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Virtual World: Part 3 Computer Setup Considerations
 
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Virtual World: Part 3 Computer Setup Considerations

By Kendal Scott

Before forging on into new categories, I thought that it would be a good idea to briefly outline some basics concerning virtual instruments and their setup, so that those less familiar with the concept can follow along without too much trouble. Outfitting your computer to play these instruments properly is also important for getting them to perform to their advertised peak. These guidelines should help you choose the instruments that are right for your needs, while allowing you to more easily understand some of the other concepts that we will be discussing in the future.

Outfitting your computer to maximize your instrument

There is a wide selection of virtual instruments available out there and, if you are new to the game, it can be a bit confusing as to which ones will work best in your system. You may be trying to make use of your current computer or perhaps you would like to look into getting a new machine to run your virtual studio. How powerful should your machine be? Is your computer too old? Should you buy a Mac or a PC? Laptop or desktop? An underpowered machine can lead to more frustration than anything else. On the other hand, it is not unheard of for people with hefty new machines to blame poor performance on the software when the problem may be poor setup.

The Computer

This will be the heart of your rig so it is important that you make sure it is up to the task at hand. Each software manufacturer will have minimum computer requirements listed on their websites and these are good guidelines as a starting point. These are only there to allow the program to open and function in its basic form and some will behave better than others at this level. It is strongly recommended that for audio work you make use of the fastest machine you can get your hands on be it Macintosh, PC, laptop, desktop- whatever you are comfortable with. If you want to go mobile and perform live, or take your rig with you when you travel, then the laptop is an obvious choice.  If you are buying a new machine for music purposes it is important to go with an operating system that you are familiar with (especially for live situations!). Alternatively, if you are thinking about switching to a different platform (Mac/PC), and don't mind a little learning curve, then a better price or more flexibility may be enough incentive to jump ship.  The important thing is that you must be able to maintain your system and keep it running smoothly, and in a live situation familiarity with your system is vital, (unless you happen to enjoy uncomfortable silences).

The Mac

Memory

Memory

As manufacturers try to make their wares more efficient they have introduced a double edged sword by making them more powerful. For this reason a fast machine is a start, but adequate memory may be even more important than ever. Some plugins recommend 512 MB of RAM as their minimum, but you will be far happier with more. The computer's operating system will be making use of this available memory as well, so you would be much better off investing in 2 GB or more to allow for the loading of larger samples or for simultaneously opening multiple instruments.

Drive Space

Many virtual instruments come with extensive sound libraries or make use of larger samples to achieve their sonic detail. It is now typical for sample based instruments to come with libraries of upwards of 30 GB of information and it is important to give this data a proper home. Your computer's main hard drive is already very busy supporting the operating system, your host software, as well as the virtual instrument itself, so asking it to access these large chunks of data in addition to these tasks is not recommended.

Drive Space

When you trigger a note on a sample based instrument, your computer has to search for the data connected to that note to play it back, and the faster this process occurs the better your performance. The way to ensure a smooth path for your data is to incorporate a separate fast-spinning internal or external hard drive that is dedicated to your virtual instrument data. This will help to prevent data bottlenecking that can cause audio dropouts, distortion and computer lockups. External FireWire and USB2 drives allow you to take your library wherever you may go whereas internal alternatives such as Serial ATA will allow for neat internal expansion. The most important factor with either choice is to make sure that the drive spec is 7200 rpms to ensure proper performance for audio applications. Glyph and Rain make some great audio spec drives that are perfect for the studio or your backpack.

 

The Soundcard

The Soundcard

It goes without saying that the better the quality of your computer's soundcard, the better the sonic result. The digital to analog converters in a dedicated soundcard can far surpass any stock alternative and provide you with better connections and more flexibility to boot. Like hard drives, there are internal and external options to be had. PCMCIA alternatives have been developed for laptops, PCI has proven to be a solid desktop format, and FireWire and USB interfaces work for desktops and laptops alike.

 

Controllers and MIDI

Controllers and MIDI

Unless you are planning on writing your note information directly into a sequencer program, you will need a device to trigger your new sounds and a way of connecting this device to the computer. There are loads of alternative controllers out there which allow you to gain a more intimate relationship with the many parameters available on some of today's new soft synths. You will still probably want some sort of keyboard to enter note data and a MIDI interface to connect this keyboard to the computer. Computer recording has become so popular that most controllers have a USB MIDI interface already built-in and some even offer alternative hardware such as trigger pads or control knobs and sliders. If you already own a MIDI keyboard, you will only need a simple USB MIDI interface to provide a connection with your computer.


Host Software

Virtual instruments are available in several formats; each designed to interface with most popular audio/MIDI recording applications. When you open a plugin within a host application, it is addressable via MIDI allowing you to play it, tweak its settings and record your efforts. You now have the ability process its output with other plugins that you may have available in your audio software. Here is a format overview for some of the most popular host applications.  

Host Software

Host Software Operating System Plugin Format Additional Formats*

Pro Tools

Macintosh & Windows

RTAS, TDM

VST with wrapper

Cubase & Nuendo

Macintosh & Windows

VST

 

Digital Performer

Macintosh

MAS, Audio Units

VST with wrapper

Logic

Macintosh

Audio Units

VST with wrapper

Sonar

Windows

DXi, VST

VST wrapper available for support of earlier versions

* By employing a secondary program called a "wrapper", it is possible to utilize plugin formats that are not normally recognized by your host software. It encases them in a "shell" that makes them appear as another format and hence "wrapped".

Some VI's also have the ability to run directly on your computer without any form of host software. This stand alone mode is a convenient way of accessing your instruments directly without having to open any other applications.

Host Hardware

Host Hardware

With the widespread popularity of software instruments, interesting solutions have emerged that combine hardware and software into a single unit. These units are not for everyone but, they do offer some tempting options for more specialized situations. The Muse Receptor allows you to load it with your favorite virtual instruments and processing plugins, put it in your rack, and treat it like a sound module without the need for a separate computer. Open Labs has housed an entire PC music workstation, complete with 61 or 76 note semi-weighted synthesizer keyboard, into one powerful box with their Neko. The 3 octave Miko is designed to the same spec and is even more portable.

Keep It Clean

Whether you have just purchased a new dedicated music computer or are making use of your existing machine, it is imperative that you keep it well organized. Applications that may normally be running in the background can make themselves known when installing new software. Conflicts and improper system configurations may slow down your machine, render some software features unusable, or keep your music software from opening at all.

I hope that this has given you an overview of some of the factors involved in proper audio computer setup. Starting with these general guidelines will help you get the most from your software investments and keep the door open for easy future expansion.

Should you have any further questions about optimizing your Digital Audio Workstation, we encourage you to contact us on the phone, online, or in person at our SuperStore in New York City. 1-800-947-9923.

Top Pro Audio categories:

Recording | Desktop Audio | Keyboards & Synths | ENG, EFP & Broadcast | Live Sound & PA Accessories

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