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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the December 2003 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column continues the discussion of Free & Open Source Software…

More Free Beer

It’s December and Santa has once again failed to take your request for a refurbished ATR-100 seriously. Well, I can’t blame him but I can continue our discussion of mostly free, Open Source stuff that’s useful to audio geeks.

Let’s begin by assuming we want to put together an open source audio workstation. Fine and good but, most current mouse jockeys recoil in horror when presented with a text–only user interface. Text only? Yup! Lurking underneath all modern, post–Macintosh operating systems is a purely text driven computer since a graphical user interface or GUI is for us humans and certainly not the poor microprocessor doing all the work. There are many open source GUIs out there that lay on top of raw open source operating system, including GNOME, a mature but homely choice and KDE, a particularly nice, integrated environment that’s also my fave.

Once you have a GUI, you can put together a workstation. Take your pick of Ardour, Audacity, ReZound, Snd and Sweep (“Inside lives a pesky little virtual stylus called Scrubby who enjoys mixing around in your files.”). There are also a bunch of simple sound file editors to noodle with, a few being DAP, GLAME, GNUsound, Kwave, Lamp, MiXViews and WaveSurfer. DAP is a RAM-based editor while GLAME and Kwave are GUI–specific editors (the GNOME and KDE environments respectively), but the remainder are disk–based and independent of GUI. All run under Linux and often several flavors of Unix including BSD, IRIX and Mac OS. They vary as to sound card support but that’s primarily an OS and driver issue (see sidebar). The simple editors are largely butt ugly, but the big five are fairly sweet and includes some nice features, including visual analysis tools and object oriented signal processing. Dave Phillips, author of The Book of Linux Music & Sound, suggests I not forget ecasound. “It’s a text-based DAW, very complete and powerful. There’s a nicely evolving GUI available for it too, called TkEca.”

Ardour, the number two editor in popularity, is a good example of an open source DAW that runs with RME or other quality hardware choices. Though Ardour is free, Paul Davis, the lead developer, also provides services, such as turnkey systems built to order. Paul’s take on an OSS–based DAW is that he has “…complete control over the OS when I use Linux. When I build you a box to run my digital audio workstation, I don’t have to accept whatever Apple or MS feels is the right kernel configuration. I can include additional 3rd party kernel patches, drop extraneous stuff, do anything I need to make sure you get a box that is completely optimized for professional audio.” Of course, if you’re good enough, you can do the same thing with OS X/Darwin, POSIX or BSD but that’s not his point. “Digidesign won’t even certify most Wintel systems for use with ProTools, and every non–custom DAW maker recommends using a dedicated, stripped down system for their products. People can’t afford or don’t want to do that, and this contributes to the instabilities they face…Most audio practitioners make so little money that they can’t afford not to fully utilize a relatively large capital expense.”

Another less obvious advantage of the strategic use of open source in your business is its potential for virtual immortality. Audio companies come, go, and get absorbed by multinationals, but open source code is freely distributed, which allows for continued maintenance and development without its original creators.

Though OSS includes a wide range of applications and development frameworks for all sorts of needs, there is a rich collection of audio stuff. The FreeBSD folks alone list 416 audio applications and utilities, and that’s just FreeBSD! There’s a wide array of software available, including editors and players for sound files and samples, MIDI utilities, lossy and lossless codecs, IIR and FIR filter designers, synths and public domain sheet music along with helper applications such as servers and asset management for your consumption. If you’re a fan of on–line file sharing, you can find OS clients for Audiogalaxy and Lime Wire, itself an OS enterprise. Then, of course, there’s Gnutella, “…a network by the people and for the people.” Da, comrade! The “GNU” in the name provides a hint of the founder’s political leanings…

We all use MP3 players and there are several open efforts to create a substitute music database for Gracenote’s commercial CDDB. One choice is FreeDB and another is Musicbrainz. These organizations maintain servers that enable audio CD and MP3/Vorbis players to download metadata about the music they are playing. Speaking of Vorbis, the folks at Ogg Vorbis maintain what is probably the most popular open source lossy codec package on the planet.

Sometimes you want to run a particular application and Windows is needed, even though you’ve converted your hardware to an open source OS. One solution is a double boot arrangement, allowing you to pick a boot disk and accompanying OS. Another is an hardware emulator (think Virtual PC) like DOSEMU, or a “compatibility layer” such as WINE, an implementation of the Windows 3.x and Win32 software modules or APIs on top of X11 and Unix. By the way, X11 is a graphical user interface toolbox for Unix and WINE that allows you to run some Windows 3.1/95/NT applications without Windows. DOSEMU or DOS Emulation, is a Linux emulation of DOS that runs many DOS programs. By the way, commercial DAWs won’t run under either WINE or DOSEMU.

I may get into non–audio applications of open source if you folks request it but suffice it to say that OSS is not limited to wild eyed zealots. RealNetworks has their open source Helix Universal Server, which streams Real Media, Windows Media, QuickTime, MPEG 4 and MP3 media, while the Darwin core of Apple’s OS X is also open source. Old school networking stalwart Novell has bought Linux distributor Ximian (…and SuSE as well - OM) and there’s speculation that Sun Microsystems, in their own bipolar fashion, may offer a Sun–branded Linux distribution as well.

Remember last month, I included a quote that, for most programmers “…contributing (to open source development) is simply way too hard.” The same can be said of open source in general. On the user side, it’s the same guts and glory thing that also drives some Windows users that need to feel a sense of mastery over an unwieldy and arcane knowledge. One thing I need to make clear here and now is that, by and large, OSS is for those who are comfortable pushing bits around the old fashioned way, in a CLI or Command Line Interface. Though modern distributions of open source operating systems are partly or completely wizard driven, many open source utilities and applications are installed and configured under the guidance of a CLI. Also, for all the computer users out there who have had a virus or spyware infestation in the past 12 months or who’s understanding of the OS is as deep as an episode of Friends, you should probably stick with commodity product.

Though many open source apps look and behave just like their commercial brethren, Mozilla and OpenOffice for example, at this stage in its development, a large percentage of open source is still aimed at experienced, administration–level computer users. Nick “The Piano Player” Porcaro opines, ”Open source stuff is great for the academic community, because there aren’t as many commerical pressures and so, in theory, more people can contribute with a freer mindset. But in reality, lots of folks have some sort of agenda…BTW, I just blew off Linux for my web server because it was much more time consuming to configure than Windows 2k server.” That’s from a programmer/musician who’s been beating Unix into submission for many years! So, if you’re good to go with the übergeek factor, don an apron, grab a terminal window and join me in the download trough for a free feeding frenzy…Happy holidays!

Bio

OMas is gearing up for next week’s 2003 O’Reilly & Associates OS X Conference in the beautiful Santa Clara Convention Center…talk about übergeek! Thanks go out to Dave Phillips for his suggestions!

This month’s Bitstream was created while under the influence of Charlie Hunter Quintet’s Right Now Move and Akira Kurosawa’s stark, sassy soba western, Yojimbo.

Pedant In A Box

This month’s timely technobabble includes…

Recursive Acronym

A programming tradition, begun at MIT, to choose acronyms or abbreviations that refer humorously to themselves or other acronyms/abbreviations. Very popular in the open source movement, GNU, Gnome, LAME and WINE are all recursive acronyms.

CLI

The command line interface harkens back to before the Macintosh, before Windows, when a graphical user interface was still trapped in the labs of Xerox PARC. CLI tools, such the Start > Programs > Accessories > Command Prompt in Windows and the Terminal in UNIX variants (~/Applications/Utilities/Terminal in Mac OS), provide the most basic of high level command and control tools for modern operating systems and behave much like an acoustically quiet version of the noisy, electromechanical teletypewriter ancestors from which they descend.

Mac OS 10.1 Terminal window
Figure 1 — The default CLI for Mac OS 10.2

Sidebar One

For audio geeks, one of the most crucial deficiencies of Linux-based audio workstations used to be the lack of standardized programming interfaces, both plugins and hardware. As with other operating systems, long and passionate discussions have led to different concepts for plugins, the most widely accepted being LADSPA, the Linux Audio Developers’ Simple Plugin API. Our friend, VST plugins, are also supported in Linux.

The AGNULA and PlanetCCRMA projects are good examples of what’s available packaged up for download: system enhancements including a low-latency kernel, Java support in the case of PlanetCCRMA and drivers for common hardware, synthesis engines, audio software development packages, simple editors, mixers and “CD managers,” along with tool sets of various kinds including applications for DJs, computer–assisted composition, lossy codecs, file serving/streaming and conversion, DSP, MIDI, music notation and speech processing. For hardware, Jack and ALSA, the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture, are the big kahunas of APIs.

Sidebar Two

Last month, I mentioned some of the political aspects of Linux. Unfortunately, I have to again this month. The reason why has to do with SCO, the company that owns the intellectual property that was System V. SCO has waged war on the Linux community. To illustrate, here’s a quote from the SC0 web site: “On July 21, SCO announced that it has received U.S. copyright registrations for UNIX System V source code, a jurisdictional pre–requisite to enforcement of its UNIX copyrights. The company also announced plans to make binary run time licenses for SCO’s intellectual property available to end users.” They continue, “…Many customers are concerned about using Linux since they have become aware of the allegations that Linux is an unauthorized derivative work of the (System V version of the) UNIX® operating system…many are running critical business applications on Linux. Some customers have asked their Linux distributors to indemnify them against intellectual property infringement claims in Linux. The Linux distributors are unable to do so because of the terms and conditions in the General Public License (the most common open source licensing scheme - OM).

“SCO has an obligation to stockholders, customers and employees to protect the value of its assets. SCO is also sympathetic to the end-user’s predicament. SCO has determined that it can accommodate both conditions by offering a license that cures the IP infringement in Linux.”

In other words, SCO is using the classic Microsoft FUD approach to making money: create fear, uncertainty and doubt about another vendor’s product, then create mind share that their offering will allay the FUD. Some say they’re doing it so they can be acquired by IBM or Novell. Other just think they’re smokin’ something. At press time, a few big vendors have ponied up but most vendors and end users and sitting on the side lines, waiting for the courts to make key decisions on the validity of SCO’s claims.