Computer Musicians. If you are involved in any way with the creation and performance of music, you’ll know that computers are a blessing and a curse. Don’t get me wrong, I love my computer. Every computer I have used has allowed me to get ideas out of my head and into the world, but sometimes they can be problematic.
So…having used computers for DJ’ing since Final Scratch 1.0 (which ran on BeOS) I’ve garnered a lot of experience with using them for DJ’ing, music creation, and production and I thought I’d distil this information down into the following five tips.
Backup, Backup, Backup
Beware of OS Updates
Settings and Background Processes
Connectors and Cabling
1. Backup, Backup, Backup
The first rule of owning a computer whose main function is for music production and performance is backup, backup, backup. Yes, literally have three backups of your hard drive.
We all know of friends who have had at least one computer backup fail, and so the only way to truly insure yourself against lost time, productivity and ultimately – income – is to have multiple backups. Yes, there is a chance that your other backup drives could fail – and I have heard of it happening, but it’s better to have the multiple backups than not.
Hard drives are also pretty cheap these days. Even a portable bus powered 1TB USB drive will only set you back AUD$80.
If you’re using a desktop computer, then I recommend getting a desktop drive (these usually require a power supply), they’re cheaper than a portable USB bus-powered drive, and you’ll get more storage space for your money.
For laptop users, I’d recommend USB bus-powered drives, simply because you can bring it with you to your gig and restore your computer if required. Of course there’s no reason why you can’t use a desktop drive to backup your laptop – they’re just bulkier than portable drives, and conversely, there’s nothing holding you back from using a portable USB drive to backup your desktop computer.
And then of course, there are online backup services such as Google Drive and iCloud, where you can store critical documents such as project files, audio stems, drum samples, etc.
SSD Vs. Platter Drives
You can summarise the difference between Solid State Drives (SSD’s) and standard spinning platter drives as follows:
SSD: Higher cost, higher reliability, Lower Bit Error Rates – 100 x less likely to produce errors than enterprise grade platter drives, and 1000 x less likely than consumer grade platter drives
Platter Drives: Lower cost, easier and cheaper to recover data when they do fail – and because they are cheaper, it is more affordable to have multiple backups of platter drives, and to replace them when they do fail.
In recent years, SSD’s have become popular in laptop use because although they cost more to manufacture and purchase than platter based drives, they have fast startup times, generally have higher reliability, and lower error rates than standard platter based hard drives.
In the past, it has been the case that when SSD’s fail, they fail catastrophically and recovering data from them was nigh on impossible. As recovery software and hardware becomes cheaper and more advanced and service technicians gain more experience, it has become easier to recover data from a failed SSD. Having said that, it is still more expensive to recover data from an SSD than a platter based drive due to their complexity. Potential repair pricing and downtime is something to be considered when contemplating an SSD purchase.
So what’s best? Well, maybe a combination of both. Many people love SSD’s because of their speed for accessing data, but as covered here, platter drives are more cost effective – both to purchase, and when you need to recover data. This is perhaps why there’s been an increase in hybrid SSD/Platter drives. The idea is that the operating system and important applications are installed on the SSD, and all other files are stored on the platter section of these hybrid drives, giving the best of both worlds. Applications can always be reinstalled. Your projects, photos, and files cannot be easily recreated or replaced – unless you have a backup…or three.
2. Beware of OS Updates
The Infamous Cubase Call
I remember the day clearly. I was working the counter at Billy Hyde Music in Blackburn. I took a phone call from a customer for Cubase tech support. It went something like this:
Cubase Customer: Hi there, I have a tech support question regarding Cubase.
ME: Sure, how can I help?
CC: Well, I bought Cubase from you last week, and today I upgraded from Windows XP to Vista and now Cubase won’t launch.
ME: Okay, I see. Well, unfortunately Cubase isn’t currently compatible with Vista. Did you check on the Steinberg/Cubase website to see if they released any updates or made compatibility announcements?
ME: Okay, do you have a backup of your system?
ME: Okay, well unfortunately your only option is to erase your hard drive, reinstall Windows XP, and then reinstall all your software and drivers.
CC: But I have a project that needs to be finished by tomorrow….
ME: Oh…..that’s unfortunate…[Thinking to myself: Oh man…this guy’s screwed…]
So what lessons are to be learned here?
1. Don’t upgrade your operating system without checking to see if your critical software is compatible
2. Don’t upgrade your operating system the day, or even the week before you need to submit a project
3. Make sure you have a backup of your computer in case you make mistakes 1 and 2. That way you can restore it back to the working state it was in prior to the update.
The same can be applied to iOS and Android devices that you use for music performance and/or production. Check to see if your critical apps are compatible with the new operating system, and then decide whether or not you should update. And of course – backup your devices before updating.
3. Settings and Background Processes
With point 2 in mind, one of the first things you should do when you get your shiny new computer is to turn off automatic software updates. I have heard from friends who didn’t realise automatic updates were turned on, have left their computers on overnight, and found the next day that their critical DJ and/or Music software would not work.
Unless you specifically need to use them, turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as they can interfere with your music software and hardware. Turning off Wi-Fi also ensures that software that works in the background (e.g. Skype, Dropbox), doesn’t get connected to the internet and therefore use any processing cycles.
Other settings you should change are:
i. Screen settings – ensure the screen doesn’t go to sleep or to a screensaver whilst you’re performing.
ii. Sleep settings – it’s best to switch this to NEVER. The last thing you want is your laptop going to sleep in the middle of a performance.
iii. Graphics Card: If your laptop has a dedicated graphics card, use it. This way the graphics are driven by the graphics card, and the laptop can dedicate its main processor and memory to running your music software. On certain mac models, this means turning off Automatic Graphics Switching in the Energy Saver settings.
iv. Disk Sleep: On a Mac under the Energy Saver settings, you can choose to put the hard disk to sleep when possible. I would recommend unchecking this option for when the power adapter is connected.
v. Startup Items: Not only can it be annoying for certain programs to start up every time you boot up your computer (*cough* Skype *cough*), but those programs are stealing precious CPU cycles and memory from your music making applications. Therefore, only allow programs on startup that are essential to music making, e.g. soundcard drivers and related software such as the Universal Audio Meter and Console programs.
- Minimize CPU consumption from other programs
- Disable Visual Effects
- Select more efficient power options
- Set processor scheduling to “Background services”
- Defragment your hard drives
- Disable USB Port Power Saving
You can read more here: https://help.ableton.com/hc/en-us/articles/209071469-Optimizing-Windows-for-Audio
4. Connectors and Cabling
Powered USB Hubs!
An important thing to note is that USB 2.0 ports are designed to provide a maximum of 500ma of current to power things like portable hard drives, MIDI controllers, and external soundcards.
What isn’t common knowledge is that on a laptop, USB ports can sometimes share this current draw across multiple ports. This becomes an issue when you plug in too many USB peripherals that draw more than 500ma current in total.
If this happens, your computer should display an error message telling you that one of your devices draws too much current. If not, you might notice controllers or other peripherals randomly disconnecting and stop responding.
The solution is to use a powered USB hub for things like hard-drives and MIDI controllers. The general rule is to use dedicated USB ports on the computer for critical components such as your soundcard or main MIDI controller.
In the future, this will become less of a problem as the proliferation of USB 3.0 and USB C ports becomes more commonplace. USB 3.0 has been designed to provide a maximum of 900ma, and USB C a maximum of up to 3 Amps at 5V
Hot Tip: Always have at least one spare backup cable on hand for every cable you use, this goes for both data cables (USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, MIDI) and audio (TRS, RCA, XLR, etc.).
5. Backup Again
A backup doesn’t just mean having cloned hard-drives of your important data. If possible, have a full backup computer that is identical to your main machine. This is how many international acts run their live shows, e.g. The Prodigy run the master laptop linked to a backup laptop that is muted. If the master laptop fails, they switch over automatically to the backup.
This doesn’t mean both your computers have to be Windows or Mac machines as long as they work in the same way, and any external hard-drives can work on both operating systems provided they are formatted accordingly.
To ensure hard drives or USB sticks work on both Windows and Mac, format them as exFAT drives.
A backup can also be an iPad with your DJing or music performance software on it, or even a USB stick with music on it that you can plug straight into another computer or CD player.
A final note regarding battery life:
Where possible always use your laptop with the power adaptor plugged in.
Because by default when using the battery, most computers will kick into energy saving mode to maximise battery life. This includes reducing processor performance and, if your computer has the ability – switching graphics cards. You can certainly change these defaults as discussed in Section 3: Settings and Background Processes, but at the expense of battery life.
So when using your laptop for a performance, always endeavour to have it plugged into power.
The other side of this story is that you should never use your laptop plugged into power 100% of the time. This will actually shorten the battery’s life. Laptop batteries are designed to be charged and discharged over the course of their useful life which usually 3-4 years.
Whilst this is seemingly a lot to do, making sure your computer is optimized for pro audio applications is essential for worry-free music making and performance. And once you set it up, it your computer will run at its peak, only requiring adjustments every now and then. The benefits certainly outweigh the drawbacks, and in the end, you can get to making your music efficiently and out into the world.