Sometimes the kernel pops, sometimes it doesn’t. We’re waiting for a Leopard fix, and have reason to believe we may not have to wait much longer. Photo CC EastBayAnt.

Updated: As expected, the Mac OS X 10.5.3 update has been released, and it promises to address USB audio playback issues. That may or may not fully resolve issues users have been encountering; I expect we’ll know more soon.

Let’s get one thing straight: if you’re having audio problems under Mac OS X 10.5.2 and you’re looking for someone to blame, it’s reasonably safe to blame Apple, in case that wasn’t already obvious. That’s just this particular case, and it’s not the first (or last) time an OS update caused issues for audio, but that’s my best appraisal of the situation.

I made no secret that I was disappointed with the level of support for emerging OSes from M-Audio and Digidesign, and I stand by that complaint. The response from M-Audio and Digidesign was prompt: based on what I heard from them (and they wrote me personally), I don’t think they made any “excuses.” Representatives from both product lines apologized for lagging drivers, and promised to do better. We’ll of course watch to see if they deliver on that promise in the long haul, but they were at least able to offer some specific clarifications and updates so owners of their products can make some progress right now. (Read my original complaint, and follow-ups from M-Audio and Digidesign.)

Accountability and OSes

That said, all evidence points to audio performance problems on Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.2 specifically being the responsibility of Apple. Pointing out problems introduced by an operating system is not making an excuse; it’s stating an obvious fact, whether in regards to Microsoft or Apple. In this case, the symptoms are not restricted to a single product vendor. Apple’s own Logic Studio is an affected piece of software. (Heck, even Skype and iTunes may have issues.) I’ve gotten reader reports of problems with a variety of hardware, not just M-Audio and Digidesign. Problems don’t seem to affect everyone, but then, most bugs affect only some users, not all.

Consensus from every vendor I’ve talked to — software and hardware — is that an OS-level change in 10.5.2 caused problems. The likelihood is, Apple will have to resolve those issues. So it’s not worth getting angry at your device vendor, because it’s almost certainly not their fault. Likewise, I’m not sure it’s worth getting angry at Apple — 10.5.2 just didn’t work as expected, and the best we can do is to find a temporary workaround and wait for the next update. You can get angry if you want, of course. It just won’t make any difference. (I have about a 20-year history at this point of yelling at computers; I find it at least lets off steam.)

But let’s talk about accountability, since various readers are bringing it up. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I think accountability has to involve both music and audio vendors and OS vendors.

As I see it, the basic responsibility of hardware vendors is to test their current hardware on new OSes, to release complete documentation in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and to update their drivers to support the current driver model and specifications of a new OSes in a reasonable amount of time. By this measure, there’s room for improvement at many vendors, and it’s my belief that improvement in these areas will mean more and happier customers.

But OS vendors have responsibilities, too. And since this isn’t 1985 or 1990, that means basically Microsoft and Apple. (The Linux community is a different animal, so I’ll leave them alone.) A creator of a device driver can’t possibly be responsible or accountable for fixing OS-level performance issues with scope beyond their own hardware. And that’s been, unfortunately, the situation with Windows Vista, particularly in its first 8 months, and now Mac OS X Leopard in its first 8 months. Problems haven’t affected everyone, but they have been widespread enough that we have a right to be disappointed. As a user, I think I have the right to be disappointed. As a writer, it’s my obligation to point it out. And I hope they do better in the future.

10.5.3: Help is on the way?

I’m equally obligated to watch for these issues to be fixed. In the case of Apple, the rumor mill suggests that a fix is imminent:

Mac OS X 10.5.3 about to hit [APC Mag]

This is not official information, as Apple doesn’t make their OS update process public. Technically, I shouldn’t say that 10.5.3 is rumored to have audio and video applications as a focus. I also shouldn’t say that the major change in the current seed is reported to be “kernel performance.” Of course, that’s exactly what I and many other parties had predicted: anyone running 10.5.2 who is experiencing this issue already knows there’s a problem. The good news is, a fix is likely on the way.

Look, updating and testing operating systems isn’t easy, and my job is not to sit here and be an armchair quarterback. What I can do, though, is do as much homework as possible, and try to use the large community we have here on CDM to provide as much information as we can to help you make informed decisions. I hope that 10.5.3 is an OS we can recommend, as 10.5.2 was not. So, we’ll keep watching.

If you have 10.5.2, have this symptom, and for some reason can’t downgrade, do let us know when an update becomes available and what your experience is.