www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997

Keep Your Music PC Happy

Part 3 - Windows Performance, Security,
and Productivity Tips

by Ethan Winer

This article first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Keyboard magazine


In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I explained how to partition and organize your hard drive, and I showed ways to arrange your Start menus and program folders. Being organized helps you work faster and smarter, and it helps your computer run smoothly too. In this third and final installment, I'll explain how to optimize a Windows computer for audio recording, and I'll offer related tips and suggestions that you are sure to find useful. It is important to optimize a computer for audio to increase the number of tracks and plug-ins you can use at once, and to avoid clicks and pops in the audio caused by the computer doing other tasks while recording.

There are Internet resources that describe the optimizing steps in great detail, which vary with each version of Windows. Therefore, I'll discuss the concepts in general terms so you'll understand the principles, rather than list cookbook solutions. When I do give specific instructions, please understand that there may be slight variances. In general, Windows 95, 98, and ME are similar, as are Windows 2000 and XP.

REMOVE UNNECESSARY PROGRAMS

Many people buy their computers from office supply stores, or direct from manufacturers like Dell or Gateway. You can get a great computer for a reasonable price this way, but you are guaranteed to get something else you didn't bargain for - a lot of useless pre-installed programs you don't need or want. Most store-bought computers come with software for AOL and other Internet providers, as well as programs for word processing, antivirus protection, photo editing, CD burning, MP3 playback, and so forth. Some of these are useful, but many more are not, or they duplicate features already built into Windows, such as playing audio CDs and MP3 files. In particular, software that comes bundled for free is often of low quality, which is one reason it's free!

Likewise, software that comes bundled with add-on hardware is often substandard, or at least not needed. When installing any new program, or maybe a driver that came with your new scanner, always choose the Custom or Advanced option if available. This lets you pick which components are installed to avoid those you don't want, such as foreign language manuals or unneeded features. For example, if you buy a camera, it may come with an image editing program. But if you already have PaintShop Pro or some other program you know and like, don't install yet another program that does the same thing. Some bundled programs are great, such as Nero, which comes with many CD burners; others are useless or worse.

There are three main reasons to avoid unnecessary programs: 1) They clutter your hard disk and use memory in the registry even when not running; 2) if poorly written they can cause system instability; and 3) many run continuously in the background stealing processor time from your audio programs. I set up new computers often, and I usually format the hard drive and reinstall Windows from scratch. This is frankly easier than uninstalling dozens of unwanted programs, and then going through the registry item by item removing the remnants inevitably left behind. When I bought my current Dell, about 8 GB of the hard drive was taken by installed programs and their registry entries. (I'll explain more about the Windows registry in a moment.) After uninstalling all unwanted programs and pruning the registry manually, the used disk space was reduced to just under 6 GB. Not satisfied, I formatted the drive and installed Windows XP from the original CD - reducing the used space to about 2 GB!

A clean format and installation of Windows is the best way to remove all unwanted programs at once. Any needed drivers are usually provided on diskettes or CDs that came with the computer, so even if a required modem or network card driver is not on the Windows CD, you can reinstall them manually afterward. But I do recommend that you run Norton Ghost or PowerQuest DriveImage first for safety anyway, as described in Part 1. Note that some computers do not include a Windows CD. Instead, you get a "restore" CD that restores the hard drive to its original state, including all preinstalled programs.

DISABLE BACKGROUND PROGRAMS

Some programs that are otherwise useful should be disabled when recording and mixing audio. For example, the popular GoBack program lets you recover files that were accidentally deleted or reverse changes you made to Windows that later turn out to be harmful. But GoBack is a huge resource hog, and it's not needed if you use Ghost or Windows XP, which includes a similar feature. You should also disable antivirus software while recording. Although I have Norton AntiVirus, all automatic background options are disabled, and I simply check suspected files manually by right-clicking them in Windows Explorer and choosing Scan with Norton AntiVirus. I'll describe other security-related issues later in this article.

You should also disable programs that index the files on your hard disk. File indexing utilities read all of the data in all of your files constantly in the background, so you can search quickly for files based on words within them using the Windows Find or Search feature. When you install Microsoft Office, it installs the FindFast indexer by default. So you should uninstall that or delete the shortcut from the Programs .. Startup menu. Windows XP indexes all files by default so be sure to turn that off too: From the Control Panel open Administrative Tools, double-click Computer Management, and highlight Indexing Service by clicking it once. From the Action menu choose All Tasks, then Stop.

Windows 2000 and XP employ many services that run in the background. Some of these are useful and necessary, like those that let you connect to a network, spool print jobs, and manage Plug and Play. Many others are not, like File Indexing mentioned earlier. There are dozens of services - far too many to describe here - so rather than list which should be disabled, I instead refer you to the excellent document at the Black Viper web site.

Many programs, such as RealPlayer and AOL, insert themselves into the Windows startup sequence to run continuously in the background. By loading part of the program ahead of time, it will appear to start faster when you run it later. But this wastes memory. The Windows Task Scheduler is also active at all times by default and should be disabled. Some programs offer a way to disable automatic startup, but most do not. Windows offers no less than six different ways for a program to run automatically when you boot up. One way is with a shortcut in the Programs .. Startup folder, which you can disable easily: Right-click the shortcut and select Delete. Removing programs that use the other methods is slightly more difficult - from the Start menu select Run, then type msconfig and click OK. The MSConfig utility has a tab labeled Startup, which shows you all programs that start automatically with Windows, and lets you disable them individually. If you disable one that later turns out to be needed, simply run MSConfig again and re-enable it. If Windows won't even start, you can go into Safe Mode to run MSConfig: While the computer is booting, press the F8 key repeatedly until you get a menu of options, then select Safe Mode.

OTHER OPTIMIZATION TIPS

The single best computer optimization is to buy more memory. When a computer doesn't have enough memory to hold the operating system and programs that are running, the excess is stored in the swap file - also called a paging file or virtual memory. This is a file on the hard drive that holds a copy of what would be in memory if it could fit. But that means when you switch from one program to another, Windows has to save and retrieve memory contents on your hard drive, which takes a lot longer than leaving it in memory. 256 MB of memory is good, but 512 MB is a lot better for a computer that records audio, especially if you use a software sampler that keeps samples in memory. My current computer has 1 GB, which lets me load as many samples as I need and still have plenty left for Windows and audio programs.

There are many standard procedures to optimize a computer for audio, and again I'll focus more on the concepts because each version of Windows is slightly different and the exact steps vary. One important tweak is to set the virtual memory swap file to a fixed size. Windows experts disagree on the optimum fixed size for a swap file, but the real point is to prevent Windows from ever changing the size, which halts the computer for a moment. If you set the swap file's minimum and maximum size to 128 MB each, you should be fine.

Most of the standard Windows optimizations are accessed through the Control Panel - from the Start menu, select Settings, then Control Panel. To manage the swap file, double-click System, then select the Performance or Advanced tab. Here is where you'll set the minimum and maximum file size to the same value. Many of these changes require restarting the computer, but there's no need to do this after each change. Just answer No each time, then restart once after making all the changes.

Another important option is to disable disk write caching. When a program saves data to a hard drive, it sends the data to Windows, which in turn writes it to the disk. Rather than write the data as it arrives, Windows saves the data in an area of memory called a cache and waits until enough has accumulated to make it worth taking the time to stop everything else and access the drive. For typical office applications, this is a good approach. But with audio recording, writing the accumulated data all at once takes a relatively long time and may interrupt a program long enough that some of the incoming audio is lost. Write caching is controlled in Windows 98 from Control Panel .. System .. Performance tab .. File System .. Troubleshooting tab. Then check Disable write-behind caching for all drives. For Windows 2000 and XP, write caching is controlled for each drive independently: In Windows Explorer or My Computer, right-click a drive, select Properties .. Hardware tab, Properties, Policies tab, then uncheck Enable write caching on the disk.

Modern hard drives transfer data to the computer using a method called Direct Memory Access, or DMA. When Windows needs to read data from a hard drive, it sets aside an area of memory as a buffer, then tells the hard drive controller where the buffer is located and how large it is. The controller's hardware then handles reading data from the drive and storing it in the buffer directly, letting Windows resume other tasks right away. This makes file reading and writing many times faster than when DMA is not used. Windows usually enables DMA disk access by default, but you should verify to be sure. From the Control Panel .. System, find the Device Manager. In Windows 98 double-click each IDE drive listed and make sure the DMA box is checked. In Windows XP find IDE Controllers .. Primary and Secondary IDE Channel to get to this setting, then select DMA if available for all drives. Do the same for your CD and DVD drives as well. Windows may give a warning when you switch to DMA mode, which you can ignore. If your computer or hard drives are old and cannot use DMA, you can always start Windows in Safe Mode as described earlier and disable DMA.

You can also improve performance by setting your video card to use 16 bit color instead of 32. From the Control Panel, launch Display .. Settings tab to change the color depth. Equally important is to disable all power saving features. From Control Panel .. Power Management, set the scheme to Always On and set all other options to Never.

TIP: You can get to the Display properties directly by right-clicking in a blank area of the desktop and selecting Properties.

As with write caching, you can also optimize read caching, which serves a similar purpose. This is changed by editing the System.ini file. Click the Start button, Run, then type sysedit and click OK. Select the tab for System.ini and look for the line [vcache]. If found, create or edit the two lines immediately below to read as follows, using the capitalization shown with no added spaces. If a [vcache] entry does not exist, add all three lines shown below. Then quit SysEdit and answer Yes when asked if you want to save the changes.

[vcache]
Minfilecache=16384
Maxfilecache=16384

I talked about defragmenting hard drives in Part 1, and it's important to do so before every recording and mixing session. Defragmenting lets a DAW handle more tracks and play more voices at once in a software sampler that streams samples from disk. There's no need to defrag partitions that hold a Ghost backup, and those are in fact best left alone. But defragment all other partitions. If you use the Norton Utilities defragmenter, which is much faster than the version that comes free with Windows 98, disable all the sorting and "move folders to the front" options - they just slow down the process. Before defragmenting, delete all unneeded files from your hard drive. You can safely delete all the files in Windows\Temp and \Windows\Applog, and also your temporary Internet files to free up even more room: Control Panel .. Internet Options .. Delete Files. Then empty the Recycle Bin (and Norton Protected Files if applicable) and defragment each drive.

THE WINDOWS REGISTRY

The registry is a database that Windows maintains, which holds information about the hardware and software installed in your computer, among other items. Many programs store their own configuration details there too, which makes the registry an interesting but also slightly dangerous place to snoop around. Windows comes with the RegEdit utility that lets you view and edit entries in the registry. You can view the registry safely using RegEdit but don't delete or change any entries unless you know what they do and why you want to change them. And don't change anything without having a backup. A recent Ghost or DriveImage copy serves as a backup, though all versions of Windows retain recent copies of the registry which you can restore if needed.

One reason to edit the registry is to completely remove programs and trial demos that you uninstalled. Many programs flash the message "Removing registry items" when you uninstall them, but in truth most leave some pieces behind. Since the registry is kept in memory, removing unnecessary items gives more memory to Windows and your programs. I'm not going to explain everything about the registry, but I will show a few useful things. I'll also mention the excellent freeware program RegCleaner at www.vtoy.fi/jv16/shtml/regcleaner.shtml, which automates many common registry tweaks.

To view or edit the registry, start RegEdit by clicking Start .. Run, then type regedit and click OK. Before you change anything, use File .. Export to save the entire registry to a file. You can also save that file on a CDR for extra security. If you ever have to restore the registry, just run RegEdit again and import the saved copy. RegEdit uses two panes similar to Windows Explorer. In the left pane are keys that Windows or programs have created, and the right pane shows the associated entries and their values. Some entries hold text, while others contain numbers. Some keys hold other keys that you can display by clicking the little plus sign next to the parent key's name. You navigate RegEdit much as you would folders in Windows Explorer.

To find remnants left behind by uninstalled programs, search the registry for both the product name and the program name in separate passes. (Search for both to be sure you don't miss anything.) Press Ctrl-F (Find) to start the search, then enter the vendor name and click OK. Depending on what you're searching for and how large your registry is, you are likely to find a few false matches. For example, searching for my name "Ethan" finds many occurrences of PropertySheetHandler. Resume searching by pressing F3. Then use Ctrl-F again to search for the program name and remove anything you recognize as obsolete by right-clicking the name in the left pane and selecting Delete. Note that some items are stored twice in the registry, so you may have to edit or remove the same things more than once.

Deleting registry keys from uninstalled programs is just one small use of RegEdit. There are many other useful and fun things you can change in the registry to customize Windows and your programs. For example, you can prune the list of DirectX plug-ins in SoundForge 5.0 or later to hide those you never use: Navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE, Software, Sonic Foundry, Sound Forge, 5.0 (or your version), DXCache. Then open DXCache and examine the long list by clicking on each cryptic entry in the left pane while looking in the right pane for plug-in names. Delete keys in the left pane for those plug-ins you want to hide. If you delete a plug-in by mistake, simply delete the entire DXCache key on the left, and SoundForge will reassess all installed plug-ins the next time it runs. Note that this does not uninstall plug-ins from your computer - it simply hides them in SoundForge's DirectX menu.

Another registry tweak is to remove items from the New menu when you right-click in Windows Explorer. The only items I need are New Folder, Shortcut, and Text file. To remove all the clutter added by other programs, press Ctrl-F (Find), type shellnew, then OK. Every ShellNew key that is found will be a branch of a particular file type. If that file type now appears in the New menu and you don't want it to, delete the entire ShellNew subkey. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and a search for "registry tweaks" at www.google.com will turn up many great sources such as the tips at http://windows.about.com/cs/registrytips/.

INCREASE SAFETY AND SECURITY

I believe that an UPS (uninterruptable power supply) for your computer is mandatory to avoid data loss and possible hard disk damage if you lose power while recording or defragmenting. A good UPS offers much better protection against power line problems than the ineffective "surge suppressors" that come built into many power outlet strips. At only $100 or so, a real UPS is cheap insurance if you record other people for money or can't afford to lose a take performed by expensive session players.

I also recommend a firewall for any computer that goes online. You can download ZoneAlarm for free from www.zonelabs.com. Better, buy a hardware router/firewall for less than $100, which avoids having a software version running in the background and also lets you connect several computers together in a network. If you don't want to receive even more junk email than you do already, never post your email address publicly and always use a phony email address when web sites require you to register before downloading a program or MP3 file. And never "unsubscribe" to spam email as that is a ploy to get you to confirm that your email address is valid! Finally, never open unexpected email attachments from anyone, even your best friend. Many viruses propagate by sending a copy to everyone in the infected computer's address book, so a friend can send you an email virus without even knowing it. For a more complete explanation of avoiding viruses see this article on my web site.

Another good safety tip is to save a history of your projects. MIDI and DAW project files are small, so it's not unreasonable to save ten or more previous versions. After saving a project, I make a copy, and then rename the copy to include a version number. In Windows Explorer use the right mouse button to drag a file from the right pane to the same folder in the left pane, release the button, then select Copy Here. This creates a new file named copy of [filename]. Optionally, use Save As in your audio program to save each version as Song01, Song02, and so forth.

TIP: After saving a file, reload it immediately to prove it is not corrupted. In particular, do this before copying the current version you just saved to replace your only backup copy. I do this with everything - Word documents, Sonar Bun files, graphics, and so forth.

FIXING PROBLEMS

I've already made the point that the best protection is a recent image copy of your entire C: drive plus separate backups of your data. But many problems can be solved by less drastic means than a full restore, and others can be avoided by regular maintenance. One good repair tool is the WinDoctor program that comes with Norton Utilities. WinDoctor examines your computer for common problems and is able to fix many that are found, such as invalid or corrupt registry entries and obsolete shortcuts.

I also suggest using Microsoft's free Windows Update service periodically, to stay current with the latest system components. But don't necessarily update programs like Internet Explorer and Media Player unless a security leak has been fixed or a compelling feature was added. New versions of everything always have bugs, and with Microsoft in particular, new versions are often worse when cumbersome new features of dubious value are added. While you're at it, update your antivirus definitions regularly too.

Another common problem that's easy to fix is stolen file associations. Many programs, when installed, set themselves to run when you double-click a file they can open. For example, sequencers often steal the association for MIDI files so they run when you double-click one. But you probably don't want a large program like Sonar or Cubase to launch every time you visit a web site that plays a MIDI tune! I use Microsoft's Media Player to play MIDI files because it loads quickly and takes very little screen space.

If a program steals a file association, the easiest solution is to delete the association and create a new one. In Windows Explorer select the View menu .. Folder Options. Then click the File Types tab to see all file extensions (.gif, .mid, .doc, etc.) and which programs run when you double-click. From there you can delete the associations, edit them, or establish new ones. Even easier, after you've deleted an association simply double-click a file of that type in Windows Explorer to invoke the Open With dialog, then select the desired program. If the program is not listed, use Browse to find it and be sure to check Always use this program so Windows will remember the association.

TIPS TO WORK SMARTER AND FASTER

I'm an old DOS programmer, so I'm used to managing files manually. Windows lets you do many things with files and folders that aren't obvious, and I'll show a few of them here. One useful option lets you send files directly to NotePad or WordPad by customizing the Send To menu. This is one of the options that appears when you right-click a file name in Windows Explorer. I often use Send To to open .doc files in WordPad, which loads more quickly than the full version of Word. I also send files to NotePad when I need to view or edit a text file that doesn't have a .txt extension, such as .html web pages.

The Send To menu is managed via standard shortcuts in the \SendTo folder. In Windows 98 this folder is under \Windows; in Windows 2000 and XP there are several Send To folders under \Documents and Settings with a different folder for each user. You can remove unused items that clutter the Send To list by deleting their shortcuts, and you can also add new ones. To add a shortcut to WordPad, navigate to your Send To folder in Windows Explorer and right-click in the right pane. Then select New .. Shortcut, use Browse to locate wordpad.exe, and name the shortcut WordPad. You can do the same for NotePad and many other programs too.

Speaking of NotePad, there are some excellent substitutes you can download for free, and each is a big improvement over the Windows version. I use NotePad+ from www.mypeecee.org/rogsoft/notepad.html, though NoteTab from www.notetab.com is good too. Another great program is QuickView Plus (QVP) from Jasc Software. QVP is not freeware, but it's a great value and can display nearly any file. One good use for QVP is to view .gif and .jpg image files without having to launch a large photo editing program. QVP appears on the right-click context menu in Windows Explorer, so it's always ready. But the best reason to get QVP is to view Word, Excel, and .eml (email) files without the risk of opening them and getting a virus.

Some of my favorite productivity boosters are freeware utilities. CKRename at the unfortunately named site www.musicsucks.com/CKSoft/ is an excellent program that lets you flexibly rename all the files in a folder at once. There are several great utilities at www.mda-vst.com, and my favorite is the File Attribute Stripper that clears the read-only attribute from files copied from a CD. But perhaps the coolest freeware program I have is the Virtual Minirator from NT Instruments, which is a software version of the Minirator MR1 signal generator. It doesn't even have to be installed - just download the program and run it!

I also recommend using templates for your songs when possible. I have Pop and Orchestral templates for starting Sonar projects, so I don't have to assign every MIDI track and audio input and output channel from scratch each time, or define my standard reverb and other effect sends and returns. This also enforces a standard layout for my songs, so I know immediately that Track 1 is the bass, Track 2 is the piano (or organ), and so forth. Likewise, I use a Word template for billing clients and a web page template for my web site with the standard headings and formatting already in place.

TIP: Make templates Read-only so you'll never accidentally overwrite them. Simply right-click on a file name in Windows Explorer or any standard Open or Save dialog and select Properties. Then check the Read-only box and click OK.

Finally, the best resources for tips and information are other people. There are many web forums and newsgroups with a very high level of peer and vendor support. One of the most popular is www.musicplayer.com, which includes Keyboard's own user forum, and www.prorec.com is also very active and helpful. Other great resources are newsgroups. Some are run by companies, such as the Sonar newsgroup at news.cakewalk.com, but most are public and hosted by your ISP, such as rec.audio.pro and alt.music.4-track. Though with nobody in charge to enforce policy or behavior in the public groups, they can get rowdy at times and drift away from audio topics.

TIP: If you use Outlook Express to read newsgroups, go to the Tools menu, select Options, the Read tab, then uncheck the box "Get ### headers at a time." Otherwise, you won't retrieve all of the messages in a busy newsgroup.

OVER AND OUT

We've covered a lot of ground over the past few months, exploring hard drives, partitions, backup strategies, Windows internals, and much, much more. Yet keeping up with computers and technology is a moving target, and a lot has changed since I wrote Part 1 just a few months ago: 120 GB hard drives are now available and inexpensive, and Windows XP - with its added complexity - is on many more computers. My aim has been to explain the "how and why" rather than list by-rote examples, so you'll understand the concepts and be prepared for what is still to come. I hope I succeeded in that goal. I've certainly had a lot of fun writing this series, and I hope you had just as much fun reading it.


Ethan Winer is co-owner of RealTraps, a manufacturer of bass traps and acoustic treatment. Ethan also plays the electric guitar and bass and is principal cellist for the Danbury (Connecticut) Community Orchestra.

Entire contents of this web site Copyright 1997- by Ethan Winer. All rights reserved.