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Vista For Musicians

Part 1: Is It Time To Upgrade To The New Windows OS?
Published June 2007
By Martin Walker

Several months have elapsed since the release of Windows Vista - so is it safe for musicians to assume that most music software and hardware is now compatible with the new OS, and upgrade? PC Musician investigates.

Few PC users can have missed the huge fanfare surrounding Microsoft's 30th January launch of their latest Vista operating system — it was featured on local, national and international news and filled the mainstream monthly PC magazines for several issues, while Vista is now pre-installed on the vast majority of high-street PCs across the land.

With its new Aero transparent glass interface, streamlined Start menu, Sidebar and associated Gadgets, such as the analogue clock, diary and CPU meter shown here, Windows Vista certainly looks far more attractive than Windows XP.With its new Aero transparent glass interface, streamlined Start menu, Sidebar and associated Gadgets, such as the analogue clock, diary and CPU meter shown here, Windows Vista certainly looks far more attractive than Windows XP.

However, Vista has divided PC experts: some seem to be jumping up and down with excitement, while others are deeply disappointed, considering the five-year wait for its release. One PC magazine catalogued each of its new features in turn and pointed out third-party alternatives that have been available for some time. Some SOS readers must also be wondering why we didn't seem eager to explore its new features in great depth from day one.

The fact is that most musicians are primarily interested in making music, and to do this requires an audio interface and audio software. However, once you've installed Vista, your audio interface won't function without Vista-compatible drivers, and even though I deliberately postponed the writing of this feature until some two months after the official Vista launch, there are still plenty of audio interfaces without suitable drivers. As I write this in April, there are also still comparatively few audio developers who have made official pronouncements about their product's Vista compatibility (whether they will crash or not), and even fewer who have released updates that specifically take advantage of this new operating system.

A Little Bit More

The situation is further complicated by the fact that apart from the initially baffling array of six Vista product versions, each one with its own slightly different feature set (see 'Which Version?' box), you can also get most of them in two different versions on different DVDs.

The 32-bit version provides all the new features, but with essentially the same performance as Windows XP when running most applications, while the 64-bit Vista versions will let the PC musician who has a 64-bit processor install and access lots more system RAM (typically 16GB for the most popular Home Premium version, and potentially over 128GB with the Business and Ultimate version), and also possibly provide better performance once 64-bit audio application versions finally appear.

Overview

Before we investigate what works, what doesn't, and what performance benefits there are after all your installation efforts, let's look more closely at some of the new features of Windows Vista and how they relate to the PC musician.

The most obvious difference is the new Aero transparent glass design (with 'subtle window animations and new window colours'), and there's no denying that it looks very sophisticated compared with the Windows XP interface. All the mainstream Vista versions include Aero except Home Basic (which is why many shops won't stock the latter), and it's easy to fall for the translucent window edges and Flip 3D selection options.

Apart from when playing games, the average PC user with a modern machine is now probably only employing 10 percent or less of the available processing power, so Aero and its associated exploding, scrolling, fading, sliding and dancing animations are undoubtedly fun. However, even on the latest dual-core and even quad-core PCs, most musicians are still pushing the boundaries of real-time performance, so the extra CPU cycles required to run Aero could be a great hindrance.

Vista's User Account Control warnings may become tedious, especially when you're initially installing lots of applications, since they prevent any further computer activity until you click on one of the options (I had to photograph this screenshot). However, they do remind you of potentially dangerous actions, and if one ever pops up unexpectedly it might have just saved you from a serious security threat.Vista's User Account Control warnings may become tedious, especially when you're initially installing lots of applications, since they prevent any further computer activity until you click on one of the options (I had to photograph this screenshot). However, they do remind you of potentially dangerous actions, and if one ever pops up unexpectedly it might have just saved you from a serious security threat.

Aero shouldn't consume extra CPU cycles once your sequencer's screen display is drawn and static, but as soon as you move a window, open a drop-down menu, launch a new plug-in or soft-synth window, or change the on-screen display in any way, your CPU load will be greater. This situation is no different from Windows XP, where, even after disabling all the other Windows XP animations, simply enabling the 'Show shadows under menus' option resulted in severe audio glitching on a song running close to the edge of my PC's processing capability (as I explained in PC Notes November 2006). So while Aero looks good, we can safely assume that much of it will need to be disabled to optimise audio performance.

Fortunately, you can disable all the animations and translucent glass effects while leaving the Desktop Composition engine enabled. Desktop Composition is a fundamentally new way of deciding what pixels appear on screen, which should also reduce your CPU load and ensure greater stability. Instead of relying on each application to be in charge of its own screen area, Vista now composes what you see from off-screen buffers. This is how one application can still be viewed behind another, and how the Flip 3D display becomes feasible, but it should also ensure smoother scaling of applications to fit on the latest high-resolution monitors, and much smoother moving of one window over another when you have multiple applications on screen.

Leaving Desktop Composition enabled will also let you use the Taskbar previews: if you hover your mouse over any Taskbar item, a miniature 'live' thumbnail view of the current page pops up, and updates in real time, making it much easier to find the desired window once the screen becomes cluttered. You now also access live thumbnails when using the familiar Alt-Tab application-selector shortcut.

Other new visual features include Gadgets — mini-applications that can live in the Windows 'sidebar' (a pane on the side of the desktop, particularly well suited to wide-screen displays). A small collection of Gadgets is bundled with Vista (including Calendar, Analogue Clock, CPU Meter, Sticky Notes, Stocks, Headlines, Currency, and the like), and you can download loads more at http://vista.gallery.microsoft.com/vista/sidebar.aspx.

The Gadgets are great if you're on-line and need to keep up to date with news and finance information, and their variable opacity means you can keep their visual distraction to a minimum until you move your mouse pointer over them. They also consume little CPU power. However, most musicians will want to disable these too, to maximise CPU performance and to keep the screen as uncluttered as possible, so it can display the maximum number of mixer channels, tracks, plug-ins and so on.

The new Vista Search feature is a colossal improvement over the slow and ponderous Windows XP version. Just as with the Firefox browser's Find function, the Vista search results appear almost as soon as you start typing in the Search box at the top right of each Explorer window, becoming more refined as each new letter is entered. There's also an instant Search box incorporated into the Start menu, to help you find and launch applications, emails, documents or other data files more quickly, while the result list uses a vertical scrollbar rather than the often awkward sideways cascading structures of the Windows XP Start menu. Overall (and particularly once the flashier elements had been disabled) I found Vista's new interface a big improvement over that of XP.

Vista is certainly more secure as an operating system than its predecessors, which is very welcome, but the new User Account Control warnings do get tedious. Even when you attempt to open Device Manager with the highest-level Administrator status, you get a 'Windows needs your permission to continue' warning, as you do with any other task that Vista deems potentially damaging, such as accessing various Control Panel applets, changing the system time or date, or installing a new application. Meanwhile, Standard users have to enter an administrator's name and password. However, once you realise why these warnings pop up it's well worth accepting the inconvenience rather than disabling the UAC. After all, as I reported back in PC Notes December 2004, I once lost all my Waves plug-in authorisations when my system clock mysteriously jumped forward by a year, and UAC would have prevented this from happening!

The new bi-directional Firewall is a considerable improvement over XP's one-way protection. The latter stopped many nasties getting into your PC but did nothing to prevent installed rogue applications sending out your personal data in the other direction. The new Windows Defender anti-spyware utility does a reasonable job but is still beaten at the task by third-party utilities (see this month's PC Notes for a review of Spyware Doctor 5.0, for instance). Once again, by default these security features run continuously in the background, but are best disabled for optimum audio performance.

The Benefits Of A Clean Install

Unless you're really desperate to avoid reinstalling a morass of software, it's nearly always best to perform a complete clean install of any new operating system, rather than attempting an 'over the top' upgrade. This will ensure that your PC is as stable as possible, by starting its new life with a lean, clean Registry and a full set of up-to-date system files.

In the case of Windows Vista, there are yet more reasons to do this. Some software may not run under Vista, even though it's already installed. Then, if you later decide to uninstall software written for Windows XP, its installer/uninstaller routine may not run under Vista either. For instance, Microsoft's own Power Towers for Windows XP suffers from this, although I did discover a step-by-step workaround that may also work for other otherwise immobile software, courtesy of Rupesh Pawar (http://rupesh-pawar.blogspot.com/2007/01/uninstall-xp-powertoys-in-windows-vista.html).

Anyone who buys a Vista Retail version can simply install this cleanly onto an empty hard drive or partition. Unfortunately, Microsoft have rather complicated the install scenario for anyone buying a Vista Upgrade version. Unlike any previous upgrade, where you boot from your new Windows disk and simply insert the qualifying previous Windows disk when asked, this time around the Vista Upgrade setup routine must be run from within a legitimate Windows XP installation. It will leave your existing applications intact, but strip out your XP installation before finishing.

Microsoft only announced this fundamental change a few days before the official Vista launch, but fortunately there's a clever workaround that will let you perform a clean install with a Vista Upgrade version: you first install Vista as a 'demo' version, without entering your Product Key, which will let you run any Vista version on your DVD for 30 days, but won't let you activate it for further use. Then you run Setup again from within Vista and choose the Install option, but this time enter your Product Key. Vista will now upgrade itself to a state where it can be properly Activated. Many thanks to Paul Thurott of the Super Site for Windows for discovering this loophole. You can read his step-by-step details at www.winsupersite.com/showcase/winvista_upgrade_clean.asp.

New Audio Features

So what exactly does Vista offer that's specifically of interest to the musician? Well, Media Center is now included with the Vista Home Premium and Ultimate versions, so those with suitable TV tuner hardware can now watch TV programmes on their PC monitors, and an MPEG2 codec is now pre-installed, so that you can play DVDs without requiring special software. Media Player 11 looks a lot better and is easier to use, while DVD Maker is slightly improved on the Windows XP version, but still somewhat basic.

Media Player 11 looks a lot better than its predecessors, largely because of the new emphasis on album art.Media Player 11 looks a lot better than its predecessors, largely because of the new emphasis on album art.

There are various hidden features that may benefit musicians, such as the Wave RT (Wave Real Time) driver model that can offer similarly low latency to ASIO drivers, and the Multimedia Class Scheduler Service that allows different processes to be prioritised so that audio streaming can finally become more important than background tasks, and eliminate glitching. This will tend to happen as developers support such features in new application releases (Cakewalk's Sonar 6.2 is the only example yet available that does it, as far as I know).

Less positively for musicians, Microsoft are not keen on existing interface features like zero-latency monitoring — to qualify for their Vista Premium Logo you must not expose analogue mixer paths, since these won't be controllable via the new per-application volume controls that operate in the digital domain, and will therefore compromise usability!

If you open the Control Panel's Sound applet, you will find a clutch of new features, including low-frequency protection (a high-pass filter to you and me), virtual surround (a gimmick to most of us), room correction (auto-calibration of room EQ using a microphone — again, not the recommended way to tackle acoustic problems), and loudness equalisation (a type of compression for avoiding sudden jumps in level when switching between sound sources). I've no doubt that mainstream users, especially those with 'home theatres', will find such features very useful, but professional musicians don't even get the choice: these features (along with the per-application volume controls) will only work with the new WaveRT drivers mentioned above, and not with the ASIO ones that 99 percent of musicians will be using.

The Latest On Audio Drivers

Which brings us neatly to the main obstacle that still prevents so many musicians from considering Vista: drivers. The vast majority of sequencer applications rely on ASIO drivers to provide low latencies, so having such drivers is a prerequisite. Without them, it's rather like buying a new car and not having the right kind of petrol on hand.

There's a clutch of new audio features on offer that will be useful to mainstream and home theatre users, but you can't use them with ASIO drivers and none will be of much interest to the serious musician anyway.There's a clutch of new audio features on offer that will be useful to mainstream and home theatre users, but you can't use them with ASIO drivers and none will be of much interest to the serious musician anyway.However, not having suitable drivers hasn't stopped some determined PC users, who try to force a square peg into a round hole by installing Windows XP 32-bit drivers into Vista 32-bit and Windows XP Professional x64 drivers into Vista 64-bit by any means possible (using the F8 key during boot up to temporarily 64-bit 'Disable Driver Signature Enforcement', manually modifying INF files, and so on), and then declare themselves unimpressed with its performance after experiencing random or repeatable crashes. What do they expect?

Moreover, the Vista Audio Engine apparently has tighter requirements than the XP one, which may result in occasional audio drop-outs or distortion, or long-term timing drifts. The only sure way to achieve reliable performance is to wait for the manufacturers to release official Vista-compatible drivers, and even then there could be the usual small but seemingly inevitable bugs and glitches on some systems. So, before you buy Vista, do your research, and if you own a hardware item without suitable drivers, be prepared not to be able to use it until they appear.

Having reiterated that warning, what drivers are there for audio interfaces? Well, as I write this, support is still very patchy. Some manufacturers, such as Edirol, Lynx, MOTU, Novation, RME and Universal Audio have both 32-bit and 64-bit drivers for much of their range, while others, including Echo, Focusrite, Hercules and Line 6, have 32-bit Vista drivers but no 64-bit ones (often the web site announcement simply states 'Vista drivers', and it's only when you download them that you find there are no 64-bit ones).

Some developers may have both 32-bit and 64-bit drivers for some products but none for others, while various manufacturers, such as Digidesign, Emu and M-Audio, have no Vista drivers at all as yet, but have made announcements (sometimes with timescales such as 'Summer' or 'Q3 2007', although these tend to be predictions rather than guarantees). Moreover, if you have an older or 'obsolete' interface, be prepared for it never to have Vista drivers.

Vista Checklist

If you're thinking about switching to Windows Vista:

  • Find out if your audio interface already has suitable 32-bit or 64-bit drivers; if not, you won't be able to use it at all.
  • Check that the developers of your favourite audio software have pronounced it Vista compatible. Otherwise you end up being an unpaid Beta tester.
  • Remember that even if your sequencer works, you may not even be able to install some of your existing plug-ins and soft synths, let alone use them.
  • Accept the possibility that some of your older software and/or hardware may never become Vista compatible, and will therefore have to be abandoned.

The Latest On Audio Software

The situation with audio software is slightly different, in that many existing applications that ran fine under Windows XP will do the same under Vista 32-bit, and may also run under Vista 64-bit in its 32-bit mode, although there are never any guarantees that performance, timing, or other issues might not be discovered in either scenario.

Some developers (Digidesign, for instance) specifically advise against upgrading to Vista at this time, until they officially release a new Vista-specific version of their software. However, quite a few others provide compatibility information on existing versions. The announcement from Native Instruments seems fairly typical: all their products are pronounced compatible with Vista 32-bit, but while some might work under Vista 64-bit they do not currently recommend installing this version.

Vista support for audio interfaces is still patchy, with some manufacturers already providing both 32-bit and 64-bit drivers (such as RME's Fireface 800, shown here), others just 32-bit drivers, and some offering no Vista drivers at all.Vista support for audio interfaces is still patchy, with some manufacturers already providing both 32-bit and 64-bit drivers (such as RME's Fireface 800, shown here), others just 32-bit drivers, and some offering no Vista drivers at all.

Propellerheads announced after extensive testing with early versions of Windows Vista that all their software products are fully compatible, although those who upgrade from a previous Windows version will require re-authorisation, and anyone using Rewire and REX will need to download a special installer because of Vista's enhanced security features. This looks to be a fairly typical scenario. Steinberg, for instance, have released a new installer routine required to install Cubase 4.0.0 (more recent versions install directly from their DVDs), and have also announced that Cubase 4/Studio 4 and Wavelab 6/Studio 6 are all 'usable' with Vista 32-bit, and that Wavelab also runs under Vista 64-bit as long as you first install the Vista 64-bit dongle drivers.

Apps which currently fail to clear the first Vista hurdle include Ableton's Live (which had Aero and other graphic redraw problems) and Tascam's Gigastudio and GVI (neither of which can even be installed under Vista). My own Vista experiences indicate that many Direct X plug-ins may give installation troubles, but that VST ones cause few problems (and even if their install process fails you can often copy the appropriate DLL file from the VST plug-ins folder on a PC running Windows XP into your Vista VST plug-ins folder).

For the wide range of software that's dongle protected, you also need Vista-compatible dongle drivers before you can even attempt to run it. Fortunately, Vista-compatible 32-bit and 64-bit Syncrosoft dongle drivers appeared fairly smartly (www.syncrosoft.com/License_Control_Center-78-11.html), which meant that products from Korg, Steinberg, Tascam and Yellow Tools, among others, could be tried out under Vista. After an excruciating wait, those for Pace's iLok finally appeared shortly before I finished writing this feature (www.paceap.com/dldrvr.html), although some audio products that use it still lack Vista compatibility. One major example is the famous Altiverb from Audio Ease.

As usual, Cakewalk are way ahead of the game, their Sonar 6.2 release being timed to coincide with Vista's release. It offers Wave RT driver support "for enhanced CPU performance at low latency" (for those users who have audio interfaces with suitable drivers), and incorporates the Multimedia Class Scheduler Service to give its audio engine prioritised access to the CPU resources, which should provide bomb-proof audio performance even if you want to open up loads of other applications simultaneously while running your sequencer.

On-line Information

If you're looking for information about Vista driver availability for your audio/MIDI interface, or application compatibility details, here are some useful Internet links:

Performance Benefits

At this point I should state that I consider the jury to be still out on the performance benefits to audio software from Windows Vista. Before you accuse me of fence-sitting, let me explain. First of all, lots of mainstream benchmark tests have now been published for Vista 32-bit, and many show performance that's within a few per cent of Windows XP 32-bit, across a range of tasks, when running applications compiled for Windows XP.

I've also seen various anecdotal tests that suggest Vista is either significantly better or worse than Windows XP when running various audio applications, depending on which application is chosen, which audio interface is used, and so on. However, apart from Cakewalk's Sonar 6.2, there's little audio software yet available that's been compiled specifically in order to take advantage of Vista's new engine, and it has also become apparent over the last year or two that audio performance can be affected by many factors.

A few audio software applications (such as Reaper, shown here) have already been tweaked to incorporate various Vista compatibility fixes, and some have been pronounced 'generally compatible', but some won't run at all under Vista for the foreseeable future.A few audio software applications (such as Reaper, shown here) have already been tweaked to incorporate various Vista compatibility fixes, and some have been pronounced 'generally compatible', but some won't run at all under Vista for the foreseeable future.

One of the most significant is that musicians often tend to push PCs to their processing limits, to run the maximum number of plug-ins and soft synths. While a PC running first Windows XP and then Windows Vista may therefore provide similar readings on the CPU meter of a popular sequencer application, when push comes to shove and you're trying to squeeze a few additional plug-ins into your mix, the two operating systems may react rather differently, and you'll be able to run more plug-in or soft-synth instances on one than the other. Such differences have been highlighted by audio tests such as Vin Curigliano's DAWbench and LFactor II (www.aavimt.com.au/dawbench), which have also indicated that your choice of audio interface can make a significant difference to overall performance, particularly at the low-latency settings that most musicians prefer to use.

Most music PC manufacturers are currently staying well clear of Vista unless their customers demand that it be installed, but Rain Recording's Robin Vincent has already carried out some sterling work on aspects of Vista audio performance with an extremely high-end Core 2 Quad processor system featuring 8GB RAM and a 1TB (Terabyte) audio drive, plus an RME Fireface 800 interface running with 10ms latency (rainrecording.co.uk/vista/performance). His results suggest that Vista 32-bit may significantly out-perform Windows XP when optimised and pushed to extremes with plug-ins and soft synths, but that there's currently almost no difference between Vista 32-bit and 64-bit performance with Cubase 4.

However, until we get more results across a range of machines, audio applications, interfaces and latency values, I really don't think we can draw too many hard and fast conclusions. Your audio mileage may also vary considerably over the coming months, as we start to see more Vista-optimised applications and more mature Vista interface drivers.

Final Thoughts

I've enjoyed my time looking at Windows Vista, and have little doubt that it will eventually provide various benefits to the PC musician. However, we're concerned with the here and now, and while a software review will end by balancing the pros and cons, switching to a new operating system must be considered with great care, since it can have a fundamental effect on all your other software and hardware.

As I sit here in April with my two soundcards, one of which has 32-bit Vista drivers but not 64-bit ones, and the other that has none, while only a small handful of my audio applications have had their compatibility with Vista confirmed, and I already know that some of my favourite applications and plug-ins definitely won't work, I'm personally in no hurry to make the transition. I'd prefer to carry on making music, and for the moment that means sticking with Windows XP.

Remember that Windows XP has been the most successful Microsoft operating system for the musician by a long chalk, and that many musicians have been running extremely stable PCs based around it for some years now. Anyone operating a commercial studio would also be well advised to stick with Windows XP for at least another six months, until all the fuss has died down.

Next month we'll find out from audio developers and manufacturers why most are so cautious about Vista, canvass opinions from them on their Vista likes and dislikes, and find out whether or not they consider that 64-bit Vista will ever offer audio advantages over and above being able to install more system RAM. 

Which Version?

If you decide to buy Windows Vista, there's bound to be some confusion about which is the most appropriate version, since there are six different ones in total. However, the Starter edition is only available to 'large institutions in developing areas', so you won't find it in the shops; nor will you see Vista Enterprise, which is only available for volume licensing. Vista Home Basic omits the Aero Glass graphics (and whether or not you disable these during sequencing duties, the vast majority of users will at least want the option), so this can be dispensed with as well.

This narrows our choices to Home Premium, Business and Ultimate, all of which support any number of processor cores and either one or two physical processors. However, the Business version omits the Media Center, Movie Maker and DVD Maker functions, so I suspect that most musicians will prefer either Home Premium or Ultimate. Both support up to 4GB of RAM in 32-bit mode, while the 64-bit Home Premium supports up to 16GB and 64-bit Ultimate a massive 128GB (if you can find a suitable motherboard that can house this much RAM).

Ultimate offers various extra control, business and security features not found in Home Premium, such as Volume Shadow Copy, Bitlocker Drive Encryption, Remote Desktop, Windows Fax and Scan, and Ultimate Extras (downloadable add-ons, such as games, animated desktops, and various utilities). You can read more about all these features at www.microsoft.com/windows/products/windowsvista/editions/choose.mspx.

Vista For MusiciansVista For MusiciansVista For MusiciansVista For Musicians I suspect that most musicians will be quite happy opting for Vista Home Premium, and this will save them a considerable amount of money, as the full retail versions are typically being advertised at around £195 and £320 respectively, while the Upgrade versions are about £130 and £200. You can buy the significantly cheaper OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) versions for just £70 and £116, but as I explained in SOS March 2007, the OEM OS type can only be legitimately installed on a single PC, is then tied to this particular PC, and cannot be transferred if you upgrade your hardware. This also explains why OEM versions are also available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions — you buy one or the other, whereas Retail/Upgrade versions are supplied as both 32-bit and 64-bit versions on separate DVDs.

Those who already have Windows XP Home installed on their PC can upgrade to any Vista version, but those with XP Professional can only upgrade to Vista Business or Ultimate (which may come as a blow), and those with XP Media Center Edition can only upgrade to Home Premium or Ultimate.

There will no doubt be a huge number of potential customers who end up totally confused by all the options, but I think the safest and cheapest way to get both 32-bit and 64-bit Vista versions is the Vista Home Ultimate upgrade at £130, while you can save yourself a further £60 if you're prepared to install one or the other and accept that an OEM version will only ever run on one PC.

Published June 2007