In this new series, we feature guest writers from the industry to answer questions about music technology. First up is Cakewalk’s Steve Thomas, with an exclusive on multiple CPU cores. You’ve seen multiple-core systems like the current Core Duo Macs and Core Duo or AMD x2 PCs, but what do these really mean for music creation? PC magazines regularly explain that they aid in performance “if you’re running a virus check in the background”, but in fact that’s only the beginning for music. Take it away, Steve. -PK

What is multi-core, anyway, and what does it matter for music creation?

For some time now, high-end PCs have come with the option of multiple processors. Traditional single-core computer architecture features a single CPU which does all of the work. In a DAW application, the computer needs to do lots of work in a very short amount of time. There are two ways to get more work out of your computer: use a faster CPU, or use more CPUs. Today’s multi-core processors offer the best of both worlds. Each core can do its own independent processing, but because they are on the same physical silicon chip, they can do it even faster.

Before we get too deep, I’d like to clear up a common misconception about multi-core processing (or even multiple processors). There is a common assumption out there that if you simply throw more cores at a task, the task gets done faster. Let’s remember that the reason multiple cores yield more power is that they can do independent processing. Also, applications (like DAWS) will only see a real benefit if they are built in such a way that important tasks can be done in parallel. That is to say, the DAW has been designed to intelligently balance the processing load across all available resources.

Fortunately for musicians, digital audio workstations (DAWs) are the perfect type of application to take advantage of the parallel processing provided by multi-core and multi-processor computers, BUT there is a significant amount of coding that is required to take advantage of it. At Cakewalk, we have put in the time and effort to take the maximum advantage of this technology.

If you think of the work a DAW must do, you can break it into two major areas: the UI (the windows, sliders, clips, etc.) and the audio engine (the low-level streaming code responsible for pushing all those bits through to your soundcard). If this was all there was to a DAW, the benefit of multi-core would be noticeable, but not profound. You would find that no matter how busy the audio engine got, your UI would still seem very responsive, because each core was doing one of those tasks independently without waiting for the other to finish. This is fine as far as it goes (and is as far as some DAWs go), but what we really want in a DAW is a system where the Audio Engine work itself can be divided up over multiple cores. In SONAR, we’ve taken the effort to build a truly multi-processing Audio Engine which takes full advantage of as many cores as your system provides. It is a truly scalable solution to handling bigger and more complex projects full of plug-ins and virtual instruments (in other words, “typicalâ€? projects).

Why walk when you can take the highway?
A simple analogy would be to imagine that a dual-core processor is like a four-lane highway—it can handle up to twice as many cars as its two-lane predecessor, without making each car drive twice as fast. In layman’s terms what multi-core processing means to you is “more.â€? In SONAR you will experience more tracks, more simultaneous effects, more virtual instruments than ever before. And you will also experience faster screen redraws of complex waveform activity and capabilities to work with higher quality digital video.

State of the art
Multi-core is just part of the equation; the news is good on all development fronts. Windows XP is a stable operating system for music production, and Windows x64 and the upcoming 64-bit version of Vista provide even more power for music production. Processor designs have advanced to the point where really anything is possible with the right application.

The dream of doing it all in one box is a reality; there has never been a better time to create digital music on a PC! And, with the mass deployment of multi-core processors, nearly everyone who makes music will see an immediate and significant performance boost in their favorite DAW—as long as their DAW has been designed to take advantage of parallelism, like SONAR.

Besides being the Dir, PR for Cakewalk, Steve Thomas has many years of real-world experience making music on both sides of the glass as a musician and audio engineer.

CDM Responds

Having tested SONAR 6 even just a little bit, I’ve in fact found that you can throw a whole lot of intensive audio processing tasks at it without blinking, and I’m using a comparatively low-end processor. My AMD 3800+ Athlon x2 CPU on the desktop PC I built is now trading for as little as $150 (if not for the 3800, certainly for a comparable CPU). I’ve gotten similarly nice results out of Ableton Live 6, which also features multi-core enhancements; to me SONAR and Live make a really nice Windows music-making combination. Notably, you will see similar performance gains on multiple processors; I’ve performed benchmarks on Logic 7 and Live 6 on both multiple cores and multiple processors (like the Core Duo and dual-core G5 Mac) and found similar gains from multithreading.

Steve, aside from being a marketing guy, is also a musician; he and I recently talked about the work he does in his studio as a guitarist; just a few hundred dollars for a Dell PC got him an attic studio that does everything he needs. So thanks, Steve, for some insight into SONAR and multi-core processing.

  • bliss

    Beep! Beep! Typo in the title.

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  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    See, now that we're testing turning off Flash image replacement for the pretty headlines, I actually *can't read them*.

    Yikes.

  • agent_orange

    I have a Dell Inspiron 9400 with a "Centrino Duo" CPU.

    I use Ableton Live.

    In Live, i have the option "Multicore Support" turned ON.

    BUT: There is no improvement of perfomance. I can only use 50% CPU Ressources (that means 1 CPU at a Dualcore System).

    So it seems that the "centrino duo" is not same supported as the "Core Duo".

    Keep that in mind, when you buy new Hardware!

  • http://lotuswire.net foosnark

    In the FLStudio 6.4 beta with my new Core 2 Duo, there's a noticeable improvement when I enable multithreading support — and it's not even a complete implementation yet (it only works for the instrument wrapper, not for effects). Definite benefits there.

  • http://www.1014.org Justin

    That was a nice SONAR advertisement.. So I'll mention here that REAPER supports multi-processor and multi-core systems wonderfully, as well as using processors in other machines on your local network (this feature is called ReaMote). http://www.reaper.fm/

    -Justin

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  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Orange, which Centrino Duo model is that?

    Justin, thanks for the addition of details from REAPER; as you know, we're fans here. Anyway, Steve is qualified to talk about the Cakewalk stuff … for me, the appeal of making a hardware investment like dual-core is that you can reap (sorry) benefits across a range of software you're using.

  • http://www.johnnyrandom.com/ flip

    I have seen some pretty massive gains from multiple CPU's in audio…In my projects on the past, as soon as you threw in a bunch of mastering plugins, impulse response reverbs and automation you would get audio overload error codes. Of course, if you were like me back then with everything on a G3 laptop, you saw this often and it was very frustrating to have to compromise. Even in today's laptops, you could have some real processing muscle, but still be shacked by slower hard drives + limitations of the amount of RAM you can have installed. I guess that's what drove me to use a Quad G5 with Logic Pro, which is coded to use all the processors. It now seems there's almost no limit to what I can throw at it, which is phenomenal…but there's always more to be desired: Faster hard drives or even better…faster hard drives with no moving parts. There are already solid state hard drives coming out in the laptop market. I'm sure anyone would agree that a silent computer would be a great asset. All the fans, clicking and whirring would never be missed. I'd say those are the top of my list, along with high end mics that are direct in. Can you imagine a really good condenser mic that simply plugs into a optical port or firewire port with no external audio card or pre-amp? Think of how portable and simple that could be if you were controlling it all with software…not to mention having the A/D conversion in the mic or the computer. Optical could also extend your mic to computer distance like crazy. I really believe that the future of extremely expensive outboard gear is going the way of the dinosaur and it couldn't happen sooner. My G5 with all the plugins has already replace rooms of gear I'd use 10 years ago, and without all the noise added to the signal from being routed all around. For now, I'll daydream and hope some product engineer reads this blog and takes us the next level :)

  • http://www.widecircles.com dennie

    Expensive lines make systems less flexible, not more. They lead to copies for efficiency, aka denormalization, which is another word for "bug waiting to happen". While this can be dealt with, doing so involves lots of nasty tradeoffs, with bugs a common outcome.More to the point "more modular and more flexible" is neither necessary nor sufficient for producing good software.

    ——————–

    dennie

    What do Multiple CPU Cores Mean for Music?

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