Indamixx: an On-the-Go Recording Studio?
You've wanted to be a record producer, right? Or, you've wanted to be able to set up and record impromptu interviews and panels at tradeshows and conventions? What if you could do it all, on Linux, with a couple decent mics and a device you can carry in your pocket? Ever imagined being able to produce original content everywhere?
You don't have to imagine anymore. Since November 2008, a little company called Indamixx has been putting out just such a marvel. Built on a Samsung Q1 Ultra chassis, this little handheld does its best to deliver on a very impressive list of marketing promises.
I unwrapped this lovely little toy box and had it virtually glued to my hip for the five weeks I reviewed it. It starts up fast; it works slick; the physical and virtual interfaces are very well put together, functional and fast. It did almost everything I asked of it, and its battery life was impressive on top of it all.
In the course of my review, I edited a half-hour radio drama, recorded a five-person roundtable podcast over Skype, did an extensive amount of blogging, wrote two articles for Linux Journal, did a couple photo shoots and composed a couple tunes, and took it round to a club for a shakedown.
In terms of advertised features, the Q1 was an excellent platform to begin with. Touchscreen-based with three USB ports and a monitor jack, it docks easily at a desk and moves quickly with you. The screen is clear and contrasty enough to do work on its own most of the time, at least for work where you don't need a lot of vertical resolution (the drawback of the ultra-widescreen aspect ratio).
It's very small, light and only marginally more difficult to lug around than an iPod. At first blush, it's a hell of a little gadget.
Appropriate for its intended task, it has a pair of built-in stereo microphones that do proper left/right separation and exhibit a serviceably low noise floor for casual interviews and note taking. I put those microphones to the test in a couple interviews and, even while driving, they exhibited good enough discrimination for transcription. Score one for the Indamixx.
Of course, those are all properties of the hardware layer, which is a commodity device made by Samsung and can be had off the shelf for about $800. The real genius of this box is that the folks at Trinity Audio who designed it paid a lot of attention to detail in their choice of software packages as well. The Q1 is a pretty anemic hardware platform from the spec sheet, but Trinity managed to pull out every spare processor cycle from this.
Pro-audio applications in all flavors of Linux—Ardour, energyXT, Rosegarden and so on—all run atop the recursively named Jack Audio Connection Kit (JACK), a real-time server layer that gives pro-audio apps direct, low-latency access to the DSPs and MIDI devices. Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) built on Linux must play nice with JACK, and “playing nice” can be measured in two ways:
How easy is it to get real-time performance out of JACK?
How many of the distribution's applications come prebuilt for JACK compatibility?
The answer to #1 should be pretty easy, because a real-time kernel patch is available for most distributions, and if it isn't available for yours, you always can build it. But, it isn't all that easy. The processes your distro runs, the other kernel modules you load and a dozen other things about distro architecture can make the difference between a system that will serve you well and one that will drive you bonkers. Because of this, the various Linux distributions do so with varying degrees of success, from the just-plain-awful vanilla SUSE to the tolerable Ubuntu Studio to the excellent 64 Studio.
As for question #2, there is a similar gradient among distributions for JACK compatibility with application packages, from the “just about nothing unless you compile it yourself” end to the “almost anything you could want” end of the spectrum.
So, how does the Indamixx's OS, called Transmission, stack up? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is hands-down the best-engineered Linux distribution I've ever laid my eyes on. Trinity took the best-of-breed 64 Studio distro and made it better, getting every program to route through JACK, including such normal recalcitrants as Skype and Flash—and did it all so well that I very rarely encountered any xruns, even when recording while I browsed the Web, and even when hooked up to notoriously slow external USB pro-audio gear.
The Indamixx recognized the aforementioned pro-audio gear without batting an eye—both the mixing surfaces and the A/D converters, and pretty much the only thing I found myself wanting was more USB ports (advice: use a hub with this thing). It played nice with Samba (though not NFS) right out of the box. Its Wi-Fi found signals where both of my laptops have trouble locking on, and even with my stubby fingers, the built-in thumb-keyboard and touchscreen were a breeze to operate.
The power management features also worked without a hitch—from blanking to sleep to hibernation, I encountered none of the problems that portable users commonly encounter on Linux. Add that to the startup time of less than a minute, and you've got a device that seems ideal for its advertised ends:
Recording and mixing.
Building dance loops and remixes.
The Indamixx's list of software packages is no less impressive. The selection of programs is deliberate and lean. Everything one needs to accomplish, virtually any audio task, as well as some video and other graphics tasks, comes installed and built with a number of performance enhancements: GIMP, Blender, Ardour, a portable version of Firefox, the commercial DAW program energyXT, SHOUTcast and DJ mixing software, hundreds of LADSPA plugins, a properly functioning VST server (another rarity on Linux), the always-handy Skype and a boatload of remix samples and MIDI voices.
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