In the past Linux has had obvious problems with audio, and considerations of low latency and real time reproduction of music were perceived to have a low priority for kernel development during a period when Linux was becoming increasingly popular for large-scale server deployments. But this perception has changed. Specialist distributions such as Ubuntu Studio, 64Studio, Musix or PlanetCCRMA use kernels that are patched and tuned for audio and low-latency and are well adjusted for usage as complete music production systems.
"PulseAudio has helped immensely for general consumer audio," says Cannam. "It sparked some argument amongst pro-audio developers and users but it has worked well as a flexible equivalent of the built-in Windows audio layer. For professional audio JACK is perhaps the most effective solution that exists on any platform. These days it's easy to install and use as well. So the low-level audio bits are pretty solid. People still often run into problems with sound card mixers and the like, but those problems are fairly common in Windows as well."
"Unfortunately those low-level bits only help where the application makes sensible use of the right APIs, and that's still problematic. It's possible that things will always be somewhat unsatisfactory and difficult on Linux, and that we just have to accept that as a trade-off for the things we like about it. A lot of users and developers have decided already, I think, that that trade-off is not for them: it's become something of a running joke that even presenters at Linux audio conferences use OS X to do the presentation. I think this seems a pity, but then I'm quite happy with Linux and clearly they haven't been."
By any other name
Rosegarden continues to grow. The latest release, Rosegarden 10.4, 'code' named "Abraham Darby", takes its name from the engineer who built the first iron bridge across the River Severn at Coalbrookdale, and from the rose cultivar of the same name.
Cannam says that the last year may have brought more contributors to Rosegarden than any previous year "but our time individually has been very limited. We spent a lot of time porting Rosegarden from Qt 3 to Qt 4, and have only been barely able to pick up on development since then. The real motivators recently have been D. Michael McIntyre and Julie Swango – their efforts were crucial to us getting through the Qt 4 port at all."
Having previously worked as a software engineer in various commercial environments, Cannam has now graduated to an academic role in the Centre for Digital Music research group at Queen Mary College, University of London. The most notable piece of software to arise from this work is probably Sonic Visualiser, which offers ways for musicologists, archivists and signal-processing researchers to visualise the contents of audio files.
"At the moment I'm working on setting up soundsoftware.ac.uk, an initiative to assist the construction of reusable software tools for researchers in the audio and music fields and to encourage open development of research software."
"It's probably too early to say what consequences, if any, this project may have for existing software, or for consumer-friendly desktop software. But a lot of the most interesting audio software for Linux has tended to come fairly directly from academia and from researchers who are also keen musicians, so hopefully we should be able to do something to help keep this flow of ideas and code coming."
For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.