[LWN Logo]
[Book reviews]

[Book cover]

The Book of Linux Music & Sound

Dave Phillips
Linux Journal Press/No Starch Press, 2000
Reviewed September 25, 2000

The Linux sound system can be a scary place to go even for experienced Linux users. The hardware and software are complex, incompatibilities abound, lots of independent pieces need to be tied together, and the documentation is often, well, substandard. This is unfortunate - Linux should be a sound enthusiast's dream. If only it were a little easier to get started, we would likely see a lot more being done with multimedia on Linux.

Thus I expect I'm not the only one who has been waiting anxiously for the release of The Book of Linux Music & Sound. Could it be that the world of Linux sound has gotten easier and clearer? The answer is "yes," but this book is not the full solution. It is, however, a major step in that direction.

Dave Phillips, the book's author, is the creator and maintainer of the extensive Linux Sound and MIDI site. A look at the site will give a good indication of what is to be found in the book. The Book of Linux Music & Sound is, first and foremost, a comprehensive catalog of the audio-oriented software that is available for Linux. Mr. Phillips has reviewed an incredible number of packages, described them with screen shots, and added examples that show the capabilities of each. I also appreciate that the license information is included prominently with each review (even if one package is described as "open source shareware").

If you are at all interested in audio software, you will react to this book in about the same way that a child reacts to a toy catalog. It is amazing how much sophisticated free audio software is available. Whether you're looking for a mixer, audio editor, MOD tracker, MIDI sequencer, MP3 encoder, multitrack recorder, synthesizer system, music typesetter, streaming audio broadcast system, or digital DJ setup, this book will show you several possibilities and give you the information to help you choose the right one. And it even comes with a CD with most of that software on it, so little stands between you and a great deal of lost time playing in the toy shop.

Where the book falls down a little is with the more introductory topics. If you don't understand how a sound card is structured and works, you'll likely remain in the dark afterwards. Everybody who plays with sound probably needs a mixer, but the book satisfies itself with a quick look at aumix. The much nicer mixers provided with GNOME and KDE both are not covered, and questions like "what does that 'rec' button below the sliders do?" remain unanswered.

Similarly, audio recording is passed over quickly. Copying ("ripping") of CDs gets a quick treatment, but the process of writing CDs is not covered at all. Neither are CD players, for that matter. We get a nice overview of the MiXViews phase vocoder without ever learning what a "phase vocoder" is. The example "centroid graph" from CERES is also never explained. In general, the book assumes that you know what you want to do, and that you are most interested in picking out the right tools.

The book shows a few signs of a long production process - the author refers to his 2.0.36 kernel in a few places, for example. He also suggests that the ALSA drivers could go into the 2.4 kernel, which hasn't really been in the cards for a long time. In general, though, there are few anachronisms to be found here. Software on the CD generally dates from May and June of 2000.

So this book is not all things to all people, and Linux still has a need for a "beginning Linux sound" manual. But The Book of Linux Music & Sound solves a big part of the problem, and brings order and visibility to the wide range of Linux audio software. It is a welcome addition to my bookshelf.