Making Music With Windows 7

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FIG. 1: The Windows 7 default interface is bright, translucent, and crisp. Settings and file management are well-organized without being cartoonish.

As musicians and engineers, we often find ourselves torn between the urge to embrace new things and a hard-earned skepticism of “new and improved” products. Nowhere is this more evident than in our lifelong love/hate relationship with computer operating systems. Although the argument over whether Macs or PCs are better for making music continues to sound more like a religious schism than a technological debate, very few computer musicians pine for the Halcyon days of Mac OS 8 or Windows 3.1. The road forward may occasionally be bumpy, but as the user interface and technical underpinnings evolve, we come to depend on and expect each generation of new features (see Fig. 1).

Remember the Time
For most musicians and engineers, Microsoft''s Windows Vista represented one of those major bumps in the road. It was a significant enough departure from Windows XP that it left both users and manufacturers wondering whether it was worth the trouble. Hardware of every kind—from graphics cards to audio interfaces—was subject to incompatibilities, and some products took a long time to become compatible. Users who upgraded to Vista without carefully checking with vendors for compatible drivers found themselves with inoperable systems, sometimes for months. Worse, the initial release of Vista was marred by reports of problems with MIDI timing and audio performance. Microsoft addressed the MIDI issue, and most audio problems were resolved by driver updates, but the bad first impression stuck.

If any product that sells hundreds of millions of copies can be called a flop, Vista would be one, at least in the eyes of most electronic musicians. Whether it fully deserved its reputation or not, it was ignored by many musicians and studios who stayed with Windows XP throughout Vista''s product cycle. Now that Vista has been supplanted by Windows 7, does it make sense to upgrade?

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FIG. 2: The Genesis II from Puget Systems boasts two 3.33GHz Intel Xeon processors, 12GB of RAM, an IcyDock removable hard drive bay, and a Puget Hydro CL1 liquid-cooling system. Running 64-bit Windows 7, it makes an impressive DAW.

In an attempt to answer that question, I upgraded my desktop computer and installed a dual-boot of Windows 7 and Windows XP. With a quad-core Intel Core i7 920 and 6GB of RAM, I thought I had built a screaming system. When I had the opportunity to test a custom-built, water-cooled, dual-Xeon beast from Puget Systems, however, I ended up a bit less impressed with my computer-building prowess (see Fig. 2).

Heal the World
One of the biggest frustrations in the Vista transition was hardware incompatibilities. Upgrading to Vista before your video drivers were updated, for example, could render a system virtually unusable, and waiting for audio hardware drivers to be compatible created problems for some users. For new computers with newer hardware, this wasn''t ordinarily a problem, but it prevented many from moving forward.

All evidence so far suggests that Windows 7 is not plagued by the same sort of compatibility issues as its predecessors. The vast majority of products from every vendor I''ve researched are supported by Windows 7–ready drivers. Even Avid, a company well-known for being conservative in its embrace of OS updates, has called Digidesign Pro Tools 8.0.3 a “public beta” of Windows 7 compatibility. That''s a fancy way of saying that it works, but the tech support database hasn''t yet been fully developed. So far, I have encountered no problems running Pro Tools 8.0.3 LE or M-Powered under Windows 7 on my two test systems.

Part of the reason for Win7''s improved compatibility is that its driver requirements are essentially the same as those for Vista, which had departed from XP in significant ways. Jim Cooper, director of marketing for MOTU, puts it like this: “We didn''t have to ship updates for any drivers or instruments when Windows 7 came out. Users could update from Vista to 7 without even running a MOTU updater, for the most part.”

Some 32-bit apps seem to run under 64-bit Win7 just fine—Pro Tools 8.0.3 being a prime example—whereas other apps need updating first. For older programs that don''t like Windows 7, you can run them in a virtual XP mode (in Win7 Professional or Ultimate). Regrettably, it didn''t help me with two older disc-burning apps that weren''t running properly in Win7. Perhaps I would have had better luck had I been running the 32-bit version of the OS.

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FIG. 3: The Tyan S-7012 motherboard supports 144GB of RAM and two Xeon processors. Windows 7 Professional can take full advantage of that and more.

Speed Demon
In a perfect world, every OS upgrade would make our computers faster. Unfortunately, this almost never happens. Usability and appearance features are what sell an OS version, not raw speed. As users who depend on insanely complex processing and who demand real-time monitoring, however, musicians and engineers do look for performance enhancements. The scuttlebutt is that Vista was a particularly bad resource hog, and that Win7 undoes the damage.

I was able to run all three operating systems in 64-bit mode on the Puget Systems Genesis II workstation, and to be honest, the 3.33GHz 8-core machine was so fast that it was difficult to max out any of the OS versions. Although in my testing Win7 did seem a bit snappier than its predecessors, I don''t think it''s productive for anyone to look for performance-based reasons to upgrade—or, conversely, not to upgrade. Given that industry support for the discontinued XP x64 is waning and Vista is yesterday''s news, Win7 is simply the only reasonable choice for 64-bit PC computing.

Perhaps the most heralded advantage of 64-bit computing is increased memory addressing. As sample libraries get larger, the 32-bit OS limit of 4GB of RAM feels ever smaller. A 64-bit OS increases that limit to a theoretical maximum of 1TB of RAM. In practice, however, 64-bit Win7 increases it to 16GB for Windows 7 Home Premium and 192GB for Windows 7 (see Fig. 3).

In addition to increased memory support, there are some low-level refinements to the kernel, memory, and multitasking that are probably responsible for Win7 avoiding the version bloat that so often plagues OS upgrades. According to Cakewalk CTO Noel Borthwick, “Windows 7 has a smaller disk and memory footprint out of the box as compared to Windows Vista, making it a good choice for an efficient and lean DAW platform.” He has noted in his blog a couple of specific processor and memory bottlenecks that Win7 resolves. These changes mean a lot “to applications like SONAR that rely on multithreaded processing of very small workloads,” he wrote. “SONAR performs more efficiently at low latency on multicore machines” running Windows 7.

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FIG. 4: Vista''s Aero interface is continued in Windows 7. In addition to purely aesthetic considerations, it introduced some new interface behaviors designed to smooth multitasking workflow.

Aero Dynamics
Win7 features the Aero interface introduced in Vista (see Fig. 4). Aero is a combination of visual window dressing and user interface features that together can put a significant strain on your computer''s graphics processing. Under Vista, many users chose to turn Aero off as much as possible to recover some processor cycles. However, Borthwick says that “on any modern graphics card, Aero offloads a lot to the GPU, so unless your DAW is also competing for the same GPU resources, turning it off may or may not make an appreciable difference to performance.”

Since the dawn of host-based DAWs, knowing how to manage latency has been as important to electronic musicians as knowing how to wrap cables. Windows 7 continues the development of the Windows Audio Session API (WASAPI) and WaveRT driver format introduced in Vista, which together were intended to provide extremely low-latency audio throughput. Reaction from audio developers has been mixed, ranging from MOTU''s decision to support WaveRT in early 2009 to RME Audio''s stated position that WaveRT is “not a pro-audio driver technology” and will never replace ASIO. Although new and better driver technology would have been a great reason to build a DAW on Windows 7, its absence does not diminish the fact that a multi-core 64-bit Win7 machine can run far more complex sessions at minimal buffer settings than your 4-year-old XP machine.

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FIG. 5: The hated User Account Control nag screens can be held in check under Windows 7. The default setting alerts you to when programs try to make changes but assume any changes you make are intended.

Leave Me Alone
Easily the most hated feature of Vista was User Account Control. Designed to prevent malicious software from gaining unwelcome access to your computer, it ended up being an intrusive pest that seemed to demand, “Are you sure?” every time you tried to get work done. Windows 7 refines the behavior of UAC so that the user is more in control. You can choose what level of paranoia UAC should exhibit (see Fig. 5). Four levels are available, ranging from “Always notify” to “Never notify” when programs try to make changes to your computer.

Another welcome change is a reduction in those annoying “Windows Logo Testing” nag screens that often pop up when installing software. Installing Pro Tools 8 on Windows 7 saved me from having to click “continue anyway” something like five or six times as compared to XP, and I saved another several on the 8.0.3 update.

Windows 7 seems to have better performance for audio applications right out of the box than its predecessors. Eric Thibeault, product specialist for Applied Acoustics Systems, reports, “So far we have done nothing to ‘tweak'' Windows 7 to optimize it. I''m sure we''ll find some things in the future, but for now it works great out of the box.”

Cakewalk''s Borthwick advises “turning off unnecessary background processes [as with] all Windows versions.”

For mobile musicians, Win7''s improved power management should lead to increased battery life. Users with powerful multicore notebooks will appreciate the new Core Parking feature that essentially sleeps individual cores when they are not needed. However, Borthwick reports that for some users, Core Parking has created audio problems.

This Is It
So, given a choice between a 9-year-old OS for which support is being phased out (XP), a 3-year-old OS that is generally despised and for which support is also starting to be phased out (Vista), and a brand-new OS that has already achieved nearly universal support and seems to be friendly to audio applications and mobile computing (7), how hard is it? MOTU''s Cooper counsels, “If you are running on an older 32‑bit slower CPU, stay with XP.” Otherwise, everyone with whom I spoke is confident in recommending Windows 7. My own experience on both my desktop and Puget''s Genesis II bears out their optimism. I have had no crashes, no glitches, and no trouble finding software and driver updates for my studio.

If it''s time to upgrade your DAW, build or buy a multicore machine with lots of RAM and a fast hard drive and put 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional on it. Install your favorite programs in their 64-bit versions where possible, and don''t look back. Soon, Windows XP will seem as quaint as the Pentium III CPU on which it was designed to run.

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FIG. A: The Library feature helps you to keep files like loops accessible from a single location.

Windows 7 Tips and Tricks
Here are some of the cooler aspects of working in Windows 7 that I''ve found so far. Some of these debuted in Vista, but because I''m among the many who skipped straight from XP to 7, they''re all new to me. I hope you find them useful.

Libraries are virtual folders that act as though they contain files even though those files actually reside in various other folders. Right-click on the name of a folder of loops, and choose Include in library > Create new library. Repeat the process for other folders of similar loops, pointing them to the newly created library. Right-click on the library''s name in the navigation pane and choose Rename, then enter a descriptive name. With the library''s contents displayed in the library pane, right-click on the column header and choose More to display an astonishing array of details to be shown. Bit rate, bit depth, and beats per minute are available, along with composer, conductor, and album artist.

In the Library pane, next to the word Includes, click Locations to open the list of folders included in the library. Right-click on a folder name and set it to be the default save location so when you save to the library from your audio application, you will know exactly where the file is going (see Fig. A).

Add a library or any folder to the Taskbar for quick access by right-clicking on the Taskbar and choosing Toolbars > New Toolbar. Choose the folder from the Explorer window that appears, and it will appear as a cascading menu sprouting from the Taskbar. I rarely bother to open Explorer anymore because of this trick.

To find a file or group of files, click on Computer or a specific volume in the Navigation pane, then type your search term in the Search Computer field in the upper-right corner of the window. You can use tags to search for specific attributes, such as name:sax to find any files with sax in the name or modified:2009 or modified:03/06/2009 to find files modified during that year or on that date, respectively. Check out .com/windows/products/winfamily/desktopsearch/technicalresources/advquery.mspx for complete details on the available search terms and syntax. Boolean modifiers are also permitted, making such searches as name:poppin or name:funky possible. You can turn on natural language search in the control panel under Appearance and Personalization > Folder Options, but don''t.

Mouse Tricks
You might think that names like peek, shake, and snap are a bit too corny to represent useful features, and I wouldn''t blame you, but you''d be wrong. Each is a handy trick for dealing with multiple open windows and for making the most of multiple displays. Hovering the mouse over any program icon on the Taskbar lets you peek at thumbnails of the various documents open in that program. In the case of Internet Explorer (IE), you can go directly to any window or tab, and even close tabs or windows without switching to IE. If you have numerous windows open and want to clear the clutter quickly so you can focus on one window, grab that window by the title bar and shake it a couple of times side to side. All other open windows will be minimized. Shake the window again, and all windows will be restored.

Power users have long known that a simple double-click on a window''s title bar will maximize the window or restore a maximized window to its previous size. Under Windows 7, you can snap a window to the top of the screen—drag it by the title bar, that is—to maximize it and then drag it away from the top to restore its previous size. Snap it to the left or right of the screen, and it expands to the height of the screen and half its width.

Keyboard Shortcuts
Although the classic Alt+Tab—originally known as the cool switch—still works as it always has, using the Windows logo key instead of Alt (Win+Tab) allows you to cycle through your running programs in Aero Flip 3D. Aside from giving you a larger preview of each window, it just looks cooler. That logo key has a lot of other uses, too. Use it with each of the four arrow keys to snap the current window to the left half or right half of the screen, or to maximize it or minimize it. Combine it with a number key to open or start the program at that numbered position on the Taskbar. To move a window to the opposite monitor, press Win+Shift+arrow.

Instead of pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete and choosing Task Manager from the Log Off screen, jump directly to it by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Esc. Taking a page from Mac OS, Alt+Up Arrow now moves Windows Explorer to the folder up one level.

Brian Smithers is a longtime EM contributor and the author of Mixing in Pro Tools: Skill Pack, 2nd Edition.