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The sound of Linux. While the desktop is often associated with graphical environments, word processors, spreadsheets, and games, there is one area that is often overlooked completely: audio. The Linux operating system is rich with audio support, especially in the 2.4 kernel based distributions. But the state of audio is rather confusing.
Desktop users are looking for various things from their audio support, from playing simple sound files to streaming media support for things like radio, MP3, or Ogg Vorbis broadcasts. According to Dave Phillips, author of The Book Of Linux Music & Sound, Linux has done remarkably well in its support for these activities, especially when it comes to audio players.
"Anyone migrating from other platforms will be looking for familiar software, things like media players," says Phillips. "Any media player that doesn't support audio is sort of a half media player. No one ever says much about audio but everybody expects it to be there. It's like salt in a cake: you know if it's gone."
So where does audio come from for Linux? For most users with current distributions it comes from the kernel itself via the sound.o and soundcore.o kernel modules, plus a soundcard-specific module (users can run "lsmod" from a command line to see which modules are loaded, or "modprobe" to look for them and load them if they aren't already). These modules are sufficient for day to day desktop use for any of the available audio players, tools like XMMS or RealPlayer, and work with a majority of the available sound cards. Phillips adds, "You should be able to play 16 bit, stereo, CD quality sound files with no trouble, and that's the baseline audio for the desktop user."
But the kernel drivers currently available aren't really sufficient if Linux is to make it into professional level audio markets. The OSS Linux drivers provide commercial support for audio that is somewhat better. But the future of Linux audio comes from the open source ALSA project. ALSA supports the OSS/Lite (the free version of OSS) API with a fully modularized sound driver. However, with ALSA the typical user will end up with half a dozen or more kernel modules loaded, rather more than with the current scheme. The hope is that the ALSA drivers will replace the kernel drivers with the release of the 2.5 Linux kernel sometime in the near future. Alan Cox has been amiable to this option but only Linus can make the final decision to make the switch, and that decision has yet to be made official even though many kernel developers fully expect it to happen.
Phillips says that audio support has normally been pretty good for off the shelf Linux. "Kudos have to go to the major distributors. They did not ignore audio," he said with emphasis. Creative Labs and Hoontech have been very forthcoming (recently) with driver information. And laptop support has gotten better. "IBM is making special efforts to make sure their machines support sound right out of the box." Laptops and notebooks are often the toughest area of sound for the desktop user.
But, like the difficulties encountered by the XFree86 project in trying to get programming information for new 3D cards, the audio world on Linux has to deal with the lack of information coming from audio hardware vendors. "I've lost track of how much energy has gone into cajoling and arm twisting the manufacturers," notes Phillips, "that it is in their interest to provide that information."
And that is keeping Linux out of the professional audio arena. Phillips says, "We still don't have fully supported 3D audio or even hardware acceleration for audio. OpenAL is very promising with good cross platform support. But its success depends on its ability to compete with Direct3D. As far as I know we're still lagging there." Direct3D, however, is tied closely to Windows which gives OpenAL a chance if cross platform support is something the audio world really wants.
The professional world has many needs, including 3D Sound and Dolby Surround sound. Both are very important for a number of professional applications, though he admits the most obvious use would be in games. "But in the world of academic music making, the wider electro-acustical music community want these features badly," he says. Simulation environments would also benefit from this support. Say Phillips, "You have to have multi-channel support for this, in other words fore and back speakers. This is just beginning to see full support out of the drivers for the Creative SBLive card." Interestingly, there are three different drivers for this card: Creative's, ALSA's, and OSS's. And each offers different features even though the source is open for this card. The reason for such differences is not clear but probably has something to do with the fact that the API for the card is rather extensive. "Effects processing is just being introduced with ALSA while Creative's driver provided it from the beginning," says Phillips.
As far as applications go, for the desktop users wanting access to streaming media, Linux offers xmms which actually supports a variety of video formats such as MPEG and AVI along with the audio formats. Browser plugins with audio support include RealPlayer and RealVideo, Flash (which comes directly from Macromedia) and the Crossover plugin from CodeWeavers which now provides both Shockwave and Quicktime for Linux.
At the professional level the most sophisticated application at this point is probably ardour, by Paul Davis. "Ardour is a very ambitious project that is in very capable hands," says Phillips. "It is designed to be a fully professional, multitrack, multichannel, hard disk recording system." It's designed around the RME Hammerfall, a Hollywood post-production level card. RME provided the development specifications necessary to support this card by Ardour. Additionally, the application will work with just about any ALSA supported audio hardware.
Professional level audio support may become a more pressing issue as the visual effects industry in Hollywood begins to adapt more and more Linux solutions. Phillips thinks the problems can be solved, but they haven't been addressed yet. "Some people from the Maya group [Alias|Wavefront's sophisticated 3D modeller and renderer] noted that audio is still a problem for them, and I believe the reason is that OSS 3 as it stands doesn't offer the kind of audio support they need for professionals and ALSA isn't quite there yet. So we're in a bit of an uncertain state, but our direction is clear and there are some very capable hands working on it."
What audio lacks at this point is the killer app, the GIMP of audio. Phillips says that comment is made often. "Users coming from Windows often ask 'Where is the fucntional equivalent of CoolEdit 2000?', the most widely used sound editor on Windows. And we haven't really had an equivalent. There are maybe a dozen or so editors for Linux, all in various stages of development and many not very advanced." Some, he says, are nice, long lived programs such as DAP. But with that particular application you can only edit files in memory. That limits the size of the file you can edit to the amount of available RAM. Modern sound file editors are hard disk oriented, what Phillips called "non-destructive," and capable of handling much larger files. Snd, a sound file editor, is probably the most advanced along these lines but lacks a reasonable user interface. Phillips is working with the author of that program to address that issue. "Hopefully some of the advancements to snd will make it due for people looking for the audio GIMP." Or perhaps Ardour. It's just a matter of effort over time.
With so many editor projects we have to wonder if there are too many projects or simply not enough developers. Phillips says we have plenty of both. The real answer is more about time and commitment. "Someone like Paul Davis is so committed to doing Ardour. CoolEdit has been in consistent development since the late 1980's. Linux has only been around since about 1992," which means the low level audio is just now getting to where the applications have begun to be written. "It's easy to write basic audio applications for Linux. OSS's API is pretty easy to work with. But when it comes to writing professional applications, OSS isn't enough. ALSA is needed, but not finished yet. So if you're writing a program like Ardour you can't have your 1.0 release till the audio reaches 1.0." And that means application developers have to be committed to their work, and patient in waiting for the underlying support.
Phillips also says young programmers come along with the wrong ideas. "We don't need another MP3 player. We also don't need another sound file editor. Paul is dedicated to such a project and has been for some time. How many audio applications can you say that about? Not that many. Comparing the problem to the GIMP is useful - look how long it took for GIMP to become as good as it is." And in the process GIMP spawned things like GTK+. The same thing could happen with audio. With the right application, you'll have spinoffs. "But there just isn't anyone working on it yet", says Phillips.
KDE initiative aims for corporate desktops (ZDNet). ZDNet looks briefly at the KDE::Enterprise project which was announced yesterday. "KDE::Enterprise is an attempt to remedy one of the persistent limitations of Linux: its failure to achieve significant use as a desktop platform. This failure stands in stark contrast to Linux's success in back-end systems and particularly Web servers, where it controls up to a third of the market, according to some estimates."
KDE 2.2.1: Linux desktop approaches maturity (ZDNet). ZDNet reviews KDE 2.2 (and 2.2.1) and says it will ease migration from Microsoft platforms. "A comprehensive user management program, KUser, lets you create, modify, and delete user logins on multi-user Linux systems. KCron provides similar functionality for managing automated background tasks. And KDE System Guard, like Windows' Task Manager, lets you view current tasks and kill problem applications. And since KDE is merely running on top of the X Window System, you can perform remote administration of any KDE-enabled system by redirecting application output to another X server on the network."
Red Hat RPMs for KDE 2.2.1. There are now KDE 2.2.1 RPMs available for Red Hat 7.0 and 7.1.
An Analysis of KDE Memory Usage. A SuSE employee notified KDE Dot News of an analysis he has done on the memory usage of KDE. His results apparently show that about "650KB of memory wasted per KDE application not launched via KDE Init", something he has reported to the GCC/binutils teams.
Installation Guide For GNOME 1.4.1. GNOME Gnotices noted that a new installation guide covering GNOME 1.4.1 has been posted to the karubik.de site. This new guide joins the 1.2 guide prevously posted to this site.
New GTK 1.3.8 libraries Released. A new developers version of the GTK+ toolkit has been released. This version is dependent on the JPEG/PNG/TIFF libraries and pkg-config 0.8 and addresses mostly bug fix issues.
XFce 3.8.8. Olivier Fourdan has announced the release of XFce 3.8.8. This release includes improved sound support, better theme support and plenty of bug fixes.
Evolution 0.14. Ximian has announced another beta for Evolution. The announcement includes the list of updates since the 0.13 release.
AbiWord Weekly News. Two more issues of the AbiWord Weekly News have been published. Issue 58 notes that the release of 0.9.3 is not expected soon since there are still quite a few issues yet to be resolved.
Issue 59 adds information on the work being done on dictionary RPMs, the availability of Darwin/X builds and details on release engineering requirements for the project.
Linux browser wars (Canada Computes). This article on Canada Computes compares six web browsers for Linux. "It was a close call, but of the browsers tried, Galeon appears to be the best choice. Its not the fastest loading, it doesn't render pages quicker than the other browsers, nor does it look very nice. The fact is though, of the browsers tried, it offers what I feel is the best trade off between features and performance."
KDE Edutainment Project Takes Off. The KDE Edutainment team officially launched the KDE Edutainment project today, noting the project already has several applications available for educational purposes including a form based exam tool and touch typing applications.
gtkdial & gwvedit release. Modem configuration on Linux has always been a difficult proposition for the uninitiated. Part of the solution has been the evolution of wvdial, a system for setting up connections to multiple ISPs. A GTK based front end to this system, gtkdial, had a new release this week. Version 0.4.0 manages first time setup for users new to wvdial/gtkdial, and allows for secure and simple management of account data. Along with this application comes a new application - gwvedit - allows for direct editing of the wvdial configuration files.
Rune For Linux Review (evil3D). Games site evil3D reviews the recently released Rune for Linux, from Loki. "I tried Mandrake 8.0, but the game wouldn't even load there. Someone later discovered a symlink issue that caused this, and proposed a fix for it in Loki's Fenris bug tracking system.. However, they still couldn't save games. Personally, I had to go all the way back to Mandrake 7.2 in order to get the game to run correctly. Not good. But like I said, only one other person reported as to be having the same problem."
Sodipodi author interviewd. The author of Sodipodi, Lauris Kaplinski, was interviewed by Linux.com this week. "The good thing about using a published standard is that I do not have to spend time creating an imaging model. I just have to implement it. No extra headache keeping file format upwards/downwards compatible. Using SVG natively may give Sodipodi slight advantage in web development, as it will preserve 99.9% of hand-written structure."
Sodipodi is a vector graphics project which is listed as part of the GNOME office suite. It offers a number of SVG based clipart files from the web site.
And in other news...
Interview: Trolltech's President Eirik Eng. KDE Dot News is carrying an interview of Trolltech's President, Eirik Eng which includes both business and technical Q&A. "We don't generate income from KDE directly, but KDE has certainly been instrumental in our success. Through KDE, many of our current customers learned about us. Many engineers hack on KDE in the evening, and then go into work in the morning and typically work as a developer. If they like Qt, they ask their boss if they can buy it."
City of Largo uses Balsa as the e-mail program of choice. GNOME's Gnotices reports that the City of Largo, which reported its widescale use of Linux, is currently using the Balsa mail client. "I just looked, and there are about 50 people logged in right now and we are using about 200MB of memory for them. So in theory, we could run about 500 concurrently before it would swap. That is excellent."
Section Editor: Michael J. Hammel
September 27, 2001