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Recording Computer Troubleshooting: Is Your Operating System Clean?

Brandon Drury —  May 15, 2007

The Window Operating System Software Problem

Windows (especially Windows XP) is a fairly powerful program. We all sit around and complain about this or that, but in the end, it is quite a miracle that the thing works at all. I couldn’t imagine the # of lines of code that were hand written by someone to write a program as huge as Windows. Bla Bla Bla. Windows has a big problem. Windows has to be all things to all people. Since Microsoft has about 95-96% market share, it’s easy to see that this huge user base will have drastically different needs. These needs are often on the extreme end.

For example, I LOVE monitoring through my favorite recording software, Cubase SX3. In other words, when a vocalist is doing his/her thing, I like to run the signal from a mic to the preamp to my audio interface. The signal goes into my recording computer, into Cubase SX 3 where I add compression or reverb, back out to my audio interface, and into the singer’s headphones. Because of this, I need an operating system with extremely low latency. In other words, I need a computer that can get “data” in, process it, and send it back out…IN A HURRY!

In reality, this is quite a ridiculous request. The notion that a computer can process data fast enough that the human ear can’t really tell the difference is actually quite amazing. While we all don’t have to hold hands around a camp fire and sing thanks to Microsoft, I think it’s important to at least consider just how impressive this is and also understand what a performance hog monitoring through a PC can be when setting up our computer systems. Essentially, we are pushing our recording computers to the max and it’s very important that we do everything we can to make it easier on our recording computers to do what they need to do.

I’d guess that the only Windows users that need to get audio in and out of a computer that fast are audio recording people. This explains why no stock soundcard that I’ve ever encountered is anywhere near low-latency (but I’ve heard a few rumors). 99.9% of the population has no use for low latency, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a huge deal for us recording types.

I’m sure there are a zillion other extreme examples that I simply have never encountered on a PC because my usage of a PC is either normal stuff (email, word processing, etc) or hardcore audio (as explained above). Because Windows has taken the “all things to all people route”, they’ve made their program exponentially larger and therefore increased the likelihood that things can go wrong.

The Windows Ability To Trash Itself
It’s common for people to report that they got X error when installing or using a piece of recording software. Some simply assume that they bought a piece of junk program. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine any software company releasing a program that did not work at least on some systems. It would be business suicide to release a program that worked for absolutely no one!

This brings up an interesting question:

Why would a program work just fine on one computer but not even finish installing on another computer?

Well, the layman answer goes like this. With every piece of software that is installed on your computer, little settings deep within the Windows code are changed. (We commonly refer to these changed settings as the “Registry”.) Some programs are worse than others, but the more programs that are installed and the more that these deep pieces of code are changed, the less likely that your computer will run smoothly…or at all.

I’m not talking about viruses or spyware. It’s a given that these malicious programs are obviously not doing your computer any favors. I’m speaking purely in terms of the quantity of software installed. When computer manufacturers are testing software they have written, I think it’s a given that they are testing it in ideal circumstances (at first anyway). I’d assume these to be super clean installs of Windows with nothing on them that could cause problems.

After recording programs have all their bugs worked out of them in the ideal testing areas, companies often release Alpha and Beta testing to see what happens when more people in more environments in completely different computer situations do with the software. Of course, there will be problems and these problems are reported.

Let’s talk about these registry settings. Somewhere there is a setting to turn X feature on or off. What feature? Who knows! Make up one. If Photoshop decides to change this feature to off. What happens if Cubase needs this feature on? It gets confusing. This is an overstatement, but I think it clearly illustrates the point. The more programs, more chances that all the little features and instructions deep within Windows mangled beyond use for the low tolerance world of home recording.

Increasing The Odds Of Software Reliability
It’s impossible to make every program in the world work perfectly on every system. However, we can do things that make sure that our recording programs work as reliably as possible. The easiest way to ensure that recording software works on your system is to start out with a system that most closely resembles what the programmers started out with: A clean install of Windows and only install software related to recording. My system consists of Cubase SX3, cd burning software, mp3 conversion software, plugins, samples, and maybe Sound Forge. That’s it!

I don’t have to worry about a graphics program causing some conflict somewhere that stops Cubase from working. I don’t have to worry about a fancy video codec changing some setting somewhere that effects something that effects something else. I have ONLY the required software and nothing more. I don’t even consider my recording rig to be a “computer”. It technically is a computer, but to me it’s more of a “Cubase machine” since I don’t do the things I would normally do on my home computer with my recording rig (email, write articles, etc). I don’t even have internet on my recording rig. That’s another article altogether, but I find the convenience of knowing that my recording rig has a 0% chance of viruses and such, and therefore no need for resource hogging anti-virus software (in addition to the fact that I get to disable all networking services in Windows), is worth the inconvenience of having to transfer downloaded files, updates, etc with my flash drive. (There are benefits in the “focus” department as well. I like the fact that I can’t check email on my recording computer. It’s just one less distraction.)

How Do I Start With A Clean System?
There are a couple of ways to start out with a totally clean system. You can start clean even if you use the same computer for recording and your standard home stuff.

So if you have a new computer dedicated entirely to recording, format the thing. (See my article “Format Windows XP On Your Dell, HP, Gateway, or other Name Brand Computer”). It’s better to start from scratch than to use the uninstall feature. You WILL notice a difference in computer power. Just make sure you have all your drivers ready.

If you’d like to start recording but don’t have a separate computer for recording, no problem. You’ll want to setup a “dual boot system”. This means that when you start your computer, you will be asked whether you want to load up Windows #1 or Windows #2. When you want to record, you can then select Windows #2. Of course, Windows #2 is your recording rig. You’ll notice that it runs much faster than Windows #1 (with all your standard computer stuff running).

Conclusion
For maximum reliability and performance, it’s your job to make sure you provide a solid platform for you recording software to be installed on. Getting all the components to work in a recording rig is tough enough as it is. The last thing you need is to be bogged down by a a corrupted version of Windows. Start clean with a new computer or a dual boot system and make your life infinitely easier.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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4 responses to Recording Computer Troubleshooting: Is Your Operating System Clean?

  1. Good article. For the less computer savy(me), how do you set up a dual boot system(pentium3-windows 2000)? Thanks Ed

  2. Amelia Thomas May 20, 2010 at 11:45 am

    For me, the best operating system is Linux because it rarely hangs.~;~

  3. I’ve been dreaming of the day when I can use all my third party plugins on a Linux system as I suspect it would be amazing for audio. Unfortunately, I’d lose a huge percentage of my tools making the switch. Maybe some day!

    Brandon

  4. operating systems can either make or break your system that is why it is wise to choose a vey stable one.’,,