Looking into the future is never easy, especially where Operating Systems are concerned. Martin Walker ponders the possibilities.
The next major release expected from Microsoft is Windows 2000 (the operating system formerly known as NT 5.0), which is designed to replace both Windows 98 and Windows NT. Essentially, it will be a rewrite of Windows NT, with a lot of features added from Windows 95 and 98, and will initially be available in three versions. Windows 2000 Professional was originally known as Windows NT Workstation 5.0, while Windows 2000 Server and Windows 2000 Advanced Server were previously known as Windows NT Server 5.0 and Windows NT Server 5.0 Enterprise respectively. The launch date is supposed to be October 6, 1999, but these are all high‑end (and hence costly) products suitable for the business community, which are unlikely to interest musicians.
The consumer version (tentatively becoming known as Windows 2000 Personal Edition) seems unlikely to appear until at least 2001, and some people claim that it's more likely to be much later. This probably leaves a lot of existing users of Windows 98 wondering what to do in the meantime (three years is a very long time in computer terms). To add to the confusion, there has been a lot of speculation about Microsoft charging for a raft of imminent Windows 98 bug fixes, as well as for a new version of the Windows 98 CD‑ROM, which includes some new features as well as bug fixes. Many people have been justifiably outraged that they should have to pay for bug fixes, but as is often the case, the truth seems rather different from the rumour.
Only a few weeks ago I saw a PC magazine claiming that the revised version, named Windows 98 SE (Second Edition), would not be available until the middle of next year. However, as I write this on the 1st June, Windows 98 SE has already been supplied to some OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) companies, and Dell is reporting to be shipping the new CD‑ROM with some new machines. The officialaunch date for the new version Windows 98 SE has been announced as June 10th (1999, I should add!). New machines are likely to be sold with this newer version already installed from now on, and the new Windows 98 SE CD‑ROM should replace the existing Windows 98 one in shops sometime this summer.
Apparently the Windows 98 SE CD‑ROM not only contains the new version of Windows 98, but also the Windows 98 Service Pack (a series of bug fixes for the original version), as well as some new features including a new version 5 of Internet Explorer, some new Internet Connection Sharing technology, and Windows NetMeeting 3 (an Internet conferencing solution). The full version of Windows 98 SE should cost exactly the same as the previous one.
For existing Windows 98 users, however, all of these components except Internet Connection Sharing will (allegedly) also be available for free download from the Microsoft web site, or as an update CD‑ROM available for $19.95 (about £12.50). Microsoft apparently intend this update to act as a stopgap until the consumer version of Windows 2000 finally appears, although even here there is confusion, as some sources are claiming that an interim "consumer Windows 2000" version, based on the current Windows 98 kernel, will also be released. We'll just have to wait and see.
While on the subject of Windows 98 SE, regular readers of this column will know that TweakUI is extremely popular with the PC Musician, since this free 'User interface customisation toy' found on the Windows 98 CD‑ROM allows you to switch off or otherwise customise various of its 'features' such as those annoying graphic animations that slow down screen redraws. Apparently Microsoft have had so many complaints from OEM companies that users manage to mess up their carefully set‑up machines that it has been removed from the Windows 98 SE CD‑ROM, and won't in future be found on their web site either. Sad, isn't it?
Intel have also just introduced a new 550MHz version of their Pentium III processor, to supplement the 450MHz and 500MHz models that first appeared in February. Cynics might say that this is just what everyone will need to keep Windows 98 SE running at the same speed as Windows 98. Mind you, I doubt that many musicians will be able to afford one — the quoted price, even if you buy 1000 at a time, is £460 each.
If you fancy starting all over again with a new operating system written specifically to overcome the problems of Windows, then you might do well to consider BeOS, which seems to gathering more and more support from audio developers. It's available in both Intel (PC) and PowerMac versions, and is 'designed from the ground up to handle the real‑time manipulation of high‑bandwidth digital media on off‑the‑shelf personal computers'. Audio streams have the highest priority in BeOS, a 'media‑friendly' operating system that easily scales for multi‑processing environments. Additionally, when system capabilities are fully loaded, the system prioritises the real‑time applications over the non‑critical ones.
I've not really taken that much notice of BeOS to date — after spending so much time writing about problems with Windows, even the thought of installing a completely new OS makes me reach for a stiff drink. However, one recent press release caught my eye. Echo have just announced BeOS drivers for their Darla, Gina, and Layla soundcards that promise a latency of 3 milliseconds! Aardvark, Arboretum, Creamware, Echo, Emagic, Emu, Opcode, RME, Sonorus, Steinberg, Terratec, Turtle Beach, Yamaha and others are all supporting this new OS, and the general consensus is that most developers will be glad to stop having to work around the real‑time limitations of both Windows and the MacOS.
However, before you reach for your credit card, bear in mind that any operating system relies on software specially written for it. You can't launch Windows software when running BeOS, so you will need to buy new BeOS versions of your music software (if available — Be themselves claim that there are already over 1000 general applications supporting their OS). Even more fundamental is the question of hardware compatibility: although every PC out there is (supposedly) compatible with Windows, to successfully run BeOS you would need to check that each piece of hardware you currently have has also been pronounced compatible with BeOS. This includes not only expansion cards such as graphics cards, SCSI host adaptors, soundcards, and MIDI interfaces, but also the motherboard itself. In addition, you would need to source new BeOS drivers for everything.
If your PC passes muster, the best solution for most people would probably then be to create a separate hard disk partition for BeOS, so that you can choose when booting between BeOS for a music session, or Windows for your other activities (using your existing Windows software). BeOS itself seems good value for money at $99.95 (about £62, but currently at a special offer price of about £43). If you want to find out more then take a look at www.be.com, where you will find extensive FAQs and hardware compatibility listings.
Several readers have emailed me concerning my comments in last month's 'Soft Machines' feature, where I said that "One advantage of using a VST plug‑in over its DirectShow version is that it normally runs with a slightly lower processor overhead, largely because VST‑specific plug‑in code is more tightly integrated with the rest of the VST application." Well, to provide some figures to back this up, I ran some of the TC Works Native Bundle (version 2.0) plug‑ins inside Wavelab. With my Pentium II 300MHz processor, the TC Native Reverb measured 11.0 percent in its DirectShow version, and 10.2 percent when I chose the VST version instead. This represents a relative difference of about 8 percent, though using the DirectShow version only adds 0.8 percent to the total overhead. With the TC Native EQ Parametric (all six bands activated) I measured 6.8 percent with DirectShow, and 6.0 with the VST version. This time there is a 13 percent difference between the two, but still exactly the same 0.8 percent extra overhead.
The point I was making is that if you are using a lot of plug‑ins simultaneously, and have the choice between VST and DirectShow ones, always choosing the VST version can save valuable overhead overall. In fact, if you use VST or Wavelab, the best think to do is to disable the DirectShow versions permanently inside these applications (either using the Plug‑Ins Manager of Wavelab, or the DirectX Plug‑Ins window found in the Audio menu of Cubase VST), rather than leaving both options available.
Yamaha have now released version 2.0 drivers for their SW1000XG soundcard, along with ASIO drivers for Cubase VST. The ASIO drivers provide a fixed latency of 104mS, which is comparatively low, and a range of Mixer maps are also now available to control both audio and MIDI functions from within VST. Sadly, the new 2.0 drivers don't have DirectX compatibility, so it's still not possible to get low latency when running a software synthesizer through one of the internal stereo audio channels, but no doubt this will arrive in time. Certainly, the forthcoming version 3.7 of Cubase VST has specific support for software synths (or VST Instruments as they prefer to call them) but at this stage it's not clear what other developers are doing to embrace this. One thing's for certain — Steinberg themselves will shortly be introducing a Minimoog‑lookalike as the first in a range of software synths to run with Cubase. Meanwhile, the good news is that version 3.7 is once again going to be a free download for registered users, and may well be available by the time you read this.
Steinberg have also announced version 3.0 of Wavelab, which features a new editing system called 'Audio Montage' that allows non‑destructive editing of multiple audio clips using a series of 'lanes' — much like the existing Audio Editor of Cubase VST or Cool Edit Pro's Multitrack View. Vector‑based envelopes are available to add fades or pans, and you can also crossfade between two clips, all in real time. I am looking forward to this one a great deal, but the word is that it is still a couple of months away from general release.