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Scott R. Garrigus' DigiFreq(TM) - Sweetwater Creation Station DAW

ISSN: 1531-6505; Issue 32
Music technology downloads, news, articles, reviews, tips and tutorials for home recording and professional musicians. Over 20,000 readers can't be wrong!



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Scott's Notes - Sweetwater Creation Station DAW

This is a special issue of the DigiFreq newsletter. This issue contains the article about my experience with my new Sweetwater Creation Station DAW. I put the Station through a variety of tests and got some great results.

Don't worry... DigiFreq will be back to its regular format with lots of great articles, news, and downloads in the next issue.

So now, I give you my Creation Station experience...

Scott
http://www.digifreq.com/digifreq/

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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:
http://www.digifreq.com/digifreq/issues.asp

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.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
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.

STUDIO SETUP
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 I'm concerned, the Creation Station passed these tests with flying colors as you'll see.

SOFTWARE SYNTHESIZERS
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.

AUDIO PROJECTS
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 don't 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.

WHAT ABOUT 64-BIT?
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 (I'm 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.

PLENTY OF POWER
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:
Sweetwater Creation Station DAW Web Site

And to discuss this article, go to:
http://www.digifreq.com/digifreq/discuss/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=667

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Thanks!
Scott
http://www.digifreq.com/digifreq/

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Copyright 2007 by Scott R. Garrigus. All Rights Reserved.
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