I recently got involved in making an internal video for the team I’m a part of it. Because I’m a big fan of Microsoft’s new operating system, Vista, and because there is little information about professional creative tools and compatibility, I decided to try to do the entire project in Vista. The project turned out to be more complicated than I thought, and as a result it became a good review of the current state (as of Apr. 6th, 2007) of professional audio, video and imaging on the platform. What I discovered is that the experience had both good points and bad points and I’ll try to summarize them here.
update: Cakewalk is validating audio hardware here: http://www.cakewalk.com/vista/ the list is growing fast. Yaaay!
The project was to create an update report for the quarter. We just built a small studio into the Platform Adoption Center at the first of the year and we were looking for ways to increases awareness of the new studio and subsequently utilization. Rather than do something simple, say like an email which tends to get ignored, we decided to try to do something interesting and fun on video. Of course, we didn't really anticipate the scope of the project when we started, but in the end I ended up exercising a wide variety of applications on Vista.
The length of the project worked out to be almost 30 minutes. The video comprised 7 puppet segments shot against green screen, 1 graphics intensive music video, an opening sequence and a credit roll. For the video I also arranged and recorded my co-workers singing "The Platform Way", which consisted of original lyrics sung to the music of the Sesame Street Theme. I also wrote and recorded one electronica piece for the music video. I'm not saying that we achieved some cinematic master piece, in fact it was pretty amateur looking, but the result is widely considered to be amusing and a notch above the usual fare one might see.
I wish I could post the resulting work for everyone to see, but it's really just a Microsoft internal communication. The presented content was actually pretty boring, just the production is of any real interest.
Hardware and Software
Along the way I used a wide suite of hardware and software tools on Vista (for the most part) to reach the final work. Here's the list:
Windows Vista Ultimate Edition
Cakewalk Sonar 6.21 Producer Edition
Digital Audio Workstation Software
Sony Vegas 7.0 Vegas+DVD
Non-Linear Video Editor
Adobe Creative Suite CS2
Imaging and Illustration Application
Serious Magic Ultra 2
Green-screen Compositing Application
Intel Core 2 Quad Core 2.66Ghz
CPU with 4 Processing Cores
BadAxe2 Intel Motherboard with 2 Gigs RAM, 500 G Raid 0 drives.
A Gamer/Performance MB
NVIDIA GeForce 7950 GT Display card
Wacom Graphire 4 Tablet
Absolute Positioning Input Device
NewTek VT 
Real-time Video Switcher and DDR
DVI Capture Hardware
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Pre8
Firewire Based Audio Interface
Mackie Onyx 1220 with Firewire Option
Analog Mixer With Digital Capture
I'm going describe how each of these items worked for me in the sections that follow.
Sonar, I'm happy to say, runs quite fine on Vista with its downloadable Vista update. It doesn't actually use the cool features in Vista like desktop search, but it does run just as well as it did on XP. It runs fine in limited user mode, only requiring elevation for one time activation. It also keeps user settings separate from other users, but I'm happy to say it doesn't force all your projects into My Documents. Instead it continues to support the same centralized audio storage drive layout as it always has.
There was one minor UI issue on when I ran Sonar on a 2048x1920 resolution monitor. Because the standard and even the large text in the interface is still too small to read, Vista added a feature to choose any size DPI for your screen fonts. This causes trouble in many apps, often confusing them about how far a mouse goes when twisting a virtual knob or slider. To be honest, it’s a hard test scenario to discover unless you using high end graphics cards and CRT displays. For Sonar, this prevented sliders and knobs from being positioned properly. For the rest of the project I returned to a more ordinary resolution of 1600x1200 and a normal font DPI.
Some folks have reported that Sonar runs better on Vista, but effectively I didn't see any difference. On the plus side, I played all 22 takes of a recording at the same time and it didn't drop any samples. That might be more a function of the 4 cores and raid drives than Vista though. It’s safe to say there doesn’t appear to be any performance drawbacks to running your DAW on Vista.
I also used Sonar's ability to frame sync video to the audio without trouble. It was great for scoring, aligning audio tracks with video, cleaning up the audio, and adding sound effects.
Sony Vegas hasn't been patched for Vista yet and some features don't function. The media manager, for example, relies on MSDE (SQL 2000 Lite) and MSDE no longer runs in Vista. Losing the Vegas media manager is not very debilitating, and in fact, the new features in the Vista file browser make it preferable to the media manager.
The trimmer panel no longer functioned. I was still able to trim in the track view, but the trimmer has tools for slicing up footage in an efficient manner. As a workaround, I pulled my b-roll footage into a new Vegas project, cut it up in there, and then used Edit / Copy and then Edit / Past to move the clips between the b-roll project and the other projects in the production. Not as easy as using the trimmer, but better than having to drag around 20 minutes of B-roll in the same place as a 4 minute segment.
Another function that didn't work was capture. In XP Vegas can capture HD Mpeg2 streams and standard DV streams without trouble. In Vista, I couldn't load the XP-only JVC GR-HD1 drivers so MPEG2 was out of the question, and for some reason the standard DV capture would just terminate as soon as it started in Vegas. In the end I had to resort to the VT to do my b-roll tape capture. The studio capture was already done direct to disk using the VT, so it wasn't much of a hassle. I did test Vista's Movie Maker. It captures DV just fine but you can't control what codec is used and it's a pretty limited tool as well. So, there are options in Vista but you might want to keep an XP box around if you need to rip video from your tapes.
Sony Vegas’s performance and stability under Vista was just great. For the music video I did a 10 layer composite at one point with motion and optical blur and I thought that if anything threw a wrench, this would. It trundled along (pretty fast because of the quad cores) and I was good to go. This is what you would hope for from your old XP NLE and it remained true in the shiny new Vista one. So while some auxiliary features were missing, the core functions of Vegas are still there.
Adobe Creative Suite CS2 Premium
The production featured 7 virtual sets and I did the assembly of the virtual sets in Photoshop from different sources and my own photographs. Photoshop worked as it always did without a single glitch letting me work with my high definition photos without a complaint. Adobe Bridge had trouble getting around the new user folder structure and would sometimes lock up for long periods. As it was with Sony Vegas, the Vista file explorer is actually a better replacement for Bridge now.
I used the Epiphan to capture some b-roll of Excel spreadsheets to use in one of the video segments. Epiphan released Vista drivers a couple months ago and they worked fine in Vista. I was able to use Media Encoder with it to capture 1024x768 at 8 frames/sec (same speed as XP).
MOTU Pre8 Audio Interface
MOTU was one of the first companies to release Vista drivers at Vista launch. I know they worked quite hard on them. That's why I was quite sad when they caused Vista to blue screen on a regular basis. I never actually lost any data during a capture and they never dropped a sample or did anything else bad. Instead the drivers would blue screen when I was switching from one app to another. Say switching from Outlook to Photoshop, or Sonar to IE. It didn't appear to be at all related to the actual core function of the drivers which is to create and record audio streams. Maybe it had something to do with my running all those applications at the same time.
Over the course of the project I experimented with a lot of latency settings and settings around application ownership in Vista but this instability didn't disappear. On the plus side, the Pre8 would generate a bunch of click sounds in advance which often gave me time to hit the save button before the crash. At the actual writing of this article I still believe MOTU is one of the few, if only, company with Vista drivers so this problem is quite acceptable considering there are functional drivers at all.
Mackie has not released Vista drivers for the Onyx yet. I installed the XP drivers anyway and the seemed to work for at least two sessions and then they quit working altogether. At one point it recorded corrupt audio. Needless to say, I don't recommend using the Onyx for audio capture in Vista yet. On the plus side, it did give me an excuse to go out and purchase the Pre8 which I'd been drooling over anyway. The Onyx 1220 is a great analog mixer and the audio capture is not its key focus anyway, but it would have been nice to have it functioning.
I used Serious Magic Ultra 2 to extract the video of the foreground subjects (puppets and humans) from the green screen in the background. Considering how little I knew about lighting a green screen (experience is a hard teacher) the application did remarkably well. The file browser didn't function that well in Vista (sense a theme yet?) and, sadly, it didn't support cut and paste or drag and drop files either. I limped along though and function just fine.
Intel Core 2 Quad Core 2.66GhzBadAxe2 Intel Motherboard with 2 Gigs RAM, 500 G Raid 0 SATA 2 drives.NVIDIA GeForce 7950 GT Display card
The workstation itself kicked butt. All the devices had working Vista drives and it was a speedy experience. I really enjoyed it. I'd love to share some performance statistics with you but I'm not qualified to do it justice. Just imagine using a system that knocks on the ceiling of the Windows Experience Index and you might get an idea. I mean, like, wow, I can’t believe I’m still alive to see such speed come to the world!
Wacom released drivers for Vista and they've made a big deal about it. They should. Under Vista the Wacom tablet makes quite the power user tool. Since the features of XP Tablet PC were integrated into Vista's core, the Wacom tablet now adds a lot of function to any pro workstation whether it’s audio, video or imaging. Even under XP a tablet provides a lot of enhancement with its absolution positioning and pressure sensitive tip. Dragging items, drawing images, entering notes and even using the buttons on the calculator accessory becomes easy using a tablet. With Vista you get to add text recognition, pen flicks and press and hold gestures. In XP I used to have to drop the pen and go to the keyboard every time I need to type in an exact value into some text box. Now I just ink it in. It made a huge difference in how I worked during the project and I think EVERYONE should use a tablet with Vista.
It is not really a Vista application nor would I ever install it on Vista until NewTek recommends it. The reason is that VT is tuned to a specific configuration. I’m afraid that if I upgraded the workstation it was installed on I'd be afraid it would never work again. In fact, I don't even think of it as an application, I think of it as an appliance that just happens to use XP for its OS. The reason I mention it here is that I used it for all my studio capture and it had a slight interoperability flaw with Vista. Anytime the Vista workstation would attempt to access a share on the VT it would only work for a short while. After that it would fail to read the share. Detaching the share and rebooting both systems would let me connect again, but again only for about an hour. This didn't happen when I tested the same share from XP or Server 2003 so it wasn’t a network configuration error. The NewTek box, on the other hand, could access shares on the Vista workstation just fine. This let me work around the problem by using Remote Desktop on the VT and starting the copy from that direction.
Okay, I admit it, I love Vista and I’m not just saying that because I work for the company. We at Microsoft have been using Vista for years now and we really appreciate the final product. You would think we hate after having it consume our lives for so long, but it is really much, much better than XP.
Here are the Vista features I used during the project that I would have missed in XP:
· Tablet and Ink support, I already talked about that.
· File Browser –Support for lots of graphic type previews. I used tagging to organize my project assets. Copy dialogs gave me detailed information about all those large files I watched copy and allowed me to resolve naming conflicts. Super fast files searches. I like jumping around in the file path and it keeps a history with back and forward buttons.
· Performance Monitor – Very nice interface to let you know when your machine was overloaded, or when the render was crunching all your CPU. No more need to start up the task manager to see if your network speed is good enough for my gigantic file copies.
· Virtual Memory – The performance of the memory manager has had a lot of tweaking and in it really stretched the power of the PC. Even though I had all my applications live at the same time, and my paged disk size was a tad over a gig, things ran just as fast as ever. Sometimes there would be a small delay when I brought up an app that had been sleeping a while, but I never saw that crazy hard drive thrashing you see in XP.
· Start Menu Search – It’s just nice being able to run a problem by typing its first few letters.
· Carousel Windows Switching – I had a lot of windows up at one time, being able to review them graphically helped me select the right window every time.
There are a lot of other features in Vista that make it great, but these features are specifically the things that increased my productivity and made my project easier to accomplish.
I encourage you to make your own mind up about it, but I found that the benefits of Vista made up for some of the current problems. You may have other devices and applications that prevent you from building or upgrading to a Vista workstation. This is only a temporary thing.
If you have the same setup as mine, or when support appears for your gear, you will really gain by moving to Vista. If you’ve been thinking about how nice it would be to upgrade to a spiffy new quad core, you really want to make sure it runs Vista too or you’ll feel like you are running economy gas in your new sports car.
You won’t lose any performance or any capabilities when compared to XP. I actually predict you will get things done faster and if by some horrible twist of fate you are forced to use some old XP box, your heart will break like mine does.