November 2015

Molten Music Monthly – Nov 2015 – Surface Special

Molten Music Monthly

This month we’re focusing on the new Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, but we’ve also got Bitwig throwing out a surprise touchy feely update, Imogen Heap offering us a box of tricks and Back at Molten HQ we’ve got a new range of Skylake desktops and laptops. Let’s get to it.

Here’s the video version, the text continues beneath:


I was there, I was at the Microsoft Windows 10 Devices launch in New York on the 6th October and got the opportunity to handle the new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book. My SurfaceProAudio blog has been inundated with requests for what I think about them – which is best for music, which one should I get etc but unfortunately at the time of writing neither has been released in to the wild in the UK yet and I haven’t been offered a review model and so I can only give you my impression of them based on a quick feel and what we know so far.

The Surface Pro 4 is an awesome upgrade to the Surface Pro 3. It’s the same size and shape, has a slightly larger screen, a better keyboard, better pen and a better processor. What’s not to like about all that? Retaining the size, kick stand and keyboard functionality I feel is really important and somehow Microsoft have managed to enhance and improve the Surface Pro without screwing it all up in the process – great job, I’m very pleased. I was able to speak at length to an engineer at the event about the processor and the cooling. They all hated the throttling issue – those videos of gamers attaching huge fans behind their surfaces so they could get higher frame rates – they hated that and so heat and throttling became one of the key areas they wanted to sort out with the SP4. The guy told me that they built the cooling first, that took priority and then the motherboard was designed around it. Microsoft have used two heatpipes to move the heat to two different places in order to maximise dissipation. The first heatpipe goes to a large plate for passive cooling the idea being that under normal use this should be all that’s required. The second pipe goes to a specially designed fan that will kick in when the going gets tough. This should have the dual result of keeping the heat under control and reducing how often the fan comes on. The SP3 does tend to be a bit trigger happy on the fan and runs it when very little is going on. The engineer assured me that throttling would not happen on the SP4 – but we’re not going to know for sure until I get a chance to load it up with a bunch of plug-ins.

SP4 Heatpipe
The dual heatpipe arrangement in the Surface Pro 4

None of the reviews I’ve seen have said anything useful about how well the SP4 copes with high load processing, noise or heat, they all just talk about the specs and pricing – very dull. Hopefully I can do something about it when I get my hands on one.

The specs for those of you who are interested are a choice between:
Core M3-6Y30 900MHz with HD 515 graphics – this one is totally passively cooled, no fan at all.
Core i5 6300U 2.4GHz with HD 520 graphics – probably the best value for money
Core i7 6650U 2.2GHz with Iris 540 graphics – faster turbo but slower stock speed, which I don’t really understand.

It’s the i5 and i7 that interest me and with these processors there’s very little in it. The i7 has a slightly slower standard speed to the i5 but it has a larger cache and higher turbo speed. It also has Intels bestest graphics engine which may be helpful to some people. The i5, like with the SP3, seems to be the sweet spot in terms of price and performance being just slightly slower than the i7 and still having awesome HD 520 graphics capable of running 4k screens. In the UK the prices start at £749 for the Core M, £849 or £1079 for the i5 (available mid November), £1299 to £1799 for the i7 (available mid December). The pen is included but the Type cover isn’t so factor in another £109.99 for that. So personally, if I could afford one, I’d probably be stretching up to the i5, 256GB drive and 8GB of RAM with the Type cover for £1188.99 – delivery is free, yay! That to me looks like the best value and performance option, but obviously the i7 would be better and if the thermals are under control then they will be awesome!

Of course it’s the Surface Book that took all the attention and it looks like a flipping amazing laptop. The key term here being “laptop”. It’s a laptop, a clam shell, fold up and down, sit on your lap type laptop so if you want a laptop then this is the baby to get. It has a bigger screen than the SP4, a slightly better i7 2.6GHz processor (the i5 is the same as the SP4) and of course the option for a dedicated Nvidia graphics engine in the base. The screen comes off and you can turn it around, it has a very cool hinge thingy and it just looks fabulous. Unfortunately there’s currently no release date for it in the UK so we don’t know how much it will be but I’d make a guess at starting at £1299 for the i5 without discrete graphics going up to perhaps £2699 for the i7, 16GB and 1TB with the Nvidia. With a slightly slower processor and less storage the top end Apple Macbook Pro is going for £1999 so yeah, the Surface Book is pretty expensive.

So which do you get?

Well a year ago when I decided to pick up a Surface Pro 3 for music production and live performance I chose it precisely because it wasn’t a laptop. I chose it because it was different, because the focus on touch required a better form factor, something designed to cope with what touching and drawing on a screen meant. The SP4 follows that line of reasoning perfectly and from what I can tell just gives us more and makes it even better. The Surface Book on the other hand is a laptop and so is actually, for me, not ideally suited for touching in a music performance environment. Now I’m aware that my friends at Microsoft are promoting Surface Book as the ultimate laptop for musicians and my good personal friend Thavius Beck has been using one for his awesome performances so I am not saying that the Surface Book is no good for musicians – it is, very much it is, but and maybe controversially, I think the Surface Pro 4 is better. Let me demonstrate this. With the Surface Pro the screen is right there, front and centre and completely resists my touch. The kickstand supports the screen and I can bang out drums and noises and draw on the screen at a number of angles and nothing is in the way. Let’s try that with my mock up of a Surface Book. As soon as I touch the screen the whole thing wobbles. I did this with the real thing and it’s even lighter than this laptop and so the problem is more pronounced. When you see Thavius use it he’s also holding the base down with his arms – which is cool but for me not ideal. The keyboard is also in the way putting the screen further back and more difficult to reach. Aha, well we can turn it around – yes we can- tried that – and just as with this one it gives way to my touch until it’s flat. Now when it’s flat then yes it’s perfect but this gives us only one angle to play with and although the hinge gives us a little bit of angle that’s great for drawing and working on it’s not ideal for live performance where you want to be a bit more upright. Doesn’t mean the Surface Book can’t do it – lots of people use MacBook’s or other laptops in live performance all the time and as a laptop for performance the Surface Book is awesome – but if you want to touch it, and use touch in performance then from what I can see the Surface Pro 4 is the much better choice.

Also, detaching the screen is pretty cool but if you are making music then you’re probably going to have an audio interface attached, a MIDI keyboard, maybe an external drive with sample library on and what’s all that connected to? The base – the base has all the ports. Remove the screen and you have to use the onboard sound and nothing else. The SP4 on the other hand has its single USB port there all the time which if nothing else is going to be needed for your Cubase dongle or Pro Tools iLok. And in terms of “most powerful” the i5 models of the Surface Book and SP4 are the same processor. For music making the graphics card is irrelevant so the added Nvidia power isn’t an advantage. The i7 processor in the Surface Book is a tiny bit faster than the one in the SP4 – but that’s it. So is the form factor of the Surface Book worth the extra $400 to $900 over the SP4? Only if you must have a laptop.

So there you are – let me know what you think about that.

I do hope to get hold of at least a SP4 at some point and if and when I do I’ll run all the usual tests and comparisons so that you have a good idea about what it’s capable of in terms of music production. In the meantime I’ll keep blogging and making videos with my SP3 because it’s still relevant to making music on a touchscreen device and perhaps it’s time to name the blog “Making music on the Surface” and include any type of Surface in that.

Bitwig 1.3

Last month I mentioned how Bitwig had squeezed out version 1.2 without all the touchy stuff they’d been demoing at NAMM. Well within a month they’d released version 1.3 to coincide with the release of the new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book which includes their fabulous new touch interface for multi-touch screens and the Surface pen. Well I’ve written a massive indepth review all about it and I think you’ll find it very interesting. Nobody else has approached touch in such a creative and innovative way in DAW software and so I’ve been thoroughly enjoying getting to know it. See the description below for a link to my review.

Molten Skylake

You knew we made computers right? Molten Music Technology builds computers for musicians, studios and performers – just like you. From the home studio tinkerer to the multi platform networked producers and content creators we have a machine for you. We have just revamped our line of systems with the new Intel Skylake technology offering around a 30% performance increase over the last generation for the same price. We have our Z series of awesome desktop i5 and i7 computers from the Mini but perfectly formed to the totally silent Muse and on to the Overdrive at the top with up to 64GB DDR4 ram, and TB’s of storage starting from only £799. All new laptops starting from £599 for the cool dual core Performer and from £1299 for our Performer Pro mobile workstation with an optional 4K screen and desktop processing power. All our systems are designed and built for music production, they are tweaked, quiet, some of them silent, all of them powerful and supported to run professional audio interfaces and software. So if you are in the market for a reliable, rock solid platform for making music then give us a call.

Imogen Heap – Box of Tricks

Coolest thing of the month by the coolest lady in any creative environment. It’s a collection of instruments for Kontakt by Soniccouture in collaboration with Imogen Heap and it looks flipping awesome and weird and wonderful. These are Imogens sounds, shaped and designed for her own music and performance and I love the fact they’ve made these available to the rest of us mortals. It’s got beats, slaps, pops and tickles, it’s got her Array Mbira, Cello, brushes, sticks and scrapes, Glockenspiel, Marxophone, Shruti Box, vocals, body, whirly tubes and all sorts of cool stuff. There’s 30GBs of stuff in there and they’ve also created performance modules, effects and synthesis to bring an amazing amount of sound out of it. It’s partly inspirational in use but also I find it inspires me to be adventurous and start recording stuff to use as raw materials for my own sound design. She’s a total inspiration.

Film of the month

This one I did get to see at the cinema – Ridley Scott’s The Martian staring Matt Damon. I’d read Andy Weirs book about a month before – it took me only about four days to read because I just couldn’t put it down. Once you are past that first chapter where you’re not sure if you’re really into it you are suddenly pulled into this amazing, tense, funny and enlightening adventure story. If you’ve read the book then the film will be slightly disappointing simply because they couldn’t fit anywhere near enough of the book into it. In some ways it should have been a TV series – 24 episodes at an hour each would have done it justice. But anyway, we have what we have and that is pretty darn awesome. Much of the humour and humanity of the book is retained – the science, not so much, it gets a bit glossed over which is a shame because that’s a key ingredient to the book. The look of the film, the look of Mars and the rovers and habitat were amazing, it was totally believable and at no point did I think we were looking at CGI – which of course with space craft and such like we must have been – but it was gorgeous and seamless. Matt was obviously the star and he’s easy to watch but the supporting cast all did a fine job in expressing the difficulty inherent in such missions and determination in getting this guy back alive. It was a massive advert for NASA of course, but also there were a ton of Microsoft Surface Pro 3 scattered around – and it’s nice to see the form factor unchanged in the not too distant future.

The music by English composer Harry Gregson Williams had echoes of Aliens in the way it gave a slightly other worldly vibe to the scenes on Mars – at one point I honestly half expected the marine laden Sulaco to loom into view. I loved the electronic side of the score, it was sublime and interesting. Of course at some point the chugging strings of tension had to come in which they did but other than that I really enjoyed the music – it stood out for me which is always a good sign. I don’t hold with this idea that the music should be so good that you don’t even notice it – rubbish! And I love the fact that he also wrote the music to the Tigger movie.

So if you haven’t read the book – go and see this film and then read the book. If you have then see it anyway but enjoy it for what it is rather than be annoyed at what’s missing.

And Finally

That’ll do for now. Next month I’ll be putting together a bit of a Christmas wishlist for possible computer music stocking fillers. I’m still undecided on the whole Kickstarting a SurfacePro4 fund but my hopes of Microsoft giving me one are fading so watch this space.