Category Archives: Test Labs

DAW Benchmarks 2013 – What gives you the best performance for audio applications?

It’s been a good year or so now since we’ve managed to do a proper group testing session here in office on the system side of things and with the launch of a new processor selection it often raises any number of questions regarding upgrading or even replacing older setups with the newer chipset solutions. With the launch of Intel’s new Haswell CPU’s over the weekend and rumors reaching us of AMD’s latest CPU’s getting a solid performance boost it looks to be the ideal time to carry out a round up.

During that time however the team over at DAWBench have updated and refined the basic test to allow for the performance heights that the new chips are reaching to be more easily measured. The new test doesn’t scale in quite the same fashion as the older version, so this time around it has required us to perform a full group retest to ensure everything is as accurate as possible on the chart, meaning that a number of older systems have dropped off the testing list due to the lack of available hardware or incompatibility with the newer testing environment.

The other change of note this time around is with the interface being used by us for the task itself. In the past we used an internal RME card up until the point where external interface solutions became more common place, where we retired it and moved onto the Firewire budget champ in the shape of M-Audio 1614FW for our comparative testing. Over the last few years however Firewire support has waned and so it now makes sense for us to move onto a more everyday solution and one that is within easy reach of the average user.

So with that in mind we welcome to the testing bench the USB based Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 interface which itself weighs in at under £200 and should give a fair indication of what can be achieved by anyone with a good basic interface. Of course if you have invested in a more premium solution these scores will most likely be even better in your final setup but we hope to give people here a general idea on what can be achieved on the average DAW setup.

So without further ado, on with the stats!

(click to expand the chart)

System DAWBench Chart June 2013
System DAWBench Chart June 2013

You can click to expend the chart above and it gives us the testing results for the classic DAWBench RXC compressor test. The test puts a load on the CPU by letting us add compressor instances until the ASIO routine fails to cope and the audio breaks up.

The first thing to note is down the bottom of the chart and AMD’s inclusion on the list. It’s the first time in a few generations now where we’ve seen a AMD chip hold it’s own in the benchmarking round up and overall it has to be said as a entry level solution it could have some legs. Pulling roughly the same benchmark results as the first generation i7 solutions when dealing with audio means that it offers a solid platform to work on for a price point somewhere in the £230 region for the chip and board.

When doing the system math’s however for roughly 1/3rd more on the motherboard & CPU price you can have a i5 4670 Intel CPU and board which will give you roughly a 1/3rd more performance so the bang per buck in both setups is roughly the same at where we would choose to peg the entry level positions. It could however be argued that another £70 on what will likely be a £700 costing machine wouldn’t break the bank and could be a very worthwhile move in the long term as that 1/3rd more performance will more than likely come in handy further down the road and should be part of the consideration.

Looking further up the range we see the comparisons between the 4670K & 4770K CPU’s and their predecessors which were the chips of choice at their respective performance points in previous generations. The 4670K is another unlocked i5 solution offering 4 cores whilst the 4770K is the direct replacement for 3770K midrange champion offering up the same 4 cores +4 cores of hyperthreading that have been available in the previous generations.

For ease of comparison we  made sure to test the key chips at both stock settings and with a fairly average overclock applied so you can see how they scale with the extra clock speed boost being applied. Even through the CPU’s don’t appear to overclock quite as far this time around we do see a fairly level increase in performance at around the 5% – 7% across the board when examining like for like CPU’s meaning that whilst not major game changers they do offer a step up on the previous generation.

Regarding the chipset itself the big push this time by Intel has been the improvement of power saving features within the chipset and on the CPU itself. The inclusion of more C states which allow the PC to pretty much shut everything off when it conserves power is likely to be another major headache for audio system builders both pro and amateur alike so keep an eye on those and give them some consideration when tweaking up your rigs.

The CPU microarchitecture has also been worked upon and whilst a lot of the changes are a bit more technical than we’d want to go into on article focused on audio applications, the expansion to the AVX2 instruction set may yield us further improvements in performance if software developers can make use of the improvements implemented in the Haswell release further along the line. We don’t expect it to be a quick process as it doesn’t make sense to focus on instruction tuning until it is supported by both Intel and AMD but we expect that to happen over the course of the coming year and once it does software companies often start to make use of the features in major updates which could be a nice benefit to those adopting the platform.

Other benefits for adopters of the new platform include an increase of USB 3.0 ports available natively in the chipset (6 rather than the previous 4) and more Sata 6Gps ports which now total 6 natively over the previous generations 2 port solutions.

So where does that leave us? Not much different from before the launch of the new CPU’s with performance scaling with cost right up to the hexcore 3930K chips on a pretty reasonable cost to performance curve. The current highend extreme in the shape 3970X however continues to break that curve rather abruptly although this is something most users have come to expect and thankfully it is only the most demanding of users that will even need to consider that solution as the rest of the range offers a lot of performance which will satisfy the vast majority of current requirements.

The future promises us a new high end platform later in the year in the shape of IvyBridge extreme, although details and release dates are still very hazy we’re looking forward to getting to grips with those when they do eventually land. Right now through the Haswell solutions offer a great upgrade for any users  of the first generation i series CPU’s (the 4th generation 4770k offers twice the performance in benchmarking of a first generation i7 920) or earlier solutions and continue to dominate their respective price points in the performance stakes.

DAW Systems @ Scan

RME ADI-8 DS MkIII – Why this could be part of the world's best audio interface

The RME ADI-8 DS Mk III is announced today, with 8 analouge ins and outs, ADAT and AES-32 digital connections.

So what makes this so very special?

Well, it’s not the 120dBa dynamic range, even though that makes it sit in the absolute top 0.1% of interface specs.

Its not even RME’s Steadyclock that gives an unbelievably low jitter rate, meaning the waveforms are the shapes that they should be and not distorted due to timing errors.

It’s simply the fact the the unit has been re-designed with the latest generation of A/D converters.

Now before you all snooze off, i’ll explain why this is so important. The current generation of conversion (with the exception of the horrendously expensive ESS Sabre chips, which seem to have sacrificed latency in exchange for accuracy) have not made any leaps and bounds advances in dynamic range or harmonic distortion performance, the only thing they have really managed to do is to reduce the latency of the signals being converted.

How can I make the statement that this could be part of the world’s best audio interface?

Well, RME’s ADI-8QS, used in conjunction with thier HDSPe-AES pcie card was the best performing interface tested using the DAWbench software, with it being the benchmark that every other interface has been tested against by DAWbench’s creator Vin Curigliano. Vin (with a bit of help from ourselves on a compatible system) has tested most common interfaces, and if the major improvement is in conversion latency in the latest ADI-8 DS mkIII, then this must surely take the crown.  The RME UCX did the same thing compared to the UFX that it was based on, shaving a few ms off the conversion time, so i would completely expect this to do the same to the previous ADI-8 generation.

In RME’s own words…

The new RME ADI-8 DS Mk III is the latest addition to the ADI series. The ADI-8 DS Mk III is an 8-channel high-end AD/DA converter with a unique and incredibly versatile collection of very useful features. The RME ADI-8 DS Mk III combines excellent analogue circuit design with the very latest generation of outstanding low latency AD/DA converter chips.

What does “best performing” actually mean? 

It simply means that at the same latency, you will be able to run more plugins and have more notes of virtual instrument polyphony than with any other interface.

 

How much difference is there in performance? 

 

Here’s the results from another couple of interfaces, the UFX (apart from the UCX, the best preforming USB interface) and the now discontinued USB1 Saffire 6 from Focusrite

(In the intrests of nuetrality, The Saffire replacement (Scarlett 2i4) perfoms signifcantly better, and although doesn’t share the same buffer sizes, so cant be be directly compared, has an average LLP rating of about 5, which is respectable for USB 2.0)

The Buffer size shows how many samples big the buffer is, the RXC is how many RXC compressor plugins can be run before breaking up (to demonstrate DSP perfomance) and the CV and NCV fields show how many notes of polyphony can be run inside Kontakt before the audio starts to break up.  The I/O column is the latency times reported by the ASIO driver and the RTL is the Round trip latency (ms) of a signal coming in and going back out of the interface. The overall LLP rating is derived from a calculation of performance against latency time.

 

So, we wait with baited breath to see how the unit will perform when we actually can get our hands on one, as well as definitively finding out how well it can compete with competition from the likes of Lynx’s Hi-Lo and Lavry’s converter range, although as an 8 in / 8 out option it’s in a class of it’s own.

Iso Acoustics L8R155 Speaker Stands

Its not often I get excited about speaker stands. Lets face it they are not the sexiest piece of kit out there. They don’t make noise, they don’t have flashing lights or dials and sliders you can fiddle with… they just sit there with all the drool worthy stuff sat on top.

In fact lets face it, I like the vast majority of people reading this no doubt, have never once in my life gotten excited about speaker stands.

Until now.

Back at the start of the year our very own Tom found himself embedded deep in NAMM and one of his battle stories involved a set of speaker stands which had blown him away. I must admit I only kind of half paid attention in a holiday photo slideshow sort of way at this point because as I said before… speaker stands. Are they really that interesting?

How wrong I was.

This week we finally managed to get some in stock and as it happens I’m in the process of a studio switch around and I’ve been considering some of the Isolation Pads for sitting my Genelecs on as we’ve had them out for demo days and I’ve been impressed by how they tighten up the sound reproduction in day to day use, especially on a budget as they come in at around £30. After a sit down with Tom I got a swift talking too and told to go and purchase some of the Iso Acoustics L8R155 speaker stands instead.

But I replied they cost almost 3 times as much… will they really prove an effective solution and give me the claimed improvements?

“Yes, just get them, you won’t be disappointed”

Now I’m always wary of this type of thing, the are so many solutions out there that at best could be considered snake oil… but having trust in Tom’s choice to track down the supplier and get them in after a demo in a distant show hall, I took the plunge.

Now as you may have guessed by this point, I was slightly impressed. In fact feel free to go through my other posts on here and you’ll probably see this is about as excited as I get when commenting on a product.

Over speaker stands.

(yeah, I still can’t believe it either).

So gushing out of the way, why am I excited?

Going back a number of years I had a dedicated recording area in a large rectangular room and I had my speakers at the time (a pair of Sprit Absolute 2’s) set up to fire straight down the room. The speakers were certainly in the budget end of the market and the was certainly a fair few compromises as to the design and overall sound of them, but I knew them well and I could finish projects in a few days on them no problem which translated onto other systems well enough that I was happy as were the people I was doing work for at the time. At some point I got lucky on a great deal on a smaller pair of Genelecs (1029’s for you speaker spotters out there) which I picked up to replace my Sprits and the difference in clarity between the two price points was astounding. The problem was due to the small size of the speakers I had to add a sub for the work I was doing as I really needed the bass extension and this started to get a bit troublesome in the space I had.

A few months later just as I was getting used to this new combination I had to relocate into a smaller, squarer and more boxy room and so began a number of years of fighting with the acoustics as sub placement in there is awkward at best. I’ve set all the speakers on bricks and concrete slabs to help reduce vibration, bass trapped all the corners, built diffusion panels on all the reflection points and hung up the traditional soft furnishings which admittedly has helped greatly but the has been something not quite right with the set up and sometimes on a busy mix it all gets a bit too much.

So I fitted the speaker stands a few days ago and it was I have to say an instant improvement. On busy tracks the percussion and high end simply snaps sharply into place again, the lower mid becomes solid and easier to work with and the bass rounds itself out. For the first time in a couple of years I feel like I’m hearing the speakers properly again and I’m finding myself just sitting and listening to my collection, once more picking out parts of tracks I didn’t realise were there.

This is a key indication of a well set up pair of monitors.

I’ve honestly spent the last few months lusting after a number of different speakers, after having A/B’d them in the office and hearing clear yet heavyweight audio coming from them and wishing my studio setup was half as good… Yet I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the same amount again on another pair when I had what were known to be a fairly decent set in their heyday.

For a 20th of the amount I was looking to spend on a new speaker set, these stands have sorted out my sound in a way I couldn’t imagine they would, which in turn is giving me inspiration to get back in the studio and just make some noise and have fun with it.

So what makes them special? Just a simple well thought out design.

IsoAcousticL8R155 Speaker Stand

The base of the unit has 4 rubber sink holes that the poles go into which have a matching design at the other end. These rubber mount points allow the poles to shock absorb the vibrations caused by speaker as the cone movement causes the unit to travel and stops reverberation from being amplified by the desk and furniture in the room.

That’s it, a simple yet very effective design and if I’m honest the design principle isn’t a million miles away from the way firms like Noctura use rubber mounting grommets to isolate their fans from the PC case to also ensure that the vibrations are being minimized. What you don’t always realize is just how much your furniture can add to the acoustics in a room in a negative fashions especially if you have a small amount of space and have to desk mount your monitor solution. I knew I had a problem but up until this point I wasn’t quite aware of just how much this issue was affecting my work flow and I’m quite happy I’ve found a working solution to this all too common a problem.

I can now completely see why they took a best in show award. Never has something like this made such a difference to my setup and its probably the most effective upgrade to my mixing space since I bass trapped the troublesome corners and my only regret at this point is that they don’t do a giant one to mount my sub on!

Iso Acoustics L8R155 Speaker Stands @ Scan

Special offers on L8R155 and monitor bundles for this week only!

 

SandyBridge Extreme and Bulldozer DAWbench testing round up.

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.

December 2012 System Dawbench Results
December 2012 System Dawbench Results

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.

All DAWBench Testing Results

DAWBench Homepage

 

Audio Computer System Benchmarking

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.

Dawbench Homepage