If your income depends on the tools you use day in day out, then it's vitally important to have a Plan B. For the last few years my Plan B has been my 2011 MacBook Pro i7 2.2GHz, pimped with 16GB RAM and 256GB SSD. Having a six-year-old machine, albeit state of the art in its time, as my primary backup was starting to become an issue.
On an increasingly frequent basis, I was finding my MacBook Pro struggling with Pro Tools sessions and Adobe Premiere Pro projects that my main system wouldn't bat an eyelid at. You can see why - it only had USB2, apart from whatever you could connect to the single Thunderbolt port or FireWire800 (almost extinct now), a groaning 512MB AMD6450 GPU which kicks the fans into "afterburner" mode at a glance, and slow memory limited to 16GB.
I needed to be easily able to jump a session over to my Plan B system quickly and simply using high-speed SATA SSDs. I also needed to be able to expand my RAM in the future and easily use PCIe interfaces, in particular, have dedicated video playback such as an AJA Kona-LHi or a BlackMagic MiniMonitor. Another important factor was that the hardware must be cross-platform compatible. This added an extra layer of complication.
After thorough research, comparing second-hand kit needed to gain the performance leap I wanted within my budget I ended up frustrated. If I bought a MacPro 5.1 "Cheesegrater" I'd gain CPU power and RAM capability, but only gain three space and power supply limited PCIe slots, SATA 2 storage and no Thunderbolt. In the latter respect, it would be a backwards step. The other option was to try and find a MacMini Server. While I'd have gained a Thunderbolt port and USB3, I wouldn't have the same storage or PCIe expansion potential, without an extra cost expansion chassis.
So I decided to head down the road of a second self-build, but this time with a firm view on making it as cross-platform compatible as possible. Here's what I put together -
Motherboard - GigabyteZ170X Ultra Gaming - £100
Support for 7th/6th Generation Intel® Core™ i7 processors in the LGA1151 package
Intel® Z170 Express Chipset
4 x DDR4 DIMM sockets supporting up to 64 GB. Dual channel memory architecture
Intel® GbE LAN chip (10/100/1000 Mbit)
1 x PCIEX16 slot, 1 x PCIEX8 slot, 1 x PCIEX4 slot, 3 x PCI Express x1 slots.
1 x M.2 connector
1 x U.2 connector
2 x SATA Express
6 x SATA 6Gb/s
Chipset+Intel® Thunderbolt™ 3 Controller: 1 x USB Type-C™ port on the back panel, with USB 3.1 support
1 x USB 3.1 Type-A port, 6 x USB 3.0/2.0 ports, 6 x USB 2.0/1.1 ports
I chose this board as I was primarily looking for cross-platform compatibility with this hardware, and while I would normally choose Asus, Gigabyte has a good history of being supported by other OS platforms than just Windows.
This board brings excellent value for money and future proofing, with Thunderbolt 3, 8 SATA ports, an M.2 connector (for high-speed NVME SSDs), six PCI-e slots, 64GB DDR4 RAM support and more USB connectors than you're ever likely to need.
Processor - Intel i7 6700k Quad Core 3.4GHz - £300
I chose this processor as it was a good trade-off between performance, future proofing and budget.
It is also unofficially overclockable through the BIOS from 3.4GHz to 4GHz, using a suitable cooler to dissipate the extra heat safely, without having to use noisy fans. As the core components for this build are all industry standard in a standard size case, this gives me plenty of low noise cooling options.
Graphics Processor - Gigabyte Nvidia GTX 1050Ti 4GB - £150
I chose this GPU as again it struck a perfect balance between performance, future-proofing and budget. With 768 cores, Cuda processing, 4GB DDR5 128bit RAM, 3 HDMI outputs, 1 DVI-D Output, 1 DisplayPort and a maximum resolution of 7680x4320, I was sure that it could easily handle my current and future needs, while not being so new that cross-platform support wasn't in place - those all important drivers.
Samsung 850 Evo 256GB SSD System Drive - £80
16GB DDR4 RAM - £110
Bitfenix ATX Case with 600w PSU - £80
AJA Kona LHi - £120 (second hand)
The overall total minus the AJA card, comes to £820 excluding taxes. I have since also added a four-bay removable SATA caddy, to allow me to easily swap media between my Main system and Plan B.
How Does It Perform?
As is now tradition, I thought I would run it through the same stress tests as I put the Scan PowerDAW PC through, against my main system. Here are the headline specs for each setup -
|OS||Windows 10 Pro||MacOS Sierra|
|CPU||i7 5820k 3.3GHz||i7 6700k 3.4GHz|
|Cores / Threads||6 Cores, 12 Threads||4 Cores, 8 Threads|
|GPU||NVidia GTX660Ti 2GB||NVidia GTX1050Ti 4GB|
|RAM||16GB DDR4||16GB DDR4|
|Thunderbolt||2 x TB2||1 x TB3|
|System Drive||Samsung 960 EVo NVME||Samsung 850 Evo SATA3|
Test One - The Pro Tools Expert Stress Test
Finding inadequacies with the standard "DVerb" test, the team at Pro Tools Expert made their own "stress test" session. I used a variant of it which had 128 audio tracks with Channel Strip and D-Verb on, plus a further 128 instrument tracks with the Boom! plug-in on.
On my main system, there's a good degree of headroom still available. Graphics were not slowing down too dramatically but still running software such as screen capture simultaneously did not help performance. The system remained responsive, something I attribute to the super fast NVME system drive (six times the speed of the drive in Plan B).
My Plan B system actually performs quite well comparatively, only showing 7% more overall system load and 5% more memory load. That is until you realise that I used a variant of the Pro Tools Expert stress test, which was cut down. The original config with 200 instrument tracks, would not play on the Plan B, even at maximum buffer.
I've never been a big fan of these "D-Verb" style tests, especially when trying to gauge a machine's suitability for post-production. Day to day plug-in usage and track density is nothing like this in the real world, which is why I've developed my own post-production orientated tests.
Test Two - System Usage While Playing A Busy 7.1.2 Feature Film Mix
I have my own standard post-production centric "stress test" Pro Tools session. It has around 200 tracks, lots of live noise reduction, EQ, dynamics, upmixers and 7.1.2 reverbs and is running it all natively - no Avid or third-party DSP. This test measures the displayed system usage of the three systems. I have used the same section of the mix on both, as in native, the plug-in allocation is dynamic.
With this test, it is more about how much headroom you have, to be able to cope with suddenly having to rack up the processing, or cope with a large amount of simultaneous track activity, such as in the sequence I used. With DSP the plug-ins and mixer are allocated when you open the session, so you get a good idea of whether the session will play. With Native Dynamic Allocation, you don't find out until you hit a busy section. So, it's always good to have as much processing headroom as possible.
The clear winner here is my Main system, peaking at 21% vs Plan B's 49%. This is completely understandable, with Plan B having four less threads available, at a lower base speed, but it does very well comparatively - no processing spikes bringing things to a halt and a decent amount of processing headroom remaining.
Test Three - Time Taken To Render Audio Using zplane elastiqueAAX
In my review of the zplane elastiqueAAX pitch and time plug-in, I compared how long it took to AudioSuite render a piece of 5.1 audio, against the Avid PNT plug-ins. For this test I compared how long it took each of the test systems to do the same task.
Again, having four less threads, Plan B doesn't perform quite as well as my Main system, but its performance is still very respectable, taking only ten seconds longer to perform this task. Audiosuite performance very much depends on the programming though, so your performance may vary using different plug-ins.
Test Four - Time Taken To Offline Bounce A 30 Minute 7.1.2 Mix
When at the end of the day, the client asks you, "could you quickly export the mix as is, of this reel, so we can take a look at it with the grade tomorrow?", having a good amount of Native grunt to power offline processes makes a huge difference to how late you'll be working that night.
The performance here reflects the difference in the system usage test, with Plan B taking 70% longer. There are various factors that can affect this, including the speed of the system drive, which on my Main system is six times faster. Again though, it is still very respectable performance.
Test Five - Time Taken To Export A Premiere Pro Sequence
A lot of Workstation PC owners don't just use it exclusively for Pro Tools. Among the Expert Team, most of us also do video editing and among the Windows users, Adobe Premiere Pro is the go to software. I've been noticing Premiere's use rising in Post Production, mainly because of the excellent integration with graphics packages like PhotoShop and After Effects.
Last year I made an overview video for a plug-in manufacturer. Here's how long both systems took to export my final edit to H264.
It's important to remember that even if you don't do any video work, a good GPU can make a huge difference to how smoothly your system runs. In more subtle ways, you can see the difference in Pro Tools with the smoothness of scrolling and plug-ins. Here using software that takes full advantage of the hundreds of cores available in modern GPUs, you can really see the difference in performance. Even though the host CPU is lower performance and the system drive slower, Plan B still performs 14% faster than my Main system in this test. The mad thing is, that the GTX1050Ti 4GB costs more than a hundred pounds less than my GTX660Ti 2GB cost two and a half years ago.
Test Six - Time Taken To Reboot and Restart A 7.1.2 Feature Film Mix
We've all been there. For one reason or another - maybe you've had to update a plug-in or another piece of software and the installer demands that you do a restart to complete the installation. There are generally good reasons for this - the new software will often have to embed itself within the menu context of the operating system or the software you're using it with. So I decided to test how it took to reboot the system and re-open and play a busy feature film mix with HD video.
This isn't the easiest of tests to film, as you obviously can't run screen capture software while you're rebooting the system. So, you'll have to take my word for it. Here's how the systems compared -
|3 minutes 19 seconds||2 minutes 56 seconds|
This is the really surprising thing. The system drive on my Main system is six times the speed of that on Plan B. My backup system also has four less threads and has not been overclocked up to 4GHz. I think this boils down to the fact that on my Main system I have an awful lot of background processes that kick in on boot-up - automatic backup, UPS monitoring for example. Plan B doesn't have all this. My Main system is still very much my Main system. Plan B is not intended as a replacement - it is a safety net.
Plan B Isn't Just About Hardware
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted from the screen grabs and videos that Plan B is running MacOS Sierra as its primary operating system. I explained at the beginning that I couldn't find a cost-effective way of getting the performance by sticking with the "native" hardware for this OS. Having a Plan B isn't just about having a fallback system in case of disaster - it's also about having the option of being able to switch to the best operating system for the job. There is still a lot of software that isn't dual-platform, but which is essential for my post-production workflow. I'd be in as bad a position if my MacBook Pro died as if my Main system had.
The process of installing MacOS on unsupported hardware is very complicated and be aware that if you undertake this task, you are very much in the realms of "self-support" - don't expect to get any help getting this hardware to work properly or any support from third-party peripheral manufacturers. Their position will always be that they cannot support you. That said, there are some excellent resources on the internet - the brilliant TonyMac website stands clear above the rest, and YouTube is full of helpful instructional videos. Before anyone emails us though, we at Pro Tools Expert cannot offer any support or advice. Sorry.
Have you made a low cost self-build DAW host computer? Let us know your experiences in the comments section.