By Craig Anderton
|Fig. 1. The free utility DPC Latency Checker. Left: A Windows laptop with WiFi enabled and system power plan set to balanced. Right: What happens when you disable WiFi and change the system power plan to high performance.
CONSIDER TWO IMPORTANT RULES OF USING VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS LIVE:
1. Your entire system could do an Epic Fail at any moment, but . . .
2. Your system will probably give you years of reliable operation.
So this is a “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” situation—and this article is
about how to plan for the worst.
Mac Versus Windows
For desktop computing, I use both; on laptops,
for almost a decade I used only Macs, but now I
use only Windows. Computers aren’t a religion to
me—and for live performance, they’re simply appliances.
I’d switch back to Mac tomorrow if I thought
it would serve my needs better, but here’s why I use
Windows for playing soft synths live.
1. Less expensive hardware. If the laptop
dies, I’ll cope better.
2. Often easier to fix. With my current
Windows laptop, replacing the system
hard drive takes about 90 seconds. Laptop drives
are smaller and more fragile, so this matters.
3. Easier to replace. Although it’s getting
much easier to find Macs, if it’s two hours
before the gig in East Blurfle and an errant
bear ate my laptop, I’ll have an easier time
finding a Windows machine.
4. Higher performance when running at
low latencies. Don’t take my word for it:
Go to dawbench.com before you start writing
5. Optimization options. This is a doubleedged
sword, because if you buy a laptop
from your local big box office supply
store, it will likely be anti-optimized for
live performance with software instruments.
We’ll cover tweaks that address
this, but you’ll have to enter geek mode.
If you just want a Windows machine
that works, then . . .
|Fig. 2. In Device Manager, disable any hardware you’re not using. Onboard wireless such as WiFi and Bluetooth is particularly problematic.
6. Consider a pre-optimized audio laptop.
I’ve used laptops from PC Audio Labs, Rain,
and ADK, and they’ve all outperformed off -
the-shelf laptops. My current music laptop
is a PC Audio Labs x64 machine that was
optimized for video editing, but the same
qualities that make it rock for video make it
rock and roll for music. Of course, if “you’re
a Mac” (perhaps because MainStage or Logic
is your act’s centerpiece), be my guest—even
a MacBook Air has enough power to do the
job. [Even the previous generation MacBook
Air performed impressively, as our July ’11 review
proved.—Ed.] But if you’re starting with
a blank slate, or want to dedicate a computer
to live performance, Windows is currently a
pretty compelling choice.
Preparing for Disaster
There are two main ways disaster can strike:
1. The computer can fail entirely. One solution,
while pricey, is a redundant, duplicate
system. Consider this an insurance policy—it
will seem inexpensive if your main machine
dies. Another solution is to use a synth or
workstation with internal sounds as your master
MIDI controller—think Yamaha Motif or
MO series, Korg Triton or Kronos, or Kurzweil
PC series. If your computer blows up, at least
you’ll have enough sounds to get through the
gig. If you must use a controller-only keyboard,
then carry an external sound module you can
use in emergencies.
|Fig. 3. Create a power plan that runs the processor at 100% for both minimum and maximum power states. Laptops will have an option to specify different CPU power states for battery operation; set those to 100% as well.
If you have enough warning, you can buy
a new computer before the gig. In that case,
though, you’ll need to carry everything needed
to re-install the software you use. One reason
I use Ableton Live for live performance and
hosting soft synths is that the demo version is
fully functional except for the ability to save—
it won’t time out or emit periodic noise bursts
in the middle of a set. I carry a DVD-ROM
and USB memory stick (redundancy!) with
everything needed to load into Live to do my
performance. So if all else fails, I can buy a new
computer, install Live, and be ready to go after
making the tweaks we’ll cover shortly.
2. Software can become corrupted. If you
use a Mac, bring along a Time Machine hard
drive. With Windows, enable system restore—
the performance hit is very minor. Returning to a
previous confi guration that’s known to be stable
may be all you need to fix a system problem. For
extra security, carry a portable hard drive with
a disk image of your system drive. Macs make it
easy to boot from an external drive, as do Windows
machines if you’re not afraid to go into the
BIOS and change the boot order.
Windows 7 and Vista Tweaks
Neither Windows nor Mac OS are realtime operating
systems. Music is a realtime activity. Do
you sense trouble ahead?
A computer juggles multiple tasks simultaneously,
so it gets around to musical tasks
when it can. Although computers are pretty
good at juggling, occasional heavy CPU loading
(spikes) can cause audio dropouts. Although
one option is increasing latency, this
produces a much less satisfying feel. A better
option is to seek out and destroy the source of
Your ally in this quest is DPC Latency
Checker, a freely downloadable utility. [Download the free utilities DPC Latency Checker.] LatencyMon
is another useful program, but a
little more advanced. [Download LatencyMon to optimize your system.] DPC Latency Checker
monitors your system and shows when spikes
occur (see Figure 1 on page 42); you can then
turn various processes on and off to see what’s
causing the problems.
|Fig. 4. A USB extension cable can keep a USB stick from breaking off at its base (and possibly damaging your motherboard) if pressure is applied to it.
From the Start menu, choose Control Panel,
then open Device Manager. Disable (don’t uninstall)
any hardware devices you’re not using, starting
with any internal WiFi card—it’s a major spike
culprit. Even if your laptop has a physical switch to
turn this on and off , that’s not the same as actually
disabling it (see Figure 2 on page 43). Also disable
any other hardware you’re not using: onboard
webcam, Ethernet port, internal audio (which you
should do anyway), fingerprint sensor, and the like.
By now you should see a lot less spiking. Next,
right-click on the Taskbar and open Task Manager.
You’ll see a variety of running tasks, many
of which may be unnecessary. Click on a process,
then click on End Process to see if it makes a difference.
If you stop something that interferes
with the computer’s operation, no worries—you
can always restart.
Finally, click on Start. Type “msconfig” into
the Search box, then click on the Startup tab.
Uncheck any unneeded programs that load automatically
on startup. If all of this seems too
daunting, don’t worry; simply disabling the onboard
wireless in Device Manager will often solve
most spiking issues.
Power Use for Power Users
Laptops try hard to maximize battery life. For example
if you’re just composing an email, the CPU
can loaf along at a reduced speed, thus saving
power. But for realtime performance situations,
you want as much CPU power as possible.
Always use an AC adapter, as relying on the
battery alone will almost invariably shift into a
lower-power mode. With Windows machines, the
most important adjustment is to create a power
plan with maximum CPU power.
With Windows Vista or 7 (Windows XP’s
power management is pretty inflexible), go to
Control Panel > Power Options and create a new
power plan. Choose the highest-performance
existing power plan as a starting point. After
creating the plan, click on Change Plan Settings,
then click on Change Advanced Power Settings.
Open up Processor Power Management, and set
the Maximum and Minimum processor states to
100% (see Figure 3 on page 43). If there’s a system
cooling policy, set it to Active to discourage
If overheating becomes an issue (it
shouldn’t), you can probably throttle back a
bit on the CPU power, like to 80%. Just make
sure the minimum and maximum states are the
same; I’ve experienced audio clicks when the
CPU switched states. (In the immortal words of
Herman Cain, “I don’t have the facts to back me
up” but it seems this is more problematic with
FireWire interfaces than USB.)
The Happy Laptop
A laptop’s connectors are not built to rock ’n’ roll
specs. If damaged, the result may be an expensive
Ideally, every computer connection should
be a break-away connection; Macs with MagSafe
power connectors are outstanding in this respect.
With standard power connectors, use an extension
cable that plugs between the power supply
plug and your computer’s jack. Secure this extension
cable (duct tape, zip ties, wrap it around a
stand leg, whatever) so that if there’s a tug on the
power supply, it will pull the power supply plug
out of the extension cable jack—not the extension
cable plug out of the computer. With USB
memory sticks or software license dongles, use a
USB extender (see Figure 4.
It’s also important to invest in a serious laptop
travel bag. I prefer hard-shell cases, which
usually means getting one from a photo store
and configuring the internal foam for a computer
instead of cameras.
Finally, remember when going through airport
scanners to put your laptop last on the conveyer
belt, after other personal effects. People on the
incoming side of security can’t run off with your
laptop, but those who’ve gone through the scanner
can if they get to your laptop before you do.
Craig Anderton is Executive Editor of
Electronic Musician magazine, and Editor
in Chief of harmonycentral.com. He
has been using laptops in live performance
for over a decade.
The Laptop Alternative
If laptops make you nervous, there’s an alternative: the Muse Receptor line and
its offspring, the MuseBox (shown). These stuff what’s essentially a computer
into a sturdy, road-worthy box, and run virtual instruments and processors.
It can connect to a laptop, which serves more like a “terminal” for accessing
the Receptor’s innards, but you can also treat it as a plug-and-play sound
machine. Get two, and now you have redundancy—the Holy Grail of live performance.
Rather than spend a lot of pages on the inherent coolness of the
Receptor concept, check out the MuseBox review in next month’s issue.