Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Greetings to all readers of the Linux Journal Web site, and welcome to the first installment of a new monthly column about Linux audio software. For those of you who have been following developments in the Linux audio world, it should come as no surprise that a column such as this one has arrived. But for those of you who are thinking “Linux audio? What in the world could that be about?”, you'll find the answers here.

Before starting this month's article, I want to take a moment and introduce myself. I've been using Linux since late 1995, I'm the maintainer of the Linux Sound and Music Software pages on the Web, and I'm the author The Book of Linux Music and Sound (published by the No Starch Press). I've also published a few dozen articles on the Web and in hard-copy (all on Linux audio-related topics); I occasionally lecture in the US and Europe; and I'm currently involved with documentation for the AGNULA project (more about that later). I'm also a professional musician (guitarist/singer/composer), performing and teaching in and around my home of Findlay, Ohio, in the US. When I'm not working in any of those activities, I usually can be found in the company of my beloved Ivy Maria, doing things like cooking, watching movies, practicing Italian or taking walks in the northwest Ohio countryside. Oh, and I'm an avid t'ai chi player and amateur Latinist.

Okay, on to the reasons for this column. I intend to report on various activities and developments in the rapidly evolving world of Linux audio. To most normal users perhaps the term audio software simply means programs to play MP3 and Ogg files or applications that necessarily have something to do with audio, such as CD and DVD players. Although I'll certainly write about such software, I'll also present views of work being done in such fields as MIDI software, telephony, network audio, digital DJing, professional sound recording and many others. I hope you enjoy the column, and I invite all readers to write to me with comments and suggestions.

LAD And LAU: What Are They and Why Should You Care about Them?

Out of all my involvements with Linux audio, perhaps my greatest source of pride is to have been a founding member of the Linux Audio Development group. I should make it very clear to my readers that I'm no coder: I have an amateur's knowledge of C, Lisp and Tcl/Tk, but I've never written a substantial audio application, nor do I plan to. However, since my first days in Linux I've been in direct contact with developers of such applications, often in the combined roles of bug-hunter and beta-tester. Since 1996 I've made the acquaintance of almost every developer working on Linux audio software. In 1998, a group of developers and users decided to declare themselves the official Linux Audio Development (LAD) group. At that time the group included about a dozen members, but by December 2003 the group's membership list has grown to more than 600 participants and lurkers.

So what do LAD people discuss ? Well, in its Aims and Ideas section, the original charter states:

The Linux Audio Developers (LAD) list is dedicated to sound architecture and application development for the Linux operating system. With its proven stability and scalability, it is a perfect foundation for the handling and processing of large amounts of audio data. Our goal is to encourage widespread code re-use and cooperation, and to provide a common forum for all audio related software projects and an exchange point for a number of other special-interest mailing lists.

A list such as LAD necessarily maintains a rather high technical bias, but I must emphasize that it is open to anyone who wishes to subscribe and contribute. Some LAD members are among the most significant developers of Linux audio software, including Paul Davis (Ardour, JACK), Kai Vehmanen (ecasound), Fernando Pablo Lopez-Lezcano (PlanetCCRMA), Richard Bown and Chris Cannam (Rosegarden), Werner Schweer (MusE) and many others. You'll meet some of them and learn more about their projects during the existence of this column. I also must note that although the levels of discussion often are quite high, the participants are cordial and friendly--though they can bite back if bitten. It is to be expected on such a list that strong differences of opinion occasionally appear, but it is a testament to the participants' dedication to the goals of LAD that any serious ad hominem attacks or flame-fests are diffused quickly.

Incidentally, the LAD charter also states that most driver-related discussions and hardware installation questions are not within the scope of the mail list. See the LAD home site (listed below) for directions to more appropriate forums.

To give you some idea of what is talked about on the LAD list, here's a sampling of topics from November 2003 traffic:

  • Details of Matched, a guitar preamp LADSPA plugin from Tim Goetze

  • A discussion regarding kernel security patches for easier access to SCHED_FIFO/mlockall

  • News about cross-toolkit programming for host/plugin GUIs

  • Test results of running Demolition on LADSPA plugins

  • Does Native Instruments run their Traktor filesystem on Linux through WINE?

  • An open letter regarding GPL violations in certain audio software for OS/X

  • A proposition for polyphonic use of LADSPA plugins

  • Linux audio and the PPC

  • State of GUIs for modular synths

  • OSS driver/support for JACK

  • “Retro” speech synthesis

  • Singing speech synthesis with Festival

  • Discussion of Slashdot's report on the Lionstracs Linux-based music keyboard workstation

  • An exchange of views regarding SkaleTracker, commercialism and the general state of Linux audio software

  • Using JACK for control voltage (CV) signals

Juicy stuff, to be sure, and typical of the postings for any given month. By the way, as you can see there is constant and varied discussion regarding LADSPA (the Linux Audio Developers Simple Plugin API) and JACK (the JACK Audio Connection Kit), two of the most important community development projects for Linux audio. I'll be covering both in later articles, but you can learn more about them on your own by consulting the Resources at the end of this column.

So, that's a little bit about LAD. Whether you're a seasoned developer looking for an entrance point into the world of Linux audio programming or a complete newbie to programming anything in Linux, the LAD list is an excellent forum for your involvement.

In the natural course of such things, the original LAD list eventually became a bit overcrowded with developers discussing the technicalities of their various projects and users who needed more non-technical advice and encouragement. After some discussion it was decided to split off a new group; thus was born the Linux Audio Users (LAU) group. Obviously this group is targeted at the normal user of Linux audio software, as a look at some of last month's topics indicates:

  • Notes on the SBLive with Live Drive

  • The low-latency kernel on Mandrake

  • Reducing noisy recording/playback

  • Using a Shure SM57 microphone with a low-end soundcard

  • Advice on burning audio CDs

  • Notes on using the Zaurus palmtop for music and sound

  • Using the M-Audio Quattro USB interface with JACK

  • MIDI timing problems

  • Using Stompboxes2 with Audacity

  • Working with SpiralSynthModular's JACK plugin

  • Problems using JACK with SuSE

  • News regarding JACK and KDE/aRts

  • Problems using VST plugins under Linux

  • Recommendations for hardware for Linux audio

  • Advice on stretching sounds

As you can see, the discussions on LAU are focused on presenting and resolving user-land problems with Linux audio applications. Message types also include exclamations of joy/pain over available (or unavailable) software, as well as general questions regarding kernel preparation and distribution-specific issues. As on the LAD list, discussion usually is civil and on-topic, although strong statements and opinions are not absent here either. I recommend joining the LAU list to any users who have a need for a decent audio system under Linux, whether for composing, editing or simply playing your music.


Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.


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Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

dlc's picture

Sorry it took me so long to view this article, but life's been exceptionally dynamic recently.

Thundrous applause to all who made this column possible, and especially as a free-as-in-beer Internet venue. This shows you guys get it about the significance of this to the ever growing Linux community. As with GNU/Linux in general, the makers of audio tools both hard and soft may not know it yet, but they are nearing the World Domination of Linux audio, certainly within five years. Musicians, you're about to find out you don't need to spend your precious funds on music software any longer (wow, totally awesome hosannas, you guys, but could you please hold it down--I'm trying to compose a post here). I believe Dave is the only guy in the world who can pull this column off and I pray he makes beaucoup francs for all the pro bono work he keeps cranking out.
Again, congratulations for a successful (I hope) launch.

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

I am excited to see this column!! I would liek to see all kinds of things discussed here from the bits and bytes of the sound cards through the question of how do I compose music with Linux? How do I use Rosegarden? I'm smart enough to use this post, but rosegarden mytifies me.

This column is just starting to scratch the surface with where this can go. I am looking forward to this column growing and growing!!!


What I'd like in linux audio..

Anonymous's picture

What I'd really, really think would be cool for linux audio, is if the sound drivers could provide an API for user-space software synthesizer applications to appear as MIDI devices.

This modular approach would allow for many cool things, such as the softsynth appearing as an ordinary device on an existing, real, MIDI chain.
It would also allow for different softsynths to be used together (each program appearing as its own device), and also be used with all and any existing sequencer package.

I belive it's technically quite possible.. (basically 'routing' the MIDI data), and it'd really be a killer app..

Re: What I'd like in linux audio..

Anonymous's picture

As far as I know, this is indeed possible. YOu can certainly take a software synth that is already available on Linux, and not only can you route MIDI data to it from any application, with the use of JACK, you can also route it's audio data to any JACK enabled app.

Luke Yelavich

Re: What I'd like in linux audio..

Anonymous's picture

Ah, apparently you're right.. aconnect.. !

Well, in that case, it should be hyped more.. :-)

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

Dave, many thanks, it is nice to see some articles on linux audio comes out. This means that the thing is moving more ahead and this is only a good think for all of us.


Sound cards and Amateur radio

Anonymous's picture

Greetings Dave:

This is a great effort you have taken on and I want to thank you personally for stepping up to the task.

I use sound for many things with Gnu/Linux computers. One of the things I am really interested in is amateur radio applications that use sound cards [eg. linpsk, qsstv.] ALSA should make it easier for our coders to produce applications that will work on *any* hardware, but this is just a beginning. I know several hams that are both hams and musicians--so this is a very relevent topic.

I'll forward your article to them directly.

I'm really looking forward to your next articles!

Thanks again.

Wishing you well.

Jaye, ke6sls

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

garyvee's picture

Great idea for a regular Linux audio column. My interest is
primarily audio integrated with MIDI. I wonder why in your
first article you didn't mention ALSA. I have always assumed
Linux audio would eventually standardize on ALSA.

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me: author response

Anonymous's picture

Greetings: As I mentioned in my response to the message before yours, I do intend to cover ALSA in a future column. And you're right, Linux is indeed standardizing on ALSA: the 2.6.x kernel series will replace the OSS/Free API with ALSA, officially deprecating the older interface. Btw, I'll also be writing about MusE and Rosegarden, two of the best audio/MIDI sequencers available for Linux. Feel free to let me know if there's anything you'd like to see in this column, and thanks for your note. :)

Dave Phillips

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

pnb's picture


The sound portion of Linux has always been my greatest interest so I'm very glad to see a sound related column in the LJ. Thank you and I look forward to reading it as the months roll by.
One thing I have always wanted to read about is more infromation on is the ALSA drivers themselves. I don't mean code specific information like that what is already available in the alsa-library documentation (which goes over my head anyway), but information on:

The abstract - how ALSA connects or represents a particular sound card or device to the kernel and to me Mr. user. Another way of phrasing this is what did the authors of ALSA have in mind when they created it?
A rough description of how a sound file (pcm and/or midi) gets "played".
An explanation of how .asoundrc plays into this and finally (for now)
An explanation of the ALSA plugins, why are they there? What can I do with them?

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

Greetings, Dave Phillips here. Funny you should be asking about ALSA stuff, there's some activity going on at the ALSA site that should address some of your queries and concerns, particularly your last two. Patrick Shirkey has completely overhauled the soundcard matrix page, please check it out at An example .asoundrc file is given for almost every card, and there are more elaborate examples contributed by users (for certain cards only). Your other questions deserve some more explanation than I can possibly give here, so I'll plan on doing a "Let's meet ALSA" column soon. Release 1.0 is coming up soon anyway, the timing would be good for such an article. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me directly for more info, I'll help as I'm able. :)

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

Hi Dave,

It sounds really good to me too. Great job. Looking forward to future articles.


Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

Hi Dave,

I just wanted to mention that it was agreed that announcements should be cross-posted to LAA, LAU, and LAD during the creation of LAA. LAA is for people who *only* want announcements. I'm surprised it doesn't say something like that on the webpage.Maybe that should be revisited.


Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the clarification, Taybin, I'd forgotten about that agreement. My mailbox does get a bit cluttered receiving announcements in triplicate, but truthfully it's no big deal. I'm very glad just to have the forums. :)

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

I am a member of a smallish group trying to develop continuous speech recognition capability for Linux (ie Dragon NaturallySpeaking style). See the mailing list at
We need to know what sound cards and input hardware work the best with Linux. Need very high definition over the short range of the human voice
Susan Cragin

Re: Linux: It Sounds Good to Me

Anonymous's picture

Hi Susan: Dave Phillips here. I recommend joining the LAU list, your question is exactly the kind of thing that gets discussed and resolved there. Regarding soundcards: If you need only common stereo CD-quality audio you can use the SBLive (which includes an S/PDIF digital connection), but if you're looking for a multichannel solution you should consider the M-Audio or RME cards. Again, I urge you to join LAU, it's a very good forum for your needs. Feel free to write to me directly if you need more information. :)

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