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The Book of Linux Music and Sound

Musicians aren't always technically inclined. When they look for music software to run on their computers, they're apt to buy something for the Windows system they already have or believe the advice that anything artistic is supposed to be done on a Mac. Linux systems provide cheap and powerful alternatives, and this book tells you how to get started with them.

If you've had any dealings with audio software on Linux systems, Dave Phillips will need no introduction. His site at http://sound.condorow.net/ has been the place to go for Linux audio information for many years. Here at freshmeat, he wrote our category review on Sound and Music Software.

His Book of Linux Music & Sound is an extension of his software directory and commentaries on the audio scene, and it should be on the shelf of anyone interested in working with sound on Linux.

The first sections of the book provide overviews of digital audio and the hardware and software needed for audio work on a Linux system, and walk you through setting up your audio workstation (with references to online resources in case you run into problems). The rest of the book consists of chapters dealing with various tasks (creating Mod files, multitrack recording, DJ systems, etc.), so you can jump to whatever scratches your particular itch. Audiophiles can hop through to find what they need to enjoy music on their systems and musicians can go straight to discussion of their chosen methods for making that music.

Each chapter contains an overview of its topic and reviews of specific applications related to it. The reviews are excellent. Each opens with a list of database fields similar to a freshmeat project listing, giving the names of the authors, project URLs, license information, capsule summary, etc. Following the list is a paragraph or two describing the application and what you can do with it. Two sections always follow: "Getting It, Building It" and "Using It". "Getting It, Building It" is often "tar xzvf foo.tar.gz && ./configure && make && make install" over and over again, but it sometimes includes useful details about dependencies or other problems you may encounter. "Using It" provides a tutorial on basic use that takes you far enough to decide whether this is the software that suits your needs. The included CDROM contains "as many of the profiled applications as legally possible", so you can usually pop it in and start playing right away.

Once the required sections are in place, the reviews are fleshed out with anything Dave feels he needs to say about the application being covered. This varies widely; hYdraJ gets one page of text, while the next starts 13 pages about Cecilia.

The reviews are often interspersed with interesting commentary on the scene being discussed, from "MIDI History" to "MP3 Politics".

Since it's written by the #1 authority on all things Linux and Sound, the book hits almost all the most important applications, but like any book built around the author's preferences, it gains both its strength and its weakness from his biases. Dave is active in the Csound community, so the Software Sound Synthesis chapter is thorough and well-researched. Most of the chapters on music-related software tell you everything you need to know to get started and cover the cream-of-the-crop applications.

Other topics don't fare quite so well. Why, for example, does the Network Audio Software chapter discuss Speak Freely, telephony software which uses a proprietary protocol and has a small user community, without mentioning any of the Linux H.323 applications? In the chapter on Music Notation Programs, why spend six pages on the Shareware Mup and say nothing about the (IMHO) far superior Lilypond, part of the GNU Project?

Balancing these sins of omission is one of inclusion; I wonder whether the "Linux Games" chapter wasn't ill-advised. It will become outdated much faster than the rest of the book (see the discussion of Loki...), and the only audio-related information in its 17 pages is "If your sound system is set up properly and you can play WAV, MOD, and MIDI files, then you should have few if any problems getting great sound from your Linux gaming experience." Instead of pages of screenshots and installation instructions for "Roll 'Em Up", "Myth2", etc., I think it would have been sufficient to have a single page that said "Games are a great way to show off your computer's sound system; here's a list of my favorites...". I think the space taken by these pages might have been put to better use delving more deeply into issues raised in other chapters. For example, much of the book is aimed at tools for musicians, so a more in-depth discussion of professional-quality audio hardware would have been useful.

Still, in the face of how much is good, these are only quibbles. This is this first book on working with sound on Linux systems, and it's long overdue. It's useful to music lovers at all levels of knowledge, and if some areas are given short shrift, they're at least given a good introduction, and the interested reader will know what she's looking for when she turns to the Web for more information.

I only wish that when I was paying ridiculous amounts of money for commercial Windows applications that didn't work, I could have instead just paid for this book. I hope musicians browsing bookstore shelves today will find this and start their trip into the Linux music community.

Recent comments

25 Jun 2002 12:42 Avatar davephilli

Re: How I see it now...

> ...Since I got a hold of
> you Dave, and I assume you read this, is
> there any new revision of the book, or
> is any planned ? My folks at uni asked
> me, cause they thought about buying the
> book for the lib.


Hi, Sven: Well, it seems that my publisher would like to have me write a 2nd edition. I'm in the process of preparing a new outline, then I'll poll the Linux audio developers and users groups for suggestions. Alas, I know now from experience that the next edition is probably a year away from now, so please don't expect it sooner. The 1st edition is still useful (with some caveats), so perhaps your school can still use it ?

Dave Phillips

30 May 2002 23:28 Avatar darky

Re: How I see it now...
I must admit, I haven't read the whole book. But oen thing is for sure, since I had to pick up TAON lately again and present it at some class, I realized, things changed rapidly since 1999. Back then, there was nearly no Sound/Wav-Editor - Nowadays, there's somewhat plenty. Since I got a hold of you Dave, and I assume you read this, is there any new revision of the book, or is any planned ? My folks at uni asked me, cause they thought about buying the book for the lib.

Anyway, I hope, since ALSA is makign progress, we are going too see some major Multimedia/Audio Applications in the near future.

So long

-Sven (TAON Project)


> Thanks, Jeff, that's a fair review, and
> I appreciate your remarks. A few
> responses:
>
> [cropped]
>
> At the time I wrote the book (1999)
> Speak Freely had no proprietary
> components that I was aware of. And yes,
> I should have included at least the
> Bayonne project, but my hardware and
> available network connection could
> barely handle Speak Freely. :)
>
> [cropped]
>
> == Dave Phillips
>


18 May 2002 13:54 Avatar davephilli

How I see it now...
Thanks, Jeff, that's a fair review, and I appreciate your remarks. A few responses:

You wrote:

"... the reviews are fleshed out with anything Dave feels he needs to say about the application being covered. This varies widely; hYdraJ
gets one page of text, while the next starts 13 pages about Cecilia."

That's also because hYdraJ does about two or three rather straightforward tasks while Cecilia is a complete graphic environment for synthesis and composition using Csound.

You asked:

"Why, for example, does the Network Audio Software chapter discuss Speak Freely, telephony software which uses a proprietary protocol
and has a small user community, without mentioning any of the Linux H.323 applications? In the chapter on Music Notation Programs, why spend six pages on the Shareware Mup and say nothing about the (IMHO) far superior Lilypond, part of the GNU Project? "

Good questions. I regret leaving out a number of other apps, most notably Lilypond, ecasound, and Pd. In my flimsy defense, I did include those and many other non-profiled apps on the accompanying disc.

At the time I wrote the book (1999) Speak Freely had no proprietary components that I was aware of. And yes, I should have included at least the Bayonne project, but my hardware and available network connection could barely handle Speak Freely. :)

Also:

"Balancing these sins of omission is one of inclusion; I wonder whether the "Linux Games" chapter wasn't ill-advised... much of the book is aimed at tools for musicians, so a more in-depth discussion of professional-quality audio hardware would have been useful."

Well, I wondered about the Games chapter too, but my editors liked it a lot (they hadn't realized there were any decent games for Linux). It was also a lot of fun to write, but I agree that it could have been longer on more technical aspects of getting better sound from games.

I'm not sure how useful a discussion of Linux support for professional audio hardware would have been in 1999 or even 2000. The situation has changed terrifically, as I hoped it would. ALSA has indeed gone into the kernel sources, some more pro-audio manufacturers blessed with foresight and good marketing sense have opened their sources for driver development, and applications exploiting these trends have now appeared.

But these responses are mere quibbles. :) Thanks for reading my book, and thanks for the Freshmeat review. I've already sent the URL to my Mom...

== Dave Phillips

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