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[TUTORIAL] - How to build and optimize a PC for audio

Discussion in 'Backline' started by Damian B, Jul 27, 2011.

  1. Damian B

    Damian B ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    Introduction

    Hello! This is a tutorial for building a custom PC for audio. I will explain why I chose the parts I did, what I would have done differently had I had more cash, how to physically build it, BIOS tweaks, and lastly, how to optimize the PC for audio engineering. As far as credentials go, I've worked for a computer repair company for 7 years, and have built a shit-ton of computers.

    So, let's begin! :D

    I use a site called Newegg to order all my parts. I don't know if they ship to Europe, but they are by far the best parts company in the US, hands down. Great support, fast shipping, etc!

    For this build I decided to go with an AMD Six-Core system, instead of Intel. I know some may question that decision, but there are several reasons:

    1) I was on a strict budget
    2) Reaper has fantastic multiple core support, so it will utilize all 6-cores efficiently
    3) I have a soft spot for AMD

    Here is the part list:

    • AMD Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition Thuban 3.2GHz Socket AM3 125W Six-Core Desktop Processor
    • Kingston HyperX 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Desktop Memory
    • ASRock 770 EXTREME3 AM3 AMD 770 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX AMD Motherboard
    • APEX AL-D500EXP 500W ATX12V Power Supply
    • Galaxy 43GGS8HX3SPZ GeForce GT 430 (Fermi) 1GB 128-bit DDR3 PCI Express 2.0 x16 HDCP Ready Video Card
    • Crucial M4 CT064M4SSD2 2.5" 64GB SATA III MLC Internal Solid State Drive (SSD)
    • Western Digital Caviar Blue WD5000AAKX 500GB 7200 RPM SATA 6.0Gb/s 3.5" Internal Hard Drive
    • APEX Vortex 3620 SGCC / ABS ATX Mid Tower Gaming Computer Case

    The total was $652.00 USD - not too shabby.

    Explanantion of the Parts

    Motherboard - I went with an ASRock motherboard. ASRock is a cheaper subdivision of the brand ASUS, and they make pretty good parts. I've had a few arrive DOA over the years, but all in all they are a great cheap board, and kick the pants off of brands like ECS and BIOSTAR. This board features SATA 6GB/s (compared to SATA II, which is 3GB/s), USB 3.0, and the ability to use 16GB of RAM. It's a full sized ATX board. I would not bother with a Micro-ATX board in a studio build - it's nice to have the ability to add PCI cards and whatnot later.

    RAM - I went with 8GB of Kingston RAM. Speed is important here, and if you can afford it, go with the fastest speed your board can support. The ASRock board supports DDR 1600 speed. Some boards will overclock and support 1800 or 2200, but they are more expensive and were out of my price range.

    Power Supply - I went with a well rated power supply that was 500 watts. It's very important to have adequate power for your components. Since I bought a graphics card, am using 2 hard drives, and will be powering some USB stuff, I bought a 500 watt. 300-350 is that standard on a shitty store bought machine, to put it in comparison.

    Processor - I've already explained this some, but I chose to go with AMD because Reaper's multi-core support is great and will utilize all 6-cores efficiently. From what I've read, Cubase and Protools don't do as well with this (especially in older versions). A viable alternative here is the Intel i5-2400. It's a little bit more expensive, and only a quad-core, but you can take advantage of triple-channel memory (versus dual-channel in the AMD build).

    Hard Drives - I chose to use a solid state drive for the OS, and a 500GB 7200rpm drive for data. The crucial drives get the best reviews in the ~$100 price range, so I went with them. 64GB isn't a lot, but it's enough for Windows, Reaper, plugins and a few games.

    Case - The case I bought was only $35, but it was the best budget case I have ever used. Most cheap cases have flimsy sheet metal and sharp edges, but this one was sturdy and nicely painted on the inside. It also has 4 USB ports (USB 2.0) on the front, as well as an eSATA jack. Highly recommended.
     
  2. Damian B

    Damian B ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    Building the PC

    Okay, let's build this thing!

    The parts:
    [​IMG]

    First, install the power supply. The fan should be situated downward towards the motherboard. 4 screws are used to attach it to the back of the case. After, install the backplate that comes in your motherboard box. The case will most likely have a stock one already, but it will not match up with your motherboard. The backplate is below the fan in this picture.
    [​IMG]

    Next, open the bag of screws that come with the case and find the motherboard mounts. They screw into the side of the case, and have holes to screw the motherboard into. You will need to take your board out of the packaging to see how many holes there are and where they are located. Once you install the mounts it will look like this:
    [​IMG]

    Now, mount your board. It should fit over your mounts - also, make sure the ports on the board match up to your backplate.
    [​IMG]

    I like to do the processor next. First, lift the lever/arm. You will see a small arrow in the corner of the CPU socket. This matches up with the arrow on the CPU itself. The CPU only goes in one way, and it should just drop in. Very little pressure should be applied. DO NOT EVER force the CPU in the socket. If you bend the pins on the CPU (this only applies to AMD processors - Intel processors have the pins on the board, but the same concept applies), you will be fucked. See the arrow below:
    [​IMG]

    Here you can see the CPU mounted onto the board:
    [​IMG]

    Now you must attach you heatsink. This distributes and removes heat from the CPU. The stock heatsink will have thermal paste already applied. AMD heatsinks have two clips that clip down onto the mount on the board. Once those are on, move the black lever over to lock down the heatsink. Plug in the 4-pin power connector to the board. It will look like this when finished:
    [​IMG]

    Next, install your memory. Each board is different, but refer to the manual to see which slots enable dual channel operation (or triple channel if you're using an i5 or i7). On this board, it was the first two. Other boards, for example, require installation in slots 1 and 3. Memory only goes in one way, so pay attention to the slot on the bottom and don't force anything. It will take some pressure to install the RAM, though.
    [​IMG]

    Next I installed the solid state drive. These are 2.5" (notebook) sized drives, so an adapter piece is needed to fit it in a standard 3.5" slot.
    [​IMG]

    Here are both drives installed. Put the drives directly in front of the 120mm fan at the front of the case. You will see in the picture that there are 3 slots above where I mounted the drive, but the drives will not get adequate airflow if mounted there.
    [​IMG]

    Next I installed the graphics card into the PCI express slot. It only goes in one way, easy easy!
    [​IMG]

    This is probably the hardest part about building a PC. The case has a bunch of cables for the front USB, audio, power button, reset button and LEDs. The red arrow below shows where the power, reset and LEDs all plug in. The USB and audio ports on the board will be labeled. Refer to your motherboard manual to see how the front panel cables plug in. It's not that difficult, but if you don't read where it is it can be hard to find.
    [​IMG]

    Audio goes here:
    [​IMG]
     
  3. Damian B

    Damian B ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    A 3-pin case fan goes here:
    [​IMG]

    Here is the other side of the case (the board is mounted onto here). As you can see I have run the front panel cables along the back as to not clutter the inside of the case. The SATA cables for the hard drives also go back here. This eliminates cable-clutter inside the case and allows for better airflow.
    [​IMG]

    My Lacie Firewire card hadn't come yet, so I didn't get a picture... but it goes here, in a PCI slot.
    [​IMG]

    Next, plug in the power supply and SATA cables. The board will require a 24-pin connector, and a 4 or 8-pin 12 volt connector. Each drive will require a power connector. Most importantly, when you are done hooking everything up, zip-tie your cables to ensure proper airflow.
    [​IMG]
     
  4. Damian B

    Damian B ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    IMPORTANT

    Cable management and proper airflow are extremely important, and can dramatically influence the life of your components, especially your hard drives. I have a 120GB drive that has lasted almost 5 years in my regular desktop - I contribute this most to the fact that the case has good cooling and I clean out the dust once every couple of months.

    Another note on fans: I prefer 120mm fans because they are quieter than 80 or 90mm. You want an intake in the front to blow cool air on the hard drives. You want an exhaust in the back to create a current through the machine. If you choose to install fans in the side of the case, make them intake fans to blow cool air on the board. If you get a nicer case that has a spot for a fan on top, make it an exhaust (hot air rises)!

    DON’T SKIP ON COOLING! Fans are cheap, buy a ton of them. But, make sure to get quiet ones – after all, this is a studio PC.




    Booting Up

    So, everything is put together and it's time to install Windows. I went with a 64-bit edition of Windows 7. The 64-bit version of Reaper runs well, and is able to run 32-bit plugins natively without any extra software like JBridge.

    Assuming everything is put together correctly, the PC should start and you will see the splash screen. Press F2, Delete, or whatever key you have to press to get into the BIOS.

    When I opened the BIOS I noticed my 1600 speed RAM was running at 1333. This is apparently a common issue on this board. Nothing was wrong; the settings just had to be changed.
    [​IMG]

    The overclocking section of the BIOS had a section for RAM timings.
    [​IMG]

    I set the primary graphics adapter to PCI-express. This makes the display come on faster:
    [​IMG]

    This board has two different SATA controllers; one for SATA III operation (which I used for the hard drives), and one for SATA II, where I installed the CD-ROM drive. The SATA III controller needs to be set to AHCI, versus IDE. This allows for faster operation of the drive, and is recommended for this particular solid state drive. I left the SATA II controller on IDE.
    [​IMG]

    Installing Windows

    Installing windows is pretty easy, especially with Windows 7. Just boot off the CD and follow the directions. Windows 7 recognizes the Marvell SATA III controller automatically, so there is no need to install a separate driver. If you try to install windows and no hard drives are listed (but you can see them in the BIOS), you need to install the driver that's included on your motherboard CD. You can put it on a flash drive, or god forbid, a floppy disk.

    Windows 7 took about 18 minutes to install on this build :D
     
  5. Damian B

    Damian B ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    Optimizing Windows

    Here is a list of the things I did to optimize the machine for audio.

    First, go to power options in the Control Panel and switch the power plan from balanced to high performance. This will use more power, but you will get better performance out of the CPU and RAM, so fuck it!

    Next, we want to tell Windows to prioritize background services over running programs. This will improve the performance of audio drivers and plugins.
    1. Go to system in control panel
    2. go to advanced
    3. then performance
    4. check background services

    You will also want to disable search indexing - this slows down the drive.
    1. Go to start, run
    2. type "services.msc"
    3. find "windows search"
    4. set to "disabled"

    By default, Windows takes a section of the hard drive and turn it into “memory.” This is called the pagefile. By default it is located on the C: drive, but we want to move it since the SSD doesn’t have much space, and we don’t want it on the system drive. Since a build like this has 8GB of RAM, it’s unlikely the pagefile would be used anyway, so you could disable it altogether. To change settings, go to system, advanced, performance, advanced, and click change.

    Turn off hibernation – hibernation sucks and uses up hard drive space. Disable it by going to start, run, cmd, and typing “powercfg -h off”.

    Turn off User Account Control. Go to control panel and then user accounts. You will see the setting in there.

    You can disable onboard devices if you like. Sometimes the onboard audio can cause conflicts with your interface. Go into the BIOS and poke around to find the section with onboard devices. If you have trouble refer to the motherboard manual.

    Some say to disable Aero, but in my experience it doesn’t use that much of your system resources, and hell, I have 6-cores and 8GB of RAM to work with, so I left it alone.

    One last thing: if you are using a solid state drive, you want to make sure that TRIM is enabled on the drive. This allows windows to wipe unused sectors of the drive, improving read times and prolonging the life of the drive.
    1. Go to start, run
    2. type "fsutil behavior query DisableDeleteNotify"
    If the result is “0”, you know the drive has TRIM enabled.



    Final Notes

    So far this build runs quite well. I’ve recorded and mixed one session on it, and so far there haven’t been any hiccups. If I had a bit more cash I would have probably gone with an i5 or i7 processor, but I’m happy with 6-cores. And, despite loading up a fair number of CPU heavy plugins during this last session, the computer handled everything well.

    Hopefully this guide will show those that haven’t built a computer before that it isn’t too difficult, and you can save a lot of money too!

    Hit me up with any questions,
    Cheers
    -Damian
     
  6. sprack

    sprack Thread Killer

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    On your memory config, plug one stick in a blue slot and one in a white slot so you actually use both channels.

    In the case of using an aftermarket heatsink where you have to apply grease, make as thin a layer as possible. Any spillover onto the side of the processor slug acts as an insulator rather than a conductor of heat. You're just trying to fill in the microscopic imperfections between 2 surfaces making contact.

    Aero has a minuscule affect on system performance as all new DX10 and greater cards offload most of the compositioning work. Though you might have to turn if off for Cubase and the window-drag-refresh issue.
     
  7. AntonioPetrole

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    this was awesome! Makes me want to get a new computer
     
  8. Damian B

    Damian B ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    This board requires the RAM to be in the first two slots. Take a look at the "booting up" section and you will see that dual-channel operation is active.

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.
     
  9. Erik Monsonis

    Erik Monsonis Member

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    Thanks so much for this!! I'm planning on building a new machine soon and this comes handy as hell!
     
  10. sprack

    sprack Thread Killer

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    You are correct. My apologies. That's unusual.

     
  11. updog

    updog Member

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    Nice one! This should be a sticky
     
  12. Ruins

    Ruins is zayebated

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    this is really useful thread! i gave up on keeping my self up todate for over 8 years now i simply lost my interest in this whole tweaking and messing with hardware shit.
    i literally have no clue what is going on on the market right now but this thread just give me a little perspective about my future purchases :D

    how about system noise? i mean ground issues, would/can you recommend anything?
     
  13. Sloan

    Sloan Sounds like shit!

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    I myself would like more software optimizations. I feel like there's more that can be done in Windows 7, but I haven't found a good writeup about it. I've disabled a lot of services, and I used to habitually edit menu speed in XP so it's instant, instead of waiting like 500ms. Since this is my primary pc, there are a lot of services and features that I have to keep on, but for a dedicated machine, you could go crazy disabling useless shit.
     
  14. Damian B

    Damian B ¯\(°_o)/¯

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    I'm in the middle of a session, but once I finish it I'll add some more optimization information. Disabling services can be useful, especially on an older machine, but honestly with 6-cores and 8gb of RAM, the Print Spooler isn't going to slow you down too much.
     
  15. Leon--

    Leon-- Member

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    man thanks a lot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
     
  16. Slemmu

    Slemmu Member

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  17. DigitalMetal

    DigitalMetal Building a Mini SSL

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    Good Guide for the first time builder to follow ;)

    just something worth mentioning here for anyone interested:

    Your power supply is probably the one most important component in a PC,
    DO NOT buy a cheap one.
    Get something that is at the very least 500W but more if you can, with multiple 12V rails and a big name brand for PSU's
    Personally i recommend TAGAN they are built as if they were military spec, inside and out, Or Corsair, Lian Li, Silverstone or any of the Enthusiast Pro Gaming variety.
    One of the biggest (but lesser known or quantifiable) causes of windows errors , BSOD's and crashes are inefficient power supplies.
    Quite often blamed on memory errors but most often is actually the PSU efficiency.

    A lot of motherboards recently have started to up their game with higher quality voltage regulation and solid Japanese Capacitors.

    In a PSU the Capacitors are the weakest link as many mass produced brands skimp on cheapo Chinese caps to keep the cost down.

    As a generalisation you should be spending at least £50 ($100 -ish) on a power supply, dont skimp on that one !

    Also although the OP built an AMD system because it suited their needs first timers or anyone wanting a more hassle free build really should go Intel, unless they have a good proven reason as to why they dont need to, And by that i mean intel CPU and intel chipset on your mother board.

    This biggest problem that has always existed with AMD builds is not actually the CPU's but the Chipset your motherboard has,
    When you go intel through and through they do just work well together off the bat.

    Because there are so many different chipset manufacturers for AMD CPU's there has always been a slightly tenuous relationship between the two and its room for problems to arise, and they often do.

    For this reason some DAW/Software manufacturers still dont properly support AMD builds Avid for example with ProTools.

    Thing may have improved more recently with the AMD/Nvidia relationship but still its a ball ache im sure some of you could do without.

    Just to try and tell you where im coming from,
    I too have designed/spec'd built a shit ton of PC's specifically for Audio Purposes in a professional capacity, I was the R&D Engineer for arguably the first Specific Pro Audio PC Manufacturer in Europe 11 years ago, We had systems gain "Certified for use with" status by Digidesign, Cakewalk, Steinberg and more and I have done plenty since then too, Ok thats enough whacking off :D

    A former colleague of mine has written a lot about PC optimization on his website here, http://www.pc-music.com/category/content-tags/articles
    Some of it may be useful to you for setting up Windows.
     
  18. AboutBlank

    AboutBlank Member

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    Nice tut!

    But ASRock?!
    Dunno if they stepped up there game but I(!) will never buy that mobo again, was a total nightmare in my first recording machine in regards of compatibility...
     

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