Native Instruments and Windows 7: Better hardware means a smaller buffer

Although my post-upgrade problems with Cakewalk SONAR X1 had nothing to do with the upgrade itself, it didn’t mean I was problem-free.

I bought my external sound card — an M-Audio Delta 44 — back in 2005, set it up once and didn’t really think about it ever again. The custom Windows 7 installations I’ve put my machine through meant updating the drivers, and I usually went with the default settings, which were appropriate for 2005.

The 64-bit upgrade, however, resulted in some serious latency issues with Native Instruments Battery 3. When I would bounce the MIDI to audio, the latency was  significant enough to make the bounced track nearly half a beat off. It took me a while to find the right search terms to return this page: Windows 7 Tuning Tips for Audio Processing. It’s a knowledge-base article from Native Instruments itself, detailing what off-the-shelf or custom-built computers need to consider when dealing with audio for music production.

The third item in the article solved my latency issue, but it also revealed the blind spot in my studio setup. While I pay a lot of attention to upgrading the software components of my studio, the hardware (aside from my computer) hasn’t changed since, well, 2005. So it was easy for me to fall into a perception trap — just update the drivers, set it up the way it was before, and it should work fine. Plug and play, indeed.

That might work for printers and scanners, but for audio hardware, the Native Instruments article points outs:

The rule of thumb is, the faster the computer, the more calculations it can handle every second and the smaller the audio buffer can be. A smaller audio buffer is preferable because there is a direct relation between the “audio buffer size” and the resulting “latency.”

In 2005, my computer had a single processor. I replaced it 2010 with a computer with four processors but saddled it with a 32-bit operating system. After the switch to 64-bit, the latency issue made itself known, and what worked before did not work now.

The article goes on to suggest setting the buffer size on my sound card to 512 or lower, which I did.