Tag Archives: DAWBench

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 desk top” ( 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 with 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 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.

To see our complete audio system range @ Scan

 

Intel Broadwell-E – The New Audio System CPU Of Choice?

In our first benchmark update of the year, we take a look at the Broadwell-E range, taking over as the new flagship Intel CPU range. Intel’s Enthusiast range has always proven to be a popular choice for audio systems, based around a more established and ultimately stable server chipset, whilst still letting you get away with the overclocking benefits founds on the mid-range solutions, making this range very popular in studios up and down the country.

The previous round of benchmarks can be found here and whilst handy to have to hand, you’ll notice that results that appear on the older chart when compared with newer results obtained found on our 2016 results chart show a marked improvement when the same chips are compared side by side.

A number of things have lead to this and can be explained by the various changes enacted since our last round up. Windows 10 is now the testing platform of choice, offering a marginal improvement over the older Windows 7 build, this along with new drivers and firmware for our Native Instruments KA6 which remains our testing tool of choice as well as a newly updated DAWBench suite, designed to allow us to be able to test these new chips as the first round of testing exceeded the older version of the test!

If you do wish to compare with the scores on the older chart, we’re seeing a roughly additional 20 tracks when comparing like for like chips across both set of results, so it’s possible that if you have a chip that is on the old chart and not the new, then you may be able to establish a rough comparison by simply adding 20 tracks on top of the old chip result to give you a very rough estimate to allow some degree of comparison.

Leaving behind the old results and in order to establish a level playing field, I’ve set out to retest some of the older chips under the new conditions in order to ensure these results are fair and to allow for easier comparison, so without any more delay, let’s check out those results.

2016 CPU DPC Test Results
2016 CPU DPC Test Results

As normal we’ll dive into this from the bottom upwards. At the low end of the testing round up we see the current i5 flagship, the 4 core 6600K both at stock and overclocked. A modest chip and certainly where we’d suggest the absolute lowest point of entry is when considering an audio setup. Offering enough power for multi-tracking and editing, and whilst we wouldn’t suggest that it would be the ideal solution for anyone working fully in the box as this CPU would be likely to be easily maxed out by high performance synths, the is certainly enough power here to achieve basic studio recording and editing tasks whilst not breaking the bank.

Next up are the mid-range i7’s and the 6700T is first up, offering 4 cores and 8 threads this is the low power i7 option this time around and sits as you would expect between the i5 6600K and the full power 6700K. It’s performance isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s certainly hitting performance levels that we would have expected from a mid-range class leading 2600K a few years back, but with a far lower power usage profile. This is a chip that certainly has its place and we expect it to be well received in our passive silent specs and other small form factor systems.
The other 6700 variant we have here is the all singing, all dancing 6700K which is the current consumer flagship offering a unlocked and overclockable 4 core / 8 thread configuration. Popular in home recording setups and certainly a reasonable all-rounder its price to performance makes it a great fit for anyone looking to edit, process and mix audio, whilst not relying upon extremely CPU intensive plugins and other tools.

But what if you are? What if Diva and Serum and their ilk are your tools of choice, and CPU’s are regularly chewed up and spat out for breakfast?

Well then, the enthusiast range is the choice for you. Popular for just this reason, the chart outlines the amount of extra overhead these CPU’s can offer you above and beyond the performance found in the mid-range.

The 5820K and 5960X scores you see are the previous generations 6 core and 8 core flagship solutions respectively and certainly the ones to beat by our new entries.

The 6800K is another 6 core CPU along with the 6850K which isn’t shown here which directly replaces the last generation 5930K. As with the last generation, the key difference between the 6800K and 6850K other than the few hundred more MHz which don’t really offer much of an improvement as far as benchmarks go, is the additional PCIe lanes on offer with the more expensive chip. For roughly 50% more over the 28 lane 6800K edition, the 6850K offers up a total of PCIe lanes making it ideal for systems running multiple graphics cards, which may require up to 16 lanes each. For audio systems that only have a single graphics card however, the 28 lane chip will be more than adequate for most users and is certainly one place you can afford to cut corners an save money in the event that you’re not working with multiple graphics cards. All this as well as the keen price when considered against the performance found in the 6700K below it, perhaps makes the 6800K the best bang per buck option at this time.

The 6900K is a 8 core / 16 thread direct replacement for the last generation flagship 5960X chip and offers a sizable performance increase over the older CPU for roughly the same price. Not ground breaking but certainly an improvement for any outlay if you were considering the options around this price point.

Topping off the chart is the new high-end flagship 6950X which offers previously unseen levels of performance from the enthusiast class CPU’s and certainly offers reasonable performance for your money when compared against the dual Xeon setups that compete with it. With a £1400 UK street price at the time of writing it may appear to offer poor value when put up against the £500 cheaper 6900K, the is little else to touch this CPU for its price if you find yourself in need of the performance it is capable of offering.

Looking to the future the next high-end refresh will be Skylake-E although that isn’t due to be with us until sometime around the middle of 2017. KabyLake around the same time next year in the midrange promises some interesting features, namely X-point and the advances it’ll bring for storage which may even appear (we hope!) in the Skylake-E chipset around the same time. Either way you look at it, Broadwell-E is looking to be the high performance option of choice for the rest of 2016 and we’re sure will find itself powering many new studio systems over the coming year.

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Intel launches the Skylake chipset and we DAWbench it in the studio.

Intel’s latest chipset has recently launched and the Z170 series or Skylake as it is informally known, is a refinement of the earlier Broadwell range launched last year. The Broadwells were most notable for bringing 14nm processors to the market, althrough these CPUs tended to be lower powered solutions and so didn’t register all that much on the enthusiasts radar

Of couse the is nothing wrong with lower powered solutions and the lower heat is always great especially if you want a low noise system to work with, but the for those who also required large amounts of performance the Broadwells were simply not all that attractive, with many of us who were simply looking for the very best performance at a given price point, choosing to stick with the Haswell platform from the generation before, as it simply offered up the best bang per buck solution.

So with that in mind, we’ll take a look at overall performance using the trusty DAWBench test and see how it all stands, along with consideration being given to both upgrades and new machine senarios.

We’ve discussed DAWBench a number of times over the years with the last time being our start of year round up. As this is a quick test to see how the new chips hold up, if you’re not already up to speed, may I suggest checking out the last time we visited this and it should give you a quick grounding before we dive in.

You can find that testing round here.

Fully caught up?

Ok. Then lets begin.

Give the image below a click and you can see our test results.

August 1015 DPC Chart

So this time around we’re testing 2 CPU’s with those being the i5 6600K and the i7 6700K. This time we’ve benched them in two different states where the lower clock speed is CPU at stock clocks with the turbo locked on at 100% of the advertised turbo clock speed and the second test shows the CPU in question being overclocked up to 4.4GHz setting that we supply our systems at.

When the overclock option is selected it should allow us to see what sort of difference the overclocking process can make, which in turn shouldl also help measure us measure the new chips against some of the older CPU scores where we’ve also worked with similar overclock figure. Also be aware we keep our overclocks on workstations rather minimal choosing to get the best out of chip, rather than push it to its limits.

This means that we don’t ramp up the voltages and generate the heat that comes with higher overclocks often seen on the gaming systems, which also have fast fans and noisey cooling in order to compensate, which of course would be completely unacceptable in a recording studio environment.

Starting with the i5, well it pretty much returned the performance levels matching the older 4790K chip, with a small performance boost showing up at the very tightest buffer settings, which admittedly is always a very welcome bonus. As a new replacement for the older chip, well it keeps the value the same whilst giving you access to the other benefits of the platform, so as a new build these should all prove most welcome additions, although as an upgrade from an older i5 it’s going to be harder to justify.

Of course if you are looking to upgrade in the midrange then the i7 option will possibly make more sense anyhow and this is where it gets a bit more interesting. The good news here is that we see both a slight power saving over the older 4790K with roughly 10% more performance increase clock for clock over that older 4790K, which was best performance crown around the midrange until the launch of these new chips.

As I’ve already touched upon briefly, Skylakes main selling point has been the other features it introduces to the mainstream. The boards we’ve seen are offering more M.2 slots which in themselves offer transfer speeds in excess of 4 times those speeds seen on current SSD’s. Some boards are also offering the ability to hybrid RAID them PCIe based add in cards too, meaning that if your tempted then this platform will offer up some truely amazing data transfer speeds that could transform your time in the studio if you work with large sample libaries and templates like some VSL users.

Additionally USB 3.1 and USB type C are now native to the Z170 chipset and this standard is only going to to grow over coming years, so early adoptors, this is your platform. It’s also the first time we’ve seen DDR4 in a mainstream setup and for those working with video editing on the side, the extra bandwidth will prove beneficial to some extent. AVX 2 instruction improvements to CPU’s may also prove beneficial to multimedia applications in the future, although these tend to impact CAD & Video software mostly, some plug in manufacturers or even DAW coders may eventually chose to leverage these instruction set improvements in the future.

All this as far as building a new machine is concerned is great as any improvement for your money is always going to be a good thing. For those looking to upgrade older machines however, the small incremental improvements mean that anyone who currently owns a CPU from Ivybridge upwards is going to be hard pressed to get a justifiable upgrade by going for a more modern equivalent although the are certainly some improvements are there if your hand is forced into a new setup due to aging hardware reaching the end of its lifecycle.

For those users with more recent machines however that do require an upgrade path, the X99 platform offers a very attractive upgrade option right now, offering a solid bang per buck for those needing more performance from their system. Also worth noting is that with the extra cost caused by the Z170 platform moving to DDR4 and indeed DDR4’s ever decreasing price points, the enthusiasts X99 setups are now starting to reach price points less than a hundred pounds more than the mid-range brethren.

This all means that the X99 may offer many users more value for money overall long term and should certainly be considered by anyone considering a new studio solution at this time, if they are looking to get the longest lifespan they can from a new machine setup.

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Scan Audio Workstation PC Benchmarks 2015

Click here to view the 2016 update.

Time for our 2015 benchmarking update so that we can see how the performance figures are sitting currently for any users thinking of upgrading or replacing their DAWs this year and as our last round up was back in June 2013 this is certainly overdue. The reason for the delay and this having been on the cards for quite while now, is that between our last group test and start of this testing cycle the DAWBench suite itself has had a sizable overhaul under the hood with a few crucial changes.

The ever faithful Reacomp itself has in this period has seen a full 64bit re-write along with a new round of compiler testing thanks to the ever helpful Justin over at Reaper and in light of that we’ve seen the test reconfigured, to allow for the large number of tracks we’re seeing the newer platforms generate.

These changes under the hood however make our older test results invalid for comparison and as such resulted in us needing to do a completely new group test reound up, in order to ensure a fair and level playing field.

The testing done here is using the DAWBench DSP Universal 2014 build found over at DAWBench.com where you can find more in depth information on the test itself. Essentially it is designed around using stacked instances of a convolution reverb to put high loads on to the CPU and give a way of comparing the performance levels of the hardware at hand. Real world performance of VSTi’s varies from plug in to plug in, so by restricting it to a dedicated plug-in we have a constant test to apply across all the hardware we can generate a set of results to compare the various chipsets and CPUs available.

To keep the testing environment fair and even, we use the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 USB interface in all testing. Through our own in house testing we’ve established that this is a great performing solution for the price and in easy reach for new users wanting to make music. Whilst more expensive interfaces may offer better performance the important point in testing is to ensure we have a stable baseline and users of higher grade interfaces may find themselves receiving suitably scaled up performance at each of these buffer settings.

Scan 2015 DPC chart

 

  • Click to expand the DPC Chart

So taking a look at the chart the first thing to note if we’re working from the bottom upwards we see the inclusion of “U” series CPUs for the first time. The ultrabook class CPU’s are designed for lower power & low heat usage situations and found in some high end tablets and seem to be appearing in a lot of low end sub £500 laptop designs and NUC style small form factor designs currently. The 4010U itself is very common at this time, with this type of chip itself being aimed squarely at the office & recreational user on the go, making it perfect for doing some word processing or watching a movie although leaving it rather lacking in raw processing capability for those wishing to produce on the go. It does however stand up to being a suitable solution for putting together a multi-track and basic editing before saving type of setup if you require something for multi-tracking on the go with a little more capability than a more basic multi-track hard disk recorder.

Above it is the X58 stalwart i7 930 which was one of the more popular solutions from the very first “i” generation of CPU’s and one a lot of people are possibly quite familiar in more studio use as it did represent a sizable leap in performance on its launch over the older Core series of CPU. As such it is included as a good benchmark to see how the performance has improved over the last five years of processor advancement.

Next up is the other mobile solution on the chart. The i7 4710MQ is a quad core mid to high end laptop CPU solution and one of the most common chips found in laptops around the £1000 mark. Whilst it has a few more CPUs above it in the range, they have only marginal clock speed jumps and the price does raise up quite rapidly as you progress through the models meaning that the 4710MQ offers the best mobile performance bang per buck at this time and that has made it popular current option in this segment. Coming in around the same performance levels as the i7 2600k CPU which was the top of the range mid level solution a few years ago, it offers a decent performance level out on the road for when you need to take your studio with you.

The two AMD solutions are the top of the range for AMD currently. Historically over the past few years AMD has been falling behind in the performance stakes when it comes A/V applications and whilst the current CPU’s look to offer reasonable bang for buck at the price points they hit, the continued high power draw of the platform makes it less than ideal for cooling quietly which remains a large concern for most recording environments.

The 2600K & 3770K are both two more CPUs included as legacy benchmarks with both of them having been top of the mid-range segments in their respective generations. The 3770K was the replacement when the 2600K was discontinued and once more both are included to show the progression in performance increasing over the last few generations.
Coming back to the more current solutions both the i3 and i5 ranges from Intel have always been aimed more at the office and general purpose machine market with the i5’s often being the CPU of choice in the gaming market where GPU performance is often prized over raw CPU. The i3 4370 on the chart once the setup is assembled comes in cheaper than the AMD options and whilst running cooler offers poor performance to price returns for audio users. The i5 also comes in around the same price point as the AMD setups listed and once again it slightly under performs the AMD chip options but runs far cooler and quieter overall trading off a small bit of performance for being a more suitable package overall where the noise levels are a crucial consideration.

This takes us up to the upper midrange and quite possibly the most popular option for the home studio segment in the shape of the i7 series. The 4790S edition is the lower powered revision that is a popular choice in our passive case solutions, the performance hit is minimal as it is still capable of running at its 4GHz turbo clock speed in a well laid out case. Its big brother the fully unlocked “K” edition CPU above also runs well at its 4.4GHz on all cores turbo clock setting and can be pushed further with a bit of careful tweaking of the voltages, making it the best cost to performance solution in the midrange if not the best bang per buck overall.

Above the midrange we move on to what is commonly regarded as the enthusiast segment and one which we find prove popular in studio installs where the extra processing performance and memory capabilities can be made very good use of. Given the X99 platform has double the number of memory slots and is capable of using the higher performance DDR4 memory standard, this makes it the ideal platform for film and TV scoring work or any other type of work that is relying upon larger sound banks and higher quality audio libraries and are both good reasons on why this platform has become popular with studios.

The three current chips in this segment are the 5820K, 5930K and 5690X. The first of those two are 6 core (with hyperthreading) solutions with little to differentiate between them other than an increase in PCI-E lane support and bandwidth when using the 5930K. Whilst critical for high bandwidth video processing solutions the lack of PCI-e bandwidth doesn’t tend to impact audio users and both CPU’s overclock to similar levels, making the cheaper solution a respectable choice when putting together a 6 core setup.

The top of the range 8 core 5960X tops our chart with an astounding set of results especially if you choose to overclock it. The pricing on this CPU solution scales along with the performance level up from the midrange choices, but for those users pushing the limits processing wise, it still offers a great performance to cost ratio over the next bracket up which is the systems based around Xeon CPUs.

So lastly we’re on to the power house Xeon solutions are based around server grade hardware which allows a lot of memory and dual CPU configurations to be offered. Whilst popular in the past the cost and and limited benefits of the current Xeon platform and indeed sheer power offered by the more common desktop CPUs have made the Xeon solutions less popular overall.

The downsides of this platform is the lack of overclocking support and the reliance of using the more expensive EEC registered memory, although the trade off there is that if you absolutely require a lot of memory with 128GB options already available and 256GB option forthcoming, the really is no other platform more suitable for memory intensive work such as VSL, as that EEC memory standard allows you to use more higher capacity sticks on these server boards that are already flush with far more memory slots than their smaller desktop siblings.

Unfortunately along with the lack of overclocking, these CPU solutions will have a bigger impact on your budget than their more consumer oriented versions, meaning that you have to spend a lot more on server grade motherboard and memory sticks themselves in order to match performance wise what can be done with the 6 and 8 core solutions mentioned previously. On the other hand lately we’ve starting to see 14 & 16 core solutions come through and given that a pair of those can be placed in the system with the aforementioned large amounts of RAM, users of packages who do need as much performance as possible as least have this option to consider pursue when only the most powerful system will be able to do the job in hand. Hopefully we’ll be able to see some of those core heavy solutions in an update later in the year.

3XS Pro Audio System Solutions

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 Fireface UCX

Ever imagined what would happen if you put a Fireface UFX, a Fireface 400, Fireface UC and a Babyface in a blender?
Well actually, that would make a hell of a lot of expensive unusable mess, however, if you combined the best features of all three units, then you’d come up with the RME Fireface UCX. Initally, it does look very similar to the Fireface 400, but as you look closer, the differences start to appear.

 

Dual USB / Firewire Interfaces
RME will not stray too far from the rather excellent job that they did getting both ports working on the UFX, so we could have expected a DAWBench LLP score of about 7.5 (out fo 10) on firewire (7.4 on usb), which has been the highest score for a non-pcie interface so far. I say could, because during the re-design of the converter circuits, they’ve managed to slash the latency of the stages to a quarter of that found on the UC and Fireface 400. I think i can go on record now and say that this, with the custom programmed USB and Firewire controller chip from the UFX and the amazingly low latency converter circuit, this DEFINATLY WILL outperform the UFX and take the title of Best External Low Latency Interface. I did hear a rumour that the two guys who write the driver software for RME are in fact two ultra-competitve German brothers, one of which does the Windows ones and one who does Mac. If this is true, then its probably the best ever application of sibling rivalry that i’ve ever heard.

 RME Fireface UCX Features:

Connectivity

  • 8 x Analog I/O
  • 2 x Mic/ Line Preamps, digitally controlled
  • 2 x Line / Instrument inputs, digitally controlled
  • 1 x SPDIF I/O coaxial
  • 1 x ADAT I/O (or 1 x SPDIF I/O optical)
  • 1 x Word Clock I/O
  • 2 x MIDI I/O (via breakout cable)
  • 1 x FireWire 400
  • 1 x USB 2.0 (USB 3 compatible)


2 Mic Preamps
The mic preamps have been upgraded to the ones from the Micstacy & UFX and there’s not a gain knob in sight, as they are now digitally controlled and monitored from the Totalmix FX software, which also controls the 48V phantom power for each channel. The Clip-Proof “Autoset” function automatically and intelligently (based on program material) turns down a hot recording without the use of a limiter and associated increase in noise floor that brings. The preamps also handle the two line level and two high impedence instrument inputs in the same way. Of course, this is RME, so you can actually turn the autoset fuction off if you desire.

Totalmix UCX

 

Sound Quality
So, the news is that the converter circuits have had a re-design and reveal that it looks like it’s had a tweak from the 113dBA Fireface 400, but just a smidgen off the 118dBA D to A’s of the UFX, coming in at a very respectable 114dBA.  with a THD+N score of -98db. RME also has kept it’s excellent Steadyclock with jitter reduction circuitry. It has also made the driver asyncronus over USB, so the interface is able to use the internal clock as master. The Wordclock output can also be used to sync up your other digital devices too.The unit works up to 192k sample rate (cue arguments over whether you should record at anything over 96k), although it does (as with all units) reduce the number of channels on the ADAT input, from 8 at 48k to just 2 at 192k.

 

Remote Monitor Control

RME Basic Remote

The RME Fireface UCX also comes bundled with a remote control that has more than a passing resemblence to a babyface (less money spent on mouldings = more money spent on circuit dev eh?). This provides volume control to the RME Fireface UCX as well as a couple of assignable buttons (talkback?)

You can also upgrade the remote to the Advanced remote control, that would add another six extra assignable buttons above the volume knob.

 

 

USB Class Compliancy

ok, move along, nothing to see here……. well, unless (like me) you’ve got an iPad.
Its been well known that for a while, iPad’s have been able to access class compliant USB audio devices by means of the Apple Camera Connector Kit.
This little converter dongle sticks into the charging port on the bottom of the pad and has a USB socket on the other side. We’ve had great fun sticking USB valve preamps, Microphones and Guitar leads into it, but what we’ve not yet seen is any multichannel options…. untill now.

The RME Fireface UCMusic Studio On IpadX can be quickly switched into CC mode with a quick turn of the front panel selection dial and then becomes a 8 channel interface for the iPad, (well, as long as you are running ios 5, which brought in the multichannel function)

Unfortunatly only a couple of programs can make use of the multiple inputs so far, notably “Multitrack DAW” and “Music Studio”, though you would think that a garageband update must be immenent. All programs that have a record audio function can make use of channels 1&2 on input and output.

The other nice little trick up their sleeves in the fact that you can set up a couple of totalmix FX presets on your computer beforehand that can be accessed in CC mode, such as putting compression and reverb on a vocal channel for recording and latency free monitoring.

 

 

 

Differences RME Fireface UCX to Fireface UC/400

RME Fireface UCX RME Fireface UC/400
DSP hardware effects yes
Support for RME Remotes yes
AD/DA Conversion New 2011 design
Low latency AD/DA Conversion yes
AutoSet for overload protection yes
Bus-powered operation Fireface 400

 

 

Differences RME Fireface UCX to RME Fireface UFX

RME Fireface UCX RME Fireface UFX
Inputs 18 30
Outputs 18 30
Analog I/Os 8 12
Advanced Parallel Conversion 4 x
AES/EBU I/O 1 x
SPDIF I/O 1 coaxial + 1 optical
(opt. = ADAT I/O)
1 optical
(2nd ADAT I/O)
ADAT I/O 1 x 2 x
Mic Preamps (digitally controlled) 2 x 4 x
Word Clock I/O (BNC) yes yes
Phones Outputs (dedicated) 1 x 2 x
High Resolution Color Display yes
MIDI I/O 2 x 2 x
Internal DSP hardware effects yes yes
AutoSet for Mic/Inst. Preamps 4 x 4 x
RME Remote Support yes yes
Direct USB Recording yes
Size 1/2 19 inch 19 inch
All TotalMix FX features at up to 192 kHz yes yes
SMUX (up to 192 kHz) yes yes
Complete Stand Alone Operation with Setup Recall yes yes
USB & FireWire support (X-Core) yes yes

 

Conclusion
It seems like RME have got an absolute cracker of an interface here, the low latency performance will set the mark for external interfaces and the class compliant mode will open the door to a whole new hoard of RME fans.

 

Manufacturers please take note…. This is how to make an interface


Please go over to RME and check out all the details as there’s far too much for me to cover here.

The first shipment of the RME Fireface UCX should be available from Scan in the next few weeks, Priced just under a grand.

UCX Webpage

RME Website

The Scan Computers RME Fireface UCX Product Page

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.

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