An intricate audio puzzle

Since I moved to Windows 8, I am having multiple and increasingly annoying issues with my audio setup for computer-assisted music creation. I am slowly reaching a dead end that will force me to give up on creating music. At best, I will only be able to play some beats for fun with hardware synthesizers: no way to record, mix, apply effects etc., no way to ever come up with a full end-to-end song, just repeated audio patterns.

Initial setup

Here is my configuration:

  • Intel Core i7
  • 16Gb of RAM
  • 240Gb SSD
  • 1Tb HDD
  • M-Audio’s Fast Track Pro
  • (About to become infamous) Ableton’s Live 9.1
  • Infamous Windows 8.1

The M-Audio interface is accepting input from two TRS jacks. I was usually plugging the output of my Korg’s EMX+Kaoss Pad during session recording. The interface also has S/PDIF input that I was using to feed in audio from my Novation’s UltraNova hardware synthesizer. This trick allowed me to record four separate tracks with that otherwise stereo-only interface. Sound is output to two KRK audio monitors.

During a few months, this configuration worked correctly. However, from October 2014, things started to misbehave in multiple random ways. I initially thought this was because of my UltraNova, but problems persist even if I uninstall UltraNova’s drivers and unplug it from USB.

Here are the issues I am facing with the setup:

  • Some recording sessions go well, but after I close Ableton’s Live, turn off my devices and shut down my computer, Windows is stuck in a loop, incapable of completely turning off the machine. Screen remains black, computer fan continues spinning. Problem can happen if I leave the audio interface plugged and turned on, or if I turn it off.
  • Sometimes, sound has an incorrect pitch. There seems to be a mismatch between audio frequencies: Ableton’s Live sends 44.1kHz while audio interface plays at 48kHz. There is no solution, except repeatedly unplugging and plugging the audio interface from a USB port, try in another port, until it works.
  • Sometimes the M-Audio driver goes corrupt and cannot play sound anymore except through ASIO using Live. When this happens, I have to completely uninstall and reinstall the driver.
  • A few weeks ago, my UltraNova started to sound awfully distorted when sound was going through S/PDIF. Worried, I tried hooking up the synthesizer to my home theater AV receiver, through S/PDIF of course, and sound was super clean. Problem is thus caused by the M-Audio interface.
  • The behavior is different but incorrect on Linux: S/PDIF sound goes out distorted unless I lower my UltraNova’s volume to more than the half. Under Windows+Live, distortion happens at that volume level as well. As a result, it seems that some software component is involved in S/PDIF handling, and that component now misbehaves differently on Windows and Linux.

After I started getting distortion through S/PDIF, I felt it was too much for me and tried to change my configuration.

Second setup: another audio interface

My UltraNova offers an onboard audio interface. In order to isolate the M-Audio interface from the overwhelmingly complex equation, I decided to give it a shot. That resulted in the second setup described below.

  • Audio input is now plugged to my UltraNova’s jacks. I ended up plugging a mixer in order to get signals from my EMX+Kaoss Pad as well as a Nord Drum module I recently acquired.
  • My UltraNova sends audio to my computer through USB. As a result, sound from the synthesizer is transferred digitally while sound from my EMX and Nord is sampled by the UltraNova’s onboard chip.

I don’t like this configuration very much because my mixer has an annoying tendency to clip and I end up with a stereo mix of my recording, making it impossible to separate the tracks. I will thus be unable to experiment with mixing using this setup, unless I manually sample each track separately.

But this is not the main issue. Here are the problems:

  • I was able to record a couple of sessions of improvisation using the above configuration. However, a week ago, recorded sound started to be distorted. Even Live’s test tone, played through ASIO, then passing into UltraNova, started to sound distorted!
  • Not only playback is distorted but also recordings are not clean anymore, dirty of distortion. A promising session that could almost have been used as is for a sound track in a future Minecraft video got screwed up by this and is good for throwaway!
  • I got fed up and tried to disable ASIO, using DirectSound instead. That worked, no distortion, but more latency. I can even hear the latency when playing through Live with a MIDI keyboard.
  • Thinking it could be UltraNova’s ASIO driver, I tested with ASIO4ALL instead and got similar issues.
  • Yesterday, Live suddenly died and could not start anymore. For no obvious reasons, I had to reinstall it completely. After that, sound with ASIO worked without distortion, but playback and recording were frequently cutting.

Contradictions, no gos, no solutions!

  • My best friend thinks the issue is caused by Windows 8 and that I should downgrade to Windows 7. However, my machine takes forever, at least one hour, to install Windows, excluding drivers and applications, installation destroys Linux boot loader and it takes me at least half an hour to find out how to restore it because there is no builtin ways in Ubuntu to do so simply. Activation of Windows 7 is likely to fail because I upgraded my license to Windows 8, and I will be left with no solution if that happens, other than trying one crack after the other or installing some piece of crap that would make sure my system’s date is set to something that won’t go past the activation grace period. I just cannot accept to have all messed up file date/times because of a single piece of software.
  • I thought about purchasing a new computer, that would have only Windows 7 and be dedicated to music creation. However, there is no Windows 7 machine anymore; every new system comes with Windows 8. I could try, maybe I would be lucky and the new Windows 8 configuration would work better, but that is a hit or miss without any way to increase chances of success! Probably my best guess would be a custom-made machine with a Windows 7 license for it, if this can at all still be purchased.
  • Some forum posts pretend that Ableton’s Live will work fine on Windows 8 and 8.1, others not, others pretend it worked on Windows 8 and not well on Windows 8.1. Downgrading to Windows 8 is just a non-sense for me, better downgrade to Windows 7 instead. I’m likely to experiment the same activation issues and will loose the same amount of time reinstalling everything and repairing my Ubuntu configuration.
  • Some forum posts suggest that it will never work well on a PC and that I should try with a Mac. Well, I tried on a Mac, and that was the most awful, most frustrating experience through my whole life. The machine was awfully slow and keyboard was not responding in a deterministic way. From this experience, I had to conclude with concerns that the Mac will work well only when used with the mouse, keyboard is just for typing text in fields and emails!!! My visual impairment makes using the mouse a pain for me. Does that mean I am excluded from computer-assisted music creation, unless somebody helps me out all the time? I am slowly but surely reaching that very frustrating conclusion.

For now it somewhat works with non-ASIO configuration and stereo recording, but I know a lot more can be done. Does the problem come from Live, Windows, my motherboard’s USB ports? I just cannot figure out.

I started to investigate about ASIO itself, to try understand how and why it could misbehave. I may have to dig straight into ASIO SDK for that. I investigated about using ASIO with Audacity, because that could help me test without Ableton’s Live and eliminate it from the equation. Even that promises to be major hassle, forcing me to install Visual Studio, SDKs and compile the whole planet to get ASIO support into Audacity!

Each new issue is decreasing my motivation to persist. I have less and less fun playing with that music creation setup and I am often thinking about putting it aside. I’m not to the point of selling the components yet, but if I cannot find out something to unblock the computer part of it, I may come to that. I will at least wait for Windows 10 to come out and give it a shot before selling anything.

I hope some people will read that post and start thinking about concrete solutions, not just “it works for me, so no problem”, “buy a Mac”, “reinstall”, “try on your friend’s computer”. Maybe a Linux-based music creation platform could help, maybe a Linux distribution dedicated to music and providing just the needed components, nothing that can interfere, or something that would make Mac platform faster and more usable.

I am a software developer so I could help in developing the platform, but because Live is closed source, I cannot take what exists and improve over it, I would have to start from something inferior such as Ardour or Audacity, and rebuild/reinvent/rewrite on top of it. This would be a very time consuming experience, and without Ableton’s expertise, I would certainly do it wrong. If all Mac OS X was open source, if it could be compiled from streamlined autoconf-based build processes rather than XCode where small-sized fonts are king, I would be able to open the hood, examine the code and improve the GUI. No, I would have to start from scratch, using just the BSD kernel, and reinvent the WHOLE GUI. Without Apple’s experience, I would certainly do it wrong and messy!