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Windows 8 brings performance improvements to Sonar

Lower latency, better CPU load balancing, reduced memory usage, better disk performance... Something to look forward to?


Here's an interesting article written by someone who knows about the inner workings of DAW software. That someone is Noel Borthwick, CTO of Cakewalk Inc., so he should know quite a lot. Really, quite a lot. These are the inner workings that users don't need to think about on a day-to-day basis. But a little knowledge or awareness of how a DAW works 'under the hood' must have a certain value.

It is also a useful reminder that OS developers don't care that much about pro audio because it is a very small part of their market. As Borthwick says, "Call me cynical but in the multimedia/DAW industry we're bottom feeders. Most operating systems vendors don't really care about high performance audio, so most benefits we see tend to be 'happy accidents' or side effects of other more commercially viable features."

As you might have heard already, Windows 8 has two modes of operation - Metro and Desktop. Metro, so it seems to me, is Microsoft's answer to Apple's iOS, as found in the iPhone, iPod and iPad. Although it is almost inevitable that audio and music apps will be created for Metro, that is going to be something for the future rather than right now. So Desktop mode will be our playground for some time to come.

When it comes to upgrading something as important as an operating system, my inclination is always to play safe. I have working DAW systems and I want to keep them working. Upgrading always carries a risk, so I will only upgrade a test system, not a production system. When the test system is proven to work properly, then I will put it into production, but I will always have a backup running the old software until I am absolutely sure.

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So Windows 8 doesn't fill me with excitement in that sense. On the other hand, one cannot ignore the relentless march of progress. Sooner or later, upgrading becomes essential. And if Windows 8 offers advantages in any way, I want to have those advantages.

At this point you might like to read Borthwick's article in its entirety. Or perhaps just skip to the conclusions.

Borthwick's conclusions are encouraging. To quote...

SONAR CPU gains were observed when using Windows 8 for Low latency performance tests. These gains mean you can run bigger loads in Win8 at low latency without audio glitching.

  • low latency plugins - 15.5% CPU reduction
  • input monitoring - 8% CPU reduction
  • high track count - 23% CPU reduction
  • High bandwidth audio -6.2% CPU reduction

Workloads for cores are more evenly balanced at low latencies on Windows 8. Better balanced core workloads translate to more efficient use of multiple CPU core hardware and thereby better workload scaling for large projects.

  • low latency plugins - 23% improvement
  • input monitoring - 31.7% improvement
  • high track count - 30.6% improvement
  • High bandwidth audio - 17.5% improvement 

A 7.9% reduction in memory use under Win8 was observed when loading a large real world SONAR project (Cori Yarkin project from SONAR sample content) under identical system configuration. Reduced memory load can be observed in most of the tests.

A 78% improvement under Win8 was observed in disk read/write performance while reading large buffer sizes. Improvements were more moderate at smaller buffer sizes. 

An 85% reduction in system calls was observed under Windows 8 in the input monitoring case and more moderate gains in the other cases. Fewer system calls translate to improved CPU load as well as fewer user mode to kernel transitions which mean fewer audio glitches. 

25 - 50% reduction in kernel use can be observed in some of the tests with Win8. Lower kernel use results in fewer audio glitches since it leaves more headroom for audio drivers.

From these data, the future for Windows 8 in Desktop mode as a DAW platform looks very bright. Basically, you get more performance from your existing DAW software. Of course, this test only applies to Sonar, but hopefully similar improvements can be achieved in other Windows DAWs.

Oh, and by the way - I like the $39.99 upgrade pricing a lot! This isn't what we normally expect from Microsoft.

And I like the new Metro look too. My iPhone looks a mess with all those jazzy icons which, compared to the clean lines of Metro, now all seem rather dated.

By David Mellor Thursday July 5, 2012