interview: Chris Cannam from Rosegarden.

We last talked to the Rosegarden team a few years back. What might have changed in the interim? How have Linux audio apps progressed? Has Rosegarden itself changed markedly?... Here we talk to Chris Cannam about those things and more.

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Rosegarden has developed into quite a powerful music app. What are its main features these days?

Rosegarden does MIDI recording, editing, and sequencing; audio recording and sequencing but not editing; and music notation editing based on MIDI notes. It also supports plugins for MIDI synthesis and audio effects. The feature set is close to the sort of thing that users of similar applications on other platforms might expect.

If someone was considering shifting from Windows or Mac OS X, what similar apps would you point to to help them understand the concepts involved?

Rosegarden is practically identical in concept to Cubase, Cakewalk/Sonar and Logic, all track-based MIDI and audio sequencers. The most obvious difference is that Rosegarden is free and legally modifiable and redistributable under the GNU license. We focus a bit more on classical notation and a bit less on audio than these programs, but the design is deliberately conservative in the sense that we aim to provide many of the "standard" facilities that people moving to Linux expect to find.

Do you have a feel for what users are doing with Rosegarden? Is there any particular style of music in ascendance?

We hear quite a bit of music that involves Rosegarden; if you want to get into categories, perhaps atmospheric new-age or soundtrack music, jazz and improvisational recordings, arrangements of traditional music, and also church music seem to figure quite highly. An advantage of the way Linux audio applications tend to work together is that it's easy to use Rosegarden with other programs, such as synchronised with the Hydrogen drum machine or Ardour multitrack audio recorder -- for more complex music, pop or rock songs, a setup like this seems to be more usual than Rosegarden on its own.

The last time I used Rosegarden was a year or two ago on Suse 6 (I think) and I had a lot of trouble getting any sound of it at all. Have those issues been fixed up?

This blindingly obvious area is still disappointingly contentious. Rosegarden itself doesn't actually make any noise straight out of the box; to play sounds from MIDI notes you need a synth, for which you can either load a plugin (Rosegarden's DSSI plugins are similar to VST instruments) or run a separate synth program.

The reason we don't include a starter General MIDI synth as standard (as happens on other platforms) is very simple: we don't know of any small and trustworthy one that we're sure we could legally distribute.

In theory at least a lot of those issues should have disappeared with the advent of ALSA. Do you think that's the case now or not?

Standardising on ALSA has made it easier to get MIDI working, certainly. We also use the JACK audio server for audio input and output and there can be issues associated with that on various Linux distributions. Worse, though, most Linux distributions have no way to get reliable high-resolution timing to ALSA MIDI sequencer kernel queues -- a technical quirk that means that it's often still necessary to use a dedicated kernel for Rosegarden to run with really solid timing.

I guess the best way to get going is actually get a whole music collection like from CCRMA or similar. What do you think of that approach and which do you think is best right now?

I have an interest here, because I work on a dedicated music distribution called Studio to Go! (Link), which is just the sort of thing you're talking about -- a Linux distribution tuned for audio, with a collection of music and audio software included. It runs straight from the CD as a "live CD", though most users install it to hard disk. The reason we make it is that we got too depressed about the difficulty of packaging Rosegarden so that it would run well on other Linux distributions, so we decided to make the distribution we thought we needed, the music desktop that we wanted to use.

Studio to Go! is a commercial distribution, but there are free alternatives. Planet CCRMA is a set of audio and music software that can be installed on a Fedora system, from Stanford University -- it's very good for certain pieces of software, but their package of Rosegarden is two years old. 64 Studio is a good general base for audio and music and Musix is fairly similar in concept to Studio to Go but with a different look and feel and with Spanish as its primary language. We think Studio to Go! is friendlier than any of the free alternatives, particularly if you want to use Rosegarden, but we have a downloadable demo so you can easily find out for yourself.

Are you happy generally with the way that Linux is progressing in music? ... its adoption and such?

My own observation is that with the exception of people like Deprogram, musicians that come from a music background as opposed to a computer background mostly use Macs for all kinds of reasons that are self-perpetuating. How do you see the future of Linux music with these sorts of people?

I'll take these questions together, because I think it's fair to say that OS/X has picked up some of the momentum that might otherwise have been behind Linux for music. The attraction of Linux has always been to developers, tinkerers, and anyone with a background in Unix systems, and OS/X manages to combine a lot of the same appeal with its obviously attractive user interface and user-centric design.

So there's always been a market, if you like that word, that's been keen to use something different from Windows and perhaps something a little more transparent or less corporate than Windows. And that market is happy with OS/X. That troubles me a little bit. The reason I publish software under the GPL is because I like the guarantees that the license gives me (as a user and third-party developer) that such software will be available, readable, redistributable, reusable and so on. And one reason I do so for Linux is that I like the fact that the same terms apply to most of the operating system. Even if I pay money for a Linux distribution -- and I have, repeatedly --, once I've bought it, it's mine. That isn't the case with OS/X. Publishing GPL software for OS/X gives me no warmer a feeling than publishing it for Windows. The operating system is equally closed to me, and Apple seems no better than Microsoft in terms of support for open data formats and other such things that make me, as a technically-minded user, like a software company. If Linux has a future for current users of OS/X music software -- and I'm not sure that it does, or that it necessarily should, or that it needs to -- then I think it will be for that reason, not because of any particular technical advantage.

Do you think that the invention of something new, a killer app, in the way that Ableton was, might completely alter the take-up?

Yes, probably. But it might equally not be widely recognised as a killer app if it wasn't available on the more widely used platforms. With music software, only when you've really used it do you decide you couldn't live without it -- there are very few bits of music software that can be clearly identified as essential simply on the basis of hearsay or a description of what they do.

Frankly, there's a reason that Ableton Live and similar software are targeted at platforms that are already more widely used, and it's not just because their developers like to program for them. People who know they have an application that might sell well are usually inclined to offer it for the platforms on which it will sell best. That's only common sense.

More brightly, though, it's easier than ever to produce cross-platform software that will work on Linux as well as Windows and Mac. To a developer, OS/X is much more like Linux than either of them is like Windows. If you write a cross-platform application that works for both Windows and Mac, it's likely to be relatively easy to make it work on Linux as well, and on a well-tuned Linux system -- which of course is not always easy to find -- it may even work better.

What's the future for Rosegarden?

Nothing revolutionary. We lack a few important features -- mixer automation is the biggest -- so they should be coming up soon. We have some ideas for significant improvements to the handling and arrangement of proper musical scores. But the basis of the program is done.

Thanks Chris.

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