For the longest time, I have recommended going with Windows XP Home 32-bit for music production on the PC. It has long been the most reliable choice, as every major DAW host, audio interface and audio plugin available supported the platform. This was the case for a very long time.
Windows Vista was supposed to revolutionize audio performance with its new WaveRT
driver model, promising to enable lower hardware latency in audio applications. Many audio interface manufacturers, including MOTU, Presonus and RME, started adopting the driver model with some success. The problem: most of the big DAW hosts do not support WaveRT and their programmers chose to stick with ASIO drivers for its proven reliability and its ability to provide low latency audio performance. It also turned out that porting DAW hosts and VST plugins to work seamlessly in Windows Vista was rather difficult. Pro Tools, for example, always seemed to run better on Windows XP Home then on Windows Vista: it ran smoother, was more stable and the achievable plugin counts were much higher. Windows XP 32-bit was the ultimate solution. A fully audio optimized installation of Windows XP Home 32-bit on a recording computer easily outperformed both 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows Vista.
The 32-bit problem
Unfortunately, there was one problem: the Windows XP Home 32-bit operating system does not recognize any amount of RAM over 4GB installed in your computer. A 64-bit version of Windows XP Professional is available but your audio interface probably will never work with it. Even with 4GB of RAM installed a 32-bit OS will only be able to see 3 to 3.5GB. More so, each individual program running on a 32-bit operating system (ie: your DAW host) is limited to only 2GB of physical memory. This problem was not a huge deal for most audio production as many audio tasks, such as recording live instruments while applying effects to them, are not very memory intensive. In fact, it is still pretty hard to max out the 2GB of memory available on your recording pc when using even a majority of your plugins, ie. compressors, EQs, reverbs, etc.
In the past few years weâ€™ve seen a surge in the use of hyper-sampled Virtual Studio Technology instruments, or hyper-sampled VSTiâ€™s. Often tracks made with VSTiâ€™s are barely distinguishable from those made with real instruments. The merits of this practice are up for debate, with some purists heralding that â€śrealâ€ť is always â€śbetter.â€ť Alas, more and more people are creating amazing music with virtual instruments. One can now compose a full symphony or film score on the computer and using only VSTiâ€™s to realisticly reproduce the sound of a full orchestra. East West sample libraries
and Vienna Symphonic Library
are excellent examples of VSTiâ€™s used daily by Hollywood composers writing film scores.
An example of a hyper-sampled instrument library is EastWestâ€™s Symphonic Orchestra. Click the screenshot to hear it in action.
The problem we run into is that hyper-sampled instrument libraries eat up physical memory (RAM) like nobodyâ€™s business. Imagine a violin part in a symphony. For each note played, there are hundreds of ways to express emotion. You have dynamics, pizzicato, portamento, legato, or vibrato to name a few. What these sample libraries try to do is capture as many of these stylistic sounds as possible for each note available on the instrument. A single violin patch for example could easily consist of 4GB worth of samples. Each of those samples can be triggered by your composition via MIDI and the notes, articulations and inflections can add up very quickly. Luckily we do not have to store the entire patch in our physical RAM. The sampling engines in these VSTiâ€™s are highly optimized and essentially only store the first bit of every note in your physical RAM â€“ the rest comes from your hard drive. But since the hard drive is the slowest piece of hardware in todayâ€™s DAW computers a substantial project can easily exhaust the bandwidth of a typical hard drive. When this happens we are unable to play back the project as the hard drive cannot keep up. Now, if we want to add new parts we must â€śbounce-downâ€ť our tracks to relieve some of the hard driveâ€™s duties. This means we are basically printing the musical performance to the tracks with all of its effects rendered for easy playback, which makes editing very cumbersome and time consuming.
All of this can be eliminated by keeping as many samples as possible directly on your physical RAM. Your RAM can spit out these samples much faster, allowing you to keep creating without the need to bounce down your big projects.
As mentioned earlier, a 32-bit operating system can severely hinder the amount of memory available to your DAW hosts and the plugins you use inside of them. Memory has come down drastically in price over the years and now many motherboards will support 24GB or even 64GB of RAM. So we need a 64-bit operating system. Weâ€™ve determined Windows Vista 64-bit does not qualify as it is simply too buggy and slow.
The 64-bit Solution
On July 22, 2009 Microsoft released Windows 7, and finally it looks like they have gotten their act together. Early adopters saw performance similar or even exceeding that of Windows XP Home. More so, 64-bit versions of Windows 7 were proving to be very reliable.
At first, driver availability was minimal and many audio production programs didnâ€™t play nice. But here we are, more than a year later, and we can confidently recommend it for audio production. Most audio hardware manufacturers have fully working Windows 7 64-bit drivers and most DAW host software companies have jumped on the 64-bit bandwagon as well. Cakewalk Sonar and Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, the most popular hosts besides Pro Tools, have had fully working 64-bit versions of their software available for more than a year now, which have proven to be very reliable. Digidesign has always been a bit slow conforming to new technologies and has lagged behind a bit, but are finally gaining some serious ground in 64-bit support. With the latest Pro Tools 8.0.4 cs2 release
, Digidesign added Windows 7 32- and 64-bit support for all
almost all of their LE and M-Powered systems (not Pro Tools HD, Digi 001, 002 and the original Mbox).
We still find the 64-bit version of Pro Tools to be a bit buggy, and weâ€™re not alone: a simple search on the Digidesign forums for â€śWindows 7 64-bitâ€ť confirms that many users are stilling having problems. Luckily, the 32-bit version of Pro Tools can still be installed on the 64-bit version of Windows 7. Essentially, the experience of running Pro Tools 32-bit on Windows 7 64-bit is very similar to what you’d expect when running it on Windows XP Home 32-bit. One can expect reliable, low latency performance albeit with the 32-bit memory limitation. The up-side is that your DAW computer is finally running a 64-bit OS and thus you’ll have beaten the 4GB limitation, and although Pro Tools 32-bit will only see 2GB any other applications will be large address aware.Â Any day now Digidesign will have a fully working 64-bit version of their flagship software at which point one can benefit from the extra available RAM, but until then one can run it safely in 32-bit mode.Â Of course we will update this blog as soon as we feel confident Digidesign has released a fully working 64-bit version of Pro Tools.
In conclusion, despite some minor hiccups in regards to Pro Tools, Windows 7 64-bit is here to stay.Â If youâ€™re buying or building a computer for recording purposes, go with Windows 7 64-bit. Youâ€™ll be able to fill your motherboard with RAM while still being able to produce top notch music bug-free.