Is the Surface Pro 4 any good for music production?

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UPDATE: Check later posts for news on how the PS4 has improved greatly over time.

Sorry for the long gap since my last post but it’s been a bumpy ride. When I got the Surface Pro 4 back in January I absolutely assumed that this was going to be an awesome music making machine. The Surface Pro 3 had shown itself to be very capable and I’d had 18 months of music making and live performance out of it. So when the SP4 arrived I got stuck in and started making videos about how to set it up for music. I hit some problems with ASIO4ALL but these were overcome and I did some demos of making music with Stagelight – it was all looking good.

Then I started to test music software a bit more deeply…. and I started to hit some problems – clicks and pops in the audio in some DAWs. I spent the next month tweaking and testing, reinstalling and retrying but the problems have remained. I’ve been in contact with Microsoft about it, I’ve submitted audio trace tests and videos of the problem and they tell me they are working on a theory but have yet to come up with a solution.

In the meantime they’ve sent me a replacement SP4 to try and I’ve also managed to borrow another one of a slightly different spec from the good people at Surface UK. So I’m about to embark on a mega test to compare the performance of all three, to see if I can replicate the fault and confirm that it’s not a problem with my specific Surface. That should give me enough information to adequately answer the original question.

The problem isn’t the lack of CPU power or DPC latency on a specific driver as far as I can tell. I’ve tried every tweak and hack that I can find, I’ve used internal sound, USB interfaces, passive and powered hubs. I’ve heard from a few other people having trouble as well and yet I know of others who haven’t. It’s frustratingly inconsistent. Every test I’ve run I’ve also loaded onto the Surface Pro 3 and that works great every time.

So where is this coming from? I don’t know, but I plan to spend this next week trying everything I can think of to solve the problem or at the very least demonstrate the same issues on three different machines. Hopefully that will be enough to convince Microsoft that this really needs to be taken care of – and they have been awesome so far and so I remain hopeful.

If you are the owner of a Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book and are running music software then please get in touch and let me know how that’s going – any troubles, any glitches or no problems at all please let me know. I’ll also post up some test projects at some point, but at the moment I’m using 16 tracks of audio with a compressor plugin on each so the CPU is running at 10-20% – run it for 5 minutes and see if you get any glitches. It’s that simple.

I do have a day job and so I can’t work on this 24/7 but hopefully by this time next week I should have a good load of data to share.



43 thoughts on “Is the Surface Pro 4 any good for music production?

  1. Reading this I’m glad I didn’t change from SP3 to SP4 immediately when the SP4 came out. I’ve been using the SP3 with FL Studio and so far it’s pretty smooth and stable. But I’m also wondering what fundamental changes could have been introduced with the SP4 which cause the hassle you’re having. Strange.

  2. “I’m using 16 tracks of audio with a compressor plugin on each so the CPU is running at 10-20% – run it for 5 minutes and see if you get any glitches. It’s that simple.”

    Ive got the i7 with 16gb ram. Not a chance could it run 16 tracks with a compressor on each.
    I followed your Asio how-to a while back and was quite happy with the results. It seemed to get Ableton running OK for a while but as soon as I got slightly deep into a project the crackling started. FL Studio has no chance at all, terrible sound with just a few instruments or VST’s loaded.

    Personally I’m very close to the point of no return with it. I cant do any serious sound production and I cant do anything but the lightest video work on Premiere Pro with it. I have a £350 4gb i5 laptop that destroys the performance of my £1800 16bg i7 SP4. Very disappointing that when I have a project requiring me to be away from my desktop machine its the cheap Lenovo I reach for.

    1. Is it just Ableton and FL Studio you’re running? Do the demo songs play back ok? My focus at the moment is on Cubase and Pro Tools as they have given me the most trouble. Ableton and Bitwig have both seemed ok, but I haven’t got really into those yet past some loop based audio projects. Do you have an Ableton project that crackles that you could send me?

  3. I’m currently running FL Studio 12 on my SP4 (i5, 4GB RAM and 128GB SSD) with no issues. I’ve also run my MPC Studio on it with no major issue other than an annoying bit of latency. I haven’t attempted to record vocals or mix a full session in Studio One yet, so that is something I’ll need to test in the near future.

  4. New firmware was released today; I wonder if that will make any difference.

    I upgraded from SP2 to SP4 and while I haven’t found anything show-stopping, I did had to spend a lot of time trying out different combinations of buffers and drivers with a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 with Ableton Live to avoid clicks and pops when playing VSTs and samples.

    This was surprising – the SP2 handled the exact same setup in its stride. It suggests that the SP4 might have a bottleneck when it comes to audio despite its much higher spec.

    As I say, perhaps the new firmware will help.

    1. I have the same issues as you. I’ve been researching online, suspecting that I should be getting much better performance with my SP4 and my Komplete Audio 6. I’m now pretty sure that the fault isn’t with the SP4 but is with the KA6. Apparently, a lot of people are having issues with the KA6 when it is run off of a USB3 port.

      I’ve ordered a Zoom UAC-2, which is a native USB3 audio interface. I’ll report back here once it arrives and I have time to test it.

      1. That’s interesting – the KA6 is in most cases an excellent interface, but I’ve not tried in in a USB3 socket. I tried a Zoom UAC-2 but I wasn’t very impressed with the performance. I hoped it might be better than the Fast Track or UR28M that I’ve been using but I didn’t think it was – it wasn’t bad, just that it didn’t solve anything for me. The audio interface is certainly a factor but more in comparable performance rather than whether it worked or not. Let me know how you get on!

        1. Have you tried setting the affinity on the FLStudio process to only utilize a few cores? I think your issue is in the way the speedstep is throttling the cpu during a high temp situation. This usually happens with i7’s that have all the cores left available to a CPU Hog process. You should be able to verify this by setting the process to use 1 less core than your maximum. This will prevent speedstep from throttling the cpu too aggressively (if at all). It would be interesting to see your CPU graph from the performance tab of task manager. Right click your graph and select ” Change graph to ” and then “Logical Processors”. Run your FLStudio projects and monitor your CPU speed. To change CPU affinity, open task manager, go to Details, right click the FLStudio process or your ASIO4ALL instance and select “Set affinity”. You can also lower the priority of other non essential Apps/Services by right clicking the service and setting the Priority to Low. This is only a temporary setting that resets every time the app launches. CPU Affinity preferences are retained in the registry. You should also consider disabling the setting “Reset audio interface when focus changes” or something to that effect within FLStudio. I know theres also a lot of issues with the SP4’s audio interface due to the headphone/mic having some kind of dedicated driver stack.

          1. I’ve tried enabling/disabling cores and other services and setting affinities – none of it does anything. I’ve used Throttlestop and monitored everything via the Intel tuning app – it has no effect. This is not really about throttling, it’s about the efficient movement of data by the system and how constantly the CPU can keep the power on. It’s beyond regular tweaking and requires improvements to the architecture – we’ve seen this in Bitwig, we’ve seen Ableton Live go from poor performance to great performance through a single point update. FL Studio solved the issue in their next update and it could also be worked around in the settings by turning something on or off – can’t remember what just now. None of it is to do with the onboard sound – the dual audio stack is annoying but I had the same trouble using USB audio interfaces – it’s not an issue, just annoying 🙂

            So, thanks for the ideas but we’re sort of past this now and i’m currently re-testing and finding much better results since the Anniversary update and a handful of firmware updates to the SP4. Cheers!

  5. Hi Robin,
    Glad to know that you’re still working on it. I wonder what results will you get with 3 different machines.
    As for Pro Tools – like I mentioned earlier changing buffer size within application forth and back without restarting PT helps to keep it running well without glitches for some time. So in my case when recording, I keep buffer at 128 wit zero or minimum plugins and generally it works ok. When finished recording I move slider all the way to the right and its ok too, cracks come occasionally- reset again. Cracking only starting when buffer reach one time red zone, then it need to be reset. It’s not the real solution but it let me work a least.
    Another thing is studio one, I found that if you switch off multithread in preferences, S1 runs well without glitches. Only problem remains higher than expected cpu usage with relatively small session ( 3 audio, 3 vis usage around 50% – same session in macmini 2011 i7 usage around 20% , that could not be right ). In my case latest firmware update brought not any improvement in matter of audio engine.
    Tested with SP4 i7 8gb, only with ASIO4ALL ATM.

    1. Good information, thanks. I seem to have ASIO4ALL working on the original 8-96khz setting without distortion and with both outputs activated since the firmware update. I’ll look into this further but that’s at least something positive. All three Surfaces are popping I just need to tie it down to a repeatable project as it’s being inconsistent.

      1. That all 3 devices are popping I actually consider as a good news, so my device not defective. I start to believe now that maybe Microsoft is actually able to fix it, so it won’t be worst spend 2000eur. I think the problem is much bigger than just faulty audio driver, I believe it is somehow connected to whole new architecture CPU, chipset…
        This weekend I’ll have closer look to the update as well.

        1. I also think it might be related to the chipset. I think skylake is supposed to be more aggressive with it’s power management then others. I really only have ACPI.sys showing up in LatencyMon and it is telling me that I might experience issues due to power management / cpu throttling. Funny enough Ableton works great not matter how many channels and such I throw at it. Really the only time I have issues is when I start pushing the CPU load in the 80% which is to be expected. But Ableton also put out an update in 9.6.1, “Improved the reliability and priority of the audio thread when using ASIO drivers. This contributes a noticeable performance improvement and fixes a few cases where Live would drop out when using certain audio interfaces.” I wonder if other DAWs need to do the same?

          If I run Reason standalone I get pops running just Kong. If I take the same set and rewire it into Ableton and having Ableton be the audio engine, I get no pops and can run even larger sets with no pops.

          This leads me to think that it might be the chipset is more aggressive with power management but Ableton has a higher priority on the audio thread which tells the power management to step aside. Hopefully either MS can fix the power management or the DAW developers can figure how to get their software to run in a higher priority.

          1. Probably…. the trouble is that it’s inconsistent. For you Ableton is working well, for me it crackles with just a few tracks whereas I can’t get Reason to go wrong.
            The issues is definitely in the CPU and how it shifts in speed – it’s not moving fast enough to keep our buffers from overflowing. Good information though – thanks!

          2. Did you try to limiting the processor. To my knowledge this should disable speedstep: Additional power settings > Balanced (recommended) > Change plan settings > processor power management > maximum processor state

            You may or may not need to edit a registry key for this power option to be avaliable ( you can just google it). Also different values make speedstep stop for different people. I’ve heard about anything for 60% to 99%.

            Personally I did forego the i5/8g/256 sitting at the post office, mainly due to this post and jumped on a non returnable m3 for a whooping 40% off at a end of life sale. Do you know if this model also have he issue?

            Cheers

  6. This is quite disconcerting. I was all pumped to buy a new SP4 for music production, but after reading your comments/findings I think I might hold off until the cause is established.

  7. I’ve just delayed a big purchase as well. Microsoft are currently pushing the Surface line for creatives including music, so they really need to be getting a handle on this.

    Robin, is there any one at MS that we could contact to help them realise that there is an issue building up here?

  8. I am new to digital music, and trying to both learn piano and digital music at the same time. I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 to use as an all-purpose processing and display tablet to keep on my music stand on my “new-to-me 1885 Steinway upright “F” turned into possibly the world’s oldest digital keyboard” ( the story at https://goo.gl/photos/mZ6UywoFz79DXAMr9 ). Konakt runs great on its own. Pianoteq runs great on its own. Cubase 8 LE AI runs great on its own (came with my Steinberg UR-22 model II that I bought to eliminate the latency I experienced with the Surface Pro4). Pianoteq runs great inside Cubase. BUT when Kontakt runs inside Cubase, Cubase pops, clicks, and sputters. And I can not figure out why, nor, while looking at the task manager, can I figure out if this is only during disk reads or writes, as sometimes it occurs when I play a new note after a string of playing one note (in trying to figure it out).

  9. same here with sp4 i7 16gb, using reaper, kontakt and soundtoys through an audient id14. i may avoid crackles and pops by turning max performance on, but i almost find myself going back and forth to tweak my driver latency more often than not. no matter be it the asio4all or audient driver, and i’m pretty light with my setup : 1-2 libraries inside one instance of kontakt, 3-4 effects at best. thank you for all your endeavors trying to enhance what is still the best computer i’ve ever had. because i also love to draw 🙂

  10. Well, I think that I solved my clicking and popping hestitancy problems in Cubase on the Surface Pro 4, at least so far. I just don’t understand what problems my solution may lead to in the future as I keep learning and working. In any case, here’s what I found:

    As I was poking about in Cubase, I found an option that gave three levels of ‘ASIO protection’ : it’s in the “devices” – “devices set up” menu, under “activate ASIO-guard”. The default was “moderate”, and it seemed to get better when I moved to “high”, but the clicks and the pops went away completely (along with the bar on the left that would run up to full-load when the clicks and pops happened – the bar is still there, it just hangs out at 10% or less most of the time and never goes to 100%) when I just click the box that turned it OFF.

    I am not sure what the ASIO-guard does, but maybe I don’t need it. In any case, I now distracted myself for almost the last hour playing all kinds of variants of the Scarbee Rhodes electric piano, as well as many different presets for the vintage organs, and more. With no clicks and no pops and no hesitancy that I can really tell. Although for most problems in life I take pleasure in coming up with elegant solutions, sometimes the brute force or iterative solutions are just as good, or better, if they require less effort.

    Does this help anyone else, and what problems might this ‘fix’ cost?

  11. Well, I have not completely eliminated the hiccups, but reduced them to extremely intermittent, and perhaps the once-ina-while one is now the drop-outs that ASIO-guard is supposed to prevent, but things are MUCH better (even running three pianos simultaneously).

  12. For FL Studio, try disabling the option “Force high performance power plan” in the General settings (Advanced section). It might prevent aggressive throttling of the cpu.

    It might also help to turn down the “Animations” setting.

  13. Surface Book owner here (i7,16gb ram, 512ssd). I’ve been running Cubase 8.5 pro and FL Studio 12 on it without hiccups (Took a while for the bugs and kinks to be worked out at first though). As far if it’s good for production, it depends on what you want to do and how you go about it. Being a dual core computer, it is not the most powerful tool for music production. Using FL Studio I definitely can hit the CPU ceiling but this once I hit around 60 tracks or so. Cubase is optimized way better and it uses the VST3 format (Which I’ve switched almost all of my plugins over to) completely. VST3 is extremely better on cpu than VST2 and as of now Cubase and Nuendo are the only DAW’s that support it fully. With that said the Surface Book performs on par with a quad core computer when using Cubase. It’s amazing how much power you can get out of it. Best music investment I’ve made for a compact travel studio.

  14. Blame your SP4 issues on Skylake. Hopefully, Microsoft and Intel can create a firmware solution to resolve the annoying/show stopping issues people have reported.

  15. Hi i currently have a sp4 i7 8g ram. Would this sp4 be a good enough for me just learning music production?

    1. Ummm… you’ve been watching my videos right? I’ve just got a Surface Book lent to me from Microsoft, I’ve just started testing. I’ve also begun retesting the SP4 and it didn’t show the problems it had in this video with Pro Tools, so things are looking up. When I have more results and things to say i’ll write about it and make videos about it 🙂

  16. Heya,
    I thought I’d chime in.
    I too purchased a Surface Pro 3 a while ago and attempted to work with professional audio software on it… and it turned out not so pretty…

    I use Ableton, Serato & Traktor on a Surface Pro 3 w i5, mostly the later 2 though for a while until things failed too often. Ableton I’ve tested and occasionally played with on it, but have not spent a lot of time with it as I use a desktop for Ableton mostly.
    But, Serato & Traktor, behave rather erratically if used under realistic conditions (i.e. multiple hour long DJ/DVS mixing sessions)…. the worst – I’ve had Serato crash on me on the surface in a live situation on a music festival with 70k people in attendance (to pre-face, Serato is known for its’ stability, and I’ve had a crash once in 8 years prior.)… and nowadays the developer of Serato officially warns NOT to use ANY Surface product with Serato… see:
    https://support.serato.com/hc/en-us/articles/214166197-KNOWN-ISSUE-Microsoft-Surface-Pro-and-Surface-Book-issues-with-Serato-DJ

    And with Traktor, Native Instruments’ DVS/DJ software, people are reporting the same:
    https://www.native-instruments.com/forum/threads/microsoft-surface-book-traktor-2-11-freezing-and-needs-hard-reboot.312875/#post-1553228

    I recently flagged this with a manager in the only Microsoft Store in the southern hemisphere who promised to follow it up… let’s see if something comes of it… but MS really should address this asap, and if not fully reliable with the so called ‘creators update’ for Windows10, MS will loose a lot of credibility (I assume, but definitely mine) which they’ve been trying to painstakingly build up over the last years.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I worked with the SP3 for a year, testing all sorts of music software and I gigged with it every month. I would run Ableton Live and Archaos Grand VJ on the same machine – flawless. The only issues I ran into were with throttling if I pushed the CPU too far. Check out the beginning of this blog for all the details on using the SP3. It’s a shame there’s no date on the Serato article or any mention of whether this is with USB audio interfaces or on-board audio. The lack of detail is really very unhelpful. I’ve not used Traktor so I’ve not encountered that problem. I sit here with the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 making videos which take hours, usually with them playing on loops while I’m distracted into other things – or i’ll leave them overnight and they are still playing in the morning. That’s not to say I haven’t seen problems, just nothing out of the ordinary. The Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 have been rubbish for music for a year – credibility is not something they have a lot of yet. Only now is it starting to work as well as the SP3 did. Check out my more recent posts for details on that.

  17. Does any body know if the problems with the surface and audio programs has been figured out?

    I bought the book i7 512gb 16gb thinking it would be ideal for dj and production programs and thus far can not get serato to last longer than 50 mins before crashing the whole computer. Leaving nothing other than a forced reboot.

    Feeling pretty devistated after spending so much on what I believed would be a monster computer for my needs

    1. Hi Craig,
      Well you’re looking at an old post there. If you move further up the blog you’ll find that after the anniversary update and numerous firmware updates the SP4 is working very well with what I’ve tested. I’ve not use Serato so I can’t comment on that but I can run Bitwig or Ableton for hours now without a hiccup. I have heard from people using Traktor who still seem to be having problems, although it’s difficult for me to see how or why without experiencing it myself. You have gone for the super high-spec, maybe you’re having a problem with heat? If it appears to run well for 50 minutes before crashing then that would indicate something like overheating as a possible cause. What I would try would be to restrict the processor speed in order to keep it a bit cooler. If you go into the advanced power options you can set a minimum and maximum processor percentage – set both to 80% and see if that helps.

      Cheers
      Robin

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