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Are PC Musicians Ready For Windows x64?

The 64-bit Question By Martin Walker

With advantages such as more efficient processing and the ability to address up to a Terabyte of RAM, Windows XP Professional x64 has a lot to offer PC-based musicians — in theory. We put the fully 64-bit system idea to the test.

The phrase '64-bit computing' has caused a lot of confusion among PC users, and it's not hard to see why. For several years we've had various 64-bit-capable processors to put in our music PCs — AMD's Athlon 64 and Opteron, or Intel's Xeon, for example — but partnering them with Microsoft's 32-bit Windows XP operating system totally ignored these 64-bit capabilities (although this didn't stop plenty of users from being convinced that they had fully-functional 64-bit systems).

Are PC Musicians ready for Windows x64?

Meanwhile, the marketing departments of various audio-software developers began to plaster the phrase '64-bit' all over their new products, this time referring to something completely different: the internal precision of their audio processing or mixing algorithms. Now, although having 64 bits of internal audio precision may (or may not) result in higher audio quality, the vast majority of such software still runs as 32-bit applications. No wonder people have become confused!

64-bit Requirements

There are two carrots associated with a 64-bit operating system: more efficient processing and larger RAM limits. Windows XP can theoretically support up to 4GB (although only 2GB is normally available to applications), but x64 extends this limit to one Terabyte (a massive 1024GB). Those musicians who are currently frustrated that they can't load as many samples and loops as they want into system RAM are therefore champing at the bit for x64. In addition, the x64 architecture also provides more internal registers and improved floating-point arithmetic, both of which can result in more efficient audio processing.

Basically, for a fully 64-bit PC you need a 64-bit capable CPU and a suitable 64-bit operating system to go with it, plus a suitable 64-bit driver for each and every hardware device in your PC, which includes PCI/PCI Express and AGP cards, Firewire and USB peripherals, MIDI interfaces and all of the motherboard devices. MIDI synths, keyboards and controllers plugged into MIDI ports won't need these drivers, but they will if connected via a Firewire or USB port.

The only visible signs that you're running Windows XP Professional x64 are a new desktop background and the General page of the system applet.The only visible signs that you're running Windows XP Professional x64 are a new desktop background and the General page of the system applet.Let's start with the operating system, as there's really only one choice — Microsoft's Windows XP Professional x64 (I'll shorten this to Windows x64 for convenience). Unlike the standard 32-bit Windows XP, there is no cheaper 'Home' version, on the grounds that this 64-bit O/S will only benefit those currently running into performance or memory limitations on 32-bit PCs, and these people are likely to be using their PC professionally. The only other 64-bit candidate is Windows Server Standard 2003 64-bit, which is significantly more expensive and not designed for individual users.

Windows x64 is designed to work with 64-bit AMD and Intel processors that support the x64 extensions to the x86 architecture, including the Athlon 64 (single- and dual-core models), Athlon 64 FX, Mobile Athlon 64, Turion 64 and Opteron models, plus Intel Xeon and Pentium models with EM64T (Exended Memory) technology, which covers the Prescott 600 and 'F' series, 'D' dual-core series and several Extreme Edition models. Recent models that aren't compatible include AMD's Sempron, Athlon and Athlon XP, Intel's Celeron and Pentium 4 500 series, Intel's Itanium and the Pentium-M of Centrino laptops.

Windows x64 has been out for a year, but although lots of people now have fully 64-bit capable PCs, as just described, few have upgraded to this operating system. This is partly because there's still so much confusion about what music software and hardware runs in its 64-bit mode, what will run in its 32-bit legacy mode (without the 64-bit advantages) and what won't run at all (mostly hardware).

Expectations are also extremely varied. Some people remain convinced that 64 bits will automatically provide twice as much performance as 32 bits (not true!), while others can't yet find enough enthusiasm to upgrade from the now four-year old XP Home/Pro, whatever the claimed advantages of a 64-bit system. After all, it takes a significant amount of effort to switch from (say) Windows XP to the x64 version, since you can't upgrade an existing installation: you need to start from scratch and reinstall existing applications. I've just done exactly this, to guide SOS readers through the process, test the 64-bit waters and see if it's time to take the plunge.

Audio & MIDI Hardware Drivers

Anyone who has invested a considerable amount of money in an audio or MIDI interface will find that their decision on whether or not to move to X64 (and Vista, when it finally arrives) will be tempered by driver availability. Microsoft were encouraging hardware manufacturers to build 64-bit drivers as far back as May 2004, so that x64 would be supported from day one. While some manufacturers have indeed done so, some others have not. Moreover, there may be some hardware that will never get 64-bit support and will therefore have to be abandoned when you move to a 64-bit system. With this in mind, I investigated the current situation regarding various audio manufacturers.

M-Audio were the first manufacturers to announce 64-bit drivers for their Delta and Firewire interface series, and Edirol also stepped in fairly quickly with drivers for lots of their UA-, UM- and PCR-series products. Creative Labs also have drivers for their SB Live! and Audigy series at their public preview site (http://preview.creativelabs.com). Others offering 64-bit support include Emu, for their DAS (Digital Audio System) interfaces and their Xboard USB/MIDI controller keyboard; Lynx, for their Lynx Two, L22 and AES16 range; RME (only for their Fireface 800 at present); and Terratec, for most of their EWS, EWX, DMX and Phase series.

If a manufacturer has announced drivers suitable for Windows x64, don't assume that this means universal support across their whole range. The main casualties seem to be MIDI interfaces, with popular multi-port models such as Steinberg's Midex 8 and M-Audio's Midisport 8x8 having no 64-bit driver support as yet.

Interface manufacturers that don't yet have any 64-bit support at all include Echo, ESI Pro and MOTU. Neither TC Electronics' Powercore or Universal Audio's UAD1 DSP cards are yet suitably equipped for 64-bit systems, which prevents many power users from going 64-bit.

Another raft of popular plug-ins will unfortunately be ruled out by the lack of 64-bit drivers for Pace's iLok dongle, which will stop them from being run inside 32-bit host applications that are running under Windows x64. Fortunately, Syncrosoft's dongles do have 64-bit drivers, which is why Cubase (amongst other products) can run on x64 in 32-bit compatibility mode. However, do check that you install the very latest driver version, as discussed in this month's PC Notes column.

Preparation

For the easiest install, first use your existing 32-bit PC and the Internet to track down all the 64-bit drivers you're likely to need and save them onto a dedicated data partition or external drive, or to portable media such as CD-R or DVD-R. I use the same approach after downloading any 32-bit drivers, so that if I ever have to reformat a Windows partition prior to a fresh install I won't have to find them all over again.

Windows XP Pro x64 has two folders for 'Program Files'. The 64-bit applications are automatically housed in the main one (highlighted) when you install them, while the x86 folder stores 32-bit 'legacy' applications.Windows XP Pro x64 has two folders for 'Program Files'. The 64-bit applications are automatically housed in the main one (highlighted) when you install them, while the x86 folder stores 32-bit 'legacy' applications.Unless you're installing on a brand-new PC with an empty hard drive, I would also thoroughly recommend leaving the existing Windows XP installation alone, and putting the new x64 one into a different partition, so that you have both to choose from in a dual-boot configuration. As you'll see, I found this approach painless. You'll still be able to reboot into 32-bit XP whenever you need to, if you do have to access the Internet in search of extra 64-bit drivers.

Those who have already carefully created separate data partitions for their music, update files, documents, plug-in presets and so on, or have this data stored on other drives, can now jump straight to the hardware part of this article. Their data will remain totally undisturbed during the x64 installation and can be accessed from it immediately afterwards. Those who still insist on placing Windows, applications, songs, documents, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all into one huge partition will now have to move their personal data elsewhere or face not being able to easily access it from x64 — it's up to you!

The final stage before x64 installation is to power down your PC, unplug all USB, Firewire and other external devices, including printers and scanners, then open it up and remove all PCI or PCI Express expansion cards, except for the graphics card. This may seem a bit of a pain, but Windows x64 can't possibly come with 64-bit drivers for all such devices, so quite a few may otherwise end up being displayed inside Device Manager as 'Unknown Device' after the install, making it more difficult to see what's what. If you temporarily remove as much hardware as you can, you'll be sure that any Unknown Devices that show up must be on the motherboard, and can find drivers for them first. Then, and only then, is it time to physically install third-party hardware, one item at a time, when you can also systematically follow its manufacturer's installation instructions as you install the new 64-bit drivers (some items prefer to have their drivers pre-installed before you physically plug them in, while others are quite happy to be plugged in and let Windows detect the new hardware and deal with it). This should ensure the most painless results.

Personal Experience

Just to give you an idea of one fairly typical Windows x64 hardware experience, while I was using x64 for the purposes of this article my Emu 1820M soundcard worked fine, but I couldn't use my Echo Mia or Yamaha SW1000XG soundcards, or my M-Audio Midisport 8x8 interface, due to lack of 64-bit drivers. However, I didn't find any software in my collection that wouldn't install under Windows x64 in 32-bit compatibility mode.

Installation

Installation of Windows XP Pro x64 is very similar to all previous Windows installs, except that you can't perform an 'over the top' upgrade by running the Setup program from within an existing 32-bit Windows version, and Windows Startup floppy disks can't be used any more. The latter is because, according to Microsoft, the new Windows x64 kernel is over the 2MB limit for a floppy disk.

Cakewalk's Sonar 5 x64 Edition is still the only major MIDI + Audio sequencer that offers both 32-bit and true 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM.Cakewalk's Sonar 5 x64 Edition is still the only major MIDI + Audio sequencer that offers both 32-bit and true 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM.The only option is to boot from the Windows x64 CD-ROM. Most of the installation steps will be familiar to anyone who has installed older versions of Windows: you press F8 to agree to the licensing terms, whereupon various files are loaded into memory. Then you'll reach a screen showing the existing drives and/or partitions and you can choose to clear an existing partition, prior to installing x64 into it, create a new partition in unpartitioned space, or just install x64 into any existing partition. Setup then offers to reformat the partition in FAT32 or NTFS file systems or leave it as it is (mine was already in NTFS format, so I left it as it was), and then starts to copy files into its new Windows Installation folders.

Once the initial batch of files has been installed, your PC will reboot automatically and the familiar Windows flag logo appears. The install process continues, this time along with a few point-by-point features that you'll soon be experiencing. Your monitor may occasionally go blank for a second or two during this part of the install, while various hardware devices are interrogated and device drivers installed, but eventually you'll reach the Regional and Language Options page, where you can specify your location and keyboard layout, name and organisation, and then enter the 25-character Product key from the x64 box.

Next, you can (optionally) enter an Administrator Password and adjust date and time settings, then Windows continues its install, registers components, saves various settings and reboots again. I was pleased to note, during this final reboot, that Windows XP Pro x64 had correctly recognised my existing Windows XP Home installation, already housed on another partition on the same drive, and provided this as an alternative on its boot menu. Finally, the x64 boot adjusts your screen resolution, based on its hardware findings, and then you'll arrive at the Windows XP desktop with its new background bitmap image. The installation took my PC about 45 minutes overall, and occupied only 1.6GB of disk space.

Initial Tweaks

Now's the time to perform the usual operating-system tweaks, disabling any unwanted graphic frills (I still choose the 'Adjust for best performance' setting in the Advanced System settings, remove the background image and disable the screen saver); switch Processor Scheduling to 'Background Services', for better ASIO driver low-latency performance; disable System Restore, Automatic Updates, Hibernation and System Sounds; change the Power Scheme to 'Always On'; and so on. All this follows standard practice and is exactly the same as for 32-bit Windows XP. In fact, you won't notice any obvious differences while exploring, apart from the new background image and 'Microsoft Windows XP Professional x64 Edition' on the main System page.

For more obscure tweaks that require manual changes to the Registry (not a wise thing to attempt unless you're sure you know what you're doing), Neosmart have a new 64-bit version of Microsoft's famous TweakUI utility (www.neosmart.net/Products/TweakUI64.htm).

Further Information

  • Short Media (www.short-media.com/download.php) host a small but useful collection of mainstream 64-bit audio, chip set, IDE/RAID, network and graphics drivers for those with motherboard sound chips and other mainstream hardware devices, although it's always best to source them direct from the manufacturer's web site if possible.
  • Extended64 (http://extended64.com) have a more comprehensive selection of 64-bit drivers, plus a selection of forums covering installation, 64-bit applications and running 32-bit apps within x64.
  • DOSBox (http://dosbox.sourceforge.net) is an emulator that lets you run elderly 16-bit applications under Windows x64.

Device Drivers

At this stage, most people will find that although Windows has done its best to install 64-bit drivers for all the hardware components it has interrogated, some will be flagged in Device Manager as 'Unknown Devices'. Likely candidates are soundcards, network cards, printers, scanners and some graphic cards. You may run into a few problems if there aren't any drivers available for a particular piece of hardware. Obviously, if you know a particular scanner or printer hasn't got suitable drivers there's no point in even plugging it in, but if it's a motherboard device you have no choice. On the PC I was using, just two devices showed up as 'driverless' in Device manager — one an 'Unknown Device' and the other a driver required for a High Definition Audio motherboard chip, which I simply disabled.

At this stage, don't assume that Windows x64 has installed the best drivers for the hardware. It tries its best, but it is still well worth replacing some drivers with the latest versions available direct from the hardware manufacturer, which might be further optimised. For instance, the Nvidia Geforce 6200 graphics card I was using appeared in Device Manager as 'Standard VGA Graphics Adaptor'. While the default driver installed by x64 worked, it suffered from excruciatingly slow screen updates. Now you reap the rewards of tracking down the latest 64-bit drivers in advance. I simply accessed my data partition and ran the file I'd already downloaded from Nvidia.

Installing & Running Software

Windows x64 supports two application modes: the full 64-bit mode and a 32-bit mode for compatibility. The latter runs via a layer of emulation code that Microsoft named WOW64 (Windows On Windows 64). When you install software, x64 automatically recognises which type it is. It then stores 64-bit programs in its 'Program Files' folder and 32-bit programs in a separate 'Program Files (x86)' folder.

Cakewalk have performed extensive benchmarking tests with the 32-bit version of their Sonar audio sequencing application running on both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows platforms and have found no significant difference between the two. This suggests that the emulation layer has no impact on the performance of 32-bit applications, which is reassuring for those who want to continue running their existing 32-bit applications with Windows x64.

Cakewalk's Sonar 5 Producer Edition already ships with 32-bit and 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM. Let's hope we get similar options from many more software developers soon!Cakewalk's Sonar 5 Producer Edition already ships with 32-bit and 64-bit versions on the same CD-ROM. Let's hope we get similar options from many more software developers soon!However, a frustrating area of software compatibility is that while many 32-bit applications will install and run perfectly in 32-bit mode, some have older 16-bit installation routines (previously handled by Windows XP's WOW32 emulation layer). Sixteen-bit software is no longer supported under x64, so the install won't run even if the software itself is 32-bit compatible. Possibly the greatest frustration is that you'll only find out whether a program suffers in this way by trying the install, to see if you get an error message.

For applications to run in 64-bit mode, they must be specially compiled to do so, but there's an added complication for any that employ third-party add-ons, extensions or accessories, since all of these have to be 64-bit as well. This, of course, is of particular relevance to musicians, since it means that a 64-bit sequencer application can only normally access 64-bit plug-ins and soft synths. Cakewalk's Sonar x64 removes this restriction, courtesy of its Bit Bridge technology, which lets you use all your existing 32-bit instruments and effects, but other sequencer applications may not be so helpful.

Consequently, x64 software compatibility remains a bit of a minefield, and some 32-bit applications may install but not be usable for other reasons. This is a particular problem for manufacturers who provide a generous software bundle with their audio interfaces. A good example is Emu, whose audio interface range (0404, 1212M, 1616M, and 1820M) has had 64-bit drivers for some time. The stand-alone version of their Emulator X soft sampler will run in 32-bit compatibility mode, but the VSTi version won't run inside fully 64-bit applications. The bundled Wavelab Lite will work as long as it's operating in 32-bit compatibility mode, but Amplitube LE and T-Racks EQ won't install at all (presumably they have 16-bit installers). Finally, the Discwelder Bronze package will install and run, but you can't currently use it because it doesn't include the necessary 64-bit drivers for DVD burning.

You can see why moving to a 64-bit system can be confusing and potentially frustrating, which is why it's so helpful when manufacturers like Emu provide so much detail about such matters on their web site. Without it, you could waste hours trying to figure out what works and what doesn't!

Cakewalk Sonar 5 x64 Edition

Let's cut to the chase with the results of some tests on the only major MIDI + Audio sequencer to be yet made available in a native 64-bit version — Cakewalk's Sonar 5. Cakewalk have themselves performed extensive tests running example songs on the same PC, first using the 32-bit version of Sonar under Windows XP, and then again using the 64-bit version under Windows x64. With a few songs, the results were almost the same, but where there was an improvement it was somewhere between 20 and 30 percent — well worth having.

I tried a batch of tests on a PC equipped with an AMD X2 4400+ processor, to confirm these results for myself, using the demo songs bundled with Sonar 5.01. Sure enough, two of the songs (the Public Enemy and Justin Lassen tracks) both performed about the same on both platforms, but a third track (Nock, Play With Me), which was easily the most intensive, with 39 audio tracks, two soft synths and lots of plug-ins, measured 45 percent CPU overhead on Windows XP and just 36 percent with the 64-bit version on Windows x64. That's an improvement of exactly 20 percent, which is equivalent to upgrading a 3.0GHz processor to a 3.6GHz model.

Cakewalk are to be commended for their hard work, but they are still hampered by a few third-party limitations: Microsoft have yet to provide 64-bit support for MP3 and Windows Media Video, so these import/export options are unavailable in the x64 version, and Apple have yet to release Quicktime for Windows x64, so Quicktime import/export is similarly unsupported. Support for 32-bit Direct X plug-ins, Rewire and the Dreamstation DXi2 instrument is also unavailable.

Other 64-bit Music Software

Turning to the availability of 64-bit software from other music developers, FASoft have released a native 64-bit version of their popular N-Track Studio, including 64-bit versions of most of its bundled plug-ins, but it can't run 32-bit or VST plug-ins. However, I didn't find any other true 64-bit music software, and it's not hard to see why.

In Windows x64, the Task Manager will show you the processes that are running in 32-bit compatibility mode using the WOW64 emulation layer, such as Emu's Patchmix DSP utility, highlighted here.In Windows x64, the Task Manager will show you the processes that are running in 32-bit compatibility mode using the WOW64 emulation layer, such as Emu's Patchmix DSP utility, highlighted here.A typical view is that of Wavelab author Philippe Goutier, who thinks that the forthcoming Windows Vista will be the 64-bit O/S of the future, rather than x64, and openly admits that he hasn't yet started 64-bit development of his popular audio editor. Many other companies also seem to be waiting for Vista. Goutier is also currently of the opinion that 64-bit processing is more of a marketing device than a real benefit for his particular application — after all, you'll normally require 64-bit plug-ins to run within it, and these are very thin on the ground as yet. It's a Catch 22 situation. Waves told me that they will require a few more 64-bit audio host applications to be released before they make their plug-ins officially support x64, for example.

Steinberg did announce the release of the VST 2.4 Software Development Kit in January 2006, which includes support for both double-precision (64-bit) floating-point audio samples for higher resolution audio processing and native 64-bit application support, but a native 64-bit version of Cubase has not yet been announced. Nevertheless, the current 32-bit Cubase SX3 already runs happily under Windows x64, with the handy carrot of an increase in maximum supported RAM from 2GB to 4GB (although real-world limits may be rather lower). Many users have noticed significant reductions in their CPU overhead after loading projects created in 32-bit Cubase SX into exactly the same environment running on a 64-bit system. Some have reported up to a 30 percent reduction. However, when I did some tests of my own, running the 'Five Towers' and 'Blofelds-DSP40' benchmarks, both platforms measured about the same. Only with the 'Thonex II' test did I measure a change in the CPU meter, from 56 percent to 51 percent on my test machine. It's an improvement of just nine percent, but it's still very welcome.

Final Thoughts

I must admit to not being that excited about 64-bit PCs before I started researching this feature, but a reduction in CPU load of between 10 and 30 percent in some projects is a huge improvement, while the prospect of being able to install between 4GB and 16GB of RAM in many motherboards will be truly liberating to many musicians.

Considering that Windows XP Professional x64 was released over a year ago, I'm surprised at how little native 64-bit music software has yet been released to go with it — although, given that such a small proportion of musicians have yet installed x64, the market is obviously tiny at the moment. Still, 64-bit PC systems are definitely the future, especially in view of some of the potential performance improvements I measured, and I'd be amazed if most music developers weren't already gearing up for the admittedly higher-profile Windows Vista 64-bit operating system, currently expected in late 2006. Cakewalk deserve praise for almost single-handedly paving the way for everyone else, not only with their own 64-bit application development, which has stimulated some 64-bit enthusiasm among musicians, but also with public seminars discussing the benefits of the x64 platform and the intricacies of the required coding.

I'd also like to thank those audio-interface manufacturers who have already released 64-bit drivers. Judging by the many forums I visit, a lack of suitable drivers for a particular interface or DSP card is the only thing preventing many musicians from installing x64, so let's hope more manufacturers produce some soon. There are already rumblings from some musicians who are considering changing their existing interface to one with 64-bit drivers! 

Thanks to ADK Pro Audio UK for the loan of the AMD 64-bit PC used while researching this feature.

Published May 2006