Computer Independence Day

Posted by George in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue after 16 years of learning; J. S. Bach composed his first famous fugues after 18 years of study. Would you buy a composing tool if you knew that you will loose it in 10 years? No? How about your computer? Apple changed its CPU every 10 years; it happened in 1984, in 1994 and in 2004. Each time apps that might have taken years to master were lost. Software companies love to fret how their products work as well or better than dedicated hardware. Not one ever added, "except the metal running it will be gone in 10 years at most."

Great composers usually use the same, well-learned composing tool throughout their lifetime. Bach had a clavichord. Gerswhin used a piano. Today the tool might be a bunch of programs, and sound libraries on a computer. How do you preserve this for a lifetime? By loading it into a virtualization program.

For those who never heard of these, a virtualization program like VMware’s Workstation or Oracle’s VirtualBox runs like a computer inside your computer. You can install and run operating system(s) and program(s) into its window, which can be enlarged to full monitor size. The program saves its whole virtual enchilada, called "virtual machine" (VM, in short) to hard disk as one file; like a giant synthesizer patch. Open this VM file on any new computer that has a matching virtualization program and bingo, your whole work toolset springs back to life as it was on the old computer. (Some programs, plugins or sound libraries may require reauthorizing on the new computer, but this is rather minor compared to having to reinstall everything from scratch.) So you can take your tools on a vacation on a laptop, or migrate them to a new computer, switch them from PC to Mac or Linux or vice versa – you just became independent from your computer’s lifespan. Welcome to Eternal File…

i7-920 desktop @ 4.3 GHz, 18 GB of RAM. Lower Ableton CPU % is better. Click screen thumbnails for close-up

Host Ableton CPU % on host OS Ableton CPU % in Windows 7 VM Ableton CPU % in OSX VM
Win7 10% 13% in VMware Workstation 7.1 20% in VMware Workstation 7.1.
64bit Screen Shot Screen Shot Screen Shot
OSX 13%, unstable; 17%, stable @ 3.3GHz 21%, unstable; 27%, stable @ 3.3GHz "No audio" in VMWare Fusion 3.
64bit Screen Shot Screen Shot Screen Shot
Linux Program not available for Linux 29% in VirtualBox on Open Artist 32% in VMware Player on ArtistX


Milk Carton Screen Shot Screen Shot
Linux Program not available for Linux 21% in VMWare Workstation on Ubuntu 10 34% in VMWare Workstation on Ubuntu 10


Milk Carton

The cost? Time, mostly. You’ll need to recreate your composing environment in a virtual machine – once. Some programs claim they can convert your existing computer setup to a VM, but I have to see one useable result yet. Most of these conversion utilities are free though. Also, a music DAW program has slightly lower performance in aVM than on the host operating system (OS). On my i7 PC overclocked to 4.36 GHz, the standard Ableton test file used 13% CPU capacity in a VMware virtual machine, versus 10% on the host Windows 7. (See table below.) Without overclocking, the same file required 14% on the host Windows 7, so a bit of overclocking can give you more CPU boost than what virtualizing takes away.


Bottom line: if you’ll live just another 40 years (a very conservative estimate) and you buy a new computer ever 2 years, you’d have to reinstall (er, "migrate") and relink all your working apps and plugins and sound libraries and what-have-you 20 more times. Given that relinking the files of a single moved Ableton sampler library alone may take 5000+ hours as I discovered at my own detriment, 20 computer migrations can add up to half a lifetime wasted. If Bach had to work this way, he’d have completed a total of 5 songs in his life. On the other hand, if you virtualize your work tools just once, you are set…

Notes: in spite of its numerous good sides, virtualization (in its present form) has shown some shortcomings too. On Windows 7, the OSX VM offered no screen resizing, only cropping of the OSX desktop. On OSX only 6GB of RAM from the 18 Gigs present were recognized and OSX misread CPU speed as well. A boot OSX allowed only OSX server (not plain $29 OSX) in VM. Windows XP x64 (64-bit) touted as the best potentional host OS of all, crashed with every 64-bit VM in fact. Finally, all current virtualization programs lack support for FireWire and certain PCI cards. The discussion on composing tool longevity continues on several places, between them this Motifator thread, where new ideas such as "synth block design" and "recording black box" are also introduced.

3 Responses to Computer Independence Day

  1. bill sprague says:

    blah blah blah. Virtualization, huh? Well, both Bach and Gershwin used ACOUSTIC instruments to do their shit. No batteries, no AC out of the wall, no computers, no software, no shit. Get real: practice. The capitalists want you to buy modern and your article just wants me to buy more software. Ho hum.

    • Rickie says:

      Non-acoustic arts need practice too – I think the gist is that it is impossible to complete said practice efficiently if ‘the capitalists’ are upgrading technology upon which our art form relies, given the current rate of obsolesence (imagine the analogy whereby Gershwin had to replace his piano strings and adjust to working with a new timbral range every few years).
      VirtualBox is free, and there are plenty of other free ones too.

      Personally I think these ideas are ahead of their time, and we will see more virtualisation for end-users (eg artists/musicians) over the coming years, as component price and power consumption drops. Thanks.

  2. Jim Hurley says:

    Very interesting idea you have there. Please post more when you’ve played with it a bit.

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