Alan Sallabank here, first a bit of background. My entire career has been spent using Windows, Mac and proprietary systems for audio post production, and currently I use both Windows and Mac on a regular basis, and indeed also own a MacBook Pro as a Pro Tools computer, which I bought recently. More on that later. But for now I wanted to outline why I use Pro Tools on the Windows platform as my Pro Tools computer.
For the most part, once you’re in Pro Tools, there’s little or no difference in the user experience. The only thing you might notice is that the CMD (Windows Key) and ALT keys are the other way round on a Windows UK keyboard, as are the quote marks and the @ symbol. One easy fix is to use an Apple Keyboard, and switch your keyboard settings to US layout.
The Windows operating system is verging on “marmite”, but with Windows there are three bands instead of two - love it, hate it, or tolerate it. I’m not going to say it’s perfect, but in over 20 years of using both, I can safely say that both Windows and OS-X have as many issues and idiosyncratic error messages as each other.
Yes, the “Blue Screen of Death” is scary, with all its hexadecimal and technical terms, but to the trained eye, and with the help of the app “BlueScreenViewer”, it generally gleans more information than the “grey multilingual screen of doom” or indeed the “bombs” you used to get on Macs.
In Windows 8.1, the BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) has been replaced with a less informative but friendlier screen. Hopefully if you get your hardware and software install right, then you shouldn’t be seeing the BSOD. Since upgrading my hardware due to a steadily worsening motherboard issue (it had reached pensionable age), I have not seen the BSOD once.
In Pro Tools 12, Avid have opened up your choice of audio interfaces even more, with WASAPI support. However there is currently a bug that prevents video working properly when using WASAPI. Up until this, Windows users have been restricted to using ASIO interfaces or running Asio4All.
Windows systems can use the following connections – PCIe, USB2, USB3, USB3.1, Thunderbolt 2, Firewire 400 & 800, Serial, VGA, DVI, HDMI, DP, M2, SATA, the list goes on and on. These are all industry standard connections, so you have an incredible choice of hardware.
On a Windows system, USB actually runs pretty quickly, and is more reliable than FireWire. I have enough PCIe slots to fit whatever GPU I wish and still fit a BlackMagic video card and Audio DSP cards should I wish to.
I have plenty of power outlets within the case, so I don’t have to mess around with Y-connectors or worry about my PSU capabilities.
My system can read and write to NTFS, FAT, exFAT and HFS. It does require extra software to read HFS, but then Macs also need software to write to NTFS drives properly.
The reason I bought the specific MacBook Pro that I did - a 2.2GHz i7 Quad core 2011 model, was that the construction allowed me to easily upgrade the RAM, and change the internal hard drive and optical drive into SSDs. It also has the best connectivity for the money - a similar spec new Windows laptop being more than 50% more expensive. I needed to go mobile quickly and had a limited budget and so chose to “cross to the dark side”.
The latest 5800 i7’s with DDR4 memory and SATA3 utterly scream along. Incredibly fast boot times, even on Windows 7 with Microsoft Security Essentials (antivirus) installed.
Pro Tools 11HD was a huge game changer for Windows users. 64bit code unlocked the lovely multi-core power that modern CPUs have. It also freed Avid from the shackles of having to use QuickTime as the video playback engine. Although Apple had ported QT to Windows, they had left out one important function – the ability to output video through PCIe. The inclusion of the Avid Video Engine sorted that out, and for many Windows users, the whole PT11HD Video performance wasn’t an issue at all.
I’ve been using Pro Tools on Windows since version 7. Back in those early days I was able to do some direct comparisons. Running PT7LE DVTK, I compared my Windows hardware (a lot lower spec than now) and identical spec Apple hardware running the same software. Doing fast turnaround factual television, the Windows system (PT7LE on Windows XP) consistently out performed the Apple system. This was in terms of the amount of tracks and plug-ins it could manage, how many tracks it could simultaneously record and even the latency. I can offer no explanation for this, especially considering that the resources Avid put towards Windows development are much lower than they put towards Apple.
Value for money
I am in charge of my destiny, equipment wise. After five years, my old motherboard finally gave up the ghost. I replaced the CPU, motherboard, RAM and PSU, for less than £900. This also gave me a system which I could expand later – I’ve just fitted a £65 PCIe card that gives me dual Thunderbolt 2.
With “off the shelf” integrated systems (including some laptops by the likes of Sony and Dell), if you want any kind of future proofing, you have to spend as much money as you (or your bank) can afford, right from the beginning. With a self-build or “standard desktop” system, individual components can be replaced or upgraded as and when you require, by yourself.
I often see enquiries along the lines of, “will this gaming machine be suitable for Pro Tools?”. Have a think about it - what are the prime objectives of a gaming machine - to reliably play back HD (and sometimes 3D) pictures in sync with live object based surround sound. Pretty similar to a Pro Tools machine.
In my experience, Avid’s published system requirements can be taken with a small pinch of salt. Most times I’ve seen people having issues with Windows systems, they’ve stuck to the letter of the Avid spec, which doesn’t take into account the latest available technology. What I am about to say will go against common advice, but I’ve found that you don’t have to fully implement ALL the Avid recommended “optimisations” that make Windows ugly to look at and clunky to use. That is my experience - others may vary.
Yep, I’m actually proud of being a Windows Pro Tools user. If anyone tells you that they don’t need to know tech to be creative, then I’d point out that the very best musicians, and indeed vocalists, have an incredibly detailed and intimate knowledge of how they’re producing that sound, and how to manipulate it to best effect.
I come from the era of big analogue patch bays, no automation, no recall, lining up tape machines in the morning, leaving equipment on overnight to ensure consistency of sound – being a sound engineer is a commitment (indeed a lot of us should be committed) and I’ve found that the deeper knowledge you have, the greater things you can achieve.
My previous machine (an i7 2700 on a Gigabyte motherboard) was originally specced as a dual boot “Hackintosh”. I never got around to installing OS-X, as Windows was more than adequately doing the job.
There are a lot of myths surrounding Microsoft, Windows, and self builds, which I hope to lay to rest during my tenure at PTE. There are also downsides, which I’ll be more than happy to discuss. In most cases they are nowhere near as insurmountable as some people will have you believe.
If you’re the sort of person who’s willing to “reach round the back of the rack” and get their hands a bit dirty, a Windows system is for you.
Even if you prefer OS-X, I would strongly suggest that for a non-portable system, you look into self building a Hackintosh (there are many articles online giving detailed procedures and recommendations) or look into the likes of the wonderful Pro Tools PC systems or Scan 3XS systems. That way you get to manage your expenditure and stay within the reach of the latest developments - Thunderbolt 4, USB3.1, USB4, etc. I know of an educational establishment that has just gone down this route, as they needed to take the big step from TDM to HDX, but were locked into an outdated operating system version by their hardware, and could not afford the latest MacPro, with its required expansion chassis, non standard form factor and hardware locked to a specific operating system version.
On the downside, being a Windows user means I don’t get to play with Logic or Final Cut. As I don’t generally do music, and have Adobe Premiere Pro, this isn’t too bad an issue for me, but I understand totally that it may be a deal breaker for others.
I would also add that if you are coming to Windows from a Mac, despite it being a little less attractive, I prefer Windows 7 to 8.1. That’s a personal thing more than anything - I understand that 8.1 is more efficient, and when I briefly used it on the same hardware, it scored marginally better in a DVerb2 test. You also have to remember that if you own a Windows 7 or 8 license, you get a free upgrade to Windows 10 when it is released. There are lots of new lovely developments in 10, so it’s worth keeping an eye on in my opinion.
Best of luck, and remember that as a Windows user, you have 95% of the computer using population alongside you.