Getting My Kicks On Route 64

by Dave Phillips

Some months ago I started collecting the pieces I needed to build my own 64-bit computer. I'm not a complete stranger to building machines, I've put together a dozen or so during the past twenty years, but it's been quite a while since I started one from scratch, and my experience with this machine was more instructive than it was meant to be. Nevertheless, at long last Studio Dave has gone 64-bit crazy. Well, not really crazy, but certainly more than mildly enthusiastic.

Keeping up with the latest trends in software is tough enough, but at least the cash costs are minimal and it's relatively easy to catch up with new development. Keeping up with hardware poses entirely different problems: It's expensive to stay on the edge, it's risky (Linux may or may not support the latest Gizmotron 3000), and it takes considerable time to install and configure (and possibly reinstall and reconfigure) components in a machine. Here's a short list of developments that caught me unaware :

  • Limitation to ATA hard-disk size: I didn't know that some motherboards have an upper limit to ATA disk size. My Gigabyte board will accept hard-disks up to 137 GB in size, and after that I have to switch to SATA.
  • PCI Express video: Oops, I mistakenly purchased an nVidia GeForce FX5200B AGP video card and then learned that the newer bus is now prevalent on modern motherboards.
  • Replacing a CPU fan is not as easy as it used to be, especially when the replacement is a monstrous big device.

The project bogged down with not one but two dead motherboards. The first one was simply dead on arrival, it never even powered up. The second board died trying to detect RAM modules and awaits shipment back to the vendor. The final working board is a Gigabyte K8N51PVM9-RH. The CPU is an AMD64 3200, memory is 2 GB of dual-channel RAM from Crucial, and the hard-disk is an 80 GB drive from Maxtor.

Ultimately I decided to have the machine assembled by Dave Snoak and his crew at New Adventure Computers here in my home town of Findlay OH USA. Dave installed the new motherboard in my cool Antec Sonata II case and replaced the vendor's CPU fan with an incredibly quiet fan from Zalman. By the way, "quiet" is the watchword for this machine, I don't hear a thing from the box when it boots or while it runs. Ah, the lovely sound of silence.

After the construction phase I was faced with the distro question: Which audio-optimized Linux distribution should I try ? The logical first choice was 64Studio, a pure 64-bit Debian-based distribution with patched kernel and a nice suite of native 64-bit sound and music applications.


Figure 1: 64Studio

Daniel James and Free Ekayanaka share a dream. They want to create a pure 64-bit Linux distribution devoted to the needs of multimedia workers, complete with low-latency kernel and an up-to-date selection of Linux sound, music, and video applications. These fellows have the required expertise: Daniel is the editor-in-chief of Linux User & Developer, Free was one of the chief engineers of the great AGNULA/Demudi project. With their experience in this domain I expected great things from 64Studio. I'm most happy to say that I have not been disappointed.

I downloaded the ISO for version 0.9.4 per the instructions at the 64Studio Web site. Installation proceeded painlessly, and soon I was looking at a new GNOME desktop. I clicked on the familiar footprint and was pleased to find a judicious selection of sound and music programs, all built for 64-bit Linux. However, before going further I checked the 64Studio mail-list archive for news that hadn't reached the Web site. Lo and behold, not only has Free created an ISO for 0.9.5, he's already prepared one for 0.9.6-beta. The following profile employed that version.

Installation and setup proceeded without difficulties, correctly identifying and configuring the motherboard's integral video and Ethernet (both are nVidia chipsets). I disabled the on-board sound chipset, preferring an M-Audio Delta 66 for the system's primary audio device. I also installed a Creative Labs PCI128 for its external MIDI connectors. The system had no trouble with the cards and the sound tests worked perfectly.

So how does the 64-bit experience feel ? It's certainly fast, but a critical comparison will have to wait until I install another drive and a 32-bit system (I was pleased to learn that I can safely install a 32-bit system for use with the AMD64 CPU). I haven't deeply tested the system's application base, but the included audio programs seem happy in the 64-bit world.

I'm especially pleased with 64Studio's integration with Debian. The system has been designed to accommodate additions to and new versions of its software packages (using the apt tools) directly from the common Debian mirrors. I've had varying success with the added packages themselves (64-bit systems are still relatively newer and fewer), so I'll do some compiling myself. I've already built Ardour2 from scratch. I acquired and installed all the necessary dev packages, ran scons in the toplevel Ardour directory, waited a very short while, and finally I was the proud owner/operator of a brand-new 64-bit version of Ardour2. Figure 1 shows off the results. Ardour's looking pretty good these days, eh ?

Figure 1 also displays the excellent Audacity soundfile editor at work. Audacity has been upgraded recently to stable version 1.2.5 and unstable 1.3.2, and since "unstable" is my middle name I decided to compile the latest and greatest release. The build proceeded without incident, and I now have a leading-edge 64-bit Audacity. Sweet.

More good news: You can try 64Studio even if you don't have a 64-bit system, thanks to an ISO for 32-bit systems that is also available from the 64Studio Web site. I briefly tested that system on my old desktop box, it seemed to work perfectly, but I didn't work with it for any appreciable length of time. I installed it, ran it, checked out some basic soundapps, and it all looked and sounded good.

I'll continue my explorations into 64Studio as its development progresses. Just when I completed this entry I learned that version 0.9.7 is already available. However, users should note that the 0.9.x series are pre-release versions. 1.0 should arrive as soon as Free gets the 2.6.18-rt kernel to behave properly at boot time.

More users are jumping on the 64-bit bandwagon, and the 64Studio developers are doing their best to make the ride as smooth as possible. Bumps may occur, and users experiencing problems with the system can reach Daniel and Free via the active 64Studio mail-list. If you own a 64-bit (AMD or Intel) machine and want to know how it handles contemporary Linux sound and music software, check out 64Studio, it's Da 64-bit Bomb.


I'll be back in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, read the interview with Jorgen Aase at Linux Rock Star, then stop by your local watering hole and tip a few in honor of the birthdays of Csound maven Dr. Richard Boulanger and the remarkable Max Mathews, founder of the revolutionary MusicN series of digital audio processing and composition environments that eventually resulted in Csound itself. Giants do still walk the Earth.