Windows & USB has always been troublesome. From Windows 98 which crashed during the official presentation after an USB scanner was plugged in, right to our own environments which can often cause crackles and stuttering with the sounds. Very annoying, here’s a possible tip to help you get rid of these nasty side effects.
…but you’ll probably need Windows 7 or XP; not Vista.
The biggest risk of using a software synthesizer is that there is always a risk that it may catch a virus. Especially if you’re doing something stupid like not paying enough attention at the time. Note that I’m not talking hardware like those cool Virus synths from Access, but software virii.
And well, to put it short that is exactly what has happened to me. Fortunately Vista has been equipped with restoration options which – in my opinion – far surpass those of XP. Even re-installing the entire boot environment can be done without the need of any system discs (I ended up performing a clean system re-install anyway, but that was because of other reasons).
Alas, my ordeal was a rougher one since I ended up with an unsupported pristine Vista (so; also no service packs installed yet) and trying to get that critter to go from none back up to SP2 was sheer hell. I managed eventually, but it took me at least one whole day. And in the end I still had some performance issues. Which made me decide to simply start all over and purchase an upgrade to Windows 7 professional.
Windows & Soft synths: Avoid Vista if you can!
Seriously… I’ve been using Vista for quite some time now simply because it came pre-installed with the computer I initially kept around as a gaming machine and later because I simply couldn’t be bothered to try and re-install XP on it.
When I started out with my DAWs last year I simply used Vista because that’s what I had. And although it did a very decent job with plain DAW usage (like; using Live and Max for Live, then using Reason rewired into Live, that kind of stuff) it became a menace when I started using USB sound interfaces like my external soundcard and my Samson USB microphone. I ended up facing 2 problems where the first is the most obvious one: crackles in the sound output which would eventually return no matter how I configured my ASIO driver. So; they were gone after I reconfigured the ASIO driver only to return after a few minutes or so. Very annoying indeed.
Get rid of crackle sounds when using USB sound interfaces on Windows.
I did some investigating and came to the conclusion that the crackled sound only manifested itself in the outgoing audio. So whatever Live was recording or resampling was perfectly normal. Something I discovered when I exported my audio data which sounded horrible when I played them back in Live yet sounded normal when played on my other (Linux) computer.
This made me conclude that the problem was fully traceable to the Windows audio output. My theory at that time was that Windows somehow couldn’t handle both the audio streams which were setup by Live in combination with the overall (system-wide) outgoing audio data (which also included audio produced by other programs).
So if Windows couldn’t handle the audio output on its own, then maybe an external soundcard could. After all; all Windows would have to do is sending the audio data to the soundcard (‘dac’) which would then perform the actual conversion on its own; it should make things easier on Windows since it wouldn’t need to handle acting as a DAC anymore.
My plan worked perfectly!
Vista & CPU overloads
No matter how long I was using my equipment the sound remained clear and “crackle free”. But unfortunately I soon ran into another problem: CPU overloads. Sometimes it became totally impossible to play certain chords and riffs simply because Live couldn’t keep up anymore. No matter what I tried I ended up with CPU loads easily peeking at 80 or 90, very often causing drops due to loads at 100%. No fun at all.
I soon discovered that I could ease the load a little…
By disabling the regular sound device (internal soundcard of my PC) in my ASIO driver my DAW wasn’t using that anymore. It helped a bit but wasn’t enough to allow normal playing using my USB equipment. Very, very frustrating indeed.
Here you can see how you can disable certain audio devices using Asio4All. You’ll need to click the ‘wrench’ icon to go to the advanced view. Then simply click on the square icon behind the ‘+’ sign to enable or disable a device. As you can see here I’ve disabled the “High Def. audio apparaat” (which is Dutch and stands for “High Def. audio device”) and kept all of my USB devices enabled.
And the cause of those CPU overloads? Simple: Windows Vista sp2.
Going Windows 7
As mentioned above I ended up upgrading my system to Windows 7 professional which provided many heavy advantages for me. Amongst which: no more CPU overloads when using all of my USB sound equipment. Where I would experience CPU loads of 70 to 80 in Vista these have now been reduced to 10 – 20. And rest assured; this wasn’t caused by a clogged up Windows environment or something. I even tried all of this after I had eventually re-installed my Vista environment from scratch (so after I was back on sp2) and it gave me the exact same overload results.
Another advantage? I also came up with a scheme which allows me to fully separate the Windows sounds and those produced by my DAWs. In other words: when I’m working with my DAW environment I can also hear the system sounds which are produced by Windows itself (either the system sounds or audio produced by other programs).
How? Its really simple…
Get both DAW & Windows audio output
As you can see here my monitor (which is also quite old; a “meager” 17” LCD) is also equipped with 2 speakers. And since I’ve disabled the internal sound card in the Asio4All configuration (see above) I figured that Windows should be able to keep access to this sound device itself.
So I hooked up my main speakers to the USB audio device and connected the speakers of my monitor to the internal audio card which came with my computer.
Next to that I also made sure that Windows would continue to use the regular sound card as the default audio device (which you can see below). And that’s all there is to it; now I can listen to my DAW output over the big speakers while the regular Window sounds are played using the speakers in my monitor.
As to the screenshot below; it’s all Dutch again as you can see but I think it should be easily understood (I’m using a Dutch Windows version, simply because most of my customers are using Dutch versions so it makes my live a whole lot easier whenever I need to do support).
And there you have it!
Windows & USB, it sounds so easy but it can be very tricky. I’m extremely happy with Windows 7 to be honest since this time it really does allow me to do a lot more than I could do in Vista. Who would have thought that those silly messages which you get during the installation process would eventually hold truth… You know, referring to stuff as “Windows has become a lot more fun”, “Windows has become much easier”, ”You can now do much more with Windows”, etc. When comparing Windows 7 with Vista it’s the only conclusion I can come up with..
So, to conclude.. If you’re using Vista and are interested in using software synthesizers (‘DAWs’) then I’d urge you to seriously consider upgrading your Vista environment to Windows 7. There are many advantages, amongst which much better support for audio devices (such as USB and such).