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It’s easier to carry a laptop than an arsenal of keyboards—but you’ll need to optimize your computer for the task

 

By Craig Anderton

 

There are two important truths when using virtual instruments live: Your entire system could die at any moment, but your system will probably give you years of reliable operation. So feel free to go ahead and file this under“hope for the best, but plan for the worst”—but in this article, we'll plan for the worst.

 

MAC VS. PC

 

For desktop computing, I use both; with 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 live.

 

Less expensive. If the laptop dies, I'll cope better.

 

  • Often easier to fix. With my current Windows laptop, replacing the system drive takes about 90 seconds. Laptop drives are smaller and more fragile, so this matters.
  • 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 your laptop, you'll have an easier time finding a Windows machine.
  • Optimization options. This is a double-edged 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 virtual 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 . . .
  • There are companies that integrate laptops for music. I've used laptops from PC Audio Labs and ADK, and they've all outperformed stock laptops. I’ve even used 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 into using a Mac laptop (e.g., MainStage is your act's centerpiece, or you use Logic to host virtual instruments), be my guest—I have a Mac laptop that runs Mavericks as well as a Windows machine that’s currently on Windows 7, and they’re both excellent machines. Apple makes great computers, and even a MacBook Air has enough power to do the job. 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.

 

The computer can fail entirely. One solution—although pricey—is a redundant, duplicate system. Consider this an insurance policy, because it will seem inexpensive if your main machine dies an hour before the gig. Another solution is to use a master keyboard controller with internal sounds. If your computer blows up, at least you'll have enough sounds to limp through the gig. If you must use a controller-only keyboard, then carry an external tone module you can use in emergencies.

 

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 virtual instruments is that the demo version is fully functional except for the ability to save—it won't time out in the middle of a set, or emit white noise periodically. I carry a DVD-ROM and USB memory stick (redundancy!) with everything needed to load into Live to do my performance; 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.

 

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 configuration that’s known to be good 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 TWEAKS

 

Neither Windows nor the Mac OS are real-time operating systems. Music is a real-time 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 the spikes.

 

Your ally in this quest is DPC Latency Checker, a free program available at www.thesycon.de/eng/latency_check.shtml. LatencyMon (www.resplendence.com/latencymon) is another useful program, but a little more advanced. DPC Latency Checker monitors your system and shows when spikes occur (Fig. 1); you can then turn various processes on and off to see what's causing the problems.

 

Fig. 1: The left screen shows a Windows laptop with its wireless card enabled, and system power plan set to balanced. The one on the right shows what happens when you disable wireless and change the system power plan to high performance.

 

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 wireless 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 (Fig. 2). Also disable any other hardware you're not using: internal USB camera, ethernet port, internal audio (which you should do anyway), fingerprint sensor, and the like.

 

Fig. 2: In Device Manager, disable any hardware you’re not using. Onboard wireless is particularly problematic.

 

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, and the service will restart as well.

 

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.

 

BUT WAIT—THERE'S MORE!

 

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 real-time 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 7, choose Control Panel > Power Options and create a new power plan. Choose the highest performance 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% (Fig. 3). If there's a system cooling policy, set it to Active to discourage overheating.

 

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 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. (And 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.)

 

A HAPPIER LAPTOP

 

A laptop's connectors are not built to rock and roll specs. If damaged, the result may be an expensive motherboard replacement.

 

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, tie it around a stand leg, or 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.. Similarly, with USB memory sticks or dongles, use a USB extender (Fig. 4) between the USB port and external device.

 

Fig. 4: A USB extension cable can help keep a USB stick from breaking off at its base (and possibly damaging your motherboard) if pressure is applied to it.

 

 

It’s also important to invest in a serious laptop travel bag. I prefer hardshell cases, which usually means getting one from a photo store and customizing it 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 Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

 

 

3 comments
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Yulius Kurniawan  |  October 21, 2014 at 10:53 pm
Awesome tips, Craig. I think, another benefit of using USB extension cable is to reduce possibility of laptop overheat, because devices we connect via USB are sometimes too close to the laptop, and generate more heats.
Reply
JoeCosta  |  September 10, 2014 at 12:05 pm
That tip on the usb is awsome, some DJ gave it to me some time ago and I bought this HUB http://www.clickplus.pt/p44942, really useful and awsome and I even recharge my smartphone with it while doing my sets! Awsome article!
Reply
huggy  |  September 10, 2014 at 12:05 pm
Great info, Craig!  FYI, Verbatim makes a very small USB stick that sticks out less than a 1/4" from the USB port.  They call it Store 'n Stay.   That helps avoid it being broken off, but they are also pretty small to manage!  And easy to forget!

I'd like to see tips geared to guitar players who need to use an audio interface to put our signals into the laptop before processing.  Latency becomes a serious issue with A-D, processing, D-A signal chains.   I know this is not quite the same as virtual instruments for keyboards, but are any guitarists using PCs for their rigs successfully?

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