Five simple tweaks to get better performance from your soft synths

May 28, 2015

While it’s true that even entry-level computers now include multi-core processors and generous amounts of memory, CPU management is still an issue if you plan to use a lot of virtual instruments. Half a dozen instances of a sophisticated physical or analog modeling synth can bring even a power-user computer to its knees. Here are some tweaks to get more mileage out of whatever computer you have.


Shift your CPU’s gears. Virtual instruments involve trade-offs, like CPU load versus fidelity versus latency. So, some CPU-intensive instruments let you adjust the power consumption in preferences (click image at left to enlarge). When you’re tracking, select modest CPU consumption. When mixing, render the soft synth to an audio track using maximum CPU consumption. Then you can archive the instrument to disconnect it from the CPU—but if your host can’t do that, save the instrument’s preset and remove it from the host after rendering. If you want to re-edit later, insert the instrument, load the preset, and edit away.

The benefits of recording at 96kHz. I covered this in the September 2014 issue; check out the article at keyboardmag.com/recordat96. What the article doesn’t cover is a workaround if your synth doesn’t do oversampling and you’re recording at 44.1 or 48kHz. Export the MIDI file driving your virtual instrument, then open a 96kHz project. Insert the synth, load the MIDI file, and render the synth track. Then, sample-rate convert it to 44.1 or 48kHz and import the audio into your original project. Even though it seems counterintuitive that lower sample rates would retain the benefits of initially recording at higher ones, this works.

Sample library relocation. Although most modern synths let you specify a destination drive to install libraries, what if you later want to move a library to a new or different drive? Create a new folder, move your samples to it, then see if the program’s preferences let you enter an alternate folder location (click image at left to enlarge). If not, there may be a configuration text file where you can replace one folder reference with another.

In Windows, sometimes a registry entry points to a sample library location. Because editing the registry is scary, you can use Windows’ mklink function to create a link from the folder the program references to a different folder. Run cmd.exe in Administrator mode, then type (without the brackets, but with the quotes):

mklink j/ “C:\[file path of existing sample folder]” “[drive letter]:\[file path of new sample folder]”

For example:

 

 

Stream samples from an external USB drive. With a laptop, it’s likely that all your sample and audio data lives on your main system drive. If an instrument’s samples take up a lot of space, streaming from disk puts an extra load on your system drive, but loading them into RAM may push up against the system’s limits. So load an instrument’s sample library on a USB thumb drive, then point your sampler to it as described above. Make sure it’s a fast drive and at least USB2.0, and if you stream truly dense sample sets (e.g., large orchestral libraries), an external Thunderbolt drive is worth your while.

Lower your latency. Latency is a buzzkill. One solution is a faster CPU, but with Windows, go into Device Manager and disable (do not uninstall) all drivers under “Sound, Video, and Game Controllers” other than any for your audio interface. It can’t hurt, and you can always re-enable them for general-purpose use later. It’s common to increase your DAW’s sample buffer setting as a song becomes more complex, which can be a drag when you need to do an overdub. The remedy: “Freeze” all your virtual instrument tracks to lighten the load on your CPU. Then you can lower the latency, play your part, and when you’re done, unfreeze the instruments to re-establish real-time control over them.

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