Updated: Working with the top PC developer Cakewalk, we’ve gotten a more complete picture of pro audio and music creation in Vista. See our new story Vista for Music + Pro Audio: Exclusive Under the Hood with Cakewalk’s CTO. All that’s here, of course, remains relevant.

Jim Allchin from Microsoft today posts an excellent description of some of the audio improvements in Windows Vista, singling out those features that will benefit all Vista users:

  1. Per-app mixer levels: A single menu lets you mix actual application levels in one, central location, accessible right from the system tray.
  2. Virtual surround, which Vista calls “speaker fill”, but which nicely enough adapts to different speaker configurations
  3. Headphone virtualization for creating surround-like space in headphones

More on the volume mixer at beta @ amanzi

It’s great to see Allchin, the man in charge of Microsoft’s OS division and a musician himself, so interested in audio features. Of these, the one I think you’ll definitely find useful is per-app mixing, if for no other reason than you’ll be able to easily mute other apps so you don’t interrupt gigs. (Fortunately, Microsoft reversed course and chose to allow you to disable the Windows startup sound planned for Vista, meaning the OS can be configured for completely silent running — minus SONAR, Ableton, FL Studio, Max/MSP and your other music apps!)

Apple, if you’re listening, this is one feature I’d like to see built into Mac OS X, as well. (I think there’s a third-party Mac app that does this, but I can’t remember; on Windows XP, Flashmute will at least stop Myspace pages from blaring in your browser.)

Of course, there are still plenty of Vista questions serious musicians will want answered, like, “will our audio interfaces break and will we still have to reinstall drivers and hack the Registry every time we reconnect some USB gear to a different port?” Microsoft has confirmed the audio stack has been completely rewritten for Vista, but some of the details were still unclear at an Audio Summit held this summer. Now that we’re closer to release, I’m working on getting some of these answers for CDM. I should have some details well before the official Vista release, still — let’s check that Vista counter — 54 days away.