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Linux Audio 2012: Is Linux Audio moving forward?

One man perspective

10 October, 02012

It's been three years since I joined the world of Linux Audio. I've witnessed several important applications appear, other applications making great progress, LV2 specification maturing and other great stuff. And lately I find myself asking the same question over and over - did things become tangibly better?

In this article I will attempt to give my perspective. The goal of this article is not only to share my views, but also to encourage discussion on the subject, as I am genuinely interested in what people think about it.


What is "better"

Before I go on to speak my mind, I have to define what exactly I mean by "better" or "moving forward".

It is indeed different for everyone. If "Linux Audio" community was a homogeneous entity, we could speak of goals which make sense for everyone involved. But it is not. Linux Audio community is a body of diverse personalities with diverse interests. Thus, no single goal exists and it is probably safe to say before any analysis that for some people there certainly is a move forward and for some there is not.

I do hope, though, that my standards of "better" can appeal to many people. By better I mean:
-has Linux Audio became easier to use for a non-technical user?
-has Linux Audio became more attractive for a developer?
-has the functionality that Linux Audio offers increased in the last couple of years?

Let us go through these one by one.


Easier for a non-tech user?

What makes life of a non-tech user easier? At the very least - simple installation, simple configuration, clear, well designed GUIs.

KXStudio has been a major improvement in this department. I see KXStudio repos as a major milestone for Linux Audio - all apps put in one place, frequently updated, for many distributions. Even I, with my Lucid installation, was able to benefit from KXStudio updates for a very long time.

The configuration if you are not going for a complete Linux Audio distro and instead just go for KXStudio repos has been left unchanged. Not that it is that complicated a process (it can be, in some cases), but it is something that a person coming over from Windows or even from non-JACK software might need to deal with a little bit. I would say that in general it is not harder than handling ASIO, so this is not a problem and probably wasn't a problem three years ago.

As for GUIs, I feel that although some progress has been made, drastic changes have evaded us. JUCE stuff has progressed and from what I read it seems it has definitely matured, but most plugins I see, for instance, have techy slider GUIs. One could argue that they are "simple" and thus easy to use. In some cases, however, especially if you have many sliders as in case of EQs or filters or vocoders, a different GUI approach could be good.
I would say that it seems that future applications and plugins have a better chance of coming with better GUIs, both in terms of usability and esthetics, but visible results today are few and far between.

Saving projects is still a huge problem. In addition to LADISH we do now have NSM, the Non-Session Manager, which seems like a workable solution, so we'll see how this works out in the long run.
LMMS seems to be the only game in town for those who want to save full projects by just clicking "Save" and not having to install and configure a "session manager". I must admit, by the way, that I have not followed LMMS recently.


More attractive for a developer?

What makes things attractive for a developer? Big audience could be one of the factors, but to look at the more technical side of things - obviously good tools!

Has developing for Linux Audio became easier, more accessible?
I must say that my knowledge on this subject is rather limited. It seems most developers have no problem making an app JACKified - JACK API is well documented and has been for many years, as far as I am aware.

Another important aspect of Linux Audio development are plugins. This is where a lot of the commotion has been in the past couple of years and we have seen LV2 specs mature to a rather stable state. In this interview I am rather optimistic, awaiting more in the realm of LV2.

I must say, however, that an explosion of LV2 projects, if there is ever going to be one, has yet to happen. Old plugins have been quickly converted to LV2, which is good, but apart from that not much has changed and not many new plugins appeared. I don't know if it is due to the fact that developers do not find LV2 easier to work with or whether the small amount of quality plugins has anything to do with the specs at all. It could be that the emergence of LV2 does indeed have little effect on the interest to develop more plugins.

To an electronic musician such as myself not much has changed thus far in the plugin world. LV2 seems like something a non-tech user can look at as the VST of the Linux world and await to have big choice of stuff. But since my arrival to Linux Audio, my choice of plugins has not increased that much. There are actually some plugins I need to explore, one of them is DrMr, a drummachine LV2 plugin based on Hydrogen, but in general the choice is pretty much the same. The most developed LV2 plugins that I know of are CALF plugins, with great GUIs and presets and all that stuff - and they have been one of the most developed DSSI and LADSPA before.

So I am interested in hearing more about LV2. Rui, author of Qtractor, has created a sampler and a synth, both as standalone and as LV2, which is great. Will we see more LV2 plugins? I don't know

Additionally, it seems to me having a toolset for simpler plugin creation would be great.


Functionality increased?

When moving to Linux, one often has to make a sacrifice, since there will be tasks which are either difficult of simply impossible to achieve. This is an unfortunate state of things and although I love using Linux and my computing life has changed to the better, I have to recognize that "Linux sucks", as Bryan Lunduke likes to put it. In other words, lots of stuff are not available.

Linux Audio, a segment of Linux ecosystem, so to speak, has not escaped the same fate. There are a number of things Linux Audio is not that good at.

When I started using it in 2009, I noticed that you would probably have a difficult time being a dj, difficult time doing electronic genres of music, difficult time editing sound files, difficult time doing a soundtrack (meaning tough time rendering exact loops).
Obviously, these are my own experiences that nobody else has to subscribe to, but if someone wanted to do the same, chances are they've bumped into difficulties.

Has any of this changed?

Well, djing certainly received a boost in face of Giada. This was a surprise to me. Nice GUI, fast development, finally sync of loops available and you could easily see filenames loaded as opposed to SooperLooper, the GUI of which is awkward if you want to mix loaded loops. They are planning midi soon, you have computer keyboard control for now, but I already managed to do some nice things with it.

Electronic genres of music are still extremely difficult to do. I am completing an electronic album I've done using normal tools as opposed to Pure data and SuperCollider and it has been very tough at times, although I can agree I had genuine geeky fun doing it. Hope to release it in November.

Ardour 3 with midi functionality has certainly been a big thing. At the moment I am not following Ardour that closely, but I did test several versions and this is of course a great DAW. And it certainly contributes to midi sequencing on Linux.

Oh, playing live became more fun. harmonySEQ, QMidiArp have matured into robust live sequencers, easy to handle.

Not too much happened in the realm of sound files editing. Audacity is not my cup of tea, I find its GUI difficult to work with. Audacity is ass when it comes to JACK. ReZound is much more to my taste, I love the GUI, works fine with JACK, but it is not being developed, which is a pity.
We do have OcenAudio, which is a recent addition and great in terms of GUI and speed, but I did have some problems with it when encoding mp3 files - it seemed to mess up the bitrate and always end up with 128. Nevertheless, great stuff and it is being actively developed - certainly a step forward.
I do miss a free software sound editor of Gold Wave class and I do not see that much work being done in that direction.

Still very difficult to do a soundtrack. Rendering is a problem. In Linux Audio things are mostly recorded in real time rather than rendered. The whole approach of Linux Audio is real-time work. Musical programming, sequencing is being developed very slowly.
I spoke of LMMS already. It is a great project and, although slowly, it is moving forward. Roadmap does have interesting stuff on it.
The sister project of LMMS, a supposed new all-in-one sequencer by Paul Giblock, so far has not surfaced and I have not heard from Paul for well over a year. I am afraid the project was dropped - if not, I'd really want to know what's going on there!


Conclusions.

What can we conclude from the above?

As noted in the beginning, this vastly depends on what you're looking for, but from what I am interested in, I would say that results are somewhat vague.

On one hand, there is no difficulty in listing lots and lots of things that have appeared over the last 2-3 years, considerable progress has been made in case of individual apps, some steps made towards adding functionality to Linux Audio which wasn't there before.

On the other hand, lots of the things which I missed from Linux Audio three years ago are mostly still missing. The big advancements of new functionality seem to come not from within Linux Audio itself but rather from cross-platform projects, like Giada. As developers go more and more for cross-platform solutions, Linux in general and Linux Audio in particular greatly benefit from it.

Within Linux Audio things are constantly moving, but to an external observer the movement might seem rather slow, provided so much is missing. One cannot help invoking the chicken and egg dilemma here - I recognize that I am one of the very few electronic genre musicians here. Would I recommend to my fellow Windows or Mac OS musicians to come over? Well, not really. Unless they are into live audio recording or experimental stuff and custom setups.
It is obvious we seem to get closer to the state of things when nothing should prevent people from writing plugins and doing complex midid sequencing. But so far this has not caught up and Linux Audio continues to be a niche thing.

This, however, is just my perspective. Agree with me? Don't agree with me? I'd love to know! Comment, tell me what you think.



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