The Sound Of Linux 2007
In this article I've selected what I consider to be some of the past year's outstanding achievements in the world of Linux music and sound software. It's not really a "Best Of 2007", it's just my personal choices for what I found most interesting and significant in the past year.
It just keeps getting better. Thanks to its compile-time options I now use two very different versions of Ardour, one compiled with support for VST plugins on my 32-bit JAD box and another built for my 64-bit machine (which runs 64 Studio, naturally). Ardour is the true heart of Studio Dave, and I put it to good use throughout 2007. I produced a demo CD for one of my students, recorded a variety of original songs and instrumentals for my own CDs, remastered a batch of tape recordings made with friends in the 1960s and 1970s, and recorded single-song demos for a student who is working on getting into the Nashville songwriting scene. Curiously, no-one seems to notice that I'm not using Pro-Tools.
Incidentally, I've switched to the 2.0-ongoing branch of Ardour's development. This branch sits between the stable release tarballs and the bleeding edge development version, and it's a reasonably safe way to check out some of the features headed for the release versions. Some cool changes are coming down the line for the next stable tarball, I'll be sure to tell you about them in this column.
The Rosegarden Crew
Chris Cannam & Co. worked overtime this past year to deliver an upgraded Rosegarden and the fantastic Sonic Visualiser. Most recently Chris has given the community a much-needed gift, his new Rubber Band library for high-quality pitch-shifting and time-stretching. This kind of software is a critical component in modern music-making, especially for pitch correction and in any loop-based music production. Rubber Band is already included in the Ardour 2.0-ongoing source tree, and I expect it will become the de facto library for pitch/time compansion throughout the Linux audio software world. Thanks, Chris, the Linux sound and music community loves you and your crew.
A couple of years ago Robert Reif devised a way for Wine to access the advanced capabilities of the ASIO driver for Windows sound and music programs. A small step for most Wine users, perhaps, but a giant leap forward to Windows-based sound and music folk. Like Linux, a default Windows system has unsuitably high latencies that make it unusable for professional needs. Most Windows audio software typically uses the Steinberg ASIO driver technology to bypass the bottlenecks, reducing latencies from hundreds of milliseconds to ten or even less. Alas, Robert's work was essentially a proof-of-concept, but I'm happy to report that the JAD developer known as Drumfix has carried on wineasio development. His improvements include enhanced audio port configuration, a better build/install procedure, sync to JACK transport, and even a bridge for working with 64-bit JACK in a 32-bit Wine session. Very cool stuff, very exciting news for Windows-based musicians who want to switch to Linux.
Lucio Asnaghi (aka kunitoki) appears to have devoted his work to two main goals: To expand the available native Linux audio applications base and to create a highly flexible environment for running LADSPA, DSSI, and native VST/VSTi plugins. Lucio achieves his first goal by porting open-source Windows plugins and applications, and his second goal is realized by his on-going work on JOST (the JACK Host) system. JOST began rather modestly, but its most recent incarnations include support for multiple instances of an internal MIDI sequencer, a much-improved GUI (built with the excellent JUCE framework), and support for JACK transport (master control only at this time). Frankly, I consider JOST to be one of the coolest applications available for Linux-based music-makers.
When I first saw it in the late 1980s Csound was simply a powerful language for audio synthesis and processing that included some tools for music composition. Today's Csound has expanded to include multiple instantiation, modern programming constructs, flexible audio and MIDI I/O, ALSA and JACK support, user-defined opcodes, new synthesis and processing routines, a new applications programming interface API, more tools for composition, and support for interfacing with external languages such as Python and Java. Even better, a whole ecology of Csound-related applications has evolved, many of which enjoyed considerable development in 2007 (Rory Walsh's Lettuce and Steven Yi's blue are two superb examples of this ecology). And as though all that goodness just wasn't enough, the developers have strived to ensure compatibility across the major platforms (Windows, OSX, Linux). Profound respect and admiration goes to John ffitch, Matt Ingalls, Michael Gogins, Victor Lazzarini, Steven Yi, Rory Walsh, and the entire Csound development and user community for maintaining and expanding this amazing environment. There might be something audio-related that Csound can't do, but I haven't discovered it yet.
I can hear it now: "Why include Reaper ?". Well, why not ? It may not be native Linux software, but it runs beautifully under Wine (especially with the wineasio driver), its developers are supportive of Linux users, and its lively community includes more than a few hard-core Linuxen.
The basic features of any DAW are fairly well-defined now, so much so that relatively unhindered access to those features has become a design priority. Native Linux audio developers might do well to consider and plunder some aspects of Reaper's design (as would many Windows and Mac developers), such as the vertical zoom in its track display and its simple "ready to go" basic configuration. However, Reaper is no minor application, its feature set is extensive, and its configuration can be as complex as needed. It's also in rapid and constant development, with perhaps more than two dozen significant updates in 2007 (version 2.026 was released as I wrote this article).
Alex Stone's Linux Audio Odyssey
Alex Stone is a musician with a seemingly simple request: He just wants his software to live up to its full potential. Not an unusual request, but as Alex discovered, it can be extremely difficult or even impossible to do so with Windows. Enter Alex's encounter with Ubuntu Studio and a resultant voyage of discovery that has his peers expressing amazed respect for his accomplishments. The whole story can be read on this Reaper forum thread, and I do mean the whole story. Alex has meticulously recorded his experiences in that thread, resulting in a most captivating story. The gist of that story is that after much effort, Alex completely replaced his Gigasampler/Reaper system with a more powerful Linuxsampler/Reaper system, and the details are fascinating and very well-reported (Alex is a good writer). Suffice to say, if you want a Windows-based or Mac-based musician to get a clue as to what's possible with Linux, turn him or her on to Alex's story.
If I had to select one piece of software that I consider to be crucial to Linux audio development, it'd be JACK. Almost all the software mentioned above either requires it or performs best with it. Some of JACK's notable improvements in 2007 include direct support for MIDI, improved support for multi-processor systems, and a new version for Windows. Linux can claim a variety of excellent sound and music applications, but JACK truly holds the keys to the kingdom. Major kudos to Paul Davis, Stephane Letz, Sampo Savolainen, Chris Cannam (again!), Steve Harris, Jesse Chappell, and everyone else on the JACK team.
There you have it, some of my favorite Linux sound and music software from the year 2007. I look forward to new development in the coming year, and if 2008 is only half as good as 2007 then we're in for another great year.
I want to thank my readers for their comments and support throughout the year, and I invite you all to keep 'em coming. I also want to shout out a big "Muchas gracias!" to the staff at the Linux Journal for their patience with me and their always-excellent presentation of my work. Vast blessings upon all of you, I hope you've been enjoying a terrific holiday season, and I promise to keep bringing on the noise throughout the new year. Peace out.