For a generation of musicians of nearly every genre, the laptop has become an instrument. It’s easy to take for granted, but the rise of the computer for music has been remarkable. Less than twenty years ago, real-time digital synthesis and audio processing was the domain of expensive, specialized workstations. Now, $700 per seat can buy you a full-blown musical rig, with the computer hardware, gestural input courtesy the Nintendo Wii controller, and even a DIY speaker made from IKEA salad bowls. The next challenge is to make this setup as flexible and reliable as possible. Enter Linux.

According with the laptop’s graduation to instrument status, laptops orchestras have spread worldwide, inspired especially by the innovative Princeton Laptop Orchestra (“PLOrk”) directed by Dan Trueman and Perry Cook. PLOrk’s alumnus Ge Wang has even gone on to greater fame making applications for the iPhone via ocarina and T-Pain app developer Smule. The sounds of these ensembles may sometimes be strange, but by pushing laptop performance, the groups are a great place to look for how to get the most out of computer music, whatever your tastes may be.

Virginia Tech’s L2Ork’s claim to faim is that it’s a laptop orchestra powered by Linux. Why does that matter? For one, it makes a big difference on cost. By using Linux-powered netbooks, they’ve slashed the per-student cost from that of the Mac laptops used in some other ensembles, on a machine that’s more compact. Far from making sacrifices to save money, the result is actually  greater reliability, flexibility, efficiency, and audio performance.

L2Ork Debut December 04, 2009

As with the PLOrk ensemble, L2Ork combines expressive input with open-ended digital sound making production, localizing the sound near the computer itself using hemispherical speakers. In this way, the laptop instrument can attempt to learn something from acoustic instruments, which are played with human gestures and have sound sources that are positioned physically where the instrument is.


You don’t have to enroll at Virginia Tech to apply these lessons to your own music making, however. You can apply the lessons of the L2Ork ensemble to put together your own Linux audio machine. They’ve even further-documented the process of making PLOrk’s signature “salad bowl” speakers. And you can do it all without breaking the bank.


I got the chance to speak with Dr. Ivica Ico Bukvic, director of the Linux Laptop Orchestra and the DSISIS Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio at Virginia Tech.

CDM: What is your software rig for this ensemble?

Ivica: We basically use Ubuntu 9.04 (vanilla) with our own custom-built rt kernel, which apart from solid performance also offers full support of standby/hibernate/external monitor, webcam, wireless, bluetooth, etc. We also have various patches/scripts that deal with chronic UI bugs (e.g. order of panel icons in gnome getting trashed whenever a resolution is changed).

Basically, our configuration supports every single functionality of MSI Wind netbooks, which we use as the backbone of the orchestra.

FWIW, our setup offers pretty darn cool price point. The entire setup (MSI Wind, UA-1G soundcard, hemi speaker, [Nintendo] Wiimote/Nunchuk, all the cables/accessories, headset, and case) comes down to approximately $700/seat which arguably makes it as cheap as an iPhone setup, except you get to enjoy flexibility of using a laptop (ok, a netbook :-).


What music software are you using?

Our audio platform is currently exclusively [multimedia patching environment] Pd-extended 0.42.5 (running through [low-latency audio server] JACK) which we’ve also customized to allow advanced GUI setup (e.g. per-patcher configurable background, menu/ontop/resize/scrollbar toggles, what is IMHO better scrolling algorithm than what we currently have) as well as integrated several new objects whose source we are about to release (our multithreaded version of the Wiimote object for Linux has been already posted on the Pd-list a couple weeks ago, and it fully supports Wiimotes/Nunchuks without any interruptions to the Pd’s audio thread).

What do you do to get Ubuntu running properly?

Basically, it’s lightly-modded Ubuntu 9.04 that allows us to support all the hardware on the netbook, thus offering a quality desktop experience as well as RT audio performance. The kernel is custom-built 2.6.29-rc6-rt3. We have it available for download from a temporary folder off of my personal site
(http://ico.bukvic.net/Linux/). Once we clean everything up we will actually generate a full HD image and offer it for public download in hope to allow people to load that thing and thus allow them to have the best possible out-of-box experience (obviously as far as MSI Wind is concerned).

Is the hemispherical speaker something readers could build?

There are probably dozen videos on the VTDISIS Youtube channel that are designed to help potential L2Ork adopters build their own speakers, from cannibalizing/retrofitting the amps to improve their performance, to building cables and final assembly.



Rehearsal video shows how the L2Ork work out playing and soundmaking as an ensemble.

A quick look at how to make your own hemispherical speaker pod:

Local news coverage:

Virginia Tech students demo new laptop orchestra [WSLS10 NBC]

Laptop orchestra at Virginia Tech gives people an affordable alternative [WDBJ7]

More videos, and lots of how-to’s on the speakers (including the conclusion of the video above), are available on the VTDISIS channel:


Got more questions for the ensemble? Let us know.

I’d definitely like to offer, as well, some information on how to make Ubuntu work this well for you, and how to learn Ubuntu, Pd, JACK, and other free tools, in a way that’s beginner-friendly. That sounds like a decent New Years’ Resolution.

In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that if you aren’t excited about the prospect of custom-configuring kernels yourself, the Indamixx Linux laptop we’ve featured previously is pre-configured in a similar way; the netbook I’m testing now even runs on the same MSI netbook. And that also, in turn, illustrates how research and volunteer efforts can go hand-in-hand with commercial solutions:


  • Flea

    what is the basis of your statement that using linux laptops will make "the result is actually greater reliability, flexibility, efficiency, and audio performance." than other operating systems? Any operating system can easily have the same audio performance.

  • @Flea: what's your basis for the use of the word "easily" there?

    They're using an off-the-shelf UA-1G interface. You can achieve demonstrably lower-latency audio performance without introduces glitches and dropouts on Linux running the real-time kernel than you can via either Apple's Core Audio or ASIO on Windows, at least for a USB interface.

    If you're willing to substitute a different audio interface, yes, it's possible to get low-latency audio performance on Windows and Mac OS. However, I think it'd be fair to say that you can control more variables on Linux. That's not to say you can't accomplish a lot with Mac and Windows; you can. But you do have a greater level of control, and an ability to achieve specific performance optimizations that are either impossible or more difficult on the other OSes.

  • I LOVE those speakers! 🙂

    I'd like to build one but it's too expensive!

  • jonnyfive

    I'd be interested in hearing more about the design of their software, and how that lends itself to musicality or not. How much students are able patch themselves, and make their own decisions technically or sonically, how data is shared between the performers, how they interact with that data, what types of things do the instruments do, like how is the control data mapped musically. Who composes for the ensemble, how do they approach it, is it "this patch" is the piece or "these samples" or "this formal structure" etc.


  • @jonnyfive: Yeah, absolutely, worth following up on the patches themselves.

  • I've been wondering for a while how these groups wire the subwoofers into their ensemble. I can see in some pictures that there are lots of hemispherical speaker arrays and a couple of subs.

    Do a few players use just a sub and act as a “bass" instrument? Or do the subs get a mixed down version of everybody's sound so that everybody has a better low end.

    I kind of like the idea that a few players get a subwoofer station. It might be an interesting composition option.

    I think I'm going to try to get a few players together for a laptop orchestra in Australia, maybe later next year. Everybody is having fun with hemisphere speakers except me!

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  • First of all, Peter, thank you very much for this generous coverage. Really appreciate it!

    There have been several excellent questions presented in readers' comments, so please allow me to offer my 5-cents-worth:

    @Federico: you can build one of these including everything you saw on videos for about $250 which makes them comparable to a decent studio monitor (e.g. Yamaha MSP5As). Their frequency response is 50Hz-30KHz (however, don't expect too much from the low sub-150Hz range) and they pack a pretty good punch, so much so we concluded that being in their vicinity while projecting white noise clears nasal passages :-).

    @jonnyfive (and Peter): as Peter mentioned in his article, L2Ork relies upon Pure-Data (a.k.a. Pd) which shares a lot in common with the Max/MSP lineage. Hence, arguably "the sky is the limit" when it comes to building things (although it does require relatively in-depth knowledge of DSP for more advanced processes). We will post as much of the material as possible (e.g. Pd abstractions and other useful objects that help streamline interaction layer) once we resume school in late January 2010. Right now, I am very much looking forward to a long overdue recharging of batteries.

    @Charles: existing body of research in respect to sound spatialization and whatever experience we were able to accumulate in this area (e.g. DREAM interface) has led us to a conclusion that offering individual subs to every performer is not as critical as mids/highs, mainly because humans are apparently not as capable of spatializing really low frequencies as they are the ones in the remainder of the spectrum. Hence, in part for the purpose of cutting costs while still offering spatialization capabilities where IMHO it matters the most, we have one sub per 5 performers. So, this still allows every performer to project lows if they wish/need to, while allowing for the distribution of such parts to be as modular as possible.

  • @Ivica:

    Posting the abstractions is a really good idea. It'd be great to get a better library of these kinds of building blocks going in general; I'd like to do some of the same with SuperCollider. (SC has a LOT of sample code, but could use more of the sort of boring, bread-and-butter building blocks…) Great stuff!

    That said, enjoy your well-deserved break!

    On the sound spatialization issue, I heard a speaker at GDC argue quite the opposite, that people are just as able to spatialize low frequencies (and he was a guy doing research in nothing else). I don't doubt that we're less sensitive, but perhaps still are able to figure out a fair amount of orientation. I wonder if it's a matter of how we expect bass frequencies to be localized, if we're just not as concerned about where those sounds are even if we can perceive that location.


  • Jim Aikin

    I love the DIY vibe of this, but it strikes me that the Wii doesn't look to be much better at gesture sensing than the Buchla Lightning, which I reviewed 8 or 9 years ago. As a cellist, I need a musical instrument that responds to fine muscle movements and provides immediate tactile feedback at the fingertip level! Waving your hands in the air is, frankly, a gross (meaning that literally) way to make music.

  • @Jim: I tend to agree, though it's not a bad way to give students an affordable solution with which they can experiment.

    For an example of something that allows three-dimensional / gestural movement but has tactile feedback, have you seen this?

    It's not perfect, but it's cheap (running as little as $100), and could be an indication of where things might go. I have one of these, and it feels almost as good at that price as the previously-boutique product used for medical applications, research, in the *tens of thousands* of dollars. If that's possible, we could see other options.

  • Oh, PS, I don't think the similarity to the Lightning was lost on either Don Buchla or Max Mathews. 😉

  • Jim Aikin

    I'm all for affordable experimenting! But … well, isn't it a bit like teaching a painting class using rollers and spray guns? If you want to experiment with music, you can easily buy and learn to play an electric guitar or a flute. Both instruments provide a far better response to small muscle movements than something that you wave in the air.

    Remember Michel Waiswicz's Glove? That at least responded to finger movements.

  • @Peter: regarding spatialization, this is indeed very interesting. Do you mind sharing a bit more about the speaker and his research? FWIW, I suspect that the dominance of higher frequencies in spatialization is in part because it takes less time for us to detect them and consequently differentiate the delay/filtering between the two ears.

    @Jim: I know what you mean, we've gone through a lot of different iterations of that piece to develop a more tasteful choreography. The video above is from one of the early rehearsals of this particular piece and I think it shows. Other pieces have a completely different approach (e.g. Half-Life piece uses them as mallets that detect up to 8 different hits, while a student work instead of Wiimotes explores creative uses of a laptop keyboard). I guess the reason we liked Wiimotes so much is because they are very modular, wireless, and offer tactile feedback (namely rumble feature which we've used in various contexts, from detecting a mallet hit, to a conductor warning), rugged and a very flexible design that fosters agility, as well as relatively decent resolution at a minimal cost. The rehearsal video showcases the "infinite bow" model which obviously can be achieved only if one maintains some sort of circular motion (or a figure eight). That said, I've already put down on my TODO list to further refine the velocity scaling of the motion to encourage smaller range of motion in hope of identifying a more graceful choreography (in this case velocity is mapped onto loudness, while a nunchuk offers a slew of different functionalities including lowpass filter, vocoder, variable delays, pitch selection, toggle pitch selection modes, etc.).

  • @Ivica: Hmmm, can't find the reference but I'll keep my eyes open and let you know if I find it! Of course, you can try some experiments yourself. You're definitely not *as* sensitive, especially in the subs (not just bass…)

  • Well it looks more like playing video games than being a rock star! But you never know, that sort of thing might well catch on with the next generation just like the guitar did back in the day.

  • @Ivica: is it possibile to have a full list of components you use to build the speakers?

    Thank you 🙂

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  • @Federico: Absolutely! We will post a spreadsheet with items/prices/quantities etc. as well as work on adding other missing content as soon as the spring semester begins in January.

    In the meantime, here are the basics: we are using Pioneer car speakers, retrofitted DTA-1 amps, and obviously IKEA salad bowls for enclosures. The remainder is quite flexible. E.g. our connector faceplate has been custom-designed and laser-cut here at Virginia Tech, but there is nothing specific about it that would require you to use exactly the same design (unless, of course, you wanted to do so).

    Hope this helps!

  • Rob

    "…how to learn Ubuntu, Pd, JACK, and other free tools, in a way that’s beginner-friendly"

    I would love to see these tutorials, Peter! I'm fascinated by the laptop orchestra concept–makes me wish these would spread from school music programs to community programs. My college days are behind me, but I would love an option for making electronic music the same way we have a community band for adults to relive the marching band glory days. 🙂

  • @jimaikin: we could summarize your perspective with a quote from eno: a good instrument has qualities that the body can learn, but the mind cannot. As much as I agree with this ethos, I also think that its a bit limiting to insist that all music needs to be played on such instruments. There is plenty of interesting, even deeply creative and profoundly affecting music that relies on compositional technique and not performance skill. Sometimes, it can be better to view contemporary computer-driven music creation as more akin to conducting mixed in with a bit of real time composition. It certainly isn't very closely related to using (generally acoustic) instruments that provide a lot of scope for skilled performance.

  • Jim Aikin

    @paul: You're right. Music that relies on compositional technique rather than performance skill is equally valid. On the other hand, what a laptop orchestra does is … performance. But the real reason I tend to bring up concerns of this sort (other than simply being a grumpy old guy, which is what I am) is because I suspect that at some institutions of higher learning, the students can get academic credit for doing wacky digital experiments, when they're not actually learning anything that will be useful in the real world of music-making. I could be wrong about this in any specific case, or in general, but I do worry that at the end of the semester, students who have spent three months programming Pd to respond to a Wii won't have learned anything that they'll ever use again. Whereas learning to edit audio glitches in Pro Tools, as boring and fussy as it is, might actually get them a gig.

  • Yeah, but Jim —

    "wacky digital experiments with no actual use in the real world of music-making"

    How did you know the title of my dissertation?

    See also my upcoming book, "Non-Real World Digital Audio."

    Actually, in all seriousness, I suspect you probably can learn something from working this way, even in the cases in which it's awkward, for the same reason that you can likely learn something about painting by using a paint roller. I would hope you'd pick up that traditional instrument with different insight into it, I imagine you've learned quite a lot about how to (and how not to) structure data processing and control signal, and you may well be engaging in an exercise that is essentially compositional as much as it is performance. And such is our lot in life as computer musicians as well as (traditional) musicians.

  • @jimaikin: i think the relevance of something to the "real world of music making" depends a awful lot on precisely which real world of music making you're talking about. most musicians in the world don't get gigs (often, if at all). they don't get recording contracts. they make music for reasons that are often ineffable. and to be honest, a student who could interface Pd with a Wii (bad example – much too easy) may very well have more employable skills (in the general area of information technology and media) than someone who can play a guitar well. so i'm not convinced that this is an argument against the general idea of a laptop orchestra.

    i think there is a case to be made, but its a highly personal and subjective one – i simply don't like the aesthetic results of this kind of collaboration, and when I occasionally do like it, it always seems that it could have been done equally well by 1 person. however, this is an utterly subjective assessment, and those who enjoy this sort of thing should keep on carrying on!

  • @Paul: very good points, particularly the argument that one could do a similar product on their own. This is an argument that can be also made for producing orchestral music using sophisticated DAWs and gigabytes of samples fed through soft-synths. Yet, here we are in the 21st century and traditional orchestras all across the World are alive and well (well, for the most part). I think the key here is not that we are necessarily discovering a new DSP technique. Rather, what I find fascinating about a laptop orchestra that it pushes human collaboration through performance with technology at the very forefront while offering invaluable educational lessons (e.g. how to collaborate productively across many different disciplines) as well as expanding the expressive vocabulary in most unpredictable ways (e.g. by networking laptops, one instrumentalist could generate a sound and concurrently alter someone else's instrument, resulting in a cascading web of complex interactions). All that said, in the end I personally judge music solely on its "musical" merit (e.g. what I hear and how this experience engages me emotionally and intellectually), but I think there is something to be said also for the music-making process, needless to mention for its live delivery vs. listening to a CD production that these days more often than not tries so hard to remove any signs of human presence through endless pursuit of perfection.

  • @Paul: I certainly began making music as a way to escape the real world, for what it's worth. So far, I'd say it's largely working. 😉

    I wouldn't expect everyone to enjoy the results aesthetically, but to me, that's not the point. If you can make a laptop into a flexible, expressive instrument cheaply, then you should be able to apply it to any range of musical outcomes. Part of what's valuable here is that we have a powerful demonstration of the value of Linux laptops and open-source software. (Couldn't resist. And, of course, some of it *is Paul's software* – credit where it's due!)

    And, of course, aesthetic results alone are not the only aim. I played in an improv ensemble in college. It happened to be on traditional instruments, but could easily be subject to the same aesthetic complaints. I'm not sure I'd ever want to listen again to the results we came up with. At the same time, I learned a lot that I couldn't have learned only playing in traditional ensembles with traditional results. A number of us who played in that ensemble, making… uh, ambient music, to put it charitably …also worked together in other, more conventional ensembles. I got better results out of some of my own music (scored conventionally and graphically) and in an ensemble playing, say, Brahms. So there's other value here, for sure.

  • s ford

    great article and some fantastic comments left.

    i'd love to see more articles about ubuntu and pure data.

    i've been using ubuntu a bit for work stuff and i think i actually prefer it to using win7 (which i use for work too). i use a mac, but if i could use ubuntu and pure data to make music, it would be a transition i would be willing to make.

    so bring on more tutorials for jack/pd/ubuntu etc etc!!!

    personally, i would love to see the next major release of ardour support instruments with some kind of support for pure data objects, which in essence would be a linux max for live of sorts!!


  • jeebus jones

    Great stuff.

    I'm intrigued by hemispherical speakers. I've got the ikea salad bowl and car speakers already but the woodworking is a little beyond me. Time to find someone with a router to do it for me.

    I'm not quite following the speaker setup here though. From what I see it's a 6 channel speaker/amp but the UA-1G interface has only two outputs. Am I missing something?

  • @jones: Speakers can be used either as monaural or discrete 6-channel outputs by simply exchanging the type of audio cable used (the speakers have 6-pin XLR connector, like the one used by PLOrk). In our current setup they are used mainly as monaural as we have plenty to explore in this setup before getting into the multichannel side of things (something we are definitely looking forward to doing). PLOrk guys have generated a good amount of literature explaining why the hemispherical speakers. Hope this helps!

  • Actually, I'm a bit intrigued that we haven't seen people working with the hemispherical speakers for other kinds of performance, outside the laptop ensembles. Of course, if we can post updated how-to's and parts lists… 🙂

    In that case, having a portable sub could have a lot of people. I heard Meredith Monk at one point talk about how she was glad to be done with electronics, to be able to just show up anywhere with her voice. I guess that's how I now feel *about electronics* — I want to be able to throw a rig in my backpack and know it'll work, with my own amplification, low-end computer, no dongles or online serial authorization (not for live work, anyway).

  • @Ivica: Thanks a lot, I'll wait for the spreadsheet 😀

    @Peter: I'm really interested in this kind of speaker and, if I'll build one, I'd like to use it in my performance (and i'm not in a laptop ensemble). So keep me updated! 😀

  • Wow…Peter, thanks for posting this. I think this is perhaps the most fascinating music-related post I've seen in a very long time.

    Ivica, congratulations on getting this system together. I think it's quite revolutionary and makes me wish I was back in college again so that I could dabble in this synthesis of music and technology. Of course, there's no reason why I couldn't do something like this at home…



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  • James

    Great article!!

    Just curious… why Pd rather than SuperCollider or ChucK?

  • David Prouty

    I would like to point out that this seems perfect for a hand-bell choir, I'm curious if it would be cheaper then buying the brass bells.

    If you don't know what hand-bells are here is some video.

  • @James: SC and Chuck are definitely on our TODO list, in part because we wish to maintain compatibility with other *Orks and therefore share the repertoire. We began with PD as it gave us easy access to GUI design (yes, SC does it too, but IMHO not as easily as Pd) as well as access to peripherals (e.g. wiimotes).

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  • Like may others I was looking for an easy how to, I couldn't find it so I wrote my own. Check my website:



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