While Linux might not be ready to run your entire studio just yet, it could provide an ideal solution for a cheap additional computer to handle your everyday computing tasks, keeping the music computer safely isolated.
In January's Cutting Edge, in a fit of wild speculation, I wrote about the possibility of Apple porting their OS X operating system to an Intel-based platform. Concluding that this was a possibility, albeit a remote one, I mentioned a new product that does actually run a derivative of Unix on Intel-based PCs and presents a similar friendly user experience. The product was called Lindows, and this name tells you exactly what it is: an attempt to make Linux look just like the user interface that the vast majority of us use outside the refined creative circles where the Mac rules the roost.
Two things have happened since my original column. First, SOS ran an article in February 2003 about running music applications on Linux; and secondly, I now have a Lindows machine up and running. So I thought this was the ideal time to take a closer look at how a Lindows-based machine could be used in the studio.
Now, it's important to bear in mind that, apart from the applications mentioned in the SOS article, such as Rosegarden, Lindows isn't a great platform to build your studio around — none of the big software manufacturers support it and aren't likely to in the short term. But Linux is relevant because if you use your studio computer for all your computing activities, including web-browsing, email, word processing and perhaps the odd spreadsheet, Lindows is an opportunity for you to liberate your studio workhorse computer from these mundane tasks, and transfer them to an incredibly cheap second computer that will probably cost you in its entirety, including software, less than a legal copy of Microsoft Office.
There are many benefits to this migration: not only will your studio computer be leaner and meaner, it will be safer as well, since it won't have to be connected directly to the Internet, and it won't, therefore, be vulnerable to virus attacks, spyware (unwanted, intrusive advertising that is triggered by monitoring software installed furtively on your machine, often with dire consequences for the performance of your computer), or the cumulative effects of too many downloads.
These days, of course, you might quite reasonably want to connect your music computer to the Internet, especially when most software vendors expect you to upgrade or maintain your software applications via their servers. But with a second computer running a derivative of Linux, you have the perfect platform for a proxy server, which not only performs Network Address Translation so you can share your Internet connection among all the computers in your house, but also enables you to run a firewall as well, trapping anything that might otherwise have trashed the computer at the centre of your studio operations.
To see if all this would be feasible, I decided to install and use Lindows on a three-year-old 500MHz Pentium III, a machine that I'd been considering pensioning off. If everything worked, this would be the ideal system to offload some of my administrative work to — a functional machine for practically zero cost.
I have to confess that my hopes weren't that high: I had installed Linux before, which in itself took ages, and never got it to work correctly in the right graphics mode — although I'm sure more dedicated experimenters would have got it working. So with a dull sensation that could almost be described as dread, I started the installation, and I have to say that I've never been so surprised in my life!
Without any preparation or any special configuration, Lindows installed itself, automatically detected my graphics card, network card, cable modem, mouse and CD-ROM. In less than 10 minutes, and without any intervention from me whatsoever, Lindows booted into an attractive desktop that worked, at least superficially, in exactly the same way as Windows. It not only detected my Internet settings, but took me straight to the Lindows web page and invited me to register, although this was just the beginning — what happened next is something Windows users can only dream about.
Lindows took me to a page where I was presented with hundreds of software packages grouped into categories like Business and Multimedia, all available for download, and all free, except for a small annual fee payable to Lindows. Pointedly looking a gift horse in the mouth, I selected 12 packages, including Star Office (a package broadly equivalent to Microsoft Office). While this on its own is a big download, it enables you to work work interchangeably with Microsoft Office files including Word, Excel and Powerpoint.
Windows users are used to being told to 'close all other applications while installation takes place', but with Lindows (and, it must be said, most implementations of Unix or Linux) you can download and install software in the background while you work on something else. In fact, as each of the 12 packages arrived, I made a point of loading them and trying them out, while the remaining applications continued to download and install.
I experimented with the resources needed for Lindows because it's important to know whether that 286 you've had in the loft for 12 years is up to the job, and the answer is of course that it isn't. I found that the minimum spec system that I could live with was a 450MHz Pentium II with 128MB of memory. I tried with 64MB installed, but this simply wasn't enough, causing the system to slow down by a factor of about 20 when there was insufficient memory.
Lindows is a version of the Debian distribution of Linux, which is itself a derivative of Unix. As an operating system, Unix is terse, unfriendly and possibly the most powerful tool ever invented on the planet — in fact, it's doubtful whether the Internet would exist in anything like its current form without Unix.
Unix is a serious tool that doesn't suffer fools gladly, and this is an issue that Lindows addresses very well, until the user wants to do anything other than just use their software applications. You can't meddle with Linux unless you really, really know what you're doing, and the users that Lindows is targeted at probably won't. But that's all right, actually, so long as you use your Lindows machine like an appliance — think of it as the word-processing equivalent of a toaster or a microwave oven.
However, with these cautions, and based on only a few hours of use, if you have an old computer that still boots up, I can recommend trying it with Lindows — actually, it's worth trying even if you have a new computer! For a limited but useful number of tasks, it works as well as, if not better than, Windows, and it will get all those Internet and office applications off your music computer.
I spend a lot of time in hotels, and the fact that I work for at least 10 days of each month in the United Arab Emirates at Media City (a massive community of television companies, post-production facilities and, more recently, recording studios), means that I spend nearly half of my time away from home. So unfortunately I don't get much time to play with my toys when I occasionally do stay at my own house, but at least I now have an answer.
In my hotel room (where I'm writing this, on the 13th floor, overlooking the Gulf of Dubai — just to make you jelaous!) I have a keyboard, a couple of samplers, a digital mixing desk, a collection of exotic synthesizers, loads of outboard effects, and a pretty decent sequencer. You might imagine that carrying all this gear around would, at the very least, lead to some expensive air fares — but it doesn't. And, of course, that's because everything runs as software on my laptop.
While the laptop studio isn't big news for anyone who's been on this planet any time in the last two years or so, I think many people (myself included) have only just starting to appreciate some of the practical advantages of software studio technology in this way. Apart from the laptop, what's made it all possible for me is the availability of USB (music) keyboards. Without even needing an external power supply, I plug my keyboard into a spare USB port, and can immediately start playing my virtual instruments.
Well, actually that's not completely true, because it's not uncommon for the audio chipsets on laptops to have latency that you need a calendar in order to measure, which isn't what you want as you're playing your three-Gigabyte Bösendorfer! In fact, the first time I ever tried playing a virtual synth on a laptop, I was looking around the back of the keyboard for a loose connection before the first notes came out my speakers!
A bit of fine-tuning with latency settings and drivers can bring the latency down to something you can just about live with, but would rather not have to. And unfortunately, I don't know of any ASIO drivers for laptop audio chipsets, but there are at least USB audio devices that do have ASIO support. The one I'm using at the moment is the Edirol UA20, which seems to work well enough and has the added advantage that you get much better audio than you ever would from the headphone socket on a laptop.
I have both a big and a small laptop, and while I normally use the big one for video editing applications and music, it's too heavy to travel with comfortably. The small one is a Sony Vaio with a 10.4-inch screen that weighs almost nothing, and although it's not ideal for running Reason or any of the other big applications, it's fine if you don't push the performance too far — and you can always bounce tracks down to an audio file if things get too frantic. I take the whole lot (including the keyboard) in my hand baggage on the aircraft, and in theory, not to mention a degree of tolerance from my fellow passengers, there's no reason why I shouldn't use the whole setup during the flight!