At the Sounding Edge: FreeWheeling
A few years ago, one of my students performed a rather unique original piece at a local coffee house. He used one guitar, one bass, his voice and a foot-controlled hardware device called a loop sampler. The sampler recorded brief segments played on the guitar or bass and then fed them back out as repeating audio loops. The sonic result was a texture of seven looping guitar parts and two looping bass parts. When the texture was built to his liking, he then added his vocal, singing a non-looped song over the looping sounds. At the climax of the song, he simply stopped the sampler on an appropriate beat, and the crowd went wild.
JP Mercury's FreeWheeling program is the software equivalent of that loop sampler. Of course, features have been added that are possible only in software, making FreeWheeling a powerful loop-based performance tool. In this month's column, I take a look at the latest version of FreeWheeling and consider its basic capabilities. FreeWheeling has features I haven't explored yet, but even its basic use shows off FreeWheeling's musicality.
An audio loop is a sound or part of a sound that is played repeatedly until stopped by an internal or external control. In musical terms, a loop is a kind of ostinato, a repeating figure that may function alone or in combination with other ostinati. Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring" includes excellent examples of layered ostinati. Layering audio loops can enable quick construction of complex musical textures in the studio or in live performance.
The tape loop echo boxes of Ye Olde Days were the original audio looping devices, but the modern audio looper truly begins with the hardware samplers and drum machines of the 1980s. These machines offer looping capabilities that have been put to creative use by musicians in various genres, including hip-hop, rap and techno. As sampling shifted to software running on general-purpose computers, a genre of powerful music composition software evolved from the basic hardware implementations. Programs such as Fruity Loops and Sonic Foundry's Acid are excellent examples of audio loop sequencers, adding enhancements such as timed loops and high-quality time stretching and pitch shifting.
I'm often asked whether Linux audio software includes anything similar to Acid. I freely confess that Linux audio development has yet to come up with an Acid competitor, although Ardour might be warped into service. However, Linux-based musicians do have access to some impressive loop-based music software, and so we come at last to FreeWheeling.
I built and tested FreeWheeling 0.5pre4 on Red Hat 9 and Fedora Core 3 installed from the Planet CCRMA ISO CD images (see Resources). Compiling the program was a straightforward task, with only two special considerations. The excellent SDL (Simple DirectMedia Layer) libraries and headers are required for FreeWheeling's GUI, including the SDL_gfx and SDL_ttf components for graphics and TrueType font support. The second consideration was the option to provide internal support for the FluidSynth soundfont synthesizer, allowing direct play and record with FreeWheeling.
My Planet CCRMA installations already supplied the main SDL and FluidSynth systems. However, during the configuration process, I discovered that the Planet had not installed the SDL_gfx and SDL_ttf devel packages. After installing those packages, FreeWheeling compiled and installed without complaint.
To fully configure FreeWheeling to your personal tastes, you need to learn the details of its .fweelin.rc file. By default this file is installed in your home directory and in /usr/local/share/fweelin. The file in your home directory has preference, and it's there that you customize FreeWheeling. We look closer at .fweelin.rc later, but for now let's get started with the program set to its defaults.
FreeWheeling is a JACK-aware application, so you need to start the JACK audio server before opening FreeWheeling. After starting JACK, open an xterm, type fweelin at the prompt, and gaze in awe as your screen fills with messages as FreeWheeling starts up. Figure 1 shows part of that message stream, along with my JACK audio connections and the FreeWheeling default display. FreeWheeling does not autoconnect to any other JACK client, so you need to make your connections with jack_connect or a GUI such as Rui Capela's QJackCtl. Of course, thanks to JACK, you can route FreeWheeling's audio I/O to and from any other JACK client, for example, attaching the audio output from an external softsynth to FreeWheeling's audio inputs. FreeWheeling is also an ALSA sequencer client, which means it can send and receive MIDI messages to and from any other ALSA sequencer client, such as that external softsynth.
Press the / key to call up FreeWheeling's help screen that lists the current key bindings and control commands. FreeWheeling is essentially a keyboard-controlled audio loop sequencer, designed for maximum personalization through the .fweelin.rc file. Again, I must delay further explanation of that by-now mysterious document in order to proceed to the hands-on operation of the program.
Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.
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