August 12, 2005

Rachel App: Linux music geek

Author: Tina Gasperson

Rachel App is a renaissance woman whose interests are shared mostly by men and not other women. She's an independent label singer, songwriter, musician, and Linux geek who uses a variety of open source applications to record and enhance her music.App has been using computers since she was eight years old, but her journey to software freedom began in 1998 when a friend introduced her to open source. The philosophy fit well with her "bare bones indie punk wonder woman" lifestyle, and by November 2003 she'd switched to Linux for good. This month App will share some of her Linux music mixing wisdom with a crowd of free software fans at the FAVE conference in Bristol, UK.

When she was a young girl, her mother bought her an Amstrad CPC6128, and App proceeded to learn Basic and "horrible assembly language." At about the same time, she was taking lessons in classical music and theory on the recorder and later, the piano. Throughout her teens, music and technology went hand in hand, and by 1992 App was running Windows 3.1 with a Roland keyboard, SoundBlaster audio, and Cakewalk's sequencer. "Then I went to university and got exposed to Unix," she says, "which we were using for some specialist applications developed by our teachers. I learned Fortran and C++, but I don't consider myself a programmer."

App eventually bought her own computer and starting making music in earnest. She's written more than 100 songs and recorded three CDs since 2002. At first, she used her Windows computer and freeware utilities ("whatever came with Computer Music magazine") to record the final mixes. She upgraded to more advanced software, and it worked fine for about year, when practicality suddenly invaded her technological comfort zone. "In October 2003, I bought a barebones system and was planning on using Windows 98, as installed on my older computer. Even though it worked, I realized that no new applications were being released for Windows 98, so my OS had kinda become obsolete. Upgrading to Windows XP meant buying a full copy of it and pretty much changing the OS in a way. So I decided to try out Linux. The concept of open source software made a lot of sense to me: programmers working together instead of working against each other."

App wasn't sure whether she'd like Linux, so she kept a Windows 98 partition. By November, she was sold on open source, so the friend who'd introduced her to Linux helped her install from a Knoppix CD and then upgrade to Debian unstable. "I decided to go with unstable, not testing, because music applications were quite new at the time and I thought many of them wouldn't be available as packages in Debian testing yet," App says. "My friend didn't install any of the music stuff, so I worked my way around ALSA on my own, using the Internet for info and help. After a few months, I got rid of Windows 98 altogether, as I came across applications that would do what I wanted on Linux."

App installed Ardour and Hydrogen "straight away," and says the only issue was a lack of documentation for Ardour. Even now, however, she backs up her Ardour files frequently because "a few plugins in Ardour make it crash randomly -- I get a little paranoid about it." She tried to install MuSe but gave up. She uses Rosegarden occasionally, but "most of my music is guitar-based, so I mostly use Ardour as my multi-track recorder. I actually sold my multitrack recorder a year ago because I was using Ardour 100% and was happy with it. I started out using Hydrogen to generate drums, but don't use it much now because I have a drum machine." She uses Jamin for mastering, and Audacity for audio editing.

App's been asked to perform and teach at the upcoming FAVE conference on August 20 in Bristol. FAVE is a community event for people who are interested in using creative software on Linux and other open source platforms. There will be talks on Internet filmmaking, 2D and 3D graphics, and Creative Commons licensing, as well as App's workshop on music production. "It's gonna be very practical, to learn how to use Ardour as a multitrack recorder. I figured I'd also show how to use Hydrogen, as drums are an issue for many bedroom musicians."

App says she's not sure what to expect from the audience at FAVE. "I'm going into this very open-minded and not really knowing what's going to happen." One thing she feels sure about is that the crowd will mostly be men, but App is used to being a gender minority whenever it comes to her fondness for Linux and music. "There are more women using technology than before, but it's still a male-dominated world. Women have recently been getting more involved in the world of DJing and sound engineering. So hopefully free software will follow."

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