So this post is a bit late, but better late than never. Let me start at the beginning.
Towards the end of 2009 I purchased my first laptop, an HP Compaq with a cool fake-chrome C on the lid that I really dug. I bought it solely for the use of Ableton Live – it was going to be a performance laptop. Around the same time I got it I also bought a Novation NIo 2/4 USB soundcard.
So I get the laptop, install everything all excited-like and plug in the sound-card. I open Live, open my live set and hit play expecting mega-boOmz – instead, I’m greeted with “xxxxxxxx-crackle-crackle-crackle-glitch-glitch-glitch”
“Hmmmmm” I think with a bemused smile on my face. I close Live, unplug the sound-card, put it all back together and try start Live again. Nope, nothing – it hangs at the splash screen and I have to CTRL-ALT-DEL my way out of there. I check the buffer settings for the Nio’s driver – it’s sitting at a 4ms latency. Not too bad, shouldn’t be giving any problems – but I bump it up to 10ms anyways. Unplug the Nio, reboot the laptop, put everything back together, boot up Live, open my live set, hit play expecting uber-mega-BOOMZ.
“Hmmmmm” – through gritted teeth now, my molars grinding against each other quite audibly.
The same shit happens – Live hangs at the splash screen the next time I try boot it up and I have to reboot Windows each time. I try a lot of things (this is about 3 hours after first encountering the problem by the way) – Asio4All works once but subsequently crashes the audio drivers in Windows, necessitating a reboot. After spending the whole day fucking around trying to find some kind of fix for the problem, I figure out that if I set the buffer size so that the latency is 2ms – not a ms slower or faster – the audio stream will run fine 80% of the time (I also figure out that the Nio has to be plugged into the USB port closest to the screen, the other two are crackle-city no matter where the latency is sitting. Traktor, Cubase, Live, whatever. The same problem. I use a DPC latency checker and see that everything is in the green, there shouldn’t be any reason whatsoever for a glitch.
So anyway, I play a couple of live sets like this – with the possibility of a total sonic fuck-up always hanging above my head. I vividly recall one Psynopticz set where the audio just totally collapsed, literally eight seconds before I was supposed to be on. In that time I managed to swap RCA cables from the Nio back to the CDJ and cue up my back-up CD, narrowly avoiding total disaster.
Every so often, over the course of two years, I’d try a different fix. None of them would work. I flashed the Nio firmware, I flashed the laptop BIOS, I downloaded new drivers and updates for every component you could think of. I spent hours bugging a Novation tech support guy and we went through every possible problem with no solution to speak of.
At one stage, I learnt that the problem was probably due to Windows assigning a virtual IRQ number to any USB device, which I guess meant that its data stream wasn’t being given any priority. For webcams and mice this is fine, but for streaming high quality real-time audio – there’s a bit of an issue.
At one point, deep into my obsession with the crackles, I figured out that if I disabled my display adapter, rebooted and then enabled the display (rebooting again) – everything would work fine until a subsequent reboot. So that was my fix for a couple of months.
Then one day, about a week before my live set at Groovy Troopers, I was about 12 pages into Google’s search results for “Compaq Novation Nio crackles” when I stumbled onto a thread on an M-Audio site. A user there had been experiencing similar problems with his M-Audio card on his laptop. And he apparently had a fix.
A USB Audio Filter Driver he acquired deep within the bowels of the HP website (I should also add that my lappy was some obscure model, possibly only available here and in Eastern Europe, so finding specific help with it was quite a mission.)
I absent-mindedly downloaded the driver, thinking more about how I could get 20K together for a MacBook Pro before the weekend. But then I installed it. And my God it worked. Just like that. Sorted. From nearly two years of constant crackling, each week losing more confidence in my ability to actually perform a real live set to crystal clear, flawless audio. Just like that. No matter which port the sound card was plugging into.
I can do infinitely more on this machine then I ever thought possible before the fix – I have a pretty dense Live set running now that only hits 20% CPU usage. I haven’t heard a crackle since that day.
If you have a laptop that just doesn’t seem to play nicely with audio, give it a whirl. Google “(laptop manufacturer) USB audio filter driver” and see what you can find – you never know. You might end up believing in miracles. ;)