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Building a sound system from the Ground up

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I'm considering getting a desktop that is portable to gain the best of both worlds for my particular style of production. I want to incorporate elements of turntablism into my production and also want to use the desktop to support Serato styled digital mixing programs.

The person I have building it for me just needs to know what I need inside it. Any suggestions, advice, pointers, VITALS..anything you think that I should have in a music production workstation..are greatly appreciated.



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Music is high memory bandwidth (multi-gigabyte working set). Match and balance your processor and ram. I love AMD but there's no DDR667 1333MHz FSB option; this is CRITICAL for high memory bandwidth applications, so get an Intel. Also you should find something that has at least 2MB L2 cache, but aim for 4MB if you can; avoid less than 512K L1, aim for 1M of L1 if you can (on these big working sets, the optimal L1 level is rather high... typical workloads are more than fine on like 350K). If you want to know why, read this up to part 4: http://lwn.net/Articles/250967/

DO NOT HYPERTHREAD. (multi-core != hyperthreading, hyperthreading is stupid and multi-core isn't) Turn that shit off in bios.

You won't get a Xeon (no server hardware) so try to get whatever the latest CoreWhatever architecture is that uses the 65nm process (should be any), unless Intel already released 45nm process dies. The narrower process will reduce noise. And I don't mean fan noise-- but yes they're cooler-- I mean noise. Bigger process means more voltage running through the semiconductors to keep them charged, which means more EMI, which means more cross over noise (not cross talk, but similar) into other components like your sound card.

DO NOT keep onboard video. Use an external video card. On-board video using shared memory HARASSES your memory bus, causing MASSIVE latency issues. (on a similar line, I don't know what the slow south bridge based PCI hard disk controllers do to your memory bus during DMA; I would like to know if using a PCI Express based SATA card helps reduce memory bus pressure but I can't claim to have any idea on this)

General systems architecture for what I know about the workload.

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Amazingly decent advice from bluefox, albeit overcomplicated.

Get any decent motherboard that supports up to 8gb of RAM. I use an Asus P5N-E and it works very well, but any other midrange board will work fine as long as its from a reputable brand. Just read reviews before you buy.

Get an E8400 processor from Intel. 2x3ghz dualcore. "hyperthreading" hasn't been used in years, dunno why blue would even bring that up.

I suggest getting 2 gigabytes of RAM to start with. You can upgrade later pretty easily. Corsair and Crucial are good brands. You want the fastest RAM you can afford that has good reviews. Simple as that. Don't get super-budget stuff, but you don't need "gamer" RAM either.

You should have two hard drives minimum. Your main hard drive can be smaller, and it should be where you install your applications. Your other hard drive should be more like 500gb and be where you install your samples. Streaming sounds can strain a drive so if EVERYTHING is all on one drive, that's bad news.

Either an external or internal soundcard (or "audio interface") will do fine. Externals are more convenient in terms of physical location - it may be easier to connect things to them, and you'll have easy access to volume/preamp controls.

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Hmm...external sound cards...interesting.

That sounds like something that would help me with the current problem I'm having.

I use fruity loops to create my songs. I love it, but I notice that its hard for me to balance the the sound of my melodies and baselines with the drum/beat tracks. Any suggestions for that external or internal are greatly appreciated as well. I'm trying to balance both without blasting the elements to distortion. Am I saying this in a clear way? Let me know if I need to try to explain it better. But what external's would you recommend, zircon? You're mixes are definitely on point. :-D

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Get an E8400 processor from Intel. 2x3ghz dualcore. "hyperthreading" hasn't been used in years, dunno why blue would even bring that up.

because I've sat in front of "4 thread" (or whatever it's called now) desktop machines that were a dual core Intel with hyperthreading enabled (my last job, we ordered new desktops, they came like this and I killed HT in the bios the first day). I haven't seen a 4 core desktop with HT yet, but I know a lot of recent server hardware has dual 4-core Xeons (8 cores!) with hyperthreading to give 16-way processing.

I don't buy Intel for desktops for the moment (NUMA is more valuable to me than high-speed FSB, but that may change), so I don't know how much stuff still uses it. I might have just hit an edge case, but that was mid-2007. If you just don't/can't get HT, then even better, just don't worry about it.

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No processors that this guy - a hobbyist musician - would be getting would have HT, so it's irrelevant to talk about it. NONE of the Core 2 Duos have it, nor do the quads. I've also never seen any newer Xeons with HT.

DJ Black: What you're talking about has very little to do with the sound card... if you're finding it hard to balance parts, that's just an issue of learning how to mix and use EQ properly. Of course, training your ear is another vital component, as is getting a good set of headphones or speakers (I suggest headphones.) I have a whole thread in the "Guides & Tutorials" forum that goes through selecting a new sound card or audio interface - check it out. :)

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I dont see a problem with getting a xeon. The fact that the E8400 is SUPER BACKORDERED EVERYWHERE right now, it makes more sense to get an E3110 which is essentially the exact same thing as the E8400 and its cheeper.

Im using that exact xeon right now, and it works perfectly fine in any mother board that would support the E8400. Anyways 45 nm is already out (my E3110 is using 45 nm). I have a ASUS P5E-VM HDMI mATX LGA775 G35 DDR2 PCI-E16 2PCI-E1 PCI SATA2 RAID Sound HDMI VGA Motherboard and everything works marvellous with the xeon.

so yea.. just some info on the xeon. IT would be a much better choice if you want to buy soon, as you wont be able to get the E8400 for a little while.

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Well, I'm willing to wait some time, a few months at least before I get the final product. Until then, I'm trying to get as much info as I possibly can.

I want to rise in both skill and equipment to a professional level. I know that purchasing an acoustically correct, studio space with all the furnishings and fixin's is unrealistic. But I'm interested in learning the skills and getting equipment that will let me take the ideas I have and put them to practice in reality.

Thanks so much for the info thus far. Please, continue to impart as much knowledge as you can. All of this will help me determine what I actually purchase. Also, so advantages/disadvantages to using internal/external sound cards? For that matter, what does a sound card actually do? Does it solely allow you to hear sound? Or is it a thing where it takes the sound coming from the source and articulates it with varying degrees of nuance and clarity (such as a DJ Mixer and Turntable cartridges)?

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I want to rise in both skill and equipment to a professional level. I know that purchasing an acoustically correct, studio space with all the furnishings and fixin's is unrealistic.

You'd be surprised what you can do on a budget; but budgets in this arena are like several thousand dollars.

Warning: Long ass rant about shit you don't care about

Dude next to me builds multi-thousand-dollar systems. Like, for his home he'll actually build the speaker cabinet, pick the speakers ($300 tweeter, $800 woofers?), get inductor coils to make the crossover (impedance matching device between the speaker's input jack and the speaker itself), get some caps that cost $30 each (TIGHT tolerances), etc. Winds up with a pair of speaker cabinets that are $2200 each, with the same speakers as in a $8000 (each) cabinet, or with better ones with more clarity and response. Picks out his preamps and poweramps specifically too (all tube).

The man does the acoustics of his room too. I mean sound proofing is one thing; but this guy lays out where to put speakers, how to shape the walls, where to put sound board (directly behind speakers, and that's a huge generalization), where to place speakers and how to angle them...

It's scary. I can pick out good components to upgrade a guitar amp, eliminate noise, improve tone response. He can do that in his sleep to hi-fi amps, as well as adjust the tone to whatever he wants it to sound like, and basically glance around a room and tell you what you need to do to it to get the sound you want out of the amp and speakers and how much it's going to cost you.

He's doing things in several grand and he pulls up a single speaker that costs $85000 and goes "Yeah, I like those. But, you know. Mine sound better anyway." His $2200 custom built ones. Not to mention the amps and control system and the acoustics of the room. When he puts in a $100,000 system for somewhere, half the cost is paying for his time... (now you know why I do my own guitar and amp tech work huh?)

For that matter, what does a sound card actually do? Does it solely allow you to hear sound? Or is it a thing where it takes the sound coming from the source and articulates it with varying degrees of nuance and clarity (such as a DJ Mixer and Turntable cartridges)?

It solely allows you to hear sound. The fact that it has an impact on clarity and tone is just a side effect of that; but yes.

Sound cards use silicon op amps and filters and such. As a result, they're susceptible to noise and behave weird from heat. More importantly, they have a frequency response range, internal resolution etc. I can't give you an explanation based in sound card engineering (sorry), but I can hit something in guitar effects pedals and you can try to run with the bare electronics. Ibanez Tube Screamer TS-808, great pedal, uses a JRC4558 op-amp. Some of the later production units used random pin-compatible 4558s from other companies, with different tolerances, noise susceptibility, etc. Result, those particular pedals SOUND LIKE SHIT; but trash a Japanese transistor radio and steal the JRC4558 from it and you can make that shitty pedal sound like a REAL quality TS-808. The same happens with any audio electronics, like sound cards. Hell, even my guitar amp benefits from component layout and signal path length for the SAME CIRCUIT, much less any hi-fi amp or sound card. The tolerance of resistors and caps also makes a huge difference. 30 cent ceramic disc caps sound nothing like a $1.75 mylar film cap.

Drivers for the card work different too. On QOS and Linux everything's real-time and you get under 1mS latency (Molnar's patches are bringing responsiveness to like 10uS); but the tools you want to use are probably on Windows yeah? Consumer grade cards don't do (nasty) things to the OS to get you that real-time response. Even worse, assuming you did have a RTOS, the innards of a sound card can use bucket circuits (buffers!) to slow stuff down for a DSP (ADC, DAC) that can do (say) 20mS of sound in 20mS but can't do 10mS in 10mS (the processing time is bounded, but not linear below a certain resolution). So bading! Your shiny RTOS responds to the sound card in 10 1 millionths of a second; your card responds to your mic or to the OS playing sound in 20mS. Can you live with that? How about 60mS? In practice this is fortunately not much of an issue, until you really do need that 5mS or lower responsiveness (which I don't know when that happens; it sure as hell isn't needed to enjoy 3D games).

I mean. I don't know how technical you want to get. The short answer to everything here is pretty much "Find someone who's hardcore into this stuff, and talk to them for a while, it rubs off." While you can't build a professional grade studio in a few hundred (or thousand!) dollars, you can definitely do better than "I sat down in my bedroom and hooked up some Panasonic speakers to my computer."

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Once again bluefox, STFU. You're giving tons of irrelevant and inaccurate information. I'm not going to keep warning you.

All of this will help me determine what I actually purchase. Also, so advantages/disadvantages to using internal/external sound cards?

I wrote a guide to buying soundcards here:


But I'll go into a little more detail. In terms of features, external soundcards have physical controls, such as volume knobs and possibly panning. This is really convenient if you do a lot of tweaks and don't want to keep opening up your soundcard software to change volume levels. Externals also *usually* have more inputs and outputs. For example, I use a Presonus Firebox, which allows me to plug in up to two microphones and four instruments (!) simultaneously. And it's pretty small, too.

The disadvantage of externals are that they take up either a Firewire or USB port, they take up more physical space (since they're not inside the computer), and they can add a little bit more latency - USB and Firewire take a tiny bit more time to transmit a signal than something connected internally. However, in my experience, this is negligible.

For that matter, what does a sound card actually do? Does it solely allow you to hear sound? Or is it a thing where it takes the sound coming from the source and articulates it with varying degrees of nuance and clarity (such as a DJ Mixer and Turntable cartridges)?

Pro soundcards have a number of features. Note that an "audio interface" is the same thing, and the term most commonly used when referencing soundcards for musicians (you wouldn't call a Presonus Firebox a "soundcard"). Here is what they do, at their core:

1. Transmits the sound from your computer to speakers or headphones.

2. Manages MIDI sent to OR from your computer.

3. Allows the input of sound from outside your computer; eg. via microphones, turntables, or other instruments.

What's the difference between a pro soundcard and a consumer soundcard?

* A pro soundcard has better drivers. Better drives mean less crashes in your host program (FLStudio, Sonar, Cubase, Reason, etc...), better latency, and more processing efficiency. With bad drivers, you might load up 10 equalizers on your computer before you can't load any more. With good drivers, you could load 15, or perhaps even 20.

* A pro soundcard has superior "analog to digital converters", and vice versa. All this means is that if you hook up your turntables to your soundcard, there will be less noise. Stuff like Soundblaster soundcards has noise problems.

* A pro soundcard may have built-in software that allows you to affect the sound going in or out of it. This is commonly called "DSP" or digital signal processing. For example, the EMU 0404 soundcard (internal), which is pretty popular among ReMixers, allows you to use all sorts of effects on audio in your computer. This does NOT use up your computer's processing power, so it's nice. You could put an EQ and compressor on any sound coming in from your turntables for example.

* Consumer/gamer soundcards rarely have more than one input. With pro cards, especially external interfaces, you usually get multiple inputs of different sorts; 1/4" (instruments), XLR (mics), S/PDIF (digital), etc.

So, as you can see, the soundcard is definitely important when you're interacting with any external devices, but because good soundcards have good drivers, you will also be able to do more with your software before running out of processing power. Make sense?

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Makes perfect sense. Now those DSP sound very tasty..especially given I can manipulate my turntable effects. I use Fruity loops, so I'll reference that as my base. Would those effects be manipulated from loops or from the sound interface's software?

Thanks for clearing up that soundcard/interface thing. That explains why my laptop keeps underrunning when Loops tries to playback the patterns I make using its softsynths such as Sytrus (my computer uses everything save a FLUX CAPACITOR to try to make those syths play).

Now that the soundcard has been throughly discussed...what other things should I keep in mind, starting out and building?

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wow, just read this thread and am truly confused...

I thought that soundcards actually colored the sound - "pro" cards were like more expensive monitors.

Is this not true - for someone like me, who uses (mostly) all digital devices, is having a more expensive soundcard even worth it? (laptop user here)

Just wondering if there is any other benefit other than the noise reduction with an audio interface...

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No, soundcard has basically no bearing on the quality of the output sound. Input (eg. mic)? Absolutely. But otherwise, the only thing the soundcard would affect is the conversion from digital to analog, but that process on consumer electronics these days is going to be neglgibly different from one advice to the other, IMO. Noise is not really going to be an issue in all but the cheapest electronics. However, quality of your drivers is another story, as well as the bundled software (eg. mixer, router.)

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