Apple Everywhere

The Other Side of the Road: Ubuntu Linux

- 2011.01.25 - Tip Jar

I've been a Mac user since 2006, and for good reason - nothing compares to the build quality and attention to detail Apple puts into its products. Still, I'm beginning to get this half-sinking/half-exhilarating feeling that the next big thing is Ubuntu (pronounced oo-boon-too) Linux. And why not? After all, "Bunt" is free, yet it offers much more functionality than a stock install of Windows - and with none of the malware troubles. It's not quite Mac OS X, but it's slowly getting there.

That said, I've been conducting a few experiments lately with Bunt, as you may have already read. This latest experiment involves a computer I was about ready to donate to Goodwill, and it has been an eye-opener for me.

Holy Pentium III, Batman!

It might not look like much. Okay, let's face it, it isn't much. This old PC is sort of a hand-me-down (long story), and at the time we got it, it was a major improvement over our old Compaq. Sort of.

old PC and Conn 427M Caprice organUp until last year, it was running Windows Me with free abandon, giving me the BSOD or locking up completely (depending on the mood it was in). Finally, I had had enough. Burning the first Bunt ISO I could get my hands on, I installed Linux on the old beast and never looked back.

Over time, that old PC has grown on me. I've added some new RAM to it, taken from a pair of Power Mac G4s that my school was about to recycle. I had two hard drives running in it (until the good one, an 18 GB Western Digital Caviar, died ). And it's had up to three optical drives in it at once.

Unfortunately, the hard drive death left only a 10-year-old 4.3 GB drive, which didn't bode well for its future.

Back down to the basement for a few months.

Recalled to Life

Besides my hobby of fixing up and maintaining computers, I make a hobby out of playing and restoring my two electric organs: a tube-based Conn 427M Caprice (circa 1962) and a solid-state Kimball 792 Swinger (circa 1975). Of the two, the Conn is much more beautiful - built solidly of real maple (I think). It also has a pleasant, mellow sound that I just adore (although, to be fair, I am crazy about my Kimball's built-in Leslie rotary speaker).

My Conn is in the first stages of major restorative work, involving replacing several long-dead capacitors in the amp, replacing a set of worn-out rocker tabs, and cleaning or replacing a nonfunctional potentiometer in the swell pedal. In the midst of this, I decided to experiment with the idea of giving the organ audio output, which proved to be surprisingly simple - just hook the pedal cables to an RCA-to-3.5mm adapter and bam, instant line out.

Then came the fun part.

I pity those of you who have never heard the opening riff from Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water". Jon Lord's Hammond B3, run through a straight amp, is a classic sound that will be with us for quite some time. This sound, known as "The Beast", is something I wanted to recreate with my Conn. So, after much experimentation, I ran the organ's audio output through several different computers. None of them, however, seemed to cut it - the organ was just overwhelming their sound cards.

That's when I had an idea.

That old PC (which I've rather affectionately dubbed "The Box", and which my family has rather unaffectionately dubbed "The ME") has a decent sound card in it, so I decided to it a try. Sure enough, it could handle the organ - and then some.

Rakarrack

Since Rakarrack is cross-architecture (Intel, PowerPC, and so on), I will be reviewing it formally later. Those of you who have Ubuntu on your Macs and want to use it can thank the 1.2 GHz iBook G4, which served as the PPC test platform for the developer.

I'd settled on Rakarrack for my audio processor for two reasons: because it was free and because it was the only guitar effects processor in the Ubuntu repositories. As it turned out, however, the binary version of Rakarrack and my old Intel Pentium III (Coppermine) didn't want to play nice, so I had to compile it from code . . . not fun.

Okay, the experience of compiling an app wasn't that bad. It only took reading some short instructions (Rakarrack is relatively easy to compile), a quick trip to the Terminal, and a few minutes of waiting for The Box to do its thing, and in the end, it was so totally worth it.

Rakarrack is a guitar effects processor, borrowing many of its effects from another of my favorite Ubuntu apps, ZynAddSubFX. For its price (free), it is incredibly powerful - its dozens of effects are capable of both vast and subtle changes to any sound, and that served perfectly for my mellow but otherwise bland Conn.

With Rakarrack, my organ can achieve a monstrously overdriven, distorted guitar sound (this thing has some serious bite) or a soft, shimmering chorus. Another click, and it can shake the room as a pipe organ, as Rakarrack's Octivator effect turns my 16' Sub and Major Bass into something like a 32' Bombarde.

The pipe organ effect is really powerful when I plug in my big full-range Jensen speakers (picked 'em up for $40 at Goodwill, and they can still blow you away) - my dad said he could hear the organ clearly through the wall, from his car, while it was running in the driveway, 25 ft away. Wow.

I might have to take the whole setup to church some time for special music.

The Fun Part

Ubuntu is great. Rakarrack is great. That old PC, with a few tweaks and a few upcoming upgrades, will be really great.

What's not so great? CRT monitors in a small space.

That's where I had to get really creative. Since I don't have a flatscreen to spare, at least for the moment, I had to come up with a really neat alternative. My choice: my iPad.

Yes, the PC is now a semi-headless server, controlled via my iPad with TeamViewer (my favorite remote access app for iOS, Mac, Windows, and Linux - and possibly Android too). Even when optimized for speed, it has a little bit of a lag, but it's light on the CPU, and it does what I ask it to do.

This is really a great solution for a couple of reasons:

  • Fewer power cables. At present, the whole organ setup (without the big speakers - instead, the PC runs back into the organ amp, playing through the organ's own speakers) requires only two power cables - the organ and the PC. That's the quota for most socket installations, so not having a monitor increases my mobility (which isn't saying too much when one of your pieces of equipment is a 200+ lb. organ).
  • It keeps the controls in the right hands. My younger siblings would love to play with this setup, but there's more than one way they could damage the organ or screw up the PC in the process. Having my iPad as the monitor ensures that I am the only one who has access to the most sensitive controls.
  • Sheet music, anyone? The beauty of this setup is that my iPad can leave TeamViewer without shutting down Rakarrack, so the organ can keep on playing, minus me being able to change anything really quickly. This is advantageous if I have sheet music stored on my iPad that I want to read from.
  • It just looks awesome! Seriously, I've got this old organ, tubes glowing in the back, belting out hard rock riffs thanks to a beat-up PC and an iPad. Does it get any better than this?

Conclusion

I'm in the process of trying to upgrade the PC while I'm restoring the organ to its full functionality, and in the meantime I'm recording some videos of how the whole setup works. The first of these went online when I was still borrowing my brother's netbook, before I'd compiled Rakarrack on The Box. If you're interested in seeing how this whole process turns out, subscribe to my YouTube channel. LEM

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Austin Leeds is a Mac and iPad user - and a college student in Iowa.

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