More Free Beer

Dec 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Oliver Masciarotte


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It's December, and Santa has once again failed to take your request for a refurbished ATR-100 seriously. Well, I can't blame him, but I can continue our discussion of mostly free Open Source stuff that's useful to audio geeks.

Let's begin by assuming that we want to put together an Open Source audio workstation. Fine and good, but most current mouse jockeys recoil in horror when presented with a text-only user interface. Text only? Yup! Lurking underneath all modern, post-Macintosh operating systems is a purely text-driven computer; you see, a graphical user interface, or GUI, is for humans and certainly not for the poor microprocessor doing all of the work. There are many Open Source GUIs out there that lay on top of raw Open Source operating systems, including GNOME, a mature but homely choice, and KDE, a particularly nice, integrated environment.

Once you have a GUI, you can put together a workstation. Take your pick of Ardour, Audacity, ReZound, Snd and Sweep (i.e., the “big five”). There are also a bunch of simple sound file editors to noodle with, including DAP, GLAME, GNUsound, Kwave, LAMP, MiXViews and WaveSurfer. DAP is a RAM-based editor, while GLAME and Kwave are GUI-specific editors (for the GNOME and KDE environments, respectively), but the remainder are disk-based and independent of GUI. All of these editors run under Linux and offer several flavors of Unix, including BSD, IRIX and Mac OS. They vary as to sound card support, but that's primarily an OS and driver issue (see “Open Source Plugs” sidebar). These simple editors are largely butt-ugly, but the big five are fairly sweet and include some nice features, including visual analysis tools and object-oriented signal processing. Dave Phillips, author of The Book of Linux Music & Sound, suggests ecasound. “It's a text-based DAW, very complete and powerful. There's a nicely evolving GUI available for it, too, called TkEca.”

Ardour, the number two editor in popularity, is a good example of an Open Source DAW that runs with RME or other quality hardware choices. Though Ardour is free, Paul Davis, the lead developer, also provides services such as turnkey systems that are built to order. Davis' take on an OSS-based DAW is that he has “…complete control over the OS when I use Linux. When I build a box to run my digital audio workstation, I don't have to accept whatever Apple or MS feels is the right kernel configuration. I can include additional third-party kernel patches, drop extraneous stuff, do anything I need to make sure that you get a box that is completely optimized for professional audio.”

Of course, if you're good enough, you can do the same thing with OS X/Darwin, POSIX or BSD, but that's not Davis' point. He says, “Digidesign won't even certify most Wintel systems for use with Pro Tools, and every noncustom DAW maker recommends using a dedicated, stripped-down system for their products. People either can't afford or don't want to do that, and this contributes to the instabilities they face. Most audio practitioners make so little money that they can't afford not to fully utilize a relatively large capital expense.”

Another less-obvious advantage of the strategic use of Open Source in your business is its potential for virtual immortality. Audio companies come, go and get absorbed by multinationals, but Open Source code is freely distributed, which allows for continued maintenance and development without its original creators.

Though OSS includes a wide range of applications and development frameworks for all sorts of needs, there is a rich collection of audio stuff. The FreeBSD folks alone list 416 audio applications and utilities, and that's just FreeBSD! There's a wide array of software available, including editors and players for sound files and samples, MIDI utilities, lossy and lossless codecs, IIR and FIR filter designers, synths and public-domain sheet music, along with helper applications such as servers and asset management. If you're a fan of online file sharing, you can find OS clients for Audiogalaxy and LimeWire, itself an OS enterprise. Then, of course, there's Gnutella, “…a network by the people and for the people.” Da, comrade! The “GNU” in the name provides a hint of the founder's political leanings.

We all use MP3 players, and there are several open efforts to create a substitute music database for Gracenote's commercial CDDB. One choice is Freedb, and another is MusicBrainz. These organizations maintain servers that enable audio CD and MP3/Vorbis players to download metadata about the music they are playing. Speaking of Vorbis, the folks at Ogg Vorbis maintain what is probably the most popular Open Source lossy codec package on the planet.

Sometimes, you may want to run a particular application and Windows is needed, even though you've converted your hardware to an Open Source OS. One solution is a double-boot arrangement, allowing you to pick a boot disk and accompanying OS. Another is a hardware emulator (think virtual PC) like DOSEMU (DOS Emulation), or a “compatibility layer” such as WINE — which is an implementation of the Windows 3.x and Win32 software modules — or APIs on top of X11 and Unix. X11 is a graphical user-interface toolbox for Unix and WINE that allows you to run some Windows 3.1/95/NT applications without Windows. DOSEMU is a Linux emulation of DOS that runs many DOS programs. One caveat: Commercial DAWs won't run under either WINE nor DOSEMU.

For the record, OSS is not limited to wild-eyed zealots. RealNetworks has its Open Source Helix Universal Server, which streams Real Media, Windows Media, QuickTime, MPEG 4 and MP3 media, while the Darwin core of Apple's OS X is also Open Source. Old-school networking stalwart Novell has bought Linux distributor Ximian, and there's speculation that Sun Microsystems, in its own bi-polar fashion, may offer a Sun-branded Linux distribution, as well.

Last month, I included the quote: “…contributing [to Open Source development] is simply way too hard” for most programmers. The same can be said of Open Source in general. On the user side, it's the same guts-and-glory thing that also drives those Windows users who need to feel a sense of mastery over an unwieldy and arcane knowledge. One thing I need to make clear is that, by and large, OSS is for those who are comfortable pushing bits around the old-fashioned way: in a Command Line Interface. Though modern distributions of Open Source operating systems are partly or completely wizard-driven, many Open Source utilities and applications are installed and configured under the guidance of a CLI. Also, for all computer users out there who have had a virus or spyware infestation during the past 12 months, or whose understanding of OS is as deep as an episode of Friends, you should probably stick with a commodity product.

Though many Open Source apps look and behave just like their commercial brethren (Mozilla and OpenOffice, for example), at this stage in its development, a large percentage of Open Source is still aimed at experienced, administration-level computer users. Programmer/musician Nick “The Piano Player” Porcaro opines, “Open Source stuff is great for the academic community because there aren't as many commercial pressures, and so, in theory, more people can contribute with a freer mindset. But in reality, lots of folks have some sort of agenda. By the way, I just blew off Linux for my Web server because it was much more time-consuming to configure than the Windows 2k server.” Porcaro has been beating Unix into submission for many years! So, if you're good to go with the übergeek factor, don an apron, grab a terminal window and join me in the download trough for a free feeding frenzy. Happy holidays!

Thanks to Dave Phillips for his suggestions. You can drop by for an extended mix of this column, along with links to all of the wares mentioned. This month's “Bitstream” was created while under the influence of Charlie Hunter Quintet's Right Now Move and Akira Kurosawa's stark, sassy soba western, Yojimbo.

Pedant In A Box

Recursive Acronym: a programming tradition, begun at MIT, to choose acronyms or abbreviations that refer humorously to themselves or other acronym/abbreviations. Very popular in the Open Source movement; GNU, Gnome, LAME and WINE are all recursive acronyms.

CLI: The Command Line Interface harkens back to before the Macintosh and before Windows, when a graphical user interface was still trapped in the labs of Xerox PARC. CLI tools, such the Start > Programs > Accessories > Command prompt in Windows and the Terminal in UNIX variants (˜/Applications/Utilities/Terminal in Mac OS), provide the most basic of high-level command and control tools for modern operating systems and behave much like an acoustically quiet version of the noisy, electromechanical teletypewriter ancestors from which they descend.

Open Source Plugs

For audio geeks, one of the most crucial deficiencies of Linux-based audio workstations used to be the lack of standardized programming interfaces, both plug-ins and hardware. As with other operating systems, long and passionate discussions have led to different concepts for plug-ins, the most widely accepted being LADSPA, the Linux Audio Developers' Simple Plugin API. Our friends, the VST plug-ins, are also supported in Linux.

The AGNULA and PlanetCCRMA projects are good examples of what's available for download: system enhancements including a low-latency kernel, Java support in the case of PlanetCCRMA, and drivers for common hardware, synthesis engines, audio software development packages, simple editors, mixers and “CD managers,” along with tool sets of various kinds, including applications for DJs, computer-assisted composition, lossy codecs, file serving/streaming and conversion, DSP, MIDI, music notation and speech processing. For hardware, Jack and ALSA, the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture, are the big kahunas of APIs.

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