In my last column I explored the issues of whether a composer today only needs one computer or at least a second one, commonly referred to as a slave. I also discussed the pros and cons of a second Mac versus a PC or a “Hackintosh”.
Many readers told me they found it helpful in clarifying their personal needs. It also resulted in my re-evaluating my own needs.
Until a little over a year ago, I was quite content running the libraries of my choice on my now venerable 2.66 2006 Quad Core Mac, with 13 GB RAM, running off good quality 7200 drives. Sure, once in a while I had to bounce some software instruments to audio, but since I don’t get hired to do massive orchestral reproduction, it was not much of an issue.
Then came EastWest/Quantum Leap Hollywood Strings. For the first time I could NOT run as much as I wanted to of a library as I wanted to without bouncing to audio early and often. And then came Hollywood Brass. Now in the interests of full disclosure, I work part time as EastWest’s Online Coordinator, so I understand why some might be skeptical of this statement but the simple truth is, I fell in love. Like many other men of a certain age who fall in love, I was willing to go to some lengths to prove my love. Including considering acquiring and integrating a second computer.
My options were, as I discussed in my last column:
I could max out my RAM, but I would still be left with inadequate CPU power to do all I wanted, would be limited to how much of my other libraries I could run and the expense was disproportionate to the gain, as the older and slower RAM my machine uses actually is more expensive than some newer faster RAM. So I quickly eliminated that from my consideration.
I could sell my Mac and buy a newer and more powerful one with lots of RAM. This made little economic sense to me, as it was going to clearly be an expensive proposition and as my budgets of late have been, well, undistinguished, I simply could not justify it in my own mind. Also, even a new powerful Mac would still have a less powerful processor and SSD performance with SATA II would not be as robust as it is with SATA III and Macs do not yet have SATA III, although Thunderbolt may address this in the not too distant future.
Or for the first time in many years, I could seriously consider buying my first PC. I spoke to several friends about it and got very mixed responses. My diehard Mac only friends said things like, “Are you crazy? Do you know how many headaches you are letting yourself in for? Don’t go there!”
My PC only friends said, “Don’t listen to those crazy Mac guys, they have drank the Apple kool-aid. You’ll be very happy.”
My bi-platform friends said, “Both Macs and PCs, OSX and Windows 7, have pros and cons. If your PC has the right choice of components and is setup properly and maintained properly, it will be fine.” That sounded right to me.
As I researched, one thing quickly became clear: it was going to be a LOT less expensive and with better overall performance for running Play 3 64 bit based libraries like HS and HB inside Vienna Ensemble Pro’s 64 bit server with a PC than a Mac. So I swallowed hard, and made a mental commitment to going the PC route. I would of course continue to run Logic on my Mac with VE Pro hosting my Kontakt, Spectrasonics, Linplug, etc. libraries and the stock Logic instruments and FX on my Mac and run HS and HB on the PC from an SSD drive.
So now I became a colossal pain in the butt to my poor PC based friends, asking them repeatedly, “Having a PC builder build me an audio optimized PC is going to be more expense than I can justify, anywhere from $2400 on up. If I buy the right one and maybe swap out a few things, will a stock PC do? I found some terrific buys.”
The answers were varying degrees of a universal “maybe.” Most however, said they personally would not take the chance, as there were frequently cheap components in it that were not good for audio and that is why they were such a good buy. “Besides Jay, you can build it yourself!”
My response was something like, “When donkeys fly out of my butt!” I am a software guy whose bass player, the late Neal Lampert, used to have to patch my console/tape deck for me and while I have become better at this stuff, I was not about to go there because if I screwed it up, I was on my own. I had visions of spending $1,200-$1500 and producing a very high tech looking doorstop. So I decided that once I had ordered and received all the parts, I would find a local shop that would put it together for me properly for a moderate price. Which thankfully, I did.
So now, what did I need? I reached out to my friend, the very talented composer Jose’ Herring, who has made a kind of hobby of building PCs. I considered an AMD scenario and various iterations of Intel i7s, i5s, Sandy Bridge, etc. It was bewildering, daunting, and I changed my mind several times, at one point almost returning to the stock PC idea. I only knew that I knew I wanted it to be fast, stable, and have 24 GB of RAM.
But after what must of seemed to poor Jose’ like hundreds of emails and phone calls, not to mention all the other people I drove crazy with my inquiries, for app. $1300, I had all the parts I needed and with the assembly cost, it was a little under $1500. Being a good and patient shopper, I ended up with what I think is clearly a bargain.
Here is what I ended up with:
Intel Core i7-950 BX80601950 Processor – Quad Core, 8MB L3 Cache, 1MB L2 Cache, 3.06 GHz (3.33 GHz Max Turbo), Socket B (LGA1366), 130W, Fan
MSI X58A-GD45 Intel X58 Socket B Motherboard – ATX, Socket B (LGA1366), Intel X58 Express, DDR3 2133MHz (O.C.), SATA 6.0 Gb/s, RAID, 8-CH Audio, Gigabit LAN, USB 3.0, SLI/CrossFire Ready
Corsair Enthusiast Series TX650M High Performance 650W Power Supply
Cooler Master Storm Enforcer Mid Tower Case
EVGA 8400GS 1GB
Kingston KHX1600C9D3T1BK3/12GX HyperX T1 Desktop Memory Kit – 2x 12GB (3x 4GB), PC3-12800, DDR3-1600MHz, 9-9-9-27 CAS Latency, Unbuffered, Non-ECC, Intel XMP Ready
Microsoft Windows 7 Professional 64BIT Operating System Software – OEM DVD SSD
OCZ Agility 3 240GB w/ CONVERTER SILVERSTONE SDP08 R
Western Digital Caviar Black w/ 64 MB cache for my boot drive.
Gear Head 8x Triple Format DVD-RW/CD-RW Mobile Slim Drive
I brought the parts in to the shop and two days later, it was in my studio. Now all I had to install the software and learn how to use the blankety-blank thing. Installing and authorizing Vienna Ensemble Pro and Play 3 was a breeze, as VE Pro is tied to an E-licenser key and Play 3 to an iLok. It is fashionable to complain and curse at dongles, but let me tell you, it sure made this process easier for me.
Windows 7 is another story however. Supposedly it is the most “Mac OSX” like version of Windows, but there are a lot of things that if you do not know where they are to set and what to set them to, are far from intuitive and since I am trying to do more than simply surf the net, it is an issue. My friend Nick Batzdorf, the editor of Virtual Instruments magazine, came to my rescue and set up Remote Desktop so that I do not need an additional monitor, keyboard, or mouse, which is very cool. But as he is used to a different version of Windows, even he struggled and we both concluded that there are some really dumb things about Windows 7. (Yes, my PC friends, I know, there are some dumb things about Apple’s Snow Leopard and Lion as well.)
So Jay, what’s the verdict? Well, it is early days here and it has not yet been tested in the heat of battle. That will happen with my next project in mid-November. But here is what I have observed so far. A fairly good-sized Vienna Ensemble Pro template of Hollywood Strings and Hollywood Brass, including “powerful system” patches, loads up lickety-split from the SSD, way faster than it did from an SSD on my admittedly slower Mac. I was able to connect to Logic on my Mac with very little problems, thanks to the brilliance of the Vienna guys in how they designed VE Pro to connect by ethernet pretty darned seamlessly. I am able to play them with no significantly noticeable latency at a lower buffer than I could on my Mac alone and I could never have run the “powerful system” patches along with the other patches I have instantiated on my Mac alone. In short, so far I am delighted.
There are some kinks and I am sure more will be coming. I still cannot figure out how to copy from a drive on my Mac to a drive on my PC, only the public folder. I still know next to nothing about running Windows so if anything goes wrong, me, the guy who people call to help them troubleshoot Logic and their Macs, will no doubt look like an idiot trying to get help with Windows. As I start to use more and more HS and HB, or some other powerful libraries that come out that I fall in love with, which will inevitably happen because nature abhors a vacuum, I may need a second SSD and may find that I will want to connect to VE Pro with a second audio interface and MIDI software.
Still, at the end of the day at this given point in time, and yes, it could change when the next generation of MacPros come out, it seems to me that a well-designed, well built PC slave is an affordable and powerful tool that makes a lot of sense.
Provided that you have the right friends! :)