Windows is installed in about 95% of all client computers, and it’s been awhile since Microsoft introduced a new operating system. Part of that is because, frankly, Windows XP really got it right. It seemed light years ahead of Windows 98, and thanks to widespread support and excellent stability, there was no great clamor to change it. Yet Windows Vista represents the most important element in Microsoft’s upcoming product roster; it’s expected to sell upwards of 100 million copies in 2007. With those kinds of expectations, Vista couldn’t just be an incremental upgrade — it had to set phasers on stun, and wow the target audience. Luckily for us, Microsoft considers pro audio a vital part of that target audience.
OVERHAULING THE WINDOWS AUDIO INFRASTRUCTURE
The audio in earlier versions of Windows has never quite worked the way pro audio software developers wanted, and was getting unwieldy and difficult to modify. So, Microsoft rebuilt Vista’s underlying audio architecture to provide greater performance, stability, and audio fidelity; the company is even hopeful Vista will spark a new round of evolution in music technology.
Microsoft has now made it easier for developers to write programs by simplifying the way software interfaces with the underlying hardware. There’s a lot more going on under the hood, like revised driver structures, enhanced API sets that provide application isolation (one badly behaving audio app can’t bring down the system), incorporation of reusable components to reduce the need for custom components, and optimization to prevent memory fragmentation and manage large memory requests.
There’s also an emphasis on improved audio quality. In rewriting the audio stack, an entire new audio subsystem evolved called User Mode Audio (UMA), with developers using a new set of interfaces known as WASAPI (Windows Audio Session API). Windows Vista uses 32-bit floating point calculations by default in the core of the audio system to provide higher-quality digital signal processing, bit-for-bit sample level accuracy, and up to 144dB of dynamic range. And the new audio WaveRT (Wave Real Time) architecture allows for much lower hardware latency in audio apps. Developers will certainly have a much better underlying audio system as a foundation.
But will your current apps work? Most likely. Although completely overhauled, Microsoft wanted to make sure there was backward compatibility in Windows Vista. Current music apps and drivers should work fine, except some may not when you venture into 64-bit systems — we’ll cover more on this later.
Like the audio infrastructure, the MIDI engine has also been rebuilt to minimize system wide impact, but you won’t see any new MIDI features just yet. Nonetheless the underlying work has primed the platform for changes, and presumably, Windows Vista follow-up releases will take advantage of this.
The entire OS has a priority structure, where a new operating system feature (Multimedia Class Scheduler Service) can prioritize audio apps over other processes to provide glitch-resilient operation. Under current versions of Windows, a wi-fi alert, instant message, antivirus program or some other process could steal processing power from the application and cause an audio glitch; so it was necessary to disable various programs to make sure they did not interrupt. But despite best efforts to disable potential threats, Windows is a busy system and there are processes always going on — networking, drive scanning, caching, etc. Sometimes priority gets confused and if every process has the same priority there can be a bottleneck or, even worse, a crash.
Microsoft endeavored to make the audio in Windows Vista as glitch-resilient as possible by allowing apps to prioritize audio over all other application processes using MMCSS. Once applications start to utilize this new feature, you will be able to run your audio in Windows Vista without having to go in and disable various processes.
At the Microsoft Audio Summit held last year, Arif Gursel (Program Manager on the Microsoft WAVE team) ran a massive stress test demonstration — the equivalent of running dozens of apps simultaneously to try to break the system. The audio processing and playback was prioritized over other apps, video, mouse movements, screen redraws, etc. and no matter how hard he tried to stress the system, the audio kept playing seamlessly. I was pretty impressed.
PER APP VOLUME CONTROL
In the previous versions of Windows, volume was universal across all apps so some sounds might blast you while others were barely audible. Not only that, but each new app might change the settings on the system and alter the sound. This got so confusing that some audio devices shipped with their own control panels, and disabled the system device controls.
With Vista, the Per App Volume control feature provides separate volume slider controls for each application that plays audio, thus giving the option to differentiate and control what’s piped through the audio engine (Figure 1). The user interface is easy for the average person to understand; the apps as well as the Window System sounds are on their own volume slider.
In many cases Per App Volume Control may not apply to DAWs, which will utilize exclusive mode (for performance) and are exempt from the Volume Control. Otherwise, it’s a great feature for the customer trying to play multiple apps with sound.
OTHER VISTA FEATURES
One of the most talked-about features in Microsoft Windows Vista is a new glass-like interface called Aero Glass: The various windows, icons, toolbars, and other elements sport a translucent 3D design that you can see through, with animations, glassy reflections, drop shadows, scaling and vector-based graphics (the downside: you’ll need a powerful graphics card). This also means other possibilities, like making semi-transparent virtual instrument GUIs so you can see the controls, yet also see what’s happening on the tracks related to the instrument.
Microsoft has made some real leaps forward in navigating your PC with a 3D “rolodex”-style flipbook of your active windows (Figure 2). Users will appreciate the way the new search feature works, especially the way it navigates (Figure 3). But while the user interface seems more intuitive on the whole, it may take a little getting used to; if you want to go with what you already know, it’s possible to go back to the classic (2000/XP) look.
There’s also a new Windows Media Player with a cleaner, more modern user interface. It allows playlists to span multiple devices, and offers greater sync compatibility with various devices. I was able to auto-sync music, videos, and photos with no problem (currently there are over 130 devices on Microsoft’s PlaysForSure compatibility list). Also, Speech Recognition is built into Windows Vista so you may want to try to control your sequencer transport with your voice.
Clicking on the Start menu no longer opens a long list of programs, as the Vista Start Menu integrates a desktop search feature (Quick Search) that helps you find and launch just about anything on your PC. Type in a word, name, or phrase, and Quick Search can find the right file. The new Start Menu also makes it very easy to navigate installed applications on your PC.
The audio DSP built into Vista is interesting, but will be more relevant to consumers than to the pro audio world. New audio and communication features include room correction (to find a “sweet spot” for the listener), bass management, loudness equalization DSP, acoustic cancellation (for communications), virtual surround (5.1 and 7.1), microphone array solutions, speaker phantoming, and various other audio features. Although designed primarily for media centers and home theater, it is interesting that Microsoft is focusing on these features, which could eventually make their way into music apps and plug-ins.
Windows Vista eliminates the need for separate antispyware and firewall programs, as these security measures are built into the OS. There’s also a new User Account Control policy that changes the experience in a number of ways, most noticeably by preventing applications from auto-installing themselves without your approval — although unfortunately, you will be prompted for approval when installing legitimate applications as well.
Driver signing, while controversial, is designed to help increase Windows security by letting users identify the source of the software they are installing, thus avoiding malware (spyware, viruses, etc.). A “signed” driver (or any signed component) simply allows Windows Vista to verify the author of the software and assure it is from a trusted source. Without this signature, Windows Vista cannot tell whether the code is legitimate or a virus. In Vista, Windows validates that 64-bit drivers are signed before they are allowed to run. 32-bit versions of Windows Vista do not require signing to load a driver, but there are certain features that may not work (such as playing some protected content) if unsigned drivers are running.
Microsoft has not been too forthcoming over the new Digital Rights Management protection Vista will incorporate, but it seems there will be protection at the OS and driver level, and the ability to disable output depending on the digital rights incorporated in the media. DRM is important to musicians who want to protect content distributed to end users/consumers, but how it’s accepted — and whether it’s intrusive — remains to be seen.
Windows Vista comes in an array of packages: Windows Vista Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Ultimate, Business, and Enterprise. Windows Vista Starter is primarily a bare-bones version for developing countries that is not upgradeable; it is not available to the public, and can be purchased only preloaded on a computer. Home Basic supports only single processors, whereas the Business and Enterprise flavors are targeted at businesses that require additional networking and management capabilities.
Although Microsoft is testing audio on each Vista edition, most musicians and audio pros will want Windows Vista Home Premium as it supports multiprocessing system and incorporates features needed for pro audio. Choose Windows Vista Ultimate Edition if you need to connect to a server-based network, administer users, or host remote desktop sessions. If you don’t know which to get, start with Home Premium and upgrade to Windows Vista Ultimate later (the Control Panel’s Windows Anytime Update makes it easy to purchase and download a Window Vista upgrade). At press time, expected prices for Windows XP Home Edition are $200 new/$100 upgrade and for Windows Vista Home Premium, about $240 new/$160 upgrade. Windows Vista Ultimate will run about $400 new/$360 upgrade.
32/64: TWO REAL CHOICES
64-bit computing is the future; not only will it eventually replace 32-bit computing, it offers significant advantages in audio production. Except for the Starter version, all Vista versions support 32-bit and 64-bit installations. Most audio apps are reported to run more efficiently in 64-bit systems; audio apps are highly processor and memory dependent, and 32-bit operation, being limited to accessing 4GB of memory, creates a major limitation. 64-bit supports 128GB right now, with theoretical limits being much higher.
Running 64-bit Vista requires having 64-bit drivers regardless of whether the applications that use them are native 64-bit, and all 64-bit drivers and kernel mode code must be signed. Software vendors will also have to build specific 64-bit versions to take advantage of 64-bit computing. Although you can run your 32-bit music apps on 64-bit machines, you’ll also need 64-bit plug-ins (or an adapter like Cakewalk’s) to use your 32-bit plug-ins on a 64-bit system running a 64-bit app.
I tested several music apps and they seemed to work well with the Windows Vista beta. Almost every hardware and software manufacturer will supposedly work with 32-bit Vista without any major change. There are some features in 64-bit Vista that will require changes by the manufacturers to enhance your experience (especially with regards to signed drivers); before you upgrade, check that your software and hardware are Vista-ready.
HASTA LA VISTA, BABY!
Will you want to upgrade to Windows Vista? If you are into audio on a PC, the answer is yes — but make sure all your audio apps and hardware are supported so they can take advantage of the significant audio improvements.
Overall, it’s clear that Microsoft is taking a big leap forward in providing a better music and pro audio platform. And this is just a peek of what’s to come, as Microsoft has mentioned that it plans to continue improving audio. Windows Vista represents a significant leap over Windows XP — and I think many musicians will be pleased with what’s coming.
Gary Garritan is an award-winning soundware developer. His sample libraries have won accolades from celebrity musicians and music press alike, and been used in a variety of applications: from popular TV shows, film and attractions to video games, live concerts and ballets. Many schools and universities have chosen Garritan Libraries for use with their music programs.