134: A Round Tuit

Is it time to get a round tuit? Photo (CC-BY-ND) Denise Mattox.

For this book review, we welcome guest writer Andy Farnell, who himself has a terrific book on interactive sound design and free modular patching environment Pure Data, entitled Designing Sound. It began as a review of a book on using free software – but it could be, more than that, a chance to fight procrastination. And while this runs the gamut, including graphics and design and not just sound, that could be even more relevant to those of us who need to delve into those other areas for our creative work. -Ed.

We all have a stack of things to get round to one day. Building a website. Making a video. Writing a book or recording an album. Allow me to share with you ten days that will transform your list of could do, would do, always going to do… into a list of exciting projects you’ve started.

That’s how long it took me to flick through Daniel James’ “Crafting Digital Media”, a light-reading compendium of software wisdom published by APress and weighing in at just under 400 pages.

It takes two of the major excuses for procrastination, “I don’t understand the interface, so I’m waiting for someone to show me.” and “I don’t have the money to buy the latest software”, and stomps them in the face with a giant boot.

There are roughly eight topics, or chunks of knowledge covered.

The first is about photography, with demonstrations in F-Spot, GThumb and GIMP — all the free tools you need to transfer, manipulate, and polish high-quality digital images.

Every software package in the book is a free, open source product that can be legally downloaded and used. These are not shareware or limited trial programs, but full versions of powerful, standards compatible applications — all modern free software with reliable, polished interfaces and powerful features. The book also comes with a CD containing Ubuntu 9.04.

The second chapter concerns illustration and font design. This is a whistle stop tour of modern scalable vector graphics tools and techniques, touching on Inkscape, FontForge, and GIMP again, showing you how to import, export, convert and edit high quality multi-layered scalable graphics.

Next comes 2D animation, where KToon and Synfig are demonstrated, showing the basic concepts of frame sequencing and tweening. And naturally, 3D modelling follows, with a look at Blender, the immensely-powerful 3D object design and rendering package with auxiliary game engine.

Although each section covers a complete production concept, it isn’t tiring or exhaustive. Just enough guidance is given to launch the program, explore the features, introduce the key concepts and leave you to play. If you actually follow along with the software examples, it’s a truly exciting journey, as you go to sleep each night with your head exploding with possibilities.

The art of publishing is the next adventure, with explorations of page layout, document structure, creating PDFs, posters, books and flyers. Subjects like fonts, typography, kerning and color processes are explained through examples with the Scribus application.

As a musician, you might be wondering where the audio tools are. The book doesn’t disappoint. There’s something for even experienced users in this compendium of tools spanning three chapters. Packages such as Mixx, Hydrogen, Jack, Seq24, Alsa Modular, Audacity, Ardour, and JAMin are explored in the context of all the common tasks like podcasting, recording, sequencing, effecting, compressing and mastering, EQ, CD production, and creating your own streaming server.

As an old fart who has just discovered YouTube, I found the next section on video editing to be very helpful since I’ve just started to explore making video tutorials. The now comical proliferation of incompatible video formats and codecs, a depressing indictment of the failure of standards, are cut through in short order. Daniel lays down the basics of formats and their conversion using AVIdemux, cropping and resizing while preserving high quality, and basic editing using Kino and the Open Movie Editor. A quick treatment of audio sync, titles and effects wraps up the section nicely.

Web development is the last chapter on software packages. Arguably there are so many choices for Web2.0 site design that it’s hard to justify any particular one. This book opts for solid and proven Drupal, along with a tour of the industry standard Apache web server, MySQL back-end, and Icecast media server to give a user-driven internet radio station as the chapter example.

Each of these topics is an entire profession in itself, about which shelves of books could be written, so don’t expect to become much of an an expert in any. What “Crafting Digital Media” does is open the door and get you started producing content very quickly. From there the opportunities are up to you.

As well as gently throwing in up-to-date anecdotal knowledge and asides from his encyclopaedic knowledge of modern media software, Daniel ties together the various threads into a whole that leaves you feeling empowered to start any new digital production project.

Let’s face it, the key to most pieces of software is a few simple steps, a few core commands, that seem so easy once you know them that you want to kick yourself for not trying sooner. Getting over that initial barrier is what this book offers.

The book would be a fantastic companion to new users of Ubuntu Studio, Pure:Dyne or 64Studio distributions, though several of the packages are multi-platform, so are available for Mac and Windows too. Ed.: Indeed, a large number of the tools are cross-platform – GIMP, FontForge, and Inkscape run on Mac and Windows, and Ardour on Mac. But then again, if you’ve got a Mac or PC, this is a great time to explore Linux a bit as a second OS, and all this software is available to you. Graphics software should even run acceptably virtualized. -PK

Title: Crafting Digital Media
Author: Daniel James
Publisher: Apress
Year: 2009
ISBN: 9781430218876
Price: $29 (RRP:$40)

  • i think it is sad that there seems to be such a stigma with using free software; as if you cannot be taken seriously unless you've spent hundreds or thousands of dollars for gear and software. or course, some compromises may have to be made; for example, PD has quite the learning curve, but then again so does Reaktor. tbh, i still heavily use ABox2 and it's under a MB in size! i firmly believe that it's all about what you can do with what you have available.

  • All software is free.

  • Random Chance

    Excuse me for being a bit pessimistic, but I doubt the value of this book. The topics this book crams into 400 pages are worth a book on their own. Take for example Blender and Gimp. Both are extremely powerful and if you were to pick up a book (as in printed on paper) on them you'd need to get more than 400 pages to justify the investment. There are so many free tutorials (even videos) out there that it seems unlikely that someone would derive any added value from a book that just gets you started on a learning curve. Likewise something like FontForge or the whole idea of designing fonts is a heavy and very deep topic. And treating something like setting up a webserver, database, CMS, and media streaming server in just a few pages is likely to cause disaster (as in hacked servers because someone tried to use this book to get started).

    I'm all for books (and when you own many books you start to think about wasting shelf space), but this just tries too hard to be all things to all people to be of any real use. But it seems that tutorial and overview style books are becoming more and more common especially concerning free software. Something has definately changed (more and better free software) for the better.

  • Well, there are dedicated books for Blender and Gimp; can't comment on Gimp but the couple of Blender books I've seen are pretty nice. I think Andy makes a good argument for why, in this case, the overview was useful. Yes, there's info online – well, I'll be the last person to argue against the value of online info. 😉 But there is something nice about reading things on paper. Obviously, not for everyone, but for someone who wants something they can flip through to get their toes wet, I think this isn't a bad resource.

  • No mention of Reaper? It's a powerful free audio program.

  • Dumeril Seven

    Reaper is not free. They just don't put copy protection on it. Treating it like it is free will increase the odds they do put copy protection on it though.

  • Yes! Andy Farnell as guest writer. Need more of this! I for one want to go hunt out this book, although I find the 'i don't have time' and 'i can't afford it' excuses pretty damn useful…

  • Yes, Reaper is free neither as in beer nor freedom, though it is a great piece of software. This is free as in freedom and open source. (Reaper does run well on Linux, however, via WINE.)

  • MattyBoJangles

    Andy Farnell's Designing Sound is an excellent book. I trust him if he says a book is good.

  • anechoic

    I downloaded all the Pd tutorial patches from Andy's book and am eagerly waiting for it to be published this Oct in the US

  • J. Phoenix

    The interesting thing about it to me is that the physicality of the book will probably attract readers that wouldn't have downloaded the entire book in a digital format and actually read it.

    Also, it says something about the potential of Open Source software in economic terms: the software is free–the book is not. The software is making someone money peripherally, and that's positive on account of this culture's association of money = value. Of course the book drives downloads, so it's positive in both directions–from my POV.

    I am awfully surprised at the division lines between creative types and how they treat the price of software. It seems divided between those who proudly proclaim the legality of their wares and those who never bothered to *ahem* "register" their copy and lost the cardboard box. The last category would be those that dream about buying it and can't bring themselves to steal it.

    The ones that have paid often cry about paying for quality, and the ones that don't often cry about the cost for zeros and ones packed in a box with a longer downtime to verify than it takes to torrent it.

    I personally like all of the programs mentioned, and having a physical copy (however superficial its coverage) is a good motivator to actually read it.

  • @ J.Phoenix
    I totally agree with you.

  • Hmm

    "i think it is sad that there seems to be such a stigma with using free software"

    Software isn't automatically good just because it's free.

    "Also, it says something about the potential of Open Source software in economic terms: the software is free–the book is not. The software is making someone money peripherally"

    It seems like the ideal economic model to me. Idealistic coders work for free, and other people make money off of their hard work.

  • Tom

    "Software isn’t automatically good just because it’s free."

    I've seen a worthy project damaged by it.

    Guided by good intentions and thinking that they were saving money, a committee accepted advice to use Drupal as the engine for an online project. Two of the staff started to work with it, using up hours for which they were being paid high management wages. Getting nowhere because there were constant odd bugs and work-arounds that needed reference to 'community support', the committee turned to a 'Drupal specialist' who just happened to be the boyfriend of the person who first gave the advice. Who of course charged like a wounded bull. The project was set back for a year.

    Last I heard they were waiting for a new version, frozen with anxiety about 'what was going to break'. I offered to get help from a commercial vendor, was shouted down, and walked away.

    Now that's _not_ at all Drupal's fault but it illustrates the kind of magical thinking that has to be carefully guided away from thinking that 'free software' is actually free. It's not.

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