Rawr! A real snow leopard at age eight weeks at the Eichberg Zoo. Now, should you let the (operating system) snow leopard mature a little before you try to play with it? Photo (CC) Tamby Tamboko.

Updated: See http://cdm.link/snowleopard for a running report.

Apple’s “Snow Leopard” 10.6 ships Friday, which means it’s time to start compiling information about the new OS flavor. Just don’t upgrade too fast, as always.

Want to push an operating system to the breaking point? Ask a musician. Between the demands of real-time performance and the complex ecosystem of mix-and-match hardware, software, and plug-ins, odds are your local audio geek will break an OS faster than anyone else. Not every operating system upgrade is going to have a big impact on music software, but keep in mind that even subtle changes can cause issues that may interfere with your work.

Of course, all of this means music users should treat any OS update with caution. :

  • If you’ve got a critical, primary production machine, your best bet is often simply to wait. Confirm that software works before you upgrade rather than after.
  • If you’ve got some time to invest in an upgrade or have more than one machine, be sure to do a full backup and system image so you can revert to the previous, known working OS.
  • Best solution: Boot off an external hard drive. Don’t commit to installing internally until you’re sure everything is working. Once you are, go enjoy. (as noted in comments, and yes, I should have said this initially… still, the latest 10.5 build is still the preferred OS for now.)

So, sit back. Enjoy life. Go for a walk on a beach. Recline in your favorite chair with your MacBook running Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Isn’t it great? Need to waste time? Plants vs. Zombies is out for Mac.

What? Still want to upgrade?

Fair enough. We’ll be tracking changes to Snow Leopard and which of them may impact audio.

The short version: Snow Leopard introduces only small changes, but if a developer hasn’t been on top of those changes, you could see issues. And as for the 64-bit mode that’s attracting most of the attention, the short answer is, you can’t use it for music yet.

Native Instruments and Plogue have each responded to CDM with information on their software.

Executive Summary

  • NI and Plogue have tested their software as functioning on 10.6
  • Neither NI nor Plogue recommends you upgrade your OS yet – Plogue uses stronger language to discourage you
  • 64-bit support, expanded in Mac OS 10.6, is not yet relevant to music use because nothing (not even from Apple) supports it yet, but don’t worry – you can get more RAM through other methods
  • Audio MIDI Setup gets a tune-up, and built-in audio support appears to be improved

Native Instruments

If you’re a Mac user who uses NI products on any version of the operating system, you should stay tuned to this URL:

http://www.native-instruments.com/en/support/compatibility/mac-os-x-compatibility/

NI tells CDM they’ve just updated it today with Snow Leopard information:

Native Instruments has conducted initial compatibility tests with Mac OS X 10.6, which have shown all current NI products to work without any specific issues under standard installations of this operating system.

However, users involved in professional audio production or live performance should be cautious about upgrading to Mac OS X 10.6 until compatibility with third-party audio software and hardware has been widely confirmed by the relevant manufacturers.

Native Instruments is currently conducting further systematic compatibility and performance tests with Snow Leopard, and will provide additional information on this page as it becomes available.

The second paragraph sounds like what I just wrote, huh?

Plogue

Plogue, an independent developer of a variety of software ranging from the awesome modular environment Bidule to sampling engines for Garritan’s orchestra and piano products and an upcoming library of vintage chip sounds have been doing their own work. Privately, I talked with them about some of the work they had to do after Apple rewrote underlying operating system plumbing with Objective-C (from C and Carbon). Here’s their official statement to CDM on Snow Leopard and, in the parallel Windows dimension, Windows 7:

10.6 and W7 each caused only minor modifications to our code base, however these mods are necessary for proper functioning of our products on those platforms. Most of our transition efforts as a company will be of a user support nature.

Any musician foolish enough to jump on new OSes without a hint of caution, inevitably makes me wish for a new kind of Darwin Award prize.

(Emphasis mine. Consider yourself warned.)

Ableton (Unofficial) and a Plug-in Warning

From the Ableton forums, via comments:

It’s currently being tested internally over here, so the current version is not officially compatible yet – on the other hand this does not mean that it doesn’t run.

We will release an update after the tests during the next weeks that will be officially compatible, but we don’t recommend upgrading yet if stability is your main concern.

It’s likely that a few new third party plugin problems will show up due to the changes under the hood in 10.6 and experiences show that the latest 10.5 versions now are the way to go after the gfx performance problems with earlier 10.5 and 10.4 versions.

So, in other words, now is a great time to upgrade to 10.5!

More in the thread here:

Ableton Forums

Now, note, mostly what this extensive discussion reveals is that Snow Leopard is poorly understood, partly thanks to a very successful hype campaign on Apple’s part. (Ahem.)

There are not magical performance and speed improvements found by installing Snow Leopard – or, most likely, any OS. (Would that such things were true.) The presence of a set of multithreading tools, for instance, is specific only to developers for whom that set of tools is useful. Audio software already has finely-tuned multithreading implementations specific to real-time applications, and in the case of something like Ableton Live, it really needs to work across platforms.

If you install a new OS with the expectation that it’ll be “faster,” you’ll almost certainly be disappointed. If you install a new OS hoping you’ll “break things,” then you probably won’t be disappointed. I don’t mean to suggest don’t ever upgrade or live in fear of all software, just that you should imagine that, like redoing the plumbing in your basement, long-term advantages will come, but with significant effort and time.

PreSonus Hardware

See a separate post: at Snow Leopard launch, PreSonus audio interfaces are likely to be entirely incompatible.

About 64-bit (Nothing to see here…)

NI notes that the 10.6 offers significant changes to 64-bit support, including a new 64-bit kernel mode – this being the rough equivalent of the “x64” 64-bit versions of Windows (and Linux) that have been available for some time.

Here’s the bottom line: 64-bit support on Mac OS isn’t yet relevant to audio users, period. It’s not supported by Apple’s own Logic Studio, or any other major host at this time. This is a situation we’ll be watching, as it is something developers appear to be investigating.

But before we get too far into that issue, you should consider why you’re asking about 64-bit in the first place. 64-bit computing offers two potential advantage. First, running processor computation natively at 64 bits offers a marginal improvement. Second – the issue most people care about for music – 64-bit memory addressing offers access to massive amounts of memory, beyond the approximate 4 GB barrier that applies to 32-bit applications.

More memory is a very good thing. But you probably don’t want to sacrifice compatibility just to get it. Fortunately, you don’t need the 64-bit OS to get beyond that 4 GB barrier. On the Mac, some workarounds have extended the practical life of 32-bit memory addressing for music applications – thus avoiding the need to get a 64-bit native version of every driver and every piece of software you want to use.

On Windows and Linux, you can indeed get a number of audio applications (like SONAR on Windows, for instance) that have excellent 64-bit support, and a number of the drivers have followed suit. Even, then, though, many users choose to stick with 32-bit versions in order to have superior compatibility.

Note that processing “64-bit audio” – that is, digital audio represented using 64-bit data – is a completely different issues. A 32-bit processor and 32-bit operating system and 32-bit software can all do 64-bit audio processing. Whether you really need 64 bits for audio production is a whole other can of worms I won’t open here.

Getting More Memory – Without Any 64-bit Snow Leopards

When I spoke to Apple earlier this month, they downplayed the 64-bit issue and pointed out that their own EXS24 sampler in Logic Studio can access additional installed memory just fine with 32-bit – that means if you have Logic 8 or later, Pro or Express, Tiger or Leopard or Snow Leopard, you can use additional RAM. Each EXS24 sampler instance has its own memory space, so you can use as much memory as you want.

Apple even has a support doc on the subject:

Logic Pro/Express 8: How the EXS24 sampler addresses RAM in Logic 8

Last month, we looked at the situation for Native Instruments’ Kontakt. Again, using some of the flexibility of the memory architecture unique to the Mac, they’ve managed to access bigger amounts of RAM even on 32-bit OS.

Kontakt, Battery: Enhanced, More Compatible, 64-bit Memory

Kontakt is able to get up to a whopping 32 GB thanks to something called the Kontakt Memory Server. Again, you can get still more than 32 GB using 64-bit Windows, but for most users, that’s overkill.

All of this is to say, 64-bit is not a reason to upgrade to Snow Leopard for audio work – at least, not yet. Some of the built-in applications (like the Finder and Safari) get performance boosts from 64-bit optimization on 10.6, but none of that is critical to audio and music – and it’s certainly not worth upgrading too soon only to find some compatibility wrinkle we haven’t yet found.

Updates to Audio MIDI Setup

A reader tips us off to some small changes to Apple’s centralized Core Audio settings panel, Audio MIDI Setup. Audio and MIDI are now separated into separate windows, and Audio gets some nice improvements.

Note the per-app settings and adjustments for sample rate, bit depth, and Format. As in previous recent versions of Mac OS, you can also aggregate multiple physical audio interfaces into one – one of a number of reasons we really love Core Audio as a sound system.

snowdevices

The reader also notes that the update seems to improve support for his built-in hardware:

It’s now possible to choose a higher sample rate and resolution for all inputs/outputs on the built-in sound card of my MacBook Pro early ’08, which is pretty cool. Before there was clearly hearable, annoying digital fragments when playing back any sounds, especially on low volume – all magically gone, i don’t hear anymore noise.

Got More Information?

Help us continue our “More Than You Wanted to Know,” obsessive series of coverage on CDM and tip us off!

Corrections and clarifications are welcome, too – that’s why I enjoy the maleable nature of the Web.