Percussa micro super signal processor

Linux for music is everywhere, from the power behind the Korg Oasys to new, more usable Linux desktop music software. CDM got a chance to talk to Chris Cannam of Fervent Software,
developers of the Linux-based Studio-to-Go. Chris tells us a bit more
about Studio-to-Go, as well as more generally the past, present, and
future of Linux music-making — as well as some ideas about how you
might actually use this stuff.

I've been running Studio to Go! on my Pentium M laptop, and after having
struggled with previous Linux builds to get a studio up and running, I
can say this is easy enough for a Linux virgin.
Boot from the CD, and not only is Linux pre-tuned for music and audio,
but you have access to a complete suite of pre-configured music and
audio tools and toys. With a flash drive and the CD, your studio is
always as close as an Intel PC (hence the 'to-go' part), but with one
command you can also install the studio to your hard drive. It coexists
with my Windows XP partition without reformatting.

Read on for the review . . .

Cost: GBP 49.99 (GBP 64.99 with 128M flash memory)
Compatibility: Intel PCs (though Fervent says they'd love to support Mac PPC — no plans yet)

Correction: Early-edition copy for this story listed cost
with 128M flash key as 69.99 pounds instead of 64.99. 64.99 is the
correct price — good deal on the drive! -PK


Who's the market for the product? Obviously, you need a PC to run it, but beyond that?

The ideal audience for Studio to Go! is an inquiring home musician
who's more interested in making music than fighting with technology and
who's thoughtful about how they spend their money.  Studio to Go!
is a very immediate way to get the heart of a complete composition
environment.

But with software that can do many different things, you can see it
fitting into other environments as well.  Say you have a studio
setup with a small network — Macs or PCs — with the odd PC around
that doesn't get much use.  Boot that with Studio to Go!, and
bing! a new range of synth possibilities that you can drive via MIDI,
and a score sketchpad, and an audio effects box — synths, drum
machines and plenty of effects plugins included, cheaper than a single
commercial VST or AU plugin and it drops straight in to your
network.  So there's a lot of potential for it as something to
just mess around with.

And there are plenty of interesting specific uses in the education
sector, but we think also a strong general informal appeal in
education.  In the UK, if you're a teenager studying music, you
get to sit around a PC running Sibelius in the classroom — but very
few people can afford that at home.  Studio to Go! can handle
notation and export MusicXML, and the type of software included — a
mixture of applications that can be connected up any way you choose —
encourages an exploratory, educational approach, so it's a good
complement.

Of course, Studio to Go! can't do everything — it's designed for
composition, arranging, recording, and mastering rather than, say,
DJing, live performance, or broadcast.

What's your background? How did this product come about?

The reason for this product is very simple: it's the system we wanted
ourselves.  We've been developing and using music software for
Linux for ten years now, and although the situation with traditional
Linux distributions has improved, most people still find it
frustratingly hard to put together a coherent Linux audio and music
environment. Studio to Go! is the best-designed environment for Linux
music software that we've ever used, and the easiest by an absolute
mile.

We do have experience with music software on other platforms as well.
Richard is the wannabe pop star with a Logic background, and I have a
classical training and familiarity with the usual score applications.
We think we can look at Studio to Go! from the perspective of people
who don't use Linux, and it's a great way to get a very well-integrated
set of music applications in a simple package at a good value price.

It seems like Linux audio has evolved a lot recently, from a
pretty primitive point to something that might stand next to Mac and
Windows soon, at least for basics. What are the biggest improvements
for you?

The JACK audio server has been the most critical development.  In
some ways it brings Linux well ahead of the situation on Windows. 
JACK is a little like ReWire — it allows you to send audio from one
application into another, entirely under your own control, as well as
having audio go to the soundcard.  Since the Linux MIDI drivers
allow the same thing of MIDI, that means you can basically connect
anything to anything else.

What makes JACK so powerful in practice is that it's a genuine
standard.  Essentially all Linux audio applications support it —
including all of the dozen or so serious applications included in
Studio to Go!.  That gives you a great deal of power, and it's
very easy to manage as well, with some simple graphical tools.

[Ed: Mac users, check out Jack OS X for a Jack implementation on Mac — nothing like this available for Windows, unfortunately! -PK]

Where do you see Linux audio going in the future? Where would you like to see improvements?

Oh, there are many many possibilities.  So far most music software
development on Linux has been either quite academic, research-based or
leftfield work, or simply trying to match the sort of GUI applications
found on other more entrenched platforms.  Studio to Go!
concentrates on GUI applications, and it's a snapshot of where we are
at the moment, which is all pretty good stuff.  But we've got so
many ideas for other things to do and I think there's going to be an
exciting future as well.  For example, there's not much comparable
yet with the sort of chunky cheerful loop-based tools for live use or
experimentation that we've been seeing a lot of on Windows over the
last couple of years, and that's likely to be a big area —
applications that are 90% GUI and 10% plugging together the stuff that
we already have.  The new DSSI plugin API has a lot of potential
there as well.

Right, there's some good stuff out there, though nothing like
Ableton Live, etc. What kind of interest have you seen in doing audio
with Linux, given the dominance of Windows and Mac?

We've seen a lot of interest whenever we've shown people what software
there is for Linux.  I don't think many musicians will choose a
platform first and then look at what they can do with it — most are
fairly neutral about the platform, they just want the applications and
want them to work, and that's what we're providing here.  Of
course, some people are actively interested in the slightly anarchic
nature of the Linux development model, and others just think it's a
more ethical and equitable model.

Is downloading Studio-to-Go a possibility at some point? (Currently, it's only available as a mail-order CD.)

Downloadable purchases are a definite possibility, depending on
demand.  I'm rather old-fashioned myself, I rather like to get my
software in a box.

We don't have any plans to do a downloadable demo version.  That's
partly because there's no good way to control the time and scope of a
demo of a complete operating system, and we wouldn't want one anyway —
we wouldn't want to mix digital rights management with Linux. 
With most software, when you pay for the software you aren't actually
buying anything — you just get a limited license that could be revoked
tomorrow for all you probably know about it.  Studio to Go! isn't
like that.  There's no shrinkwrap license: we don't control the
way you use it: your copy is yours.

How will users update their system?

Studio to Go! is based on the Debian Sarge distribution, so if you
install it to the hard disk, you can then use Debian's apt-get to
update the base packages.  However, many of the audio-related
packages we include are configured differently from the Debian
packages, in order to provide the best performance in the Studio to Go!
environment, so you might not want to switch them to the Debian
versions.  We may will introduce a Fervent package repository so
as to handle these updates more smoothly in the future.

We will also have a cost-effective upgrade policy for people who want to update the Studio to Go! CD itself.

The big question about Linux is, will people want to pay for
things they can get free? What's the advantage of going to your CD
versus a DIY project?

The first thing is that we don't feel we compete with generic Linux
distributions at all, because Linux itself is not what we're selling.
If you want Linux, go to a Linux distributor.  If you want music
software with support, and if the fact that it happens to be a complete
Linux system as well warms your heart, then come to us.  If you
look at our product in that context — the context of the music
software market — it's obvious that it's remarkably good value.

That said, making a Linux-based music software environment does take a
lot of work.  People tend to underestimate that, both beforehand
and after the fact — they think it's going to be easy, and then they
forget how hard it was.  But it is hard.  On the Rosegarden
lists, we get more questions about installation problems than about
everything else put together.

We have users who are technically adept and have been tweaking their
Linux systems for years, and who still struggling with things in their
own systems that just work in Studio to Go!.  Setting up a Linux
2.6 kernel with low latency interrupt response like the one in Studio
to Go! is an example.  Getting support for Windows VST plugins —
no other Linux distribution includes that, and it's not easy to get it
working yourself.  In Studio to Go!, you just double-click on a
VST plugin and it loads, and then you can connect anything you want to
it using the JACK audio framework — or you just load it as a plugin in
Rosegarden, like the native plugins.  There's a lot of invisible
code behind that.  There are lots of other examples, because what
we've done is to select a set of applications that really work and
figure out the best ways to configure them and make sure they work
together.

Also, of course, it's only the existence of free Linux distributions
that makes it possible for us to provide this product and service at
anything like the price we do.  That price is proportionate to the
work Fervent do above and beyond our Linux base, not to the work
contained in the whole package.

What kind of system will people need for this? Is a PowerPC/Mac version possible in the future?

At the moment we're only dealing with the Intel-compatible PC
platform.  We recommend at least an 800MHz x86 PC with at least
256MB of memory — more is good, as running from a CD means you have a
virtual disk in RAM.

Windows NTFS compatibility has remained a stumbling block for
newcomers to Linux. What's the best strategy for storing files?
Obviously, there's the flash drive option — what if you want more?

You can save to Windows drives that use the FAT32 filesystem, which is
standard for Windows 95, 98 and Me and an option in Windows XP. 
It's very simple to do — the drives appear as icons on the Studio to
Go! desktop, and you can open them in the usual file manager by
double-clicking on them, with just the same result as browsing the
drive from Windows.  Sadly you can't save to Windows NTFS drives,
although you can load and run things from them.

Of course, if you have a spare partition or drive, you can always use
that for a Linux filesystem or an extra Windows FAT32 filesystem.

[Ed: Windows users should be aware Windows XP now formats drives as NTFS by default unless you specify FAT32. -PK]

Any chance you'll have an installer version, or are you focusing on the bootable CD?

You can install the bootable CD to hard disk and boot it from there. It coexists with Windows nicely.

The installed version behaves much the same as the CD — it's still a
dedicated single-user system.  That's not quite the same thing as
the usual Linux installer which makes a multi-user setup, but we wanted
to stick with the Studio to Go! environment even after installation.

What are some of the production possibilities with this software
setup? What kinds of music have you made it with, or seen others making
with it, and which apps did you use?

Speaking for ourselves personally, Richard inclines to a kind of
ambient folk music (he'll hate me for that) with recorded acoustic
guitars, vocals and samples plus synthesised backing, percussion and
textures.  That's a pretty classic fit for Rosegarden — a few
individually recorded tracks and some arranged audio, with MIDI and
synth and effects plugins.  Studio to Go! includes the Hydrogen
drum machine and some good synths that you can drive from Rosegarden,
so he's pretty much brought his working practices over from Logic with
very few changes.

My main interest is study and arrangements of classical music,
principally piano and chamber music, which is another natural fit with
Rosegarden and Lilypond.  I wouldn't call myself a composer.

The Ardour and JAMin recording and mastering applications found in
Studio to Go! have some strong advocates, such as Ron Parker at Mirror
Image Studios in Minneapolis who has made a number of excellent studio
and club jazz and rock recordings with them.  The JAMin mastering
application was largely designed to his requirements, and it's both
powerful and easy to use.  The simpler Audacity and Time Machine
audio recording applications are also useful as the instant equivalent
of your four-track tape deck, and I've heard quite a lot of live band
recordings made with them.

Thanks, Chris. We'll be watching for more in the future!