Doing Stuff You're Bad at is Good For You

pieterhpieterh wrote on 15 Apr 2013 18:32


One of the tricks I use to not burn out on a project is to work as hard on learning new things as I do on doing what I already know. Last December I bought a piano and started teaching myself to play. The results… well, my daughter likes them and that's good enough for me.

I'm using Linux for making the music. To be honest, it takes me about ten minutes to record a piece, and then an hour to figure out how to convert that to audio. While the audio tools you find on Linux are definitely super competent, they are… well… how can I put this nicely? They're a mess.

The crashing and freezing is one thing. Maybe when these pieces get connected over ZeroMQ that'll get better. But worse than that is the ocean of complexity you have to swim in just to get your feet wet.

I'd pay good money for a nice, simple MIDI-audio workbench on Linux, something like Apple's GarageBand. It's not that the functionality isn't welcome, it's that the learning curve is more painful than actually making the music. Sigh. This isn't idle talk. Video editing had the same problem on Linux, at least until a guy called Jonathan Thomas made OpenShot. The first version was slow, and now he's made a Kickstarter project to rewrite the engine. I sent him $250 as soon as I saw the announcement. The project is now at $36,000.

I'm trying really hard to be a fan of the "plug it all together" style of Linux music, but the tools seem inordinately hostile just because they throw so much in your face and you have to figure out what you need right now.

Here's what cost me an hour or two today: I wanted to try different instruments. I choose one in the synthesizer, after some time exploring the weird and non-obvious UI. Then whenever I start the track in the MIDI sequencer, the instrument gets reset to its default. I Google this. Someone says, install the synth as a plugin in the sequencer. I do this. No sound. I kill the app and restart it. Sound! Then it crashes. No sound. I restart it. No sound. I reboot the laptop. No sound. I remove the plugin, reinstall it, restart the sequencer. Still no expletive deleted sound. So I remove the plugin and then see an option in the sequencer to choose an instrument. Duh!

I'm still hoping to find a simple, robust way (Soundgarden, do you really have to crash randomly after I record a piece?) to grab a MIDI file, and play that as an MP3 with some instrument. One track, one instrument, no funny stuff.

What are the lessons? Simplicity always beats functionality, of course. How on earth can people learn to make music on Linux when they have to first learn a hundred weird concepts, and throw 97 of them away?

Secondly, Kickstarter is awesome. OpenShot is awesome because it's simple and works exactly as you expect. By the way, I pinged Jonathan to suggest using ZeroMQ for his distributed processing. Let's see what he says!

Thirdly, making music is fun, no matter what the hurdles. The first track, "Edinburgh", reminds me of the cold mountains of Scotland, and the drunken romanticism of the place that never quite finds a focus.

The second piece, "Prague" sounds like the soundtrack to a cheap 60's B movie starring a beautiful but lost cast stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Yes, writing protocol specs will do that to you.

Forgive the mistakes in the playing, these are just raw recordings taken in one go without any editing. I do like the instruments, however. Making music on Linux may be a pain but it beats hiring an string ensemble and a slap bassist.


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