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Troubleshooting
Audio Performance

A guide to getting rid of Clicks and Pops in your audio

by Rich the Tweakmeister     

You wake up and realize you are sitting in your studio chair.  "What a nightmare" you say to yourself, as you wipe the drool off your mixing board which has cradled your head the last 2 hours. "No matter what I did, I could not get the new soundcard to work".  Then you look at the screen and realize the nightmare is real.  The blue screen of death (BSOD) greets you with the message underpinning hell itself.  "A Serious Error has Occurred, you must reinstall Windows".  Something breaks inside you and you kick over the tower, rip into the case and begin stomping like a madman into the motherboard  like you were killing roaches as fast as you can, laughing manically as the PCI cards go "crunch crunch" under your steel tipped army boots.  You kick the box like a soccerball out the back door and catapult it over the fence into your least-liked neighbors back yard.  Your neighbor, who has long suspected you to be a terrorist due to your late hours and the strains of unconventional music wisping out your window, get his assault weapon and sprays your studio with bullets.  And you die. Then you wake up and realize you are sitting in your studio chair.....

Don't let this happen to you!   Audio clicks and pops are probably one of the more difficult problems to deal with on a PC.  Because the source of the problem can be elusive, a  PC novice often falls into the trap of making changes that actually create more problems.  This is exacerbated by sound card manufacturers that do not acknowledge that their product might not work under some conditions. They do not tell you that their drivers do NOT work properly with some chipsets, OS's, and they don't tell you that the drivers that come on their cd roms are really beta versions still fraught with serious problems.  This leads the embittered user to think they are the only one in the world that is experiencing such issues when in fact, many people are.  

No one dares write a page on this subject.  It's just too hard of a subject.  There are too many variables. Too many soundcards.  Too many bad drivers.  I'm gonna try to help, but you have to promise me one thing. OK?  Don't email me your problems and expect me to solve them.   I achieved my level of understanding from over 10 years years of trial and error, beta testing soundcards, software and tweaking my gear.   But still, I don't know every card and every driver's issues. No one does.  That's your job to figure out your gear, OK?.   Second, you agree to use this information at your own risk.  Anything you read may be the wrong answer for you.  You judge, you crash, you burn.  Hardcore tweaks are invited to post feedback in Tweak's Cafe on ways I can improve this article. Perhaps I will allow users who post a complete description of their problem system to do so, if there are enough headz to comment. 

The main reasons why there are clicks and pops and how to fix them

(somewhat in priority of most common to least common)

 


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    Poorly written, wrong or outdated audio drivers

    This is the first area to check and it is the source of the problem most of the time, given you have an otherwise solid running computer of recent vintage. If you simply installed the software on the installation CD that came with your interface, chances are good that the driver has already been replaced, even in new products that were just released.  Solutions: Read the manual that came with your soundcard and go to the support page on the web.  Check for new drivers for your device.  Make sure you have the correct one for your operating system.  There are many ways to replace drivers in Windows, and you must, of necessity, follow the manufacturers instructions to the letter. Kindly do not ask me how to load drivers. You have to read the docs.  If they tell you to uninstall an old driver first, then do it. Most people think they can "get away" taking a shortcut here. You are wise not to.   If there are any errors in the process of installing a driver, write them down.  There is a high probability that this error is contributing to the problem.  A bad or wrong driver can create clicks and pops.  If you suspect the driver is at fault (and most of the time it is), you might not try other solutions because there is risk that you will mess up your system even further.  While you are at the manufacturers website, look for FAQs, or other info that may discuss your problem.   

                                       

    You selected the wrong class of ASIO driver. 

     These notes refer applications that use ASIO drivers.  When you install a soundcard or audio interface, several drivers may be written.  These will show up in your sequencer's audio settings preferences, and you need to select one to get anything to work at all.  But which?!!  Sometimes this important piece of info is buried deep in manuals.  Sometimes you have to experiment to find out which one actually works. 

    For example, after installing my m-audio Delta 1010, in my version of Cubase SX, I have a choice of the following ASIO drivers:  Asio multimedia, Asio Direct X Full duplex, and M-Audio delta Asio.  Only one of them works well.  The M-Audio Delta Asio.  The multimedia one has horrid latency, but the last one works perfect.  Why?  Because it is the "true" Asio driver of the group.  The others are really disguised versions of the MME and direct sound drivers from Microsoft.  

    With Sonar you have the choice between ASIO and WDM.  If you choose WDM, there may be other WDM entries as well, so you may have to experiment.  Typically the right driver will have the name of the soundcard in it.

                       

                       

    You have just upgraded to Win XP and drivers are not yet available for your motherboard, soundcard, or any of your other peripherals.

    You are out of luck if the manufacturer  cannot produce a working driver for your interface for win XP.  So check their site, send email to their support staff, call them on the phone.  Post to newsgroups.  Read the Buzz.  Sometimes a win2000 driver will work OK.  Sometimes older drivers work with degraded performance, yep, with clicks and pops.  Sometimes an unrelated devices, like USB drivers, can mess with soundcards even if your soundcard is not USB.  

                               

    PCi Bus conflict with other soundcards

    Digital audio data starts out at the soundcard input as an analog waveform.  It then gets converted to digital data on the card, then it goes down the PCi bus to the CPU, which processes it and negotiates with storage in memory and on hard disks.  This bus runs at a certain speed and can only accept so much data.  If you have 2 soundcards running they are both trying to do this at the same time.  If the bus is slow you have one problem.  If one of your soundcards is misbehaving, and hogging the bus, the other card might not get the data through in time.  Some soundcards are known bus-hogs.  Watch out for them.  Another "feature" of some unnamed audio cards in called "pci bus mastering".  A good thing?  Not with two cards, IMO. If bus mastering shoves other data to the side so it's data can get through, then the other card may get, yep., clicks and pops.  If you have two "bus hogs" in the same computer, guess what happens.  You lose big.     Solutions:  Pull the offending card.  Use one card.  Check IRQ resources make sure they are different for each card. Disable one card.  Don't use both cards in the same application. 

                       

    PCi bus conflict with other peripherals

    Consider the plight of the poor CPU, having so many demands put on it, then along comes a big bunch of audio tracks that raise a flag saying "CPU, dude! all these MUST be played NOW before you do anything else!  Heh, if a CPU could talk back to an SBlive, I wonder if it would be fit for children to hear. You've probably seen this problem.  The Video on the screen stops and starts, the mouse gets erractic and moves in a blocky fashion.  If this happens all the time on your system, there could be a conflict with a video card.  Some cheap videocards do not have their own processors on them and divert the CPU for the all important task of refreshing the screen.  These cards not only slow the CPU, they degrade the audio.  Why?  Well if the CPU cannot get the audio processed in time whacha gonna hear?  Dude, you're a genius, Clicks and pops. Even worse, some inexpensive desktop computers have "onboard" video.  That is there is no video card.  These systems use CPU and memory to perform video functions.  Dump these machines in the alley now or put it on your least liked neighbor's doorstep.  Solutions.  Get a video card with an nvdia chipset.  These process much of the video away from the CPU.  Avoid cards with the S3 chipset. Avoid onboard video. 

    Windows XP Tips for better Latency

    My Computer->Properties->Advanced->advanced-> Performance options.  Optimize performance for Background Services, not Applications.  This gives better system latency and can avoid click and pops.  With some cards this can produce and improvements of 20ms!

                           

    Slow CPU

    Lots of sequencers spit out the message "CPU is too slow and cannot process the data in time" This is a safety message to stop the madness before it gets worse. And it does get much worse if the CPU is so late it can't cough up that message.  There are many reason you have already read about why the CPU might get slow.  But sometimes, duh, the CPU simply IS slow.  You are not trying to run Logic or Cubase 5 on a Pentium 133 and think you should be able to use plugins, soft synths are you?  Solution: get thine TweakHead examined as soon as possible.  You are barred from posting in my discussion groups till you upgrade.  

     

                                       

     

    You have the soundcard set to the wrong master clock

    Don't confuse the sound device's clock with MIDI clocks, SMPTE, SPP,  MMC sync or tape synchronization.  All digital audio recording and playback devices have an internal clock, and if you are connecting digitally by s/pdif, aes/ebu, or some other digtial protocol you may need to set the receiving device to "external".  If you don't, you know what happens the dreaded cli....ok, you heard that too many times!  Solution: Read your devices manual very carefully about clock sync.  Also read about word clock if this feature is offered.

                           

    You have more than one soundcard and they are out of sync

    Many people think that computers should work with multiple soundcards in the same application.  If this is you, and you are having problems, then try using only one card in you main audio application.  Use the other card for non-essential stuff, like playing cds, system sounds, monitoring through computer speakers.  If you must use both cards in one application, then you may need to synchronize the clocks of a "slave" card to a master.  Professional cards may have a word clock cable that does this.  Some cards recommend connecting the digital out of the master card to the digital in of the slave. You need to read up the documentation on your soundcard.  If you are not willing to go to such a length, then don't use two cards in the same application.

                       

    Chipset issues on the motherboard

    Some motherboard chipsets have been known to cause clicks and pops with certain cards.  Before you buy a soundcard, you should always investigate the newsgroups for problems with the chipset and audio.  Use my BUZZ page for this.  It has really helped me a lot.

                           

    Older version of plugin, software synth/sampler

    happens all the time in this industry.  The intense pressure to get product out the door forces a developer to release a plugin or soft synth before all the kinks are out and they run inefficiently in certain sequencers.  Solutions, check for updates, especially if you bought the early version of a product.  You will probably be pleasantly surprised that the update fixes many problems. 

    Bad, resource eating plugins

    The main culprit here are free plugins.  Poorly written plugins will take up too much cpu time and may degrade performance of a system as soon as they are called into action.  Sometimes applications cannot differentiate between audio and other direct X plugins  designed for multimedia.  Solutions You should regularly check and disable plugins you don't use and if you install a public domain free plugin to check it out, don't forget to uninstall it later.  A bad plugin can crash the audio application or tax the cpu in a way that causes other problems. 

                                   

    Window Animations and effects are stealing CPU time

    Disable all windows animations  On windows XP Right click "My Computer", click "Properties", and click the "advanced" tab.  Then click "Settings" under the Performance heading. Then click the "Visual Effects" tab. Select the "Custom" radio button.  You can now turn off various effects and enhancements.  Try turning them all off.  See if your system is faster.  Then turn on those you want and test again.  

                       

                                   

    Your soundcard is old and designed for an older OS than you are running.

    I regularly get questions from a clicker/popper who want to know why his or her SB16 soundcard doesn't play right.  Or some arcane card that was around before the PCI bus was a gleam in some tech inventor's eye.  If any ISA card works on a modern computer, you are lucky.  These cards slow down the whole operation of your computer tremendously even if you don't use it. Solutions:  Pull all ISA cards now, replace your ISA soundcard with a solid PCi solution.  Notice I did not recommend a USB solution.  Tweak says, wait a little bit longer unless you are sure..

                           

    You installed other applications that "optimized" your computer for that application's benefit (games)

    Fortunately, WinXP has features that prevent installation programs from compromising system integrity.  But with Win98Se you have to be careful.  Some games might load tweaked versions of resource files other applications must also use.  This is how one application can take down your computer.  Commercial games are not likely to do this, but your home hacked public domain freebie might.  The solution is not to run games on your DAW.  If you must, use only games that have a reputation for being solid.

                           

    Your computer loads way too much garbage at boot and your system tray is full of junk.

    Its an evil world out there.  Some major corporations that deal with web information and entertainment just love to have you install their little applets that fetch news, weather, and TONS of pop up banners right on your desktop where they can degrade your entire system back to win 3.1 levels.  How many of you have stuff that connects to the internet in your system tray?  I have been brought computers to repair that were so infested with auto loading applications that a huge swapfile was required to get the computer to boot and once it did you could not even move the mouse without hearing the swapfile crunching away.  What happens when you have too many helpers to do a  job?  They end up arguing about how to do the job and nothing gets done.  Or they all try to do it at once and the system crashes.  Computer hygiene starts here.  Solutions: Uninstall all your helper applications, find ways to disable stuff in the system tray.  Some of these helpers are insidious.  They install their run commands in the registry knowing you'll never figure out how to remove them.  You should boycott all companies that do this.  Now I will tell you how to regain control of your computer.

    Your system has 3 ways to auto-start programs at bootup.  1. The application is in your "startup" folder.  2. Your WIN.INI file loads the application with a run: command.  3. The application is run from the registry.

    To clear these run commands, 1. move all programs in the startup folder to another folder called STARTUX. To get to the startup folder Right click on the start button, click  Open. Double Click on the Programs folder, and then open the StartUp folder. 2. Backup your WIN.INI file to WININI.BAK, then in WINI.INI file remove all the run entries that you think are not necessary.  3. Open Regedit  In the Registry Editor go to:
    My Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run.  Remove the entries that are not wanted.
    Warning!  Back up the registry first.  Understand that if you do not know what you are doing you can really mess things up. On WinME and XP make sure you set a "system restore" point before doing this. 


    You have applications in the background that run at a high priority, like firewalls and virus checkers

    If your computer is attacked as much as mine is, you have to have state of the art firewalls in place.  Yet when attacked, the audio will glitch, snap, pop, belch.  Hackers have ruined many a mix.  When your virus checker decides to do a system scan, you aren't going anywhere audio wise.  Schedule these things to run in the morning, when you are asleep. lol.  Disable firewalls and virus checkers at your peril.  Solution:  Disconnect from the internet when going to mix. 


    You run an internet browser, email, or have an "active desktop" in the background. 

    If you run these applications while in a music session you are putting a severe strain on your CPU.  You may hear clicks and pops as your modem diverts the CPUs attention, as activeX applets are loaded into your temporary files area, and as graphics download.  Solutions: First, you should never use an active desktop as you cannot control it's internet accesses.   Second, particularly if you are on win98, you should not check email or open internet browsers while a song is playing, and better not to run internet applicatiions at all. Many purists I know will not let their DAWs touch the internet ever! I think you have to eventually, at least to get driver updates, but their advice is sound.


    You have not disabled "auto insert notification" on CD drives.

    While this is a feature that also messes with scsi samplers, it can slow down your CPU performance.  Auto insert notification is a feature that constantly checks your CD Rom drives to see if you inserted a disk.  If it senses the disk has changed it will try to play the cd or run the autostart file.  That's nice for listening to music but not for making music.  Disable the sucker in the windows device manager under cd rom drives.  This feature has a mysterious way of turning itself back on after installing new applications, so you have to check it if clicks and pops start happening for no reason. Usually this feature alone will not cause a click or pop, but it can be the straw the breaks the camel's back if you have other issues.  It can wreck your sampler's ability to communicate with the PC.


    Insufficient memory--too many page file accesses

    This is another no brain, slow brain, dead brain issue for experienced users but newbies might not understand...  Smell the coffee my friend!  You can't run an audio sequencer on 64 megs of RAM no matter what it says on the box.  128 megs?  I'll give you ten audio tracks with two plugins on each before your system becomes a miserable sputtering wretch!  OK, you have a P4, I'll grant you more, but still you'll hear that page file ratcheting away as you work.  That's a sound you don't want in the studio.  256 megs.  Ah, much better. Solution  512 megs.  Sweet, sweet happy audio.  


    Audio buffer set too small or too large

    This is the problem of latency that is discussed with reference to soft synths.  A large audio buffer will take more time for the CPU to process, but it is usually able to do so without as much stress.  A small buffer moves data from memory to CPU to bus very fast.  So fast these days that a latency of 6ms is sometimes possible which is faster than a midi keyboard.  However, if the CPU cannot keep up you will get drop outs, clocks, pops, burps, jitters, and sometimes the audio may detune and sound like its going through a rack of phase shifters, distortion pedals and ring modulators.  The solution is to set the audio buffer to a compromise where all the notes come out clean, particularly the decay on long synth pads and cymbals.  Hold down a big chord on a pad and watch the CPU usage rise like a thermometer in Texas


    Virtual memory set to a slow hard disk

    While you might have some fast audio drives on your system, the windows default is to use your system drive for virtual memory swap files.  You system drive is probably the most fragmented on your computer.  Every time you install and uninstall a device or application, sometimes hundreds of small files are written and erased making your drive look like a road with a million potholes.  When windows writes to the swapfile, the system slows down more than it should as it slices up the big square pegs to fit into miniscule round holes.  Solution, put your swapfile on a faster, less cluttered drive. 


    Electrical grounding issues

    It happens.  Something is not grounded properly and you hear little clicks like static electricity.  This is a tough one.  It can be anything connected to your system, inside or outside your computer.  It's different sounding than the typical audio click. it sounds like static electricity.  Sometimes a poorly written audio driver can produce this, sometimes the soundcard is picking up voltage from something, sometimes its a MIDI device in a distant rack with a bad cable. It can drive one mad. Take your medicine and carefully begin troubleshooting operations.


    The cables to your soundcard are making intermittent contact

    Sometimes it's the simple things....Dust in the jack, dust in the switches, broken audio cables


    You were very bad in a previous lifetime

    That's why you are still having clicks and pops, dude!  There are two solutions. 1. Buy all the TweakHeadz Lab CDs at MP3.com and spin them backwards for the secret message.  2. Answer all the questions from newbies that email me their system problems.  See, there is redemption for you too.   Warning:  Do not fall asleep at the console, you might have bad dreams...

     

    Still need help? There are thousands of questions answered on my forums.  Look and you will find.


     

    I remain,
    Rich the TweakMeister

    On to the Next Class

     

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    Cool links:

    Optimize windows XP/2000 for Audio, courtesy of Tascam

    Gary Brenner's excellent Windows XP DAW Optimization Guide

    Steinberg Knowledge Base


    Cool Quote:

     "Music and silence … combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music.." Marcel Marceau


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