?

Much like AMD and their infinity fabric design which was implemented to improve cross-core communication within the chip itself, Intel’s arrived with its own “Mesh” technology.

Functioning much like AMD’s design, it removes the ring based communication path between cores and RAM and implements a multi-point mesh design, brought in to enable shorter paths between them. In my previous Ryzen coverage I noted some poor performance scaling at lower buffer settings which seemed to smooth itself out once you went over a 192 buffer setting. In the run-up to this, I’ve retested a number of CPU’s and boards on the AMD side and it does appear that even after a number of tweaks and improvements at the BIOS level the scaling is still the same. On the plus side, as it’s proven to be a known constant and always manifests, in the same manner, I feel a lot more comfortable working with them now we are fully aware of this.

In Intels case I had some apprehension going in that given it is the companies first attempt at this in a consumer grade solution and that perhaps we’d be seeing the same sort of performance limitations that we saw on the AMD’s, but so far at least with the 7900X the internal chip latency has been superb. Even running at a 64 buffer we’ve been seeing 100% CPU load prior to the audio breaking up in playback, making this one of the most efficient chips I think I’ve possibly had on the desk.

i9 CPU load

 

So certainly a plus point there as the load capability seems to scale perfectly across the various buffer settings tested.

RAW performance wise I’ve run it through both CPU-Z and Geekbench again.CPU-Z 7900X

Geekbench 4 7900X

GeekBench 4

The multi-core result in Geekbench looks modest, although it’s worth noting the single core gains going on here compared to the previous generation 10 core the 6950X. On the basic DAWBench 4 test this doesn’t really show us up any great gains, rather it returns the sort of minor bump in performance that we’d kind of expect.

DAWBench 4 7900X

However whilst more cores can help spread the load, a lot of firms have always driven home the importance of raw clock speeds as well and once we start to look at more complex chains this becomes a little clearer. A VSTi channel with effects or additional processing on it needs to be sent to the CPU as a whole chain as it proves rather inefficient to chop up a channel signal chain for parallel processing.

A good single core score can mean slipping in just enough time to be able to squeeze in another full channel and effects chain and once you multiply that by the number of cores here, it’s easy to see how the combination of both a large number of cores and a high single core score can really translate into a higher total track count and is something we see manifest in the Kontakt based DAWBench VI test.

 

 

In this instance the performance gains over the previous generation seems quite sizable and whilst there is no doubt gains have been had from a change in architecture and that high-efficiency CPU usage we’ve already seen it should be noted here that this is close to a 20% increase in clock speed in play here too.

When we test we aim to do so around the all core turbo level. Modern Intel CPU’s have two turbo ratings, one is the “all core” level to which we can auto boost all the cores if the temperatures are safe and the other is the “Turbo 3.0” mode where it boosts a single core or it did in previous generations, but now we see it boosting the two strongest cores where the system permits.

The 7900X has a 4.5GHz 2 core turbo ability of 4.5GHz but we’ve chosen to lock it off at the all core turbo point in the testing. Running at stock clock levels we saw it boost the two cores correctly a number of times, but even under stress testing the 2 core maximum couldn’t be hit constantly without overheating on the low noise cooling solution we are using. The best we managed was a constant 4.45GHz at a temperature we were happy with, so we dialed it back to all core turbo clock speed of 4.3GHz across all cores and locked it in place for the testing, with it behaving well around this level. 

It’s not uncommon for a first few batches of silicon on any new chip range to run a bit hot and normally this tends to get better as the generation gets refined. It’s the first time we’ve seen these sorts of temperatures on a chip range however and the is a strong argument to be made for going with either one of the top 2 or 3 air coolers on the market currently or defaulting to a water loop based cooling setup for any machine considering this chip. In a tower case this shouldn’t prove a problem but for rack systems, I suspect the 7900X might prove to be off-limits for the time being.

I’d fully expect the i7’s that are going to come in below it to be more reasonable and we should know about that in the next update, but it does raise some questions regarding the chips higher up in the i9 range that are due with us over the next 12 months. The has already been some debate about Intel choosing to go with thermal paste between the chip and the heatsink, rather than the more effective soldering method, although early tests by users de-lidding their chips hasn’t returned much more than 10 degrees worth of improvement, which is a fairly small gain for such a drastic step. We can only hope they figure out an improved way of improving the chips thermal handling with the impending i9’s or simply return to the older soldered method, otherwise, it could be quite some time until we see the no doubt hotter 12+ core editions making it to market.

Conclusion

In isolation, it looks fine from a performance point of view and gives the average sort of generation on generation gains that we would expect from an Intel range refresh, maybe pumped up a little as they’ve chosen to release them to market with raised base clocks. This leaves little room for overclocking, but it does give the buyer who simply wants the fastest model they can get out of the box and run it at stock.

The problem is that this isn’t in isolation and whilst we’ve gotten used to Intel’s 10% year on year gains over recent generations, there has to be many a user who longs for the sort of gains we saw when the X58 generation arrived or even when AMD dropped the Athlon 64 range on us all those years ago.

Ryzen made that sort of gain upon release, although they were so far behind that it didn’t do much more than breaking them even. This refresh puts Intel in a stronger place performance wise and it has to be noted that this chip has been incoming for a while. Certainly since long before Ryzen reignited the CPU war and it feels like they may have simply squeezed it a bit harder than normal to make it look more competitive.

This isn’t a game changer response to AMD. I doubt we’ll be seeing that for a year or two at this point and it will give AMD continued opportunities to apply pressure. What it has done however is what a lot of us hoped for initially and that it is forcing Intel to re-examine its pricing structure to some degree.

What we have here is a 10 core CPU for a third cheaper than the last generation 10 core CPU they released. Coming in around the £900 it rebalances the performance to price ratio to quite some degree and will no doubt once more help make the “i” series CPU’s attractive to more than a few users again, after a number of months of it being very much up for debate in various usage segments. 

So will the impending AMD Threadripper upset this again?

I guess we’re going to find out soon enough over the coming months, but one thing for sure is that we’re finally seeing some competition here again, firstly on pure pricing but surely this should be a safe bet for kick-starting some CPU advancements again. This feels kinda like the Prescott VS Athlon 64 days and the upshot of that era was some huge gains in performance and solid improvements being made generation upon generation.

The cost and overall performance here keeps the 7900X in the running despite its obvious issues, and that raw grunt on offer makes it a very valid choice where the performance is required. The only real fly in the ointment is the heat and noise requirements most audio systems have, although hopefully as the silicon yields improve and refine this will mature into a cooler solution than it is now. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how this pans out as the bigger models start making it to market over the coming year or so and of course with the smaller i7 brethren over the coming days.

Previous DAWBench Testing Results

To see our complete audio system range @ Scan

 

Free music packages for your studio DAW.

For anyone just getting into making music the is an often bewildering choice of sequencers out there offering an astounding array of features that a few decades ago would have been unimaginable to anyone but those working in the largest pro studios.

The problem now is that even for the more experienced musician making the choice of which DAW you want to focus on is often tough, so for the beginner just wanting to start out and who perhaps doesn’t yet understand what they need it becomes even more difficult.

The most popular options always seem to be the most expensive, and to some extent that shouldn’t be a surprise. Pro studios require great support and those costly packages have levels of support that some of the cheaper options might not have the resources to match. Of course anyone starting out and who has their heart set on going into a pro studio situation might find themselves wanting to learn with the more popular packages, but the fact is that the are a wide selection of extremely cheap alternative and even many that are free, which have a strong user base able to help you learn and are often just as well featured as many of the commercial alternatives.

The alternatives below are all free. Some are cut down editions of larger more costly packages and others are free and fully maintained packages built and looked after by a dedicated user base. Either way if your not quite ready to spend a large amount of money on your sequencer but still want to experiment, then you could certainly do far worse than checking out one of these packages.

ProTools First

ProTool First : http://www.avid.com/pro-tools-first

Starting with the well known names and ProTools first is a fairly recent entry from one of the longest standing DAW software teams. The was a time where ProTools was almost ubiquitous in studios around the world, although those days are now long behind us as market has fractured over the years largely due to the rise of home recording.

So firstly the key restrictions:

16 Audio Tracks
16 Instrument Tracks
4 Hardware Inputs
Restricted to Plugins Purchased from the Protools Shop
Saves restricted to the cloud with a 3 project limit.

As a self contained studio package for those wishing to get to grips with Protools before perhaps diving head first into buying the full package this works well; although given the inability to freely use third party plugins (at least not easily due to the “shop only” restrictions) this isn’t really suited for those wishing to experiment with sound design or working fully in the box. This base package however does make quite a bit of sense for the small band style projects as with 16 channels of audio you have enough here to multitrack your guitars, drums and vocals and wide enough selection of native effects to get the job done.

Of course the focus here is on bringing you into the world of Protools, with the ability to carry your home projects over to the full version when the time to upgrade comes. In doing so they look to have picked a rounded set of features that could well do the job for anyone wanting to record their band for the first time.

Compare the ProTools range features here.

Studio One Prime

Studio One Prime : http://www.presonus.com/press/press-releases/Studio-One-3-Prime

Having only been on the market since the late 00’s Studio One is still a relatively new comer to the DAW-wars but one that gained a lot of interest from the very first announcement. With a number of developers coming from the Steinberg camp the pedigree of the team behind Studio One is without dispute. Whilst still viewed as bit of an upstart Studio One has found favor with long established professionals and eager new comers alike. The free version referred too as Studio One Prime sets out to be an introduction to the world of Studio One in much the same fashion as ProTools First is for ProTools.

The restrictions here are far more subtle in nature, but the are certainly a few notable ones. Track count is unlimited but once again external VST’s are walled off and inaccessible in the base package. It includes 9 native effects and a virtual instrument in the shape of the Presence XT sampler which makes for a good jumping off point, but once again like ProTools First a lot of users may find this quite restrictive and anyone wishing to leverage third party tools for sound design will be disappointed.

Other restrictions may not prove all that noticeable for new users finding their feet. Features like video importing and additional audio exporting functions will be low on the list for new users, although might become more relevant later on. The same goes for more advanced features like additional channel editor functions and macro controls or the extended FX chains on offer in the more fully featured editions.

Once again the VST restrictions here might be a little off putting for a lot of people and again perhaps mean that Studio One Prime might prove more suitable for those recording small band projects rather than in the box sound designers.

Compare the Studio One versions here.

Tracktion 5

Tracktion 5 : https://www.tracktion.com/products/t5-daw

Tracktion whilst perhaps not as widely known as some of the other more established sequencers, its fast approaching its 15th birthday. and over that time it’s gone through a number of revisions with Tracktion 7 being the current commercial release. 

In order to continue to attract new users Tracktion maintains an older free version of its flagship client which is free to all of which the current version is Tracktion 5.

With unlimited audio and instrument tracks, the support for all VST’s without having to access their marketplace the are few key drawbacks here. Notable missing features include various warp modes when working with audio, and various grouping and extended functionality options, most if not all are missing from other basic and even payable options from many sequencer brands so really this is pretty fully featured and certainly worth checking out.

Compare the Tracktion Versions here.LMMS

LMMS : https://lmms.io/

The fully open source LMMS is well featured, comes with all the functionality you would expect from a studio ready DAW but built and maintained by an enthusiastic community.

Offering a channel count only limited by you CPU, full VST support with an included bridge to allow the use of older plugins, as well as a healthy collection of freeware synths and effects included with it.

The one downside of LMMS is it’s lack of recording capability inside the software. It’s great for those working fully in the box, but in order to bring audio in you’d need to record it into an audio editor first (like the excellent freeware Audacity) and then export it over to LMMS for use in your project.

Whilst that is going to be off putting to anyone working with capturing large amounts of audio, making all your music in the system and importing the odd snippet here and there isn’t going to prove all that troublesome, especially given all the other functionally on offer here it could potentially make it a strong fit for anyone not convinced of the other offerings here.

Honorable mention

Reaper DAW

Reaper : www.reaper.fm

Often a common inclusion in these types of lists, Reaper itself isn’t quite free, so it gets a special mention down here for its features to price ratio.

You should however consider taking advantage of the fully featured trail and if you like it the $60 full cost of the software (for home users) it is an absolute steal for a package this well featured. The audio engine alone is amongst the best performers out there, giving great low latency audio handling with extremely efficient code capable of eak’ing out one of the highest trackcounts we’ve seen when placed head to head with even the most expensive of DAW packages.

Sharing more in design and concept with sequencers like Cubase and ProTools, rather than the newer generation Ableton and Bitwig this might seem to have a steep learning curve when compared with some of its contemporaries, its ability to skin and configure it will let you fine tune it to your workflow if your able to take the time to learn it fully.

Fully featured from the outset with no notable restrictions in place, the are a lot of budget editions of all the key sequencers, but we don’t think you’ll find a more comprehensive package anywhere else at anywhere close to this price point.

If however you feel like your ready to step up to one of the larger packages?

See our selection @ Scan.

Native Instruments Summer Of Sound.

More Native Instrument deals this month as their Summer of Sound season picks up. Running right now you have the chance to buy either Komplete or Komplete Ultimate with 50% off, when making a purchase from the Maschine or Komplete Keyboard series at the same time.

The Maschine and the Komplete Keyboards already ship with a cut down version of Komplete but to get the  of course to get the very best out of these controllers you deserve the best sound libraries to make them shine.

Komplete offers up the range of Natives plugins and effects, many such as Kontakt have long been industry standards and the ever growing effects selection have some top notch options in there. Komplete Ultimate expands your options even further as it offers you a full selection of additional sound banks to help get even more out of all of those plugins. 

If you were already considering a Maschine or keyboard from the range and haven’t already kitted out your studio with Komplete, this could be just the offer to make sure you won’t be getting any sun this Summer!

Click here to see the range of available Komplete offer bundles.

Time to light the FUSE?

Arturia has announced that possibly one of the most awaited audio interfaces of all time is imminently due to arrive with us.

Initially unveiled back at the NAMM show in January 2015 and billed as a “revolutionary next gen-pro audio interface” the AudioFUSE got a lot of interest as a feature packed interface that looked to be a step ahead of lot of the competition at the time.

So what happened? Well Arturia have published a little video explaining the delay and to be fair it’s commendable. They take on board that they may have been a little keen in the initial announcement and have spent the time since listening to feedback from their beta testers as well as improving the manufacturing process. All good to hear and hopefully should result in a far superior product. You can hear what they have to say in their own words below.

So two years down the line and now that it is finally due to arrive with us how does it look now?

Still very promising from what we can see. 

The goal of the interface hasn’t changed. What we have here is a ultra-portable recording solution that doesn’t rely upon troublesome breakout cables for all its I/O handling. It’s built in a solid aluminum chassis and promises to be able to be capable of being thrown in your bag and taken out on the road in order to give you studio quality recordings wherever you are.  

Audio Fuse Specifications

1. Inserts

Add external line-level devices such as compressors into the signal flow before digital conversion.

2. MIDI in/out

Connect any MIDI instrument or equipment with the supplied MIDI cable adapters.

3. Word Clock & S/PDIF in/out

Sync any Word Clock equipment or connect to any S/PDIF digital audio device.

4. ADAT in/out

Connect to any ADAT equipment with up to 8 digital inputs and 8 digital outputs.

5. USB hub

3-port USB hub to connect your master keyboard, USB stick, dongle, and more.

6. USB connection

Connect AudioFuse to your computer, tablet or phone. Most features are available even with only the USB power supplied by a computer.

7. Phono/line inputs 3&4

Connect external phono or line devices to these RCA+ground and balanced 1/4” inputs.

8. Speaker outputs A&B

Connect two pairs of speakers to these balanced 1/4” outputs for easy A/B monitor switching.

9. Input control sections 1&2

Direct access to each feature of analog inputs 1&2: input gain with VU-metering, true 48V, phase invert, -20dB pad and instrument mode.

10. Output control section

Direct access to each of the analog output features: output level with VU-metering, audio mix selection, mono mode, output dimming, mute, and speaker A/B selection.

11. Direct monitoring

Enjoy zero-latency monitoring of the recorded signals and blend them into your mix.

12. Phones control sections 1&2

Direct access to each of the features of headphone outputs 1&2: output level, mono mode and audio mix selection.

13. Talkback

Press a button to communicate with talent in another room via the built-in microphone.

14. Input channels 1&2

Connect microphones, instruments or line devices to the 2 XLR/balanced 1/4” combo inputs.

15. Phones output channels 1&2

Don’t bother looking for a 1/4” or 1/8” phones adapter; AudioFuse has both connectors for each phones output.

Sound Quality

Outside the physical product features, Arturia are keen to show off their DiscretePro preamps with a signal to noise ratio of <-129dB and frequency response between 20HZ and 20kHz of +/-0.05db promising an extremely flat and clean signal path for your recording.

Designed to achieve low distortion rates and dedicated pre-amps for both the line and mic channels they’ve clearly strived to make this a great unit for recording and the is a  bit on the testing and development process to be found in the video below.

Final Thoughts

Its been a long time coming, but the AudioFUSE should finally be with us around June the 8th. The feature set promises to give us a very capable and flexible product if it proves to be a strong performer. The biggest unknown here however is just how great a performer it will be, and as Arturia are a new entry to this arena driver performance is going to be an unknown quality until we see one on the bench.

The is a lot of competition at the £500 price point this unit is landing at, including a number of high performance Thunderbolt and USB units. The included feature set certainly has enough of a punch to keep it relevent in todays busy marketplace and hopefully that all that  extra R&D time is going to pay off for the patient user in the end.

The Arturia AudioFUSE range @ Scan

How to get started in setting up your own home studio.

If you already have an interest in playing and writing music, then being able to record and edit it for yourself is always going to have plenty of appeal. Be it simply so you can listen back to your own practice sessions or lay down some tracks and mix your own finished projects, having a project studio setup of your own can help you to develop and finish off all of those ideas.

Essentially all a basic recording space requires is some way to capture the audio. If you already have a computer to hand or even to some degree just a phone or tablet then you already have all you need to capture a session, as there are recording software solutions for all of those platforms allowing you to quickly record pretty much anytime and anywhere.

Mix Pad Music Mixer On Android
Mix Pad Music Mixer On Android

Moving past those basic recording requirements however and the more lightweight capture options like tablets and phones whilst they may allow you to get away with recording and even very basic cutting, pasting and some basic arrangement type jobs, they will start to run out of power very quickly when you start to try and do any more in-depth sound design or more complex processing of your audio. For tackling those more complex tasks a good laptop or desktop becomes a must, allowing you to transfer your mobile recordings and into your editing system. In fact, for many people choosing to make dance and electronica where often the capturing of audio requirements can be bypassed completely more in favour of working fully “in the box”.

To get the audio in and out of the system for editing we need it a route for it to follow. All modern computers and laptops ship with on-board audio these days and that solution can be pretty reasonable quality in a lot of cases, so why would you need an additional interface? There are a few good reasons although we can largely group them into ASIO driver handling, I/O support and the overall performance of the interface.

ASIO (which stands for Audio Stream Input Output) is the dedicated driver that ships with your audio interface for getting the best out of your system for recording use. The standard drivers that ship with Windows are referred to as “Windows Audio Session API” or more commonly as WASAPI drivers. These are fine for general everyday use and whilst Microsoft has made strides to improve them for the studio over recent years, they still tend to lag a fair way behind a well-written set of ASIO drivers.

For those just starting out and wishing to dabble, there is a free driver that works with all sound cards including those found already in your system called ASIO4All. This will allow you to get started by making your current setup usable for writing music and whilst it’s by no means as efficient or optimized as a good driver that ships with a dedicated audio interface, it is good enough for helping you to learn your way around whilst you decide what interface is going to make sense for you.

The ASIO4ALL Control Panel
The ASIO4ALL Control Panel

The I/O part of the equation refers to all the ways to get sound in and out of an interface, be those Phono, TRS or XLR, SPDIF or Optical Co-axel or even ABU or AES these are all connection methods for routing your audio in and out of a system and the recording link to the rest of your kit.

For those users running purely in the box, this perhaps will only be a small factor in their interface choice, with the only real consideration is having a good quality output and perhaps a reasonable quality headphone amp in there to help with monitoring your tracks. Of course for anyone wishing to record a full band the priorities are likely to be reversed, with a multi-input interface becoming far more desirable and focus on the pre-amps and overall signal path becoming a chief concern. 

Performance, on the other hand, is how well the drivers work and the total amount available power they offer you as far as overhead for handling your plugins. That includes the sort of response you get latency wise whilst recording through the interface as well as the more brute strength figure of how many plugins can be run.

When we talk about latency on the PC there is a number of things it could refer too and in this instance we mean the real-time latency and how long it takes for your audio to be captured (for instance if you’re recording a guitar whilst you play it) processed and sent back to your headphones. This metric tends to be a bit more important for anyone wishing to record and monitor in real time as this lag if it gets noticeable will make it harder to play along in time. Whilst every performer is different in their requirements we tend to find that drummers need the tightest latency levels with a better than 10ms requirement, with guitarists and vocalist able to cope fine slightly above that.

The Zoom UAC2 has some of the best real-time latency scores for an entry-level interface.
The Zoom UAC2 has some of the best real-time latency scores for an entry-level interface.

Most if not all of the current widely available audio interfaces available can handle a better than 10ms RTL at the lowest 32 or 64 buffer settings although sometimes at the cost of overloading the CPU with those ultra-low buffer settings which leads to a major decrease in the number of plugins and synths it can handle. However, some of the better units will manage sub 10ms at settings all the way up to 128 or even 256 buffer settings with those higher buffer setting being a lot lighter when it comes to overall load and resource usage, with this being a core feature of some of the more expensive interface solutions. More crucially a good one in comparison to a more average interface will be capable of handling many more instances of your favourite plugins at each of those buffer settings meaning that a well-designed interface can add a lot of extra power to your setup.

The is a testing package known as DAWBench which we use here in Scan for a number of tests involving both interfaces and the systems designed to work with them. A recent performance chart is shown in the “latest reports” section on DAWBench website which can be helpful for anyone looking for a new interface. We also strive to carry out further testing we’ve done here in the store, so if there are any interfaces you wish to know more about, please do contact us to see if we can help advise you further.

Whilst the PC and interface remain the heart of the setup, it is of course very little use if you don’t have some way of getting sounds into and out of the system itself. Crucial for both those working both in the box and of course more traditional recordists is a having a trustworthy monitoring setup. Whether it’s down to budget reasons or equally valid a simple concern with noise management and keeping the neighbours happy, headphones are often the first upgrade people make rather than dedicated speakers.

Both speakers and headphones have their own strengths and weaknesses as with speakers you’re prone to the effects of your room dimensions affecting your sound, whereas headphones are capable of offering more neutral sound for monitoring, their lack of signal blending together in the air between the speakers and your ears as you experience in a regular room can sometimes make it difficult to get a mix that may transfer cleanly over to larger sound systems, so ultimately a good pair of both speakers and headphones is the ideal solution. Of course as you grow accustomed to these strengths and weaknesses of any playback solution you’ll learn to compensate for any shortcomings and differences, so it’s important to keep this in mind and try and pick up the monitoring solution that you find most revealing and to really learn how they respond whilst listening to your favourite reference material.

If you’re going with your first set of audio monitors, always remember to budget for some basic sound treatment and try and choose your speakers appropriately. Small rooms are capable of generating a lot of additional muddy noise into the mix due to high-pressure build of frequencies in the corners. Going with larger speakers, whilst they may on paper look to add more deep bass, can lead to patchy listening points in the room with both extensive bass frequency build-ups and a complete lack of low-end response in certain spots within the room due to the reflected frequencies boosting and cancelling each other out. 

All this means that unfortunately in a typical small spare room you may find yourself experiencing more trouble with the monitoring acoustics than most people expect when they first set out to kit out a room. Thankfully careful placement of your speakers can help a lot here which is a subject already touched upon in this earlier post. All we can really do with placement, however, is ensure we minimize the early reflections through the correct arrangement of those speakers, but anywhere audio hits a solid surface and bounces back into the room we can expect mud and clutter in the mix so keeping some space between them and walls helps a great deal.

Sound Treatment

In the corners we tend to get more low end build up and removing these frequencies again may require extensive bass trapping to reduce that build up, so often it is better to try and avoid putting those frequencies into the room, to begin with by choosing the right speakers up front. It is however advisable in any studio to try and cover at the very least the first, second and rear reflective points in the speaker’s line of sight to help remove the early reflections that lead to a lot smearing and audible clutter at the listening position.

If you’re working purely in the box, then by this stage you’ve got a great foundation for your new recording setup. Anyone wishing to record and mix real instruments, however, will need a few extra bits to get going in the shape of vocal and instrument mics or perhaps an instrument pick up and D.I. solution to capture the sound. For a singer-songwriter with a guitar a good condenser mic or two are going to be essential although each mic is likely to have its own strengths and weaknesses where some might prove to be a better fit for your voice or playing style, so certainly worth spending some time checking out your available microphone options before diving right in.

We’ve attempted to outline the basic hardware requirements here in order to get you going, although ultimately all these topics can get quite in depth and we’ve not even touched upon the software side of things. We do hope however that you’ve found this basic guide capable of giving some handy pointers as to what your next step may be. Of course, if you wish to know more about the best way to setup up your recording setup, we’re of always happy to discuss the best way to setup and optimize your studio to get the best out of your kit.

Scan 3XS Computer Systems

Audio Interfaces @ Scan

Studio Speakers @ Scan

Headphones @ Scan

Microphones @ Scan