UPDATE: 6 months later things have changed dramatically. There have been numerous updates to the Surface firmware and Windows 10 which have resulted in a marked improvement in performance and the problems I encountered being largely smoothed away. I was also leant a Surface Book from Microsoft so I was able to run tests on both the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book to confirm and compare my findings. The good news is that it’s all so much better now and I have no problem recommending both devices for music production. I’ve done a load of videos testing the performance that you should check out in the YouTube channel, culminating in this review of the Surface Book which will bring you up to speed on where we currently are – http://surfaceproaudio.com/surface-book-review-music-production/
So it’s been a long road and a bit of a struggle but the Surface is now performing as well as it always should have done. I will leave the rest of the article here for comparison purposes and in the hope that history does not repeat itself with forthcoming Surface versions.
The following is what I found at the time of testing but thankfully is no longer true – see above.
Shortly after finishing the videos on setting up the Surface Pro 4 for music I started to hit some problems. And so for the last couple of months I’ve been working on these issues, trying every tweak and hack and workaround. I’ve tried gentle persuasion, coaxing, shouting, and poking with sharp sticks to try to get to the bottom of it all. I haven’t really wanted to talk about it until I could gather enough evidence to show what was going on as accurately as possible – it might have been a fault with my Surface – I had to be sure about that. I’ve also been working with Microsoft to identify what’s causing the problems and I needed to give them time to sort it and in the meantime I’ve gathered stories from other users.
Has it been successful? Partly, yes. But I desperately wanted and assumed the Surface Pro 4 would be flawless – and it isn’t.
Some music software works fine and some struggles. Most of the issues can be worked around and I will show you how to do that. It’s also hampered by inconsistencies where something that fixes an issue in one DAW doesn’t fix it in another. All I can really do is present my findings as clearly and as honestly as I can so that you can make an informed choice and hopefully this information combined with other users experiences can help move us along to a solution.
So, this video will show a number of tests that I’ve run using musical projects across a range of DAW software in a low latency environment. It’s long, but I needed to put everything on the table, showing where things go wrong and where they go right. I’ve speeded up bits that show flawless playback and the glitches can be difficult to hear but my physical reaction to them on camera should mark them for you. If you to skip directly to my conclusions at the end then please do so but I recommend watching this through to get a fuller idea of what’s working and where the issues are.
Here’s the video – my conclusions continue below.
At the time of filming, the 5th of May, there’s no overall solution to these problems. Hopefully this will change so please check for any updates!
These tests were the best and most meaningful tests I could come up with in regards to music production – they are not perfect or exhaustive but I’ve worked very hard to give the most accurate picture I can with repeated tests over different Surfaces, Windows tweaks and audio interfaces. And I look forward to this picture changing for the better. Your mileage may vary. I’ve heard from people who haven’t had any problems at all and it may be that the way you use your Surface doesn’t bring any of these issues to light – that’s awesome for you. Unfortunately a lot of other people have had similar issues to what I’ve shown here.
I think I’ve demonstrated that it’s not to do with a faulty Surface, it’s not related to the audio interface. It doesn’t seem to be related to power profiles or Window tweaks. I’ve run DPC latency tests and nothing has stood out as a problematic driver. It could be the Skylake CPU technology where the CPU is simply not changing speed quick enough – although I’ve tested a Skylake based laptop with a similar CPU and not had these problems. It could be down to how the DAW software is written – why does Bitwig Studio work when Pro Tools doesn’t? But then why does all the software work fine on the Surface Pro 3?
Like I say it’s maddeningly inconsistent! I welcome all your theories in the comments below regardless of how half-baked. I could be doing something really stupid but on this occasion that’s looking less and less likely.
So where does that leave us? Let’s summarise my findings:
Pro Tools – although the buffer size switch can get it working if you have an Avid interface I wouldn’t currently recommend Pro Tools on the Surface Pro 4.
Cubase – turning off ASIO Guard seems to sort it out so that can work with just a small drop in performance – so that’s looking cool.
StudioOne – turning off multi-processing gets it running but the resultant lack of CPU headroom makes it less than ideal.
FL Studio – seems to work ok until you start moving the mixer which goes all jerky and can cause glitching – UPDATE: Go to Options-General and then uncheck the “Ultrasmooth” option seems to sort that out.
Ableton Live – overall the current version 9.6.1 looks good – I’ve heard of problems with earlier versions which were solved with this update. However, it doesn’t seem to work as well as it did on the SP3.
Reaper – Seems to work fine
Reason – mixed feelings about this one as I’ve seen very few problems but other people have. I’ve heard problems are sorted out when rewiring into something else so that’s encouraging.
Bitwig Studio – This seems to have no trouble at all. Whatever magic sauce Bitwig are sprinkling on their code needs to shared with everyone else.
Obviously there’s a lot more software I could have tested and I’ll try to get to those as and when I can.
So overall most music production software can be made to work on the Surface Pro 4 but largely not at the level of performance that it should be working. Some have real trouble working without glitches and some work pretty fine – but you don’t expect to have this amount of trouble and fiddling about on a machine of this calibre.
Microsoft have been pushing the Surface as a creative platform – luckily they’ve focused on Bitwig and so haven’t encountered the problems I’m reporting. What I don’t understand is how there doesn’t appear to be anyone at Microsoft who uses music software on the Surface – the issues present themselves pretty immediately and yet this all has come as news to them. If they want a share of Apple’s creative pie then they have to get these things right. They need someone to curate the music production side of their hardware or they are going to miss a massive opportunity to capture a large slice of the creative market. I should add that music apps that use regular Windows drivers such as StaffPad and FL Studio Groove don’t seem to be affected – that all works fine because they have large buffers to keep the data moving – the problem is with the low latency we need for music production.
The Surface Pro 3 was spectacular at running audio software – the basics were never a problem and I could get on with making interesting videos about touch and the pen and using them creatively. The only downside was running into throttling trouble when it got too hot. I had hoped and completely assumed that the Surface Pro 4 would be stunning at the basics and not have such a severe throttling problem – it was going to be awesome and I’m sad to say I’m a bit disappointed.
However – the Surface Pro 4 is still the best laptop type thing I’ve ever owned. I would never go back to a touchless and penless environment – that whole form factor is awesome and the power of the machine for general work and photoshop and stuff is fabulous. It can work well with Bitwig Studio and Reaktor and some other software with a bit of fiddling – it’s not a complete disaster by any means but obviously the issues do bring a certain amount of doubt to its competency as a reliable music making platform. However, I dearly hope I’ve shown that it still has an awesome amount of potential.
I will forge on – there may be a solution just round the corner, a firmware update that smoothes it all out. What I think I need to do now is start doing video of making music on the Surface – demonstrating what can be done on different bits of software within the limitations. That’s the only way to know for sure if the Surface Pro 4 is capable of music production.
What I don’t know is whether the Surface Book or the entry spec Core M Surface Pro 4 suffer from the same problems. I would love to find out if anyone could send me one.
Right, time for a stiff drink I think – dammit Microsoft this should have knocked it out of the park! It should be the greatest music making multi-touching mobile machine ever – it has everything going for it – come on, make it work!
Until then – go make some tunes.