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DAW Performance - Dedicated GPU vs Integrated GPU? My experience
Old 20th September 2020
DAW Performance - Dedicated GPU vs Integrated GPU? My experience

Some background.

My core professional experience has been in computing, and most of this started with a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science decades ago. Then over time music became a hobby, and then a serious hobby.

But predominantly my experience which included tuning computers for performance, to get the most out of hardware, which ran banking software and databases like Oracle/Unix, a while back, made me reluctant to overspend on anything unless I could prove that it was necessary.

In 2013, I invested in a laptop with an i5 dual core CPU (4 hyperthreaded cores) and 8GB RAM. Seemed a lot at the time, but over time, to my chagrin, I discovered the hard way that laptop specs are not directly comparable with desktop specs, no matter what is written on the CPU name. i5 on a laptop is NOT equivalent to a similarly named i5 on a desktop, and cannot be, cos the desktop will throttle the amount of power, meaning in simple terms a desktop with similar generation CPU, will run faster. I found out this the hard way.

When the laptop - with a 5400 rpm disk, was limiting my ability to use a sampled piano, without glitching, I moved on - somewhat reluctantly, but there was nothing I could to to improve the power of the laptop - it simply needed more horsepower. Audio interface on the laptop was an EMU 0404USB.

So moved on to a Xeon E3-1245 v3 CPU desktop with 24GB RAM, and a few 7200 rpm drives - running Windows 10 Pro. Audio interface EMU 1212M PCI. Running at 48khz, with 192 buffers to obtain a reported Input/Output latency of 5.4 and 4.3 milliseconds respectively.

This improved performance quite significantly, but occasionally I would still hear audio glitching, when doing things like running lots of youtube windows loaded, but listening to one of them typically, and also playing the sampled piano VST, live via a MIDI keyboard. It was occasional, and even when I was not watching any Youtube, occasionally I'd still hear a glitch. Very stable system, but for this occasional glitch. Typically I could have the computer switched on for weeks, and even months, 100% stable no issues.

I must say, computers and in particular Windows 10 has reached a significant height in usability and more importantly stability. When installed properly it just runs, and unless you have dodgy plugins written by inexperienced developers with poor testing, it just works. My DAW for over a decade has been Reaper, super efficient and super stable, but it does have its own issues, which I am discovering over long term use - I think there is some memory utilisation algorithm which I need to understand a lot better - cos long running projects tend to use a lot of RAM, even after I save and restart the DAW, seems like it saves quite a bit of the plugin state, which is also re-loaded into RAM - something to investigate when I have spare time, cos if I start a new project with similar plugin settings and save/recall the project and restart Reaper, RAM use reduces - but that's another topic, for another day.

Until recently I was using the Integrated GPU from Intel, with my monitor over a VGA cable. And had an idle GPU - an NVidia K600, doing nothing....

My key observation was that while most plugins use the CPU to generate their graphics, some plugins such as my sampled piano - Waves Rhapsody do take advantage of a GPU - assertion proven by monitoring CPU and GPU use.

My previous experience in tuning computers for high performance was based on one key principle, avoiding/limiting contention. Ultimately this cannot be avoided cos one or more components will reach a maximum if you continue to increase the workload.

So I wondered, could using a dedicated GPU change anything?

All my performance testing with the Integrated Intel GPU and its associated CPU, on the desktop, indicated that none of these were maxing out. But every time I heard an audio glitch, it also corresponded with a parameter I could measure in Reapers performance monitoring stats, known as the RT Longest Block. This parameter measures the longest real time delay in the audio chain, which when reset, is normally 1.3 milliseconds or thereabouts. But whenever there is an audio glitch the hold maximum value of this would jump up to values over 100 milliseconds typically. What this meant was that something was creating a delay - maybe the hard disk, or something else. I had always thought it was most likely the spinning hard drives, and I had done something to improve this by placing all the samples on a dedicated SATA3 7200 rpm drive.

But the occasional audio glitches, typically occurring when I played the sampled piano and youtube at the same time, concerned me. My thoughts were - is this hard disk i/O contention. I actually never thought of any RAM contention.

My initial solution was - upgrade to an SSD. For some reason, this storage revision was delayed.

On the off chance I wanted to see if there would be any difference between the Analog VGA display, and using a digital like, cos my monitor supports VGA and DVI, one analog and the other digital.

Then I ordered a DVI cable, as fortunately my monitor also had the required inputs for DVI, to connect the Nvidia K600 GPU, and in the BiOS I made this the primary display GPU, instead of the integrated GPU.

My purpose was to "improve" or see if there was any visual improvement in using a digital video connection, and the easierst way to achieve this in my case was to use the DVI port on my NVIDIA. Using the same monitor, I have not noticed any difference in visual quality. None.

So the Integrated GPU is not used, in any way.

The whole GPU dedicated use, improving audio, was not something I envisaged or thought off, so this improvement is such a wonderful surprise.

My planned purchase of an SSD (SATA or NVMe) is postponed, until further notice cos, for my needs as I expected a dedicated 7200 rpm disk should be ok for playing back a few samples streamed from the disk. I do not use lots of sampled libraries.

A less than £10 cable purchase, resolved the issue, and strangely, I can imagine I would have invested over £50 in a storage upgrade for my sampled instruments location, and from what I can deduce now, this would still have not solved the audio glitches, from the use of an integrated GPU.

It has been 24 hours since I made this change, from an Integrated GPU to a Dedicated GPU.

I had to post here cos the difference is phenomenal - not a single audio glitch, no matter how many notes I play, and no matter what's going on in the background in terms of Youtube videos playing.

Absolutely no concerns anymore. Simply no more audio glitches.

For most people, this is not an issue cos typically they buy a dedicated GPU, par for course and use it, but I had one, and did not bother to use it believing like I had read, that for DAW's that a dedicated GPU does not add any value.

My personal experience proves otherwise. It does make a difference - a huge difference, and I thought it good to share.

Why does it make a difference. My hypothesis - contention. The CPU and the Integrated GPU are both accessing the same main RAM, cos the Integrated GPU does not use its own RAM cos it does not have any.

In my case the dedicated GPU has its own RAM, located on the same board, so it does not have to go anywhere else to store intermediate results of its processing.

At no time did the Integrated GPU or CPU go above 30 or 40% typically yet I was experiencing audio glitches, with the integrated GPU in use.

This RAM contention was eliminated when the graphics was processed 100% by a dedicated GPU.

Could also be that the dedicated GPU is faster. But I think the real issue was RAM contention b/w the dedicated GPU and the CPU, sharing the same RAM, cos the audio glitches only occurred typically when watching Youtube videos and playing the sampled piano at the same time.

Anyway, all that is now in the past, and I thought it really important to share, especially for anyone troubleshooting audio glitches.

It does matter, every DAW, needs a dedicated GPU, and from what I can see, it does not need to be an expensive one, or a super high performance one. the Nvidia K600 if you wanted one is about £30 or less used.., and this has completely changed my experience of using Windows 10 as a DAW - zero audio glitches. Reading other posts, I hear that more recent Intel processors have better integrated GPU's but for an additional £30 why take a risk. Get an inexpensive GPU, as an insurance...
Old 5th November 2020
Lives for gear
Pictus's Avatar
Thanks for reporting!
You may also like some tweaks.
Old 7th November 2020
Reviews Editor
Diogo C's Avatar
Great stuff lads, appreciate it!
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