Operating system upgrades are often
heralded with hoopla. Apple has traditionally
announced “hundreds of new
features” with each new release.
Microsoft has turned launches into minor
holidays; for Windows Vista, they even
hired spandex-clad acrobats to hang the
Windows logo from the side of a building.
All of this seems surreal given the way
musicians use computers; after all, the
OS to most of us is plumbing, the stuff
underneath the stuff we actually use to
You’ll be pleased to know, then, that this
latest generation of operating systems
looks very different. Microsoft heard your
criticisms of Windows Vista, and focused
on a version of Windows 7 that shipped
quicker, with fewer compatibility issues and
more usability improvements that directly
responded to user feedback. Apple says
that when developing Snow Leopard, they
opened some 90% of the projects that
make up OS X in order to emphasize
refinement over new functionality, optimizing
performance and building a foundation
for future development.
With the dust from each of these
releases having settled, we have a great
opportunity to give these operating systems
a real evaluation — especially if you’re
considering buying a new computer for
Snow Leopard offers a tweaked, more responsive Finder and lots of little improvements, down to the Audio MIDI Setup user interface.
What you can’t see is more important: Rebuilds of the OS guts prepare the Mac for 64-bit musicmaking and future optimization.
||Mac OS X Snow Leopard
||Microsoft Windows 7
|On new computers
||Don’t fear Snow Leopard. This release is subtle
enough that backward compatibility is very
unlikely to be an issue.
||Get a machine with Windows 7 pre-installed,
period. The days of reverting to Windows XP
are happily over.
||You like some of the latest enhancements,
you’re a frequent Finder and Apple app user,
or you’ve got a 64-bit machine. There’s no
rush, but if you back up first, the upgrade
should be relatively smooth.
||You’ve got a fairly recent machine and you’re
ready to part with either XP or Vista. Check
hardware compatibility first, but W7 is a worthy
upgrade — even if you’re already on Vista.
If Vista is working for you, W7 almost
certainly will, too; unlike the jump from XP to
Vista, W7 doesn’t make many under-the-hood
changes that break compatibility.
|Don’t upgrade if
||You’ve got an older machine or are happy with
OS 10.5, which remains the “preferred” Mac
version for developers like Ableton and Native
Instruments. If it ain’t broke. . . .
||You’ve got an older machine running XP. You
can always get Windows 7 pre-installed
when you get a new machine.
|Advantages for audio
||Logic Studio has just added 64-bit support.
Expect significant advantages once 64-bit
applications and plug-in support mature and
become more common.
||A leaner system that gets out of your way and
makes music more productive. Noticeable
improvements to 64-bit and multi-threaded
operation, especially in 64-bit apps like Cakewalk
||Most hardware and software that works with
10.5 should also work with 10.6; by press
time, Avid had confirmed compatibility of Pro
Tools 8. Simply because it’s been around
longer, 10.5 is more widely tested than 10.6.
||If it works under Vista, it should work under
MAC OS X SNOW LEOPARD:
LEANER, FASTER, SLICKER
Some of the biggest changes in Mac OS X
Snow Leopard (OS 10.6) aren’t visible at
all — and some won’t become a big deal
until down the road, as developers take
advantage of new features. Hang on tight:
We’re going to get into developer territory,
as it’s the bits Apple has built for developers
that matter the most, even if the end
result is that you won’t notice a thing.
The biggest change is a full transition
from 32-bit to 64-bit technology. What
does that mean, exactly? (“Twice as many
bits” — yeah, right.) Well, 64-bit computing
refers to the size of the most basic numeric
building block, or data register. Snow
Leopard represents the first OS from
Apple that’s truly ready for 64-bit use in
everyday applications. While parts of the
operating system were 64-bit in previous
Mac releases, 10.6 finishes the transition,
with rewrites to the Finder and the CoreAudio
and CoreMIDI frameworks atop which your music apps are built. That should
mean we’ll start to see 64-bit recording
programs and plug-ins soon.
The upshot of supporting 64-bit is
twofold. Most significant to music is the
ability of a 64-bit architecture to access
larger amounts of RAM: up to 16 terabytes,
which is hundreds of times more than
today’s computers can (or would want to)
accommodate. By contrast, on a Mac, a
single 32-bit application can only access
4GB of data at a time. Only a select few
applications have devised workarounds to
get beyond that limit: Native Instruments’
Memory Server for Kontakt 3.5 addresses
up to 32GB on the Mac, and Logic’s
EXS24 Mk. II sampler can allocate its own
virtual memory. True 64-bit raises this ceiling
for all 64-bit applications, essential for
people using lots of memory to load enormous
sound libraries; 64-bit computing
also offers a significant performance boost
over 32-bit, which could make some audio
processes more efficient.
In other words, 64-bit is good news, but
don’t expect to bring home a Snow Leopard
box and reap the benefits right away.
First, you’ll want a 64-bit processor. Intel’s
Core2 Duo is 64-bit, but the Core Duo
(without the “2”) is not. Second, you’ll need
an application. Logic Pro 9.1 and
MainStage 2.1 have just added 64-bit support;
MOTU expects to add support to Digital
Performer soon. Other DAWs should
follow. You’ll also need some 64-bit plugins,
which could take a little longer.
In addition to 64-bit, developers may
soon look to take advantage of two other
major technologies. “Grand Central Dispatch” is a new programming paradigm
for making it easier to take advantage of parallel
processing. When you run an application,
your computer is doing lots of number
crunching behind the scenes. Grand Central
Dispatch is designed to more efficiently
process those tasks across multiple CPUs
and cores, and is smart enough to free up
resources that would otherwise be idle.
Apple has rewritten their own CoreAudio and
CoreMIDI libraries to use Grand Central Dispatch,
and they’ve provided the ability for
audio developers to do the same with music
apps. Not all developers are likely to use it,
preferring to stick to their own approaches to
multi-threading instead, but it does add to
the toolbox of Mac developers.
Snow Leopard also provides integrated
support for OpenCL, a cross-platform,
open standard for extending computing
tasks across the CPU and GPU — the
graphics processing unit in your video
card. Unless you’re running graphicsintensive
software, chances are your GPU
isn’t even breathing hard, so some developers
have thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if
we could farm some of that power to audio
tasks?” As new and faster graphics chips
emerge, that could hold promise for everything
from new synthesis and effect techniques
to faster rendering. There’s no
immediate benefit yet, however, as hardware
evolves and developers work out just
what the technology will do.
What Can You Use in
Snow Leopard Right Now?
Being future-proof is a good thing, but
there are some reasons you might want to upgrade now that are more readily apparent
as you use the OS.
The upgrade process itself has been
made more painless: The installer runs
more quickly, and it’s less likely to hose
your system if it gets interrupted because,
say, your cat trips over your power cord.
More importantly, the OS has trimmed
down, and Apple’s own apps are more
responsive. The OS itself takes up less
space on your disk, thanks to moving unused
code, languages, and drivers out of the
installation. In a welcome change from typical
OS upgrades, Snow Leopard may use less
disk space after installation than before.
Once installed, you should notice that applications
like Mail, Safari, and the all-important
Finder are more responsive. Even little details
like the eject time for volumes have been
improved for more reliable operation.
There are also subtle user interface
improvements. Exposé window tiling is now
more predictable. You can also see open
windows for an app by clicking and holding
on its Dock icon. Minor refinements around
the Dock, Finder, and even Audio MIDI
Setup reflect the thought Apple famously
puts into the user experience. Snow Leopard
also includes multi-touch support on
supported devices, like the new trackpads
on recent MacBooks.
What hasn’t changed is important, too.
Snow Leopard doesn’t change the device or
driver model, or change the core frameworks
in any way that should cause incompatibility.
You’ll still want to make sure your software
and hardware has been tested on 10.6, as
issues can arise with any OS upgrade. But
generally, it should be safe to switch.
HASTA LA VISTA, VISTA
Windows 7 is a lot like Vista in the right
ways (upgrading is seamless, with few if
any new compatibility issues), yet unlike
Vista in the right ways (an OS that’s
cleaner, leaner, less annoying, and less
likely to cause problems).
Here’s what happened. Vista made a lot
of changes that directly impacted compatibility.
Modernizing the windowing system,
modifying the graphics engine, re-designing
the audio system, making changes to kernel
performance, and changing the driver
model were all major changes in Windows
Vista — all accompanied by growing pains. If
you were an early adopter of Vista, you
experienced some of those pains firsthand,
with application and hardware compatibility
issues, sometimes-glitchy performance
(often resulting from video drivers, which
could interfere with audio), and other
issues. But a series of Microsoft Service
Packs and updated drivers from device
vendors has patched many of those holes.
That means that, if you skipped Vista, or even
if you didn’t, you can now enjoy the modernization
effort in Windows 7 without the
hassle. It’s a bit like the difference between
moving into a gut renovation halfway
through, or after it’s finished and the sawdust
and drywall have been cleaned up.
Windows 7 is also a different OS from a
usability standpoint. User Account Control,
a feature intended to make Vista
more secure, still protects your system, but without constantly interrupting your work
to tell you about it. (It’s more customizable,
too.) The taskbar tray, in which a parade of
confusing icons have gotten dumped by
various applications, is now cleaned up:
Icons get hidden away by default into a
new Notification area, so pop-ups aren’t
constantly competing for your attention.
There are time-saving features as well.
Windows has always excelled at tiling windows
side-by-side. Now, you can drag a window
to a corner of the screen and maximize
or tile it quickly, or shake a window to make
unused windows disappear. The Start menu,
one of the better-liked features in Vista, has
been further tweaked for efficiency. The
Taskbar now includes larger icons and the
ability to preview open windows without them
getting in the way, with additional features
organized into “Jump List” shortcut menus in
supported applications. A new feature called
Libraries can make it easier to organize
groups of folders in disparate locations, allowing
quick access to projects and samples
without getting lost in folder hierarchies.
Like Snow Leopard, Windows 7 also
includes new multi-touch support; on Windows,
this extends to new computers with
multi-touch (or at least two-touch) trackpads.
in Windows 7
Windows 7 sports a user interface that improves upon Vista with a cleaner look and more usable taskbar, plus better organization of your
files into libraries. But it’s the leaner, less intrusive performance of the OS, and under-the-hood optimizations for multi-threading and
memory specific to audio, that make it worth a second look for musicians.
Having Windows work better in general is
nice, but to most of us, audio performance
matters more. Unlike the Leopard-to-Snow
Leopard comparison, it is possible to say
in some specific cases that Windows 7
can currently outperform Vista at audio
tasks. The difference isn’t enormous, but it
is significant, and combined with better
stability in Windows 7, it could well make
Multi-threading performance has been
improved. A significant multi-threading bottleneck
was removed in Windows 7, which
is significant on multi-threaded applications
for multi-core machines. Improved memory
management is also relevant in multithreaded
One complaint about Vista (and operating
systems in general) has been “bloat.” The OS
itself has gotten leaner with Windows 7, just
as with Snow Leopard. Also, there are fewer
services that run by default. In my own tests, I
found that a fresh Windows 7 didn’t start the
disk churning while the search index kicked
in, either, as with early versions of Vista.
Most musicians use ASIO drivers, but if
you use WaveRT drivers for specific hardware
(like a built-in soundcard), WaveRT performance
has been significantly improved.
On Mac OS, fully 64-bit operation is a
news headline, and users are waiting for more
64-bit music applications. On Windows, 64-
bit has been available for years, dating back
to Cakewalk Sonar on Windows XP x64. But
Windows 7 could be the first OS you painlessly
install for 64-bit. You’ll want to verify
driver compatibility, as there can still be tricky
issues with certain hardware. You’ll also need
a 64-bit host (like Sonar or Cubase) and
some plug-ins, plus a 64-bit computer, to
make upgrading from 32-bit worth it. If you
have those ingredients, you should find
enhanced performance under Windows 7.
Cakewalk’s Chief Technology Officer
Noel Borthwick puts it this way: “We finally
have reached a time when 64-bit computing,
low-latency performance, and low-cost
components are a reality. It’s a great time
for DAW users.”