It’s been a year, a whole year since I embarked on this little journey of discovery. I bought the Surface Pro 3 for a couple of reasons, firstly I needed a portable device for live performance and secondly, well just look at it – it’s the coolest laptop on the planet. But it was more than that. The Surface Pro 3 promised something more than your average laptop or tablet. It was powerful, like a decent laptop but it was also thin and light like a tablet – the seriousness of a laptop with the fun and instant accessibility of a tablet. I wanted to see what touch could bring to the creative table, what potential there was for the digital pen and whether it would be interesting enough to talk about.
Well, I’m still here, talking about it, so I guess it must have been – although not as often as I’d like because geez do these take a long time to put together.
You can watch this full review on YouTube or carry on reading below.
So, what have we learnt?
That pretty much everything works. I packed this thing full of music software – I did Cubase, Pro Tools, Ableton, Reason, Sonar, Fruity Loops, Studio One, Stagelight and I’m about to go head to head with Sibelius and StaffPad (coming soon) and it all pretty much worked. Cubase, Pro Tools and Reason worked perfectly with single touch and the pen even though they had no built in support. Ableton Live required a little bit of help with the old “AbsoluteMouseMode” to get knobs to work right but then with its built in scaling it’s pretty awesome. Touch compatible software FL Studio and Stagelight were completely fabulous, totally being the best choices for the full music making experience on the Surface. The other two so called touch compatible offerings Sonar and Studio One were both great and terrible in their own way. Sonar frustrates the hell out of me by being the first out of the multi-touch gates and completely forgot to let you touch the arrange page or edit the contents where every other non-touch program can. Great in the console, but that’s all. StudioOne is again great in the console but went one better than Sonar and stuck lots of cool editing features into the arrange page but made you wait every time you did something – it also did something screwy to the pen but hopefully they’ll fix that soon.
There’s more to try out – Usine Hollyhock for one which looks amazing, I’ve been talking about it all year, it’s totally touchy and will probably blow my mind, but i just haven’t had the time – but it’s on my list to do right after my foray into the world of notation. So look out for that.
In using the digital pen I’ve learnt and flogged to death the idea that you need some kind of toolbar. Trying to use the pen by itself in music software is like watching your dad try to find something on the internet – you know what they’re trying to achieve but it takes a long time to get there. All that tap-and-hold right-clicking and tapping through menus just drives you crazy whereas a little sidebar menu with common commands such as copy/paste/undo/show mixer would just make the whole world easier. I hoped that all my harping on about it would have inspired a team at Microsoft to sort it out but sadly when Windows 10 came along there’s not even a hint of a digital pen toolbar – what are they doing over there? I don’t want a start menu, i want a pen toolbar. Toolbar creator still seems to be the best bet for that.
What didn’t happen
The biggest disappointment of the year was Smithson-Martin’s Emulator – now I love these guys but the glacial speed with which it develops and the lack of promise fulfilment just boggles me. There was an update to 1.54 when I first got the Surface which was great and I used it to show how you could create a cool pen toolbar for Cubase before I discovered the Toolbar creator. But it’s still a blank page for everything except Traktor. They keep talking about templates and look at this and look at that and none of it ever becomes available and so you have to build everything yourself from scratch. And now, suddenly they are all about version 2 – for the Mac along with brand new dedicated hardware. No sign of a PC version. Not sure how they’ll sell their own touch screen when you can run Lemur and TouchOSC on a iPad for a few dollars. The Surface is such an awesome platform for Emulator but people need a little bit of help so they can just turn it on and control stuff without having to build their own controller. But who knows what’s around the corner.
In terms of system performance I’ve learnt that the Surface loves audio – it likes loops and samples and gets a kick out of running all my Ableton projects without complaint. It’s way powerful enough to run some decent sized projects and simultaneously run GrandVJ out to a pair of projectors during live performance. But when it comes down to real-time performance what it doesn’t like so much is polyphony. Because of the nature of the its CPU, its power requirements and its thermal profile it doesn’t like to keep both cores running, it doesn’t want to stay at a high gigahertz level, it wants to rest, it wants to cool down and that’s not ideal for CPU intensive music making. But you can still push it as long as you give it space to catch up, but for glitch free playback you need to keep away from that bleeding edge.
In live performance it has truly excelled and fully lived up to its brief of being my live performance rig. I’ve used it at about a half a dozen gigs and it’s so immensely freeing when compared to a laptop. The first thing you do is dispense with the keyboard and you are left with this beautiful screen that you can touch and see and interact with, without scrabbling around in the dark for a mouse or track pad. Performing with an iPad I guess is similar, in that it’s right there, up front, but I cant do anywhere near as much as I can with the Surface. Laptops have always let me down at some point – this thing hasn’t broken so much as a sweat. I’ve had projectors blow up, fuses go in the power supply, screens crash to the ground but the Surface keeps on calmly glowing and is happy for you to plug other things in. My performances are moving to once as month now and so it’s going to continue to be an awesome platform for that.
I’ve discovered that a decent powered USB hub is your best friend. The single USB port can support a midi keyboard and audio interface via an unpowered hub – just about – but to be safer, to prevent that unplanned bing/bong of a device detaching itself get yourself a powered hub. Is the dock a good option? No, not really – it’s useful for the ethernet port and as a USB hub itself but it holds the Surface at the wrong angle for everything other than sitting in a chair directly in front of it. If they could just produce a little cable extension to the dock then it would suddenly become very useful. I’ve plugged in Maschine, Spark, a Bass Station and a Launchpad and they all work flawlessly, along with my Fastrack Duo and Steinberg UR28m and a bunch of dongles. The performance is great, the audio latency over ASIO is as good as a regular desktop and even the screen is playable with a lot less latency than my desktop touch screen. So it plays nice with others.
Things I don’t like
I don’t like the separate onboard audio drivers for the speakers and headphones – it’s annoying when you have to mess around swapping drivers in a piece of software just to plug your headphones in – I’m sure at some point someone thought it was a genius idea. Along with that the volume of the onboard sound is very low – the newer Surface 3 is at least five times louder. I don’t like the touch keyboard very much. I’m regularly hitting the wrong keys and going all over the place. I’ve been writing this article for about an hour and I’m only just starting to type without errors on every line – so it gets better with practice but I don’t love it. It can get very hot on the back and a bit noisy when the fans come on and obviously the CPU throttling isn’t ideal. I wish you could fix the CPU speed to a moderate level, so it doesn’t overheat but gives you a constant level of performance. The problem with the throttling is that when it drops it plummets and your project goes straight to hell and you have to unload a bunch of plug-ins to get stable playback so the CPU can recover. If i could set it and keep it at 2GHz it would allow me to better know the limits of the system and maintain stability. None of this is specific to the Surface as all laptops, hybrids and Ultrabooks with the same Intel technology behave in the same way. And finally why cant there be somewhere to put the pen?
So in summary
I love my Surface Pro 3. It’s completely trustworthy as performance platform. Desktop touch is starting to catch on and it’s ability to use music software in creative ways is awesome. The pen and touch let you work differently which is great in the creative process – love to have a toolbar though. Windows 10 doesn’t seem to have affected it either way although we’re still discovering little issues – like how you can no longer use a touch right-click in Ableton Live – very odd. When i did my back in the Surface Pro 3 became my all day work machine for about a month and it was a pleasure to work with – even with the dodgy keyboard – it was versatile and comfortable to be able to do real stuff on. I don’t necessarily prefer to make music on it than my desktop, but then my desktop is much more powerful with a lot more toys connected, but whenever i do use it creatively or move a project to it for live performance then it’s always a pleasure to sit down with it and move into a more touchy environment.
Well apparently the Surface Pro 4 will be announced in October. What am i hoping for? Well I hope they don’t make it any bigger or heavier, the form factor is really good, although I love the lightness of the Surface 3 as the Pro 3 can feel a little chunky at times. I’d like to see a Thunderbolt port which would open it up to new interfaces and also to firewire which would be an awesome feature. I’d like of course to see a more stable CPU, something that keeps giving the same amount of power and I’d like a single driver and slightly louder onboard audio engine. Will I be getting one? I’d love to but to be honest I cant really afford one right now especially when I have a perfectly functioning SP3. But if you’d like me to continue talking about the Surface, making videos about using it for music production then let me know, send me some encouragement – maybe I’ll start a Kickstarter fund.
In the meantime look out for my videos on Sibelius and StaffPad coming really soon and there’s plenty of life left in this old dog.