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DAWs R US

December 1, 2004
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Four years ago in the August 2000 issue of EM, I declared that the preconfigured audio computer had come of age. Today, however, of the four companies that I covered, only one remains in business.

FIG. 1: The compact, lunchbox-style DAWin QB-4 Mini PC DAW (pictured above) from ­Digital Audio Wave requires a specially shaped motherboard but still fits full-size PCI cards.

Although only one company mentioned in the August 2000 article is still in business, many new companies have come into existence since then. There are now enough companies building and configuring music- and audio-production computers that I am unable to review all of them here. Audio professionals now have the option of researching the best company to build their PC rather than researching the best components, manufacturers, software, hardware, and system tweaks.

WHY NOT DIY?

Mass manufacturers build and configure their products for the average computer user, and yet audio professionals are anything but average users. Audio professionals routinely push their CPUs to the limit. When a system comes up short or fails outright, there is the potential for a loss of creative opportunity and money.

At the very least, audio professionals must tweak mass-market computers to remove unnecessary applications and features, configure the Windows OS so that more processing power is allocated for background applications, enable DMA on IDE drives, and disable automatic virus scanning. If those tweaks sound odd or confusing, then you're a prime candidate for purchasing a preconfigured digital audio workstation (DAW). While some audio professionals might bring home a carload of boxes to assemble their own DAWs from scratch, others have neither the time nor the inclination to build their own computer.

FIG. 2: Carillon's unique rackmount (4U) case is designed to be especially quiet. Extra features such as the transport controls and Neutrik connector add to its convenience.

Shopping for the right computer components and ensuring that they all work together (in addition to working with your current audio software and hardware) takes a lot of research. A custom DAW vendor has already done the homework for you, so you can spend your time making music. If you run into any glitches, the vendor's tech support is there to guide you. If the vendor has properly done its job, then you should have little if anything to do other than plug and play.

Expect to pay for the vendor's time and expertise; the time you spend creating instead of tweaking, however, may well cover that cost. Component prices from the vendors that I surveyed were only slightly higher than typical computer-warehouse prices. By the time you add everything up for a complete DAW, you can expect to pay a premium of approximately $200 more than you would for a mass-marketed PC. The premium increases as the complexity of the system grows, and it varies from vendor to vendor. It pays to shop around.

WHERE THE DAWS ARE

Digital Audio Wave has a dizzying array of DAW configurations, including a number of audio-hardware and -software options. The company's Web site (www.digitalaudiowave.com) explains the types of tweaks that make a preconfigured DAW worthwhile, from disabling unnecessary background services to minimizing noise from fans and drives.

Digital Audio Wave's products include standard towers, laptops, and handy lunchbox-size cases (see Fig. 1). Audio interfaces from M-Audio, RME, Aardvark, Lynx, and other manufacturers are available, as are most of the common DAW applications. The company will even install and configure the hardware and software that you already own.

Carillon Audio Systems has been around for several years and features systems designed as GigaStudio farms, road rigs, and Pro Tools HD systems (www.carillondirect.com). Its unique rackmountable case is heavily insulated for noise reduction and has transport controls, MIDI controller knobs, optional removable drive bays, and even a Neutrik connector on the front panel (see Fig. 2).

A wide variety of application-specific configurations is available, including systems tailored to guitarists that have amp simulators and a foot controller. Alternatively, you can start with a core system and customize to your heart's content. Carillon also offers laptop configurations, although the company's Web site doesn't provide much detail about them. Audio and MIDI interfaces from several major audio manufacturers are available.

Wave Digital Systems makes desktop, tower, rackmount, and lunchbox-style systems as well as laptop DAWs (www.wavedigital.com). It is also a reseller for Apple and Carillon systems. The company's Sonar- and Cubase-specific systems come in Basic, Intermediate, Professional, and “Ludicrous” (high-powered) configurations.

Sonic Blade Systems manufactures the 2U-rackmount SonicBlade DAW (www.sonicblade.com). The company is known for its all-aluminum chassis, which efficiently dissipates heat. Other configurations are lunchbox-style and three different 4U-rackmount models, one of which, called SonicSymphony, is a dual-processor system. Sonic Blade Systems has audio interfaces from M-Audio and RME; alternatively, the company will install your existing interface at no charge.

pcAudiolabs goes beyond preconfigured DAWs, offering hardware and software, educational CD-ROMS, user forums, manufacturer and interest-based links, and free information about optimizing your Windows XP DAW (www.pcaudiolabs.com). The company also has custom DAWs of every description. pcAudiolabs' simple and informative custom configuration applet allowed me to quickly and easily design a $4,700 DAW. If its computers are in the same league as its Web site, pcAudiolabs is worth checking out.

Vision Digital Audio Workstations sells a variety of computer configurations, from rackmount to notebook (www.visiondaw.com). Systems can be preconfigured with GigaStudio and the EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra sample library, an attractive setup for the composer who wants something to play right out of the box.

Alternate Mode, makers of the DrumKAT and other MIDI controllers, has the PowerRack and HyperCube systems (www.powerrackpc.com). These turnkey systems can be used as sound sources for Alternate Mode's controllers or as DAWs in their own right.

Central Computer Systems has audio-specific configurations as well as systems that are more traditional (www.centralcomputer.com). The company offers options that run the gamut of audio interfaces and software.

Open Labs makes standalone DAWs and an extremely powerful computer-based keyboard called the OMX OpenStudio (www.openlabs.com). This lean, mean workstation can be configured with dual AMD Opteron processors for a high-performance host-based machine. The OpenSynth neKo is essentially the same computer built into a keyboard controller that has a touch screen and configurable controllers. It may be the ultimate synthesis of host-based virtual instruments and a controller. Open Labs has stripped down the Windows XP OS so much that the company has even bypassed the Explorer shell. If you are interested in something to power all of your VST instruments, then this may be what you're looking for. You need to be aware, however, that unlike other vendors' systems, you are dependent on Open Labs for any Windows XP bug fixes and updates. If Open Labs discontinues support for any reason, then you'll be stuck.

THE X FACTOR

The gaming industry has grown enormously during the past few years, even though the movie and music industries have been in a slump. Serious gamers build and customize their own computers, trade performance tweaks online, and purchase preconfigured systems from game-savvy specialty companies. The needs of audio professionals and gamers overlap significantly — they both need streamlined, powerful processors. As a result, some gaming-computer manufacturers have focused their attention on audio computers.

FIG. 3: The award for the coolest-looking custom DAW goes to the Alienware Ozma, which looks as though it were designed under the influence of H.R. Giger.

Alienware (www.alienware.com), for example, produces a case that looks like something out of an H. R. Giger painting, which is a brilliant strategy to win the hearts and minds of gamers (see Fig. 3). The company also sells business computers and workstations for creative professionals such as video- and audio-content developers. The specs for Alienware's Ozma line of audio workstations are powerful CPUs, ample memory, upgradability, and capacious storage. The graphics cards may be more than what a DAW needs. On the other hand, as audio applications come to depend more heavily on high-resolution graphics, the conventional wisdom that DAWs are better served by minimalist graphics cards may become less accurate.

The only audio cards currently offered in Alienware's DAW line are the Delta 66 and Delta 1010 from M-Audio. Although they are fine cards, more options would be welcome. Several audio applications are available with the Ozma, such as Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, Adobe Audition, and Sony Sound Forge. Be aware, however, that those applications do not come preinstalled, so installation and configuration is up to you. That is unfortunate, because it moves Alienware closer to being a generic manufacturer than an audio-friendly boutique.

XleratedAudio (www.xleratedaudio.com), which is a division of XleratedPC, is another gaming-computer manufacturer. The company's AudioStation and SampleStation systems are available in three performance levels, with AMD Athlon 64 processors ranging from 2800+ to 3400+ and as much as 1.5 GB of RAM. For audio I/O, XleratedAudio has the RME series of audio interfaces. The AudioBox is a rackmountable configuration that, according to the company, occupies a half rackspace. Although AudioBox is a half rackspace in width, it is 8¼ inches high and 13½ inches deep. AudioBox offers several M-Audio interfaces as well as the RME products.

XleratedAudio will install and configure an array of audio applications, such as Tascam GigaStudio, Steinberg Cubase SX or SL, and Propellerhead Reason. The company can also configure the system for various applications that you may already own. The configuration applet even allows you to request specific customizations that are not listed on the menu.

BETTER SHOP AROUND

When you're ready to begin shopping around for a DAW, start by checking out several company Web sites and compare their configurations and prices. That will give you a good idea of what you can get for your money. Spend time studying the special features that manufacturers build into their systems. Once you've done your homework, email or call manufacturers to ask any follow-up questions that you may have.

Unless you plan to put your computer in a quiet enclosure, pay special attention to vendors that use quiet components, mount the drives with rubber gaskets, and insulate the cases to prevent sound transmission and rattles. Keep in mind that quiet for a gamer's PC is not necessarily quiet by an audio professional's standards.

Ask vendors what features make their products superior to others. Vendors may not want to give away every trade secret, but they should be more than happy to brag about their expertise and give you some concrete examples of it.

Make sure that you compare apples to apples, and don't forget to factor in the cost of audio and MIDI interfaces, video monitors, and shipping. If you opt for a custom configuration, be sure to get the price in writing before giving the company your credit card number.

Last but not least, don't forget to check with your favorite music retailer. Many of them provide custom-configured DAWs as a service to their customers. You may already know the right people to talk to if you encounter a problem. If the retailer knows you're a loyal customer, then that may help you get a good deal, good support, or both.

When it comes to DAWs, audio professionals have their pick of qualified pros that can assemble an optimized system. Research is the key to purchasing a custom system that meets your specific needs.


Brian Smithers teaches Music Technology at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. He is the author of SONAR 3 Ignite! (Muska & Lipman, 2004).

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