I've been building my own PCs for two decades. It all started when someone bequeathed a 5 MB Seagate hard drive to me. (At the time, it was valued at $499; I still have the JDR Microdevices catalogue to prove it.) So not only am I versed in component selection and integration, I kind of enjoy doing such things. But when I had a fatal error with my Dell, I decided the only vendor I would trust with my professional computing was one who really understands digital audio workstations. After taking a look at various integrators, I chose a Creation Station from the online and mail-order super-vendor Sweetwater.
Sweetwater currently offers four models in the Creation Station line -two mini-towers and two rackmounts. I chose the Tower, which is based upon an ASUS motherboard, a Pentium Dual Core 2.66 GHz with 1333 MHz FSB, and 4 GB of DDR2/800 RAM. Sweetwater builds their Creation Station line using very good source components. (Alas, this is what Dell and their competitiors used to do before the computer industry's own "race to zero" forced them to start using cheaper parts like integrated video/audio system boards. While such components are suitable for business use, they are lacking or utterly inappropriate for serious media production.) Be sure to check out Sweetwater's website for the most recent Creation Station build specifications.
The system arrived well-packed. Set up was fast, and I was installing cards and applications in minutes. The computer case, which is damped with Auralex Sheetblock-Plus, is both solid and easy to open. The regular PCI slots accepted my RME and Lynx AES cards while the single PCIe slot welcomed a UAD-1 processor (Tape Op #41). It's nice to have slot flexibility in this time of format change. The system also has eight USB 2.0 ports. Let's face it, no matter what manufacturers say, USB hubs flake more than lead singers in a Paris hotel room. Having direct motherboard connections are a plus in my book. The NVIDIA GeForce 8400 GS 256 MB video card provides fast redraws, supports dual monitors, and pumps a very crisp picture to your monitor of choice. Having a dedicated video card (versus motherboard-integrated types) is a must for audio. And given how many hours we stare at computer screens, it's not an area to skimp on. On the software side, Sweetwater preloaded some applications that professional users might find useful. Most notable is copy of Acronis True Image OEM, a fall-back safety net of sorts. It creates a compressed image of the original system and stores it on a hidden hard drive partition. Additionally, True Image installs the proprietary boot manager that allows the launching of the system recovery routine in case any malfunctions occur. Pressing F11 at boot-up creates the complete restoration of an image without using the computer's operating system. Since hard drives can fail totally, the bundled OEM setup includes an option to create a bootable emergency CD-R with the original system image. This image can be used in the event of a physical hard drive crash. There are two types of people: those who have lost hard drives, and those that will.
After installing my PC-only mastering editor (Sequoia), plug-ins, and card drivers, I was ready to roll. The system boots quickly, runs multiple applications, and can play plug-in-laden tracks with ease. For the Cubase 5 review (Tape Op #74), I had a sizable 24-bit, 96 kHz mix session running with several reverbs and dozens of EQ and compressor plug-ins, and the DSP never reached 20%. Of course, it's not bulletproof, as one instance of the excellent Sonnox SuprEsser (#64) can wreak havoc on a 96 kHz session. However, I believe this had more to do with my ASIO buffer settings than with the actual system as the DSP meter never crossed 50% of CPU usage.
56/Tape Op#77/Gear Reviews/
I did run into some issues. First, Sweetwater loads Windows Vista on current systems. Downgrading to Windows XP incurs a $350 charge. (This fee covers the combined price of the Windows license and the considerable human time required to format, install, and create optimizations and tweaks for a custom system.) So I accepted Windows Vista Home Edition. At the time I ordered, Sweetwater included a free upgrade to Windows 7. But as of this writing, numerous plug-ins and virtual instruments are not stable on Windows 7 -hence the Vista build. Anyway, Vista is a mixed bag. It is easier on the eyes than the institutional-looking XP. And the taskbar's ability to show mini-windowed versions of running apps can be useful, but Microsoft's attempt at a user-friendly OS is a failure on many fronts. But this is not a review of Windows Vista.
The LightScribe-enabled DVD Burner chosen by Sweetwater could not read-back ISRC codes correctly. After investigating, I learned that this problem is related to an integrated circuit used in a vast number of burners -even the ones in some Apple machines -so it's not an issue unique to the Creation Station. Given that this is a computer sold for music production, perhaps Sweetwater should consider giving you an upgrade option to specifically choose an ISRC-compatible burner.
After using the Creation Station for three months, I've found it to be very quiet, responsive, and well-built. The multi-card reader mounted on the front panel is something I would have never purchased, yet have found that I've used it over and over. So, kudos to whomever fought for that inclusion. I've had to contact Sweetwater a few times about the computer. I never told them it was for a Tape Op review. I wanted to see how fast they responded. On phone, wait times were 10-30 minutes, but I got a live US-based support person. Email responses were within 24 hours for non-critical issues. While I'm solidly satisfied with the performance of the unit, I must say I'm very pleased by the price. The Tower is just under $1500. I took the component list and support warranty to Dell, and the best they could do was $3100, and that excluded some of the software (but they could downgrade to XP Pro at no charge).
If you're a professional in this field and you must use a PC, I strongly urge you to purchase one from an integrator that knows and serves the recording industry. With the ocean of compatibility issues in the PC world, I can't imagine going it alone while relying on a home-brewed box. I know this might be a somewhat controversial opinion among tech-heads, but I stand by it. When you consider the quality of the components that go into the Creation Stations, the human technical support, and the reasonable pricing, you would be foolish not to talk to Sweetwater before purchasing your next audio PC. (Starting at $999 direct, $1499 as tested; www.sweetwater.com) -GH
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.