Crafting Digital Media: A Book Review

I don't usually write book reviews, but this one is special. My friend and colleague Daniel James has written an introduction to the world of media production with Linux, or as the subtitle describes it, "A manual for creative media on a modest budget". I'll put the spoiler right up front: This book is wonderful and is an essential read for all artistically-inclined Linux users. Read on to find out why I think so.

What It Is, What It Isn't

Crafting Digital Media (Figure 1) is a general overview of the potential of Linux as a multimedia production platform and a guide to specific applications and their use for that purpose. Each chapter presents a relevant topic and proceeds quickly to a practical demonstration of the tools specific to the chapter topic.

Crafting Digital Media is not an attempt to enumerate and describe every relevant package for Linux. Some users may be disappointed to learn that their favorite program is not profiled or even mentioned, but that should not diminish the book's value for those users. Above all, Crafting Digital Media is about maximizing the creative potential of Linux by organizing its productive software into a seamless workflow. The information and advice in this book is valuable to the creative user regardless whether he uses the recommended applications or his preferred suite of custom-built software.

The Physical Details

The book weighs in at 450+ pages, with a rather packed but readable printed text, and the included disc contains a full installation image of Ubuntu 9.04, a.k.a. the Jaunty Jackalope. However, the book is not Ubuntu-specific, and effort has been made to ensure that the majority of the profiled packages are available as cross-platform software. While Crafting Digital Media leans towards Linux it is intended to appeal to Windows and Mac users as well, and most of its recommended packages are available for those platforms.

The Organization

The book is organized into three main parts. A brief introductory section presents material regarding the history of Linux and an overview of its capabilities, followed by a Getting Started section that describes the installation and configuration of the Ubuntu distribution on the included disc. This part also includes some personal anecdotes in which the author describes his own awakening to Linux and his assessment of Linux today.

The next part presents the heart of the matter, the selected tools. The first chapter in this section describes programs and utilities for creating and editing photographs, illustration and font design, 2D animation and cartooning, 3D modeling, and desktop publishing. Recommended programs include the GThumb photo filer, the Sane/Xsane scanner software, Inkscape, KToon, Synfig, and Scribus. This section sets the pattern for the rest of the book: A topic is presented, the relevant software is introduced, and a hands-on demonstration is described.

By Chapter 8 we've arrived at the material dealing with sound and MIDI matters. These chapters present a variety of operations in music and sound production, including the following activities :

Chapter 11 introduces the section on video production. Regular readers of this column know that I've been covering the Linux desktop video production scene, so I was very interested to read these chapters. They cover video file format conversion with Avidemux, importing camcorder video with Kino, and editing video footage with OpenMovieEditor. I expected Kino and Avidemux but I confess that I was surprised to see OpenMovieEditor get pride of place for editing operations. To be sure it is a deserving application - I happen to think it's an excellent non-linear editor - but newer shinier editors are available for Ubuntu Jaunty and Karmic. No fear, you won't be disappointed with OpenMovieEditor. My only complaint with its selection is its age, which leads to the recommendation that the user build the latest version himself (see below).

The Tools part ends with an introduction to Apache, MySQL, PHP, and the Drupal Web content management system. These final chapters round out the book with a logical focus, i.e. a presentation on using the Internet to make your creative productions available to all over the World Wide Web. Your music/artwork/story/book needs an outlet to reach its audience, these chapters will teach you how to build a home for anyone to visit and view, download, and/or purchase your creations.

The third and final part of the book includes a handy reference for common Linux shell commands and a copy of the GNU Free Documentation License. A subject index follows these backpages.

Writing Style

Daniel James is no stranger to the writing game. He has written audio-related articles for various Linux publications and edited the Linux User & Developer magazine for two years. His experience shows throughout the pages of Crafting Digital Media, and he presents his topics in clear and engaging prose. You can tell that the author is excited by the material and its possibilities, and his enthusiasm sometimes breaks out into enjoyable personal accounts of his own work with the software under scrutiny. However, he never rambles, his paragraphs stay on point, and the book is a pleasure to read.

As mentioned, each chapter includes practical and useful demonstrations of the selected software at work. In addition to those examples Daniel has included recommendations for further reading and for other programs similar to those presented in the text. Again, he does not attempt an exhaustive summary, he simply points to a few programs that "do the same things differently" and offers a few remarks concerning them.

A Little Criticism

Okay, that's the descriptive part of this review, now we proceed to the critical section. Fortunately there's little to complain about here, though a few items need addressed. First, it seems to me that there are too many suggested workarounds to fix bugs in the recommanded software. The following list indicates the problem points:

  • Ktoon - Installer screws up the location of its tools, the book describes the fix.
  • Synfig - The book warned me, and indeed my Jaunty's version doesn't run. However, updating a la Daniel's recommendations results in the removal of critical components.
  • seq24 - Package is buggy in Jaunty, crashes on opening. A newer version is recommended.
  • Gnome CD Master - Jaunty screws up permissions, the book provides the fix.
  • Open Movie Editor - Jaunty package outdated. User must compile the current version, a non-trivial operation.

That's five out of about eighteen recommended applications that require some measure of user intervention to make them work as described in the book. However, the blame here lies squarely with Ubuntu development, not with Daniel James. The easy fixes are indeed easy, but Synfig is uninstallable on my Jaunty box (my bad - I have a custom-built FFmpeg installation) and building Open Movie Editor is definitely not a task for Linux novices. Fortunately Daniel gives solid advice and suggestions regarding the repair of these and other problems with Jaunty, and to the seasoned user those suggestions are all straightforward and do-able. Nevertheless, new users might be daunted by operations such as sym-linking, modifying Synaptic's source lists, and compiling from source.

My severest criticism of the book is the absence of Daniel's own 64 Studio Linux distribution. The decision to include a disc of plain-vanillla Jaunty is understandable, but in so many ways 64 Studio is a "ready to roll" solution perfectly suited to the intent of this book. Alas, 64 Studio 3.0 is not yet ready for prime time, so I can only conclude that Daniel decided against including a beta-stage distribution. In my opinion, given the sometimes troublesome nature of Jaunty I wonder if the book would have been just as well served by a beta 64 Studio. Certainly the material on audio would have been better supported, with less need for user-supplied repairs. In the end though this criticism is minor and of little import to the new user who is not yet likely to be concerned with real-time and low-latency performance optimizations.

No glossary is included. Considering the technical jargon associated with audio and video production I think a glossary would have been useful. There's no bibliography either, but the Further Reading paragraphs ending each chapter provide sufficient pointers to relevant reference material.

One word more. The Ubuntu Studio meta-packages are mentioned only with regards to acquiring real-time kernels. Those packages include the multimedia software reviewed in the book, along with many other excellent programs. I would have welcomed some introductory material on installing and configuring Ubuntu Studio, and I think new users would find its resources most attractive. Again, a minor criticism.

By the way, I found very few typos or other errors in the book's preparation. Kudos go out to the staff at Apress for their attention to the details of presentation throughout the book. However, in a work of this size some errors inevitably creep into the text. I haven't found any yet, but the Apress page includes a link for errata and corrections, a nice touch.

On The Importance Of This Book

Crafting Digital Media is no mere catalog of relevant applications. This book is a complete practical guide to desktop production of graphics, video, and sound for network distribution. Its overall design is oriented towards production, with hands-on examples intended to show the user how he or she can create, massage, and distribute their own media productions, whether it be in the form of a book, a disc, or a Web site. I can see this book prompting some users to design every aspect of their productions, while others will take only what's needed for their particular purposes. Crafting Digital Media is an eminently useful book, one to keep open by your machine not for reference but for inspiration.

In 1996 the O'Reilly Press published Jeff Tranter's seminal Linux Multimedia Guide. In 2000 the No Starch Press published my Book Of Linux Music & Sound and in 2006 O'Reilly published Kyle Rankin's Linux Multimedia Hacks. Now Apress joins this elite crew with Daniel James's Crafting Digital Media. The arc of Linux audio/video software development can be seen by perusing the contents of these books. What began as a hacker's paradise has become a viable and complete system for desktop media production, and Crafting Digital Media is the proof of this assertion. There's nothing else like it for Linux, and I give it five out of five stars. Consider it a Most Highly Recommended purchase.

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