Optimizing Your DAW

From Sonar

Home Page * Getting Started * Workflow * Tips, Techniques and Tutorials * Errors and Workarounds * Making Music * Composing, Arranging & Songwriting * Optimizing Your DAW * Recording Gear * Included Components * Third-Party Effects * Third-Party Virtual Instruments * Computer Systems and Components * Free Downloads * External SONAR resources

You can't expect optimal performance from SONAR (or any other DAW software) with your computer and OS configured as they were right out of the box. Digital audio has its own special needs. Here are a series of things you can do to optimize your system.


Optimizing SONAR

Freeze or Archive Tracks

To increase the resources available to SONAR, use its Freeze option on tracks you're not currently working on, especially those with effects on them. This can take a huge load off your CPU, allowing you to do more with your current system and song, while letting you hear the frozen audio.

If you have spare takes, stuff you can do without for the moment, or other things you don't need to hear for your current purposes, use SONAR's Archive function. This will mute the audio in question, and will keep it from being loaded into memory.

Note that SONAR does load muted tracks to memory, so muting will give you no performance gain.

Adjust Latency For The Task At Hand

When tracking (recording), you want as short a latency as possible. The shorter the latency, the closer your recordings are timewise to where they should be in your project.

But when doing editing, mixing, mastering --anything besides recording in real time-- you can turn your latency up as high as you want. This will greatly increase the number of tracks you can work with, while reducing audible "pops" and drop-outs at the same time.

Optimizing Windows

Make a separate user account for audio recording

A separate user account lets you eliminate all the autostart programs and processes that you don't need while doing audio, but do need when doing unimporant things like e-mail, web browsing, work, etc. This also lets you get rid of eyecandy, system sounds, and so on that you may want when you're not using SONAR.

To create a new user account

Under Windows XP, go to Settings, then Control Panel and then User Accounts. From there create a new account. Giving the account administrator privileges will almost certainly save you from future headaches when installing or using software.

Then reboot your computer and log into this special DAW account when you use SONAR.

Once in your new DAW user account, you can choose to eliminate sounds, anti-aliasing, menu shadows, menu animation, cursor shadows and other resource-wasting effects.

To kill most Windows XP eye candy:

You can eliminate most of Windows' graphical doodads by going to Settings | Control Panel | System, and then choosing the Advanced tab and clicking on the "Settings" button in Performance. Once there, you should already be on the Visual Effects tab. Select Custom and then uncheck all the graphical extras you can live without. There is no risk whatsoever involved in these changes.

To prevent programs from running automatically at start up:

You can prevent many or most programs that run automatically at Windows startup from doing so. You can do this with any number of programs, including the freeware Autoruns and Quick Startup. As always, the trick is to eliminate everything possible, without eliminating anything vital.

Autoruns is an extremely powerful program -- so powerful that it can hose your system with one click if you don't know what you're doing. So be very careful, and read through its forum first!

Use your hardware profile to disable services

Use the DAW-only hardware profile you will make in the Optimizing Your Computer section to disable unnecessary services. Most Windows services are not necessary for SONAR's purposes, and they take up RAM and CPU cycles, and can also do the most annoying things at times, some of which will disrupt or corrupt up your recording.

It should be noted that not everyone agrees that turning off services is wise, nor is it well proven that disabling services will provide any measurable performance gain. One website that provided extensive information about disabling services was the now-defunct BlackViper.com. A reader at the computer website AnandTech decided to implement BlackViper's suggestions and then measure performance before and after the modificiations. His findings were posted in the AndandTech Forums. The result? Almost no measurable performance gain.

With that caveat, disabling some scheduled tasks such as the screen saver, desktop cleanup wizard, and power saving functions can result in fewer audio glitches. If you wish to further tweak the Windows services, do so at your own risk.

Copy your current DAW-only hardware profile and give it a new name (e.g. "DAW01", "DAW02", etc.). Then go into Administrative Tools and then Services and disable exactly one service under that particular profile. Then reboot into your new hardware profile and make sure everything is okay. Then rinse, lather and repeat, using a new hardware profile each time (that's the reason for the sequential numbering in the profile name examples).

This level of caution is necessary because you can literally lock yourself out of your current install of Windows if you disable the wrong service. So be very careful! If you do get into such a situation, just reboot and choose the previous hardware profile.

There are many guides about what each Windows service does, including one from Microsoft and another from TechSpot.

As has been stated before, disabling services can be a dangerous affair if you make a mistake. That said, here is a list of services that are often disabled to improve DAW use. We make no guarantee as to the safety of disabling any service, and remind you that you are solely responsible for any consequences of disabling services:

  • Alerter
  • Application Layer Gateway Service
  • Automatic Updates
  • Background Intelligent Transfer Service
  • DHCP Client
  • Distributed Link Tracking Client
  • Distributed Transaction Coordinator
  • DNS Client
  • Error Reporting Service
  • Fast User Switching Compatibility
  • Help and Support
  • Human Interface Device Access (Note that this will disable multimedia keyboards' special buttons, as well as special mouse button functions on buttons other that the standard two)
  • Indexing Service
  • Internet Connection Firewall (ICF)
  • Internet Connection Sharing (ICS)
  • IPSEC Services
  • Messenger
  • MS Software Shadow Copy Provider
  • NetMeeting Remote Desktop Sharing
  • Network DDE
  • Network DDE DSDM
  • NT LM Security Support Provider
  • Performance Logs and Alerts
  • Print Spooler
  • Protected Storage
  • QoS RSVP
  • Remote Access Auto Connection Manager
  • Remote Access Connection Manager
  • Remote Desktop Help Session Manager
  • Remote Registry
  • Routing and Remote Access
  • Secondary Logon
  • Security Accounts Manager
  • Shell Hardware Detection
  • Smart Card
  • Smart Card Helper
  • SSDP Discovery Service
  • System Event Notification
  • System Restore Service
  • Task Scheduler
  • TCP/IP NetBIOS Helper
  • Telephony
  • Telnet
  • Terminal Services
  • Themes
  • Volume Shadow Copy
  • WebClient
  • WMI Performance Adapter

Turn off virtual memory or set your page file to a fixed size

Your page file is your virtual memory -- when your RAM is used up (and often before then, due to the way certain Windows features work) part of it is written to the page file, which, as it is on your hard drive, is incredibly slow. Also, this very heavy disk activity involved has a good chance of causing drop-outs or pops and crackles in your audio.

One option to solve this problem is turning off your virtual memory. This completely eliminates the problem, but it entails a serious risk: once your RAM us used up, you're system is going to go crazy and you can forget about drop-outs and glitches -- just saving your SONAR project will be a challenge. If you even have the chance to try. So choose this option only if you have a massive amount of RAM, and only if you are prepared to face the consequences.

You can turn off your virtual memory by going to Settings | Control Panel | System, and then choosing the Advanced tab and clicking on the "Settings" button in Performance. Once there, click on Settings, select the Advanced tab, and click on the Change button in the "Virtual Memory" section at the bottom. Then look for any drive with a page file on it, click on it, select Custom Size and then enter 0 as the value for both Initial Size (MB)" and "Maximim Size (MB)". Then reboot and you will have no more virtual memory.

A less drastic option is to set your page file to a fixed size. This greatly reduces disk activity during page file use, as the page file can neither grow nor shrink, which is another operation entirely (in addition to Windows actually using the page file).

To set your virtual memory to a fixed size (1.5 times the size of your RAM is the generally recommended amount), go to Settings | Control Panel | System, and then choose the Advanced tab and click on the "Settings" button in Performance. From there, you click on Settings, select the Advanced tab, and click on the Change button in the "Virtual Memory" section at the bottom. Then look for any drive with a page file on it, click on it, select Custom Size and then enter the same value (2048 for 2 GB of virtual memory, for example) as the value for both Initial Size (MB)" and "Maximim Size (MB)". Then reboot and you will have a fixed page file size.

Set Processor Scheduling for Background Services

Normally, Windows XP is set to give higher priority to the program that you are currently working in (the one which is focused). This would seem to make sense for DAW use, but for maximum performance set this to Background services. This allows effects, synthesizers, and everything else besides the main SONAR thread to have an equal chance at grabbing the CPU and will provide more even DAW performance.

You can give background processes priority by going to Settings | Control Panel | System, and then choosing the Advanced tab and clicking on the "Settings" button in Performance. Then click on Settings, select the Advanced tab, and select Processor Scheduling to "Background services". You will probably need to reboot to make this change take effect.

However, some say that this setting may make audio performance worse. See this post by Noel Borthwick from cakewalk.

Optimizing Your Computer

Fix your PCI latencies

Your PCI latencies are almost guaranteed to be configured in the worst possible way out of the box. Typically, video card makers assign the maximum value (meaning the most access) to their devices, leaving other equipment --like your sound card-- precious little PCI bandwidth to use.

A good freeware tool for this purpose is PCI Latency Tool. You can also use Entech's Power Strip, which is a US$29.95 shareware app that only incidentally allows you to adjust PCI latencies -- its main uses are video-card related.

There are no ideal PCI latency values for each device in your system -- this is something you will have to experiment with.

Hard Drive Configuration

  • A separate hard drive will give you better performance. Failing that, a separate partition for the audio data on your existing hard drive will be better. (Note: the idea that storing your audio files on separate partition will somehow improve performance in Sonar is not strongly supported by evidence. Storing your audio data on a separate hard drive from your operating system does provide a measurable performance gain, however.) If you keep your audio data on the Windows drive, you will find that files quickly become fragmented (chopped into little pieces by Windows and sprayed at random around your hard drive, slowing down both reading and writing) and performance can be affected as the system continually accesses the drive to save temporary files, use virtual memory, etc.
  • You should not enable file compression on any audio drive, as it will drastically reduce performance.
  • You should format all audio drives using the NTFS file system -- avoid FAT or FAT32.
  • You should regularly defragment your hard drive to keep it running as smoothly as possible. To do this, right-click on the drive in Explorer and select Properties. Click on the Tools tab, select Defragmentation and then "Defragment Now", and hit the Defragment button in the Disk Defragmenter window.
  • You might also want to delve into the world of RAID, as it can potentially give near double the performance of single drive systems and can be configured for automatic data redudancy.
  • If you are considering using SATA drives, read this SONAR forum post first. Many people have had serious problems when they have SONAR's audio data stored on a SATA drive. Use IDE or external drives for this purpose. Note that having Windows or SONAR itself on a SATA drive does not seem to affect performance.
  • To calculate the amount of disk space you need for a recording, consider that as a rule of thumb, one minute of stereo 44.1kHz/24 bit audio will take up roughly 15MB of disk space. So just multiply up by the number of tracks times the number of minutes to get an idea of the disk space needed for the recording. For example, a 4-minute, 10-track stereo song will need approximately 600MB of disk space at these rates.

Set up a recording-only hardware profile

Set up a recording-only hardware profile and disable absolutely every device and service you can. And I mean everything -- network interfaces, modems, Firewire ports, DVD drives, USB ports, parallel and serial ports, floppy drives, game ports, PS/2 ports, and various virtual devices added by programs for DVD burning, drive emulation, etc. In short, disable everything you can without disabling your system or SONAR's functioning.

To do this in Windows XP hit WIN+PAUSE to bring up the System Properties control panel, select the Hardware tab, and click on the Hardware Profiles button at the bottom. Then select your current hardware profile, hit Copy, and rename the copy to something like "SONAR" or "DAW".

Then reboot, select this profile at boot time when given the choice, go into Device Manager and start eliminating devices one by one from your new hardware profile. Do this by right clicking on the device, choosing Properties, and selecting "Do not use this device in the current hardware profile (disable)" under Device Usage at the bottom of the General tab.

Give Your Sound Card Its Own IRQ

An IRQ is a request for some processor time that programs, services and drivers send to the CPU. When more than one device shares a single IRQ, there can be conflicts that produce drop-outs and other problems.

Windows XP automatically assigns IRQs if you have it installed as ACPI (which nearly everyone does). This is normally good, as XP does a fairly solid job of this, and even when it assigns many devices to one IRQ (typically a virtual one) things normally work well.

But not always. Especially for DAW applications.

XP won't let you reassign IRQs, and it ignores whatever ones you assign in the BIOS, so your only real recourse is to move your audio interface / sound card from one PCI slot to the next, which will change your card's IRQ. Thoroughly test your system's audio performance after each change of slot.

You may also do well to eliminate any PCI cards you can do without (how about that old modem you haven't used in years?).

Making your DAW quieter

Here's an article in PC Mag on reducing the noise put out by your computer.


Killing pesky services and apps that refuse to die

For whatever reason, XP doesn't always respect the configuration changes you make to stop services, and will start some of them regardless of your choice to disable them (some apps launch services). Also, your attempts to keep programs from running automatically on Windows' start up may also fail (some services launch processes).

To take care of this, use SysInternals' free PsTools Application Suite in conjunction with a batch file. Note that your antivirus or antispyware apps may tell you that one of the apps (PsKill) is a rootkit and needs to be eliminated. Well, it is a rootkit in large part, but don't eliminate it -- it's a benevolent one that couldn't do what it does without being one.

Unzip and drop the PsTools executables somewhere in your path (C:\\Windows\\System32\\ will do nicely). Create a text file on your desktop (or elsewhere if you prefer) and put something like the following in the text file:

psservice stop SERVICENAME1

psservice stop SERVICENAME2

psservice stop SERVICENAME2

pskill -t PROCESSNAME01

pskill -t PROCESSNAME02

pskill -t PROCESSNAME03

Then save it, change the extention of the file from .txt to .bat, and double click on it to execute it. Or put it in your Programs | Startup folder. This will exterminate just about any service or program you want, including ones that will cause an immediate blue screen if stopped.

You can find process (application) names in Task Manager. But when it comes to services' names, you need the real (non-friendly) ones and not the friendly ones Windows shows you. To find processes' real names, open a command line (hit WIN+R and then type cmd and ENTER), type psservice, and hit enter.

This will produce the single largest spewing forth of information you've probably ever seen in a CLI. And you'll lose 90% of it because it will have gone in and out of the buffer. So before you do this, hit the icon on the top left of the "DOS" box, select "Defaults", go to the Layout tab, and put something on the order of 3000 in the Screen Buffer height box. Then type psservice, and --if you're not a masochist, at least-- copy it all, paste it in your favorite text editor, and search for "RUNNING". A couple lines above each instance of that you'll find the internal name for each service.

Home Page * Getting Started * Workflow * Tips, Techniques and Tutorials * Errors and Workarounds * Making Music * Composing, Arranging & Songwriting * Optimizing Your DAW * Recording Gear * Included Components * Third-Party Effects * Third-Party Virtual Instruments * Computer Systems and Components * Free Downloads * External SONAR resources

Personal tools