Dick MacInnis is a “Dreamer” | Interview

Dick MacInnis is a rock musician and music composer that cares about the tools of creation. He is the creator and maintainer of the DreamStudio distribution that recently released its stable 12.04 version. On this interview, Dick MacInnis explains the uniqueness of his project, and talks about libre music creation. Enjoy!

Why did a musician decide to develop his own operating system? What was your problem with the available software, and even music production oriented GNU/Linux distributions?

I’ve been using software to record music since I got my first computer in 1995. It was a Windows 95 based Pentium 120mhz, and I was frustrated at the time that windows sound recorder could only record 30 seconds at a time. I tried different shareware programs that worked more or less terribly, and made a lot of demos on the 2 track reel to reel machine I had.

When I graduated high school in ’99, I bought a new computer to take to college. It was a Celeron 500mhz system with 64mb of ram. This became my main rig for the next 4 years, and one of the first things I did was install Linux on it, being quite interested in the idea of “Free” software, although it wasn’t at the time a whole lot more useful than windows. In fact, getting my dial up modem to work was a no go. I don’t usually tell people about this, but I actually paid for a copy of the infamous Caldera Linux. Downloading an ISO would have taken a week.

While I remained interested in Linux, I continued doing all my recording on Windows, but it was on XP with pirated copies of all the usual suspects: Cakewalk, Protools LE, Fruity Loops, and finally Cubase, which I used to make about three albums under the pseudonym “Risen Sun”. I was always uncomfortable with using pirated software, however, and started using GIMP for artwork, Star Office for documents, and as much freeware as possible for audio plugins.

Then I discovered DeMuDi. DeMuDi was pretty awesome, and I immediately started using it for all my multitracking, but I still used some proprietary plugins for mixing and mastering, so I switched between the two platforms quite a bit. The first album I did in Ardour was called “Ranchtown” for a country band I was in called “The $ellout$”. That was in 2003.

DeMuDi wasn’t maintained, though, and I switched to Ubuntu, and then Ubuntu Studio as they were released. At that time, the main reason I liked Ubuntu was my familiarity with Synaptic (the package manager for DeMuDi and Ubuntu).

Flash forward to 2009, when I had been using Ubuntu as my main system for a while, and had five computers in my house. They all used a customized version of Ubuntu Studio, and one was a PowerPC based iBook. After a couple of Ubuntu releases, I realized that if I could do a bit of metapackage/scripting magic, my systems would be much easier to maintain/install. Thus was the basis of Dream Studio. I figured while I was at it that I should systematically fix all the problems I saw with the existing Ubuntu of the time, namely:

  1. unmaintained packages (especially Ardour)
  2. an ugly default desktop (brown, or in the case of Ubuntu Studio, an entirely incoherent mixture of icons, wallpapers, and themes)
  3. branding. The Ubuntu community avoids using the word “Linux” or “GNU/Linux” in their products name, yet uses an equally strange word for the name of their OS (to most people in the world).

And because none of this would be possible for me to do without the power of open source, I thought it would only be fitting to release the result to the public once it was ready.

Is Dream Studio an one man result, or are there any other people actively involved?

Dream Studio itself is my baby, but most of the hard work is done by upstream packagers like the KXStudio team and others whose PPAs and packages are used in Dream Studio, as well as the Ubuntu team and of course the thousands of others who write the individual software packages. I basically just pick what will be on the LiveDVD and put together the default desktop.

Besides the software that comes out of the box, what else is different from the standard Ubuntu 12.04? Are there any kernel optimizations, or special configurations that would help on the critical task of video and music editing/production? 

Because Dream Studio isn’t an official Ubuntu project, I can include programs which aren’t in the main repositories, like Cinelerra, as well as push backports out via the included PPAs. Dream Studio uses a lowlatency kernel by default, and the default behavior for new users is to include them in the “audio” group. Neither of which Ubuntu does out of the box; this has become another one of Dream Studio’s goals, to set up the command-line or lowlevel stuff that the average musician/designer/videographer has no desire (or real need with Microsoft or Apple solutions) to do.

Why did you base Dream Studio on Ubuntu? Gentoo would be faster and more stable. Arch would provide users with the latest of all included applications that would bring new features etc. Why Ubuntu?

Well, you’re right about Gentoo, it would be faster and more stable, but I disagree on the Arch issue. Arch having the latest packages only applies when you actually use them (nobody asks you to upgrade), and if you maintain a PPA and include the work of others’ PPAs on Ubuntu, you can stay just as up to date. With the core applications, which are all the multimedia ones (Ardour, Cinelerra, Inkscape, GIMP), you’re actually more likely to get the latest “stable-ish” versions with Ubuntu, since it’s so widely used. I say “stable-ish because sometimes the versions I include with Dream Studio are cutting edge, but never bleeding edge (SVN or beta). That’s why you won’t see Ardour 3 in Dream Studio until Ardour 3 is released, and why you’ll see it in Dream Studio before Ubuntu (usually even before a development release).

The second reason I use Ubuntu is that, as I mentioned, it’s so widely used. Usually if a commercial app exists for Linux it has Ubuntu and Fedora packages. The third reason is that Ubuntu is easy to use and aims to be. Though many people bash them for “trying to be apple”, I think that’s one of the main reasons we should be using an Ubuntu base. Ubuntu’s goal is usability, and they still maintain the flexibility of open source (if you want to change something, do it!). That’s why Ubuntu was the first Linux distribution I started using full time, and ultimately why I like using it for development as well. It’s easy.

Even the PPA system is awesome. At first I maintained a private Debian repository because I didn’t know much about packaging, but being able to add PPAs, copy packages from them, edit source packages just by “apt-get source”-ing, and roll your own installation by using tools like Ubuntu-builder (which I currently use), Ubuntu Customization Kit (which I used to use), and Remastersys (which I tried initially before finding UCK), is something I wouldn’t be able to do with any other distro as a base.

Not only all of this, but when I’m helping users answer questions I don’t know the answer to (which are many), being able to point to the excellent Ubuntu forums, AskUbuntu, and Ubuntu-Manual, offers a level of support I simply couldn’t provide otherwise.

There are many multimedia distributions out there. Some are Ubuntu based too. In short, why would one choose Dream Linux instead of let’s say Ubuntu Studio?

I hate to publicly draw this comparison, as I’m not only a huge fan of the work of other multimedia distributions, but am also actively involved with Ubuntu Studio as their art director and a member of the KXStudio team. Obviously, though, I do think Dream Studio is something special, since I maintain a “competing” distribution (and I use that term somewhat sarcastically, as I think one of the best things about open source software is the ability to scratch your own itch). So, that being said, I’ll give both reasons to use Dream Studio, and reasons not to.

Reasons to use Dream Studio:

– You want to create multimedia content, including websites, audio productions, graphic designs, and videos.
– You appreciate the ease of use of proprietary systems like those from Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe, but can’t afford their software.
– You appreciate the ease of use of proprietary systems like those from Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe, but are unwilling to pay for their software given it’s proprietary, closed-source nature.
– You appreciate the ease of use of proprietary systems like those from Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe, can’t afford their software, and are unwilling for moral reasons to use pirated versions of said software.
– You appreciate the ease of use of proprietary systems like those from Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe, can’t afford their software, and are unwilling for legal reasons to use pirated versions of their software.
– You want the best software package for the job, not 20 apps that do the same thing.
– You like to use the latest versions of said software
– You want a system that doesn’t need to be upgraded every 6 months.
– You like the way the Dream Studio desktop looks.
– You think it’s cool to think so differently that you don’t “think different”

Reasons not to use Dream Studio:

  1. – You love Microsoft, Apple, or Adobe, can afford their products, have no problems with their politics, and/or think that pirating software is perfectly legit.
  2. – You want every piece of multimedia software imaginable, without the hassle of installing it yourself.
  3. – You want only “super-free” software (GPL only, patent-unencumbered*).
  4. – You prefer another Linux distribution.

Do you use anything else besides Dream Studio to produce your music?

Not anymore.

Open Source tools for musicians and producers have come a long way all these years. What is your opinion on the quality of them? Are these tools comparable to commercial tools, or are they going to be in the future?

There are a couple things that, to me, were/are the nail in the coffin for proprietary content creation software. They are/were:

  1. A fully fledged DAW with Audio and MIDI support. Ardour 3 fulfills this goal
  2. A video editing solution comparable to Final Cut/Avid. Cinelerra fills this void feature-wise, and new projects like Novacut and Lightworks Open Source (if and when it’s released) can improve on the old ways of doing things with a UI that surpasses current offerings.
  3. A Photoshop equivalent. For my needs, GIMP kicks ass. Some users need to edit graphics at higher bit rates, though, and once this need is filled, we’re cooking with gas.

For the audio workflow, the things that kept me with proprietary solutions were pitch correction, audio quantization, multiband compression, and drum replacement. And it was literally years between my wanting to do all my production on Linux to actually having Free plugins that could do these. The two albums you hear on my website, though, were done entirely using Dream Studio.

What is your opinion on Creative Commons license? It’s been out for a few years now. Do you think it is safe for an artist who wants to live from his art to go with CC?

Interesting question. I don’t know about living “from his art” with regards to recorded work, as I make 90% of my money doing live appearances. To me, an album is an ad for a live show, which is an ad for a t-shirt, which is an ad for the artist, which is an ad for the album, etc. If you’re trying to make a living solely by recording music, with no other sources of income, then no. I think in that case a CC license is silly, but then again, if the aforementioned is your goal, then I think your goal in and of itself is ill-thought.

Your album “Everything you’ve heard about love” is available to download free of price, and your latest “Hope” EP is sold for 100% philanthropic purposes for only 5 USD. Is this free music sharing and people helping that gives the biggest happiness to the creator?

As I’ve mentioned, the recordings are an advertisement, especially since the cost of making them has come down so much. I made “Everything You’ve Heard About Love” on equipment that cost about $2000, including the instruments and computer. And it took about 2 years to do in my spare time. I still sell the CD and a DVD with the videos at live shows, and after selling the album for two years, I made way more in the profit than I spent on the production, so I thought the music would be better off if it was Free, in that I would be more likely to gain new fans if they could download and share the music without paying for it.

“Hope” cost me virtually nothing, as I bought the excellent LinuxDSP plugins used in its production with profits from “Everything You’ve Heard About Love”, and wrote, recorded, and produced the album in about a month with the same gear I used on the latter album. If its subject matter had not been inspired by my wife’s cancer diagnosis, I would have released the digital version without charge as well (the proceeds from the sale of this album are donated to the Canadian Cancer Society).

As an artist, my greatest happiness comes from knowing that I’ve made others happy. I think this is what all artists want. You want people to be able to see your painting, to hear your song, to watch your movie, to read your book. We all must do something to earn a living, but creating music, video, and graphics is easier and cheaper than it’s ever been, and there will always be a business in all these fields outside of (as well as many within) content creation. The point of Dream Studio is sharing with others what others have shared with me.

What can you tell us about future planning? Is Dream Linux going to stay on 12.04 and update the applications only?

Dream Studio will stay on an Ubuntu 12.04 base until Ubuntu 14.04 is released, with rolling application updates. There will be Dream Studio 14.04 Alpha, Beta, and Release Candidate releases, however – based on Ubuntu 12.10, 13.04, and 13.10 respectively. I’ve found that running polls on Dream Studio’s website is wicked handy for deciding what to focus on next, so keep voting and I’ll keep dreaming things up.

Thanks Dick, it was great getting to know more about you and your projects. I wish all the best to you. Everyone stay tuned, cause next Monday comes another interesting interview on unixmen.com!