Running Pro Tools on the Surface Pro 3

Posted on Posted in Article

Right then, Pro Tools – this is one of the more fussy bits of music software. Let’s see how it flies with the Surface Pro 3.

Here’s the YouTube version, for the text please skip below.

First of all can we run it on just the Surface without having to plug anything else in? Well you’ll need an iLok which will take up the single USB port. Pro Tools can’t deal with regular Windows audio drivers – it needs an ASIO driver or it won’t get past the splash screen. Luckily there’s an awesome application called ASIO4ALL which wraps up regular WDM drivers into a nice ASIO driver which Pro Tools understands (www.asio4all.com). This enables us to use the Surface’s on-board audio, plug in some headphones and be completely mobile without having to plug-in a proper audio interface. Groovy.

When you open up the demo song the first thing you notice is how incredibly small everything is. Pro Tools appears to have got confused about the resolution and started up maximised but in a corner. A couple of clicks and it’s full screen again. At the default scaling you can get the whole project on screen along with 27 fully wide faders. Checking the display settings we find that by default the Surface is on the third of four desktop scaling settings so in the Surface world this is actually pretty scaled pretty big. Moving the slider to the smallest and you can fit forty faders across – that’s pretty extraordinary. It’s getting too small now for effective use of the fingers, but maybe not for the pen – maybe this is where the pen will come into its own, if you want to work at these sorts of resolutions.

The top toolbar is a little messed up though – the words seem to run into each other. There’s another setting in Display to reduce the text size of certain elements – if you change the title bar text to any different point size and hit Apply it all comes back into line – sadly this goes back to being messed up the next time you run Pro Tools so it’s probably best just to leave it.

Quality of playback through the on-board speakers? It’s all right, it’s a bit like a laptop, sounds ok. Here’s a bit of an oddity – if you plug in headphones you’ll find that you still get output from the speakers, it doesn’t seem to automatically switch when you plug-in. Windows appears to treat the speakers and headphone outputs as completely different entities, so in order to use the output socket we have to change the priority to the headphones. Pro Tools only sees what the ASIO4All wrapper has wrapped up and so has no knowledge of you plugging in the headphones. In the ASIO4All settings you can select both the speaker and headphone output or swap between the two. Whenever you change anything in the ASIO4All settings Pro Tools complains and has to restart, which is a little unfriendly. There may be another way to do it in Pro tools, so perhaps you could have both outputs selected and then change them within Pro Tools but that somehow seems even more complicated.

If you then pull the cable out while Pro Tools is playing it will stop and throw up an error – but it recovers if you put the cable back. So it’s not exactly graceful but Pro Tools can work with the onboard sound but it’s just a bit of a fiddle.

A better alternative would be to use a proper USB audio interface, like the Avid Fast Track Duo that I’m using here. Of course we then run into our single USB port problem, but don’t worry, we’ll stick in a hub and see what happens. Using a simple unpowered hub I can add the iLok and the Fast Track without any trouble at all. The Fast Track offers much better quality audio, reliability and has better inputs for recording things.

Pro Tools and Touch
Pro Tools on the whole responds really well to single touch control – it all works, you can grab anything, including the tools and move every parameter and move clips about, edit notes, automation – the whole lot. The only trouble is that at this resolution the knobs and controls are so small that my fat fingers have difficulty grabbing what I want to grab – maybe it’s time to try the pen out.
The pen is awesome, it’s a far better experience. You can see what’s going on, and get down to fine detail. It allows you to fly around the screen and perform any task you can do with a mouse but in a more hands on and connected way. Of course you can connect a mouse and use it the old fashioned way, but when you approach the screen with a pen you find yourself working in a different way. You’re closer to the action somehow, more involved in what’s going on – that sounds a bit silly but in comparison it’s weird how disconnected and distant we can be with a mouse in our hands. You can use the multi-tool function very easily and as the pen nib hovers over the screen the mouse pointer changes into the right tool as you move.
The keyboard tends to get in the way of intense pen action so it’s more comfortable discarding the type cover and angling the screen quite flat. The problem with that is that you then start missing keyboard shortcuts – the virtual keyboard fills half the screen and makes it quite difficult for these sorts of tasks. Perhaps a row of programmable macro buttons, like you find on the DTouch controller software would be what you need. At a basic level a couple of “always on top” hot keys for copy/cut/paste that you could tap with a finger would be fabulous as those sorts of actions are a bit of a faff with the pen. I wonder if this would be possible in Windows itself, it already has a couple of different virtual keyboards so how difficult would it be to provide a row of programmable buttons?

Performance Testing
We have a torture test we run called the “Dverb” test, or a version of that, which many Pro Tools users use and this has got 96 tracks of audio all with a stack of Dverb plugin’s loaded. The test is designed to check for errors rather than as a comparison test but it does give us some idea. When we run in on The Pro Tools PC (www.pro-tools-pc.com), which is based on a Core i7 4790K processor, a top-of-the-range desktop processor, it usually runs at around 70-75% system usage. On the Surface Pro 3 it runs at around 80-90% with smooth playback at 64 samples. On a Core i5 processor and this is an ultrabook processor that’s actually really impressive. You can’t do a lot else while this is going on, there’s no headroom for doing anything else as there is on the desktop computer, on here the system is running flat out, the fan has come on, the system is heating up and running at its full potential at this point. If you try to run the same test with the on-board audio it just can’t cope with it. You get a splurt of playback and it stops because the on-board sound is not designed to cope with this sort of intense audio playback whereas the audio interface most certainly is. I should also stress that I’ve not done any tweaking to the system at all – it’s running just as it was straight out of the box, so all the background processes are there and I did get a calendar notification while running the test that made it all fall over. You can turn off notifications for a couple of hours through a setting from the charms menu which is very handy if you are making music. So with that considered the performance is very good indeed.

I’ve seen some videos online where people with i7 versions of the Surface were encountering CPU throttling problems – this is where the CPU steps down in speed to prevent overheating resulting in lower performance. Running a Half Life benchmark the CPU seems to drop to half speed almost immediately and they’ve found that if they cool the Surface externally then the CPU speed stays at the maximum. I’m happy to say that I’ve not seen any behaviour like that. With the Dverb running up to 90% system usage the temperature has stuck around 70 degrees C and the CPU frequency has stayed at a constant 2.6GHz which is close to its maximum turbo speed. This is something that I’m going to keep a close eye on as it’s probably my worst fear, but so far those fears are unfounded, at least on this i5 machine. I’ll be doing a full report on performance testing in another video soon so keep an eye out for that.

Running on Battery
With the iLok and audio interface connected there was no problem in running off the battery – then I added a Bass Station II. All the lights came on and it appeared to be fine but once I tried to run Pro Tools I noticed that the iLok had turned off, so some amount of power shifting must have occurred. If you pull it out and plug it back in the Surface finds it again and you’re able to run Pro Tools. I then plugged in a USB drive and Windows got into a spin cycle off finding things and dropping things and Pro Tools complained about losing connection to its hardware. So, without power the Surface can certainly support an iLok, interface and MIDI keyboard but it’s right on the edge of what it can do. Bear in mind that the Bass Station is quite an intense and power hungry keyboard and a simpler dummy MIDI keyboard or controller would probably fare much better.
In another video we’ll look into how much you can plug in with a fully tweaked system and also look at the dock to see how that can be helpful.

Finally we’ll plug in another screen to see how that looks – and it looks great! Edit window on one screen, mix on the Surface tweaking with the pen – awesome.

Please watch the video for a bit more depth and examples of what I’m talking about.

26 thoughts on “Running Pro Tools on the Surface Pro 3

  1. Just wanted to thank you for making these videos! I am currently looking at either a surface pro 3 or a lenovo thinkpad yoga and to use them this way. Super helpful resource to see if it is worth it to switch from my OSX to Windows 8.1 or not. Again, thank you for taking the time to make these videos!

  2. Thanks for the great video! Can’t wait to see the tweaked version!
    I also own a Surface Pro 3 i5/8g ram/256ssd and mixed a record with Antelope Zen Studio. It worked great! I still want to find a bus powered interface. Glad to see that the Avid works! I tried with Focusrite Forte, it didn’t work on bus power.

    Best,

    Laszlo

  3. Thank you !! I wonder if a bluetooth keyboard would assist with workflow when the Surface screen is detached? Obviously not in all scenarios but when you’re working on fine edits if the keyboard was nearby it might be easier for shortcuts.

  4. Hi, first I wanted to say, your videos are awesome! I just purchase a surface 2 rt. Pretty bad decision. So I only have until tomorrow to return it and since not all the money isn’t there I wanted to get the surface pro 3 i3 64gb and run Cubase on it, maybe sometimes ablaton . Not too many plug ins at once and a scarlet interface. Would you say it’ll run the program just fine or will I be wasting my money on, I’m only asking this since I notice you have 256gb 8gb ram, if I’m not mistaken. I’d really appreciate if a quick response was possible since I only have until tomorrow. Thank you so much in advance!

    1. Hi Manuel, thanks for the comments. It’s a hard question to answer. Certainly i’m having no trouble running DAW software on the i5 SP3, although the performance is not huge, so it should work on the i3 although with fewer plug-ins and instruments. I think the 64GB drive is small and that if you could stretch up to the i5 then that would give you a bit more head room for everything. So, obviously only as a suggestion, I think the i3 will work fine but you’ll always wish you got the next one up 🙂

  5. Hey Robin, awesome video! Was actually quite surprised to see someone running with a Surface audio recording setup so high up in the search results. I’m currently setting up my studio to run off the i7 Surface 3 for commercial VO and I was wondering what version of Pro Tools you were able to run? I’m looking into picking up the Avid Fast Track like yours as my Mbox Mini is a bit outdated and it comes with Pro Tools Express, however I’ve read things that lead me to believe that Express isn’t compatible on the Surface 3. Would I need to purchase a different version of Pro Tools to go with the Fast Track? Thanks man, keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Alex,
      I was using Pro Tools 11, full version, I haven’t tried any other versions. I’ve not heard that there was any trouble with PT Express – but it may simply be a Windows 8 thing – check the compatibility with the avid.com website. The Fast Track is a great way to buy Pro Tools though as essentially with the upgrade price you get the Fast Track for free.

      Cheers
      Robin

      1. Hey Robin,
        Just wanted to follow up. I went ahead and purchased the Avid Fast Track Solo with Pro Tools Express despite the high amount of complaints and bad reviews from users due to compatibility problems and I’m up and running! Fast Track and Pro Tools Express work great on my i7 Surface Pro 3 with no Windows 8 incompatibility. Didn’t need Pro Tools 11 with what I’m doing yet. Thanks again for creating this helpful article, hopefully these comments will help anyone else with these types of questions. Thanks!

  6. Excellent video on Protools and Surface Pro 3! I would be interested in seeing you review using Sibelius and Ableton Live on the same hardware

  7. This is a great video. I’m thinking of replacing my old PC with a SP3 i5 256mb…but was worried about pro-tools performance. This answered my question nicely – thanks for taking the time to create this.

    I have PT8 with a mbox, so need to upgrade to 11. Anyone know if I can still use my mbox as an audio interface?

    1. Thanks. Performance is always relative so I haven’t actually done any performance testing yet but I can certainly say that Pro Tools works on it. The problem you are going to have is Windows 8 drivers for the Mbox. Check on the avid.com website to see if there are any compatible drivers for your version of the Mbox. Cheers.

  8. Hej !
    – great to know that.
    And also noticed like, I think like all of us, we open the Laptop in living room, and the partner say to us: “well is time to go your garage where you have the speakers and so” 🙂

  9. Is there a way to make the mbox pro work on my surface pro 3. I dont have fire wire connections. Are there any adapters, or ways that i can make it work?

  10. Has anyone run into audio only playing through the speakers, and not coming through connected headphones.

    1. Hi Justin,
      The SP3 has two separate output drivers, one for the speaker and one for headphone. They do not swap automatically you have to manually change the default driver in the sound device window when you plug your headphones in. If you check out some of my earlier videos you can hear all about it. Rubbish isn’t it?

      Cheers
      Robin

  11. I’d been agonizing over what system to utilize for some recording and live playing, so I finally picked up a Surface Pro 4 (i7, 16GB, 256 SSD) with the dock. I just spent a couple hours installing Pro Tools and didn’t have any luck getting play back to initiate. I’m using a Focusrite 2i4 as my interface. The hardware certainly appears capable of running this gear, so I’ll just keep on trying. Cheers, and, thanks for the great blog!

    1. Hi Shawn – I’ve heard of other people having trouble with Focusrite interfaces on the Surface – I haven’t tested one myself but I I know of one guy who swapped the Focusrite for an Avid USB interface and it worked first time. The other thing I would try is using it through a hub but ultimately I think you might have to change interfaces – I have no clue what that’s about i’m afraid.

      1. Thanks for the reply!

        Yes, the Focusrite appears glitchy when plugged directly into the Surface 4, but seems to operate normally when connected to the new Surface Dock. Anyway, I’ve been playing around with the trial for Cubase and it not only seems functional, but quite stable as well. Looks like Cubase have themselves a convert.

  12. Hi,
    I use the protools mp9 with m audio fast track c400 interface. I’d like to purchase Microsoft surface pro. Could you please recomend me which version of Microsoft surface pro is compatible for my purpose.

    Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *