We'd probably all prefer to keep our music PCs insulated from viruses, spyware, adware, phishing and the general nastiness of the Internet, but the way music software is developing makes this increasingly difficult — so let's be careful out there.
In a perfect world, we would never lay our music PCs open to attacks from viruses, trojans, spyware, adware, phishing, trackware, browser hijackers, keyloggers, diallers, spam, and all the other variations of nastiness that are dreamt up by hackers. And we'd never have to install additional Internet software, firewalls, virus checkers, spyware detectors and so on, when we would prefer to leave our computers as lean and stripped-down as possible for the highest performance.
However, music software developers are making it more and more difficult for us to maintain this approach, offering easy one-click Internet access to registrations and updates from within their music packages. If you, like me, have adopted a multi-boot setup with a general-purpose Windows partition or drive that has Internet access, and a second instance of Windows on a separate partition or drive, to keep your music setup safe from such infections, you'll have noticed that you have to jump through more and more hoops to manage this approach. I'm referring to tedious cutting and pasting of URLs and web pages between partitions or drives, or resorting to longer-winded email registration. I suspect many people now regard having Internet access on their music PC as almost inevitable, whatever their personal preference.
My general-purpose (Internet-enabled) partition already has a raft of freeware protection software installed to cope with 'malware' (the collective term for all the malicious software listed above). I use Zone Labs' Zone Alarm personal firewall (www.zonealarm.com), while for virus checking I have both AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition (www.grisoft.com) and the slow but sure Clamwin Free Antivirus (www.clamwin.com). I've also been running Spybot — Search and Destroy (www.safer-networking.org) and Lavasoft Ad-Aware SE Personal (www.lavasoft.com) to root out spyware. Many people haven't yet cottoned on to the fact that no virus checker or spyware detector has a 100 percent detection rate, so while yours may declare your PC free of infection, there's still a chance that some deep-rooted items might be lurking somewhere that could be picked up by another utility. While software firewalls dislike rival products being installed alongside them, it's perfectly possible to install and run several virus checkers and spyware detectors side by side.
An estimated 20,000 PC spyware threats are now claimed to exist in the outside world, and they can change your browser home page, install unwanted custom toolbars, track your surfing habits and sell them to marketing companies, slow your Internet access and even record your every keystroke. These threats aren't dealt with by most virus checkers, so if you haven't yet installed a dedicated utility to root out spyware on your PC you should seriously consider it.
Most musicians are already well aware of the perils of viruses, which are self-replicating programs that spread by inserting copies of themselves into other executable code or documents. However, there are now lots of other types of 'malware' that can affect your PC, most of which aren't dealt with by a virus-checker utility. Here are the main offenders that can be eradicated by running a good spyware utility:
Spyware: Any software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without the user's knowledge.
Adware: Similar to but less threatening than spyware, adware displays persistent (and mostly unwanted) adverts, often in pop-up windows.
Browser Hijackers: These take control of your browser and give it a different home page, as well as changing various settings. They may not be detected by firewall software as they can appear to be part of the browser program itself.
Tracking/Malicious Cookies: Whilst cookies are generally beneficial, by retaining settings for when you next visit a web site, 'tracking cookies' however — and particularly 'malicious cookies' — monitor your behaviour across different web sites and provide third parties such as spammers with this data without your knowledge, so that they can target you with their unwanted advertising.
Diallers: Software covertly downloaded. Once installed, the dialler can disconnect your Internet connection and then reconnect via a different long-distance or premium-rate phone number, racking up a bill.
Keyloggers: These send personal and password details that you type into your browser to third parties, or may take covert screenshots to see what software you're running.
Trojans: Small programs covertly downloaded to your PC. Once running, they leave a 'back door' open in your system so that someone can remotely monitor and control your PC, erase files, alter your Registry contents or even read your email.
Phishing: The name for Internet scams that use email 'bait' (in the form of clickable links in the message body) to encourage you to divulge personal passwords or financial data. Can also refer to similarly malicious web sites that pose as legitimate businesses in order to obtain credit-card details.
Given this escalation in spyware, this month I thought I'd investigate Spyware Doctor from PC Tools (www.pctools.co.uk), which has been getting some excellent publicity in the mainstream PC press for its detection and removal capabilities. Spyware Doctor detects and removes spyware, adware, trojans, diallers, keyloggers and trackware. It also provides optional but comprehensive background monitoring to prevent any attempts to execute unwanted files, plus immunisation against 1800 Active X objects known to be malicious (although Firefox users won't be quite so worried about these as those of you running Internet Explorer, since Firefox doesn't support Active X controls).
SD 's 'Live Update' function lets you keep abreast of the latest nasties, with new updates posted every few days, and while a musician wouldn't want the 'On Guard' monitor running alongside music software, it's easy to enable it just before you go on-line, to deal in real time with browser hijackers, pop-up ads, malicious cookies, keylogging and so on, and it even prevents you from accidentally accessing known malicious web sites that may be masquerading as legitimate businesses, to avoid 'phishing' fraud.
To see whether or not Spyware Doctor was more effective than my existing utilities, I made sure I had the most up-to-date versions of both Ad-Aware and Spybot S&D, ran them both, and then followed up with Spyware Doctor, to see if it could find any infection they had missed. Sure enough, it discovered and eradicated 42 additional problems — a sobering thought when you already think your PC is 'clean'! I've also had On Guard monitoring active whenever I've been on-line for the past couple of weeks, and my PC hasn't contracted a single spyware infection in all that time, which is most reassuring.
Spyware Doctor will run happily on Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000 or XP, and costs just $29.95, complete with one year's worth of unlimited live updates and support. For the added peace of mind it's given me I think it's well worth the money, and I intend to look more closely at the other utilities in the PC Tools range in future.
Universal Firewire Drivers: At the October AES (Audio Engineering Society) show, CEntrance were demonstrating their new Universal Firewire audio driver software for Windows XP. This software provides robust, low-latency ASIO support at 16-bit or 24-bit, with 44.1kHz, 48kHz or 96kHz sample rates, and is compatible with all major Firewire chip-sets. However, its major claim to fame is the ability to run several interfaces from different manufacturers side by side, all connected to the same host application.
While Michael Tippach's freeware ASIO4ALL driver already provides an ASIO overlay for multiple devices that already have suitable WDM drivers, not everyone has managed to get its multi-device support to work successfully, and because it runs in 'User Mode' it relies on Windows to detect and configure the soundcard.
The CEntrance drivers are rather more ambitious in offering multi-application as well as multi-device support, and they completely replace the Windows drivers with their own low-level 'kernel-mode' drivers, allegedly bringing latency down significantly. Due for release in the first quarter of 2006, the CEntrance drivers should attract a lot of interest from musicians who want to add new interfaces to their current setups, while CEntrance are also hoping that interface manufacturers will contact them for customised versions of the drivers. Find out more at www.CEntrance.com.
Emu Audio Interface Update: Emu (www.emu.com) have released yet another significant software update for their audio interface range. For many users, the most important improvements added by these latest Version 1.81 drivers are support for 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz sample rates and support in the WDM drivers for multiple playback channels (up to eight) to play back surround files and so on (WDM recording is still restricted to stereo operation). There are also lots more ASIO buffer settings between 20ms and 2ms, so you can fine-tune performance to your PC more easily and, for those who can use it, 64-bit support is also available. The Patchmix DSP mixer now lets you import/export Core and Multi FX presets and offers the same 'Load FX on Startup option' offered by the new 1616 series, to speed up boot time by only loading all the presets when you actually launch the mixer for the first time.
Microsoft's forthcoming Vista operating system has now had a beta release so that developers and beta testers can evaluate it. The final product release is still destined for summer 2006, although there have already been so many slippages that few industry experts are confident that this date will be achieved (Microsoft originally hoped to ship this OS at the end of 2004).
Despite its flashy new look and underlying power, many industry analysts also feel that users will be slow to get their credit cards out to buy it. The traditional route to getting a new OS onto our PCs has been to pre-install it on new machines, but all the indications are that PC sales growth is dropping: many users simply don't need computers that are any faster than they already have, and businesses are understandably wary of making fundamental changes to their networks unless there's an obvious improvement to be had.
Here lies the biggest obstacle: while Windows Vista does look different, the desktop is functionally identical to Windows XP, with the Start button, System Tray and Recycle Bin in exactly the same positions as before. There's no obvious feature that screams 'buy me!', as there was with the multimedia features of Windows 95 or the fresh start and extra stability of the Windows XP experience.
And while Microsoft claim that Vista simply needs a 'modern' CPU and 512MB of RAM, it draws a distinction between a 'Vista-capable' PC (one that can run the new OS but not necessarily all its new features) and the 'Vista-ready' PC (with a modern graphics card, to provide the full-on experience). In other words, for the musician who chooses to install a basic graphics card, the Vista experience may appear little different from the current XP one. I suspect that many people faced with the prospect of having to buy a new PC to provide the full Vista experience will decide that what they already run is perfectly adequate. I would also guess that most businesses will wait for at least six months, and many a year or more, before taking the plunge, until the inevitable bugs have been picked out and service packs have been released.
Finally, although Apple have insisted that their forthcoming Intel-based OS X will only run on Apple-based hardware, we may yet see OS X made available to other PC users, and I can see some musicians being more interested in this than buying Windows Vista. We'll have to wait and see what happens. Oh, and by the way, Microsoft have confirmed that they will bundle anti-spyware technology into Vista. Better late than never!