interview: Linux Music - Gerard Van Dongen
Gerard Van Dongen uses Linux tools exclusively
to compose and perform his music. Here we talk to him about
what he uses and what he's up to.
related : Gerard's website
What sort of music-related work do you do?
I am a composer/musician, so I compose for myself and for others, and I perform. As a performer I am a pianist originally, but nowadays I also work a lot with electro-accoustic music and "pure" electronics. So there is my own music, and that doesn't really pay the rent most of the time, and then there are commisions for work. Most of those are for music for theater/modern-dance performances/pieces. Often what is required is a CD or a MD of pieces for the technician to run during the show, but sometimes it also involves live performances (which is a lot more fun of course).
What does your full setup consist of?
My setup for performances is a homebuild dual-processor computer-in-a-case together with a flatscreen, an audiointerface and a midi faderbox (a doepfer regelwerk). Do you want to gory details of the computer?
yes please, also what desks, monitoring etc, you're using as well.
computer: dual athlon mp (modded xp's actually) 2400+ 1GB ram. Just upgraded to a DVD burner . 2 HD's one for the system/applications one for the audio. Matrox G550 graphics card Hoontec/STA dsp 2000 audio card+ breakout box Doepfer regelwerk midi faderbox. 17" flatpanel monitor various lownoise fans The computer +audiocard+midicontroller+flatscreen is build in a custom rack case that can be closed and caried around. A bit like a "lunchbox" computer but bigger. (it just fits the maximum allowed size for carry-lugage, but it is too heavy for that) 2nd screen a 19" crt Monitors and desk etc: Spirit absolute Zero cheapo boombox D&R vision modular 8 bus mixing desk various outboard that I hardly ever use anymore (compressors/gates multi fx, even an ancient AKAI S900 sampler) Old ensoniq digital piano used as a midi keyboard. Core audio binaural mics for location recordings 2 vintage neuman's for studio recordings a couple of AKG C1000's and a small behringer desk to throw around and to use on locations where I don't mind things dropping on top of them. A saitek force-feedbak joystick for haptic feedback control during live performances
I understand you use Linux in a serious way. Are there particular tasks you find yourself using Linux for?
It is at the moment the only OS in the household, so I use it for everything, my wife uses it to write her letters and reports, my son uses the webbrowser etc. etc.
I meant more in the music way, but that question is now a bit redundant but maybe I can ask whether in the course of doing recording/manufacturing sound/finishing off, you miss any of the proprietary solutions?
I used to miss some plugins, the excellent Wave plugins for mastering and eq f.i. But during the last 2 years I think the linux stuff has caught up. Especially jamin for mastering is an excellent tool. As I mentioned earlier, there is no good notation package for linux at the moment. But I have to say that I was never happy with finale/sibilius/etc either. There is always something that is easier in the other package, and takes a lot of messy workarounds in whatever I am using right then. And if I switch to another app, I have the same problem with a different thing. It is one of the things where I feel the itch to start coding, but I know that I don't code well enough to do this. I think music notation is probably the most complex of things to get "right" in music software. F.i. I know of only one program (lime) that maintains a link between parts and the original score so that changing a part is reflected back to the score. Basically it sees a part as a different view of the score which is "the right thing" IMHO.
Ardour has set out to be not only a competitor for Pro Tools but to be superior to it. How well do you think they're progressing towards that aim?
That is a little hard for me to say. I switched from mac to linux around ProTools 4, and I haven't had the change to work with the new v5 and v6 ProTools versions much. Compared to PT 4, I think they are progressing very well. Ardour is superior is some areas by design (the routing f.i.) and equal in most other areas.
One of the things that everyone loves is JACK. How well do you think it compares with Direct Connect?
It is far superior. Direct Connect is just a way to get audio from another app into PT, jack allows any kind of routing, and the way ardour uses it, makes it possible to send audio from anywhere in the session to anywhere else. Jack is _the_ thing that sets ardour apart from the competetion.
Do you think Linux audio is missing anything?
A good notation/composition editor. There is lilypond, but that is a typesetting system and not a notation program in the sense the finale/sibelius/etc are (not that I was completely happy with them when I used them) The editor in Rosegarden is pretty nice, but not suited to serious scoring. Noteedit is also too limited for that. But developments can go quickly, so who knows what will be released next month?
Do you have a regular way of working, using much the same apps? For example, with the electro-accoustic things do you use something like PD or csound?
I use pretty much the same setup for my performances for the last 2 - 3 years. It is a combination of pd patches and csound. It _is_ continiously evolving and changing of course. Both are programming environments in some form or another and this ability to adopt them to my needs is what make them great tools/instruments. And every once in a while I will rip a patch apart and redo it just because I think I can redo it better/more cleanly.
For commissioned work, I use whatever seems most appropiate. F.i. I did a bunch of childrens songs using rosegarden with fluidsynth and soundfonts as a MIDI base. I compose a lot on notepaper using regular music notation. So score editing is also the easiest way for me to enter and compose music on the computer that is more "traditional". What I like is that a lot of the free soundfonts available on the web, are just amateurs recording their own bassoon/tuba/banjo/whatever and each font will probably be a bit out of tune or has irregular intonation. If you combine them just right, it can give a nice Harry Partch does bluegrass feeling. Of course if the budget is there, real musicians are the best if you want real instruments.
All the editing is done in ardour, mastering using jamin. Rezound is my favorite sound editor, but I keep snd around for strange jobs that only snd can do. Hydrogen is a very nice drum machine, but I use it mainly to prototype patterns. When I get the basic pattern, I copy it into rosegarden and then make small changes for each repetition so that it evolves naturally with the song/composition. Synthesis I almost always do in csound or in pd, but that is an aquired taste.
From outside the Netherlands we get the impression that people are quite open-minded about new forms in many disciplines, including music. Is that a correct impression or do we just hear about Amsterdam trendies?
Is there any government help, grants etc, directed at new music?
That is not an easy question! I don't think people are any more or any less open-minded than anywhere else. Sometimes it seems that people in Japan are more open-minded than in Europe, but that is probably geographic distortion. I also hear good things about Texas.... The strangest thing I always found is that there is always about the same number of audience regardless of the size of the town. So if you play some village in Slovekia, you get 20-100 people and if you play in Amsterdam it is the same number or less. Often the small places are the nicest to play, because they are run by real enthusiasts that convince their entire village that this music is the most important thing that is going to happen this month and they have to come. And then people like it.
About the funding here:
There is some funding directed at new music, just as there is in most western european countries. The funding seems to be getting less in the last 5 years or so, and I think the total amount spent on music in the Netherlands is about the same (per capita) as in other countries around here. Most of it goes to maintaining symphony orchestras and opera is of course also a big recipiant.
What may be a little better for new music in the Netherlands is that it is relatively easy to get funding for small projects, and New Music is pretty much always a small project. (relatively easy means that you have to go through the burocracy of filling in forms and being evaluated by a commitee and then you may get some part of the money you asked for, six to twelve months after you started the application.)
I think other countries may have a policy of funding a couple of big institutions rather than a lot of small initiatives. Which has the upside that if you get "inside" you really can do something and the obvious downside, that it is harder to get in.
Of course I only know the succes stories that happen elsewhere, the funded institutions, the big festivals that I hear of etc. F.i. the paris IRCAM has more money and facilities than anything in the Netherlands. The grass is always greener....
Thanks a lot Gerard.
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