4Front Technologies is a commercial supplier of Linux/Unix
sound drivers to companies and individuals. The driver set is quite easy
to instal on Linux and enables features such as full-duplex use of your
soundcard (which you won't get with the OSSfree drivers).
Dev Mazumdar is a co-founder of 4Front and here he talks to us about pro
sound card support, what's doing at 4Front and XMMS, and has a few words to
say about ALSA.
First a little bit of history which I was trying to figure out. Is it
right that 4Front was founded by the original author of the OSSfree
sound drivers? Does he have an active part in 4Front?
Yes, 4Front was founded by Hannu (the author of OSS/Free - the GPL'ed kernel drivers)
and myself back in 1995. He's responsible for the development of drivers. We are only 3
developers at 4Front - Hannu, Peter Alm (the XMMS/X11amp developer) and myself.
Olle Hallnas and Thomas Nilsson (the other guys in the XMMS team) work part time for
4Front and are responsible for tech support and graphics work for XMMS.
One of the questions I get asked a lot is whether support for some
of the higher end specialised sound cards (eg. Gina, Darla, etc) will be
coming along any time soon.
We tried to partner with Event Electronics for Gina/Darla but they have decided
not to support Linux so it's unlikely you'll ever see a driver for these cards
from 4Front but perhaps some other company or perhaps Event themselves will do
a Linux driver in the future.
Do you have any plans for drivers for cards such as these? Do you support
We currently have support for high end sound cards like RME Digi32 and Sonorus
We have development agreements with Digital Audio Labs (CardD), Digigram,
GadgetLabs, Opcode and Digidesign. Drivers for these cards are forthcoming.
For most of last year and this year we've been in a vicious cycle - as soon
as we're done developing the drivers for the latest whiz-bang consumer level sound
card, out comes another one and then we get the usual gazillion requests from people
asking us to support this new card. So we have to drop whatever work we started on
the PRO cards and concentrate on the consumer cards. The other reason is that there's
always some company asking for OSS support for a new operating system or a new CPU
and we get sidetracked because the money is usually a driving factor (hey we all
gotta eat, don't we?). Delays like these have caused us to put the high end drivers
on the back burner.
Since we are only two driver developers, we cannot seem to find enough hours in a day.
We hope that towards the end of this year we'll be back on track writing PRO stuff.
Do you have any special plans for XMMS (ex X11amp)? Interesting developments?
Lot's of stuff coming soon - Mpeg Video(already done), Qsound 3D (already done),
plus VQF (under negotiations). We are also going to add support for AVI/Indeo video,
Video4Linux and hopefully QuickTime. Some of these are going to be binary plugins
since these codecs are not ours and we've had to license them. There's plans to
even add Recording capabilities into XMMS. Peter is also going to be working on
the vis plugin for XMMS. Vis plugins will allow you to visualize the music as
bouncing balls or some 3D image morphing to the sounds.
A lot of people are wondering what 4front has planned in responce to the
looming threat of the ALSA driver set. I imagine you'll be planning to
show added value in a number of areas. Could you tell us about them?
We're seeing more and more people interested in OSS - SuSE and Pacific Hitec are
shipping the commercial OSS drivers. We've got many resellers and system
integrators reselling OSS to their customers. Our sales are very strong and so
is the piracy rate of OSS which basically means that we're doing a good job and
people like our service and products.
ALSA and OSS address different user bases. ALSA is still only for experienced
Linux users much like the OSS/Free drivers and OSS is for more newbie, corporate
(who need support and a company to stand behind the product) and customers on
I see the "threat" a bit differently - ALSA is a threat to OSS as much as GNOME is
a threat to KDE. I see ALSA being a threat to OSS as much as SuSE being a threat to
RedHat. ALSA and OSS APIs will co-exist just like ext2 and MSDOS or NFS and Samba
or Wine and Dosemu or KDE and GNOME coexist.
In some respects, ALSA does have some interesting ideas in the field of MIDI but
for digital audio, they have essentially taken the OSS API and made a few
changes/improvements - this doesn't buy you very much in terms of digital audio apps.
ALSA doesn't have software mixing or a software wavetable synth, OSS does.
This is innovation - to use Microsoft's words :)
We will be enhancing our MIDI architecture in OSS v4.0 in 2000/2001. So I will
give ALSA due credit for coming up with a better MIDI architecture.
The bottom line is that OSS is our baby and of course we're eager to see it
grow because OSS has laid the foundation for audio in Linux/UNIX. We see
ourselves as pioneers in the field of UNIX/Linux audio and sure there will be
others who come along and make refinements and improvements but that's part
of life. As I've said in my Linux Journal interview, we don't see ALSA (or
the OSS/Free) drivers as competition but as a challenge to keep OSS fresh and on
the cutting edge. But I will tell you this, we are 100% driven by developer
demands, if developers tell us that OSS no longer serves their needs, we'll make
necessary changes to keep them happy. We have purposely frozen the OSS API because
we want to first get the apps developed - right now the requirements are being met -
in future when more sophisticated audio apps come to Linux, we'll make improvements
and enhancements to the current OSS API.
However, one thing I would very much like to address is the FUD and misinformation
being spread about OSS by ALSA - if you look at their comparision table, it's full
of misinformation and factual errors. If you look at asound.h - they always refer
to OSS as "Obsolete" - except the irony is that 99.99% of the apps are OSS and ALSA
support has to be bolted on. We have remained silent about this because it's
unprofessional to dis other people's hard work.
Another aspect is that with the growing popularity of Linux, sound card
manufacturers are thinking more of supplying their own drivers. Is this
a plus for you in that your company is a place where they can go if they're
"out-sourcing" the work?
So far we have not earned a dime from the soundcard vendors. Every single
penny we earn is from selling OSS, providing tech support and keeping customers
happy. I don't see this changing soon. But sure, if companies come to us for
development services, we'll absolutely entertain such contracts.
Is it possible that 4front drivers could be part of an ALSA set?
As for 4Front supporting ALSA - due to GPL'ing of the ALSA API (the asound.h file)
we can never put our drivers into ALSA as binary only because this would be a clear
violation of GPL. Neither will we support ALSA as an API in our OSS drivers because
that would again be a GPL violation. Basically, in order to support ALSA, we'd have
to link in asound.h into the driver and as soon as you do that, you cannot
have a binary only product. As we have signed non-disclosure-agreements with various
hardware vendors, we don't want to take that chance of having to divulge their
proprietary information and end up in court. So we have to be very careful and
pragmatic about ALSA support.
The OSS API (soundcard.h) is currently released under a more liberal MIT/XFree86
like license. Only the driver code in OSS/Free is GPL'ed so there's no violation.
This allows sound card companies to write binary-only drivers without fear of
having to divulge their proprietary info - like what Creative has done with SB Live!
drivers. Creative has simply used soundcard.h in their drivers and hence they are
not in violation of GPL. We are big supporters of GPL and we never want to violate
it. We have contributed code back to OSS/Free for a number of drivers so it's not
like we haven't made our contributions to the free software movement.
4front does drivers for a lot of unix platforms. Are you aware of any
big sound/music projects that might interest our visitors?
XMMS is of course the biggest and most interesting project we're involved with. We
are going to make this the killer app that draws Mac/Windows users to Linux and Unix.
A design philosophy at 4front is that everything we ever do has to be 100% cross
platform or it's just not worth pursuing. XMMS is GPL'ed so any of your visitors
are most welcome to make contributions and suggest improvements.
Some of the more interesting work we do is with defence companies, Dept of Defence,
NASA but it's those "If I told you, I'd have to kill you" deals - very
wink-wink-nudge-nudge, hush-hush stuff :)
In terms of other projects, we're keeping an eye on koobase (KDE's answer to Cubase)
and IBM's ViaVoice (voice recognition package) and of course we're always interested
in the gaming community so we're actively working with Zoid of Id Software and Sam
of Loki Software. We've been also working with the KDE folks to enhance the KDE
BTW, we've also begun to sponsor Dave Phillip's website: Audio and MIDI apps for Linux
so if any of your readers has an interesting audio app (on any platform/any API)
they should get listed on this website: http://sound.condorow.net/
Read Jaroslav Kysela talking about ALSA
Read Nick Copeland on SLab 3.0 and beyond
Linux Sound Apps Page