March 16th, 2004


Linux-based audio toys

Lately I have been playing with the Planet CCRMA audio metadistribution for Red Hat and Fedora.

Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics is a very well-known computer music institution, and they have set up an apt-rpm repository which features two metapackages: one contains a low-latency (and soon, preemptible) Linux 2.4 kernel and ALSA packages, and the other contains over a hundred audio applications, including

  • csound software synthesis system
  • Ardour multitrack hard-disk recorder and DAW
  • Rosegarden MIDI sequencer (a Cubase clone)
  • Hydrogen drum machine
  • a CM/CLM/CMN environment
  • ecasound audio processing system
  • JACK patchbay
all built to interoperate. It also includes ALSA- and JACK-enabled versions of common audio libraries and utilities like xmms and Ogg Vorbis. Two "apt-get install" commands install the whole shebang once apt is properly configured (which, on my multi-purpose and multi-repository system, required pinning the CCRMA repository at a higher priority than any other). If you want to dedicate a machine to audio, CCRMA also has a Fedora mirror so you only need to deal with one repository.

The Planet CCRMA docs include a full list of included software.

This means that I can finally do a bit of home recording, but even better, it means I can start playing with all of the toys I was playing with when I was studying computer music at McGill. Since I left that program because of organizational and life issues, and not because I didn't enjoy computer music, this is a Very Good Thing.

One thing that was missing from Planet CCRMA was the MAX/MSP environment. I was very pleased to find that despite the original having gone commercial, that IRCAM (where MAX originated) has maintained an open-source version of MAX with a Java frontend and C backend which is reasonably portable, called jMax. I've had a bit of trouble getting it built but I'm looking forward being able to pull out my old MAX patches and start up where I left off in 1996.

All of this combined with my new guitar (which came back freshly set up from Brian Dubbledam's shop at the Ottawa Folklore Centre tonight) means that I have a new (well, old) hobby building, and that you will probably be subjected to audio soon. I make no claims of quality!

All in all, this is the best example I have seen yet of open source software meeting the challenge. I have obtained for free the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars worth of audio software on proprietary platforms, and I was able to get it all interoperating easily thanks to the efforts of the CCRMA -- efforts which would not have been permitted or even possible if the packages were closed.

One problem I am going to encounter immediately is that I have only an onboard (SBLive, sigh) sound card and no mics. While eventually I'm sure I'll accumulate a couple of decent microphones, appropriate preamps and direct boxes, and an outboard audio interface for my PC, right away I want to get away with the minimum investment necessary to get sound from my guitar amplifier (no direct out) and a bass amp (either no direct out or balanced, so practically no direct out) into the sound card. Suggestions are welcome. I'm kicking myself for having thrown out an old NAD tape deck with bad motors and a perfectly good preamp section a couple of weeks ago.

  • Current Music
    De Phazz -- Death By Chocolate