With a few quick and easy changes to your settings, your computer can be made to sound – and perform – much better. You may be optimizing an audio workstation for minimum latency, or simply troubleshooting general audio issues on a general-purpose PC. Changes to the audio settings of your operating system, hardware and applications can provide across-the-board benefits, but in some cases you'll need to make compromises with how Windows looks, and how it handles other tasks.
Common Audio Problems
If you're getting no sound at all, or from only one side or speaker, your first step is to verify that your audio hardware (sound cards, speakers, cables and other connections) is connected properly. Check that the volume is not muted or turned down; you may have a hardware volume control on your monitor or speakers as well as the Windows volume control, located near the clock at the far right of the taskbar. In addition to optimizing audio performance in general, exploring more in-depth settings will help troubleshoot interference (such as pops or clicks), audio dropouts or stuttering (in which portions of the audio start and stop playing intermittently), or noise and distortion during playback.
Most professional and "prosumer" audio applications contend with "latency," the time difference between the event that produces the sound and when you actually hear it. This is very similar to the buffering pause that happens before a streaming video begins to play, although the usual culprit in that case is Internet bandwidth; audio latency is more often due to the high demands that audio puts on the hardware and software of your computer itself. When the audio is simply playing back, a short pause is not too troublesome, but real-time musical interaction becomes frustrating or impossible with latency longer than 10-20 milliseconds.
Basic PC housecleaning tasks such as regular defragmentation, Windows Updates and virus checking are essential for optimized audio. However, reducing the number of programs running in the background (such as automatic updates) will also noticeably improve performance. Ensure that you have the latest Windows updates by navigating to "Control Panel | System and Security | Windows Update | Check for updates." This will often update your audio hardware drivers as well, but you can also go into the Control Panel under Hardware and Sound and click on "Manage Audio Devices" in the Sound section, or simply right-click on the volume control in the taskbar and select "Playback devices."
From the "Manage Audio Devices" dialog, you'll see a list of all the audio devices installed on your system. To check on the driver status, double-click on any device, click "Properties" and select the "Driver" tab at the top of the pop-up box. You can choose to update the driver to the latest version (if one is available) or rollback the driver to a previous version – helpful if audio problems have occurred since your last driver update. If you have a choice between audio drivers, ASIO will provide considerably less latency than WIndows (WDM) drivers.
Manage Audio Devices
The "Manage Audio Devices" dialog box also has a number of settings that can make a significant difference in audio performance. From the "Playback" and "Recording" tabs, you can view which devices are currently plugged in, select your default audio device, and view the "Properties" dialog for each device, which will give you options to select audio quality format and priority mode. From the "Sounds" tab, you can choose the sound scheme for Windows events; for best audio performance (and no interruptions during playback and recording), "No Sounds" is recommended. Finally, the "Communications" dialog has options that change audio levels during PC communications (such as VoIP calling). For the least impact on audio performance, set this to "Do nothing."
Advanced System Settings
You can improve audio performance by changing some advanced system settings. Go to "Control Panel | System and Security | System | Advanced System Settings" and click on the "Settings" button in the "Performance" section. Under "Visual Effects," select "Adjust for best performance." This improves audio performance (along with overall performance) at the expense of some unnecessary graphic details and effects. Under the "Data Execution Prevention" tab, select "Turn on DEP for essential Windows programs and services only." There is some debate about what setting to choose under "Processor scheduling"; in general, if Windows is handling your audio, you'll want to select "Background services," but if you use a third-party audio or music application, you may get improved results by selecting "Programs."
Certain hardware upgrades can make a major improvement in your audio performance. With both memory and storage, more is always better; you'll see smoother and faster performance when you're not filling up so much space on your drives (especially the OS drive) and your RAM. A solid state drive will provide you with the fastest access times, but you'll see benefits from upgrading an HDD to a higher-bandwidth interface (3.0 Gbps SATA to 6.0 Gbps SATA, for example), a faster rotational speed (5400 RPM to 7200 or 10000 RPM), or even simply a bigger cache. Although onboard audio hardware is much better than it used to be, you'll nearly always get better results from a discrete soundcard, or from an external USB or FireWire audio device.
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