It was that odd time between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, where a lot of the community's thoughts turn to what bargains they can snap up in what used to be called the January Sales. This year round though, there are quite a few more options available.
2016 - The Year The Worm Turned?
2016 was quite an active year for audio related computer technology. Windows 10 became more established, went through its first major update and connection formats such as USB-C and Thunderbolt (2 and 3) became available as standard on a whole range of devices, from Tablet PCs right up to Workstations and Servers. At Microsoft Way Redmond, MS worked hard making some very desirable portable machines and demonstrating some quite uncharacteristic style and innovation.
Over at Infinite Loop Cupertino, Apple concentrated more on smart devices and updating their MacBook range, changing to yet another connection format, while not updating their Mac Pro desktop range for a successive year.
With all this happening, it didn't come as much of a surprise to receive the following email to Pro Tools Expert from community member Effie Von Strasserburg -
I've been using Macs + ProTools since 2005 - over 10 years. I've always been pretty happy with the performance and stability I've had with them. When I'm good to my system in terms of upgrading, compatibility, etc, I'm rewarded with a fast, stable system.
My current desktop runs ProTools 12HD natively. I do lots of post-production, music mixing, and film mixing and use lots of plugins. I currently use an Apollo 16, a Satellite Octo, and an Avid Artist Mix. I am very happy with this machine.
But. I'm looking to the future. I'm looking to do VR and game work. I want to be able to test my work in their environments and get the user experience. I want upgradability. I want cost effectiveness. I want to interact with ProTools via touch screen.
I feel as though Apple has been paying less attention to me and others like me, and will continue to do so. My machine retails at $4K+ and I believe I could get a PC that spanks it for around $3k. While Apple is dropping ports, Windows is making their machines open to all ports.
So my question comes down to: Can I have a stable, complete experience using ProTools 12HD on Windows 10 on a new PC? People have been complaining about errors and instability issues for as long as I can remember. But that's the past, and this is the future. Is it stable? Will my workflow change? Are there things I should be aware of? How do I go about speccing out a compatible computer?
Current Desktop: Mac Pro 2013 (Trashcan) Processor 3.7 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon E5 Memory 64 GB 1866 MHz DDR3 ECC Graphics AMD FirePro D300 2048 MB
Reputation, Reputation, Reputation
Effie also posted a very cut down version of his question on his Facebook timeline, and one person responded with the following meme -
I absolutely cannot deny that the consumer desktop version of Windows has in the past had a deservedly bad reputation when it came to audio and video, especially when interfacing with specialist kit. However as the years wore on and the likes of Intel and AMD made greater advances in CPU and GPU technology it slowly but steadily became possible to build a fast, reliable, and pleasing to the eye, Windows based system, at a very reasonable budget.
2016 also marked the year when Microsoft took a very brave step - they decided to make it impossible to install any Windows operating system older than 10, on the latest generation Intel processors. The legacy ability of Windows has been one of its greatest strengths, but also its Achilles heel.
This steady advance in Windows user experience was given an excellent boost when Avid launched Pro Tools 11, going 64bit and ditching the QuickTime Video Playback Engine in favour of the Avid Video Engine. 64bit meant that now Pro Tools could access all those hyperthreaded cores on the latest 6th generation Intel CPUs with maximum efficiency and the AVE meant Windows Pro Tools users could at last exploit the third party PCIe and USB3 video peripherals, that had previously been the preserve of Windows Media Composer users or Mac Pro Tools users.
Indeed as this technology was originally developed for the Windows platform, Windows Pro Tools video performance far outperformed that experienced on an equivalent Mac platform, as my article comparing AVE performance on Macs And Windows showed.
I've been using Pro Tools 12HD on Windows 10 Pro for the past year in Post Production for Film, TV and internet, in stereo, 5.1 and 7.1, and not had a single problem. I've been using Pro Tools on Windows for the past eleven years, and have been consistently impressed at how well the Windows version performs compared to the Mac version. Although my own main system is Windows, I regularly use my MacBook Pro, often swapping projects between, and the nature of my work means I am often finishing a mix on a Mac system. The main issues I've found are that the vast majority of Mac systems out there are actually reasonably old now. They may have dual processors and vast amounts of RAM, but drive access is slower as is the RAM, the CPUs are old technology and the GPU is nowhere near as high spec. A good GPU makes an incredible difference to the user experience. What I find is that sessions that run natively quite happily on my Windows system, cause the Mac system grief - I can't have as many plugin windows open simultaneously, I can't have as many screens, I have to run a larger RAM drive because disk access is slower.
Think Inside The Box
Going back to Effie's question, it is indeed possible to put together a reliable, high performance Windows system, for a fraction of the cost - both initial outlay and running / service, of the equivalent spec Mac "on paper".
Here's my system -
- Asus X99-A DDR4 Motherboard
- Asus ThunderboltEX II/DUAL PCI Express Dual Port Thunderbolt 2 PCI Controller
- Intel Core i7 5820K s2011 6 (12) core CPU 4GHz
- Thermalright True Spirit 140 Air CPU Cooler
- Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB 2400MHz DDR4 RAM 4x4GB (4 of 8 available slots)
- NVidia GTX660Ti Cuda 2GB DDR5 GPU
- 600w be quiet Straight Power PSU
- Samsung 850 Evo Pro SSDs x 4 - 1 system and 3 media
- Fractal Designs Arc Midi Case
- Icydock MB324SP 4 x 2.5" Hot Swap Caddie for 5.25" bay
- RME FireFace 802 USB2
The GPU, case, RME and a couple of the SSDs were from an existing system, so I made the leap up to this beast for under £1000. To build from scratch would have been around £1,300. I chose the motherboard carefully so it had both Thunderbolt 2 and USB-C support, but also supported the newer 8 and 10 core processors coming on the market. I also took my time to choose the right power supply as I needed one that would adequately supply all those CPU and GPU cores running at full tilt and still have enough to spare to reliably serve SSDs and cooling.
The Icydock Hot Swap Caddie is the most recent "upgrade". I wanted to be able to easily swap my media drives around, or lock them up when working on secure sensitive projects. I also wanted to start my latest project - a dual boot Windows 10 Pro / MacOS Sierra system. More on that later. The great thing about using a third party case is that they're designed for extensive modification and adaption. I fitted the four bay caddy in around fifteen minutes.
The main downside is that my support line and service department are yours truly. Before undertaking a self build, you have to do hours of research and ensure that either you have the competency, or that you have a good support network around you.
I chose the RME interface as they have a proven track record with Windows drivers. Indeed with their proprietary USB2 drivers providing PCI level performance, it's the single most reliable piece of kit I own. It just always works, the user interface has never crashed, and the interface has never crashed the host system or Pro Tools, which is more than I can say for many other manufacturers. When there are third party driver issues, people tend to first blame Windows, when it's actually an issue with the third party. It's understandable - Windows has that unfortunate reputation, and some manufacturers tend to fall back on that as an excuse.
Since installing Windows 10 on this hardware, I have not had a single "Blue Screen Of Death". Even hardware that is not qualified for Thunderbolt on Windows still works, as I showed in my HD Native Thunderbolt Will It Work On Windows article as far back as 2015. I have had to be selective in which Thunderbolt drivers I install (I am currently using the Asus Windows 8 64 bit drivers), but that's mainly due to Asus' support database not keeping up. My advice for this respect is to always read between the lines. If there's a PCIe version of a product with Windows drivers, there's a high likelihood that the Thunderbolt version will work.
To paraphrase a lyric by a recently departed genius, "Change is natural, change is good. Not everybody does it, but everybody should". There will be some little niggles. You might need to think laterally or obtain support. Your muscle memory will need subtle retraining to get used to the different modifier key layouts, but that's a really minor thing. Keep in mind what you're doing - there's only so much that will remain identical - the devil is in the detail. If you are at all unsure, you should seek out a pre-built / pre-installed solution, from one of the many companies that now specialise in this. You might find that a small but necessary tweak in your workflow turns out to be the best thing you've ever done.
What? I Have To Buy The Operating System?
Unfortunately, yes. It was very tempting to try to upgrade a working Pro Tools Windows 7 system to Windows 10 via the free offer, but more often than less it led to problems. My advice is to always do a clean install, with a new authorisation key, using the ISO image download and installation media creation tool available from Microsoft. You can pick up an "OEM" version of Windows 10 Pro for as little as £13. For that little expense, it saves a whole load of bother.
If you really really can't get your head around Windows, but can't afford a new Mac, there is another option.
Several years ago when I first looked in to building a "Hackintosh", you could buy OS-X on a DVD in the Apple Store, and independent IT retailers were more than willing to give advice on what components to get to ensure a best compatible Hackintosh build. However in recent years, it seems that the the lawyers in Cupertino have been flexing their muscles, and now I've found it almost impossible to get advice from IT retailers - as soon as they find out what you're building they say, "I can't give you any help or advice with this".
There are however a lot of online resources - even a site where you can look up how to build the equivalent of most Apple models, from a kind of "iHack", to a "HackMini", through to a "HackPro". It's very easy to find these resources - just put the word "Hackintosh" in to your favourite search engine.
There is also a very good (but very long) thread on the DUC - the Avid User board about Self Builds, full of very useful information.
Outside The Avid Bubble
Other software works very well on Windows - Nuendo and Adobe Premiere Pro both absolutely fly and take full advantage of whatever third party hardware you have.
There are things you might lose by going to Windows though, and it's important to think through what you're going to do about that. Namely any apps that are only developed for Apple, or have the majority of their development work done for Apple. There are a few manufacturers who offer a limited version of their software, or indeed lack some features on Windows, but there is a growing swell of companies who traditionally used to be Mac only, developing for Windows.
Be prepared. Research thoroughly, and then as long as your situation is not being advanced by hardware failure, schedule in a time when you're not busy and can give this transition the time it needs.
At Pro Tools Expert we've always said that the best DAW is the one that works for you. It's the same with hardware and operating systems. For me, Pro Tools on Windows gives me the best bang for buck, the best flexibility and the best user experience.
We're here to help, and would love to hear your experiences.