Process Explorer is the essential portal to seeing what’s going on with CPU and memory activity on Windows. It was good enough that Microsoft bought the tool.

Any computer – Mac, Windows, and Linux – can experience degraded audio experience pretty fast if a background task starts stealing CPU or a driver is misbehaving. In contrast, a fully-tweaked Windows machine, equipped with a set of tools to diagnose potential problems, can be rock-solid for audio performance. That’s an especially big deal for those of us using computers for live music.

I think a lot of people’s Windows experience is especially colored by bad drivers, overzealous antivirus and security software they don’t actually need, and the crapware installed by many PC vendors. I know I had that experience when I came back to Windows a few years ago, following a long hiatus. (I’m now cross-platform.) I did what many people do: installed some ridiculous, bloated security suite from Symantec. I was blown away by how fast Windows was when I just turned the darned thing off. Linux and Mac OS are happily not cursed by these beasts, but any computer music setup, regardless of platform, can benefit from tuning what’s running and making sure music software comes first.

I recently put together a list of essential Windows tools for Rain Recording, one of a handful of custom PC builders that focus on music and audio customers. The first part of the list doesn’t include any music software per se – these are just essential parts of my PC tool belt to keep things running smoothly.

All of these tools are free, so they’re well worth a download.

The quick list:

1. Microsoft Process Explorer, at SysInternals: This should be your first stop for keeping an eye on CPU activity, watching what processes are active, and keeping your CPU fully free to focus on audio processing. The whole SysInternals site is an essential resource for Windows troubleshooting and information, too.

2. DPC Latency Checker: Getting unexplained audio glitches and dropouts on your PC? A lot of the time, hardware problems with other hardware may actually be the culprit. DPC Latency Checker performs a metric on Deferred Procedure Calls, a symptom of misbehaving hardware and drivers. Even a slightly-unseated PCI card can cause issues, so software isn’t always to blame.

3. Enabled/disabled VST folders: For VST plug-ins, I maintain an “experimental” folder of everything I’m playing with and then a “known safe” configuration. Then I keep a stable, installed directory I can point my hosts at.

4/5. Revo Uninstaller, Absolute Uninstaller: Getting rid of software is always a liberating experience. Revo wins points for being insanely thorough; Absolute has a nice batch-installer for quickly removing a lot of stuff.

6. Comodo Firewall Pro: This free firewall is well-behaved, light on your CPU, has powerful features, and can actually be more effective than traditional antivirus and anti-spyware software at protecting you from online threats. (And since, unlike those products, it doesn’t do resource-intensive scans, it has less of an impact on performance.)

7. Not Problematic Antivirus: The most important advice here is what you don’t run — namely, overaggressive security suites set to consume more resources than they should. If you must run antivirus, AVG8 Free is a good way to go — that is, after you turn some features off; see TweakGuides.com’s tweaked install configuration). See comments for some discussion on this point, and I think I may in fact revise my advice to go back to Avast. See also: avast! Home Edition, the free version. I’ll be testing this resource-wise versus my mostly turned-off AVG8 Free and will let you know how it goes.

8. Quick Startup: While removing software, you’ll also want to keep an eye on annoying processes that launch when you boot – or, alternatively, add stuff you do want to load. Quick Startup is an especially friendly way to do this.

9. Microsoft Management Console: Not all services have an impact on performance, but I have found some that do. services.msc can help you run a lean, mean system setup.

10. TweakUAC (Vista only): User Account Control does have some security benefits – or it can be one of the major annoyances in Vista. With TweakUAC, you can remove annoying (and audio glitch-causing) prompts while still retaining some of those security benefits, or temporarily switch off UAC for compatibility with certain tools (like old installers that haven’t been updated).

I’ve got some other tips and usage ideas in the story for Rain. Let me know what you think of this

advice. Got favorite tools of your own I missed?

Essential Toolkit for Windows – Part 1: Non-Music Tools You’ll Want for Music [Rain Recording]

More installments are planned in this series – next up will be (finally) actual music tools, so getting into the fun stuff. And I’ll have some configuration tips, as well. I think parallel lists for Mac OS X and Linux may also be in order, although the needs are a bit different on those platforms.

DPC Latency Checker can help diagnose audio glitches caused by hardware problems, with drivers or even causes as simple as an unseated card. There’s no reason to suffer through glitches and dropouts with the proper setup.
  • http://www.corporation.tk corporation

    many thanks for this list!

  • http://www.seanny.net te2rx

    something related to #8 would be StartupMonitor by Mike Lin, which gives you a prompt whenever some software tries to register itself in your startup routine.

    While it's audio-related, sweepgen is infinitely useful for diagnosing your monitoring setup. It's a configurable sinewave generator.

  • Al Michael

    June 28, 2008

    Dartmouth,Nova Scotia

    Very good advice. There are several apps. included at which I intend to take a closer look.

    Cheers!

    Allan

  • Dri

    AVGFree is quickly losing favour with it's recent updates. The nag screens and the massively increased amount of times it now insists on a reboot after an update are simply woeful. We had a thread on ITM about this and Avast! has won the lead.

    http://www.avast.com/

    Im ditching AVG on all my systems this weekend. There was a distinct week where AVG jumped the shark and I have had noticably slower performance. Perhaps a memory leak.

    Also dont start the geeks on talking about its web safe features. If you tell people to install AVG Peter you are telling them to skew your analytics! Do a search for "Avg web analytics" and taste the future, whether we like it or not.

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

    Thanks, Dri. Well, LinkSafe is definitely one of those features to turn off. That said, Dri, that does look serious. I had tried Avast! for a while … and, uh, yeah, I think you've just convinced me to go back.

    The open source ClamWin is interesting, too, but it's self-described as a server product.

  • Kyran

    I recommend avast! antivirus to all people that want such a software suite. It really gets the job done, without much system overhead.

    The best way to go for audio systems is to just be very cautious and don't install that sort of software

    (preferably do all your surfing on a good linux distro)

    Another indispensible windows tool is the nLite windows installer. It allows you to slipstream all updates into your install, and most importantly allows you to remove all the windows bloat you don't need (including say windows mediaplayer). The performance you can gain with doing an extremely light windows install is huge. (but you need to be willing to spend some time on it, because it's easy to turn off too many things)

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

    @Kyran: Totally agreed on nLite, and there's now a Vista version, as well. It does seem to be generally possible to disable things post-installation, though of course it is nice to have a reusable image.

    I'm definitely switching back to avast! after all this advice. Maybe I'll do a similar configuration guide to the AVG Free one above. (I do find that using the AVG Free advice, even AVG8 is fine — as the poster on that forum says, the results are at least predictable.)

    One bit of bloat I've had trouble disabling is the Media Center crap in Vista Ultimate. Even turning off the services seems not to stop a misbehaved service called mcupdate.exe. I might just recommend Vista Business instead, but I'll keep trying…

  • Kyran

    My issue with vista is that it thinks it's smarter than you (this goes for osx too, to some extend)

    It's one thing to hide configuration options, it's another to take them away entirely. If you're trying to do something which vista thinks is unsafe, but you know is good, then you have to do a lot unsafer things to get it working (if you can get it working at all)

  • Hyram H.

    Honestly, the issue of running a firewall or antivirus software on a music-production computer is laughable. A music-production computer should not even have the internet!

    I've got one Windows machine here that I use occasionally for musical purposes, but I have it set up as a dual-boot system with two installs of Windows XP that I can choose from when I (re)start the machine. The first one is for everything — net duties, software checking, the occasional game, and it has all the usual CPU-hungry protection software added. It does have Reason (for quick scratchpadding) and Cantabile (for quick VST testing) but I don't use it for anything musically serious.

    The second is a trimmed-down XPSP1 that is *just* for music — no AV, no Windows updates, nothing, I've even disabled the ethernet in the hardware profile, it just has my music apps and plug-ins. If I need to download anything for music-making, that happens on the normal install where it'll get the usual anti-malware once-over before I copy it to the music partition.

    If you make music using Windows-oriented software, then using a dual-boot arrangement like this is the only way to do it properly.

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

    @Hyram: "A music production computer should not even have the internet" — well, up to how you want to handle this.

    But if you're going to go to that extreme, then you've got some options. You could run VMware or virtualbox or other virtualization with Linux or Windows as your browsing machine. You could also dual-boot Linux, given that you're dual booting.

    I'll say this, as well: I think it's perfectly possible to run a music machine that's connected. To me, I'm willing to put in the (relatively small) amount of work to make that functional so my music/life workflow isn't interrupted. But your route is another way to go, and it could be a productive one — especially via virtualization so you don't have to completely reboot. I'm not sure I'd find either "laughable" necessarily, but that's your prerogative.

  • Farhan

    Thanx a super lot!A low end laptop producer like me really needs that!Thanx again!!May god gift u an access virus ti

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  • Amaury

    Not exactly softwares but well worth the read:

    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep06/articles/pc

    and the old famous Tascam guide: Optimizing Windows 2000 and Windows XP for Audio
    http://www.tascam.com/products/computer_recording

    Although this latest link seems to point to a document it appears empty… If anyone has a better link.

  • http://www.muloka.com/ Louis Muloka

    got a list for mac users?

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  • http://www.document02.com Document 02

    Avast has not been performing great lately.. I even had computers with avast and reportedly no viruses, until I installed a working one. I personally go for antivir. interface is not great and you get a popup after updates, but detection rate is great and it is the smoothest on ressources I experienced.

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  • NN77

    @ Amaury

    Optimizing Windows 2000 and Windows XP for Audio

    …working link…
    http://www.xelenio.com/basica/W2k_XP_Optimize.pdf

  • dubtruth

    1. clamwin is the best a/v out there, and its free – been using it for many years and it always catches shit none of the other big names do. all virus protection should be free.

    2. i second hyram: i have had so many system crashes (many self inflicted by installing questionable audio software) that i finally wised up and made my system dual boot. both partitions are windows 7 ultimate: one i use for my "sandbox" and to test "questionable" software, the other is my "audio production" install which i only install tried and tested stuff on. both can be used for music production but if the sandbox goes down or is infected, nothing mission-critical is lost/dirty and i just restore from backup. you can keep your audio production computer connected to the internet IF you can stay disciplined and not install things you are unsure about or visit dirty sites. i have also used virtualization (oracle makes a nice free product i use) to take a piece of software, install in the VM environment, and then scan for infection / malicious code.