Producing an Album for the First Time: Part VI – Lesson Learned

A Time and Place

One of the more significant lessons I learned was about…well, honestly, patience. The situation was clear, however, I just didn’t anticipate the disruption. The album had some tracks that were monsters, literally and figuratively, and when editing them on my original desktop setup, I ran into major problems with the CPU seizing and, sometimes, simply rebooting the entire system. It had enough and, honestly, so had I. Additionally, there was just not enough RAM overhead to handle some of what I needed to do, as well. Applying a filter would involve significant drive-grinding time as the virtual RAM disk swapped data back and forth for what seemed to be eternity. For reference, my desktop, at the time, was a 2.6GHz Duo-core with 12GB RAM. The problem? It was a Dell, so I couldn’t just swap things out – I had to make sure they would play well with all the proprietary nonsense Dell saddles you with so that your next upgrade will have to be through them, or be done, yourself…

Now, this isn’t to cast aspersions on Dell products, it is, however, pointing out that there are some proprietary things about Dell systems that will make upgrading a …maddening… experience. First and foremost, the chassis connection headers are not going to match up to any motherboard you purchase and hope to put into your Dell case. Why would you want to replace your motherboard? Well, because you are limited to the type and power of the CPU you get, should you wish to replace it. In my case, I would only been able to upgrade processors to a quad-core and only up to 3GHz. Considering the deal I found for the Hex-Core 3.9GHz processor, I knew I was going to have to upgrade my motherboard, as well.

So, it came to be that I had the motherboard and the CPU, but I quickly discovered that there was no way I was going to be able to use it without a new chassis, since the panel headers were never going to line up and there were a couple of important ones – power on and reset. For reference, I didn’t realize that systems wouldn’t even boot without the reset being attached, at the least at the motherboard header level. The one that worked?  After a couple of attempts, I settled on probably the cheapest chassis out there that’s sold by reputable dealers.  The edges of the metal inside the case aren’t ground or beveled so are, in some cases, lethal…  However, the power supply location allowed the connections to still reach the motherboard, something the more expensive models missed being able to do by scant centimeters, but very real distances that couldn’t be overcome by wishy thinking.

The problem was that this process took a solid week and a couple days to get a system back up and running and able to do anything moderately useful.  The REAL problem?  This was smack in the middle of mixing Brendan’s album.

My justification was simply that I had run into a problem where there were three to four songs that I wasn’t able to listen to, in real time, when I was mixing, because the horsepower needed was more than the system currently had.  Here’s the thing – there are two approaches to take here and I obviously took one, which is to up the horsepower of the machine so it can handle all the plugins across the multitude of tracks in the mix.  The other approach, which I would recommend, is to simplify.  If you’re using that many plugins on that many tracks, it’s probably time to change your approach – but I was so new to this world that I didn’t know how to execute that fairly simple process.

For reference, something as simple as setting up a couple of FX busses and sending your tracks to the single FX source will go a long way towards reducing CPU overhead and also make it easier to keep a uniform FX application across all tracks on that particular FX bus.

So, really, the moral to this story is that if you have a song or four that have 15 to 20 tracks, each with effects, and when you hit the space bar to listen and it starts stuttering all over the place because your CPU is seizing and begging for mercy, the FIRST thing to do is look into simplifying the overall makeup of the song either through the use of FX busses or just reconsidering all of the effects, period.  If you’re still running into problems, it’s tempting to upgrade your hardware. Fair enough. My advice?  Don’t do it in the middle of a time-sensitive project.  Really.  It was bone stupid on my part and something I won’t be doing again, trust me.

So you know, though, current incarnations of the songs have 40+ tracks, limited effects bussing and relatively no CPU taxing.  It also helps that system is now a bit more juggernaut-esque, boasting a 3.9GHz six core processor with 20GB RAM. So, maybe the bigger lesson, for me, was how to craft a better mix without being reliant on CPU-heavy effects.  Yes, they sound better.

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