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electronic MUSICIAN

XP and Audio

By Daniel Keller | November 1, 2003

It seems like only yesterday that Microsoft rolled out Windows XP, with the requisite hype, to an understandably skeptical public. For many people, XP appeared to be little more than the latest in a seemingly endless procession of face-lifts (beginning with Windows 95) that were more marketing than substance. For audio users in particular, the Windows operating system had yet to address the core-level issues of stability and performance that had long kept the PC out of the professional arena.

But this time Microsoft had the good sense to rebuild Windows at the core level, based on something different — something that worked. Microsoft's own NT kernel, proven in business-critical applications, had been “married” to a user-friendly Windows-style GUI (graphical user interface), and thus reengineered for public consumption.

The release of XP is good news for all Windows users, from Web-surfing gamers to business professionals. But it is exceptionally beneficial to anyone involved in digital multimedia. Windows XP, and the evolution of hardware and software built to take advantage of its features, has had a dramatic impact on the PC's role in professional media production. For many, the Windows platform can now hold its own against the Mac, and the PC is popping up more frequently in what were once Mac-dominated fields.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

The original Windows was created when Microsoft grafted a GUI onto its text-based DOS (Disk Operating System). And while Windows has certainly evolved over the past decade, the core of the operating system has remained fundamentally the same since Windows 95. Windows had never been stellar in dealing with the demands of multichannel audio, MIDI timing, virtual DSP, and other common elements in today's desktop-audio environment.

Although Windows 98SE and ME operate as 32-bit systems, they're based on the original Windows 95 16-bit kernel. Windows XP is based on the 32-bit Windows NT kernel, originally created for business and enterprise servers. It's widely regarded as being a more robust and stable operating system and is inherently better at handling the multithreaded-processor demands of today's software.

A STABLE RELATIONSHIP

The most immediately noticeable difference with XP and its predecessors is its stability. Unlike earlier versions of Windows, which operated from a pool of shared memory resources, XP runs each application under its own allocation of protected memory. That means that if one program causes problems, it no longer takes down the entire system.

Another aspect of Windows 98 that won't be missed is that of system-resource limits. With XP, your computer's resources are no longer allocated 64 KB at a time, meaning that multiple open programs no longer fight for available resources. Although running too many programs at once might bog down the pace a bit, those fatal-exceptions errors and blue screens of death occur far less often than with Windows 98.

SOUNDS GOOD

For many desktop musicians, XP's improved stability is its most appealing aspect. While Windows' native WDM (Win32 Driver Model) audio protocol does work on earlier versions, its performance under XP is much better. WDM provides kernel-level support for multiple channels of audio with audio mixing and resampling through a component called the KMixer. WDM- and ASIO-based hardware can deliver lower latency under higher CPU loads than previous versions of Windows, so with XP you're less likely to experience dropouts or crashes, even when running multiple tracks with lots of plug-ins. XP has also shown greatly improved MIDI timing.

Moreover, XP offers built-in support for a wider assortment of devices, making the search for drivers a bit easier. CD burning is supported directly through the OS, rather than requiring third-party programs. Simply dragging files to your CD burner's drive icon opens XP's CD-writing dialog, which supports the most common audio, data, and mixed-media formats.

XP OR 2000?

Although Windows 2000 was marketed mainly toward business users, some savvy musicians were among its early adopters. A few users still prefer 2000 to XP, based on the premise that 2000 is a more mature operating system with fewer unresolved issues. It's true that early versions of XP reported problems with ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) and other issues; as with any new operating system, updates and bug fixes have been a matter of course.

But overall, XP offers many advantages over Windows 2000. XP includes native support for a far wider array of motherboards, devices, and expansion cards. It raises the maximum number of WDM audio and MIDI devices from the 10 imposed by Windows 2000 to a more realistic 32. In addition, XP's power management under ACPI is now vastly improved from that of Windows 2000.

Furthermore, because Windows 2000's interface was designed for professional users, it requires more computer savvy to change settings. The bottom line is that while either OS will offer more stability than Windows 95 or 98, Windows 2000 has little real advantage over XP for most audio users.

MAKING THE SWITCH

If you're still running a Windows 98 — or ME-based system, chances are good that there will be a change in your future. Microsoft will soon stop supporting versions older than Windows 2000, and the major audio-software companies have already begun to follow suit. Unless you plan never to upgrade your DAW again, you'll have to make the move sooner or later. Assuming that your hardware is up to the task (see the sidebar “Movin' on Up”), here are a few tips and tricks for making the switch.

Keep it fresh

While you can upgrade any Windows 98 version to XP, a fresh install on a hard drive that's been wiped clean is generally the best insurance against potential problems. Leftover Registry items and other orphaned legacy files can lurk in your system for months, only to cause conflicts with a newly installed program or driver at a later date. Unless you're upgrading from Windows 2000, a fresh install is your best bet.

Home or professional

If you're running a dedicated audio machine, you'll have little need for the networking and server-security features of XP Professional. Even if your computer is more of an all-purpose machine, the Home edition can handle a small home network and Web-surfing chores. The Home edition doesn't support multiple processors, though, so you'll need to opt for XP Professional if you'll be running a dual-processor machine.

FAT32 or NTFS

FAT32 (File Allocation Table) is the native file system for Windows 98, while Windows XP and 2000 use NTFS (New Technology File System). Both have their advantages and detriments, and your choice of one over the other depends largely on your usage and compatibility needs. NTFS can handle much larger files and is less prone to data corruption. It's also more secure in a networked environment. And if you do any work with Mac OS-based Sound Designer II files, NTFS can read the resource fork and time-stamp information when importing those files.

Keep in mind that once you partition a drive using NTFS, a system running Windows 98 cannot mount that drive. If you have data on an external drive (USB, for example) and need to move it between two computers running different operating systems, you're best off sticking with FAT32. However, third-party utilities such as PowerQuest's PartitionMagic (www.powerquest.com) allow you to convert existing partitions without losing any data and provide other file-system management tools as well.

Don't interrupt

Under most circumstances, XP manages IRQs very efficiently, particularly in ACPI mode. Contrary to some claims, ACPI does not assign all devices to IRQ 9; rather, it uses IRQ 9 for IRQ Steering (thus giving the impression that all devices are on that interrupt). While common wisdom in XP's early days was to opt for Standard PC mode over ACPI, most newer hardware seems to prefer ACPI. In fact, in some cases disabling ACPI can cause greater problems, particularly with laptops. Unless you've exhausted all normal adjustments, it's generally best to let ACPI do its thing.

If you do suspect IRQ issues, a better solution can sometimes be to disable an unused resource. For example, disabling a COM or USB port that isn't in use will free up an IRQ.

Driver signs

Another issue that often arises is that of driver signing. When installing a new device, XP frequently pops up an “urgent” message warning you that the drivers you are installing have not been certified. All that indicates is that the manufacturer hasn't paid Microsoft's licensing fee to obtain its blessing or the use of its logo yet. In most cases, the drivers are safe to install; when in doubt, contact the manufacturer.

Current affairs

Microsoft has issued a number of updates and fixes since XP's release. Some of them (included in Service Pack 1) address critical known issues such as audio stuttering and dropouts, so it's important to check Microsoft's Web site for updates.

FINE-TUNING

Given the problematic nature of Windows 95 and 98, fine-tuning your system was an essential requirement if you wanted decent audio performance. Indeed, the science of tweaking Windows to improve its audio handling has evolved into an electronic black art, with nearly as many opinions being offered as people offering them. Although XP is far from flawless, there are generally fewer adjustments needed to coax good performance from it. Here are a few worth noting.

Get graphic

Microsoft has always put a priority on snazzy visuals over performance, and XP is no exception. Three-dimensional menus that dissolve, paisley desktops, and aquarium screen savers may be cute, but they suck resources from your audio. Fortunately, it's pretty simple to disable those features.

Begin by eliminating the background image. Right-click on your desktop and select Properties. Click on the Desktop tab and select None in the Background field in the Display Properties dialog box (see Fig. 1).

Next, select the Screen Saver tab. Because screen savers always seem to kick in when you least want them to, the best choice is None. On the same page, click on the Power button. In most cases, it's best to set all the energy-saving functions to Always On and set Hibernate mode to Never. It's also a good idea to deactivate the power-down function for your hard drive. Starting and stopping the drive typically contributes more to hard-drive wear than does running the drive continuously. Disable any options that slow down the CPU when it's unused. Those settings may be useful for laptops running on battery power, but they offer no benefit to an AC-powered computer (see Fig. 2).

Finally, select the Appearance tab, click on the Effects button, and disable Use Transition Effects. Now click on Apply to save your changes.

Windows sounds

It's a good idea to kill the Windows sound scheme. Those low-resolution sounds can interfere with audio performance by temporarily causing your audio application to lose sync with your audio hardware. Select Sounds and Audio Device in the Control Panel and switch to the Sounds tab. Choose the No Sounds option and click on OK.

Performance settings

Open the Control Panel, select System, and click on the Advanced tab. Click on the Performance Settings button and select the Visual Effects tab. Choose Adjust for Best Performance, then select the Advanced tab. Under Processor Settings, select Background Services to ensure the best ASIO performance, because ASIO drivers run as background services in Windows (see Fig. 3).

System services

System Services are background tasks that XP loads, some during boot-up, and some as needed. To get to System Services, open Control Panel and choose Administrative Tools, then select Services (see Fig. 4).

Volumes have been written on editing System Services, and the truth is, there's no clear-cut course of action. There are a few good bets and some other options you certainly shouldn't mess with. In any case, it's best to set any that you're unsure of to Manual rather than to Disabled, just in case.

A good place to start is with Automatic Updates. Although bug fixes and updates are important, it's best to perform them at a time of your own choosing. The same is true for Task Scheduler; it's better to schedule your own disk defragmentation than to have it kick in unexpectedly.

If your computer is not online, it's safe to disable Internet Firewall, DHCP client, and IPSEC management. Likewise, if you aren't using a printer, you can lose the Print Spooler. One service you can definitely kill is Messenger. It is unrelated to Windows Messenger and has begun to be exploited by spammers, so it's best turned off.

Disabling many other options in Services, however, can cause unexpected problems. For example, disabling Portable Media Serial Number Retrieval will render USB or parallel-port copy-protection keys inoperative. And disabling Logical Disk Manager, Event Log, or Cryptographic Services will prevent your machine from booting.

THE NEVER-ENDING STORY

There are far more performance-related issues to touch on than can fit in this limited space, and there is probably more information than any sane person could reasonably absorb. Nonetheless, it's a good idea to stay informed, particularly regarding information and updates that could affect your audio applications. Bookmark your software manufacturers' Web sites and visit them periodically. And check the various pro-audio forums and software users' groups where you can frequently find useful information that is unavailable elsewhere.

You'll also find a wealth of more general XP-related information on the Web at sites dedicated to everything from security issues to desktop skins. A few sites, like Pure Performance (www.pureperformance.com), Tweak XP (www.tweakxp.com), and Music XP Net (www.musicxpnet.com) offer good tips on audio and performance enhancements. Don't ignore Microsoft's own Knowledge Base for useful information and updates, and Woody's Watch (www.woodyswatch.com) for the stuff Microsoft doesn't want you to know.

The more you know, the better equipped you will be to modify your own system. Keep in mind that there's no definitive right answer, and what works for one person might cause headaches for another. Which leads me to my final recommendation: get a good backup program and use it regularly. But you knew that, didn't you?


Daniel Keller's aging Mac recently breathed its last, leaving him adrift in a house full of Windows. He's okay with that.

MOVIN' ON UP

Few things move as quickly as computer-technology development, and last year's pricey bleeding edge is this year's closeout special. That's good news because you can gain a lot of performance for a small investment in upgrading your hardware. Here are some top picks for upgrading your system.

R U MY MOTHERBOARD?

Like replacing the engine in your car, installing a new motherboard and CPU is a good way to seriously increase your processing horsepower. With current CPU speeds surpassing 3 GHz, it's not hard to find a motherboard and 1.5 or 2 GHz CPU package for less than $200. And the benefits go well beyond faster processing speed; modern motherboards are incorporating newer chip sets, faster bus speeds, and more efficient hardware components, as well as adding features like onboard USB 2.0 and FireWire support.

Many newer motherboards support APIC (Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller) which, using XP's ACPI power-management scheme, can increase the number of available IRQs (interrupt requests) well beyond the 15 offered by Windows 98.

If you are in the market for a new motherboard, pay attention to the issue of chip sets. As recently as a year ago, many audio manufacturers were recommending only Intel chip sets. In fact, chip sets from VIA Technologies (commonly found with AMD-based processors) were not recommended by several companies because of audio issues, particularly with USB interfaces.

To its credit, VIA made quick work of addressing the issues, and the chip sets currently available through VIA offer performance at least on a par with Intel. In addition, VIA has the advantage in that some of its chip sets can address up to 2 GB of RAM; many Intel chip sets top out at 512 MB. Of course, features and designs change on a near-daily basis, so it's important to check out the specs of any motherboard that you're considering. Hardware-based sites like Tom's Hardware (www.tomshardware.com) are a good source for recommendations, as are pro-audio user forums. Try to get feedback from others using your audio software of choice.

MO' RAM

With the price of RAM dropping steadily for the past year or so, there's no excuse not to pack your machine with as much as it will hold. RAM is where your computer stores the information it's currently using in any open applications. Hence, the more available RAM you have, the less likely it is that things will start getting cranky when you have several functions running at once. More RAM is especially helpful with software samplers like Steinberg HALion and Tascam GigaStudio, allowing more data to be preloaded before streaming from the hard disk.

Aside from making sure that you know what your motherboard's maximum addressable RAM is, you should also be certain to purchase the correct type and speed of RAM. Pentium III motherboards can use either PC-100 or PC-133 RAM; newer Pentium 4s usually run with PC-2100. Be careful not to mix different speeds; even if they work, the slowest stick of RAM determines the speed for the entire bus.

ALONG FOR THE DRIVE

With any audio-based system, one of the best investments you can make is adding a second hard drive. With prices hovering around a dollar per gigabyte, adding an additional drive is a very smart move. Install your operating system and programs on the root drive, and designate the second drive for audio files only. Because your system drive will no longer have to divide its time between running applications and streaming audio, you're pretty much guaranteed an increased track count and improved audio playback.

For the best performance, install your audio drive on a separate IDE bus from the CD-ROM and system drive. Also, keep in mind that you will not achieve the benefits of a second drive by simply creating a separate audio partition on the system drive. If anything, that will likely degrade performance because the drive's stylus works even harder to seek application data from one partition and stream audio from another.

EIDE OR SCSI?

As recently as a couple of years ago, only wide SCSI provided the bandwidth necessary for multiple tracks of audio transfer. But today's UDMA-capable IDE drives have caught up and can now rival SCSI at a fraction of the price. While some high-end professional setups still use SCSI drives, for the most part IDE drives will do the job just fine with the added advantage of not needing an IRQ for the SCSI host.

When purchasing an IDE drive, be sure that its spin rate is at least 7,200 RPM and its seek time is 10 ms or less.

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