Vista and Pro Audio

By • Nov 5th, 2007 • Category: Articles, Featured, In Depth

[From Pro Audio Review]

State of the OS: Vista and Pro Audio

by Stephen Murphy

It has been a little over six months since the official release of Microsoft’s long-awaited Vista operating system – time enough to gain perspective from the professional audio standpoint. Since I have amassed a book-load of notes on Vista, and have very limited space for this survey, I’m going to jump right in and zip through the major points without much ado. To quote one of my favorite lines from the film Repo Man, “Since time is short and you may lie, I’m going to have to torture you. But I want you to know, it isn’t personal.”

The Big Picture
As with previous major OS releases from Microsoft – and any good Hitchcock movie – the Vista story arc is full of suspense, surprise, and a healthy dose of plot twists. On the subject of pro audio and Vista, the story has several satisfying resolutions, but it is also rife with cliffhangers and far too many pages are downright missing. Also like previous Windows versions, the Vista release has resulted in a prodigious amount of technical and anecdotal information, plenty of healthy discussions and, as always, lots of chaff from rumor mill – much of which has thankfully been put to rest at this point.
The update-as-you-type Start Bar search and Instant Search box are excellent. Unfortunately, they can't help you find non-existent Vista drivers...
Now that the dust has somewhat settled, a prevailing opinion – which I share – has emerged:Vista provides a good number of worthwhile general-use improvements and new features, falters in a few others, and ultimately doesn’t quite live up to expectations for a major release. Microsoft does deserve credit for its proactive dialog with the pro audio community of Vista’s approach to audio handling, which will in turn benefit all multimedia applications.

For the general public, switching to Vista is generally a smooth experience, with few attention-grabbing impediments. The most immediately noticeable aspects of Vista are its new translucent “Aero Glass” comprehensive visual design, and its infamous User Account Control warnings (which pop up with annoying frequency, but serve the higher purpose of protecting your installation).

The Aero Glass design is a significant aesthetic improvement over the XP GUI, and the new Desktop Composition display engine (which makes Aero Glass possible) provides a number of other welcome GUI enhancements such as the hover-over active thumbnail renderings of objects minimized to the task bar and objects in the Alt-Tab switching dialog. Display performance, in theory, is improved through Windows’ management of per-application display rendering and scaling via off-screen display buffers and offloading of an increased percentage of rendering duties to the graphic display card.

I put “in theory” in the above sentence because pro audio users will want to disable many of the animations and effects (as with XP), and not-insignificant number of users have experienced reduced graphic performance, or worse, reduced performance of an application as a result of graphic processing. Certain hardware configurations and respective driver implementations are probably to blame in most of these cases, however. As always, troll your DAW’s forums and FAQs for known-working configurations.

The Long and Short of Vista Audio
For audio professionals, the most significant aspects of Vista’s new approach to audio are its low-latency Wave RT (Real Time) audio driver, per-application volume control (instead of XP’s global control), and an impressive amount of user control of application process prioritization via the Multimedia Class Scheduler Service (which can finally elevate audio streaming beyond “Background Services”).

There are a number of other audio features and “effects” found in the Sounds section of Vista’s control panel that many home/office users might find helpful. Included here are Microsoft’s take on speaker protection (high-pass filter), inter-application loudness control, and even a form of RTA speaker equalization using a microphone and test signals – all of which should be disabled by pro audio users.
Some of the spiffy new audio features...that DAW users should avoid
The factor having the biggest bearing on the use of Vista for pro audio applications is still, six months after its introduction, the haphazard availability of compatible software and hardware drivers.

Here’s the over-generalized skinny: most pro audio developers have announced intended Vista compatibility (seems a no-brainer, but there are still a few that haven’t officially announced), more than half of audio hardware manufacturers have released Vista drivers, some of which are still “Beta” and a good percentage do not offer 64-bit drivers, and a much smaller number of software developers have released Vista 32/64-bit versions.

As this list is changing with somewhat encouraging frequency, I’m not going to attempt to provide a list that will be outdated by the time you read this. I did want to praise RME and MOTU on the hardware side and Cakewalk on the software side for their early and full-on adoption of Vista across their product lines. The two major copy-protection vendors, Syncrosoft and Pace, are also up to speed, with Syncrosoft as the early adopter.

Future View
If you are considering the Vista upgrade here are some important points to keep in mind:

  • Version: there is a confusing array of versions and sub-versions of Vista. For most pro audio users, the two to consider are full-install Home Premium and Ultimate. Note that the Vista upgrade requires the removal of XP from the system – a major change in policy that, given the state of compatibility, is simply unacceptable. That said, I cannot confirm or deny the existence of a workaround floating around the web…
  • Audio Components: Keep in mind that, even if your major components are Vista-compatible, many ancillary objects such as plug-ins, authoring applications, codecs, macros etc. may not be. Do a comprehensive survey, preferably over several days or weeks of pro use, and write down everything you use and check with the manufacturers’ web sites for compatibility info.
  • Don’t forget about the hardware in your computer, including graphics cards, additional FireWire or USB cards, audio DSP cards (for example, at this date UAD is compatible, PowerCore is not), high-end video I/O etc.
  • Performance: This is one heated subject on audio web forums. From my own experience (wholly unscientific, since much of what I use in XP is not available in Vista), in all cases, Vista performed on par with, if not better than XP. Others have reported the opposite. It seems that certain configurations and CPU loads will yield widely varying results. Again, check the app and hardware forums for known-good setups. There are some true comparisons of performance on the internet, with my favorite being – definitely worth checking out.

In addition to manufacturers’ websites and the one mentioned above, here are a few more reference sites that cover the state of Vista compatibility and other useful reference (comprehensive hardware and software compatibility lists, plus blogging on a number of related subjects); has excellent benchmark test results; also check out Sweetwater’s Vista section in the forums for some ad hoc compatibility lists and comments.

Unfortunately we’re still playing a game of “Chicken or Egg” half a year after the release of Vista. So, what is the “way forward” for audio professionals, you ask? Well, how soon you can upgrade is contingent on your specific configuration and respective compatibility. If, like me, you have a broad variety of essential A/V apps, plug-ins and hardware, you’re going to have to wait, or try out a dual-boot config to get your feet wet. In general, upgrading to Vista will prove to be desirable, if for no other reason than the eventual elimination of XP support.
PAR Studio Editor Stephen Murphy has over 20 years production and engineering experience, including Grammy-winning and Gold/Platinum credits. His website is


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