Studio computer, that is…
Optimizing your Windows computer for audio
If you read my “Roll Your Own (studio computer, that is)” article, you’ll remember I promised to talk later about setting up that computer for optimal audio performance. Even if you haven’t built your own machine, you’ll still want to optimize audio performance, so this is for you too.
Before we dive in, make a note of a few things:
- We’re talking about Windows. Macs and Linux boxes are different beasts.
- Screenshots here are from Windows 8. Instructions apply to both Windows 10 and Windows 7/8 machines, but your screens may look a little different.
- We’re assuming you’ve got your hardware set. If not, you can refer to “Roll Your Own” for some guidelines about specs (even if you’re not building it yourself). Most modern, good machines will work. 4GB RAM with a 2.5Ghz multi core processor would do.
- We’re just covering the system here, not setting up audio software.
- Finally, not everything is necessary, especially if your hardware is great, so you can use your judgement and adjust your settings to taste. Think of this as a list of things you CAN do, some of which you probably should.
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
We’ll start with the easiest stuff. First of all, make sure all your drivers are up to date, as well as your plugins and software (both audio and other). Outdated drivers especially can cause performance problems.
Next, uninstall unnecessary software. If your computer is ONLY for audio work, this can include Office products, accounting software, extra browsers – anything you don’t need. You can uninstall Windows components that aren’t necessary like games, or apps like extra music players, painting programs, etc. This really just saves space and distraction, but it’s a good start.
Next disable programs running in the system tray. These are the pesky items here:
Right click on those items and you should be able to find a settings section (you may have to actually open the program) where you can tell it not to run on start up. You don’t want to disable your virus protection or system critical applications, but you can trim the fat.
Next, defragment your hard drives, if they need it. The easiest way to get to this is open the control panel and put “defrag” in the search box. You should do this whenever that utility says the drives need it.
Next up, tweak your screen saver. Fancy screen savers take up resources. Disable it or set it to just turn off the screen. Increase the time so it doesn’t kick in while you’re recording. This can happen because Windows doesn’t consider audio activity “activity”, so you could be singing your heart out on that 10 minute rock opera, but if you’re not touching the mouse or keyboard, the screen saver could come on, cause a glitch, and ruin your life.
Next, disable system sounds. You don’t need extra dinging and binging, but more importantly these sounds can grab control of the sound device. Search for “sounds” in the control panel and click “change system sounds”. Pick “no sounds” from the system scheme dropdown.
Next tackle visual effects. Windows has some cool animations and transparencies which you don’t really need. They’re actually not that bad, but it could make some difference. Search for “visual effects” in control panel, and choose “adjust the appearance and performance of Windows”. It’s easiest just to pick “adjust for best performance”, but you can pick and choose which effects to keep.
Next, you could disable automatic Windows updates, or tell Windows to “check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them”, so that Windows updates aren’t running when audio should be prioritized. If you fully disable automated updates, be sure you remember to periodically check for updates manually. To do any of this, search for “Windows update” in the control panel. You can pick “turn automatic updating on or off” to change automation or “check for updates” to manually update.
Now look into your virus software. Disabling virus software is definitely not recommended, but you might be able to tell it when to do scans and otherwise tweak its behavior so as not to interrupt audio processing.
Next, if you’re not using it, consider disabling the onboard sound card. The onboard sound drivers don’t always play nice with other audio drivers, and to boot, they sometimes introduce noise into the system. Search for “device manager” in control panel, click “device manager”, find the sound device in the list, right click and pick “disable”. Note: I didn’t do this on my laptop, because I want that device working if I’m not in the studio with my interface. I did do it on my desktop.
Next up, if your system is a 64 bit system and your Windows is 64 bit (find out at control panel->system), AND your DAW has a 64 bit version AND your plugins are all 64 bit, run at 64 bit! This allows the software to access a lot more memory. Beware though, because 32 bit plugins generally don’t work in 64 bit DAWs, and vice versa. If you’re starting from scratch though, you might as well stay in 64 bit mode. You do this by simply installing and using the 64 bit version of your software.
Finally, consider using hardwired keyboard and mouse devices instead of Bluetooth (wireless) devices. Bluetooth communication can affect audio performance.
Here’s where the fun begins. By default, Windows is set up to balance between power saving and performance by doing things like putting the computer to sleep, throttling down the processor and other tricks. This is a great place to get a significant boost.
Go to control panel and search for “power options”. Click on “power options”. Start by picking “high performance” under “choose or customize a power plan”. Now click “change plan settings” to further tweak this plan. You’ll see two settings: “turn off the display” and “put the computer to sleep”. If you’re using a laptop, there will be an “on battery” option and a “plugged in” option. You can leave the “on battery” option alone to conserve power, but for “plugged in”, pick “never”. Next click “change advanced power settings”. Here you have a whole bunch of options.
For the plugged in options, use these settings:
- Hard disk: turn off hard disk after “never”.
- Desktop background settings: slide show, “paused”.
- Wireless adapter settings: power saving mode, “maximum performance”.
- Sleep: sleep after “never”. Hibernate after “never”.
- Intel CPCC energy efficiency settings: enable energy efficient operation, “disabled”. Energy efficiency aggressiveness 0%.
- USB settings: USB selective suspend setting, “disabled”.
- Graphics settings: graphics power plan, “maximum performance”.
- Processor power management: minimum processor state, “100%”. Maximum processor state, “100%”. If you do nothing else, do this. It prevents the processor from throttling down when it’s not active. It can take a long time to throttle back up when an audio process needs the processor.
- Display: turn display off after “never”.
- Multimedia: when sharing media, “prevent idling to sleep”. When playing video, “optimize video quality”.
Here’s a very advanced extra. Under “processor power management”, you probably DON’T see an option called “processor performance core parking min cores”. This is a feature which allows Windows to turn off (aka “park”) cores in a multi core processor to save power. This can affect performance because it takes time for the core to un-park. It’s turned on by default, and the option to change it is usually hidden, but you can just turn it off, which I’ll tell you how to do.
Warning, this is advanced stuff. Do not attempt if you’re not comfortable with advanced configuration and paying attention to detail. Even then, attempt at your own risk!
- Make sure the “high performance” scheme is selected in power options (you probably just did this).
- Click the Windows start button, and in the search window, type “cmd”, which should pull up “Command Prompt”.
- Right click on this and pick “run as administrator”.
- A command line window will appear. Type the following on one line:
powercfg –setacvalueindex scheme_current sub_processor bc5038f7-23e0-4960-96da-33abaf5935ec 100
- Hit enter and then type:
powercfg –setactive scheme_current
This will turn off core parking, but it won’t give you the new option in your power options window.
Besides power options, there are quite a few more things you can do boost audio performance. Try these on for size:
Processor scheduling: Search for “performance” in the control panel. Click on “adjust the appearance and performance of Windows” and go to the “advanced” tab. Under “choose how to allocate processor resources” select “background services”. Note: this is usually the better setting because most audio processing is done in the background, but there are times when it actually harms performance, so if you change this and notice a dip, change it back.
USB hub power: Search for “device manager” in control panel, go to device manager, scroll down and click on “Universal Serial Bus controllers”. There should be one or more items called “USB root hub” or similar (look for the words “root hub”). On those, right click and pick “properties”. Click on the “power management” tab and UNCHECK “Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power”.
While you’re in device manager, you can disable devices you don’t need, but be careful! Don’t disable a device if you don’t know what it is. In general, don’t disable devices in the IDE ATA/ATAPI controllers, processors, system devices, universal serial bus controllers or computer groups. Some devices that are usually safe to disable are batteries, Bluetooth, imaging, network adapters (wireless especially), sensors and sound, video and game controllers. Obviously you don’t want to disable devices you’re using (the network adapter, for example).
Don’t actually uninstall device drivers unless they’re for hardware that no longer exists in your system. Instead just right click and pick “disable”.
Drive properties: In windows explorer, right click on your hard drive, pick “properties” and uncheck “compress this drive to save space” and “allow files on this drive to have contents indexed in addition to file properties”. If you have an extra drive that’s JUST for storage and isn’t getting accessed by audio software, you can go ahead and use “compress this drive” to save some space.
Graphics card: Some graphics cards have a throttle setting much like the processor setting, which allows the card to throttle down when not in demand. This can cause the same problem of lag when it throttles back up. If you can, turn this setting off in your graphics card settings.
Page file settings: The page file is also known as the swap file. Basically it’s how Windows uses the hard drive as additional random access memory when it needs to. Windows dynamically chooses the size of this swap file unless you tell it not to. That dynamic sizing takes time, so while you’re still in the performance options window, tell it not to by going to the “advanced” tab. Under virtual memory, click “change”. Uncheck “automatically manage paging files size for all drives”. Next, for each of your drives, select “custom size” and enter in your desired initial and maximum size values. If your RAM is small, use about one and a half times the size of your RAM memory. Eg, if you have 4GB of RAM, use 6GB (6000MB). If you have more than 8GB of RAM, you probably don’t need a paging file that big. On my desktop, which has 16GB, I use a 6000MB paging file.
Finally, pay attention to things like backup software or other tasks that run regularly. Make sure they run when you’re not working on audio. You can use the task scheduler to dig into that further, but be careful. The task scheduler does a lot of necessary work and it’s a bit out of this article’s scope to dig into it.
If you have problems, or if you’d just like to get a bench mark before and after you do all this optimization, there are a couple of highly recommended (and free!) programs that can help you get a gauge on how your system is performing, what applications are hogging memory, and even which drivers might be causing issues.
LatencyMon is a free and thorough program that monitors latency issues and CPU load and reports on problematic drivers and software. You can find it here: www.resplendence.com/latencymon.
DPC Latency Checker is another similar tool. It’s a simpler tool which doesn’t point out problematic drivers and the like, but it’s great for checking whether your audio stream is getting interrupted. You can find it at www.thesycon.de/eng/latency_check.shtml.
Ok Go For It!
We’ve covered a lot here, but it shouldn’t take you long to make these adjustments. They’re foundational adjustments, and you’ll find yourself tweaking settings in your DAW and other software to taste, but you should be in a really solid place at this point. There are some other more advanced things I haven’t discussed, like spread spectrum, Nagle’s algorhythm and digging into Windows services and startup apps.
If you’d like to dig deeper, I highly recommend a free PDF download called “Glitch Free”, by Brad Robinson of Cantabile. Brad goes into great detail and gives wonderful background information on this topic. His book is one of the best resources on this topic I’ve come across. You can get the book for free (you don’t even have to sign up for anything) at www.cantabilesoftware.com/glitchfree.
Even if you don’t want to dive deep, you’ve got plenty here you can do to get your machine rock’n’roll ready. Have fun with your new computer!
I’m a singer, producer and recovering developer. I’ve built a lot of computers, but I love people more. Contact me on social media at @AaronJTrumm