Sunday, September 11, 2005

Windows XP Configuration For Audio

This article was first posted on the web before May 2003. It is presented here as part of my Retro series.

The following is an extensive list of tips for setting up and running Windows XP. It is targetted at audio professionals who want to get the best possible performance and stability from their computer. Windows is a complicated operating system. Even if you know what to do, it may be difficult to find out how to do it, since the interface is designed more to shield the user from such concerns than it is to provide easy access to system internals.

Although it is difficult to trash your system with these optimisations, the rule of thumb should always be "if you do not understand it, don't do it." Certainly I will not be held responsible for any problems that may occur.

A second proviso is to not follow any instructions which contradict recommendations from your hardware provider. Every computer is different, and audio interfaces can be tricky beasts. They may very well have specific needs outside the norm.

With those disclaimers out of the way, I think you will be very pleasantly surprised by the increase in performance, disk space, boot-up speed, and other metrics that you can get with a little tweaking. Benchmark your system before and after these tips and bask in the warm light of your accomplishments!


While this is not primarily a hardware document, a few tips are not inappropriate.

• Install two hard drives, the first for your OS and apps, the second for audio data.

• Performance is reduced if you share a HD with a CD-ROM or burner on the same IDE cable. For this reason some recommend having the CD on its own controller, while other recommend having your audio data drive separate. The former seems like the most reasonable option.

• Get the fastest possible processor you can afford. Audio apps are more processor-intensive than other applications. Likewise, consider upgrading an old motherboard to increase the speed of your Front Side Bus (FSB) to 533MHz or beyond. This allows the use of faster memory.

• Speaking of RAM, ensure you have 1024 MB. Do not buy the cheapest possible memory, but rather get high performance memory that will fully exploit your FSB speed.

• Consider how you are going to back up your work. For one backup set use DVD, which allows you to store seven times as much data per disk as a CD. For your second backup set use a removable or Firewire drive.

• Serial ATA (SATA) hard drives match the performance of SCSI and cost less. New drives from Maxtor and Seagate are super-quiet, fast, and dependable. To go the extra mile, get a RAID controller (for example, from Promise) so that you can write a backup as you work, or interleave two drives for even more performance.

• Think about reducing your system noise. Do not get an enclosure larger than you need, that just increases the amount of air that must be moved. Replace noisy fans with quiet ones. Ditto for power supplies. Sound-proofing material is available both for your case and your drives. Do not install a high-performance video card that carries an extra fan --they are only for gamers. This article from Quiet PC is useful.

• Think about ergonomics. Use an LCD panel instead of a CRT to reduce radiation and eye strain. Get a chair that fits your body and a desk or workstation at the correct height. Be sure your work area is appropriately lit and configured for your physiology. Replace your mouse with a touchpad. Use a keyboard that is flat and responsive.

• Be sure you have a recent motherboard with a decent USB controller. Otherwise, add in a separate USB card. Read this article from RME for details. The same applies to Firewire; not all controllers are created equal.

Before Installing

• Install the latest BIOS for your motherboard.

• Check to ensure APIC is supported by your motherboard and enabled in your BIOS.

• Ensure you have at least 2GB of installation space for XP, though 10GB is a safer number.

• Run the Hardware Compatibility List and the Windows Upgrade Advisor to review your system for possible incompatibilities.

• Download the latest XP device drivers for your hardware. Also get the latest Service Pack. While you're at it, get the latest Direct X subsystem. You may want to burn a CD of these, so they are handy.

• Download the freeware Scanner so you can check disk utilisation and see how much these tips will save you!

• In your BIOS, ensure that the CD-ROM is the first boot device.

• Plan your partitioning strategy. If you are using the same computer for non-audio applications (especially games and internet cruft like instant messengers) it is best to have two separate boot partitions on your OS disk: one which you will use only for critical audio apps, and the other which can be for everything else. On your audio disk, have a separate "current work" partition of a reasonable size, so you can defragment it quickly and often. This Multiple OS Installation Guide may help.

• The choice of installing XP Home versus Professional is largely one of cost. Use the professional edition if you need dual processor support, the ability to log onto an NT domain, or more complete user access controls. Otherwise Home is fine.


• Install by booting from the XP CD. Perform a clean installation, not an upgrade. Partitioning and formatting can be handled during the installation.

• Use FAT32 allocation tables only if you need to boot earlier OSes that can't read NTFS file systems. Otherwise, use NTFS for better performance, ability to compress tracks, access rights control, and the ability to have partition sizes of greater than 32 GB.

• Use a cluster size of 64 KB for audio partitions, since larger blocks means fewer separate disk writes.

• Install XP with the default option, an ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) computer, unless advised otherwise by your audio hardware manufacturer.

• Install as a APIC computer to reduce or eliminate IRQ sharing.

• Set up multiple user profiles: one for audio (with administrative rights) and another for general use.

After Installation

The remainder of the document assumes that you have booted into your audio OS partition, and have administrator rights.

• Update your system with the latest Service Pack.

• Update your system with the latest Direct X drivers.

• Upgrade all the device drivers that you previously downloaded. It is best to reboot after installing each one.

• Create an XP boot floppy using the appropriate MS utility. Read this.


It is best to reboot after a series of changes to clean the slate of any system components that may be running. For example, make all of the Service changes at once, and then reboot before making other changes.

• Check all of the running applications in your System Tray (right-hand part of the status bar at the bottom of your screen). Turn off any you do not need, as they take up memory and resources, as well as increasing boot time. The general procedure is to right-click and uncheck settings like "load at startup" and "run in background". Then exit the applet.

• In particular, disable Windows Messenger, which uses a minimum of 3.6 MB. After right-clicking select Open -- Tools -- Options / Preferences and uncheck "Run this program when windows starts".

• Stop unnecessary apps from running on boot-up by removing their shortcuts from your Start Menu Startup folder.

• Disable visual effects in Control Panel -- Display -- Appearance -- Effects. Turn off things like "Show window contents while dragging".

• To speed up screen redraws, set colour depth to 16 bits in Control Panel -- Display -- Settings.

• Turn off the screen saver in Control Panel -- Display -- Screen Saver. On this same panel, set monitor power saving to "always on" and turn off any hard disk or CPU power down features.

• In Control Panel -- Sounds and Audio Devices turn off system sounds as these can interfere with recording.

• In Control Panel -- System -- Advanced choose "adjust for best performance" under Visual Effects and "adjust for best performance of background services" under Processor Settings. This ensures the lowest latency with ASIO drivers.

• Disable "fast user switching" in Control Panel -- User Accounts -- Change.

• Disable unnecessary "System Services" in Control Panel -- Performance and Maintenance -- Administrative Tools -- Services. This can save between 12 and 70 MB of RAM. However, doing so is for advanced users only. Be sure you know what you are turning off! For a detailed reference see the Black Viper site. Some of the following tips assume a knowledge of these Services.

• If you wish, disable System Restore to reclaim about 3GB of space. With this off, you will no longer be able to restore your system to a previous safe snapshot, but instead will have to do a clean install manually. However, if you are using a separate boot partition for your audio work, this should not be an issue. In Control Panel -- Performance and Maintenance -- System -- System Restore check "Turn off System Restore". Then disable the services "System Restore" and "Indexing".

• Disable Themes by going to Control Panel -- Performance and Maintenance -- System -- Advanced -- Performance Settings -- Visual Effects and selecting "Adjust for best performance". Then disable the Themes Service which
saves 4-12 MB RAM.

• Disable Automatic Updates in Control Panel -- Performance and Maintenance -- System -- Automatic Updates. Then disable the service "Automatic Updates". This prevents Windows from checking and prompting you to get updates to its software. Instead, you should manually check the Windows Update site periodically for important fixes.

• In XP Pro, turn off "Remote Assistance" and "Remote Desktop Sharing" in Control Panel -- Performance and Maintenance -- System -- Remote.

• Disable "Disk I/O Performance Logging" by selecting Run from the Start Menu and typing diskperf –n.

• Disable "Write Behind Caching" in Control Panel -- System -- Hardware -- Device Manager. Select each drive, choose Properties and uncheck "Write Cache Enabled".

• Check DMA settings in Device Manager (access as above). Under the "IDE ATA/ATAPI Controllers" branch of the tree, do the following for both Primary and Secondary Controllers: right-click, select "Properties", go to the Advanced Settings tab, ensure "Transfer mode" is set to "DMA if available" and "Device Type" to "Auto Detection". If these options do not exist, you likely need a BIOS update for your motherboard.

• Disable AutoPlay so CDs don't start up automatically. Go to Start -- My Computer and select the drive you wish to modify. Under Properties -- AutoPlay choose the appropriate drive type and behaviour.

• After all of your installations, uninstalls, and optimisations are complete, defragment your hard drives. Do this periodically or after major file changes. If you followed the partition advice given earlier, you can quickly defrag your current work partition after each work session.

• Download BootVis from MSDN and run it now and whenever the system changes significantly. It will optimise files on the disk for fastest sequential access during boot-up.

Helpful Tips

• Complete your security setup my modifying your accounts. For XP Pro disable the "Guest" account and rename (not disable) the "Administrator" account. First, go to Administrator Tools -- Computer Management -- Local Users and Groups -- User folder, right click "Guest", go to Properties -- General, check "Account is Disabled". Second, go to Administrator Tools -- Computer Management -- Local Users and Groups -- User folder, right click "Administrator", and select "Rename". For XP Home go to Control Panel -- User Accounts -- Owner and "Change my name" to something other than "Owner". Then, "Create a password" so your account is protected.

• Do not customise the Virtual Memory swap file, despite some recommendations to the contrary.

• Do not install virus scanning apps that load in the background or run as services.

• Do not install RealPlayer, Quicktime, games, or any other large multimedia system. In fact, install only what you need to get work done, at least on your audio boot partition. Play around with new plugins and fun stuff on your other OS copy.

• Compile a CD of your current driver and install files for every essential application. Note which apps do not need to be installed (but can instead simply be copied into a folder). Have these ready to go without needing to unpack, etc. This will save a lot of time during a system restore.

• If you change the Windows registry manually (recommended for experts only), make the change to a .REG file, and archive all of these so you can replicate the changes easily.

• Develop and implement a consistent and thorough backup regimen.

• Note where apps store their configuration info and try to standardise this. Don't forget to backup this data.

• Keep a text file with all product serial numbers for ease of reference.

• If you wish to use the Recovery Console, install it from the XP CD. In this way, should you ever need it you will not need to scramble for your setup disk.

• To improve system stability, at the cost of slightly decreased performance, go to Computer -- Tools -- Options -- View and turn on "Launch folder windows in a separate process".


In addition to what has been mentioned already, you may want to consider these third-party products.

• Lavasoft's Ad-aware removes spyware from your system, hence improving performance and security. The Standard Edition is free, or at least used to be (?)

• The free Litestep is a replacement shell that provides enhanced customisation and may reduce resource usage.

Diskeeper (commercial) provides some additional hard drive optimisations.

Norton Ghost (commercial) can create full disk images, which helps in making more complete backups.

PartitionMagic (commercial) allows partitioning a drive dynamically, which is handy if you think you may have to change things after OS installation.


Optimizing Windows 2000 and Windows XP for Audio is a PDF from the makers of Gigastudio.

Pure Performance has various tips.

• The Black Viper site has much discussion of system services.

RME provides a variety of good technical articles, most of them hardware related.



robin said...

I changed the RAM recommendation to 1024 MB. Got tougher about backups. Updated hard drive blurb to mention SATA. Made a few other small changes and improved the formatting.

Trevor Hook said...

I looking for a free antivirus which anti virus would be good.

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