A Report From Beyond: Linux Sound & Music At Virginia Tech

From April 7 through 9 I attended Beyond, a series of lectures, workshops, and concerts promoted by the DISIS group at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg VA. The festivities included presentations from Professor Brad Garton and Create Digital Music's Peter Kirn, plus some incidental ramblings from yours truly. The concerts featured performances by VT's own Linux Laptop Orchestra, accompanied at times by percussionist extraordinaire Ron Coulter and a group from the Boys And Girls Club of Roanoke. Other performances included improvisations with some unique hardware controllers (more about those performances below) and original works composed by the participants.

Brad Garton: A Man, His Books And Toys

Brad Garton is the director of the Computer Music Center at Columbia University. His involvement with electronic/experimental/computer music is extensive and rich with associations and accomplishments, and he continues to stay on the edge of new developments in music technology. His presentation at the DISIS fest included an improvisation with his own iRTCmix synthesis software running on an iPhone and controlled by a fascinating instrument called a Manta.

iRTCMix is a logical extension from Brad's RTCmix, an on-going collaborative project that adds realtime scheduling and other features to Cmix, a computer music language designed by composer Paul Lansky. While RTCmix and the original Cmix run on Linux, iRTCmix has been designed for use with Apple's iOS and its supported devices.

Brad demonstrated how iRTCmix can be used to provide synthesis and algorithmic composition capabilities to an application destined for an iPhone. Superficially it's a simple affair - you write your program on a host equipped with Apple's Xcode SDK and the iRTCmix library, connect your phone to your machine via USB, prototype your app and send it on to the external device. Brad's demos showed off some neat synthesis and GUI capabilities, but alas, the whole process depends on Apple's decidedly proprietary SDK, so Linux is barred from the shop. That process was interesting to observe, but I found as much fascination in Brad's account of his dealings with Apple.

Given the restrictions imposed by the hardware, Brad coaxed a lot of interesting sounds out of his applications. He agreed that programming for the iPhone and similar devices forces the programmer to attend to the hungry details of his or her code, harkening back to Ye Olden Tymes of "bumming" code in order to squeeze the most action out of very limited resources.

I've just begun to look into similar programming environments for the Android and the existing audio APIs. My Better Half - aka Ivy - owns a nice new Droid, and I admit I'm captivated by its potential. It is also outrageously geekish, so I must have one of my own.

Incidentally, thanks to conversations with Brad and Peter Kirn I've decided against buying a Mac until I'm sure I know why I want one. The "OS" in OSX certainly doesn't signify a safe haven for open-source development, but there are a few proprietary applications I'd like to examine.

During his lecture/presentation of iRTCmix Brad demonstrated some use of the Manta, a very cool touch-sensitive controller. However, during the concert he performed an improvisation playing the Manta through iRTCmix running on his iPhone. Suffice to say that Brad is a consummate musician and he rocked the house. The Manta is a 'way cool device, pricey but definitely worth your attention if you're interested in alternate controllers for music and sound production.

Brad also performed some sections from his unique multimedia works My Book Of Dreams and My Music Book. These pieces are presented as normally-readable books that include a sonic accompaniment that responds to the reader's place in the work. For his performance Brad simply read from his texts while the book played appropriate accompaniment as he roamed through his stories. The subjects of the Books tend towards his reflections on his life and life in general, and his humor and sensitivity captivated the audience. You can experience his My Music Book in a version for Linux, but unfortunately the other book runs only on Windows and the Mac.

Peter Kirn: Extending Processing With libpd

Peter Kirn is well-known for his Create Digital Music/Motion/Noise Web sites, an excellent set of pages devoted to reports on contemporary hardware and software for artists. His presentations at Beyond included news regarding the use of Pd with the Processing graphics environment. I have concerns about the existing audio/MIDI libraries for Processing - I'm suspicious of anything based on Javasound - so I was happy to learn about Peter's work in that area.

Processing already enjoys audio and MIDI capabilities provided by various external libraries. The Minim software was originally an external library that is now incorporated into the official installation package. Minim works well, but it's not exactly an audio production powerhouse, and an environment with Processing's potential wants audio/MIDI capabilities of equal potential, e.g. a library with the audio/MIDI capabilities of Pd.

The basic design concept behind libpd is simple - squeeze Pd's power into a relatively lightweight library that can be embedded in a variety of devices and programs. The original Tcl/Tk GUI has been abandoned, leaving a rich resource that can deliver Pd's audio services to any calling program. And Pd's audio capabilities are impressive indeed, with a great variety of synthesis methods, signal processors, and analysis tools. In my opinion, libpd brings a new level of sonic capability to the Processing environment, and I look forward to exploring its riches.

Using libpd is notably different than using Pd. With the elimination of the graphics widgets libpd brings the programmer back to a text-based programming interface. You'll have to write Pd-style code for use within your Processing sketches, but fortunately the libpd package includes example code for getting started with your own Processing/Pd connections.

L2Ork: The Latest Rumblings

The DISIS concerts were a great success. Two shows took place, one in Roanoke and the other on the Virginia Tech campus. The Roanoke performance belonged to the Linux Laptop Orchestras under the direction of DISIS founder Professor Ivica Bukvic (Ico to his friends). That show was the debut of Laptop Orchestra of the Boys And Girls Club of Roanoke, a group of primary school students who evidently had a good time in a rather unusual musical setting. Their pieces included a neat arrangement of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star - with improvised percussion by Ron Coulter - and an original composition by the group's conductor Michael Matthews. The group also performed two original compositions by Dr. Bukvic, including his remarkable Citadel, a wonderful piece that amply demonstrates the capabilities of the new laptop orchestra.

The concert at VT was essentially the same program with the addition of pieces by Brad Garton, Peter Kirn, and myself. The performances at both shows were well-received, and it was obvious that the performers were having a great time. Their enthusiasm and dedication was evident even through some lengthy rehearsals. Ico is a demanding leader, but the quality of his direction pays off in the quality of the group's performances. I'm not the only one who thinks so - Ico managed to find the funding to take the group on a tour of Europe, the first such tour by a Linux-based laptop orchestra.

Summing The Signals

In my opinion the DISIS mini-festival was a complete success. I got to meet Brad, Peter, and Ron, I heard terrific music from each of them, I learned about some cool new technologies, and I had some wonderful conversations while eating and drinking at the excellent local Blacksburg dining establishments. Many thanks to Dr. Ivica Bukvic - and to his very patient wife and children - and I look forward to attending another such festival. The guys all thought we should it again, so when it happens we'll look forward to seeing you there too.


Next up, a report from the Linux Audio Conference. More words, maybe some pictures, and definitely more news from the world of Linux audio development and production.

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