Wayne Rowley wishes that Windows was more musician‑friendly and turns to BeOS as a possible alternative...
Isn't progress wonderful? During the six years that I've been creating music with computers I've seen amazing advances in PC technology. Six years ago I used a super‑fast (at the time) 25MHz 386 running Windows 3.1 and Cakewalk 2.0. Now I use a super‑fast (at present) Pentium III running Windows 98 and Cakewalk (now at version 9.0 and rapidly accelerating). But guess which machine was better at MIDI timing? Yep that's right — the 386!
OK, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but I am having more timing problems now than I had with my 386. The question is why? The issue cannot be hardware. Both a 386 and a Pentium III are more than capable of playing back and recording MIDI data 'in time'. Even an Atari can do it! The problem seems to be (surprise, surprise) Windows.
We all complain about Windows and its infamous Blue Screen Of Death (TM), but even if the OS were completely bug‑free it would still be pretty lousy at MIDI timing. The reason being that musicians have never been a priority for manufacturers of operating systems. We represent a very small percentage of the PC‑buying market and, for this reason, our requirements have been pretty much ignored. This is evident in the features and capabilities of the various flavours of Windows available. Windows NT has been designed with the business and server market in mind. Although this has led to a (reasonably) stable OS, the design of NT favours access to data and running background 'server' programs above more general applications. This has resulted in a platform which is lousy for MIDI timing duties. Windows 98 is designed for the home user/general consumer who may want to surf the Internet, write a few letters and play some games, but not much else.
Admittedly it's better than NT at MIDI. It's also better at crashing. Windows 98 is packed with features which invariably cause grief for musicians. We have an integrated Internet Explorer to eat up our system's precious resources whether we want it to or not, and the FindFast 'virus' which periodically wakes up and eats CPU and disk activity — usually when recording that 'perfect take'. Yet, currently, Windows 98 is the recommended OS for musicians. Why?
Windows 2000 may change things but it is still new and its potential for music and MIDI applications is still unknown. Its new architecture is supposed to solve the issues with NT, but it is a huge OS — over 60 million lines of code, and the basic installation takes up almost 1Gb of hard disk space! I may be wrong, but Windows 2000 doesn't strike me as an ideal environment for music. Mac users reading this column are probably sniggering right now. Yes, you have the better OS for music at the moment but it's your turn next — just wait until Mac OS X hits you!
What musicians need from an operating system is (amongst other things) reliability, simplicity, efficient use of system resources and, above all, high‑accuracy timing and synchronisation services. Amazingly, such an operating system already exists — it's called BeOS. If you haven't heard of BeOS then I recommend that you have a read through Dave Shapton's excellent BeOS overview in SOS February 2000. The most important point is that BeOS has been specifically designed to deliver the best possible performance for media production applications. BeOS has been around for a while, so why are we not all using it already? Unfortunately BeOS suffers from the same problems that plague all none‑Microsoft operating systems — lack of software and only a small amount of supported hardware. For a long time BeOS was ignored by the computer music industry, but with the release of version 4.5 BeOS became more well‑known and companies such as Steinberg and Emagic began porting their software to it.
BeOS has the potential to become the perfect operating system for PC musicians. It is intuitive, reliable, cheap, and designed from the ground up to be good at multimedia and high‑accuracy timing tasks. But it is slipping through our fingers. Be Inc recently released BeOS 5.0, a version of which can be used freely for non‑commercial use. At the same time, Be announced that they would be moving away from the media market and concentrating on Internet applications. This has jointly had the affect of making BeOS more readily available to PC musicians who may wish to try it, but seeding considerable doubt in the computer music industry over the future of BeOS as a media operating system. Steinberg, who were in the midst of porting the likes of Cubase and Nuendo to BeOS, are now wavering at Be's change of market strategy, and Emagic have frozen their development of Logic for BeOS. I encourage you all to get hold of the free BeOS 5.0 and try it out. Then sit down in front of your keyboard and write letters to your music software manufacturers asking them when their BeOS ports will be ready. It's a chicken‑and‑egg situation. Unless the manufacturers realise there is a strong demand for BeOS software there will not be any professional music software for BeOS. But until there are good packages available for BeOS there will be little demand. In the end it is up to us. Do we want to be stuck with lousy MIDI timing — not to mention the Blue Screen of Death forever?
About The Author
Wayne is 23 years old and currently working as a computer programmer/analyst. He lives and works in Berkshire and has been what you might call a home‑studio hobbyist for nearly seven years (ever since seeing what a friend could do with his Proteus 1 and an Atari).
If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambs CB3 8SQ. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are
also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org