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Building your 
Music Computer

How to perform a full CPU/Motherboard Upgrade
for a screaming fast digital audio workstation  Page 1

by Rich the TweakMeister                                        Page   1     2      3  

To successfully make music on your PC, your machine has to be able to work well in real time.  Unlike using a word processor, web browser, spreadsheet, or even games, where a slight delay or slowdown of operations is not going to bother you too much, with music, even a slight occasional glitch can totally ruin a mix or mastering effort. It is the desire to have a glitch free music computer, one that is fast enough to handle every music task, that has led to the building of the DAW.

Time Out:
Q) What is a DAW? 
A) DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. Simply it is just a computer system optimized for digital audio software and audio and MIDI production.  The choice of components and peripherals, such as soundcards, videocards, memory and hard drives are chosen to enhance recording, playing and processing audio.

There are two main areas we are going to look at.  First is the building of a DAW--that is the purpose of this article.  Second is the tweaking of the machine and the drivers, busses, memory and operating system.  Those running pro studios can attest to the need of being able to quickly diagnose, repair and eradicate problems with the smooth running of their sequencers and digital audio programs.  It's much like tuning up a car, and requires one to have a good bit of technical knowledge.   So lets get going with building a machine.  I am going to show you pics of the process.  Here's the disclaimer:  Use my tips at your own risk.  I will not be responsible if you mess something up. Yet if you are comfortable with taking apart your gear, have never done an upgrade before, but think you might be able to handle it, then this article is for you.  

I have been tweaking computers since my days with the Commodore 64, and have a garage full of hot-rodded Atari machines and old PCs.  My main PC was built from scratch and is on it's 4th CPU/MOBO/Memory upgrade.  It started as a Home built Celeron 300a with an Abit BH6, which I overclocked to give it similar performance to a Pentium 450. Then it was a Pentium 550 which lasted about 2 years.  I made a major upgrade to an AMD Athlon 1.4 gHz with an Asus a7m266 MOBO.  Just recently I upgraded to a AMD Athlon 64 3400+ with a Gigabyte GA-K8NS-Pro MOBO with 2 gigs of RAM.  Heh, you might be wondering what is left from the original machine.   Nothing.  On the 2nd upgrade I replaced the CD Roms and video card on the third the case, floppy and power supply got replaced and of course memory and MOBOs get replaced each time and I install new larger hard drives in between upgrades.  See, you can keep a main machine up to date by simply installing a few new components on a scheduled basis, for much less money than it would take to buy a new system every one or two years. Another advantage is I have plenty of parts around to build a second machine.

It's a great time to upgrade to a faster machine, and cheaper than you think.

Why Upgrade? 

If you want to run the latest music and audio applications you will find you have to.  Some of the applications coming out today will not function on older machines. Five years ago, when the Pentium II 450 was the king of the popular processors, we were all surprised at the speed and snappiness with which it handled typical audio processing.  Nowadays, a pII450 is sort of like a broken down city bus.  It might get you there; it might stall up the next hill running modern software. Software developers add features every year that take advantage of faster CPUs.  For example, a few years ago PCs were not able to do convolution reverb in real time.  But now we see them cropping up everywhere.  Just try to run it on your old duff Pentium 2. The same with disk streaming soft samplers that add synth engines on top. You want the power? You pay the price by making your own hi performance desktop PC. The best thing is that if you do your homework, your PC will be faster and better than a top of the line PC you find at your local computer retailer. So if you want to keep today's hottest audio products on your PC, upgrading is an inevitability.  For now, the wise thing is to get your PC prepared for the migration with a fast CPU, lots of RAM, and bigger drives.  

Time Out!  Q: Which Soundcard/Interface should I  get?
A: Tough question. But here's a site that will help. Check out Cakewalk's Open Hardware Guide.  Excellent rundown of hardware audio interfaces that work with Cakewalk's Sonar.

What is entailed in upgrading a computer?  Is it hard?

Quick and Dirty:  Step by Step Guide to Upgrading your DAW

1. Before you touch anything you should pull the plug.  ground yourself by touching the metal chassis.

 2. Then start disconnecting, starting with the power supply connector.  PC  parts have uniform connectors, so typically you just disconnect everything, noting on a piece of paper what it was attached to on the old motherboard.  click to enlarge

3. Unscrew the old board and pull it out of the chassis.

4. Then you install the new CPU on the new motherboard and when it's secure, place the new motherboard on the chassis and screw it down.

5.  Finally you reconnect the cables to your  hard drives, floppy drives, and to the signal leds. 

6. Stick the memory in, put in all the cards (sound, video, etc.).  Make sure its all nice and tight and flip it on. 

7. Your new motherboard will let you set the BIOS. 

8. Once successful, you run windows and it will find all your hardware again, just like the 1st time you ran it. You should dig out your Windows CD Rom, because it may need it to load drivers for new motherboard components. All your old applications are there, and they all work as before, only faster and hopefully, better.  I say "hopefully" because there is always a chance of system conflicts when new drivers are installed. 

9. Go to the site of your new motherboard and look for updated motherboard drivers.  With any piece of computer hardware or software you buy, this is required these days.  Manufacturers are under intense pressure to get their product out and they assume you will be visiting their website.

No. It's not hard. If you are adept at using a screwdriver and can insert cards into slots you can transform your machine.  Even with total motherboard/cpu swaps there is no soldering.  

Your 1st time doing this, you want to proceed slowly and deliberately.  Writing down and labeling different cables so you know which is which.  With hard drives the orientation of the cable is important so pay heed to the red stripe on the cable and verify it was closest to the little zero on the motherboard. Some motherboards will not allow you to plug something in backwards, but others might not offer this protection, hence the importance of labeling.  Also, those little wires going to the power and hard drive leds may have positive/negative leads.  Usually there is a diagram in the manual of the new MB which tells you what goes to what. After you go through this once its far easier the next time, and by your third upgrade, you'll be able to whiz through it in a little more than an hour.  As I did my 4th upgrade, I was down to 35 minutes and only glanced at the manuals for reference.  

I want to build a powerful musical computer from scratch.  Are there any tips?

Plenty of tips.  First off, get a real good big case with a hefty 300-400 watt power supply, quiet fans and one that is easy to take apart. You should go for a case that has a of of drive bays, whether you intend to use them or not, and that have plenty of internal power connectors.  The more space inside the case, the easier it will be to connect things, get to the memory when you want to slap in new RAM, add and remove hard drives, cdr drives, soundcards.

Avoid "onboard" Video devices. This may be a "feature" of the ultra cheap MOBO.  "Look, dude, you don't even need to buy a video card!"  Don't bite, man.  Its far better to get an AGP video card than use the "onboard" video chips, which are usually severely compromised.  Same with audio.  An onboard audio chip is a cost cutting feature that allows a computer maker to make really cheap PCs, since they don't have to add a soundcard to get sound. You can still use these for monitoring system sounds and metronomes, but don't think about recording sensitive audio with them. They usually sound average, at best, compared to a consumer level PCI soundcard and may sound worse.  So if the motherboard touts "onboard" video cross it off the list.  

Always check and double check and triple check that the Motherboard works with the type of CPU and the speed of the CPU you plan to use.  There are motherboards for Intel's Pentium 4 and others for AMD and they are not interchangeable. They use different chipsets and have different CPU sockets and slots.  There are many variations.  You have to do your research here.  Also, different motherboards require use of different memory types.  Some may only want you to use a certain type.  See, just like the motherboard manufacturers, the memory makers want you to upgrade your memory every time too. 

The point: 

CPUs and memory and motherboards are not interchangeable. Don't fall into the error of thinking, as many newbie upgraders do, that you can save money by using the same motherboard for your next upgrade too.  The industry is hip to that. They want you to buy a new motherboard for every upgrade and make it almost impossible not to. It keeps their factories busy. Save yourself aggravation of thinking you'll find a motherboard you can re-upgrade in 2 years.  It won't happen.  Instead, focus your motherboard search with criteria of features and reliability optimized for the CPU you want to run.   Or go with a motherboard/memory/CPU bundle that is known to work.  You are very likely to get burned if you try to mix and match things without checking. 

 How much RAM? 

Answer:  Its a compromise between the the motherboard can take and what you can afford.  It makes little sense these days to build a DAW with less than a gigabyte and 2 is definitely better.  This is assuming you are running windows XP.  More RAM means better performance with softsamplers and better streaming of audio files.  If you are running 24 bit, 96khz audio tracks, your RAM will help keep things running smooth.



  Page   1     2      3    of this article


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Cool Link:

Gary Brenner's excellent Windows XP DAW Optimization Guide


updated 1-08