Percussa micro super signal processor

XP passed into the shadows yesterday, officially — so how’s Vista for music? Some of the answers may surprise you. Photo: coda.

Yesterday marked the official phase-out of Windows XP. That in itself isn’t terribly big news; it’s easy enough to get XP systems for the foreseeable future, and custom builders can even put together an XP machine for you. Heck, you can even boot XP on an Intel Mac. But it seems like the perfect time to talk again about Vista. As with any OS, the branding (“we’ve got a new thing called Vista”) masks the more complex reality evolution of software and drivers. In other words, Vista today isn’t what it was the day it shipped. (That’s a relief.) And personally, I’d like to start talking about real-world performance and dispense with the kind of schoolyard rivalry the platforms have had over the years. I think it’s a safe bet to say none of us is excited about operating systems. We’re excited about actually making music. The good news is, Vista is finally looking like an OS on which you can do that.

The OS Generation Gap

>Quad-boot MacBook, by foskarulla.

It’s a funny time for operating systems and music applications, in that the most recent generational changes in Windows and Mac were unusually significant. On Windows, XP and Windows 2000 improved both audio and hardware support, and finally saw Windows NT really mature for music. On the Mac side, albeit slightly later, the bumpy transition to Mac OS X finally paid off as Tiger and Panther brought major audio improvements and reliability and performance enhancements. And Tiger got musicians onto Intel x86 CPUs, which helped unleash the live use of laptops we see today. Each of these updates came with compatibility hurdles, but there was a clear payoff. They’re must-have upgrades for music. Many music and audio apps won’t even work with earlier versions.

By contrast, while Mac OS X Leopard and Windows Vista each introduce important features, they’ve proven less essential to the music and audio segment of the market. By extension, I’d say they haven’t yet made major enhancements to real-time performance or hardware support – at least not in a way you can currently experience as an end user – in the way their predecessors did. That’s not to say you won’t find reasons to upgrade; you just may not see a big difference in Ableton Live. That has made the compatibility issues each OS has introduced for music more painful, because the reason you’re upgrading may not always be as clear.

But don’t listen to anyone who says OSes are so mature that there’s “nothing left to do” to them. I don’t think that’s the problem. Leopard and Vista aren’t entirely comparable, but they do have a lot in common – and the common theme, beneath eye candy in the UI, is that both OSes are trying to tackle some very difficult problems.

Both make changes to the driver model, thread scheduling, multiple core support, and (including XP x64) 64-bit support. These are tough challenges for OSes that have years of development behind them and broad compatibility requirements. But these are changes on which computer musicians, even indirectly, are absolutely dependent. Support for better performance, more reliable drivers, and more memory is vital to a lot of the stuff we do.

The issue is, you may not see some of the payoff in these changes right away – or even in this OS build. Even with Apple’s Mac OS X Leopard, which has been relatively positively received, I think some of the real benefits of multiple core support and 64-bit compatibility won’t become evident until the upcoming Snow Leopard at the earliest. Microsoft’s under-the-hood driver model changes may have a positive impact on driver reliability and performance in the long run, but those benefits have been masked by just getting things working.

Microsoft had still-bigger challenges, too: while they jettisoned some much-publicized functionality promised for Vista, they still made massive changes to driver support, the graphics driver model, and the way things on the screen were displayed.

So moving onto Vista: did something go wrong? Yes – at the beginning, that is.

Vista, Take One: Yipes!

Yes, in the "no longer news to anyone" category, Vista’s launch was a disaster.  Photo: Simonds.

For all the over-analysis of what bombed in the Vista launch, I’ve been surprised by how little attention has been paid to what seems to have been the single biggest issue. Vista’s new graphics model just didn’t work for a lot of people out of the box, and that caused other issues to snowball. This is especially true in audio. If the graphics drivers weren’t working properly, just touching a UI element could make the sound glitch. Some people I think misunderstood the source of the problem and blamed DRM or other more dramatic causes. But if anything manages to starve the CPU for cycles, performance suffers fast.

I saw how nasty this could be in my early Vista tests – and was equally struck how dramatically the fix could be when installing new drivers, particularly on my NVIDIA test systems.

Would it have helped if Microsoft had kept its vendors more in sync? Absolutely. Should Vista have held off a little longer to resolve lingering quality issues? I think so. Should Microsoft have hired acrobats to climb buildings and staged other surreal Cirque-du-Soleil style antics to launch an OS before it was ready? Sigh.

Those things aside, though, some of the problems remain fundamental OS issues — and many of you, as a result, were smart enough to steer clear of the OS upgrade until it was fully baked.

Here are some obvious but oft-missed statements in regards to Vista or any other major OS change:

1. Small incompatibilities can cause total havoc. One bad driver can starve the CPU, crash the machine, and generally make performance and stability go awry. Sometimes these bugs come from the OS vendor, sometimes a third-party developer, sometimes a combination of the two that can’t even be fully explained until it’s fixed. And that makes other, arguably more minor incompatibilities, all the more annoying. Problems with video on Vista pushed it out of the “I can live with this” territory and into the panic you saw from a lot of tech users and even press.

2. Music and audio suffer first: Running many apps, you won’t notice sluggish performance. Run video, and you’ll notice a missed frame (about 30 of those per second). Run audio, and you’ll notice tiny timing problems and dropouts and glitches with even a single sample (about 44,100 of those per second). Audio real-time performance is less forgiving than applications like nuclear submarine guidance – literally.

3. If you’re having a problem, who the (*&$# cares how many other people are, too? If you’re having an issue, you’re sad. If  If you have a problem, you have the right to complain about it until it’s fixed. And you get permission to curse at the machine involved and the company who made it – until they fix it, at which point there will be great rejoicing. I’ve seen bloggers complain when people complain about significant problems with both Mac OS and Windows. I gain great comfort in knowing next week, they’ll be the ones cursing because they’ll have the problem. Let my people vent. And fix the problem. Then everyone’s happy.

SP1: What Changed

[Insert Strauss music here.] Photo: Thomas Hawk.

So, is Microsoft fixing things? The short answer is yes. It may not be a reason to switch from XP to Vista, but I do think Vista is a feasible choice for music production, depending on your environment.

I wouldn’t have said that a few months ago. Vista has changed since where it was even at the end of last year. SP1 is part of that, but changes generally fit into three categories:

1. Internal (Hotfixes): A big portion of SP1 is a big bundle of all the hotfixes that Microsoft released over the first year or so of Vista. It’s just a convenience – you could install all of those hotfixes without SP1 – but it’s a major one. And many of those hotfixes made specific improvements to audio performance, video performance (which also impacts audio performance), and USB and other hardware compatibility.

2. Internal (SP1): SP1 includes some changes that were not released as hotfixes, meaning that in addition to #1 being a big reason to upgrade, this is the only way to get a fully-patched, fully-fixed Vista.

3. External (Third-party): It goes without saying that, aside from what Microsoft has done, third-party vendors have fixed a lot of stuff since Vista’s release. Aside from software patches to music software and plug-ins, that includes changes to mainboard drivers, video drivers, and the like that can in turn impact audio performance and reliability.

We covered some specific Vista audio concerns in the past:

So let’s see how SP1 is addressing those concerns.

Vista SP1 + Music: Report Card

Laptop orchestra. Photo: nouQraz.

Complaint: Vista’s MIDI Timing is unstable.

Validity: True.

Current status: Fixed in SP1.

Vista introduced some MIDI timing instabilities. It was bad enough that at least some users were able to notice the difference in terms of hands-on experience. Cakewalk, who reported this issue to Microsoft, tells CDM that the problem was fixed as of SP1. (Microsoft previously indicated to CDM that this would be addressed.)

Complaint: Vista audio performance is unreliable: dropouts, glitches, and pain.

Validity: True; not an issue in all cases but reasonably widespread.

Current status: Fixed (at least in many cases). Vista performs like XP — once your video drivers are up to snuff.

Assuming we’re talking primarily about ASIO performance, which requires stability at low latencies, the biggest obstacle early on appears to have been buggy video drivers causing catastrophic audio performance. (If you doubt that incompatibilities not directly related to audio can cause problems with audio, look no further than the bugs gradually being resolved on Mac OS’ WiFi support and Leopard USB/FireWire support.)

Turning off Aero, Vista’s shiny, new UI, doesn’t necessarily fix things in all cases, either. Even with "Windows Standard" selected, Vista uses a new driver model for graphics. (It can be helpful to turn off Aero or other desktop visual effects on an older machine, however.)

Mainly, the fix seems to be installing SP1 and getting video drivers up to date. For that reason, I can’t entirely guarantee this — there are lots of other variables and different possible graphics drivers. But if you’re having symptoms that seem to relate to UI interaction like moving windows or turning soft synth knobs, starting with the graphics drivers couldn’t hurt.

Complaint: Vista can’t achieve the low latencies XP could.

Validity: Difficult to verify.

Current status: Jury’s out, but unless you’re counting milliseconds you’ll be fine — and very reliable, low latencies are possible with Vista as with XP.

Latency is introduced in various parts of a computer music setup, but generally if you’re in the 10-12 ms range and no higher, most users will be happy. I’ve been able to easily push below that even using a USB interface like my Native Instruments Audio Kontrol 1. (Apparently, they hired a very talented driver programmer, so Native, I’m not giving you that one back! Send a bill over.)

Some users do push Windows latencies well below that, and have reported that Vista isn’t performing quite as well as XP. Now, whether driver updates could resolve this, I don’t know.

I can say this: you can get very usable low-latency performance with Vista, just as with XP. As always, the main variable is getting an interface with solid drivers you can trust, and (unfortunately) controlling for other variables like buggy video drivers. On any system, I suggest testing adding new hardware very carefully. But this issue in and of itself seems to me not to be a reason to avoid Vista. (Now, other compatibility problems that can botch audio? That’s a good reason — meaning you will want to test your system before doing something critical with it!)

Complaint: Vista’s WaveRT can yield better audio performance on built-in cards.

Validity: True.

Current status: Your mileage may vary, but if you can get WaveRT support you’ll be much better off than you were on XP.

Vendors Realtek and Analog Devices, who ship the internal audio cards including on many motherboards and laptops, have each supported Microsoft’s new WaveRT driver model, which is intended to provide lower latency for “consumer” audio functions. We knew this would help theoretically, but from reports we’ve seen, users have been pretty happy with this feature in the real world, too. I’ve even heard reports of extremely low-latency playback (as low as 2ms), which had previously been possible only using ASIO. While we’d need more extensive benchmarks to go into greater detail, there’s no question this is a big leap forward from previous drivers for internal audio cards, so this is very good news for those times when you don’t have a dedicated “pro” audio interface handy.

In fact, I could even see someone making use of one of these cards in live performance or installation. If you have, let us know.

Complaint: My (hardware/software) isn’t compatible.

Validity: Check with your vendor.

Current status: Largely fixed by third parties, and certainly most music and audio developers, but always check first.

I’ve been fairly impressed by compatibility between Vista and current music hardware and software. The first half year was, as always, rough, but things smoothed out after that. If you’re concerned about compatibility with older plug-ins, for the most part, don’t be. Once you have a compatible host, plug-ins generally work on Vista as they did on XP — meaning Windows still has Mac and Linux beat when it comes to giving you ridiculously absurd plug-in variety, enough to distract you from ever getting any actual work done. (Not sure if that’s a plus…)

With hosts and hardware, well, there’s not much I can say other than check with your vendor. But on my machine, with hardware from Focusrite, Roland/Edirol, Native Instruments, Novation, M-Audio, and Korg, and software from Native Instruments, Ableton, Image-Line, Cakewalk, Cycling ’74, and various other obscure things, compatibility hasn’t been a problem. In fact, I think music and audio vendors were more on the ball than the rest of the industry.

If you do have the rare older software that doesn’t work, you can often get it to install and function by turning off User Account Control temporarily or selecting a compatibility mode before launching.

That said, if you do have a lot of older software, I wouldn’t recommend upgrading. If you’re not upgrading your apps, upgrading your OS is unlikely to be a good idea. (The phrase “if it ain’t broke…” comes to mind.) But if you’re running current hosts and audio interfaces and just want to protect your VST plug-in stash, I don’t think this aspect will be a deal-breaker.

Complaint: Vista requires more memory than XP.

Validity: True.

Current status: Unchanged, but it may not be a deal killer.

There’s not much escaping this, but rather than dwell on this, I’ll say this: on a 2GB system, I haven’t found this to be a problem. On a system with 1GB or less, I run XP anyway. End of story. I don’t see a reason to run Vista on an older system or one with less memory, and likewise on a 2-4GB system I don’t think Vista’s memory consumption is significant enough to impact audio work. On a 64-bit system with 64-bit software, which can easily access well more than 4GB, it’s a non-issue.

Nitpicking on memory availability is probably overkill, but of course musicians — unlike mainstream users — do often push the envelope. But on my custom Vista desktop install, which only has a 2GB system, I’ve been happy.

There are things you can do to "slim down" your Vista install, as with XP (actually, literally as with XP in some cases as some of the services are the same). The new Windows Sidebar, for instance, consumes some memory and can be switched off. (I don’t miss it it, personally.) But that’s a topic for another article.

Complaint: Vista requires more power than XP.

Validity: Vista’s (usually) not the problem.

Here’s the thing: you can see massive CPU consumption when software crashes or drivers aren’t working properly. Many of these are reported under the process explorer.exe, because processes run as part of that larger process. On the hardware side, even a slightly-unseated PCI card can cause major CPU spikes. And if you are getting those kinds of spikes, the power of your hardware won’t make any difference. This isn’t really a Vista issue – if stuff is compatible and working, you won’t see the problem.

So, was this true? Yes, probably — but my suspicion is that a lot of these complaints actually originated from buggy drivers and unstable processes, not an inherently hungrier OS.

That said, I do wish Microsoft had made it easier to slim down their OS, in general. And I have found a couple of things especially annoying with Vista:

Media Center: I’d like to be able to switch off Media Center altogether, especially because a process called mcupdate.exe seems to randomly call the mothership and consume CPU cycles. Updated: Richard Burte wisely points out that you can disable this using Task Scheduler. Type “computer management” into the Start menu and select the first result to bring up the Microsoft Management Console. From there, select Computer Management (Local) > System Tools > Task Scheduler > Task Scheduler Library > Microsoft > Windows > Media Center. In the top right pane, you’ll see the task mcupdate. It’s set to run at 4:51 pm daily. You can reschedule it, or simply right click it and choose disable. Thanks, Richard!

My recommended Vista version remains Vista Business. If you’re using a machine for music, odds are you don’t need Media Center’s features anyway – especially not with plenty of media playback options elsewhere.

Desktop Search: For reasons unknown, this service can index and churn away at the hard drive even when it’s not supposed to. I prefer to turn it off, but I’d like to see it get a little smarter about indexing more efficiently and switching on more conservatively.

Bottom line, though, is that Vista, like XP, can be tamed and turned into a well-behaved OS. That wasn’t true in the initial Vista driver train wreck, but I’m finding it’s true now – and that’s a good thing.

Complaint: Vista is full of audio DRM that will ruin your life.

Validity: Not true.

This complaint seems to have come from two sources. First, it seems to be partly a misinterpretation of audio protections Microsoft had to put in to support new US digital cable tuners and formats like HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Those are in fact in Vista, though they’re also in XP, and they don’t really impact music production. (They’re annoying, but that’s a separate discussion.) Second, Microsoft did apparently plan to do more with DRM in Vista than they did, but backed away from the cliff. Some people were still looking at planning documents and seeing things that weren’t there.

Where I think this rumor continued was when people had glitchy, unreliable audio and blamed DRM, but as I said above, I think they didn’t suspect culprits like video driver problems.

Unfortunately, Microsoft did add some additional validation requirements in Vista as an anti-piracy measure. These are softened in SP1, and I think you can live with them. It does reduce your options for virtualizing the operating system using tools like Parallels, VMware, and virtualbox, but if you’re virtualizing an OS, why not Linux?

Why Run Vista?

I don’t want to get into a Mac versus Windows argument here. That’s an easy one. Want to run Mac OS? Do it. Want to run Windows? Go for it. There are enough choices and enough mature software that you’re unlikely to really regret either one. And it doesn’t really matter which is "better" so much as which is better for you.

Instead, I’ll take on something slightly simpler: XP versus Vista. It’s clear why you should run Windows XP:

1. It’s working, and you’re happy: Insert any software here (Windows, Mac OS, your word processor, your MIDI sequencer), and this statement is true, but it’s worth saying.

2. You’ve got an older machine, or are low on RAM, or both: This is doubly true – older hardware is likely to have the most compatibility problems now that newer drivers have caught up with Vista. And XP is a better choice with less than 1 GB of RAM.

3. You need it for specific compatibility reasons. ‘Nuff said.

But why should you run Vista? Believe it or not, I have a few reasons.

1. It can be more stable than XP. No, you didn’t read that wrong. Microsoft has improved the in-box drivers in Vista, and the driver overhaul has forced vendors to adhere more closely to Microsoft’s specs. Now, I have no particular need to believe what Microsoft tells me — but I have seen this make a difference in the real world. Also, because on many modern machines Vista supports more hardware out of the box than XP, you can go with Microsoft’s in-box and device class drivers, which can be more reliable than drivers that come from vendors.

2. The UI is more usable. I don’t mean in a skin-deep way: generally speaking, the UI in Vista is more usable and functional than XP’s in some subtle but important ways. For instance:

3. The audio mixer is great. Click the sound icon on the taskbar, and there’s a mixer that lets you disable applications. It’s a little thing, but worth mentioning.

4. GPU-native UIs are a good thing. If you have a fairly recent graphics card – even a basic one – I think you’ll probably appreciate glitch-free graphics display on the UI.

5. It is prettier. Aero tends to elicit love/hate responses. If you don’t like it, you can reskin it by using a hacked uxtheme.dll, as with XP. (Search for uxtheme.dll and you’ll get some solutions; various minimalist skins are available online, too.) But Vista is generally easier on the eyes, and improves font rendering and such in a way I find easier to stare at all day. I was surprised that even Create Digital Motion’s Jaymis actually warmed to the new Vista UI on a new PC — and he just bought himself a MacBook Pro for Mac OS X.

6. WaveRT. Internal audio systems work better on Vista, so long as they have WaveRT drivers and apps to support WaveRT. That’s a big enough feature that, assuming you can balance other factors, Vista could be worth an upgrade.

7. Explorer is multi-threaded and more better. While early versions of Vista prompted complaints about file copy speeds, those issues appear to be fixed now, and I find Vista’s Explorer to be much snappier. Multi-threading means Explorer doesn’t grind to a halt any more. I also find Explorer far more usable than it was in XP. Some XP loyalists disagree, but I think they’re crazy.

8. You’ve got a new system. Before you try to put XP on a new machine, it’s worth giving a test run on the stuff that matters and seeing if Vista works.

I’ll admit, I wish this list were longer, and I hope that with Windows 7, it is. But is it worth waiting for Windows 7? I don’t think so – not given that past experience, even on the Mac with its more controlled environment and musical focus, suggests that any OS transition takes time. The day Windows 7 ships will likely be a lot like the first day any OS ships – fraught with compatibility problems. Vista is, at least, finally reaching maturity, and I hope that Microsoft continues to ship patches where they’re needed.

Conclusion

I brought up the Mac just to reiterate something that’s obvious but important: musicians rarely upgrade to a new OS on day one, period, regardless of platform. (Even on desktop Linux, in fact, most stable music and audio systems are using distribution releases behind the latest, fanciest, "experimental" release.) The good news is, we’re not alone — Ed Bott observes today that businesses like Intel holding off on Vista are repeating cautious behavior from the past. Frankly, I’m with them. (I’ve had to make a conscious effort to adopt things too early so I can write about them!)

In short, if you held off on upgrading to Vista, it’s paid off.

If you’re happy on XP, there’s really no pressure to leave.

But I can happily say that, at this point, you can at least consider Vista. I don’t think it’s the doomsday release some made it out to be — though, in fairness, the way it shipped in the beginning I was inclined to agree with them.

And, ironically, at the end of the day I don’t really notice that much which OS I’m using. I’ve got some XP, some Vista, some Mac OS. CDM contributors Liz Knight, Mike Una, and Motion editor Jaymis all use multiple operating systems, too. The fact that we don’t notice? A very good thing, and a testament to the work developers have done to make sure that’s the case. And a far cry from the OS-centric turf wars regularly going on on the blogosphere. But then, we have more interesting things to discuss.

A big thanks to Noel Borthwick at Cakewalk and Robin Vincent at Rain Recording for providing some feedback as I wrote this. The opinions expressed are my own, but I encourage you to disagree — in fact, we’re looking for as much data on musicians and operating systems on all platforms as we can possibly muster, so don’t be shy.

Now, back to music.

Previous Resources on CDM

Summing up some of the growing pains OSes have been having lately:

Digidesign Talks Latest Windows, Mac Releases, Compatibility, Drivers

Fix for Mac Audio Dropouts: Roll Back Tiger AirPort Support

Blame Apple, Not Your Driver Maker, But Leopard Fix May Be Close

And specifically Vista-related:

Vista for Audio, 1 Year Later: Talking OS Plumbing with Cakewalk’s CTO

Vista Bug Squash: Fix Driver Installation Problems with Class-Compliant Devices

Windows Sound Glitches Explained, Plus Glitches and the Fight-or-Flight Response

Microsoft Rolls Out USB Fixes for Vista Now; Not Everything Waiting for SP1

Cakewalk Vista Musicians’ Resource Page, Lots of Vista Drivers

How to Kill Windows Vista Bottlenecks: Pt. II, Stop the Disk Churning

How to Kill Windows Vista Bottlenecks: Pt. I, Aero and Display Issues

Vista “Content Protection” DRM Won’t Impact Music Production, Says Microsoft and You

Vista for Music + Pro Audio: Exclusive Under the Hood with Cakewalk’s CTO