The second half of 2011 has seen some high profile CPU releases in the form of both the AMD Bulldozer series and the new highend Intel SandyBridge Extremes. Both platforms offer us Hexcore solutions with additional benefit of inclusion of the AVX extensions which whilst enjoying modest support already (Sonar’s inclusion of the extensions has been widely reported), looks like it could be important as more and more firms adopt and optimize with their software to support this functionality.
So a brief overview of our findings.
The AMD Bulldozer Dawbench results surprised us and not in a good way. Performance for this new generation of CPU has been lackluster at best and in a surprising result performance wasn’t much improved over the previous Phenom X6 series CPU and even fell behind it in some testing. The shared cache in the AMD Bulldozer design we suspect could be involved here bottle necking the CPU but either way it does seem that this CPU’s design isn’t ideal for audio usage.
The Intel Sandybridge Extremes however continue to push forward performance wise in the DAWBench testing and we see some great performance gains in the initial testing. At stock the isn’t much in it with a overclocked 2600k and this might still be the better option for a lot of users but the X79 boards do permit you to make use of a lot of extra memory slots (the board allow upto 8 memory sticks) if you pick up the right model which allows those working with film and TV scores to have access to upto 64GB’s of memory, so ideal for people running programs like VSL or large EW sound banks.
The initial testing of an overclocked Sandybridge Extreme 3930k does show some astounding gains when over clocked with 30% – 40% across the board, this could make these CPU’s reasonable value for money. Unfortunately our initial testings has been done on the B2 release CPU’s which are running a bit hot when pushed to this level of performance. Intel has announced a refined CPU revision (the C2) late January 2012, so we expect to be offering an over clocked edition offering this performance gains around the start of February all being well. Of course we shall publish updated results from our testing as and when it is carried out.
For further information on DAWBench and how we test please see this article.
On the upcoming Saturday the 26th we have another of our ever popular Scan audio open days.
This time around alongside the opportunity of catching tutorials from our team we also have Andy from Steinberg giving us the low down on all the new kit from them including the CMC controller series. We also have Tom giving us the lowdown on his recent Youtube chart topper (with 2 million listens to date) rmx of the Modestep track “To the Stars” with Break the Noize, Dj Rasp will be giving some one on one’s about scratching technique and Simon Lyon will be giving more one on one time with Ableton.
A full line up for the day:
11.00amAbleton Live Simon Lyon aka The Ruthless Producer introduces Ableton Live. During this session, Simon will take you on a tour of Abletons features and show how easy it is to build tracks from scratch
12.00pmMixing DJ Rasp shows off the tricks and skills needed to be a top DJ. Rasp will demonstrate some of the basic skills you need to scratch and mix your way to DJ Nirvana
1.00pmSteinberg demo Andy from Steinberg with all things Steinberg and he shows off the new CMC controllers. Q&A session to follow.
2.00pmStudio Secrets Tom from “The Autobots” shares some of his studio secrets behind his and fellow Scan endorsees “Break the Noize” remix of Modestep’s “To The Stars” that has received over 2,000,000 YouTube plays.
2.30pmGuitar Rig 5 session Does Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5 spell the end for guitar amps in the studio? Steve Fairclough takes you on a tour of this awesome amp modelling software.
3.00pmPrize Draw !
Sign ups for the day can be found on the main Scan site here.
Each Atlas Series Instrument has been designed and engineered by Kim Breedlove. With a strong art background and refined design sense, Kim Breedlove acquired the tools, the training and a keen interest in building guitars, mandolins, banjos and other fine instruments in 1974. At a very young age he entered the elite level of producing legendary quality instruments and has dedicated his life to this masterful artistic endeavor.
Atlas guitars feature many of the design principles from Breedlove’s custom shop including Breedlove scalloped bracing, pinless bridge and JLD Bridge Truss System.
The body shapes are similar to the custom shop offerings for deep body styles with non cutaways and soft cutaways. The bridge, fingerboard and peghead overlay on each model are made from Indian Rosewood.
The playability has been changed to a slightly narrower nut width 1-11/16 in., but each has the same low string height for fast comfortable playing. D’Addario EXP11 light gauge coated strings are comfortable, last a long time and have a full sound.
Fishman Classic IV Pickups are on all cutaway models. These are easy to use, reliable and sound great. Each Atlas Series instrument has passed the strict quality assurance process in Bend, Oregon, USA. Breedlove has reached these amazing prices by creating a high quality system to produce these exact models and specifications.
The Breedlove Difference
The Breedlove tone is an outcome of the way they brace their tops. All of their guitars have tops voiced both before and after the braces are applied. They utilize a modern bridge truss device (patented by J.L.D. Guitar Research) that counterbalances the string tension on the top of the guitar. Does this mean Breedlove guitars lose the ability to vibrate well? Just the opposite. In the past, building a guitar top has required trade-offs between sturdiness for longevity, and lightness for resonance. Due to the increased structural integrity of the bridge truss, Breedlove is able to brace their tops for optimal vibration and sound quality. This creates what they call a relaxed top. You will also notice the back of their guitars vibrate more than other guitars. The result is a responsive guitar with rich bass, balanced mids, sweet highs, and a remarkable balance of sound when playing notes up the fingerboard.
A guitar where the strings pass over the nut and then angles sharply towards the tuner posts has added dampening, which causes loss in sustain. So Breedlove designed their peghead so the strings between the tuners and the nut are parallel to the rest of the string. Then they have the Breedlove Pinless Bridge. Why drill 6 holes through a part of the guitar that needs stability?
And so finally, all these little innovations and variations become the Breedlove difference. Do yourself a big favour and check one out today.
Last weekend whilst having a hunt round the BPM show at the NEC we came upon our friends at Steinberg and their wonderful little CMC series controllers. You can pick and choose from a number of cheap and cheerful units to make up your very own dream control panel. With that in mind and a view to populate his own x-mas wants list even further our Tom sat down with Andrew from Steinberg and had him take us through the options available.
Many thanks to all those that made it down for our open day last Saturday making it a great success. The theatre area was set up and demos, training sessions and Q&A’s took place throughout the day with Ableton production and remixing sessions being popular and the showmanship of Dj Rasp entertaining all between the seminars themselves.
If you missed out this time watch the site for futher announcements as we have another being planned before the end of the year.
Building A Silent PC Solution in the NoFan Set A40 Case
One of the main considerations for any audiocentric build has traditionally been the overall noise of the final system. If you get to design a studio from the ground up, you find yourself able to rack up or remove the computer hardware into a separate area away from your recording section of the studio. For a lot of users through especially those working in a small project studio environment this may not be viable and you may have to compramises in order to make the overall setup work. In this situation you may still need to have the ability to edit and record in the studio space where your setting up mic’s and instruments so the last thing you want to be able to hear in your final recordings is noise from the computer doing the processing work.
Whilst all of our systems are designed with this in mind and components are carefully chosen to ensure as little background noise is created as possible, what if we could go further than that? Ideally we want to be removing as many moving parts from inside a computer as we can to ensure you end up with the lowest noise footprint possible.
NoFan are a new company setup by the original designers from Zalman, who have left to start up a new company developing unique designs and innovating in the world of PC silence. The SET-A40 bundle we base this build around includes a case, cooler and 400w PSU which are all designed to run passively with no fans for required for cooling and allowing use for CPUs rated at upto 95w TDP.
To sum up the design and idea behind the system I’ll add in here what the company themselves have to say about this product: ” Nofan’s bundle comprises their revolutionary CR-100A IcePipe Fanless Cooler, a fanless 400W power supply and a specialized convection case to accommodate the CPU cooler and any other components that are required to build the perfect silent computer, with zero dust build up.”
So without further ado let’s take a look at it.
Well it’s a case box. Indications on it that we should expect 0 db(a) of noise from the system and indications of the components inside. It’s at this stage that you’ll get the first indication of the crazy cooling system from the artwork on the side but more of this later.
Once we break it out of the box we get to take at look at the front panel. It has a couple of exposed 5.25 bays and a 3.5 for your card readers. The are the normal selection of ports and jacks on the front and all in all, so far, so ordinary.
First look inside with the side panel removed
With the side panel off we see once more fairly typical case design but lurking in there are some out of the ordinary bits and pieces. First of all the large brown box taking up most of the free space is certainly in need of further examination…
As it says on the tin… the NoFan cooler from the top down.
Having opened the box the first thoughts through many peoples minds are pretty much “What is that?!!?!?”. In office we discussed the lot from hamster wheel right through to salad spinner. In actual fact this is the very heart of the machine.
I present to you the NoFan fanless cooler.
The NoFan cooler underneath.
Based around a liquid pipe design it certainly is sizable but at the same time suprisingly light. Underneath we can see a nicely polished base with the company logo etched into it with a couple of heatpipes as well as the support arms designed to carry heat away from the heatsink base itself.
It’s certainly a nice tidy design and no sharp edges to it which will make builders use to the Zalman flower designs of old breathe a sigh of relief!
So how does this monster heatsink attach to the motherboard? With surprising ease in fact and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into this design. 4 mounting poles are attached via screw mounts into a special backplate and that is more or less that which for a heatsink of this size is once again quite surprising.
A side on shot of the system with the motherboard mounted inside. You’ll notice at this point the rather odd mounting position of the psu. As this is also passive and generating heat NoFan have decided to mount it at the front rather than the rear to keep the heat evenly spread throughout the system.
Once again the thought that has gone into this design becomes apparent when you attempt to mount the heatsink. Some designs can be very hard to mount but with this you can just drop the cooler into the case and then you line up the screw holes…
Screw in the thumbscrews and the job is pretty much done.
Quick easy and far less hassle than a lot of other designs.
And there you have it. The system is assembled and ready to be fired up for the first time.
So what do we think of it here in Scan? It’s a bit of a niche item but it does the job very well if it fits your requirements. Annoyingly some mechanical parts are still required to complete the build but you can work around these as well. We’ve set ours up with an SSD for the O.S. drive which will keep the performance up and the noise down but you’ll still need something to hold your project data and a larger mechanical is still the only real option. For our demonstration unit we set it up using a caddie that allows you to fit both a laptop hard drive and a slimline slot loading Dvd drive. The laptop harddrives are generally quiet solutions and by using the caddie it allows the drive to be swappable allowing for quick backups or the moving of projects between machines. Also by using a slot loading optical drive in this solution we get a reduced noise level as slot loaders tend to pinch the optical disk on both sides rather than a single sided spindle lift you see in tray designs so less rattle from your dvd’s.
On the all important performance side it work fantastically too. We initially tried it with a normal 95w 2600 CPU and ran it on Prime 95 for around 6 hours with the CPU running around the 85 degree mark. Whilst that is still within Intels limits we like to build our systems with a bit more overhead as studios as we all know tend to get a little bit toasty once all those lovely toys are turned on! So we broke out the 2600S low powered edition which uses around 30% less power than it’s bigger brother. We clocked up the CPU to around 3.3Ghz which is only just slightly slower than the 3.4Ghz rated 2600 regular and did the same Prime 95 test once more. This time we got an average of around 70 digress over the same time frame which is far below our own in house threshold and once you factor in that the machine will never be run in the real world at this sort of level for more than a few minutes at a time it promises a long and stable life for the machines usable duration… most impressive!
Whilst you can never fully remove every mechanical component from your build, by using these options you will minimize the noise levels of what’s left and the result will be an extremely quiet solution ideal for in studio usage.
This system is available on the Scan 3XS site on the audio system configurator : 3XS NF26 Silent P.C.
The NoFan Set A40 is also available as a barebones bundle : NoFan Set – A40
One of the key choices faced by eveyone when starting out making music is which sequencer software to learn in order to be able to produce your own recordings. As the heart of any modern studio the sequencer will allow you to record, edit and even master your music in your own preferred recording space and with the power and features available in even the most humble of software studios these days you can get astounding results, that even just a couple of decades ago were unthinkable by anyone working outside of a large studio environment. The problem with having to make the choice at this stage is that your most probably at your most unprepared for what is essentially a choice that will shape your work flow dynamic for years to come, so in this situation just how do you decide when its likely your not even sure what you need?
To keep things simple for this article we’ll break them down into a couple of groups and we’ll start with the traditional sequencers Cubase & Sonar. Both of these solutions have long heritages with Steinberg’s Cubase first appearing on the Atari ST in the late 80’s and Calkwalk’s Sonar appeared a few years prior to that under it’s original brand name of Cakewalk, meaning that both of these solutions are regarded as long established industry standards with Cubase being the popular choice in Europe and Sonar the leader in the USA market.
A Cubase arrangement screen.
Designed initially as midi sequencing tools used to record and edit playback data controlling synths and other external hardware, it was with the advent of the Steinberg introducing the V.S.T (Virtual Studio Technology) standard in the mid 90’s which over time has become the dominate format over Cakewalks own DXi plugin standard (Sonar also supports VST) that we’ve seen sequencers grow from their humble beginnings to the all encompassing studio in box solutions we see now. When choosing between these two software packages you’ll see that most of the features found in either one will tend to be available in the other sooner or later. The has over the years been a history of them pushing each other on when developing new features and improvements which has resulted in great feature rich solutions being developers for users working with either client.
Over time we’ve seen these sequencers also introduce timeline based real time audio editing and manipulation which was previously was the greatest strength of the other classic recording software ProTools. Once again originally developed in the late 90’s but this time as a replacement for the classic multitrack tape recorders found in every recording studio up until this point Pro Tools was developed as a medium to allow loss less digital recording in an environment where the audio could be manipulated and processed without degradation associated with working analogue or even digital tape formats. ProTools was regarded as a game changer as it could speed up the mixing and mastering process and allow all sorts of editing tricks to be applied that were previously only be dreamed of by the average razorblade wielding tape based editors of old.
Cubase Audio Editing On The Timeline.
ProTools however in the early days by design was developed to only work with dedicated hardware solutions (audio interfaces) which whilst ensured a high quality audio recording environment also put this far outside the price range of the average home studio recordist. Over time however the platform has opened up with ProTools HD remaining at the highend we saw the introduction of the LE revision and with a wider range of features such as full VST support although still required special hardware (the MBox range) to support and run it. Recently we’ve seen this evolve into the ProTools 9 release which like its counterparts Cubase & Sonar will now run on any sound card and hardware configuration it joins them as a fully featured elder statesman of sequencers.
So that’s the old guard covered what about the newer solutions?
Over the last decade or so we’ve seen any number of newer software packages appear and whilst some are designed in the same fashion as the older sequencers with midi being a primary concern with the most notable being the superb Reaper client, we’ve seen a number of software houses approach the process with new ideas and tailor their software more towards those of us who work fully inside the box rather than make music with external hardware.
The one package that can probably lay claim to making the most impact on how we think about arranging and working with sequenced music in recent times is Ableton. Originally developed as a live performance tool that would give the ability to remix and edit loops and audio on the fly in the early days we saw ground breaking DJ sets where the artist would load up all of their self written tracks as component parts and perform by mixing and matching components of their music blended together allowing for a unique performance each and every time. As artists got use to doing this live and discovered just how quick and easy it was to work with they started to use it more and more as a studio tool rather than just a live performance instrument and the Ableton development team have picked up on this and continued to develop it into the one stop solution no matter if your working in the studio or performing out on the road.
Ableton’s session view is a great alternative to the more traditional arrangement window setup.
Other notable packages include Sony Acid, FL Studio and Reason which all continue to go from strength to strength. Both FL Studio and Sony Acid started out as a loop based sequencers and have evolved to play host to a lot of the features of the larger more established packages and offer support for the popular plugin standards. Reason on the other hand is a popular all in one package which restricts it’s users by not supporting VST/DXi and other none native formats but rather maintains its own synth and sampler selection as part of the package. Whilst this can be seen as a negative by users wishing to dip into the wider waters of plug ins, it does have the notable advantage of focusing the user and by keeping those choices more limited which can actually help speed up workflow as anyone who’s ever faced a screen full of synths wondering which would be most suitable tor the idea in their head will tell you. Perhaps because of this a number of artists have mentioned that they prefer to write within this environment as they find themselves being at their most productive working this way, although they may still find themselves having to transfer projects over to other software solutions to complete the tracks at mixdown stage if they want to take advantage of tools not available inside of Reason to mix or master the project.
Hopefully this brief rundown has given you a few ideas of where you wish to look and our only other advice would be to get hands on. All sequencers initially require a bit of time to get to grips with, but as you pick up the concepts your ability to get your ideas down as you want them will get quicker and quicker as you learn more and more. Obviously with so many options some of these will prove better for you than others so we highly recommend you trail each package that appeals to how you wish to work.
Thankfully the majority of software firms offer trails of their sequencers giving you a few weeks to spend time with each one before you decide upon that initial outlay, so you should take advantage of this and give each one that stands out a try in order to make sure you make the right choice along the road to making music for yourself.
Every year we find with computer systems as with so many other products it seems that the is always something bigger, better and faster becoming available. The question is how do we validate those claims and work out which solution will fit which user whilst offering the best performance at any given price point?
Here in Scan we use a number of different tests and where gamers concern themselves with performance indicators like 3DMark and video people concentrate on Cinebench for audio the stand out test used by retailers and reviewers alike is DAWBench for audio computer system benchmarking. DAWBench’s working methodology is a rather large subject in itself and something we will be covering in later articles in much depth but here we can give a quick overview covering how it relates to audio computer system performance.
The DAWBench tests revolve around running as many instances of a given effect or audio source as possible until the CPU overloads and audio corruption is generated in the signal path. The most common variation of this test is the RXC compressor test which has been in use now for a number of years and has plenty of results generated overtime making it ideal for us to look at how performance has grown from generation to generation of audio computer systems.
The test itself is fairly simple to carry out and can be run in a number of popular sequencers including (but not limited to) Cubase, Reaper, Sonar and Protools. The template for the test can be downloaded from the DAWBench website which consists of 4 tracks of audio parts and 40 channels of sine waves. On each of these sine wave parts 8 RXC compressors are included already set up but not yet activated and it is these you switch on one at a time in order to put the system under more and more load. Whilst testing the sine wave channels that you are working with are turned down but the accumulated compressors continue to up the load on the system and you monitor the situation by means of the looping audio tracks playing through your speakers. As you reach the point where the processing ability of the system reaches its maximum handling ability the audio you hear will start to distort and break up and it’s at this point where you have to turn off a few compressor instances taking it back to the point where the audio is clean and unbroken, which when you have the audio this point you then make a note of the total number of RXC compressor instances achieved and that is your score at the buffer setting in question.
A quick real world explanation of buffer latency for those not familiar with it is this. A low buffer setting means that your input devices can communicate quickly with the CPU inside of the audio computer system and the data can be processed quickly and for real time interaction this is crucial. Something you can try yourself is setting the buffer latency in your sound card control panel firstly to it’s lowest figure normally around the 32/48/64 level and playing a note on your midi controller which you will find is very responsive at these settings. If however you raise the latency settings up to around the 1024 level or higher and now trigger your midi controller you’ll notice a definite amount of lag between the key press and the sound coming out of the speakers.
So why would we want to run an interface at 1024 or higher settings?
As you bring down the buffer figure to improve response times your placing more and more load upon the CPU as a smaller buffer is forced to talk to the CPU more often which means more wasted cycles as it switches from other jobs to accommodate the data being processed. Whilst an artist performing or recording in real time will want the very lowest settings to enable the fastest fold back of audio to enable them to perform their best, a mix engineer may wish to run with these buffers set far higher to free up plenty more CPU headroom to enable high quality inline processing VSTi’s the performance to carry out their tasks without overloading the processor which as we’ve seen before would cause poor results in the final mixdown.
Too keep the playing field level the results below have been tested with Windows 7 64bit and in all these tests we have used a firewire M-audio Profire 1814 interface to ensure the results are not skewed by using various interfaces with different driver solutions. The are better cards that will give better results at super low latencies, with the RME range for instance going down to buffer settings of 48 on the USB/Firewire solutions and even 32 on the internal models. The M-Audio unit however has great drivers for the price point and we feel that giving fair figures using an interface at an accessible pricepoint gives a fair reflection of performance available to the average user and those who are in the position to invest in more premium units should find themselves with additional performance gains. We will be comparing various interfaces in the future here on the blog and the are benchmarks being produced in the DAWBench forums which also good further reading for those of you looking for new card solutions in the meantime.
So what does the chart above show us?
The are a number of audio computer systems being tested on there from over the last few years and it shows the continued growth of performance as newer hardware has been released. The stock i7 2600 proved to be a great performer when stacked up against the previous high end Intel systems even coming close to the hexcore flagship chips from that generation. What we also see is that once you take a 2600k and overclock it as we do here the performance available is greater than the 990x for a great deal less cost wise although it has to be noted that the X58 platform has more available bandwidth which can help increase performance in some real world instances where the user is working with vast sample libraries, the results we see here are a good indicator of how the machines will run for a more typical user.
Also worth noting in the performance results above is the i5 2500 result as we use it in our entry level value systems currently. The performance is roughly half of the overclocked 2600k system and in real world terms the cost of the system is roughly half as well meaning that whilst neither unit offers better value for money than the other in the cost vs performance stakes, in instances where your recording requirements are not quite as great the value spec still offers plenty of power to get you going and achieve completion on smaller projects even if it doesn’t offer the additional cooling and silencing features we have as standard on the high end solutions. It’s also worth noting that the i5 2500 scores close to the last generation i7 930 which shows how much performance improved between the last generation and the current one.
Our high end laptop solution in all but the very lowest latency situations also proves to be pretty much on par with the last X58 based i7 930 processor which itself still offers enough power to the user to get the job done in all but the most demanding situations which means that the age of the full desktop replacement laptop is very much with us making it as easy to edit, mix and produce fully formed mixes on the road as it is to perform every night with the very same units.
Hopefully that helps explain how we rate audio computer systems in house for performance testing and will help you decide upon your own next system. We run these tests on each new range we release so keep an eye out for further articles showing testing results as new hardware reaches the market.