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Vista For Musicians: Part 2: What The Developers Think

PC Musician
By Martin Walker

RME were the first manufacturers to release fully Vista-compatible drivers (including 64-bit and signing) in the pro audio world. Their Fireface 800 Vista drivers were released in November 2006.RME were the first manufacturers to release fully Vista-compatible drivers (including 64-bit and signing) in the pro audio world. Their Fireface 800 Vista drivers were released in November 2006.

If the transition to Windows Vista is a matter of concern for PC-based musicians, imagine how serious it must be to music hardware and software developers. Our Round Table gives some of them the chance to air their views about the new OS and the problems and opportunities it presents.

After last month's SOS investigation of Microsoft's new Vista operating system, it's the turn of the developers to offer their opinions. After all, they have all the hard work to do — developing new versions of software, writing new audio and MIDI drivers from scratch, and dealing with all the possible repercussions of such a major change.

It's not difficult to see the situation from the developer's point of view: there's little extra revenue to be earned from writing Vista drivers, or in performing the necessary tests with audio applications that were written for Windows XP to see if they work fully and reliably under Vista. I'm sure interface manufacturers would prefer to develop Vista drivers for a new interface that might sell to those who have just upgraded to Vista, and I'm equally sure that software developers would prefer us to buy new Vista-specific audio applications. However, manufacturers and developers don't want to alienate their existing customer base, so they must embrace Vista. Meanwhile, musicians who are interested in buying Vista to upgrade their existing PCs, or in buying a new PC that by now almost certainly has Vista pre-installed, have a rather different viewpoint. If they already have an audio interface and several audio applications, they don't want to be prevented from working by the lack of a single interface driver or incompatible software application, when the dozens of other devices on their motherboards are already supported.

With all this in mind, we contacted a cross-section of audio interface manufacturers and audio software developers to gain an insight into what's been going on behind the scenes, what aspects of Vista they like and dislike, how Vista performs with their products, and what developments they foresee for the future.

Audio Interface Focus

In addition to having to write new Vista-compatible drivers and dealing with the possible fallout from DRM (Digital Rights Management) and driver certification issues, audio interface manufacturers also face a major new dilemma: whether or not to support Vista's new Wave RT (Real Time) audio driver format. This is claimed to offer low latency and low CPU overheads, but requires both Wave RT drivers for your audio interface and Wave RT support in your sequencer application.

Matthias Carstens, RME: "We at RME have no reason to think that Wave RT will ever be a serious professional audio solution simply because Microsoft is involved."Matthias Carstens, RME: "We at RME have no reason to think that Wave RT will ever be a serious professional audio solution simply because Microsoft is involved."While Cakewalk have already championed the new standard in their Sonar 6.2 update, Steinberg already have global support for their (now rival) ASIO driver format, and I suspect are therefore unlikely to offer Wave RT support for their Cubase/Nuendo range. Moreover, the ASIO standard covers both Mac and PC platforms, while the use of Wave RT drivers is limited to just one Microsoft PC operating system, which makes writing them a lot of work for a small proportion of potential users. On the other hand, as I explained last month, only if you have Wave RT drivers can you access many of Microsoft's new Vista audio features.

Let's find out whether the interface manufacturers think Wave RT is worth the effort, how they have been faring with their other Vista audio drivers, and what they think of Vista's other new features.

Many musicians are now grumbling that their favourite audio interface doesn't yet have Vista-compatible drivers, or that it only has 32-bit ones, which prevents them from accessing more than 4GB of system RAM. When did you start your Vista driver development, and why?

Matthias Carstens, RME (Matthias): "RME started in the middle of last year, when Vista and Vista 64 seemed to have come near the end of their beta phase. Vista includes lots of changes for standard WDM drivers, so when offering these a company is (unfortunately) forced to add the Vista compatibility, especially as MS forces it into the market by having it bundled by computer manufacturers. The Fireface 800 driver, released in November 2006, was the first fully Vista-compatible driver (including 64-bit and signing) in the pro audio world."

David Hoatson, Lynx Studio Technology (David): "We started our Vista driver development effort with the first beta release of Vista. We already had 64-bit drivers available and we wanted to ensure that our customers had every option available when choosing a computer to work with our audio cards. We knew that as soon as Vista was released, computer companies like Dell would ship Vista as the only OS option within a short period of time."

Paul Messick, M-Audio (Paul): While we started more than a year ago, due to changes in Microsoft's release schedule, the complexities of navigating through some of the under-the-hood changes in Vista, the sheer number of devices we offer and the desire to only release qualified, high-quality drivers (and not beta versions), we are just now releasing the last of our Vista drivers."

Wave RT Low-Latency Driver

With Windows Vista, Microsoft have for the first time offered musicians a truly low-latency audio driver model (Wave RT) that promises to reduce CPU overheads. However, to take advantage of this, one needs Wave RT support in both sequencer and audio interface drivers. Since ASIO is already such an established standard for low-latency drivers, do you think Wave RT will ever become a significant option for the musician?

David Hoatson, Lynx, on DRM-compliant drivers: "Hardware manufacturers must sign a 'contract' that says it is impossible to steal content using their device and driver. This puts all the legal burden on the hardware manufacturer if someone uses the device to steal content. Having to sign a contract to allow Sony to sue you for the acts of a rogue user doesn't seem appealing."David Hoatson, Lynx, on DRM-compliant drivers: "Hardware manufacturers must sign a 'contract' that says it is impossible to steal content using their device and driver. This puts all the legal burden on the hardware manufacturer if someone uses the device to steal content. Having to sign a contract to allow Sony to sue you for the acts of a rogue user doesn't seem appealing." David: "I attended the Microsoft Vista Audio Round Table back in 2006 (before Vista was released), where Microsoft presented Wave RT to the audio developer community. They really wanted to have Wave RT replace ASIO as the standard audio driver for professional audio applications. First, I have to commend Microsoft for making the development effort to try and win over the pro audio industry. I'm sure the entire audio industry revenue is just a rounding error to Microsoft, so having them take notice was very nice! But so far the documentation for Wave RT has been incomplete at best. Suggestions made at the Vista Round Table seem to have been adopted (my major complaint was that Wave RT would force the application to poll the current playback position, much like Direct Sound does now, instead of having the driver signal an interrupt to the application that it needed service, like ASIO does now). However, these additions are still undocumented by Microsoft in the Windows Driver Kit. Wave RT also doesn't solve the basic problem of multi-device synchronisation that was introduced when Microsoft switched over to WDM drivers years ago.

"More important to the pro audio user is the change Microsoft made to how the sample rate is selected. Previously, any application could change the actual hardware sample rate simply by opening the device driver. If you played a 96kHz WAV audio file with Windows Media Player, the card would switch to 96kHz just before playing the file. Now, with Vista, the sample rate is selected by the user in the Audio Control Panel, and applications that try to play back audio at a different rate will either fail, or the audio will get resampled by the OS. This is further complicated by devices that might be clocked externally. There was no thought given to external clocking (hey, you can't do that with a Soundblaster, so why bother?), so complete driver rewrites are required to allow proper operation with external clocking under Vista. Otherwise, when the user changes the clock rate externally, they also have to change the rate in the Audio Control Panel. ASIO doesn't suffer from this problem. It is my opinion that issues like these will keep Wave RT from replacing ASIO any time soon."

Lynx have an enviable reputation for Windows XP driver performance with products such as their Lynx Two interface shown here, but have noticed much poorer performance with Vista.Lynx have an enviable reputation for Windows XP driver performance with products such as their Lynx Two interface shown here, but have noticed much poorer performance with Vista. Paul: "It's hard to say if Wave RT will catch on, but there are a few clues at hand. Wave RT currently only supports PCI devices; Microsoft may support other transports, but only PCI is currently supported. Where Wave RT might have some traction is in the consumer space. The current implementation of Wave RT seems to be designed to improve latency for built-in sound cards, which are notoriously slow to respond. Better support for these sound devices could improve performance for consumer apps, and provide a better out-of-box experience for entry-level musicians."

Matthias: "Maybe for the hobbyist, who also uses all the other home-theatre features that Microsoft centre all their actions on. We at RME have no reason to think that Wave RT will ever be a serious professional audio solution simply because Microsoft is involved."

One audio interface manufacturer is already complaining that Vista drivers have tighter requirements than those of Windows XP, which makes occasional drop-outs and distortion or long-term timing drifts a possibility, and that this is causing delays in getting drivers released. Have you had such problems?

Matthias: "No. We noticed (like most others) that Vista's performance at this time is worse than XP, even without all the Aero stuff (so this is not a driver fault). Also, PCIe has tighter restrictions, which have nothing to do with Vista. Microsoft changed a lot of things 'under the hood' and now seem to need some time to get them running smoothly again."

David: "We have noticed much poorer performance with Vista. CPU usage is up, meaning less CPU for plug-ins, or that latency must be increased to maintain the same number of plug-ins. PCI bus performance seems to be lower. The nice thing is that ASIO still works as it should with Vista since it bypasses everything 'Microsoft'."

Paul: "Vista is a visually rich OS, with many features all vying for CPU power. Since high sample-rate, multi-channel audio is, almost by definition, stressful for any OS, an added CPU load in one area of the system can make life even more difficult for other simultaneous tasks. As a result, users are likely to need more memory, faster processors and faster disk drives to get all the benefits of Vista while recording and playing back high-bandwidth audio. This is not necessarily a problem with any given OS, but is a normal side-effect of the march of technology. Operating Systems add features, computers become faster, users demand more functionality, and around it goes."

The Round Table Panel

AUDIO INTERFACE MANUFACTURERS

RME design and develop professional digital audio interfaces. Their product range includes PCI, PCI Express, Cardbus, Firewire, MADI and AES/EBU interfaces, as well as stand-alone converters and mic preamps.

  • David A. Hoatson, Co-founder, Chief Software Architect, Lynx Studio Technology, Inc. www.lynxstudio.com

Lynx Studio Technology design and manufacture professional audio products for applications such as audio production, delivery and testing for recording studios, project studios, post-production studios, home studios and live concert settings.

M-Audio offer more than 20 interfaces of varying configurations, from entry-level to professional, using PCI, USB and Firewire technology.

AUDIO APPLICATION DEVELOPERS

  • Angus Baigent, Public Relations Manager, Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH www.steinberg.net

Steinberg are a musical equipment and software company who produce the Cubase and Nuendo sequencer ranges, the Wavelab editors, the Halion software sampler, and numerous VST Instruments, as well as developing the ASIO industry-standard driver format.

Cakewalk are US-based providers of software for creating music and sound on the desktop. Their products include the Sonar, Guitar Tracks Pro and Project 5 DAW/sequencers, a range of software instruments, and consumer software such as Kinetic and Music Creator.

Native Instruments are pioneers in the field of software instruments and other tools for musicians, producers, sound designers and DJs of all styles, with products that include Reaktor, Absynth and Kontakt, the Traktor DJ line, and the Guitar Rig range.

Vista Audio Features

Most of Vista's more obvious new audio features (including low-frequency protection, virtual surround, room correction, loudness equalisation and the per-application volume controls) will only work with Wave RT drivers, not with the ASIO ones that most musicians will be using. In your opinion, will these features ever prove useful to recording musicians, or are they more suited to the 'home theatre' owner?"

Paul Messick, M-Audio: "Users are likely to need more memory, faster processors and faster disk drives to get all the benefits of Vista while recording and playing back high-bandwidth audio."Paul Messick, M-Audio: "Users are likely to need more memory, faster processors and faster disk drives to get all the benefits of Vista while recording and playing back high-bandwidth audio." Paul: "Some of these features could prove useful — virtual surround and room correction, for example — and some of them have long been part of drivers and applications already in the market. That said, semi-pro and pro recording musicians are not as likely to demand these features, since these musicians tend to be most focused on recording the most accurate representation of their performances, and less focused on — or even resistant to — tweaking the sound outside of the mix."

David: "I think it's a great step forward for Microsoft to put these types of home-theatre features into the operating system. They're features that may prove interesting for the home recording artist who is trying to make a surround mix of his latest creation and would like to try it out in a typical playback environment after the mix is complete. I doubt many serious recording engineers or musicians will bother with them — except possibly if they use the same computer in their living room home-theatre system."

Matthias: "They are more suited to home theatre. And it's a shame that these functionalities are not available without Wave RT drivers, as this is obviously an intentional restriction, not something with logical technical reasons."

Digital Rights Management

There's still a lot of confusion about how invasive DRM (Digital Rights Management) will be for musicians, with stories of it disabling digital audio outputs and imposing extra overheads on audio drivers because of its regular polling to check for protected content. Have you found problems in practice that prevent your audio drivers from achieving optimum performance?

M-Audio started work on Vista drivers over a year ago, but given the sheer number and variety of their products requiring drivers (such as the Trigger Finger USB/MIDI control surface shown here), are only just releasing the last of their Vista drivers.M-Audio started work on Vista drivers over a year ago, but given the sheer number and variety of their products requiring drivers (such as the Trigger Finger USB/MIDI control surface shown here), are only just releasing the last of their Vista drivers. Paul: "We haven't certified our drivers to be in the protected media path, because we have fundamental hardware issues on some devices (analogue is mirrored by hardware on S/PDIF, which is automatic disqualification) and we've not seen any pro-level software that we could test with. We are definitely concerned about the possible loss of signal quality due to Windows degrading the audio on digital hardware that doesn't comply with the DRM rules. It is an important future direction and we will continue to work closely with Microsoft regarding DRM."

David: "We simply have not run into DRM issues, since those should be centred around playing back so-called 'premium content'. As was explained to us at the Vista Audio Round Table, it is up to the content producers (Sony, Warner...) to decide if their Blu-Ray or HD-DVD discs will have DRM, and what level of protection is required. A particular disc can require that digital outputs be disabled to play the disc. If digital outputs cannot be disabled, such as is the case with our AES16 16-channel digital-only audio card, then a sub-set of the audio will be played (something like 16-bit stereo instead of 24-bit surround), or maybe nothing at all will be played. For most pro-audio customers this simply will not be an issue, unless they are also using the same computer for their home theatre.

"The real issue for driver developers is getting DRM-compliant drivers. (This is different from the 'digital signature' required for 64-bit Vista support.) Driver developers must submit their hardware and software to Microsoft for review and testing for WHQL certification. This is a costly and time-consuming process. In addition, hardware manufacturers must sign a 'contract' that says it is impossible to steal content using their device and driver. This puts all of the legal burden on the hardware manufacturer if someone actually uses the device to steal content. For a small company, having to sign a contract to allow Sony to sue you for the acts of a rogue user doesn't seem appealing. If someone really wants to steal content, even the most protected content will eventually be copied. Simply hooking up to the I2S port of the D-A converter allows access to 'unprotected' content."

Matthias: "Not at all."

Some developers were worried that Microsoft's insistence on mandatory 'digitally signed' 64-bit hardware drivers would mean extra time and money having to be spent on this certification process whenever new 64-bit Vista drivers need to be released. Have you found this to be true, and if so will you be releasing fewer driver updates in future as a result?

Matthias: "We definitely found this to be true. And it's much worse. Getting a certificate not issued by Microsoft themselves (there are lots of companies and they are significantly cheaper) seems to be problematic, as their certificates are not automatically supported (included) in Vista. Maybe that will change later, but now the situation is that on some computers the signing works but the confirm dialogue boxes still come up all the time. It's an annoying hassle for the user, but driver releases are not affected."

David: "Not at all. It costs us $500 per year to have the digital certificate. Once I put the digital certificate signing process into our build procedure, I don't even notice it. It is simply a non-issue for us, since we already had 64-bit drivers."

Paul: "Digital signing is an easy, low-cost, automatable process that shouldn't be a barrier for developers. Fortunately, the days of forcing users to click through scary 'Stop Installation' dialogue boxes will be over."

Audio Applications

It seems that opinions are fairly united on Vista's poorer audio performance to date, and on the improbability of Wave RT setting the professional audio world alight, but rather divided on the subject of digitally signed 64-bit drivers, while there's some controversy surrounding DRM compliance and its implications.

Let's turn to the audio software developers, who face a different set of issues with the arrival of Vista and the clamour from their customers for Vista compatibility. They not only have to check the compatibility and performance of all their existing products, but also have to decide whether or not developing 64-bit Vista versions will be worth the effort and eventually benefit their customers.

Noel Borthwick, Cakewalk: "The biggest advantage for musicians is the promise Vista holds for being a more stable and secure platform, as well as the features it offers to assist high-performance, low-latency applications like DAWs to work better."Noel Borthwick, Cakewalk: "The biggest advantage for musicians is the promise Vista holds for being a more stable and secure platform, as well as the features it offers to assist high-performance, low-latency applications like DAWs to work better." Not many musicians realise just how involved it can be to thoroughly test Vista compatibility of existing applications, since each feature must be checked not only for obvious crashes, but also for more subtle timing and drift problems. When did you start your Vista compatibility testing, and how many man-hours do you estimate it has taken you to date?

Noel Borthwick, Cakewalk (Noel): "Vista compatibility can be a pretty broad area, depending how far you take it. At Cakewalk we've been closely involved with the development milestones of Windows Vista, dating back to the initial planning stages of Longhorn at PDC [Professional Developers' Conference] 2002. We met with Microsoft for early design reviews of the audio stack in Vista, and based on what we learned about the future operating system architecture, we started making incremental changes to our applications in anticipation. The first thing we did back in Sonar 3 was rewrite our entire audio engine to get away from the Direct X-based streaming model that we knew was going to be deprecated [gradually phased out] in Vista. Later, in Sonar 5, we added native 64-bit support to take advantage of the gains offered by the X64 platform. Finally, in Sonar 6.2, we added support for new Vista-specific capabilities such as Wave RT, MMCSS [Multimedia Class Scheduler] and User Account Control. If you count all of this, it would be at least several hundred man days that we have invested in Vista support to date."Vista For Musicians: Part 2: What The Developers Think

Cakewalk's Sonar 6.2 update was the first major software application to introduce Vista-specific optimisations, although some of them will only be of benefit if and when Wave RT drivers appear from interface manufacturers.

Angus Baigent, Steinberg (Angus): "Through our excellent relationship with Microsoft, we've been working closely with them for quite a while now. But generally, of course, the move to Vista does add to the quality-assurance time required. Take Cubase 4 as an example. The release version and all updates up to now have been tested on one Windows OS version, Windows XP. That's every feature and every fix. The next update will support Vista 32-bit and 64-bit versions, which each have to be tested independently. And because Microsoft are issuing five versions, each with a 32-bit and 64-bit version, we would have to test the update on a total of 10 operating systems. To keep it at all manageable, we will be testing Cubase 4.1 on Windows XP, Windows Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. So instead of testing one Windows version, this time we'll be testing for five."

Florian Schirmer, Native Instruments (Florian): "We started compatibility testing in autumn of last year, and have not really kept track of the man-hours it took. Apart from the systematic testing that we conducted, a lot of further insights were also gained by running Vista as the default OS for all the kinds of testing tasks that non-related projects brought up.

"Ultimately, Vista testing for us is an open-ended process, even more so since several third-party Vista versions are not yet available, especially 64-bit versions of several host sequencers. We can also expect a Service Pack for Windows Vista coming up, at which time a lot of tests will have to be repeated. That's just a fact of life for our colleagues in the QA department, and thankfully they are well equipped for that."

Vista Performance

While testing your existing applications, did you find Vista 32-bit performed better, worse, or substantially the same as Windows XP, and are there any performance issues that musicians should be wary of when running XP audio applications under Vista?

Florian: "According to our tests, Vista audio performance is overall on a similar level to Windows XP. We were very happy to see that all the software performed without any problems from the start, without specific fixes being necessary. Choosing very sophisticated settings within the Aero user-interface can be detrimental to the overall responsiveness of the system on lower-spec'd machines, but that was to be expected. As always, choosing a leaner interface frees up resources for other programs, including audio software."

Noel: "In general, our tests revealed somewhat similar performance with applications running XP-only features. With Vista-native features you get benefits that are only available in Vista, such as fewer drop-outs under high system load (with MMCSS) and better CPU performance with low-latency drivers (with Wave RT).

"The biggest source of problems under Vista at this time appears to be caused by immature drivers. I'm not referring to audio drivers necessarily, but drivers in general. For example, we have had reports of video drivers interfering with low-latency audio playback. This is most likely attributable to the significant changes to the new WDDM video driver model in Vista. Also, Vista tends to be more graphics intensive, so there is a bigger demand for graphics resources, especially with Aero mode. The key things, in order to enjoy a smoother Vista transition for DAWs, are to ensure that your computer has at least 2GB or more of RAM, that you have a modern video card with tested Vista WDDM drivers, and that you have Vista-compliant drivers for all your hardware. Often a system can only be as good as its weakest link, so system tuning can be important to ensure smooth functioning of a DAW."

Angus: "We're still gathering data on this. Obviously, all system components, drivers and plug-ins also have to support Vista, so you should make sure that all those components support it."

For some musicians, the only big carrot tempting them to upgrade to Vista 64-bit is the prospect of being able to install and access more than 4GB of system RAM. What proportion of your customers do you think might truly benefit from more RAM, and why?

Noel: "You could access more than 4GB of RAM in Windows XP X64 edition as well, so that aspect is not exactly new to Vista. However, what's great is that Vista X64 is a lot more solid, polished and stable as an OS compared to XP X64, which was really more of a beta OS in terms of support from Microsoft.

"The customers who benefit from higher RAM are primarily those who use a lot of memory-hungry virtual instruments (especially samplers) and effects. Under a 64-bit OS, a single plug-in that has been written to be a native 64-bit DLL will be able to address more than 4GB of memory. This can be a huge benefit for memory-hungry samplers such as Dimension Pro, allowing users to access huge sample banks or run several instances within Sonar. In addition to the expanded memory access, a 64-bit CPU can also offer performance benefits for native 64-bit applications."

Florian: "Memory sizes of more than 4GB allow more pre-loading and caching functionality, which can be useful for all kinds of audio applications. For software instruments in particular, 64-bit can remove the need for disk-streaming in sample-based software instruments, which is especially beneficial since the seek times of hard disks have not really improved over the last few years. This is one aspect of 64-bit operating systems that we see as quite promising for musicians."

Angus: "Generally speaking, more is better for anyone using a DAW. Anyone who uses samples will have to stream less from disk, which is going to reduce the system load there. And if you have to use the Freeze function a lot less, that also speeds you up from a workflow point of view."

The 64-bit Advantage?

With songs that use lots of plug-ins and soft synths, some developers have measured significant reductions in processor overhead in a fully 64-bit environment (64-bit Windows running a 64-bit sequencer with 64-bit plug-ins), compared with the same songs running in a fully 32-bit environment. If you already have 64-bit versions of any of your products, or are developing them, have you personally found any inherent advantages in 64-bit code, other than being able to address more memory?

Florian Schirmer, Native Instruments, on 64-bit Vista performance: "Essentially, you are looking at a trade-off where you get more efficient 64-bit processing at the cost of doubling the overall data density throughout the system, and whether anything is to be gained here depends on very specific aspects. We therefore do not see 64-bit systems as a general breakthrough for audio processing."Florian Schirmer, Native Instruments, on 64-bit Vista performance: "Essentially, you are looking at a trade-off where you get more efficient 64-bit processing at the cost of doubling the overall data density throughout the system, and whether anything is to be gained here depends on very specific aspects. We therefore do not see 64-bit systems as a general breakthrough for audio processing." Florian: "From a strictly mathematical perspective, 64-bit data processing actually creates more overhead than 32-bit, not less. This is because on a 64-bit system, every piece of data that was previously 32-bit has to be 'scaled up' to double bandwidth, which creates a larger amount of data to be computed and to be transferred between the system components in the first place.

"Therefore, a reduced processor overhead in a 64-bit-system compared to a similar 32-bit system points more towards the fact that the 32-bit OS or application is not optimised as thoroughly as the 64-bit version. It's certainly not due to an inherent computational advantage that 64-bit systems have over similar 32-bit systems.

"Where 64-bit systems obviously have an edge is when it comes to processing genuine 64-bit data streams. The real benefits of 64-bit data resolution for audio processing are rather specific, since the currently common 32-bit floating point format provides enormous headroom for most areas of digital audio processing, if it is implemented properly. Even in the areas where 64-bit resolution is potentially beneficial, it can still be processed by 32-bit systems.Vista For Musicians: Part 2: What The Developers Think

Considering their huge range of products (such as Reaktor 5, shown here), it's fortunate that Native Instruments experienced no problems running their existing software on Vista. However, they consider testing an ongoing process, since as yet there are very few 64-bit sequencers available to host their range of plug-ins.

"Essentially, you are looking at a trade-off where you get more efficient 64-bit processing at the cost of doubling the overall data density throughout the system, and whether anything is to be gained here depends on very specific aspects. We therefore do not see 64-bit systems as a general breakthrough for audio processing, but we are definitely continuing to look closely at the potential benefits for our software."

Noel: "Indeed; dating back to Windows XP X64 we have found performance gains with DAW software, especially when you are running native 64-bit applications across the board. This is attributed to the enhanced CPU registers available on a 64-bit X64 CPU that benefit floating-point computations, which are used extensively during mixing operations in a DAW.

"A 64-bit CPU has 16 general-purpose registers instead of the eight available on a 32-bit X86 CPU. Additionally, a 64-bit processor running in 64-bit mode also has eight more 'vector' (or SIMD) registers. There are typically two ways to perform floating-point computations: in 32-bit mode all floating-point computations are done via the FPU [floating-point unit] using 80-bit arithmetic; in 64-bit mode a CPU typically performs floating-point computations using the more efficient SIMD registers.

"In short, you will see maximum performance gains with an X64 OS running all native 64-bit applications and also some marginal gains running legacy 32-bit applications, due to the extra general-purpose registers available."

Angus: "There have been some reports out there of reduced overhead. We're at a point now where we're working on our first native 64-bit version of Cubase, so we're currently still accumulating data about this. We'll be keeping our customers up to date about that on the Vista page in the Steinberg Knowledge Base on our web site."

Wave RT: The Software Perspective

I'd now like to ask a question I also posed to the interface manufacturers I talked to. The new Wave RT audio driver model promises to reduce CPU overheads, but needs specific support in both sequencer and audio interface. Since ASIO is already such an established standard for low-latency drivers, do you think Wave RT will ever become a significant option for the musician?

Angus: "ASIO is an open industry standard that is constantly being developed and regularly maintained, and is engineered specifically for stable, low-latency operation in audio production environments. We don't see any specific advantage of Wave RT over ASIO 2 for audio production."

Noel: "It's true that both ASIO and WDM XP drivers offer a low-latency solution today on XP. One of the technical advantages Wave RT offers for PCI audio hardware solutions is a standard way to directly access the audio hardware DMA buffers without expensive user-to-kernel-mode transitions. This promises lower CPU usage at low latencies with Wave RT.

"It's technically possible to have multiple driver flavours for a given hardware interface, so if I were to guess on a trend for the future I'd expect to see more vendors offering all three flavours — WDM KS, ASIO and Wave RT — for PCI audio hardware. In fact, since Wave RT is really just a specification on top of the existing WDM Wave Cyclic driver model, as long as a vendor has existing WDM Wave Cyclic drivers and the hardware supports the requirements for Wave RT, it typically shouldn't be a huge effort for vendors to support this. I think it's just a matter of time before you see Wave RT-enabled PCI solutions. For example, Creative Labs already have Wave RT-capable audio drivers available for their X-FI series cards. What's also interesting in the consumer audio space is that you will see motherboard audio devices capable of low latency out of the box. Wave RT support is part of the Windows logo certification for hardware, so this is likely to become very common."

Florian: "We are just starting to investigate Wave RT in depth, and we see it as a potentially very beneficial technology that could combine the performance of ASIO with advanced features and direct integration into the operating system. We will surely support this technology not too far in the future."

Vista Application Benefits

Overall, do you foresee any specific benefits for musicians from running Windows Vista, and do you anticipate any of Vista's new features being able to specifically benefit your future audio applications?

Angus Baigent, Steinberg: "Vista is the future. As a platform it looks as though it's going to offer musicians and producers a stable environment in which to work on audio, so it seems, at this point, to be a worthy successor to XP." Angus Baigent, Steinberg: "Vista is the future. As a platform it looks as though it's going to offer musicians and producers a stable environment in which to work on audio, so it seems, at this point, to be a worthy successor to XP." Noel: "The biggest advantage for musicians is the promise Vista holds for being a more stable and secure platform, as well as the features it offers to assist high-performance, low-latency applications like DAWs to work better.

"We've already added support for the Vista features that we believe have the most promise, namely MMCSS, Wave RT and UAC. MMCSS allows Sonar to provide for better 'glitch resilience', even when running multiple concurrent applications. Wave RT allows us to take advantage of drivers written to support this. Support for UAC allows Sonar to run as a standard user in Vista, allowing for greater protection over malicious virus attacks or worms, and also allowing the application to support multiple user profiles and network shared-user accounts, a common scenario in music educational institutions.

"Finally, besides the technical advantages for DAWs, look and feel is important to many users. Vista has a more appealing GUI and also supports offloading more graphics operations to the GPU on your video card. This will allow future applications to build a richer GUI with minimal CPU impact."Vista For Musicians: Part 2: What The Developers Think

Like most developers, Steinberg (whose Cubase DAW is pictured right) have, until now, tested their new releases on Windows XP only, but the arrival of Vista has greatly complicated matters. They will now test future releases on Windows XP, Vista Home Premium 32-bit, Home Premium 64-bit, Vista Ultimate 32-bit, and Ultimate 64-bit versions.

Florian: "Vista as a new OS generation has a number of obvious improvements that benefit musicians, as well as Windows users in general. In terms of features that specifically benefit music production, the improved task-handling comes to mind, which prevents background applications from interfering with performance-critical applications. Practically speaking, this can prevent priority-conflict situations where you would previously experience audio drop-outs on your machine."

Angus: "Vista is the future. As a platform it looks as though it's going to offer musicians and producers a stable environment in which to work on audio, so it seems, at this point, to be a worthy successor to XP."

Final Thoughts

It seems that most developers have been working with Vista behind the scenes for at least a year, and that they universally welcome the prospect of us being able to access more RAM (as you might expect), but are divided in their opinions of Wave RT drivers — and when it come to the potential benefits of running Vista 64-bit, opinions become even more polarised.

It's clear that Vista is here to stay, but it's equally clear that certain aspects of its performance are proving problematic for musicians. Some developers praise its stability, while others grumble at its greater overheads. However, as I write this three months after the Vista launch, I think everyone's agreed that it's still very early days for this operating system as far as the audio industry is concerned. 

Published July 2007