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PC Audio Labs Rok Box MC64


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I’ve always said each pro review has its own gestalt, and this one will take yet another tack. Nominally, the review is of PC Audio Labs’ latest Rok Box MC64, which I’m using to run Windows 7 64-bit. However, the “review” aspect can be dispensed with in one sentence: great product, great service.

 

Okay, we’re done! Bye!

 

Seriously...as a result, this will be more a review of what’s to be gained, or given up, with using a bleeding-edge system. This configuration has a six-core i7 with hyper-threading to bring it to 12 cores, as well as 32GB of RAM, so it’s a high-end system although the price is certainly reasonable (check out their web site for details, as different configurations cost different amounts). So, it’s not like I’ll be reviewing some unattainable mainframe...in fact, this is the kind of computer to which many of you will upgrade when the time comes.

 

BMOH6.png

 

When I first went multi-core, several programs either didn’t accommodate multi-core properly, couldn’t balance among the cores so some cores were red-lining while others were loafing, and some programs simply would not work unless I went into task manager and disabled a few cores. Thankfully, so far it’s been very different this time around...all the software I’ve tried so far has at least worked, and some show evidence of serious optimization.

 

My computer prior to this one was a PC Audio Labs 8-core/dual Xeon machine, so it was no slouch. As a result, I’m not seeing huge speed differences when running programs I ran before; the increase in performance is more about being able to run more plug-ins, having faster real-time renders with video, and watching the progress bar zip along when bouncing tracks.

 

The main difference, which is significant, is smooth operation in the face of processor abuse. I often have multiple programs open at once, like when doing videos: Vegas for the video, Sonar to do the soundtrack, Hypercam to take screen capture videos, and sometimes one or two other programs like Sound Forge or Wavelab for detailed editing. With the new system, there’s no hesitation or hiccuping, even when I open up a second instance of Vegas (I can render with one version while editing with the other). And speaking of rendering, with non-HD videos I’m getting render times of 0.5x real-time, whereas with the 8-core on the same material I was getting about 1.2x real time.

 

That seemed like quite a big difference (given 12 vs. 8 cores, I expected maybe 50% faster), so I asked PC Audio Labs what was up and received the following response:

 

“Compared to the 8-core system, the new system uses faster memory and there’s no front side bus connecting the processor to the memory controller—the memory controller is actually built into the processor. Also, the processor has been totally redesigned so that its 12 cores are faster than the 8 cores of your older system. Overall, it's just faster on every level of processing.”

 

Okay, so those are some basics. But here’s the best part: PC Audio Labs has graciously agreed to help make this thread a resource for those using Windows to make music. For example, I wasn’t totally clear about how to image my system drive with Windows 7, and they helped me out with that...which I can then pass along to you. Also, from time to time there are posts in Sound, Studio, and Stage that give some great Windows tips, and I plan to copy them into this thread so it becomes a sort of repository of All Things Windows.

 

That also means this will likely be a leisurely, long-running review where as I find out some new technique or insight, I’ll post about it. PC Audio Labs has promised to check in from time to time and will make sure it looks like I know what I’m talking about, and hopefully, will have time to contribute some tips and techniques as well.

 

This pro review will be an excellent resource for anyone having questions about the ins and outs of using Windows for serious music and even video production...have at it!

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Actually, I do have a question...I really like the "Aero" look. Some people have said that it reduces performance (the documentation for Pro Tools even recommended turning it off with slower computers), while others have said that with a decent graphics board (this system uses an NVIDIA GeForce GT 440) the graphics board does the hard work and doesn't really stress out the CPU. I think I'll ping PC Audio Labs and see what they have to say about it.

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Well it took me a while to reconstruct my system, starting from scratch with software and all that, so I hope I don't have to do it again any time soon. However...I'm somewhat concerned about the health of the CD drive, because the computer had obviously been really abused by UPS. One of the drive bays had sheared off the screws that held it in, the RAM had become unseated, and the removable drive bay holding the old system drive (it was returned in the same box as the computer) was cracked. Hard drives don't like vibration and being dropped, hence the concern that UPS shortened the life of the drive considerably.

 

I asked PC Audio Labs about the best way to back up the system drive, and they recommended the following,

 

Make sure to create a System Image of the C drive after you get your software setup so that you don't have to do this again in case of a hard drive crash. Here's a document that shows you how to do that.

 

Here's a document that shows you how to Restore from a System Image.

 

Finally, here's a doc that shows you how to backup your audio files using Microsoft SyncToy.

 

Thanks guys! That's very useful information. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows about my monthly nag to back up your data, and now I'm going to add system imaging to my data backup regimen.

 

 

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Actually, I do have a question...I really like the "Aero" look. Some people have said that it reduces performance (the documentation for Pro Tools even recommended turning it off with slower computers), while others have said that with a decent graphics board (this system uses an NVIDIA GeForce GT 440) the graphics board does the hard work and doesn't really stress out the CPU. I think I'll ping PC Audio Labs and see what they have to say about it.

 

Using the Aero look in Windows 7 does hit the CPU a bit, but with a powerful and capable discrete video card, Aero uses the GPU (Graphics processing unit) more than the CPU. Considering that modern CPUs are extremely fast it's safe to use the Aero interface on a PCAudioLabs system. On older model CPUs, like the AMD Athlon or Intel Pentium D, or systems without discrete graphics, it might be best to disable Aero, and also might be required for smooth audio playback. In our experience, the Aero look allows for a graphically rich interface without compromising on smooth audio recording and playback.

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Using the hard drive as a storage medium is rather inexpensive compared to the cost of tape. It's essential to backup your music files and it's not all that expensive to do so by purchasing a second hard drive of the same size. Many people ask us about the best way to do backup and so I wrote up a few documents on some ways to accomplish this.

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Good point, and I've found a good use for an old computer that the new one replaced :) I have an old dual Athon X64 machine which is kinda slow by today's standards, but it has two removable IDE drives bays - and I have a bunch of old IDE drives sitting around that aren't very relevant in today's SATA world. So, I've networked it with the Rok Box MC64, and when I have a spare moment, I put a drive into the old computer and back up data to it. It may sound like overkill, but it's convenient, and recycles those old drives and drive bays. :)

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Here's a screen shot of the most complex mix I've ever done in Sonar. It shows 94 tracks, but several of those are hidden or archived because I didn't use them, so we're dealing with more like 80 tracks. Of these, most have some kind of processing added - generally a little EQ, but also some dynamics and reverb. However, there are no virtual instruments - it's all audio - so we'll have to try the "How many Kontakt 5s can I instantiate" test later on.

 

I've outlined the performance meter in red, which shows the 12 cores just kind of sitting there, being lazy and probably sunning themselves by the pool. As an aside, I'm impressed by how well Sonar X1d balances the load over the multiple cores, which is probably one reason why they're only working at a fraction of their capacity.

 

NCVhr.png

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And now....a question for PCAL Fred. IIRC, system restore came disabled on my system. Was that a conscious decision that's a PCAL "policy," or something that was done specifically with my computer? Would you recommend leaving system restore on or off? I leave it on, because you never know...

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Agree with Aero feature running vs not running doesnt hurt with newer pc's. Avid recommeded it off for PT10 so I shut Aero off on my i7. And I didnt see any increase in performance. So I left it on. Now I just bought another 27" monitor, so I will be running two 27" off the one card, so that (but I dont think it will) may effect things.

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And now....a question for PCAL Fred. IIRC, system restore came disabled on my system. Was that a conscious decision that's a PCAL "policy," or something that was done specifically with my computer? Would you recommend leaving system restore on or off? I leave it on, because you never know...

 

System Restore = System Overhead.

 

We disable System Restore on every PCAudioLabs computer.

 

-Fred

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Thanks Fred, good to know. So I guess it makes sense to turn on System Restore before installing new software, make sure that everything's working, then disable it when you start working on actual projects?

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I've never used system restore and I make a point of turning it permanently off when I do a new install.

 

I see the point of system restore for some people ... but with my types of backups, I'd rather restore a ghost image if something were to get unbelievably screwed up.

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Yeah, you could do that, but we recommend to make a System Image of your C drive after setting up all of your programs and software installs. Actually, rather than use System Restore, you could create System Images in between batches of installations.

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I go a bit overboard. I'll set up a system with the os and updates... ghost that as my starter image.

 

Then add in an install of certain apps I routinely use. Then ghost that to a second image file folder on the external backup drive.

 

Then add in a program like a daw ... then ghost that to a third image when all is working okay.

 

And then install vsts .. and ghost that overall setup profile.

 

That way, I can go back several levels if I want at any time ... or delete any "along the way" images if I find I never go back to them. The very first image is a fantastic time saver for going back to square one .. compared to doing a fresh install, which to me, is the most time consuming thing.

 

Same thing as system restore in some ways I suppose.. but Ghost is really fast and I've been using it for years so.. less to learn. Plus, I just don't like the idea of system restore running in the background.

 

On top of everything else, my entire system drive and secondary drives are in removable trays so that I can pop in an entirely different os drive etc.. which itself then has its own array of backup images. Didn't you say that you use trays and bays for alternate os etc on your computers Craig?

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Every computer user should be doing this. I just recently had to replace a defective hard drive for a business client and she lost her entire Outlook.pst file. The drive totally died and she would have had to pay a lot of money to have her files recovered. Luckily for her, she was ok with her Outlook backup from July 2011.

 

Backup shouldn't be an option when using computers.

 

-Fred

 

I go a bit overboard. I'll set up a system with the os and updates... ghost that as my starter image.


Then add in an install of certain apps I routinely use. Then ghost that to a second image file folder on the external backup drive.


Then add in a program like a daw ... then ghost that to a third image when all is working okay.


And then install vsts .. and ghost that overall setup profile.


That way, I can go back several levels if I want at any time ... or delete any "along the way" images if I find I never go back to them. The very first image is a fantastic time saver for going back to square one .. compared to doing a fresh install, which to me, is the most time consuming thing.


Same thing as system restore in some ways I suppose.. but Ghost is really fast and I've been using it for years so.. less to learn. Plus, I just don't like the idea of system restore running in the background.


On top of everything else, my entire system drive and secondary drives are in removable trays so that I can pop in an entirely different os drive etc.. which itself then has its own array of backup images. Didn't you say that you use trays and bays for alternate os etc on your computers Craig?

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I'm glad this is how the review is starting. too many people come to me in a panic after a hard drive dies.

 

I'm not so much into imaging, I just image the OS + strategic programs although I am religious about backing up data. However, what I'm finding is that as I accumulate more and more data, it takes hours to back up just, for example, a drive with all the backup versions and updates of programs. I know that a lot of times, there really are only a few changes and yet I end up backing up everything, "just in case."

 

Does anyone have recommendations for incremental backup programs that back up only what's changed, and leaves the rest of the backup untouched?

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Ghost does entire backups, or incremental, or just certain folders/files, on demand or on a schedule etc.

 

I primarily use it for full backups on a manual basis. Don't think I've ever used it on a schedule basis or for incremental backups, or for just backing up certain folders.

 

For individual folders that change a lot, I just copy those to external drives as needed.

 

I'm up to Ghost 15 (started way back with the dos-based 2003 version) and it's never screwed up yet. I sense it's not the most popular brand, but it works cool for me.

 

Plus, with the way I back up, it's nice to be able to think ..."go ahead drives, screw up in any way possible, any time you want. A quick restore is always only 15 minutes away".

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Norton Ghost has been around for a while and I agree that it's a good backup utility, probably one of the most useful tools in the Norton Suite. Other options include Acronis True Image and Paragon Drive Backup. There are also Linux backup utilities included on Linux boot CDs and can be used to do your cloning, file level backups, and incremental backups.

 

Ghost does entire backups, or incremental, or just certain folders/files, on demand or on a schedule etc.


I primarily use it for full backups on a manual basis. Don't think I've ever used it on a schedule basis or for incremental backups, or for just backing up certain folders.


For individual folders that change a lot, I just copy those to external drives as needed.


I'm up to Ghost 15 (started way back with the dos-based 2003 version) and it's never screwed up yet. I sense it's not the most popular brand, but it works cool for me.


Plus, with the way I back up, it's nice to be able to think ..."go ahead drives, screw up in any way possible, any time you want. A quick restore is always only 15 minutes away".

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The backing up info has been great. Would like to turn the discussion in a different direction: RAM. I have 32GB in my machine and I'm assuming that one reason why everything runs so smoothly is because a lot of stuff is sitting in RAM. But, I have two basic questions.

 

1. In a video I shot at NAMM, Gregory Butler of PCAL talked about 8GB as being the "sweet spot" with respect to bang for the buck although he does mention the advantages of having enough RAM to pretty much load everything you might ever want for a session. Does 8GB sound about right for someone wanting to do a Windows 7 x64 system?

2. Is there any value in using USB memory to do the Windows "speed up my system" option, given that I already have a lot of RAM? Or does that matter only for systems with really limited RAM?

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Norton Ghost has been around for a while and I agree that it's a good backup utility, probably one of the most useful tools in the Norton Suite. Other options include Acronis True Image and Paragon Drive Backup. There are also Linux backup utilities included on Linux boot CDs and can be used to do your cloning, file level backups, and incremental backups.

 

+1 for Acronis TrueImage. On my current audio PC (Win XP, dual Xeon, Seagate Barracuda system & data drives) I use TrueImage to do image backups of the system drive with OS and all programs, and over the past 10 years I have successfully used these backups several times to recover from a hard drive crash and a malware attack. I use TeraCopy to do direct file copy backups of data drives to external USB HDs, where image backups are not necessary (eg to preserve program function or bootability).

 

I do have a question for PCAL Fred (or anyone else) regarding solid state drives. Fred, I noticed on the PCAL website none of your standard configurations use solid state system drives, although you do offer that option for custom configurations. Do any of the 3 image backup programs you mention work reliably to back up from and restore to a solid state system drive? The support forums for all 3 have lots of complaints about problems with image backups of SSDs not aligning right, not running correctly, giving BSODs, and generally not being ready for prime time use with system SSDs.

 

Do you have any recommendation for a back up program that you have found to easily and reliably back up from and restore to a solid state system drive, so the OS and all programs will run exactly as before the crash or virus?

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Great question, we'll see what Fred has to say...I'm using an 80GB SSD for data. I've noticed that on a massive project with dozens and dozens of tracks and plug-ins, Sonar drops audio more frequently when running from the SSD. I don't recall having the same problem with standard HD, but maybe it's a USB bottleneck...I dunno. I've been tempted to use an SSD as a system drive, but don't want to pay the $$$ for a drive with enough capacity to handle what I need from a system drive unless there are major, unambiguous advantages.

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Apologies for hijacking the thread over to the SSD backup question, I started a separate thread on that.

Any other opinions on the RAM question? For non-extreme use, is it worth the investment to get 32 GB to make the computer run more "smoothly"?

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+1 for Acronis TrueImage. On my current audio PC (Win XP, dual Xeon, Seagate Barracuda system & data drives) I use TrueImage to do image backups of the system drive with OS and all programs, and over the past 10 years I have successfully used these backups several times to recover from a hard drive crash and a malware attack. I use TeraCopy to do direct file copy backups of data drives to external USB HDs, where image backups are not necessary (eg to preserve program function or bootability).


I do have a question for PCAL Fred (or anyone else) regarding solid state drives. Fred, I noticed on the PCAL website none of your standard configurations use solid state system drives, although you do offer that option for custom configurations. Do any of the 3 image backup programs you mention work reliably to back up from and restore to a solid state system drive? The support forums for all 3 have lots of complaints about problems with image backups of SSDs not aligning right, not running correctly, giving BSODs, and generally not being ready for prime time use with system SSDs.


Do you have any recommendation for a back up program that you have found to easily and reliably back up from and restore to a solid state system drive, so the OS and all programs will run exactly as before the crash or virus?

 

Good point. We have also experienced issues with imaging SSD OS drives as well. Something that we found out was that if we tried to create a Windows System Image of a 120GB Crucial M4 SSD, it would fail during the process. But if we changed the partition size to 115GB, the creation of the System Image worked, and the image was able to be restored back on to the 120GB SSD without any issues. After doing the Image Restore, we just increased the partition size back up to 120GB.

 

We have use Acronis True Image to restore images to an SSD, but usually these images were created from standard hard drives. We really haven't worked much with any other imaging software as of recently. We find something that works and tend to stick with it.

 

The reason we don't use SSDs in our pre-configured systems is price.

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The backing up info has been great. Would like to turn the discussion in a different direction: RAM. I have 32GB in my machine and I'm assuming that one reason why everything runs so smoothly is because a lot of stuff is sitting in RAM. But, I have two basic questions.


1. In a video I shot at NAMM, Gregory Butler of PCAL talked about 8GB as being the "sweet spot" with respect to bang for the buck although he does mention the advantages of having enough RAM to pretty much load everything you might ever want for a session. Does 8GB sound about right for someone wanting to do a Windows 7 x64 system?

2. Is there any value in using USB memory to do the Windows "speed up my system" option, given that I already have a lot of RAM? Or does that matter only for systems with really limited RAM?

 

8GB is what seems to satisfy musicians. Composers usually want more, like 16 or 24 gigs. Engineers usually want as much as the computer can handle.

 

I don't know about the value of the "speed up my system" option using a USB flash memory stick. Have you tried it?

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8GB is what seems to satisfy musicians. Composers usually want more, like 16 or 24 gigs. Engineers usually want as much as the computer can handle.


I don't know about the value of the "speed up my system" option using a USB flash memory stick. Have you tried it?

 

I've done it with the PCAL x64 Vista laptop, and it does seem to make a difference. I haven't tried it with the desktop MC64 yet, but I can give it a try. Only issue is it's already so fast that if it becomes 20% faster, I'm not sure I'd notice any difference.

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