Quick! Run! My operating system just glitched! Photo: grizbass

Your ears and mind are incredibly sensitive to tiny details of sound. Result: if your operating system can’t keep up with sound output for any reason, you’ll get a noticeable “glitch” in the sound — and that’s a big deal. Windows Vista promised to be “glitch-free” in development, later reworded to “glitch-resistant” or “glitch-resilient.” Then it shipped, and a lot of us noticed it was, well, just plain glitchy, at least at the beginning of this year when Vista met up with half-finished, buggy drivers.

All operating systems will glitch under certain circumstances, though, and the causes are many. Microsoft has a great post on their Vista Team Blog today from Steve Ball, who seems to be a really sharp guy and has a great handle on how Vista can continue to improve in terms of audio performance.

An Overview of Windows Sound and Music “Glitching” Issues

Well worth reading, whether you’re a Windows user or not. (Linux and Mac can absolutely encounter the same issues, and as you look through the full list of possible causes you’ll see why.) There’s quite a lot missing from this discussion, but the blog promises this is part 1 of 2, and you’ll find some more meat in the discussion in comments.

I did enjoy this description of why we’re so bothered by glitches:

My colleague on the Windows Sound team, Larry Osterman, also pointed out to me recently that humans are actually “hard-wired” to be disturbed by audio glitches. In an exchange about this topic, Larry observed that audio glitches are more obvious than video glitches because the ear’s tuned to notice high frequency transients — his visceral example of this idea is an image of a stick snapping in the woods behind you as an audio event that wakes you up before a bear wanders into your path.

I think I have the same visceral reaction to software bugs. (Help! A bear!)

I’m writing this from Vista right now, and I have to say, I found all kinds of reproducible glitching problems early on. But now, various hotfixes and driver updates better, Vista’s audio performance is running really smoothly for me. I think the major culprit on Vista in the early months of the release was video drivers, an issue which for me, and many others, has finally been fixed. Yes, there are lots of other possible sources, but on my system, on other systems, on forums, etc., the common cause I kept hearing was video. Move a window, glitch. Open a window, glitch. And even switching from Aero to older video compatibility modes, I still saw performance problems. On my system, at least, all it took was installing NVIDIA’s July update to its unified video drivers, and all those problems went away. Vista for me is slicker, smoother, and more glitch-free than XP, which is what I was hoping for in the first place.

I’m sure this doesn’t apply to everyone, but on the NVIDIA side alone, the unified driver model means that those benefits should be felt by anyone with a supported NVIDIA card. It’s completely changed how I feel about Vista; for all the talk of slick, new features, my feeling is that users of all operating systems most want their systems to run better.

Anyway, desktop operating systems — all of them — are complicated. So have a look at the article, and since we have a community of developers here (some of whom have worked on these kinds of drivers on Linux), I’d love to hear your thoughts. CDM will be covering Vista’s progress through the month of November to see how (or whether) the OS has matured in its first year.

And Vista users, I’m equally curious to hear if your performance matches mine. Some of you I know were doing really well early on with audio performance — and for some, the common thread was that you didn’t have NVIDIA cards. (In fairness, ATI had some early driver issues of its own.)

  • Adrian Anders

    Glad to hear that Peter… my paranoia about Vista has eased up since it first came out… but I'm still holding on to XP for no other reason that I have some hardware and software that won't run on Vista (and probably never will).

  • http://thejaan.com Jaan

    Hey hey! Just a quick question: whenever I minimize a DAW or other sound app then there's a small buzzing sound. Is that an issue in Vista as well?

    Cheers.

  • http://thecrawlingchaos.net Derek C. F. Pegritz

    Vista's endless sound glitches have made the OS literally useless to me as a platform for audio production or even audio appreciation. I have a SoundBlaster X-Fi Platinum soundcard, and the drivers for it literally stop working after at most an hour or two everytime I boot Vista. I have un/re-installed the drivers a thousand times, have communicated extensively with Creative about the issue, and have reported it to Microsoft…but the problem has yet to be resolved.

    Currently, I'm running a dual-boot system: WindowsXP and Vista. Audio work in XP is flawless…but I can't even get Sonar 7 to install properly on Vista, let alone get the drivers to function. I haven't booted Vista in six weeks and, honestly, I doubt I'll boot it again: I might as well eliminate the partition and use it for more sample storage.

  • http://motscousus.com/music/ mots

    Jaan: yes this windows minimize effect affecting audio has been there since the beginning.

    i just disable alltogether this effect in the display settings. but i come back every second day when i start an application (i couldn't find out why though). it's for now my number one annoyance in windows

  • http://www.keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    It's not just high frequencies… if people pull up in cars with loud subwoofers, I have a similar fight-or-flight response, as if a herd of buffalo are stampeding towards my studio.

    Dammit, sound can be nerve-wracking.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I'm running a fairly modest machine here. NVIDIA 7600 GT + AMD x2 3800+ + 2GB RAM. I don't have any issues with Aero animated effects causing *any* audio problems on Vista. Now, I used to have all kinds of issues *before* I installed NVIDIA's July driver update. So, my sense is turning off effects, turning off Aero even doesn't really solve the problem. (Still potentially a good idea, but not for this reason.) I think that issue is symptomatic of a buggy driver that wasn't really operating properly and was starving the GPU and/or CPU.

    So…

    @Jaan: this is actually running more smoothly for me on Vista now than XP, but only after thoroughly updating. And if you dig into that story, it does explain some of the reasons this happens in the first place.

    @Derek: that's really too bad to hear that. I haven't had the problems you're having — SONAR is running really well. I'm guessing it's driver problems for you, too, and given my experience I certainly don't estimate how damaging that can be.

    Of course, if XP is running that well, no reason not to just stick with XP.

    @mots: That's really odd. I've never had problems disabling effects on XP or Vista. Which OS are you on? How are you disabling it? I'm just wondering what's wiping out your settings…

    @Keith: yeah, I'm with you. I actually disagree with the "high frequency" explanation above, as dropouts are just as annoying and they're silence.

  • Matt

    I installed Vista Business on an extra partition to test it out with my audio setup, expecting there to be major problems. To my amazement, everything worked fine – even my old Emagic 2×4 midi interface worked perfectly after I installed the Windows 2000 drivers!

    Unfortunately, after about 2 weeks I started getting "access denied" errors out of the blue when I tried to run program installers from the desktop. I wasn't able to figure out what was going on, so the affair was over and I went back to XP. At least on the audio and video side of things I didn't notice any problems; I'm running an Athlon 4600 x2 on an Asus M2N-E

    motherboard with 2GB ram and a Radeon x1600 Pro video card, in case anyone is taking notes of compatible setups. I'm using an Echo Layla PCI audio interface. Perhaps I had better luck because of the AMD/ATI video card.

  • PercyP

    Come on, is nobody going to say it? Okay…Yeah audio glitches are a real bugbear of mine too! :D

  • canuckistani

    So, MS has fixed some glitches in Vista and the sound performance is better. This sounds a lot like when XP SP1 came out and suddenly it worked a lot better for audio as well. The *other* problem with Vista for musicians and any other serious computer user is that usability and in particular the pedantically overbearing security model have gone straight to hell from XP.

  • ailef

    "Vista’s endless sound glitches have made the OS literally useless to me as a platform for audio production or even audio appreciation. I have a SoundBlaster X-Fi Platinum soundcard"

    this card is ok for normal users.

    it's not good enough for professional use.

    i got a lynx L22, it's far away from creative.

    there are others brands too u can compare to lynx but creative products are just good to replace an internal soundcard, nothing more.

  • Ben

    It's really funny, all of the people I know (including myself) who are running their audio software on Vista Business have had no audio problems at all, yet a fair few of my friends who are using the other versions of Vista seem to have had a pile of problems. Go figure :)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    That's really bizarre.

    I'm having no problems on Vista Ultimate, fwiw. NOW. I was definitely having problems before.

    I think there's a near-certainty this is other issues, like driver compatibilities, and not which flavor of Vista you have. Except for the lack of Aero in Home Basic, there's nothing that would account for this.

    I'll be writing up a Vista Survival Guide soon, but here's my one really simple trick for everyone:

    Turn. Off. UAC. (User Account Control)

    Things like installers not running, etc., almost universally related to this. This utility makes it easy:
    http://www.tweak-uac.com/

    Take security precautions as always, but UAC causes total havoc with installers, with very little apparent security benefit. And UAC has bugs of its own, some of which have been addressed with recent hotfixes, but I suspect more bufixes are on the way. So turn it off. If you're reading this, you don't need it, and you'll be better off with it off.

    Oh, PS … the SoundBlaster stuff I agree isn't a "pro-level" card, but it still ought to work. And it does have interesting potential; I was thinking about playing with programming some of their onboard DSP and sound positioning functions for surround, etc.

  • james

    dropouts might be a section of silence but at the beginning and end of that silence there'll be a sharp transient. now my understanding of ffts etc is pretty weak but wouldn't a sharp transient contain lots of high frequencies? or at least lots of frequencies? nitpicking, sorry.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I've heard glitches of various timbres; I'll say that. Most of them sound more broadband than high-frequency to me. I think the thing is, any sound that's not expected/part of the material can be disruptive. I'm not sure it has to be high-frequency to be annoying (see: surround sound screwups where you get low-freq boom).

  • kelly
  • flip

    I think almost any mammal has a fear of sudden or unexplained audio. I have a cat that kept biting me when I was recording some overtones produced by wine glasses. Said cat wouldn't leave me alone till I blasted him with a recording of lightning & thunder. He stayed in the other room under the bed for the rest of the session. I know it sounds cruel, but you should have seen the bite marks!

  • poopoo

    How about a pre-emptive kernel? That would solve almost all the problems mentioned in the article. However I don't think the problems mentioned are the real issues here. After all, the examples given (cpu starvation etc.) should occur in all non-pre-emptive kernels such as XP.

    I think the real problem is flawed design in the Vista code. The article links a second article about the "discovery" of problems with "Multimedia Class Scheduler Service (MMCSS), a feature new to Windows Vista". How many more "discoveries" are waiting to be made?

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  • Damon

    Gratuitous bear shots. Highly unprofessional. Got any cougar or ocelot shots?

  • http://rosswriting.com/blog/ Bill Ross

    Hi, Peter,

    Just thought I'd let you know that I posted something about the least technical bit (at least electronically speaking) in this post, about Ball passing along Osterman's observation on "why we’re so bothered by glitches."

    I'd had the same thought, along visual rather than auditory lines, and this became the perfect prod to write it up. Linked to you and this post, of course:
    http://rosswriting.blogspot.com/2007_11_01_archiv

    …but as you'll see, I agree with Damon, the last commenter, and went with a tiger over the bear — much scarier, I thought, thus bringing the point home with more punch.

    I do some music, too, which we refer to as "world trance fusion," and did a CD of mostly drums, bells and percussion but with a half-dozen tracks based on or augmented with Performer and a Korg X5, & now on iTunes. (Ah, yes, all too familiar with the glitches; but usually worked it out by trimming the number of simultaneous notes.)
    http://rosswriting.com/warblehead

    …although I got here looking for something else. Nothing like the Web for serendipity, hm?

  • jg

    "Vista might be glitchy and unstable for audio use"…

    YAY, I am going to run out and buy a copy RIGHT NOW!!!…

    oh, wait…

  • CDB

    Someone please help me with this absolute disaster. I recently bought a Dell Vostro 1400 with Vista. I operate Sonar 7 for most of my music work, including vocal recording. I get constant glitches when trying to play a Sonar file with even 2 tracks…an instrumental and a vocal. It glitches while I am recording, which destroys any vocal takes. I don't know what to do. I use a US-122 Tascam mic pre-amp.

    Specs:

    Vostro 1400, Intel Core 2 Duo T5270, 1.4GHz, 800Mhz, 2M L2 Cache

    2GB, DDR2, 667MHz 2 DIMM

    128MB nVidia GeForce 8400M GS Graphics Card

    160G 5400RPM SATA Hard Drive

    Genuine Windows Vista Home Basic

    thanks!

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  • Steve Madsen

    so, 2 years later is there a fix for this crap yet? my vista laptop gives me a blast of glitch every couple minutes when i'm not touching the computer & playing music on it.