In this new series, we feature guest writers from the industry to answer questions about music technology. First up is Cakewalk’s Steve Thomas, with an exclusive on multiple CPU cores. You’ve seen multiple-core systems like the current Core Duo Macs and Core Duo or AMD x2 PCs, but what do these really mean for music creation? PC magazines regularly explain that they aid in performance “if you’re running a virus check in the background”, but in fact that’s only the beginning for music. Take it away, Steve. -PK

What is multi-core, anyway, and what does it matter for music creation?

For some time now, high-end PCs have come with the option of multiple processors. Traditional single-core computer architecture features a single CPU which does all of the work. In a DAW application, the computer needs to do lots of work in a very short amount of time. There are two ways to get more work out of your computer: use a faster CPU, or use more CPUs. Today’s multi-core processors offer the best of both worlds. Each core can do its own independent processing, but because they are on the same physical silicon chip, they can do it even faster.

Before we get too deep, I’d like to clear up a common misconception about multi-core processing (or even multiple processors). There is a common assumption out there that if you simply throw more cores at a task, the task gets done faster. Let’s remember that the reason multiple cores yield more power is that they can do independent processing. Also, applications (like DAWS) will only see a real benefit if they are built in such a way that important tasks can be done in parallel. That is to say, the DAW has been designed to intelligently balance the processing load across all available resources.

Fortunately for musicians, digital audio workstations (DAWs) are the perfect type of application to take advantage of the parallel processing provided by multi-core and multi-processor computers, BUT there is a significant amount of coding that is required to take advantage of it. At Cakewalk, we have put in the time and effort to take the maximum advantage of this technology.

If you think of the work a DAW must do, you can break it into two major areas: the UI (the windows, sliders, clips, etc.) and the audio engine (the low-level streaming code responsible for pushing all those bits through to your soundcard). If this was all there was to a DAW, the benefit of multi-core would be noticeable, but not profound. You would find that no matter how busy the audio engine got, your UI would still seem very responsive, because each core was doing one of those tasks independently without waiting for the other to finish. This is fine as far as it goes (and is as far as some DAWs go), but what we really want in a DAW is a system where the Audio Engine work itself can be divided up over multiple cores. In SONAR, we’ve taken the effort to build a truly multi-processing Audio Engine which takes full advantage of as many cores as your system provides. It is a truly scalable solution to handling bigger and more complex projects full of plug-ins and virtual instruments (in other words, “typicalâ€? projects).

Why walk when you can take the highway?
A simple analogy would be to imagine that a dual-core processor is like a four-lane highway—it can handle up to twice as many cars as its two-lane predecessor, without making each car drive twice as fast. In layman’s terms what multi-core processing means to you is “more.â€? In SONAR you will experience more tracks, more simultaneous effects, more virtual instruments than ever before. And you will also experience faster screen redraws of complex waveform activity and capabilities to work with higher quality digital video.

State of the art
Multi-core is just part of the equation; the news is good on all development fronts. Windows XP is a stable operating system for music production, and Windows x64 and the upcoming 64-bit version of Vista provide even more power for music production. Processor designs have advanced to the point where really anything is possible with the right application.

The dream of doing it all in one box is a reality; there has never been a better time to create digital music on a PC! And, with the mass deployment of multi-core processors, nearly everyone who makes music will see an immediate and significant performance boost in their favorite DAW—as long as their DAW has been designed to take advantage of parallelism, like SONAR.

Besides being the Dir, PR for Cakewalk, Steve Thomas has many years of real-world experience making music on both sides of the glass as a musician and audio engineer.

CDM Responds

Having tested SONAR 6 even just a little bit, I’ve in fact found that you can throw a whole lot of intensive audio processing tasks at it without blinking, and I’m using a comparatively low-end processor. My AMD 3800+ Athlon x2 CPU on the desktop PC I built is now trading for as little as $150 (if not for the 3800, certainly for a comparable CPU). I’ve gotten similarly nice results out of Ableton Live 6, which also features multi-core enhancements; to me SONAR and Live make a really nice Windows music-making combination. Notably, you will see similar performance gains on multiple processors; I’ve performed benchmarks on Logic 7 and Live 6 on both multiple cores and multiple processors (like the Core Duo and dual-core G5 Mac) and found similar gains from multithreading.

Steve, aside from being a marketing guy, is also a musician; he and I recently talked about the work he does in his studio as a guitarist; just a few hundred dollars for a Dell PC got him an attic studio that does everything he needs. So thanks, Steve, for some insight into SONAR and multi-core processing.