Hip hop artists might not be the most obvious target for Linux evangelists, but a little-known distribution called Transmission is making waves. It's what powers Indamixx, a pro audio production system that runs on a customised Samsung handheld computer created by Trinity Audio Group. Developed by 64 Studio Ltd. on a mixed Debian/Ubuntu base, Transmission and its bundled applications are a quintessential open source story.
With five business partners who rarely all meet in person, 64 Studio isn't exactly your typical company. Daniel James leads the outfit; he has extensive experience in the Linux audio scene, and works full-time on the project with Free Ekanayaka, a Debian multimedia developer. Tim Hall works part-time, with a Python book and folk circuit performances as side projects; Quentin Harley, a sound engineer from South Africa, offers consultancy and support services in African markets; and Daniel's wife Martha works on the accounts and strategic planning.
64 Studio's first hardware project was the Lionstracs Mediastation. James saw an early model at the Linux Audio Conference in Karlsruhe, Germany, and was subsequently contacted by Lionstracs' President Domenico Colturato about producing a native 64-bit distribution for the keyboard. The sell was simple -- supporting and maintaining a robust Linux distribution is hard work, so 64 Studio committed to these routine tasks as well as continued development, freeing Lionstracs up to focus on its hardware and core applications.
The Indamixx was born of similar cooperation. Trinity Audio Group announced the concept with a CAD drawing on Linuxdevices.com in 2006, drawing James' attention. He met Ronald Stewart from Trinity in Los Angeles later that year, and agreed to work on the Transmission distribution for the product based upon 64 Studio, which had taken about 18 months to get to a version 1.0 release for the AMD64 platform. As early as the spring of 2007 Trinity was demonstrating a prototype of the Indamixx running Transmission at the Linux Audio Conference in Berlin.
What's unusual about the Indamixx, James enthuses, "is that it is literally from the street." Hip hop and dance music producers from Los Angeles have been involved in shaping the product from the early stages; the device even contains beats contributed by those early participants, hinting at the scope for even more user-led development. According to James, there aren't any portable music workstations or recording devices with tools like a Web browser and SSH/SFTP built in, so sharing samples and even two-way live collaboration would be possible. Ronald Stewart of Trinity further suggests a great opportunity to tie it in with communities like ccMixter, an "awesome" (in Stewart's words) Web site where musicians can share samples and other resources.
For Stewart and the Trinity Audio Group, the relationship has been "wonderful." 64 Studio has "delivered what they promise in a very professional way." He is so enthusiastic that he wants to work with only 64 Studio in the future, a credit both to James and his colleagues, and to the Linux audio developer community that made 64 Studio possible.
James isn't shy about crediting much of the hard work in creating a pro-audio Linux distribution for the 64-bit platforms to the Linux audio development community. 64 Studio's main contribution was to bring the software to new platforms, including AMD64/Intel 64 and Intel's Ultra Mobile PC platform. But digital studio applications like Ardour and Hydrogen aren't exactly designed for six-inch screens like that of the Indamixx. James says the problems include "interfaces with multiple cascading windows and lots of tiny controls," but even icons suffer when you fit at 1024x600 display at a high native resolution (about 170 pixels per inch) onto the six-inch screen. When you try to tap away with an imprecise stylus, you quickly realise how large user interface elements should be if they're going to be usable with this kind of interface.
It's not surprising, then, that 64 Studio has changed the user interface more times than any other part of Transmission. Because the distribution is focused on desktop and laptop systems, the developers had to build Transmission's interface from the ground up over 18 months. They eventually settled on Ubuntu's ume-launcher for version 2.0; according to James it took a bit of bug-fixing to make it usable. A radically simplified version of GNOME, ume-launcher features the large icons and minimal user interface clutter that the small Indamixx screen demands. Adapting ume-launcher was far less work, with a much nicer result, than the developers' original plan of hacking together a solution with Fluxbox and iDesk.
The lesson for open source developers is straightforward: simple application interfaces with fewer bells and knobs are easier to adapt. The open source nature of this software makes 64 Studio's work possible, opening up pro audio tools to platforms and audiences that would normally go straight for proprietary offerings on chunkier laptops. The development process of Transmission and the Indamixx -- taking in several different companies and a large community of developers and musicians -- demonstrates the power of this open, participatory approach. The proof may be in the Indamixx device in the DJ's booth at your local club Saturday night.