LAC5, Berlin, Germany

The 5th Annual Linux Audio Conference was held very recently in Berlin. It's a gathering of programmers and users from many different countries - a place to catch up on what's new in terms of software and maybe even some new music as well ... report from John Littler

The four previous events have been in Karlsruhe, Germany, and reports of them made them sound like nice events to get to - technical papers and workshops to do with Linux audio and music during the day and music itself later on. People slept in gyms and at generous local's places and it all had a bit of a fun demo day feel to it.

This year it's being held in Berlin at the Technical University (TU) which has a large campus not far away from tourist spots such as Savignyplatz and Ku'dam. There are to be music events every evening and a full schedule of talks and workshops for three days.

One of the aims of being here is to find an overview - what is the state of Open Source software in this area? What does it mean beyond the availability of free software for cash-strapped musicians? Will it ever be something the technically challenged can use without driving their local guru completely nuts with endless phone calls and emails?

Having just spent a few days setting up some Linux systems I have a pretty good idea about the last question. Just setting up Linux is a breeze these days with just about any of the main distributions - SuSe and Ubuntu just for two. Getting it to be useful for making or recording music is another thing altogether... or could be, depending on what you have in mind. For example, if you just want to play with loops and you have a Suse system you can just get the package Loopdub (in alpha) and away you go. On that same system, if you wanted Ardour, the hard disk recorder, you might find that JACK won't start through Qjackctl and that starting it manually and then starting Ardour leads to exactly nothing and no error messages. Putting Strace to work didn't reveal anything further other than that an illegal instruction had occured. Some more work is required!

The first day sees a number of workshops and papers including Stephen Yi talking about Blue, a composition environment for Csound, live coding with Supercollider, musical signal scripting with Python, interfacing Pure Data with Faust, and such like. There's also a session by the Jacklab team about using openSuse for audio. This is the way forward for most users as you get an easy update of a standard distro to something that is more suited to purpose - in the way of special kernels that cut latency, and in the sorts of apps and scripts that are included. Figuring out how to make something work can be rewarding. It can also be frustrating and annoying, particularly if you don't have much time available. Jacklab has just started though but will be worth checking out once it's into beta.

I'm back on Saturday for the keynotes and panel discussion and various workshops. Paul Davis leads off the keynotes with the theme that 80% of the work takes 20% of the time - the problem being the last 20% can take something close to forever and we all know that commercial software frequently ships in this sort of unfinished state. He also gave a rundown on the overall situation with Linux audio, which has been one of significant and continual improvement, much the same as the project he started and now leads, Ardour.

After a couple of days of being around there are lots of familiar faces including people I've been acquainted with for years by email but have never met before. This is very pleasant and there are quite a few chats to be had between different sessions and pointers received and given. There are also new faces like the guys from Trinity Audio group all the way from L.A. with their prototype field recorder which is Linux-powered and which gets a fair bit of work done on it at the conference.

Saturday's sessions also included a talk on the software behind the extraordinary sound system permanently installed in the main hall of the event. I don't remember the exact numbers but there are something like 800 channels of speakers in a 360 degree array around the room. The software behind this is sWONDER and at least two of the conference organisers, Marije Baalman and Simon Schampijer work on this project. More about that in a future article I hope.

For quite a long time, the pickings in audio-video apps have been slim. There was Broadcast 2000 which mutated soundlessly into something else and then a gap to the likes of Kino and the relatively new Open Movie Editor, which was demoed in the afternoon. This last one looks like it has some promise. There was also more user level info from the Jacklab people and more developer level sessions including "visual protoyping of audio applications" and "model driven software development with SuperCollider and UML".

During the course of the day I got to have recorded chats with Fernando Lopez-Lezcano and Paul Davis. Fernando works at the CCRMA at Stanford University and takes care of the Planet CCRMA collection of music apps which is an add-on to the Fedora Linux distribution. This has been going for a while and so is relatively problem free and is a very good way to go for musicians to explore music-making on Linux. Doing what Fernando does is a lot of work and he does this in addition to looking after the computer resources at CCRMA and having a teaching load - unsung hero department I think.

Paul Davis can almost be considered one of the fathers of Linux audio and in addition to his own projects he has given useful advice to many developers over the years primarily through the medium of the Linux Audio Developers mailing list - and it was that list that started this series of yearly conferences. We have quite a long chat which should be available on the web in a couple of places hopefully.. (Here is one). One of the things we talk about is the tendency for Linux in general towards cloning existing ideas rather than coming up with groundbreaking new ones. Paul thinks this is mostly due to the fact that Linux has spent most of its existence in catch-up mode. A developer's itch has frequently started with the thought that it would be nice to have something like such-and-such on Linux - something like Pro Tools, Final Cut Pro, or Ableton Live. The future, as ever, will be interesting.

On Sunday there are more talks and then a laptop jam in the Lichthof, a nice multi-storey high covered open space that has a sort of Renaissance feel with its chequered black and white tiled floor, a classical statue, and curved archways and balconies. This space has been used as a meeting point where tea and coffee have been served and where music has been played throughout the conference, mostly by Hartmut Noack and friends.

And then forty or so of us go off for the wind-up dinner where more than one of us does some good work to ensure a sore head in the morning.

The wrap is that this is a very nice event which some people wouldn't miss if they could possibly help it. This year was the first outside of Karlsruhe and it was inevitable that a few people would pine for the good old days when it was smaller and more intimate. Most people were quite happy however. There was some suggestion that, in the future, there be developer and user tracks but most developers are users as well.

It was fun. Kudos to the organisers and participants. Next stop maybe, Chaos Computer Club summer camp, and it's looking a bit like LAC6 will be in Cologne.

And as for the answer to the last question posed at the beginning about usability, most of it is very usable. Having JACK as the main audio interface, however, means most of it is undiscoverable if JACK doesn't like your system. A probing script that linked with a small database of interface details might at least make some suggestions here. Is it possible? I'm not sure. Some nice person might want to write a manual entry for JACK as well - solutions are getting increasingly difficult to discover easily on Google. But this is being picky. There are a host of solid applications that cover everything from composition and sequencing to serious pro-level recording and with lots of interesting little things in between - and that is the Unix way - lots of small tools that can talk to each other rather than monolithic apps that talk to no-one. Not even God.

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