Linux Music and Sound
Author: Dave Phillips
Publisher: No Starch Press
Price: $39.95 US
Reviewer: Deric Mendes
In most studies of yoga, the term mantra is used frequently as a defining factor of life. To the yoga guru, mantra is sound, sound is forever echoing through the chasms of the universe, and the universe is god. And, to most of the Linux gurus I've conversed with, this is the way they feel about Linux in the world of operating systems. So the collision of these two worlds, to some, could be as tragic as spilling that morning coffee into your hard drive just before you finish that project that was due an hour ago. Or it could be so exciting that you can't help but be nice to that man who cut you off on your way to work, and sent you swerving into the other lane. After reading Linux Music & Sound I hope that, with a little mentorship, mutating into a hybrid of musician and Linux geek will be a safe adventure for the fearful reader.
As to what that adventure truly is, the courageous Dave Phillips attempts to lead us on a safari of sound brought to us through different audio software and the jungle of Linux. He starts our journey by giving a very brief history of Linux. He then describes what the main applications of audio editing and creating sound software are and how to maximize your system to benefit from this digital repository of tools. After explaining most of the audio programs that should have been included with the current version of X, the author leads us further into the wild electric savannah to several different soundfile editors, such as MIXViews, Snd, Kwave, Broadcast 2000 and Ceres. The following chapters lead us through different types of programs such as Mod applications, MIDI, MP3, hard-disk recording, mixing, sound synthesis, music notation, networking audio, digital DJ, drum machines, operating emulators and video games.
The charging rhino of this book is the ninth chapter on sound synthesis. If you have very little or no experience with Linux and digital audio, this chapter will be as incomprehensible as why people listen to the Backstreet Boys and Brittney Spears. If you understand the tribal tongue of Linux, you will learn how Csound and all of its helpers can be very powerful tools to compose and edit soundfiles and MIDI. This chapter gives some help as to configuring and understanding the code; however, it's more of a guide to performing tasks and loading Csound helpers. It also provides some understanding of what they do.
Tutorials for digital studio recording are uncharted territory in this book. There is no guidance to teach the common musician how to use Linux with his digital recording experience. Phillips does address every type of audience—the Linux musician, the Linux programmer and the non-Linux digital musician—but not every software evaluation.
In some chapters, the author's explanations are so elementary that he mentions what kind of cord to use and how to plug it into the jack: “Make sure the plugs are firmly in the jacks: Loose or shaky connections can result in dropouts, static, and other noise conditions.” In others, he assumes that one paragraph on sound synthesis and one on MIDI is enough explanation to convey a complete understanding of how to apply them to a digital studio. I hope that anyone who can use a computer or plug something in knows that a loose jack is not a good thing. However, I know a few people who have recorded full digital CDs and don't understand what synthesis and MIDI are and how to use them. This book should not be your first choice if you want to learn about digital recording or Linux applications and their difference from non-open-source software. The book, along with some of the included software, cannot be well understood unless you are already a Linux programmer and a knowledgeable digital producer. If you're not a lion tamer avoid the lions.
The enlightening part of Linux Music & Sound is that it briefly introduces many programs, and, since they are open-source, if they're not on the CD provided with the book, they can be downloaded for free. URLs are conveniently provided throughout the text. If you understand the capabilities of the programs, you will appreciate that the author points out all of the audio beasts and lets you choose which ones are best suited for your needs, rather than pushing his own opinions.
Being more of a digital musician than a Linux user, I can see why it is not as widely used as other software. Other software, such as Pro Tools, Logic, and Sonic Foundry's Acid and Sound Forge, do not require many technical skills and have everything built into one program, so there is no need to switch files from one program to another. These programs range in price from $30 to $400 (I spent $60 on my studio), which is not as good as free, and certainly not open source. This is something that can be frustrating to a programmer. I have never felt that these programs have hindered my recording process and, to a musician without a knowledge of Linux, spending money for software is easier than learning a new operating system.
However, most of the software released for Linux has not even reached version 1.0, yet can already handle professional procedures and produce as high-quality sound as its costly opponents. If program writers continue progress on the software, and the music world starts to take notice of Linux, I believe it will cause many studios to switch from the products they currently use to Linux, as is happening in other arenas.
If you are looking for a how-to book for digital recording on Linux, look elsewhere. The best way to think of Linux Music & Sound is as a buffet of audio software, which I found to be quite tasty. If you can't presently figure out what to use to record, or where to find software, this book should be your first desire. If nothing else, it will lead you deep into the jungle of new toys for your Linux machine.