Holiday Cheer, Holiday Uncheer - Part 1

The December holidays always hold some interesting surprises for me, and this year's season was no exception. However, in this context "interesting" can mean either "utterly engaging fascination" or "coma-inducing exasperation". This holiday season I got plenty of both.

The Cheerful

The good news is that many new releases and updates were announced this month on the various Linux audio-related mail lists. The following paragraphs present a brief account of some of the more notable releases.

Ardour has been updated to version 2.7.1 and a feature freeze has been put in effect for the 2.x releases. The way is being prepared for Ardour3, though of course that version is already available for the bravest of the brave (i.e. it's in SVN sources). By the way, on my Ubuntu 8.10 system Ardour3's dependencies are now happy with SYSLIBS=0 and I can build the program as advised by the developers. Pending approval from the devs, I hope to present a sneak-peek of Ardour3 Real Soon Now.

JACK has received some love recently. First we saw the long-awaited updated from 0.109.2 (an admitted bad release) to 0.115.0, and more recently version 0.116.1 has been offered to the public. Alas, my installation of Csound 5.10 (also recently updated) is unhappy with the new JACK, so I've reverted to 0.115.6. I'm preparing a bug report, hopefully I'll be able to upgrade soon.

Rui Nuno Capela has been busy. His Qtractor DAW is now at version 0.3.0 (the Fluffy Doll release, Figure 1), and his indispensable QJackCtl has been elevated to 0.3.4. Rui's work has always been impressive, and it just gets better all the time.

Figure 1: Qtractor

Developer Chris Cannam has been busy too, releasing new versions of Sonic Visualiser and Sonic Annotator. Both of those program depend on the capabilities of the Vamp audio analysis plugins, so it's small surprise that the Vamp SDK has been updated to release version 2.0. Somehow Chris also found time for a maintenance release of the dssi-vst bridge software, it should compile cleanly now on 64-bit machines.

Josep Andreu has provided Linux audio producers with a variety of useful well-designed tools, including the midirgui MIDI router that's been in hard use for years here at Studio Dave. Recently Josep has involved himself in the Rakarrack project (see my Rakarrack review for more information about the program), and as a spin-off from that project he has created his HOLAP suite of audio plugins in the LADSPA format. The set currently includes chorus, reverb, wah, and other effects derived from Paul Nasca's awesome ZynAddSubFX software synthesizer. Josep also found time to transform his Horgand music accompaniment program into a DSSI plugin.

LAC 2009

Though not a software release, I include the announcement of the next Linux Audio Conference as an item for the cheerful category. LAC 2009 will be held at La Casa della Musica in Parma, Italy, from April 16 through April 19 2009. Alas, air-fare from the United States is already currently prohibitive, so I'm likely to miss this conference again. However, the home-bound among us can still enjoy the fun via live audio/video feeds and the published proceedings. It's hard to overstate the importance of this conference, and I urge all interested readers to attend it if possible (admission is free).

Un-Fun With Windows XP

I'm a 100% Linux guy, but my Significant Other (a.k.a. Ivy) hasn't made the progression yet. Her computer is a Dell Inspiron 6000, a nice piece of hardware running Windows XP Professional. A few days ago the Dell started to behave weirdly, crashing at start-up with an error report stating the following cryptic message :

    Stop: c00021a {Fatal System Error}
    The Windows logon process system process terminated unexpectedly with a status of 0xc0000005 (0x00000000 0x00000000). 
    The system has been shut down. 

The problem is well-documented on the Web, and a little Googling yielded some possible solutions. I booted with F8 to access the advanced Windows boot menu, ran the "last stable configuration" option, and promptly arrived back at the BSOD with the same error. Okay, back to Google, where I found that my next step involved a "repair installation" that simply re-installs the default system as it shipped with the machine. The process requires the original system discs (which we have), but before doing anything else I was determined to back up Ivy's data before I attempted the repair. Alas, the computer would not boot into Windows at all, so it was Linux to the rescue. I ran Ubuntu 8.10 from a live CD, installed the openssh-server, and logged into the Dell from one of my desktop systems. I used gFTP to transfer her files to my machines, then I employed k3b to burn the data to back-up discs. With Ivy's data safely stored I proceeded with the repair installation.

The Dell system disc worked slowly but perfectly. After about an hour I was in the final stages of the repair when a new problem arrived. A dialog box appeared that asked for a disc containing the DocumentViewer software. We have no such disc, so I clicked on the Cancel button and set off an unending stream of error messages regarding a .NET problem. Those messages literally blocked everything: I could not kill the process in any way short of power-cycling, and no other programs could run until the error was resolved. So, back to Google I went, where once again I discovered that my tribulation was a well-known Windows installation annoyance. Following a suggestion I disabled everything in the Start-up Programs queue, rebooted the machine, and finally reached a working XP desktop. The repair worked "as advertised", none of Ivy's data was lost (though of course her start-up programs weren't autoloaded), and I hoped that the machine's problems were resolved.

Ah, vain hope: After about an hour of use the machine crashed with a new error message, this time reporting a disk error. Since then Ivy has run the machine a few times with no crashes, but it seems now that the disk drive is in need of attention. I plan on wiping the drive with a low-level format, then I'll re-install XP fully from the Dell system disc (i.e. I won't do a repair install). Short of replacing the drive I don't know what else might work to eliminate the system instabilities.

On the Annoyance Scale this process scored a solid 8 out of 10, thanks primarily to the DocumentViewer hang-up. At no point did the messages indicate exactly what disc was needed, and the endless loop of .NET errors was awesomely exasperating. I tried to run the Windows Clean Install utility, but it wouldn't start. The program simply issued its own error message to tell me that another process had to be closed before the utility could start. Of course, the blocking process was what I wanted to get rid of, so the Clean Install utility wasn't much help in this situation.

In the end we've opted for keeping a close eye on the machine's performance. The disk error is disturbing, but a complete reformat/reinstall procedure might fix things (barring physical damage to the disk). Meanwhile I plan to add more memory to the Inspiron (it arrived with only 512 MB), perhaps more RAM will mitigate the machine rather sluggish performance.

Update: Just before finishing this article I decided to do a complete reinstallation of XP on Ivy's machine. The process was uncomplicated and completed without incident. However, once the installation was done I discovered the unlovely fact that Dell's backup disc didn't include the necessary drivers for network connection, sound, or enhanced video. Once again it was Ubuntu to the rescue. I downloaded the needed drivers to my notebook, copied them to a flash drive, plugged it into Ivy's laptop, and installed the drivers from the flash thumb. After the appropriate voodoo and mystic invocations Ivy has a connected machine again.

Okay, so much for Ivy's problems with her computer. At the same time as I worked on her machine a friend called with a different problem on his XP system. His audio sequencer seemed unable to record in discrete multitrack/multichannel mode, even though he uses an M-Audio Delta 66 digital audio system. Fortunately this problem was easily resolved by switching the program's default sound driver to ASIO. A simple enough solution, but the problem baffled my friend for days. Again, at no point did the program advise him that the default driver was unable to perform as requested, so I gave the problem a middling 5 on the Annoyance Scale.

Tune In Next Week

Next up, more software update reports, the continuation of my epic struggle to make friends with Ubuntu 8.10, and a comparison of the un-fun I've had recently with Windows XP and Ubuntu.

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