A few years back I decided to get a new PC dedicated to audio work. I also wanted to try building the system myself (well, sort of). What I ended up doing was getting a barebones Shuttle XPC system that already had the main system components (motherboard, CPU, memory, etc). Then I added the CD burner (now a DVD burner), soundcard, video card, etc. I also tweaked the system for optimal performance. You can find more information about the system by grabbing issue 18 of the DigiFreq newsletter at:
DigiFreq Newsletter Back Issues.
I still use that Shuttle system today for various tasks and it's still running great. But about 6 months ago I got to the point where I just needed some more power... more CPU power, more hard drive power, more RAM, as well as the ability to run 64-bit software. This time around I decided to have someone else do all the work. Was it more expensive? You bet. But it was also less time consuming because I didn't have to lift a finger. The entire system was built and optimized for me. I just had to pay the bill. What I ended up getting was the Sweetwater Creation Station Rack Dual Core 3.2 (they now have a 3.4) GHz - their top-of-the-line model. I won't bore you with a long list of specs. You can find those at the Sweetwater web site:
Sweetwater Creation Station DAW Web Site.
I did, however, have Sweetwater make some customizations, just for me. Normally, the system comes with 2 GB of RAM, but I wanted more than that so I had them bump it up to 4 GB. The system can actually handle up to 8 GB and eventually I'll upgrade it to that. I also wanted the ability to run both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows so I could stay compatible with older 32-bit software, but try out the new 64-bit applications that are coming out now. To handle this situation, I had Sweetwater create a dual-boot system so I can boot up into either version of Windows. One problem I've run into with this is that the system drive that comes with the Creation Station is only 80 GB and with a dual-boot system that drive is cut in half for each version of Windows. It's not a big problem yet, but I'll probably upgrade the system drive to a larger size at some point. I also made sure to inquire if the system could run Windows Vista (which I will eventually need) and Sweetwater said yes.
When I received my new Creation Station, I was surprised at its size and weight. This thing is a monster. I didn't have the ability to weigh it, but as far as the size goes it's approximately 16.75 inches wide, 19 inches long (depth), and 7 inches in height. Despite this, it fits quite nicely in a rack mount case. The back of the unit may stick out (depending on the size of your rack), but this is actually a good thing since that's where the extra PC case vents are located. The case is extremely rugged with nice swing out doors on the front to access the power switch, DVD drive and media card reader, and you can even lock it with the provided front panel lock and key. This is handy for studio environments where you don't want clients accidentally rebooting your rig. And even though the Creation Station is big and powerful, it isn't very loud. Of course, the system isn't completely silent, but it doesn't make any more noise than my tiny Shuttle XPC, especially when you have it mounted in a rack. Sweetwater did a nice job with the acoustic treatment.
In addition to the great hardware specs, the Creation Station comes with a number of software applications. There are a couple of utilities like PC Probe II and the Intel Matrix Storage Manager, which allow you to monitor your PC hardware and manage your SATA hard drives, respectively. You also get some media playback software like QuickTime and CyberLink PowerDVD - I haven't found these particularly useful, but you might. What I have found useful is the Nero OEM software including Nero Express, which lets you make quick disc copies, burn audio and data discs, etc. Sweetwater also includes some other useful tools under their own Sweetwater Applications folder, such as MusicTrainer, SetMaker, and TimePad utilities, as well as some test tone and tuning audio files. And if you get into trouble and need some remote help, there's the SweetCare Remote application, which allows your Sweetwater rep to remotely access your PC for tech support.
Some demo software from Sony and Waves is included, which some people might like. I already have plenty of Sony software and I can't afford Waves so I didn't want the demos taking up my precious hard drive space. Luckily, none of the Sony or Waves demos are actually installed. They are provided as ready-to-install files so a quick delete of the C:\Sony Demo Installers and C:\Waves Demo Installers folders was all that was needed.
The most useful piece of software included with the Creation Station is Acronis True Image. You get the OEM edition, but it provides plenty of power. Acronis allows you to create back up images of your system drives as well as bootable rescue discs. This software will save your life when your hard drive crashes or your system becomes corrupt. It will also allow you to restore your Creation Station to its original factory configuration if you ever get the point where you want to start all over again in terms of application installations, etc.
To put the Creation Station through its paces, I put together a studio and software configuration that would really pull a lot of power from the system. For an audio interface, I used the Sonar Power Studio 660 (same as the Edirol FA-66), which provides both audio and MIDI connections. I also used Cakewalk Sonar 6 Producer and an Edirol PCR-M80 keyboard controller.
To really tax the system, I setup Sonar and the 660 interface for high quality audio and extremely low latency. Specifically, here are the settings that I used:
* Bit-Depth: 24-bit. I always use 24-bit because even if the final product is CD-Audio, 24-bit provides greater headroom, better processing, and the ability to go to DVD later if the need arises.
* Sampling Rate: 96 kHz. Sometimes I use 96 kHz and some I use 48 kHz. Of course, 96 kHz takes more CPU power and disk space, but if I think the project has even the slightest chance of going to DVD, this is what I'll use. Otherwise, 48 kHz works just fine.
* Sonar 64-bit Double Precision Engine: On. I always have this Sonar option activated because it provides a much better sound, but of course, it also takes more CPU power.
* WDM Sound Card Drivers and Latency: 2.0 msec. For these tests I used WDM drivers with the lowest latency setting I could get - 2.0 msec. As you'll see a little bit later, I had some problems with this low setting, but anything below 10 msec works fine when playing soft synths in real-time. When mixing, I usually raise this depending on how many effects I'm running for the project.
* Sonar Use Multiprocessing Engine: On. This is the only option that actually helps the CPU load, but hey, why have a dual-core system if you're not going to take advantage of the extra power it provides, right?
Keep in mind that I purposely used very low latency settings in my tests to see exactly how far I could go before the Creation Station started to get bogged down. But most of the time these low latency settings are not needed. For playing soft synths live or overdubbing audio, you can raise the latency up to 10 msec without hearing delays. And for most work, like mixing, editing, synth programming/playback, you can easily raise the latency to a much higher value to bring the CPU load down. As far as Iím concerned, the Creation Station passed these tests with flying colors as youíll see.
For more information:
* The Sweetwater Creation Station DAW (Part 2)
* Sweetwater Creation Station DAW Web Site
* The Cakewalk Sonar Power! Book Series
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