So you just bought the brand new plugin you have been drooling over, maybe you just got started with plugins or both. Life should be great but when you start the plugin and start playing, your computer starts chopping, clicking, popping and stalling. Or perhaps when you play, the sound is either very delayed or coming out sounding like an 8-bit video game being stabbed to death. Does any of this sound familiar to you? You’ll be glad to know that this is a very common problem in the amp sim universe and you will be relieved to know that the solution is very simple.
With the performance of plugins getting better and more advanced every year, the amount of user complaints about performance grows exponentially. Users wondering why their computers aren’t running these plugins properly often misplace the blame to developers and their products without really getting to the bottom of what’s happening and why.
In this post we are going to do just that! We are going to go over what causes these issues and how you can fix it for good by switching only a couple very easy settings. This is absolutely mandatory and fundamental knowledge for anyone recording with a DAW or using standalone applications.
Buffer size and latency
Before we get to what’s happening, it’s essential that users understand how setting your buffer size affects the latency and performance. There are many YouTube videos that perfectly explain this in either layman’s terms or a fully-detailed scientific-style layout. We will give you a quick version in the meantime but please, always use all the resources available to you.
Your buffer (or block as it’s sometimes known/marked) size can usually be found in your interface’s software. Every interface comes with some sort of software program / companion with either a simple few features or many but either way, the buffer/block size adjustment should be in there somewhere.
When the buffer size is set to minimum (or in my case, 16), the computer is putting all of it’s focus towards maintaining as little latency as possible. Having a low buffer size is essentially when tracking/recording with a DAW because let’s be honest, recording with a delay between your pick and the sound from the speakers is damn near impossible and near torturous. Having as close to zero latency as you can get makes for a much better non-guitar-breaking experience.
Tracking vs mixing/mastering
The most common mistake is made when users try to use high resource plugins in a DAW or a standalone version while also expecting zero latency. With the buffer size set low, the computer is concentrating on trying to make sure you can lay down your tracks smoothly with little to no latency so asking it to also run the plugins ends up in all the wonderful pops, freezing, crashing and other terrific stuff we mentioned earlier.
To illustrate this via other means, imagine you wake up one morning and a pipe has burst in your home. The plumber comes and he’s frantically using all of his skills and tools to get the leak stopped. Now, imagine that while he’s doing this you ask him to go upstairs and tend to another new leak. He simply cannot do both at 100% so instead, he gives up and your house is ruined.
When the buffer size is set to maximum, your computer is now putting it’s focus on getting your plugins to work properly and at their best. This is best for mixing / mastering needs and basically any need that doesn’t involve recording something live because latency is not a concern at the moment. With everything already recorded, the computer can feel free to focus on performance. However, if you try to play with the buffer size way up, you’ll run into a very noticeable amount of latency.
In our research of 50 users with computer resource complaints, 38 of them were predominantly or exclusively standalone users. There’s a very clear explanation for the woes of high resource standalone users. They require both the full power of the plugin and as close to zero latency as possible which in the case of a resource-hog, puts a ton of demand on the machine. If the machine can do it, there’s no problem but for slower / older computers, it can be a very frustrating experience.
A good rule of thumb for live playing or recording a guitar track is to go to your DAW software’s audio device settings and set the block size to 64. Try playing your instrument and listen for dropouts. If you hear glitches or dropouts double the block value to 128. Try playing and listening for dropouts again. If you need to double the value of 128 to 256 blocks it may still be useful for live playing and recording but most modern computers should be able to handle 128 blocks or less.
Every single developer lists the minimum computing requirements of every plugin they release. This is basically saying “if your stuff isn’t at least this good, we can’t guarantee you’ll have a great time”. That information is always easy to find on the developer’s website. If you are still unsure, contact the developer with your computer’s specs and questions directly before you purchase. Many developers also offer free trials that can be used to test whether or not your computer is up to the task.
We get asked quite often why this only happens with some but not all plugins. The simple answer is that not all plugins require a lot of resources. Some might further wonder what makes one plugin’s inner workings require more needs than the next but generalizing it would be pretty much impossible. Unless it’s a plugin vs. plugin comparison, the answer can simply be chalked up to different developers doing different things,
When a plugin is opened, immediately, that plugin claims all of the resources it could ever need even if you aren’t needing all of it’s power. It basically takes everything “just in case” and then hoards it. If it didn’t, the plugin would crash every time a user switched panels, moved mics and turned on pedals. Using multiple instances of high needs plugins can also cause a lot of havoc. This can happen due to mixing with a low buffer size or just asking the computer to do too much. If you have an older / slower computer, learning ways to conserve is key.
There are many very effective ways to conserve resources with plugins in a DAW that can be learned fairly quickly. Freezing tracks, using buss tracks and a number of other techniques are essential for those out there that want to do more in the audio realm with slightly older or slower computers. However for those looking to use high needs standalone applications but also requiring zero latency, the only real answer is either an upgrade of your current computer or a new machine.
The key for those of us with slightly lacking machines becomes finding high quality plugins with lower needs. Many developers provide high quality plugins that require next to nothing for resources. There’s a very silly myth out there that lower needs = lower quality but all it’s just that; a silly myth. If you are curious about plugins that are ideal for these situations please do reach out to us anytime! There’s a lot out there for you! (We are currently working on a list!).
So please, the next time you see someone out there struggling with these issues, help them out with your new knowledge so we can all spend more time playing and less time complaining or being frustrated.
TIP: for an in-depth guide on how to set-up a Windows PC for audio use, check out the “Glitch free” ebook from Cantabile Software. 70+ pages with hands-on tips for optimizing your PC for audio.