Process Explorer is the essential portal to seeing what’s going on with CPU and memory activity on Windows. It was good enough that Microsoft bought the tool.

Any computer – Mac, Windows, and Linux – can experience degraded audio experience pretty fast if a background task starts stealing CPU or a driver is misbehaving. In contrast, a fully-tweaked Windows machine, equipped with a set of tools to diagnose potential problems, can be rock-solid for audio performance. That’s an especially big deal for those of us using computers for live music.

I think a lot of people’s Windows experience is especially colored by bad drivers, overzealous antivirus and security software they don’t actually need, and the crapware installed by many PC vendors. I know I had that experience when I came back to Windows a few years ago, following a long hiatus. (I’m now cross-platform.) I did what many people do: installed some ridiculous, bloated security suite from Symantec. I was blown away by how fast Windows was when I just turned the darned thing off. Linux and Mac OS are happily not cursed by these beasts, but any computer music setup, regardless of platform, can benefit from tuning what’s running and making sure music software comes first.

I recently put together a list of essential Windows tools for Rain Recording, one of a handful of custom PC builders that focus on music and audio customers. The first part of the list doesn’t include any music software per se – these are just essential parts of my PC tool belt to keep things running smoothly.

All of these tools are free, so they’re well worth a download.

The quick list:

1. Microsoft Process Explorer, at SysInternals: This should be your first stop for keeping an eye on CPU activity, watching what processes are active, and keeping your CPU fully free to focus on audio processing. The whole SysInternals site is an essential resource for Windows troubleshooting and information, too.

2. DPC Latency Checker: Getting unexplained audio glitches and dropouts on your PC? A lot of the time, hardware problems with other hardware may actually be the culprit. DPC Latency Checker performs a metric on Deferred Procedure Calls, a symptom of misbehaving hardware and drivers. Even a slightly-unseated PCI card can cause issues, so software isn’t always to blame.

3. Enabled/disabled VST folders: For VST plug-ins, I maintain an “experimental” folder of everything I’m playing with and then a “known safe” configuration. Then I keep a stable, installed directory I can point my hosts at.

4/5. Revo Uninstaller, Absolute Uninstaller: Getting rid of software is always a liberating experience. Revo wins points for being insanely thorough; Absolute has a nice batch-installer for quickly removing a lot of stuff.

6. Comodo Firewall Pro: This free firewall is well-behaved, light on your CPU, has powerful features, and can actually be more effective than traditional antivirus and anti-spyware software at protecting you from online threats. (And since, unlike those products, it doesn’t do resource-intensive scans, it has less of an impact on performance.)

7. Not Problematic Antivirus: The most important advice here is what you don’t run — namely, overaggressive security suites set to consume more resources than they should. If you must run antivirus, AVG8 Free is a good way to go — that is, after you turn some features off; see’s tweaked install configuration). See comments for some discussion on this point, and I think I may in fact revise my advice to go back to Avast. See also: avast! Home Edition, the free version. I’ll be testing this resource-wise versus my mostly turned-off AVG8 Free and will let you know how it goes.

8. Quick Startup: While removing software, you’ll also want to keep an eye on annoying processes that launch when you boot – or, alternatively, add stuff you do want to load. Quick Startup is an especially friendly way to do this.

9. Microsoft Management Console: Not all services have an impact on performance, but I have found some that do. services.msc can help you run a lean, mean system setup.

10. TweakUAC (Vista only): User Account Control does have some security benefits – or it can be one of the major annoyances in Vista. With TweakUAC, you can remove annoying (and audio glitch-causing) prompts while still retaining some of those security benefits, or temporarily switch off UAC for compatibility with certain tools (like old installers that haven’t been updated).

I’ve got some other tips and usage ideas in the story for Rain. Let me know what you think of this

advice. Got favorite tools of your own I missed?

Essential Toolkit for Windows – Part 1: Non-Music Tools You’ll Want for Music [Rain Recording]

More installments are planned in this series – next up will be (finally) actual music tools, so getting into the fun stuff. And I’ll have some configuration tips, as well. I think parallel lists for Mac OS X and Linux may also be in order, although the needs are a bit different on those platforms.

DPC Latency Checker can help diagnose audio glitches caused by hardware problems, with drivers or even causes as simple as an unseated card. There’s no reason to suffer through glitches and dropouts with the proper setup.