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The Sweetwater Creation Station DAW (Part 2)
Written by Scott R. Garrigus - © 2007, Scott R. Garrigus. All Rights Reserved.
This article is a continuation of The Sweetwater Creation Station DAW (Part 1)

These days for MIDI and synth tracks, I am exclusively in the box. Sure, I still have some hardware units sitting around from when I first got into computer music, but I never use them. So it stands to reason that the first thing I wanted to test was how well the Creation Station handles soft synths. I started with a basic project containing 15 MIDI tracks and a single instance of the Cakewalk TTS-1 General MIDI soft synth. Even with the high quality and low latency settings, I expected this to hardly put a dent in the CPU meters (CPU1, CPU2) and I was right. With all the tracks playing, the highest value either CPU meter got to was 15%. And even that is a little misleading because even though Sonar shares the load over both CPUs, it's not always an equal load. That 15% reading was on one CPU with the other at 0%.

For a bit more fun, I added the Perfect Space convolution reverb to the master bus. Now this is a big deal, because normally convolution reverbs can't be run in real-time. Whenever I tried it on my old DAW, I would get lots of popping and clicking. With the Creation Station, the CPU meters did get boosted (up to 32% at one point), but it worked! Then I wondered if I could take it a bit further and try playing the soft synth via my MIDI controller with Perfect Space still added. The result? An ever so slightly noticeable delay, but still playable. Not bad at all.

Okay, that test was pretty good but not very practical. More than likely I'd be using more than one soft synth in a project. So what if I took that first test and ran each track through a separate soft synth for a total of 15 Cakewalk TTS-1 soft synths running at once? With just the audio engine activated and no playback, this pushed the CPU meters up into the 60 to 70% range. During playback, the meters were bumped up to around 74%, but I also got a few clicks/pops here and there. To compensate, I moved the latency up to 4 msec, which brought the meters down to about 50% and eliminated the dropouts. As you can see, latency plays a big part in CPU usage and what's nice is you can go up to 10 msec without noticeable delay. Just for kicks I tried a 10 msec latency and that brought the meters down to about 36%.

Now because of the sound quality, I hardly ever use the TTS-1. Instead, one of my favorite soft synths is Colossus. So, for an even more practical test, I removed the TTS-1 instances from the project and added two instances of Colossus, which can play 8 sounds each. To my pleasant surprise (at 2 msec latency), the idle CPU reading was only 8% and during playback the highest reading was about 35%, but this was with only 2 synth tracks. For processing purposes, I added 8 synth tracks for each instance of Colossus and this bumped up the idle CPU to 19% and playback to about 56% at one point. For tweaking purposes, I added an EQ effect to each of the 16 synth tracks (CPU idle: 33%, playback: 70%). And for a final touch, I added Perfect Space to the master bus for readings of 47% idle and about 80% playback, but with a number of dropouts. Raising the latency to 4 msec fixed that.

Of course, with all projects you ultimately end up dealing with audio. Whether the project contains audio tracks recorded directly or frozen synth tracks (for final mix purposes), your DAW needs to provide great audio performance. I found that the Creation Station does not disappoint. For testing purposes, I started out building up an all-audio track project. I began with 10 tracks, then 20, then 30, and finally at 40 tracks I started to notice the strain with the Disk meter showing red and hovering around 95%. Keep in mind that these are 24-bit, 96Khz tracks. Not bad at all. Lowering the bit depth and/or sampling rate would easily lower the amount of power needed and up the track count. However, an even easier way to do this is to increase SONAR's I/O Buffer Size (under Options > Audio > Advanced). Initially, I was using a 128 KB buffer. Upping the buffer to 256 brought the Disk meter down to 66% and a 512 KB buffer brought the meter down to 42%. Also, with a 512 buffer I was able to double my track count to 80. Very nice. The only downside was a slight delay when starting playback because Sonar had to first fill the buffer.

Now back at 40 tracks with a 128 KB buffer and a latency of 2 msec, I was getting CPU: 30% and Disk: 95% readings. I wondered if I could record a track while playing back the 40 tracks? Yes! The readings stayed about the same. Okay, but what about when mixdown time comes along... could I add a significant amount of effects? First, I activated the built-in Sonitus EQ for each of the 40 tracks, which did nothing to the Disk usage (as expected), but bumped up the CPU usage to about 50%. Then I added the Perfect Space reverb to the master bus. This put the CPU meter at about 70%, but I also got some dropouts. Changing the latency to 4 msec brought the CPU down to about 55% and eliminated the dropouts. Of course, during mixdown you donít need a low latency setting so I could easily raise the latency up to 100 msec bringing the CPU down much farther, thus allowing me to use even more real-time effects.

Another reason for upgrading to a new DAW was to be able to access the new 64-bit versions of Windows and Sonar. 64-bit is definitely the future, but I've found that things are not quite ready for prime time yet... because of software incompatibilities. One thing I found surprising was that CPU usage wasn't much (if any) lower. I thought that there would be a significant decrease, but upon more research it seems the main advantage to 64-bit is memory (RAM) allocation. In this regard, 64-bit will allow more applications and plug-ins to be run at once. In addition, each application can access more than 2GB, which is the current limit under 32-bit.

I've worked with Sonar 64-bit (Iím talking about the 64-bit version of Sonar here, not the 64-bit audio engine it provides) for a short while and found that most things work quite well... audio recording, Groove-clips, etc. Sonar's own effects and soft synths work nicely too. It's when you start using third-party plug-ins that the trouble starts. Even with Sonar's BitBridge technology, I was unable to get some of my favorite soft synths to run, such as those from Native Instruments.

Such is life I guess... some things will just take a little more time to get ironed out and none of these 64-bit problems has anything to do with the Creation Station, which is ready to run any of the 64-bit applications you throw at it.

So even though 64-bit isn't quite ready for my needs just yet, I know that the Creation Station will allow me to access those features when the time is right. Until then, running under 32-bit provides me with plenty of power. My tests revealed that working with multiple soft synths, large audio projects, low latency, and even 24-bit, 96 KHz audio was no problem. I can use the Creation Station to make music, edit video, burn CDs and DVDs, and create just about any kind of professional multimedia content that I may need.

I want to give a special thanks to Mike Ross and Brad Lyons from Sweetwater for all their help. If you ever need assistance in obtaining new music gear, feel free to give Brad a call at: (800) 222-4700 x1362

If you want to find more information on the Creation Station series of DAWs, go to: The Sweetwater Creation Station Web Site

And to discuss this article, go to: Scott's New Sweetwater Creation Station DAW Discussion

For more information:
* The Sweetwater Creation Station DAW (Part 1)
* The Cakewalk Sonar Power! Book Series

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