General OS setup

The first thing to say is that Windows is not designed primarily as a music, or indeed as a multimedia operating system. It is a general purpose piece of software, unlike say BeOS, and so you should not expect a new PC from a mainstream supplier to be optimised for music use. Fortuately, there are many tweaks you can make to it that will improve the performance of almost any modern PC for music production. You should also note that the changes I will outline in this document may decrease the PC's performance with respect to other tasks eg. office and internet applications, but this should not put you off making the changes if you are serious about using your PC for music.

In an ideal world, you would reserve a PC exclusively for music use, and many studios have separate systems for different kinds of musical use. However, most home studio owners have financial constraints that make this kind of setup impossible. There are ways to effectively have two separate systems on the same machine (multi booting, swappable hard drives etc.), but on this page I am just going to describe general considerations that can be applied to a typical home system.

The tips are arranged in a table, giving the procedure for implementing the tip, the reason why it works, and also the benefits you might expect to gain.

Tip Reason How to do it
Defrag your hard disk(s) regularly. On saving, files are written to the next available space on your hard disk at any given moment. Over time, with deleting and re-writing, file tend to become 'scattered', with single files being written to different physical areas of your hard disk. Defragmenting the disk rearranges all the files on the disk so they are lined up with no gaps, starting from the beginning (centre) of the drive. This not only reduces the access time for files, but leaves a clear road ahead for new files to be written to. You may also recover some usable disk space owing to the way Windows stores files (FAT 16 or 32). Start -> Programs -> Accessories -> System tools -> Disk defragmenter.
Specify a large minimum virtual memory. Windows dynamically allocates some of your root directoy's space for 'virtual memory', which it uses as 'extra RAM' to swap in and out of if you have loaded more applications and files than you have space in your RAM for. This often happens in audio applications because of the large file sizes typically encountered. This is re-sized according to your usage at any given moment, and can be a source of unwanted system activity when you are streaming audio. It can also lead to greater fragmentation of your hard disk. Setting a large minimum size for this memory stops a lot of this dynamic re-sizing and hence lowers overhead. Be aware, however, that this also means that you must leave at least this amount of space free on your root directory. 'Right click' on 'my computer' icon -> properties -> Performance tab -> 'Virtual memory' button -> Select 'let me specify my own virtual memory settings' -> Set minimum figure to ~50 MB.
Prevent re-sizing of your virtual cache. Your virtual cache is a 'buffer' used by windows to maintain a steady flow of data. However, since it is by default dynamically resized (like the virtual memory), it can cause gliches when recording and playing back audio. This is because it is resized when it becomes full, as it can easily become with large audio files, which in turn causes a momentary delay in playback (it doesn't even begin to sound like syncopation :-). Start -> run -> c:\windows\system.ini -> scroll down to [vcache] -> insert two lines, 'MinFileCache=XXX', and 'MinFileCache=XXX', where XXX ~ 20% of your RAM in kilobytes (1024 = 1MB) -> Save and exit the file -> restart your PC.
Disable write-behind cache With write behind caching enabled, windows dynamically sets aside some memory for recent activities (analogous to the temorary internet cache). This is great for office software, where you often want to go back a page or two, but is about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit for sequencing. 1. Open Control Panel/System/Performance/File System/Troubleshooting. 2. Click on "Disable write-behind caching for all drives."
Disable Auto Insertion Detect Auto insert notification is a windows 'feature', which makes your machine check every 20 seconds whether there is a CD in your CDROM drive. Whilst this is useful for some explorer functions and for autorun CD's, it can have the same effect as a screensaver kicking in if you are recording when it happens. 1. Open Control Panel/System/Device manager/CDROM. 2. Disable Auto Insertion Detect.
Disable 'read ahead optimisation'. With read ahead optimisation enabled, windows dynamically sets aside some memory to attempt to predict your likely activities/requirements. This is great for office software, where your activities are often simple and repetitive, but not for audio apps. 'Right click' on 'my computer' icon -> properties -> Performance tab -> 'File System' button -> read ahead optimisation tab -> scroll to 'none'.
Don't have any 'wallpaper' on your windows desktop. Wallpaper takes system 'overhead' in a similar way to a screensaver, although it is loaded automatically when you load windows. Start -> Settings -> Control Panel -> Display -> Background -> Select 'none'.
Don't run any programs 'in the background' i.e. system monitors, virus scanners etc. Any shorcut present in your windows 'startup' folder will cause the associated program to be loaded when you enter windows. Again, these then take up valuable system resources, which you want to avoid. If you are concerned about recovery from crashes, my advice is to back up a stable system configuration, and get into the habit of saving often within a session. Start -> Settings -> Taskbar -> Start menu programs 'tab' -> Advanced -> Delete any shortcuts in the folder labelled 'startup'(this does not delete the program, it is just a 'pointer' to the program).
Disable windows animation. Yup, its system overhead again. As you can see, we're gradually removing all of window's 'bells and whistles'. A point worth raising here is that many of these tweaks will improve your overall system performance, as well as optimising your system for audio. You need to install 'Tweak UI', which is available from Micro$oft's webpage, or on later versions of the win95 CD. It comes with installation instructions. Then: Start -> Settings -> Control Panel -> Tweak UI -> General tab -> Uncheck the 'window animation' box. And disable 'smooth scrolling' whilst you're there.
Eliminate other background processes Background processes take up CPU horsepower, so they can interfere with real-time processes. To see if any background processes are running (such as video panels), press CTRL-ALT-Delete. Background virus-scanning programs, in particular, are known to cause audio dropouts. The BIOS of some motherboards also includes a virus warning feature; this should be disabled, as well.
Get a minimum of 2 megabytes of video RAM Windows 95 caches video data to the hard drive, which diminishes real-time performance.
Avoid third-party screen-savers The built-in screen savers of Windows 95 may provide better performance than third-party screen savers, such as After Dark. Additionally, single-color background screens result in faster, more efficient video performance, easing the load on the system in general. Right click on your desktop and select 'properties'. Select the apporopriate screen-saver.
Disable power management The BIOS of some motherboards includes power-management features; for reliable real-time performance, these should be disabled. Typically, hit the 'delete' key on starting your machine to enter BIOS settings. Move to the right screen and toggle off all power management features. Save and exit to resume startup.
Use DirectX6 and Directshow5.2a. Improves music performance of your PC, especially if you use DirectX plugins. Download from Micro$oft webpage.
Disable the windows standard wave audio device. Stops windows using its default wave device in preference to your soundcards' dedicated device. Prevents any possible conflict of device priorities in your system. Start -> Settings -> Control panel -> Multimedia -> Advanced -> Media Control devices -> Double click 'Wave Audio Device (Media Control)' -> Select 'Do not use this media control device' -> Click 'OK' -> Reboot when prompted.
Enable 'Show window contents while dragging'. Most sequencer programs have multiple windows for different tasks, many of which scroll dynamically with time. Most people only have a small monitor...... Start -> Settings -> Control panel -> Display -> Plus tab -> Select 'Show window contents while dragging'.
Make sure that your MSDOS.sys file says DoubleBuffer=0. Another overhead tweak, associated with drive usage. If you have Micro$oft plus, you should also remove Drivespace3 (Start -> Settings -> Control panel -> Add/remove programs -> Select Micro$oft plus -> Click add/remove programs -> Select DriveSpace3 -> Click 'add/remove' button). Start -> run -> c:\Msdos.sys (you may have to select 'edit using notepad') -> Check that it says DoubleBuffer=0 -> save and exit the file -> restart your PC.
Convert your audio drive to FAT16, as opposed to FAT32. FAT32 has a potential for slower data transfer, thus slowing down audio performance. If you have Win95b OSR2, your drives are likely to be formatted with FAT32. Warning: this is a non-trivial system change. Always backup first. Make a system disk -> Copy FDISK.exe from c:\windows\command\ to the system disk -> Boot to the system disk -> At a:\ prompt type 'FDISK' -> When asked if you want to enable 'Large Disk Support' choose 'no' -> Delete the DOS partition you want to reformat with FAT16 as your audio partition -> Create a new DOS partition -> Activate the new DOS partition -> Reboot to the system disk -> At the a:\ prompt type 'FORMAT X:', where X is the drive letter of the new partition.

Additional tips:

Make sure win95 is not running in 'compatability mode'.
If you have MS office, disable 'indexing' in the control panel.
If you have MS plus, make sure that 'low disk space notification' is disabled in the system agent.
Check the system resource monitor to see that nothing else is running in the background.
In the 'sounds' control panel, no sounds should be assigned to ANY events.

Digital Audio