Friday, February 23, 2007

Vista and Pro Audio

I cringe every time a new Microsoft OS comes out, and I shy away for the first year as a matter of course. But Vista seems like it may be a little less buggy than say, the dreaded Windows ME. In a nutshell, heres what I've found out about whats different for multi-track, low-latency DAWs in Vista. Remember, I'm no expert.

1. Your GPU is now assigned more tasks than previously. This means that you'll be losing less CPU cycles to the flashy graphics and animations that come embedded in most DAWs, like meters, clocks, automation animations, and your GUI in general. What I hope this means is that Windows Vista will also use your GPU to run all the eye candy that comes with the OS. I always hated super-flashy OSes, like OSX and Vista, because I thought I was probably using too much of my CPU on the graphics that were there to sell the OS to general purpose users. Supposedly, Vista scales to the hardware it's installed on, meaning that slower PCs or PCs with weaker GPUs will have less animation in the OS. Personally, I could deal just fine with NO animation in my OS.

2. Finding things: easier. I probably don't have to tell you this, because its been one of the most touted features of Vista. The new native search function in Vista claims to be almost instantaneous, providing results with each keystroke, a lot like the search in the latest firefox does. The idea is, this will help people move away from the file-folder sort of logic thats dominated computing for 20 years. As hard drives get bigger and cheaper, this makes good sense, but I'll still be using plenty of folders in my audio apps at the very least.

3. Driver Hell: I don't have to tell you this either. Since computers are currently standing on the fence between 32-bit and 64-bit OSes, you'll have that many more drivers to accidentally try and install. The 32-bit driver, and the 64-bit driver(signed and unsigned). Here's what the manufacturer of my audio card has to say about the issue:
M-Audio has been keeping pace with changes to the Windows Operating System since the release of Windows 95 nearly 12 years ago. We are very excited about the opportunity to offer continued support to our Windows customers as the Windows Pro Audio community begins the gradual transition to the Vista era. Over the past year, we have worked directly with Microsoft’s Vista team to prepare for this release.

Currently, M-Audio does not offer Vista drivers or Vista software updates (beta or otherwise). As soon as Vista drivers or updates for any product are available, this FAQ and other portions of our Web site will be immediately updated to reflect this. Due to the nature of software and driver development, we are not able to provide exact dates or timeframes for when specific drivers will become available—but please rest assured that supporting Vista is a top priority for us.

Gee thanks, guys. I feel like I can really "rest assured" now. Other manufacturers have been a lot better, so I'm sure this is probably not going to be a big deal. But its going to be a hassle for the first year, like it is with every major OS change.
From what I can glean from microsoft's site, just switching to Vista is not going to improve or diminish your audio performance. But if your soundcard manufacturer does choose to release drivers that take advantage of the new Vista audio architecture, you could experience better performance.

4. You're going to approve a lot of things. UAC(User Account Control) is the default mode in Vista.
With User Account Control in the new Windows Vista operating system, you can reduce the risk of exposure by limiting administrator-level access to authorized processes.

Right! And I can click allow for about a million separate applications. I get the feeling that this is going to become a lot like firewalls are to your average user: this annoying box that just keeps popping up asking you to approve things until you just become so frustrated that you click them all the instant they come up. Whether or not these things will pop up and hang audio applications remains to be seen.

Is anybody out there using Vista for pro-audio and willing to comment on how its going?


Peter said...

Hey, deltasleep -- good comments here. I think I can respond to some of them.

1. The GPU advantage is largely negligible on the sound side; mostly it makes the UI side perform more smoothly. I agree about the animations, but as with XP, you can turn them off, which for me instantly makes the system feel more responsive. (Animations by definition add in a delay.)

2. Search: works reasonably well. But it's also easier to find things in folders, and least marginally. Not a reason to upgrade, but a decent extra.

3. Driver hell: Not so bad; the drivers that are done are working brilliantly. You should just keep tabs on your gear and upgrade accordingly. Note that while M-Audio doesn't have official support, a lot of their MIDI devices are class-compliant and thus need no drivers. Again, I'd just say it's a little early for most people to upgrade. I know the timetables for development from a lot of the major music makers, and it sounds like things will get better even in the coming weeks, not months.

That said, it's not clear to me how M-Audio can say they've been working closely with Microsoft to prepare for this release but still don't have drivers, especially with much smaller companies like MOTU who are ready. Music developers' resources *are* often stretched thin; it just seems like M-Audio isn't entirely leveling about their situation -- by now, they should have at least a rough timetable.

Fortunately, many other devs do have timetables, and I think you'll see improvement soon.

4. UAC... annoying, but I haven't had much trouble with it. So far the only thing I've heard is that a friend had trouble running Synergy, the multi-desktop/multi-computer utility, and an update might fix that. To me, UAC is not a big deal, and I haven't seen it even once with music apps. (Ableton reported you might see it the first time you played an MP3, but I haven't had that problem, I think they've either fixed that in the current build or will soon, and it sounds rare.) I certainly haven't seen it hang an app. AND you can turn it off.

None of these things are really deal-breakers. Big advantage: Vista does run more smoothly for music and audio. The real deal breaker is likely to be whether your stuff is compatible, and honestly, you should wait until it is to upgrade.

Hope this helps.

deltasleep said...

Thanks peter, you work in the field?