Tag Archives: Intel

Casting an eye over the Intel i7 Skylake X editions.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone up to speed? Then let us begin.

The Long Hot Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit The Bench

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

7800K CPU-Z 4 @ 4.4GHz

7800X CPUZ test

7800K Geekbench 4 @ 4.4GHz

Geekbench 4 7800K

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

7820K CPU-Z 4 @ 4.3GHz

i7 7820X CPUz

7820K Geekbench 4 @ 4.3GHz

7820X Geek4

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

Hold the DAW

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

Skylake i7 Dawbench 4

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

7900x DawbenchVi

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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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.

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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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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

Scan Pro Audio Day, Bolton – 25th Febuary

Scan Audio DayYup, its that time agin to hold another audio day in our Bolton showroom. It’s on from 11am till 3pm and is, as always free to attend.

This time we’ve got a masterclass from Mashup king and Foreign Beggars & Beardyman producer Stereo:Type with loads of trade secrets, as well as your chance to get hands on with some of the latest kit and of course a prize draw, which at the last audio day in November ended up being a Native Instruments Traktor S2!

Please click here to sign up as places are limited.
Please click here to sign up as places are limited.

Full lineup as follows….

11.00am  Ableton 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 including live recording.
12.00pm  Soundcards & Audio Interfaces
Tom from “The Autobots” talks about soundcards. Which is the best for you? And How do we go about testing them? How do you know how good they are?
1.00pm  Guitar Rig 5 session
Steve Fairclough recreating ‘Classic’ guitar tones with Guitar Rig 5
2.00pm  Ableton Live Master class
Stereo: Type presents a Producers masterclass with Ableton Live.
3.00pm  Prize Draw !

Choosing A Custom PC For Music Production

The requirements of a PC for music production.

So you’ve decided to power your studio with a new PC for music production but where do you start with it? Why exactly would you choose to build your own music PC or order a custom system over a standard off the shelf solution?

To answer that we have to distil the requirements of what is required from a music PC system and we find that for most people the 3 key requirements are stability, performance and silence.

Stability is an obvious must for a production studio music PC. The is nothing worse than being in a recording session and watching a few hours of your bands performance or the last hours worth of sound design disappearing into the digital ether because of a system being overloaded and rebooting whilst being pushed a bit too hard.

Performance in the audio system field always comes down to “more is more” and more power under the hood of your production system will result in more plug ins, more audio channels and more options when you are recording and mixing your music in the studio.

This leaves us with the third requirement which is silence. If you’ve ever tried recording in a space which has a noisy music PC  nearby and it’s fans have been screaming away then it’ll no doubt make recording music a very tricky process as those sensitive mic’s tend to pick up this type of irritating background noise. Also when your mixing down you need to be fully focused on the mix, and having a low level background noise will clutter up the frequencies you perceive which in turn will make getting the levels right far harder than it needs to be.

The three all balance themselves out when trying to build the perfect recording and editing music PC and should be thought about carefully if your building yourself.

Overclocking and getting the most from your music PC.

With the last few generations of CPU’s overclocking has moved out of the enthusiasts market segment and become almost de rigueur for those wishing to get their moneys worth from any new production studio setup and whilst it’s hard to argue against this course of action when even Intel and AMD have started to use this as a feature when marketing their CPU’s, it is however important to consider the consequences and how it’ll trade off against the other two factors in our music PC production system trinity.

If we look at the benchmark’s we have produced here we see that over clocked performance can lead to 30% or more performance boosts on the current generation music PC setups over stock scores even at reasonably safe levels of pushing the audio production system. You tend to find that when overclocking you have a fair amount of headroom before you have to start raising the voltages from stock levels which is where the problems arise. Indeed you may even find that at stock speeds you may be able to drop the voltage levels the system uses whilst it’s running which can prove quite worth while.

Why is that?

Heat.

Heat is the result of increased performance and in turn it affects both stability and silence. Run more voltage through the setup and the music computer system runs hotter, although if you can run with less voltage you’ll find the reverse and less heat being generated. Most music computer system setups will tend to have a sweet spot where the CPU will run on still fairly close to stock voltages whilst still being nicely over clocked but should you attempt to push it even 1% past this sweet spot you’ll need a large jump in voltages to hold it steady, which will in turn cause more heat and either make your music PC very noisy as the fans ramp up or a loss in performance as it overheats and throttles the chips back.

Consider the whole system when choosing parts.

So stability and overclocking aside choosing a good selection of components in a audio production system can be a very wise move. We’ve all seen computer systems where corners have been cut and BSOD’s tend to occur and the PC platform can be a bit notorious for this but it can be avoided. Careful research of the components being used in a music PC system can ensure less headaches down the road and it’s never wise to cut corners in these regards.

In fact just as an example its the parts that people don’t tend to think about that can have the most impact and one of the most overlooked one’s can be the PSU which is pretty much the key to a good stable audio system having a long trouble free working life. PSU’s vary wildly in price even at the same overall performance levels and research is highly advised because that cheaper unit might be noisy, or worse it might not have stable voltages on the rail supplying your motherboard or sound card solution meaning at best they might hang randomly or at worse even burn out from fluctuations. Good motherboards and PSU’s will regulate the power well and have more protection built in but these will cost extra, although the first time you see a £30 PSU burn out half a PC from a power spike you suddenly realize that the £70 investment in a PSU unit that would have had an protection circuit or two to protect everything else wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all.

So this takes us onto the silence part of the equation. This can be ignored to some degree if your lucky enough to have a isolation cupboard for the music system, or even able to position it in another room away from your recording and mixing setup.

This however can be a critical factor for those who are not so lucky although the good news is that with a bit of thought and planning you can put together a music PC system that isn’t going to ruin your working environment. Choosing a case with a good effective front to back air flow can help a lot and the are many quiet options available now with good solid construction and sound proofing as standard.

Choosing your fan selection well with a trade off between sound levels and air pressure being the foremost concern can mean the difference between whisper quiet and screaming annoyance so once again it’s very important to read up on your options before choosing a final audio system specification. You have to bare in mind at this point that overclocking add’s heat and heat will cause instability if left unchecked which can be a reasonable arguement not to overclock music PC’s that need to be simply fitted and relied on to work day in and day out. Faster fans solve this issue but cause more overall noise so getting the sweat spot between the 3 is the key to getting the most out of your new studio PC.

In fact if your building your own music production system then good research is the key and the are many great sites out there to guide you through the process of selecting, building and even trouble shooting your new studio PC. That said even if you go and purchase a custom audio PC solution it’s worth researching the parts going in the music system yourself so that your aware of any potential issues that may exist with the kit already in your recording studio setup.

We test and develop our solutions here with all this in mind, so wheather your looking to spec up and purchase a new audio production system or even build your own you can speak to us and we can advise you on the best solution for your requirements if your buying parts to self build or tailor a complete music system solution that is right for you.

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

64 Bit Computing for Windows Musicians



This is an important decision that you need to make when choosing your new pc, not only for your operating system, but also for your DAW software.

32 bit systems are limited to 4gb of memory in theory (in reality its between 3-3.5gb that windows can actually use). While this might sound a lot, every time you open up a plugin or virtual instrument, it uses memory.

When you start looking at sample based instruments, such as orchestral libraries these can easily load gigs of sounds into memory.

64 Bit systems can run 32 bit programs, but each application can only use 4gb of memory.
This is currently a popular choice, as most DAW’s come with 32 and 64 bit versions that can be installed at the same time.

64 Bit issues (and how to get round them)
64 Bit Sequencers cannot use 32 bit plugins or instruments.
Whilst many manufacturers are now producing 64bit versions of thier plugins and instruments, if you do switch to a 64 bit DAW, you will probably be left with plugins that you cannot use.
Many DAW’s, such as Steinberg Cubase 6 have built in “bridges” that try to make them work, but they only seem to work for some plugins.
Cubase’s bridge mode also limits you to 4gb of memory for all of the bridged plugins.

J Bridge working with Kontakt 3
J Bridge working with Kontakt 3

J-Bridge

The best soulution to this that we have found is a piece of software called Jbridge ( €14.99)

Jbridge is about 95% compatible, and has a number of options to get problems plugins to work.  Jbridge lets you use 4gb of memory per plugin.

 

 

REWIRE

The second issue  is that rewire will not work in 64 bit daw’s.
“Rewire” channels are  virtual midi and audio connections to and from your daw to (predominantly) Propellerhead Reason or Ableton Live programs.

A work-around to this issue is a plugin called Rewire VST (€19.00)

This provides one stereo and six mono audio channels into your DAW (plus midi control).
Whilst this is no way near the 64 possible connections that rewire normally offers, it does mean that you can run a handful of reason or ableton instruments alongside your 64bit DAW.