Surface Pro 3 – 8 Month Review for Music Production

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In the same week that I was named East Anglia’s Coolest Techie I get an invitation to a party in New York to celebrate the release of the brand new Surface 3. The trip gave me the opportunity to meet members of the Surface design team and reflect on my experience with the Surface Pro 3 over the past 8 months  (text continues below video version).

I’ve certainly put it through its paces. I’ve demonstrated Pro Tools, Cubase, Sonar, Ableton, Reason, I’ve composed, I’ve multi-tracked, I’ve fiddled with synths and orchestras. I’ve performed live, jammed with it, looped with it and controlled whole video arrays. I’ve plugged in audio interfaces, synths, library drives and controllers – I’ve even run it with an ipad. At no time has the Surface moaned, whinged or complained, it’s lapped it up really without breaking a sweat.



Everything I’ve talked about up until now has been regular desktop software, not multi-touch enabled or designed for tablet use and yet with the combination of touch – pen – and touchpad I’ve found the hybrid nature of the Surface to be something of a revelation. I’ve sat with my hand on a mouse for most of my adult life and to break out of that paradigm is very releasing. My posture, my shoulders and rsi infested muscles have embraced this new way of working with a massive collective sigh. I am no longer frozen in place, I am animated, engaged and feeling creative. When I sit at a regular laptop now I feel immediately constrained. If you ever wanted to know what kind of drugs Microsoft were on when they dreamt up Windows 8 – well, this is it. I don’t mean to get all gooey about it but once you start using it day-to-day then the full screen metro apps start making sense. What initially felt odd and empty now feels clean and focused. My desktop machine is a cacophony of a gazillion open windows overlapping and vying for attention – my Surface is a temple of peace and sanity. A bit like an iPad I suppose? Yes, but without being really slow, having nowhere to put my files and no access to professional content creation software. A lot is made of the difference in numbers of apps between the Apple and Windows stores – but the one killer app that the Surface has, above and beyond anything else, is the freakin’ desktop – I can run whatever I like. And the digital pen means that I don’t have to revert to the old mouse/keyboard to use them – if I don’t want to.

So, where are the holes? Well the first thing that became glaringly obvious was the need for a customisable toolbar to accompany the pen. If you’re working in tablet mode and you’ve moved into the screen using the pen you lose all the keyboard shortcuts that us creative types use all the time. You can leave the keyboard attached but when using the pen you’re sort of working in the screen and it doesn’t flow well to pull back and use the keyboard. You can use the on screen keyboard but it takes up half the screen and messes with the windows layout and again interrupts the flow because it changes your working environment. Instead we need a toolbar, down one side, into which you can create a bunch of macros – so copy/paste, duplicate, loop, play/stop/record, add new track, switch views – mixer/editor – those sorts of commands. I can do this with a cool bit of software called ToolbarCreator which has been awesome but I believe it’s something that should be embedded in the OS – part of the on-screen keyboard functionality. Another thing I’d like to see is WordFlow – the cool swipey keyboard entry from the Windows Phone would make using the on-screen keyboard less clunky.



Secondly – CPU throttling. I’ve not talked about this is any great detail so far because it’s one of those things that some people get very upset about but most people never encounter and it can vary enormously depending on what you’re doing. The basic gist is that once a certain temperature threshold is hit inside the system the CPU will clock down until the temperature falls to acceptable levels. I’ve found that trying to find the sweet spot where it exactly happens is pretty difficult and I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to achieve. If you’re a gamer and you’re playing intense games with high end graphics then you might find after a while the frame rate drops and the game stutters – that’s throttling. In pro audio terms if you are using a lot of plug-ins and adding more you’ll hit a point at which the audio will start to glitch because the system has got too hot and the CPU has clocked down to a slower speed. The CPU is now running at about half its original speed and so you’re going to have to unload a whole bunch of plug-ins before it’ll recover. With a desktop system when you hit the CPU limit and get glitching you just have to back off a plug-in or two and the system becomes stable again – with the Surface you have to lose a whole load before you regain stable playback. I talked to some of the designers of the Surface about these issues and they said that they designed the Surface to be as good as they could possibly make it within the constraints of size, noise, cooling and performance. The CPU is designed to throttle when the system gets too hot and in this form factor there’s not enough cooling to allow you to load up the CPU and get consistent power. The CPU is excellent at coping with bursts of needed power, but it’s not designed to be constantly maxed out. But before you start getting all upset about these things just consider that the MacBook Air has exactly the same processor and suffers from exactly the same problem, but they just seem to be getting on with things. I’ve only encountered throttling when running performance tests, not when actually making music or doing any other activity. If you’re a hardcore gamer then this is probably not the product for you but I’ve played many hours of Minecraft and TotalWar without any problems whatsoever. So, in summary, you can’t max out the CPU with plug-ins but you can still do a shed load of stuff before you get anywhere near the threshold.

Thirdly – connectivity. The single USB port is a bit of a bummer, however with a passive hub you can run two or three big devices like an audio interface and MIDI keyboard, and with a powered hub you can run a load more. The Surface Dock offers a bunch more USB2 and USB3 ports on separate busses which is awesome but you have to dock the Surface at a fixed angle which isn’t very work flow friendly. If they can produce a little cable to connect the Surface to the Dock and leave it free then that would be a fabulous thing. The new Surface 3 has a bonus USB port in that it’s power supply is via a mini USB socket and this can be converted into a regular USB port. What we’d like to see on the Surface Pro 4 would be a Thunderbolt port, opening it up to the increasing numbers of Thunderbolt devices and also older firewire ones. But something tells me that’s not very likely.

So, after 8 months of use the Surface Pro 3 is for me an almost perfect creative music making tool. It’s revolutionised my live performance, transformed the way I work and liberated me from the desktop/mouse/keyboard paradigm. I still use my desktop for big projects but I am increasingly turning to the Surface to begin the creative process and always end up back there in the live performance. And it’s starting to take over my day-to-day operations as well.

The new Surface 3, which I have here, is not the same deal – it’s got more of an entry level spec, but it’s still pretty cool and so I’m going to be running a load of music software on it and give it a full review in a week or two.

So where do we go from here? Well now I’m turning my interest to music software that’s designed for touch – these have been thin on the ground but that’s changing and some developers are starting to see the potential of the Surface’s hybrid nature. Since doing my back in a few weeks ago I’ve spent a lot of time playing with Open Labs StageLight – there’s a new version update due any day so I’m just waiting on that before I put the review together. There’s a new version of Usine Hollyhock which deserves some intense scrutiny. There’s Sonar Platinum of course – I’ve written a full review of that for Sound On Sound magazine which should be out in April/May. And I’ll leave you with a look at the beautiful StaffPad which perfectly demonstrates why the Surface should be your next mobile music platform.



19 thoughts on “Surface Pro 3 – 8 Month Review for Music Production

  1. The throttling can be dealt with using a USB fan plugged into the USB port blowing on the back. Real problem is the battery charging mechanism can’t keep up when running high loads and even plugged in it slowly drains or refuses to charge even while plugged in.

    1. Hi Chris,
      That’s not really a good solution though – having a fan using up your only USB port, chunking on your fingers as you hold the tablet and making a load of noise – not exactly conducive to a creative environment. It a gamers solution perhaps. Not had any of the battery issues you mention. I’ve had the Surface running for hours, fully maxed out during performance testing, not seen any problems there. Can I assume you’re running the i7?

      1. I use a dock so using that USB port isn’t much of an issue, but yes wouldn’t be a good approach when hand held.

  2. I better start very honest as I have nothing to add to what has been discussed here. Big respect for Chris though. I read the whole article and videos and the replies. Obviously there are people here in the know maybe me having a MacBook Pro can be an issue 15″ half 2012, intel core i7, 1 TB internal and 16 GB RAM.. I been producing for many years but honestly I can work the program but is happening inside a Mac is a mystery to me. I use AbletonLive 9suite, with Abletons Push,an Akai MPK 225 as interface Apogee Duet only for Mac not iOS. I recently replaced that old beast called an Iprank. A new IPad air 126 Gb is where I went for of course I want to youse it for Touchable3 and Lemur but I have so many fantastic apps that are synths, drum pads, equalizer (won’t use that) My question and hope somebody can answer as not even at Focusrite stores and Focusrite self did not give me a straight answer. If it’s possible can you please describe step by step what to do to make it work. 95% are pro apps and have midi.What I want is get an Idock send the Idock to one of the two controllers so I can play the synths on my iPad and record them of course. If somebody knows how to make this work and is willing to explain I’m very thankful
    Many greetings
    Thijs de Jager

  3. Of course this is all for productions with Ableton live 9
    If it’s not possible than I am better off with my apogee Duet

  4. Thank you in advance, if it turns out to be impossible I better stick with my Apogee duet but hope it is possible. Thanks so much
    Thijs de Jager

  5. Love the blog! I Recently went with the Core i3 Surface Pro 3 with 4gb of ram. I’m wondering if I were to use Ableton INTRO with a PUSH if the surface would be able to handle it? I would assume some latency but I’m sort of a newbie in the Surface world. Technically the specs on Ableton’s site suggest I would be compatible with the requirements but were I to use it for light use meaning simple composing and performing some live compositions. Maybe later I could upgrade machines. Thoughts?

    1. Yes, no problem handling that. If you want really low latency then you’ll also need a decent audio interface, but if you use the onboard make sure you download ASIO4ALL and run it as the audio driver – this will keep the latency under control.

      Cheers
      Robin

  6. I watched your Surface Pro 3 / Surface 3 video with interest. I’ve just recently started using Usine Hollyhock 2 and love what can be done with it. On a 2013 11″ Macbook Air I can manage enough to use it as a decent hub for live ambient music using hardware synths to off load some of the processing.
    A dedicated Surface for Multitouch would be a dream but i’ve been wary due to the CPU throttling and cost. Would be very interested in seeing you review this product on the Pro and Surface 3.
    I’m not sure if you’ve mentioned it before but which version of the SP3 are you using?

    1. I’m using the i5 with 8GB of RAM.
      Hollyhock is fascinating – I haven’t been able to give it enough time yet, but I do plan to.
      The SP3 has the same type of processor as any Ultrabook or MacBook Air and so they all throttle in the same way – you just have to find the performance point that keeps it in balance.

      Cheers
      Robin

  7. Very very interesting videos. Surprisingly not many people seem to be interested in using the Surface ( Pro ) as a mobile music production tool.
    The constant Apple-iPad-100+-new-flashy-music-apps-per-week-brainwash seems to be the better marketing strategy?! But I’m an iPad user myself 😉

    In the last days I’ve checked a lot of your videos, including some of the older ones. Do you still use your Acer touchscreen? I’m thinking of buying one as it is very cheap at the moment. The general interest in using multi touch monitors in conjunction with DAWs also seems to be surprisingly low. I’m really glad I’ve found your site.
    Keep the videos coming, for me it’s one of the most interesting blogs!!
    ( Please excuse my bad English! )

    1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, i’m still using the Acer screen every day. More touch stuff is on the way – the DTouch templates for Pro Tools and Cubase are excellent, Emulator is still really good, FL Studio 12 has some cool things in it and I understand that StudioOne has some touch elements in the next version. So we’re getting there – just rather slowly 🙂

  8. Hi Robin, loved your review of the Surface Pro 3. I have been looking for a solution like this for years. I finally bit the bullet and bought one (i5 128) and run Cubase 7.5 and a bunch of Waves plugins. I find the mobility of it great and I get a lot of mixing done on the train. I am having an issue in that I can’t control the waves plugins with the pen without going into the generic mode. I find the generic mode really hampers my work flow. Other plugin developers such as Voxengo, Studio Devil and Cubase seem to work well with the pen.
    Do you know of any way to get the pen working with the Waves plugins GUI?
    Your advice would be much appreciated.

    1. Hi Wes,
      Thanks for the comments. Some stuff just doesn’t like the pen. Ableton Live were able to fix similar issues using an “Absolute Mouse Mode”. Native Instruments Maschine still has trouble although I’ve demonstrated the problem to NI so hopefully they’ll fix it. So it’s down to Waves to make adjustments to their GUI software. The only way around it (other than using the trackpad or a mouse obviously) is to plug it into some sort of plug-in chainer and use their controls mapped to the Waves controls – this is something I’m going to be looking into soon but both FL Studio 12 and Studio One 3 have a chainer plug-in that allows you to add multi-touch controls to inserted plug-ins. If you come across any other fixes please let me know.

  9. Hey Robin. Love your work. Never thought I would even consider going back to windows but the surface is very appealing for portability. The bitwig promo looks cool too!

    You mentioned Audio interfaces. Do you plan a review? I have a few usb2 control surfaces and an audio interface (usb2) but am concerned about using a hub. Have you tried/recommend any hubs that can handle the bandwidth?

    1. Hello,
      I’ve used an Avid FastTrack and a Steinberg UR298M with the SP3, one takes power over USB and one doesn’t – they both work very well. I’ve also plugged in keyboards and controllers like the Launchpad and Maschine that draw power without issue, but, you need a powered hub. With a passive hub you should get a keyboard and interface to work (check out some of my early videos to see that) but if you add a dongle or thumb drive it might all suddenly go bad. I use a HooToo powered USB3 hub and it’s usually full of dongles and external drives and interfaces and it all works beautifully. Cheers.

  10. Will a Surface Pro 3 with a i3 processor be able to run music production software? I want to get my boyfriend a Pro for Christmas and this is the only one I can afford but he wants it for music recording/production so I don’t want to get it if it won’t be able to handle what he wants to use it for.

    1. Hi Abby,
      Yes, it should, but it is one of those “how-long-is-a-piece-of-string” type questions because it depends on how much he wants to do, what software he’s running and how many plugins/instruments he wants to use – but, y’know, it’s all relative. So yes, it would be an awesome present and yes it can do music production to a degree.
      Cheers
      Robin

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