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Advice For Those Thinking About Buying Final Scratch . . .

Published: Tue September 27, 2005  News Feed

This document has been prepared by Lamba Plc… we are the UK Distributor for Stanton products and therefore the UK Distributor of Final Scratch. We have put this list together to provide a bit of extra advice for those thinking about buying a Final Scratch system. There is already an awful lot of very solid information throughout the Final Scratch web site at; http://www.stantondj.com/v2/fs/index.asp.

We suggest you have a look through that first because what we have here is additional advice. The Stanton FAQ covers a great many of the specific questions regarding the Final Scratch system whilst ours… ours is a little broader and consists of more general advice covering the entire subject of buying and using computers for audio.

We need to stress that what follows is ADVICE. It is not a set of instructions and we are not saying that following our advice is guaranteed to keep you happy… it is just us sharing the benefit of our experience with you in the hope it will help you keep yourself and your computer happy. If you are embarking on acquiring your music online, or converting and storing your music into digital audio files, then you are starting a process which will go on for many years. Ask yourself a simple question… are you going to want to keep your music collection for the rest of your life or not? With a little bit of learning, planning and acquiring good habits now, you will increase the chances of a trouble free experience for years to come… and reduce the chances of losing your entire music collection in some sort of computer crash. If you don’t follow
our advice your system will probably work very well at first, but don’t be surprised if after a period of time it becomes unstable.

Computer buying advice…

By far the most common questions asked by those considering using a computer based system for DJing concerns what kind of computer is needed…

Laptop or Desktop?

This is pretty obvious… if you want a portable computer system you need a laptop.

Mac or PC?


Apple Mac’ – the pros

The modern Mac is designed to be an off the shelf ‘sealed unit’ solution. You buy a Mac if you don’t know anything and/or don’t want to know anything about computers. When Apple design a Mac they write the Operating System and choose all the hardware components that go inside the machine. This means that they get to ensure that all of the different hardware components will work well together (ie they are ‘compatible’) and the chosen collection of components will then deliver predictable and stable performance from their OS (Operating System). So when software/hardware developers (like the Stanton/NI partnership) set out to devise a system to run on a Mac they know exactly what they are dealing with and this makes life easier and more predictable… and predictable means stable and reliable in computer land.

When Apple produce thousands of units of a particular model (eg their G5) they all come out essentially the same… ok so there are probably a few variations on the theme available in terms of speed and memory capacity… and there are variations in terms of extra bits like DVD burners… but essentially all G5 computers are the same. So in terms of the vast majority of average users, with a relatively low knowledge level (no disrespect intended folks) a Mac will be quite a bit more stable. Another factor is that Apple have
traditionally over specified their computers so they are usually quite powerful in terms of processor speed, etc and this also makes for a much more predictable experience for the end user.
Mac – the cons All that convenience comes at a premium and Macs tend to be quite a step more expensive than an equivalent PC. Also… when Apple set about producing a new generation of computer they have a habit of sort of starting again. They design a whole new operating system and pick out a new collection of the latest components to run it… so for example when they released the G5 it was a totally different machine to the G4. Both software and hardware designed to work with a G4 was far from guaranteed to work with the new G5… and much of it still doesn’t. The result is that like all ‘sealed unit’ products, the Apple approach produces computers that are designed to be replaced rather than upgraded.

PC – the pros

You buy a PC if you already know or are keen to learn about the internal workings of computers and how to set them up. The whole idea of the PC is that hundreds of different manufacturers make a huge range of components that can be put together in a configuration that suits the requirements and budget of each end user. In many ways this is a massive advantage because once you know what you are doing you can configure streamlined systems that do exactly what you require at very competitive prices. It also means that you can go back at a later date and upgrade individual components within the PC, which of course means that the average PC has a considerably longer lifespan than a Mac. Upgrading is most relevant to desktop PC users rather than laptop users because it is rare for an end user to build their own laptop. However there are quite a few different companies in the UK specifying and building laptops so the specifications of your laptop should still be approached with caution.

PC – the cons

It can be difficult for a beginner to understand what specifications they need from a computer. The ‘minimum specifications’ stated for software is great and following the one for Final Scratch is a good start. However what isn’t made clear by ‘minimum requirements’ information is the huge range of components available. A computer needs a few main components; motherboard, graphics card, RAM, hard drive, CDROM etc. Unlike with a Mac where Apple has already ensured that all of these things will work happily together, with a PC there are literally dozens of different makes of each of these components available. Unless the person putting a PC together has tried a specific combination of components from different manufacturers together and they therefore KNOW it works… there are simply no guarantees it will work. Unfortunately there is yet further complication because when you add a product like Final Scratch 2 to a computer you are effectively adding a new hardware component (the Scratch Amp) to your computer… and there is no guarantee that it will be 100% compatible with the rest of the system components. This is not restricted to Final Scratch, it is true for ALL systems which add new hardware to your computer (including competing computer
based DJ products).

Operating Systems

One of the major differences between Mac and PC is their respective operating systems.

Mac OS

The first factor to be considered is that because the Mac is essentially a ‘pre configured’ combination of hardware components their OS does not need to allow users very much control over things… so a Mac tends to require much less end user maintenance or optimization (you can view that as an advantage or disadvantage depending on your attitude).

The second factor is definitely an advantage when it comes to audio… the Mac OS is more ‘modular’. When you start a bit of software on a Mac the OS runs it in a kind of virtual ‘bubble’ so that if the software crashes for some reason it does not usually effect the Operating System. The effect of this is that if an application crashes it just shuts down… but your computer doesn’t shut down and more importantly the main Operating System is not usually damaged.

PC – Windows XP

Windows XP does a reasonable job of being ‘all things to all men’. It needs to be extremely versatile to accommodate all of the thousands of possible different hardware combinations. To make this work Windows enables users to optimize its performance for their own uses. Great, well done Microsoft. But the problem is that XP actually ships optimized for games and graphics, so follow our optimization advice. Similarly XP enables (and even requires) manual system maintenance. If you are using XP for audio it is worthwhile learning the basics of system optimization and maintenance. XP is not a modular OS. When you start a piece of software on XP the two become closely interlinked so if the software crashes it is more likely (although not inevitable) that XP will too. In the event of a serious crash it is also possible that XP will be damaged too.

Amongst the professional Information Technology community there is considerable conjecture as to the number of ‘bugs’ in the average Windows XP update. Rumour has it that Microsoft are no more able to be 100% certain that their Operating System will work with every possible combination of hardware computer component than anybody else is that their software will.
To help combat the constant evolution of PC technology Windows
incorporates a system called Windows Update. Update logs your computer onto the Microsoft web site and updates things in your particular copy of XP.

Conjecture has it that when a release first hits the site it has not always been fully tested and that it is only after a period of public testing that Microsoft spot specific problems and release more updates to fix them in due course. So there is a piece of advice that may be worth following… wait for a few months before proceeding with any major Updates. Another extremely good piece of advice is to ensure that you create a ‘System Restore’ point immediately before embarking on any Updates.

Specifying a Mac

If you choose the Mac way then your choices are easier… just follow this specification and you probably won’t go far wrong.

Specifying a PC If you choose the PC way your choices are not so easy. Because of the nature of PC systems and the huge array of possible hardware combinations available we are totally unable to publish a list of components which are guaranteed to work with FS.

The most important decision you will make when buying a PC for music is who you buy it from. Using one of the ‘respected’ PC brand manufacturers is often suggested and is not bad advice. However what is better advice is to use a specialist audio recording & production system reseller.

These are professional retailers who sell a range of audio systems. They employ seasoned professional computer technicians to specify and custom build systems. They utilize hardware combinations that have been tested and proven to be compatible with each other and a wide range of popular audio hard and soft ware. These retailers will also be able to offer you good advice and after sales support. If you cannot do this then do not cut costs; avoid ‘off the shelf’ pre-configured packages from major high street chains or any ‘family’ PC system.

Firewire Cards

The FS2 Scratch Amp uses a Texas Instruments chipset. This is a high quality low latency chipset of well-documented stability and reliability. If you are looking into acquiring a Firewire card for your computer then we suggest looking for one that employs a Texas Instruments chipset – information which you will find on manufacturer web sites. Firewire Cables It is important to use only high quality shielded 6 PIN Firewire cables with FS2. We recommend Belkin cables.

General Advice…

1. Dedicate your computer to music.

Why? Most of you are already DJs and already own a set of decks and a mixer right? You were quite happy to go out and spend quite a bit of money on some bits of hardware that have only one purpose in life… you can’t play games, watch movies or cruise the internet on them… their only function is to let you creatively mix together pieces of music. Your decks are a musical instrument. So what’s the problem with seeing a computer in the same way?

A computer can do all sorts of amazing things for us, but it can’t do them all at once. When it comes to DJing with a computer you would do well to use it only as a tool for gathering, storing, organizing and then creatively mixing music.

2. Build on solid ground.

It is easy to dedicate a brand new computer to music… you just never ever install anything non music related on it. If you already own a computer that you’ve been using for games and stuff and you want to begin using it with Final Scratch we suggest you back up any important files (including music) and clean it out first.

How? Read the sections of the Help files in your operating system concerning reinstalling your entire operating system. Both Windows XP and Mac OS provide comprehensive instructions on how to re-format your Hard Drive and perform a 100% fresh installation of the operating system.

Why? Two reasons;

1. Because when you install any hardware and many types of software on your computer the automated installer makes
adjustments to your operating system without asking your permission. With games and DVD players this will include altering important system settings. The requirements for graphics are very different to those for audio. When you uninstall things they usually don’t have the courtesy to return the settings to their original state.

2. When you install things on a PC they add various drivers etc to the operating system and again when you uninstall the software or hardware the drivers etc will probably be left where they are. If you believe Microsoft then this is all harmless fun… experience shows that the more you fill your system with crap the less stable and slower it becomes.

3. Optimise 1 - Graphics

It pays to reduce the amount of system resources allocated to graphics by limiting the number of colours displayed on your monitor. For watching a DVD you will want a 64BIT graphics card with as much on board RAM as you can get so that it can display billions of colours with very fast screen refresh rates.

The mere presence of such high performance graphics cards demands system resources from your computer. If you have a choice when specifying a computer for audio go for a 32BIT graphics card… not only will they be less of a burden for your computer they are cheaper too!

How? The section of Help files for your operating system covering ‘Display’ can tell you how to do this. Choose a setting for millions of colours (typically 32BIT) rather than billions (64BIT).

Why? Because all the different devices in your computer are connected to a circuit board called a motherboard. A motherboard has a maximum ‘bandwidth’ and BUS speed… I.E. The amount of information that can be ferried around your motherboard and how fast it can be moved at any given moment has a finite limit. You want as much of this bandwidth and speed as possible devoted to audio rather than graphics.

4. Optimise 2 - RAM Avoid Virtual Memory. The simplest message here is to ensure you have plenty of RAM… at least 1GB of it if possible.

Why? Your computer uses RAM as short term memory. The more things you ask it to do at once, the more it needs to remember at any given moment. If you ask it to remember more stuff than it has capacity to remember in RAM, your computer will place information on the Hard Drive temporarily as it overflows. This use of Hard Disk capacity as short term memory is called Virtual Memory or using a ‘pagefile’. Streaming digital audio and Virtual
Memory do not go well together. By default your operating system will be set to simply use as much Hard Disk capacity as it needs for Virtual Memory… if it needs just a few MB it will use it… but if it needs hundreds of MB it will try to use it too. It is often beneficial to remove the decision process from your OS.

How? The obvious answer is to install so much RAM that it never overflows. Failing this there are a couple of things you can do. Read the section of the Help system covering Virtual Memory or ‘pagefiles’. When you locate the dialogue window where you can specify Virtual Memory settings simply set the minimum and maximum settings to the same amount. This permanently
allocates a section of Hard Disk to the task. 512MB seems to work well. An additional tip for desktop computer users who have multiple Hard Disks installed is to use a different HD to your system Drive for your VM ‘pagefile’. XP now has a simple single operation that reduces the allocation of various system resources to visual display. Read the Help files on ‘Setting Performance Options’. When you reach the ‘Performance Options’ window, try hitting ‘Adjust for best performance’ instead of ‘Let windows decide what’s best for my computer’. This simply cuts down on some of the fancy window animation, colouring etc and is a good illustration of how reducing allocation of resources to visual appearance can improve overall performance. It has to be said that XP looks seriously ugly in this mode so if you are not low on system resources you might want to change it back!

5. Defrag your Hard Disks

It is very important to defrag your System Drive before installing any major software. It is equally important to defrag all of your Hard Disks on a regular basis (at least once a month… many professional music recording studio engineers do it every day or before every recording session). It is true for Mac & PC.

How? Read your Help files on the subject of ‘defragging’.

Why? This is all about how a computer actually stores files on a Hard Disk. A computer has to store a lot of files of varying length. When a computer starts filling up a fresh, empty HD it places files in nice and neatly, one after another, without leaving any gaps. It just keeps piling new files in on top of the previous ones. When you delete an old file (sort from the bottom of the pile) this leaves a gap. Next time you come to store a new file the computer will fill that gap. If the new file is actually longer than the gap, the computer breaks the file up…if there are several gaps the computer will break the new file into several pieces and fill all the gaps. If you store a long file (like a song) onto a fragmented Disk (one with lots of gaps) the chances are you will end up with that song broken up into lots of little pieces and shoved into lots of little gaps spread all over the HD. When it comes to retrieve the file again (play the song) the data reading mechanism of the Hard Disk has to dash back and forth grabbing all the little pieces and putting them back together. Most HD can cope with this process but you are making them work much harder than they need to. It wears your hardware out more quickly and you are more likely to lose the occasional little piece along the way. Defragging simply tidies up. It moves everything around so that files are stored neatly in long continuous sequences of information. As you can imagine the read mechanism finds it a lot easier to just grab each chunk of a file from one area of the Disk surface.

6. Backup – very regularly!

Why? Most of us learn this the hard way. It is a simple fact of life that eventually your computer will break. This is not a question of IF, it is a question of WHEN… and it is not limited to Final Scratch. When your actual Hard Disk breaks you will lose all the data stored on it. If that disk happens to contain 50GB of audio MP3 files etc, if you have not made a backup copy you will lose them all. If they are files you’ve bought online you will lose lots of money. If they are files you have encoded yourself you will lose all those hours and hours and hours of encoding. For the cost of a stack of blank CDRs or DVDs or the cost of a backup Disk you will appreciate it in the end.

How? There are a number of ways. You can burn onto CDR or DVDR… but perhaps the best solution for the DJ is investing in an external Firewire Hard Disk. This has an added bonus that if your computer breaks on the day of a gig you can grab your backup drive, hook it up to a different computer with FS installed and still play your set. As more and more venues install FS into their DJ booths you may find that you can actually turn up to a gig with only your HD… without even needing to take your laptop. It helps if you simply set a regular date (like the beginning of every month) for yourself when you habitually perform a backup. Be warned, this process can take time, is boring and you will probably not bother… then one day, you will lose the lot, learn your lesson and henceforth become a backup junkie too.

7. Be organized

Why? Final Scratch has excellent file management facilities. It enables you to quickly and easily build named record boxes of files stored in different locations on your system. This feature is brilliant for set building. It is worthwhile however being fairly disciplined about how you actually label audio files and where you put them.

How? When you do finally take our advice in point six and start backing up your files regularly you’ll appreciate having a planned, well maintained filing system with a number of logically named folders where you can organize your files properly…so don’t just drop all you tracks in one folder called ‘tunes’! When using the standard file management systems on your computer (like Windows Explorer) you’ll also appreciate being able to see at a glance; artist, title, date of acquisition and even genre… so when you are naming a track make the effort to type in some information.

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