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    Sound On Sound : Est. 1985

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    out...explain in some detai l the tweaks that work for musicians and why they do, as

    well as covering the ones that are unlikely to make any difference including

    those that are potentially dangerous unless you really know what you're doing.

    Some Windows History

    It's not hard to see why musicians search for tweaks for Windows XP after all, its predecessors (including

    Windows 95, 98, ME and 2000) often needed serious tweaking before audio applications would run smoothly

    with them. This was largely because most mainstream applications, such as those for word processing,accounts and Internet browsing, generally involve a burst of CPU activity followed by some idle time while the

    user considers what to do next, so it made the most sense for Windows to react as fast as it could to user

    input, but hang on until the idle times before updating files on the hard drive and so on. By contrast, musicians

    require from their PC almost continuous streaming of audio data, coupled with almost continuous CPU

    calculations for real-time plug-in effects and virtual instruments. In other words, mainstream applications focus

    on user input, while audio applications place far more emphasis on background tasks.

    By the time Windows XP was released, the 'multimedia' PC market was far more important to Microsoft, partly

    since PC games had become so much more popular and sophisticated, and partly because many businesses

    were perfectly happy with Windows NT or 2000. So it was important that XP be capable of delivering smooth3D graphics, background music and sound effects. Obviously, these enhanced capabilities benefited the


    Essential Tweaks

    Only a few basic changes are needed to ensure smooth audio performance with XP, so let's discuss them first.

    Change Processor Scheduling to 'Background Services'

    Navigate to the Advanced page of the System applet. Click on the Performance Settings button, select its

    Advanced tab and click on 'Background Services' for Processor Scheduling (see top pair of screens).

    For anyone using ASIO drivers (and nowadays that includes just about every PC

    musician), this is the most essential tweak of all, because ASIO drivers run as

    background services in Windows. Music software and hardware developers Steinberg

    rely on this setting to ensure low latency without dropouts, and you may be able to run

    your audio interface at a significantly lower latency after this tweak.

    Switch Off Power Schemes

    In the Power Options applet, choose the 'Always On' power scheme. Change thesettings for monitor and hard disk turn off and System standby to 'Never', so that your PC

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    This is one of the few

    essential Windows XP

    tweaks, since it

    benefits the

    performance of ASIO

    drivers, which run as

    background tasks.

    doesn't unexpectedly conk out during song playback (see screens below).

    The wrong setting here can cripple the processing performance of many modern PCs,

    because of over-clever power schemes that throttle your processor to a slower clock

    speed to keep it cool and, in the case of laptops, prolong battery life. In theory, such

    throttling schemes should let your CPU clock speed ramp up smoothly on demand, but in

    practice there's a short time lag before this happens, sufficient to result in audio

    interruptions and, therefore, clicks and pops. The only safe way to prevent this

    happening is to make sure your processor always runs at its top speed.

    I mentioned this tweak only a couple of months ago in my 'Overcoming Overload' feature

    (see SOSJuly 2006), but make no apologies for including it again here, as so many

    musicians struggle on with poor audio performance because their processor is running

    at a fraction of its top speed. By the way, the 'Always On' setting should ensure

    maximum CPU speed at all times (even when you unplug the mains PSU and run on

    internal batteries), but you should double-check this on the General page of the System

    applet, where the current clock speed is displayed (see screenshot on previous page). If

    it's not what you expect, choose a different power scheme and check again. Also make

    sure you've installed the latest throttling drivers for your PC, since the intricacies of power schemes can vary a

    little from model to model.

    Disable System Sounds

    Select the 'No Sounds' scheme on the Sounds tab of the Sounds and Audio Devices applet.

    The bleeps, clicks, and other sounds that Windows uses by default to accompany such events as startup, log

    on and log off, new emails and the like can be helpful, especially for newcomers, but there's a good reason for

    musicians to disable them: most of the WAV files that Microsoft and other developers provide for such sounds

    have 22kHz sample rates. What now happens depends on the design of your soundcard and its drivers. MyEcho 1820M seems immune, but if a 22kHz system sound cuts in when my Echo Mia card is playing back a

    44.1kHz project through its ASIO drivers in Cubase SX, the Cubaseaudio files suddenly jump an octave

    higher and run at double speed, while soft synth outputs become extremely juddery. The Cubaseengine has to

    be manually reset to cure these problems. Other musicians have reported songs dropping to half speed, or

    playback stopping altogether or suffering timing problems.

    Unfortunately, even if you select the 'No Sounds' scheme, whenever you choose

    a new graphic Theme the system sounds annoyingly return to the Windows

    default sound scheme. In addition, a few applications ignore the 'No Sounds'

    scheme altogether and continue to force their own system sounds to use yourinterface. Examples include some Local Area Network (LAN) cards, spyware

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    Always check on the General

    page of the System applet that

    your processor is running at its

    maximum clock speed (here my

    1.4GHz Pentium-M laptop

    processor has been throttled

    down to just 598MHz). If not,

    choosing the 'Always On' Power

    scheme should ensure this on

    most PCs.

    utilities and the Firefoxweb browser's Find function. To prevent this from

    happening, you can try using the 'Do Not Map Through Soundcard' option.

    Under the Hardware tab of 'Sounds and Audio Devices', select your audio

    interface from the list of devices, click on the Properties button, then on the

    Properties tab of the resulting pop-up window, and then finally on the Property

    button of this audio device. You'll see a 'Do not map through this device' tick

    box, which you should tick. On my systems, this makes no difference at all, but it

    may work for you.

    However, if you really want to get rid of System sounds once and for all, it's

    quicker and more thorough to navigate to the Audio tab of 'Sounds and Audio

    Devices' and set the Default device for sound playback to something other than

    your ASIO audio interface, such as an integral motherboard sound chip. If you

    really must hear system sounds, you can connect the system audio output to

    some speakers, but I've diverted mine to my SW1000XG soundcard, which is

    now only used for its MIDI synth and doesn't have its audio outputs connected to

    anything, so I never hear system sounds from any source.

    The only side-effect of this tweak is that other basic Windows audio applications, such as Media Player, will

    also have their outputs diverted, but you can override that, if you wish to, using the Options page to point to a

    speci fic audio device. The result of all this one-off effort? You'll never again hear a system sound unless you

    want to, and your main audio interface will be forever immune from Windows' interference.

    Useful Tweaks

    Some experts maintain that once you've turned off the system sounds, checked your Power scheme and set

    Processor Scheduling to Background Services, you don't need to tweak anything else. However, in my opinion,

    there are sti ll a few things that are well worth doing.

    Disable Taskbar Auto-hide

    Right-click on a blank area of the taskbar. Choose 'Properties', and un-tick the box labelled 'Auto-hide the

    Taskbar' (above left).

    Although you lose a little screen space by leaving the Taskbar permanently on display, your audio will no longer

    be interrupted each time the Taskbar is hidden or reappears.

    Turn Off System Restore on all drives

    Tick this box from the System Restore tab in the System applet.

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    Disabling the Taskbar's

    Auto-hide function will

    prevent your audio from

    glitching every time the bar

    is hidden or re-displayed.

    By default, Windows XP runs 'behind the scenes', monitoring changes to your

    setup, including the installation of new drivers and software, so that if your machine

    develops a problem you can roll back to a previously saved restore point.

    However, musicians generally don't want the unpredictabili ty of this extra

    overhead. Most of us prefer to use disk imaging software, such as Norton's Ghost,

    to save an accurate image of our entire music partition, at a time of our choosing.

    Turn Off Automatic Updates

    Select this radio button from the Automatic Updates tab in the System applet if

    your music PC isn't Internet-enabled. If it is Internet-enabled, instead select the

    'Notify me but don't automatically download or install them' option. If you hear of a

    particular update file that will improve audio performance, you can still download

    and install it manually.

    Disable Hibernation

    From the Power Options applet, select the Hibernation page and un-tick the box labelled 'Enable hibernation'.

    To enter this power-saving state, Windows saves the entire contents of your system RAM to a file on your hard

    drive, so that it can later restore your PC to exactly the same state. In the case of many modern music PCs

    fitted with 2GB RAM, this could take some time to save and restore. Hibernation can be handy, particularly on

    a laptop, but can also sometimes cause problems when USB and Firewire devices don't wake up properly

    before your sequencer, making it crash and require a complete and lengthy power down and reboot. So if you

    still want to attempt to use it, beware of these points.

    Disable Fast User Switching

    From the User Accounts applet, click on 'Select the way users log on or off'. Un-tick the 'Use Fast UserSwitching' box and then 'Apply Options'. This will ensure that if you have multiple users logging on and off your

    PC, they will be forced to close down their applications before they log off, so that there are none still running in

    the background and consuming system resources when you log on and start your audio ones.

    Set Menu Speed to 'Maximum'

    You can do this with a Registry tweak, but the safest and easiest way is using Microsoft's TweakUIutility (see

    screen above). Click on the Mouse setting in the left-hand pane. Pull the Menu Speed slider to its fastest

    setting and click the OK button. Then all cascading menus on Start menus and inside applications will appear

    instantly, rather than after an annoying delay.

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    Installing Windows XP

    There are still people enquiring on the SOSForum about w hether they should buy Windows XP Home or the more expensive Professional version. The

    simple answ er is that nearly all musicians w ill find Home perfec tly adequate, since it supports a single dual-core processor. Only if your PC has more

    than one physical processor package will you definitely require the Profess ional version. The only other Profess ional-only feature that a few might

    w ant to consider is Remote Desktop, w hich lets you remotely control another PC as if it's in f ront of you. This feature is used by some specialist music

    retailers, including Carillon, to interrogate a customer's machine for fault-finding purposes.

    As f or the installation itself, there are still web sites recommending that you install Windows XP in Standard mode, but, as I explained in some depth in

    PC Notes February 2006, this is outmoded advice. Jus t leave it alone during the install and carry out the three essential tw eaks I cover in the main text

    of this article.

    Marginal Tweaks

    Many tweaks are now a matter of user preference, since they make little or no difference to the performance of

    modern PCs, while others are simply to make your life a little simpler. Here are the main ones, along with some

    guidelines to help you make up your own mind whether to implement them or not.

    Minimise Visual Effects

    System applet, Advanced Tab, Performance Settings button, Visual Effects page, select 'Adjust for best


    This will disable a whole clutch of graphic bells and whistles, the most important of which are the various

    animations exploding windows when minimising and maximising, fading and sliding menus, buttons and

    boxes. These all rely on your computer's processor for the entire duration of their moves, and can therefore tip

    your PC over the edge when its CPU overhead is already near 100 percent running plug-ins and soft synths. I

    find the various animations annoying anyway, and I'm glad to see the back of them, although their overhead is

    arguably so tiny with modern processors that this tweak is largely optional.

    However, 'Adjust for best performance' also disables various other features that are rather more useful and yet

    impose microscopic overheads. Some musicians still prefer the rectangular Windows Classic look, but you

    can reinstate the XP look, with its soft-sculpted windows and buttons with rounded corners, by switching to the'Custom' button on the Visual Effects page and ticking the 'Use visual styles on windows and buttons' option.

    While you're there, it's certainly also worth ticking the 'Smooth edges of screen fonts' option (which offers a

    considerable boost to on-screen legibility, without compromising performance), and 'Show window contents

    while dragging' (which makes re-aligning the multiple windows in modern sequencer applications a lot easier).

    Remove Desktop Background Image

    Select the Desktop page of Display applet and select '(None)' for the Background wallpaper setting.

    In days gone by, this could reduce graphic overhead, but nowadays it's marginal, so whether you have a blank

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    Making cascading menus

    appear instantly by setting thisTweakUIslider to its fastest

    setting is not an essential

    tweak, but it certainly makes my

    Windows XP experience a lot

    more pleasurable!

    desktop or one with a pretty picture on it is rather up to you. Since the image is loaded into the RAM of your

    graphics card you won't waste any system RAM using a fancy image, but I still prefer the uncluttered look of a

    blank desktop, and when I'm making music my sequencer and other music applications fill my screen, so the

    desktop is nearly always invisible anyway. I do, however, choose a memorable colour for the desktops of each

    of my various Windows multi-boot partitions (green for General, mauve for Music, and red for Review) from the

    drop-down menu on the same page. Otherwise, i t's easy to forget which partition you're currently running.

    Disable Screensaver

    To permanently disable the screensaver, just open the Display applet, navigate to its Screensaver page and

    select '(None)'.

    It's not really necessary to disable screensavers nowadays, since even when they're running their processing

    overhead is tiny compared to the power available from a modern CPU, and before they kick in they consume

    no overhead at all. Nevertheless, since ASIO drivers run as background tasks, playing back a long song is

    regarded as 'no user activity' and will allow a screensaver to cut in unexpectedly. If you simply want to avoid this

    annoyance, just increase the 'Wait' time to a more suitable value.

    I recently adopted a third approach that takes a tiny bit of one-off effort to setup, but lets me start my chosen screensaver on demand. I find this invaluable

    when working on in-progress mixes, because replacing the visual clutter of the

    sequencer with something more relaxing enables me to concentrate on

    listening and more easily notice where changes are needed.

    To do this, you first choose a screensaver from the drop-down list and adjust its

    settings for a restful display, using the Preview button. Click the Apply button so

    that these settings 'take', and then choose the '(None)' setting, as before. Next,

    use the Windows Search function to find the various screensaver files, by

    entering '*.scr' into the 'all or part of the filename' box. Then right-click on yourchoice and select the 'Create Shortcut' option. This will let you create a

    screensaver shortcut on the desktop, which you can launch at any time by using

    the Windows-D key-command and then double-clicking on the shortcut.

    Disable Internet Synchronise Time

    Navigate to the Internet Time page of the Date and Time applet and un-tick the

    option labelled 'Automatically synchronise with an Internet time server'.

    Many people don't have any idea that their real-time system clock is, by default, synchronised to an Internet

    time server once a week, but it's a handy way to keep it accurate assuming that you periodically connect

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    If your hard drives hav e, for some reason,dropped from t heir normal DMA mode down toPIO mode, their performanc e will plummet.

    your PC to the Internet, that is. If your music PC remains separate from the virus-ridden world of the Internet you

    might as well disable this function, as it won't work anyway.

    Ignore Driver Signing

    On the Hardware page of the System applet, click the Driver Signing button and select 'Ignore Install the

    software anyway and don't ask for any approval'. Few audio developers pay Microsoft for the privilege of

    getting their products Windows Logo Tested, so this tweak will bypass all those annoying 'are you sure?'

    messages each time you install new software.

    Startup and Recovery

    In the Advanced page of the System applet, click on the Startup and Recovery Settings button, and under the

    System Failure section un-tick the box marked 'Automatically Restart'. If you do ever experience a system

    crash, this will prevent Windows from immediately rebooting. You'll then get a chance to read the on-screen

    information about the error, which may reference a particular system file, such as an audio interface driver, to

    help you track down the cause of the crash.

    Disable Error Reporting

    In the advanced page of the System applet, select the Advanced page, click on its 'Error Reporting' button and

    select the radio button labelled 'Disable error reporting'. In the event of an application fault, this will prevent your

    PC attempting to send a report to Microsoft.

    Recommended Non-Windows Tweaks

    Ironically, in their search for ever more obscure Windows XP tw eaks that don't produce any measurable improvements, many musicians neglect very

    obvious system settings that may result in very significant benefits. Here are the main ones to check:

    Check hard drive DMA settings: I described in detail how to do thi s in SOSJuly 2006, so won't repeat

    myself here, except to remind you that if Windows has, for some reason, neglected to set your IDE drives tothe most appropriate DMA mo de you m ay only manage seven simultaneous audio tracks instead of 70!

    Reduce the sample rate: While running your projects at a 96kHz sample rate seems to be al l the rage,

    your PC will be abl e to run l ess than half the number of plug-ins and soft synths that it can run at 44.1kHz,

    and less than a quarter as many if you're using 192kHz. Don't assume that a higher sample rate sounds

    better with your particular audi o interface and sounds. Listen carefully for yourself, and if you can't hear a

    difference stick with 24-bit/44.1kHz, or perhaps 24-bit/88.2kHz, if this is an option.

    Increase latency: Running your sequencer with a 1.5m s latency is handy when moni toring vocals via

    headphones, but a 6ms setting is more sensibl e during m ost recording work and will result in a significant

    reduction in CPU overhead. During mixdown, a setting of 12ms or above may l et you run double the

    number of plug-ins and soft synths.

    Disable unused sequencer I/O: Each input and output requires periodic pol ling, which is wasted effort if

    nothing i s connected to them and wil l be particularly noti ceable at lo w latency values. For instance, on my

    PC, enabling 16 ins and 16 outs with 2ms latency on my Em u 1820M i nterface results in a 10 percent CPU meter reading i n Cubase SX, even beforeloadi ng a project, whil e stereo in/out at 6ms barely registers at all .

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    Disable Superflous Tasks: Ideally, you should never connect your music PC to the Internet, so that you won't need to install anti-virus or spyware scanning

    utili ties, firewalls and all the other paraphernalia that prevents outsider i nterference. However, if you simply m ust have Internet access, before making m usic

    you should di sable any such software that scans files in the background, along with other superflous background tasks, since thi s will definitel y im pinge on

    sequencer performance, as well as consuming system RAM.

    Pointless Tweaks

    As mentioned in the introduction, there are quite a few tweaks recommended out there on the Internet that

    either do nothing at all or can seriously impair the performance of your music PC. For instance, ignore any

    references to vcache settings and conservative swapfile settings, since these don't apply to Windows XP.

    Instructions to reduce the Color Quality of your display from the Highest (32-bit) setting down to 16-bit were only

    valid years ago, when more primitive graphics cards took more resources with higher bit settings. Nowadays

    everything tends to be optimised for the 32-bit settings, so you will reduce the performance of both hardware

    and software if this is changed. Also ignore any suggestions to reduce the hardware acceleration of your

    graphics card, since this will result in your CPU having to perform those duties instead.

    Services are small applications, installed either by Windows XP or other software, that carry out a host of

    background tasks. Each one on your PC is either set by default to Automatic, so that it loads every time you

    boot up; set to Manual, so that it only gets started when needed; or Disabled. Disabling various Windows

    Services in an effort to further streamline your PC's audio performance is, in my opinion, pointless. Moreover, if

    you don't know exactly what you're doing your system can become unstable or even refuse to boot up

    afterwards. It may not be obvious from the description of a particular Service how it can affect the smooth

    running of audio applications. For instance, the Portable Media Serial Number Service, described as

    'retrieving the serial number of any portable media player connected to this computer' will disable any dongles

    you have plugged in and therefore prevent many music applications from running.

    Your requirements may also change over time. If, for instance, you've stripped Services down to the absolute

    minimum by disabling those that relate to networks, you'll have problems i f you ever install the excellent FX

    Teleportutility that uses the network to ferry MIDI and audio data to other PCs.

    Despite all the above, so many musicians seem keen to delve into the intricacies of the Service list that I

    decided to carry out a practical experiment by disabling all the Services I possibly could on my own music PC

    and then measuring any improvements I could find. Initially, the Windows Task Manager told me that as soon

    as I reached the desktop Windows was using 205.6MB of my system RAM, and that the only CPU overhead

    was the two percent taken by Task Manager itself.

    After very carefully disabling every possible Service that a non-networked music-only PC wouldn't need (on my

    PC, some 46 Services in all), I rebooted. The total CPU overhead was still exactly the same, at two percent, but

    the system RAM consumption was now down to 197.6MB: a negligible improvement of just 8MB. To double-

    check for any audio improvement, I ran a song that had previously been struggling at the limits of both my CPUand RAM, even with an audio interface latency of 20ms, and found no improvement at all. I rest my case!

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    Published in SOS September 2006