A Latest Screenshot

I’m running Mint 12, with a wallpaper I made myself 🙂

Mint 12, running LastFM and menu button is now simple Mint icon!

Lovely stuff!


Making Wallpapers!

Yeah, I know, it’s the ultimate sign of a procrastinator, but I’ve been making wallpapers from icons again like here and here, and not working much.  I’ve also been playing WideLands, an amazing open source clone of Settlers (round about Settlers 2-ish).  So I made a wallpaper for when I can’t play, it makes me think I’m playing!

These were created using a combination of SmillaEnlarger, GIMP, and Inkscape.

Firefox!  Who doesn’t love Firefox!

Firefox Wallpaper

1024 x 768

This is another icon turned into a wallpaper.  I look at them, and I think, wow, that could be a wallpaper!  This one’s actually rather nice as a wallpaper.  I blurred it a bit to create depth and stop the foreground distracting.

Gnome Icon Wallpaper


This is a beautiful image as an icon, I don’t think I did it justice.  Still works really well as a wallpaper, with the right kind of theme…

Wallpaper made from icon by Gion


This next one turned up on Wikimedia.  It was part of an image stack icon.  This is an icon for a middle-wheel animation on commons.wikimedia.org.  It’s a slice of anatomy of some kind.  I’m not a medicalologist 🙂

From an icon on Wikimedia Commons


This is flowers and a hot air balloon.  The balloon is made of vectors, and the flowers are real.  It’s such a great perspective and makes a great summer wallpaper.

Hot air ballon and flowers.



There are two icons I currently seek the SVG for, or a large PNG file.  If you know of any, please get in touch!

There is one that is a Tango style icon, with a bright seascape and a sillhouetted bird flying across it.  There is another, a Nuvola icon by a guy called David Vignoni, with a cityscape style thing on it.

A nice potential wallpaper for me 🙂

And the other…

There should be a sax playing somewhere in the distance…

These icons, though they exist purely as functional pictures, are actually capable of being beautiful and serene artworks.  Keep up the good work!

Lastly, here’s my WideLands wallpaper.  I can’t stop playing.  I think it’s becoming a problem…

Procedure:  Play WideLands.  Take screenshot.  SmillaEnlarger to ridiculous size.  Play with colour levels a little in GIMP.  Crop and size.  Make Layer Mask with linear gradient between a normal version and a heavily blurred version.

Widelands Wallpaper


Let me know what you think…

More Theming of LMMS

In order to create a nice Linux Mint looking theme, I took a look at the style.css file in the theme folder.  I couldn’t find the bit that themed the main menu.  I turned everything red or blue to see what would work, and nothing did.  I’m a bit in the dark here…

So I Googled a few of the names of things.  QMenu and all that.  The whole thing is run by QT, of which I have no experience.  So I’m going in to have to read a bit about it.

Meanwhile, I did find the top menu, anyway.  I’ve styled it slightly so it’s getting there.


So far, so silvery…

If anybody is interested in helping with this, you’re welcome – just get in touch.  I’m warning you, I don’t know much about this stuff though!

GNU/Linux from Noob to Pro

Since I discovered Linux and open source software in general, I’ve been wanting to get to grips with it.  Really learn it.  So I wrote myself a road-map, a step-by-step lifestyle that would eventually get me where I want to be.

You don’t have to follow this advice.  It’s mine.  I’m only really putting it up because I had to do all this without the benefit of a University education, funding, or even much spare time, and thought it might help somebody in the same boat…

Stage 1 – Scope it Out

A great place to start is Wikipedia and Google.  Simple searches like UNIX, Linux, GNU, Open Source, Free Software, and all the links those pages will bring will teach you enough to get started.

Watch the movie Revolution OS – it’s available all over the web.  It’s a documentary looking at the rise of GNU and Linux round the world, interviewing some of the main characters involved in the development of the Free Software and Open Source movements.  It’s a great introduction.

Watch a few tutorials on YouTube of open source software.  Just type, for instance Blender and watch a few demos and tutorials.

Stage 2 – Dip Your Toes

The world of Open Source software is vast and varied.  If you’re used to using Internet Explorer for your browser, try out Firefox.  You might like it, you might hate it.  Download and install other software.  GIMP, Inkscape, MyPaint, Blender and Pencil for graphic stuff.  OpenOffice and LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office.  Try using VLC for watching DVD’s.  Like making music?  Give MuseScore, LMMS, Audacity and Traverso a whirl.

Check some of the amazing educational software like Celestia and Stellarium

There’s also tons of other software.  Look round Sourceforge.  Can any of this stuff replace your everyday software?  If so, that’s groovy.  You can move onto the next stage.  If not, before you simply say “That’s rubbish, never again!” please think about what it is exactly that it lacks.

GIMP, for example, has limitations that make it useless for certain professional photographers.  So most simply go back to Adobe’s Creative Suite.  Now, Adobe sells it’s CS for between hundreds and thousands of pounds.  If, say, a collective of one hundred photographers (who would otherwise have paid £500 for Photoshop) put their money together (making £50,000!) and hired a developer, they could have a GIMP plug-in or fork ready in a few months.  That’s the beauty of open source.

Sadly, most users fail to see this amazing advantage, and would happily fork over thousands of pounds for the license of a software title with the same feature they could have had created for now and all future users of the software, for the same money.  Sad, really.

Stage 3 – Go Paddling

So, assuming you’re happy with the amazing range of open source free software out there, it’s time to start taking a look at a GNU/Linux system itself.  You’ll need a stack of blank CD’s and DVD’s.

What you’re looking for is an ISO file.  This is simply an exact copy of what goes on a CD or DVD.  Most burning software can handle turning an ISO file into a real CD.  Just make sure you’re burning an image, not just burning the ISO file onto a CD as ordinary data.  You’ll know it’s worked because when you look at the contents of the CD it will have loads of stuff on it.  If the contents of the CD is a single ISO file, you did it wrong!

You will need to pick the CD that is right for your PC.  If you have a 32-bit system, don’t pick a 64-bit version (although it works the other way, so if you’re not sure, choose a 32-bit).

You will be running these straight from the CD.  Nothing of your computer will be changed or broken.  If you’ve ever used a Windows Recovery Disk, you’ll be fine.  Once the CD is burned, leave it in the drive and reboot the PC.  On reboot, you should be in Linux.  If not, you might have to choose in the BIOS or boot menu to boot from CD first.

Some live distros to try out: Knoppix, the daddy of them all.  Puppy and DSL for if your computer is a dinosaur.  Check out Slax, and Fedora Desktop.  The various Ubuntu flavours, like Lubuntu, Xubuntu and Kubuntu all have live CD’s.  All the Linux Mints.

Running a computer from a CD or DVD is a bit slower than running from a HD install (except for Puppy and DSL!) but even so, just playing around with all the different liveCD’s will give you a good idea of what to expect from GNU/Linux.  Surf the web, try out all the menus.  You can’t break anything because it will all disappear when you shut down the PC.  Windows will boot back when there’s no CD in the drive.

Stage 5 – Soft Install

Okay, so you’ve been messing with your live CD’s, trying them all out.  It’s a confusing and complicated universe, isn’t it!  Now you’ve seen the variety out there, it’s time to settle on one variety and get a bit used to it.  If you’re not entirely sure if you really want to have Linux as your main OS, you can Wubi it.  A Wubi-based distribution is a flavour of Linux that you install on Windows as a program.  You don’t need to partition your disks, or worry about ruining your Windows intallation.  It’s all fine!  Linux Mint has the same thing, it’s called Mint4Win and comes on the install DVD.

You install the distro like any other Windows program, and reboot your PC.  When your PC starts, it will give you the option to boot into Linux or Windows.  If you choose Linux, it takes it all from the installation on the Windows disk.  If you need to un-install it later, it’s as simple as un-installing any piece of software.  Magic, eh?  Again, because it’s Open Source, anything that can be done, usually will!

So you now have the option to take Linux for a whirl.  Get used to how it works, how software is installed, and whether it works on your hardware or not.

Stage 6 – Install Proper

It’s time to take the plunge and install the OS.  If you have Windows on your machine, you can dual boot it.  Start by defragmenting your Windows drives.  Insert your Linux Mint DVD and reboot the PC into Linux.  Click the “Install Linux Mint” icon, and you’re away.

If you need to keep your Windows installation, you will choose the Guided Installation that automatically resizes and partitions the hard disk for you.  When it’s done installing, take out the DVD and boot to Windows.  Windows might be shocked and confused at the resize so it might take a minute to check it’s data.  Once it seems fine, you can boot into Linux.  You can choose Windows or Linux when you start the PC up.

If the PC has no operating system, or you really want to get rid of your Windows, choose the Use Entire Disk option.  You now have a bona fide Linux box!

Work with it every day you can.  Read around the forums.  Try out a few simple command line things, like wandering around directories, or installing software.

Stage 7 – Distro Hopping

This simply means trying one Distribution of Linux out after another, until you’ve seen a few.  For my purposes, I don’t want to learn everything, just enough to make me feel as confident with my Linux Mint as I do with my Windows.  To distro-hop properly, try each one out for at least a week (rather than a day or hour or two), if you possibly can.

Linux Mint itself has some nice flavours to start with.  They have a KDE version, an LXDE version, Xfce, and a “GNOME” version which these days is really just Mate and Cinnamon.  They also have a version based on Debian proper, which is for slightly more advanced users.  Try it anyway, what the heck.  You can always install something else over the top of it…

The main releases of Linux Mint are based around a distribution called Ubuntu.  Ubuntu comes from space-tourist billionaire Mark Shuttleworth’s company, Canonical.  It comes in a few desktop flavours, like Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, and so on.  Pick one to “live in” for a while.  Ubuntu takes a little more time to set up right, but that extra knowledge is valuable, so worth it if you want to learn.  Ubuntu’s tagline is “Linux for Human Beings” so don’t use it if you’re a basket stinkhorn, hyrax or marshmallow plant.  Otherwise, hit the forums and FAQ’s…

Onto Debian.  Ubuntu takes most of it’s stuff from the Debian distribution.  In fact, there’s a bit of a joke going around the Internet that Ubuntu is an African word meaning “Can’t configure Debian”  That’ll give you a little glimpse of the world you’re about to enter.

A word of caution:  The Mint and Ubuntu forums are filled with a different kind of people, doing different things than the Debian people.  Debian is for experienced users, and users should fill their heads with forums, FAQ’s and man pages before they even think about posting.  If all else fails, Debian forum members are very friendly, and always keen to point you in a learning direction if you don’t know where to begin.  Get their “Stable” version to start off with.

Stage 8 – Dig Deeper Down into Debian

It’s easy enough to use an operating system when it’s full of graphical settings management and tools.  But are you learning enough about the insides?  Linux user settings from boot-up to desktop environments are mainly held in text files.  Learning to set these up manually from the command line will give you a massive boost to your Linux confidence, and you’ll know what to do if something goes nasty with your settings.

For your first step, I recommend a Debian Netinst CD.  If you have a blank PC to play with it really helps.  All that gets installed are the GNU userland, the Linux kernel, and the apt-get command.  From there, you go superuser (su), then apt-get install anything you want.  I recommend learning the Vi editor, just to say you can.  Mutt email works seamlessly with Gmail after a bit of Googling, so give that a go.  Midnight Commander (mc) for file management, the Lynx browser, MP3 players, and even a command-line ASCII-art movie player can be found.  The trick is to give yourself a good grounding in commandline-land before you install X.  What’s the most you can do without needing a mouse or windowing system?

Once you’re sufficiently sick of a text-screen, you can apt-get install X, Fluxbox Xterm and Leafpad, the Worker file manager (I love it!) and any of the other stuff you use, like LibreOffice, GIMP and Firefox.  The startx command can be replaced with a display/login manager when you get the hang of customising your desktop…

To get a modern experience out of an ancient laptop I own, I used Debian Netinst, with TinyWM so I could fit Chromium and Thunderbird.  Seamless Youtube on 128Mb RAM?  Yeah…

The other great thing about a Debian Netinst build is that you can take your time, adding little bits once you’ve got the hang of the last.  Get the hang of command line, then install X.  Get the hang of configuring and starting software from the command line, and then install a window manager.  Try a few different window managers out, and learn to configure your favourite.  Do the same with desktops, file managers, and all the other stuff you use.  Add a bit, learn it, configure it, add a bit more.

Stage 9 – Compile Programs from Source!

No, you don’t have to be a programmer – that’s been done for you!  You just need to learn to run a few simple commands, and get to grips with why it’s done like that.  Google for “Linux GCC Hello World” or “compile C beginner linux” and try it out.

You can do this from a terminal window in Linux Mint, or in your command line environment.  Take a piece of software (I like BeebEm and SmillaEnlarger), grab the source code, and make it into an application.  Most of the time there will be simple install instructions on the developers’ website, even if they’re weird and complicated-looking – the instructions, that is, not the developers (who invariably will be) – doing the steps one by one will result in working software.

For a few distros like Arch and Gentoo, this is the normal way to install software.  If installing from source feels okay so far, it might be time to try one of these out.  If any time you have any problems, remember there are countless forums, mailing lists and documentation to help you.

Stage 10 – Compile Linux from Source!

Yes, it can be done.  The Linux from Scratch distro isn’t really a distro.  It’s more of a book.

80’s 8-bit micros used to have software you could buy in a book and type it all in yourself, save to tape, and you’d have an adventure game!  This is in the same spirit, I think.  Except you’re just compiling, not actually programming, and the book is online, as is all the source code you require.

At the end of a few days of headaches, palpitations, agony, and ecstasy, you’ll have the equivalent of a Debian Netinst.  Just Linux and the GNU basics.  Beyond LFS will expand that, helping you compile all the extra bits and bobs you might want on your machine.  You could never learn Microsoft Windows this well!

Another great thing about an LFS install is that every component has been compiled specifically for your system.  You don’t need all the extra compatibility stuff that goes into a normal distro’s CD or DVD.

Stage 11 – More Distro-Hopping

Debian is the largest community distro out of the Big Three “Godfather” distros (Debian, Red Hat, and Slackware – most of the others are based on these).  The largest commercial distro is Red Hat.  If anyone has any doubts that money can be made from Free Software, they should take a look at Red Hat’s one billion dollars worth.  Fedora is Red Hat’s community release, and CentOS is a free Linux system that aims to work like Red Hat.  If you’re learning Red Hat for college or work, having CentOS on your own PC will help.

Another commercial distro, if you happen to be wandering into the Linux support world, is SUSE, is run by Novell.  OpenSUSE is the community edition.  It uses the same package manager as Redhat (the RPM), so you’ll be at home if you’ve used Fedora.  SUSE is the oldest commercial distro (1993 – about ten years before the first Red Hat distribution).

A company called Software und System-Entwicklung (Software and system development) released a Linux package called Softlanding Linux System.  SuSE went on to release it’s own distribution, and become the international company SUSE, mentioned above.  The SLS distribution also inspired our next hop – Slackware.

They call Slackware the “most UNIX-like” of our three “Godfather” distributions.  They also say: “If you use Ubuntu, you’ll learn Ubuntu.  If you use Debian, you’ll learn Debian.  If you use Slackware, you’ll learn Linux”.  I don’t know who “they” are, and I’m probably misquoting, but it gives you an idea of why Slackware is such a popular distribution for Linux-heads and hacker culture (not to mention all those Subgenius references!).  If you want to start with a user-friendly version, go with Vector Linux.  It’s based on Slackware but is intended to be easy to use for newcomers.

Stage 12 – GNU’s

I dream of a day when all software is free software, all hardware is open source, freely 3D-printable, or commissioned from crowd-sourced funding.  I would like a nice open standard binary internet, (Not Flash or Java!), free software BIOS and hardware makers to release the specifications for open drivers to be created.  It’s not going to happen today.

Proprietary software is the jungle we must live in and work with.  That’s why copyleft exists.  Ghandi said “You must be the change you want to see in the world”, but it’s tough when your kids are moaning that they can’t play Flash games, or use the 3D bits of the No-Videa graphics card, your web designer girlfriend complains that she can’t check her sites on Internet Explorer, and all your photographer friends say they need Photoshop for it’s 16-bit image support, CMYK, Pantone’s special colours, and the latest “Do The Work For Me” filter.  Proprietary software is here, there’s no getting around it (note that I did not say “here to stay” – that would be presumptuous).

Still, the completely free distributions have a lot to offer.  GnewSense is based on Ubuntu, it just has any software or kernel modules that aren’t free stripped out and banned from the repositories.  BLAG is the same, but based on Fedora.

Even if you absolutely need your 3D graphics drivers, your Flashy websites, and the other proprietary blobs you have lying around on your system, it’s a good thing to have a look at the limitations and at least try and work around them.  Simply saying “it doesn’t work”, er…, doesn’t work.  It’s best to say why, how, and to somebody who can change things.

Stage 13 – Beyond Linux

Linux isn’t the only free UNIX-like operating system.  The code of Berkeley UNIX (from California University) was released as Free Software not long after GNU/Linux happened.  Actually, Berkeley UNIX has been kind of open source since 1977, but due to trademark, copyright, and other reasons, had trouble releasing it under a Free Software license.  They don’t call it UNIX (for the aforementioned reason), they just call it the Berkeley Software Distribution, or BSD.

There are a few flavours you can try, and FreeBSD is probably the most popular.  Because it has a more permissive license than GPL, code can be included in proprietary software without releasing the source.  For instance, the internet stack code has been used in MS Windows, and the kernel is an important part of Darwin, the free bits of OS X.  Their Secure Shell remote terminal software (openSSH) is everywhere, from Linux to OS X.

Also, ReactOS.  If GNU/Linux and FreeBSD are free software alternatives to UNIX, then ReactOS is the same for Windows NT (Which is 2000, XP, Vista, and 7).  Go and give these guys some love.  Or, better still, some money.  They’re finally prioritising their development funding, so expect some good things to come out in that area soon.  I think it’s incredibly exciting and really hope they make it.

Stage 14 – Back Home to Mint!

You might find that you prefer a Linux-Libre system, or a Gentoo install after you’ve been through this stuff.  Personally, I like that Mint does everything for you.  A ten minute install from LiveCD and everything’s set up.  Every distro has it’s advantages and disadvantages, but by creative distro-hopping and a grim determination to work with limitations, you can be comfortable in all areas of your Linux, whichever you end up using.

For me, I have a family computer.  That gets Mint.  I also have my own PC –  it runs Mint Debian Edition.  Then I have an ancient laptop with a Debian Net Installation.  A spare computer has a Peppermint OS (think Mint for old PC’s), and I try to dual-boot with other OS’s just to keep me fresh.  My partner’s web development PC is Windows 7, but she uses entirely Free Software on top of it (apart from the different browsers you need to have!).  Notepad++, Inkscape, Thunderbird, GIMP, XAMPP, and so on, and they all come in portable pen-drive versions so she’s never stuck!

If you’ve gone through the Linux From Scratch book (even if you failed and had to re-install Mint!), you’ll appreciate the complexity of your Linux install, and will probably have learned some shell scripting along the way, through setting up the more advanced distros.

This is a long and frustrating project.  You have to try to live with a particular distro for a while, to be able to set it up properly how you like, and by then it’s time to move on!  But at the end of it, you’ll have a good grounding in Linux, and will appreciate all the hard work that goes into making a distribution like Mint.

From here, you could relax and just get on with the rest of your life.  Alternatively, you could also learn more than just compiling – learning to program in Python or C will give you a huge boost.  Even if you’re just wanting to get on with your work as a writer, graphic designer or whatever, learning to write simple scripts for software like GIMP can increase your productivity immensely.  The very essence of computers is automating boring tasks you do over and over again, so give it a try, at least.

Of course, you could also get yourself a prototyping kit and some transistors, learning how to build yourself logic gates, adders, ALU’s and the likes from scratch.  This will give you an incredible insight into how computers work.  Grab a Raspberry Pi and relive the spirit of 80’s DIY programming on a modern machine with Internet (that fits in your hand and plugs into a TV).

Go Now, Understand Linux

Free Music Making Software

My favourite kind of software is freeware.  My favourite freeware is community driven open source software.  My favourite open source software is libre software, also known as Free Software.

Saying that, my favourite kinds of Free, Libre, Open Source software (also called FLOSS) is that kind that works on the “Big Three” operating systems, Windows, OS/X, and Linux.  When I stop working with other operating systems, I’ll just be a GNU/Linux head.  Until that day comes, I like the fact that the software I use can be installed on any computer I find working, anywhere!

So take advantage as I give you some fun software to play with.  Nothing gives you a feel for music like actually mucking around with it, and you can be sure that what I’m giving you here should work on your computer.  I’ll also list some other fun stuff to get your teeth into…

Cross-Platform FLOSS

These software products are available for Windows, OS/X and Linux.  They are all free to download.  If you’re just learning music (with the pages on my blog, for instance!) and you don’t have an instrument, start with a simple synth.  If you have a “real” instrument, you can start messing about with recording software.

Simple Midi and Stuff

Get the following software and start mucking about with it.  Some of it works right out of the box, others you might have to go online and look for solutions.

Virtual Midi Piano Keyboard

This is one of my favourites.  For the technically minded, VMPK is a virtual midi controller with pitch-bend.  For the absolute noob, VMPK is a funky musical instrument that you can play with a mouse or your PC’s keyboard.

VMPK Screenshot

VMPK running on Windows XP

It’s a nice piano, capable of chords.  Don’t expect it to do more than three notes at once if you’re controlling it with the keyboard, but you can do more with the mouse.  This is simply a limitation of your PC’s keyboard.  I don’t know how it would work on a multi-touch screen, but I bet it’s fun!

It’s fine for learning to mess about with music, for trying out chords and tunes.  Play with the pitch-bend…

To set up VMPK you need to install it, and hook it up to a synth.  If you’re on Windows, you should already have the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth installed.  That’s got a decent bunch of simple starter instruments to play with.  If you’re on Linux or OS/X, you can install QSynth.  QSynth is a midi synth.  You will need instrument patches, or SoundFont (SF2) files installed.  You can pick some free ones up at ZenVoid’s free patch site.

Aria Maestosa

Once you’ve had a plinkle around on your piano, and found your way around, you might want to start composing, or noting down your musical ideas.  You don’t need to spend two years learning all the dots and squiggles of music notation just yet.  Aria Maestosa is a free midi editor, based around the concept of a piano-roll.  Again, you’ll need a software synth like QSynth if you want to play stuff back as you’re composing, but you can also just edit a file, export to midi and stick it right on your phone as a midi ringtone.

Maestosa gives you musical score, guitar tab and piano-roll as inputs, so it’s great for learning music from tab or score.

Recording Software

If you’re learning on a real instrument, like a piano or guitar, you’ll do well with some recording software.  A cheap, simple PC mic can be plenty to start with, but if you want to take recording seriously you should invest in an external soundcard and a decent microphone.  For learning and noting down your musical ideas, a PC mic is fine.  Experiment with the mic, trying it out in different places to get the best sound.


Audacity is a multitrack recording studio.  It’s seriously simple.  Record a track, record another, and if they don’t match up, click and drag.  Perfect.  Audacity also comes with a bunch of mastering effects, like reverb and wa-wa.  It enables you to slow down or speed up a tune without changing the pitch, and transpose whole tunes without altering the tempo.  Audacity can generate white noise, click tracks and simple sine waves, so it’s possible to create a whole tune using all of Audacity’s effects and sounds, although that would be very time consuming (good to get to know your effects, though!)

Once you get used to recording in general, you might find it easier to work with my next bit of software.

Audacity Screenshot

Audacity on XP


Another recording program, Traverso is super fast and, once you get the hang of the keyboard controls, very efficient.  It’s also colourful and pleasant to work with.  Between Traverso and Audacity, you’ll have a top-notch recording and mastering suite with all the bells and whistles.  The only limitations will be your hardware, skills, and imagination.  Which will all improve over time anyway, if you take it seriously!

Traverso Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW) employs all sorts of tricks to keep your CPU from being overworked while mixing tracks, and can burn CD’s.  Effects can be applied to groups of tracks.  Even if you’re only learning to sing, it’s great to be able to hear back your stuff and mix and master it.  Try singing the different parts of a barbershop tune to get practise…

Sample Tracking

I’m featuring sample trackers because I like ’em.  Tracking has been around for a long time.  Early video game music was mostly tracker-based.  But what is this stuff?  Why is it cool?

Tracking started in the 80’s and is still done by highly acclaimed contemporary recording artists.  You take a sample of a musical instrument, say a violin.  You make it loopable.  You program the tracker to play it back on the beat, at a certain volume.  You can make other notes in the scale by playing your sample faster or slower.  That’s it, really.  Oh yes, and you program the things in Hexadecimal notation.

Ok, it’s a learning curve, but worth it.  Some of the modern trackers can handle VST plugins and work with midi, plus what they lack in graphical interface they make up for in efficiency.  Once you get the hang of it, check out Jeskola Buzz and Buzztard to see how crazy trackers can get!

Hex isn’t that difficult when you get the hang of it…

Milky Tracker

The first tracker I’m going to mention is Milky Tracker.  This is a great place to start learning.  It’s a clone of Fast Tracker II, an old DOS tracker.  There is a huge community of FT2 users and a great mix of YouTube videos with tracker music.  Tracker song files are called Modules, and contain all the samples and the commands of when and how to play the samples.  Download some FT2 and MilkyTracker MOD files and see what it’s capable of!

Schism Tracker

Schism Tracker is a free clone of Impulse Tracker from the 90’s.  It’s a bit more modern than Milky Tracker, but not by much.  An advantage of using old but updated software like this is that it runs like a dream.  Unlike the larger audio workstations, Schism won’t take up much RAM or CPU.  Schism comes with a few effects to get your music sounding more professional.  Check out YouTube for songs and tutorials.  Or better yet, download an IT file (Schism works best with old Impulse Tracker songs) and play it, or mess around with it to see how it works.

Schism Tracker Screenshot

Schism Tracker Running on WinXP

Karaoke Software!

It’s good to play an instrument.  It would be great if there were an instrument you could practise all the time, that needed no hands and you could play in the shower.  Luckily, most humans have an instrument like this built in.  Singing is probably the best thing you can do to get yourself familiar with harmonies and scales and immersing yourself in music that you love.  Having fun making loud noises is what humans do, so have fun and make loud noises!

UltraStar Deluxe

Did you ever play SingStar on the Playstation?  Well UltraStar Deluxe is pretty much a free tribute to that program.  For the uninitiated, it’s a karaoke game that scores you on the pitch and rhythm of your playing.  I know, it’s just for fun, but well, it is fun…

Musical Composition

As you get better at music, you’ll want to start tackling large tunes.  Maestosa, above, is a good way to start, but if you’d like to be musically literate, you should check out some software that will help you compose complicated songs.


This is a very sophisticated notation editor.  It comes with the FluidSynth installed with it, so you just run it and play.  MuseScore can import midi files to help you learn to read and write music, or it can help you compose when you get the hang of that side of things for yourself.  MuseScore can export to midi and to PDF, so you can download a midi file and get the sheet music in front of you while you play along, or you can change the notes around and save.

MuseScore Screenshot

MuseScore on Windows XP


This is very specific, and basic software that you probably won’t need, but if you want to self-publish your music, or get orchestras to play it, you’ll want your sheet music to look nice.  That’s all Lilypond does.  Makes good looking PDF’s of sheet music.  Following their editing language, you’ll be able to create professional looking sheet music and tablature.  Everything is taken care of, from the music fonts to the spacing, with all the nuances of modern music (and a lot of historical music) can be expressed.   You can export MuseScore files in Lilypond format, but it doesn’t hurt to learn their editing language when you start writing music for yourself.


If the technicalities of writing complicated pieces is still a long way off, you might want to just note down the chords and basic melody you like to jam around, like a Jazz lead-sheet.  That’s what Impro-Visor‘s for.  It’s good for guitar solos and for mapping out song structures, even if you’re not into Jazz.  A lot of composers use lead sheets to lay out their initial ideas.  Anyway, if you’re into jamming around, it can be a great way to write your songs down.


Maybe it’s guitar you’re learning.  TuxGuitar gives you a clear interface with score and tab editor, with multitracking capabilities.  Now you can save and share all your riffs and solos.  The interface is a little bit cleaner than Maestosa, and not as complex as MuseScore, so if you’re just starting out with guitar, it’s less of a hassle to get going with.

DJ Software

Music theory these days doesn’t just include scales, harmony, melody and rhythm and all that stuff.  Nowadays we have beatmatching, crossfading, scratching and all that malarkey.   Learning to DJ is one of the best ways of getting familiar with the structure of songs, expecially dance tunes.


Mixxx is a free, open source mixing program.  Because   Mixxx works with midi DJ controllers so if you get good at mixing tunes, you’ll want to buy yourself one.  Although i knew a wedding DJ who only worked from laptop.  If he had any requests he didn’t have in his collection, he’d be straight onto iTunes, and the song would be seamlessly mixed in with the set. So you don’t need a controller.  For greater control for things like scratching, and purely for performance purposes or convenience, a controller is the best option.  On top of that, get a good external soundcard and you have all you need to play banging raves…

A Final Thought

There is better, more sophisticated Free Software out there.  Most of it’s for GNU/Linux systems.  Ardour and Rosegarden are pure Linux, as is MusE. although OS/X users can use Ardour, I am told.  So I strongly suggest you start with a good distribution of Linux and try out what’s on offer.  LMMS is a very sophisticated music station, but is only really built for Windows and Linux.  But then you Apple people have GarageBand so why complain?  Of course, there are some amazing non-free software titles out there, but I’m not bothered about them.  With one little exception…

Say you’re into tracking, and are familiar with the interface, but you want a top-notch professional sounding piece of software and you don’t want to pay?  If you’re on Windows, dowload Jeskola Buzz.  It’s freeware, just not open source.  Lots of open source plugins have been made for it though, like synths and effects, so it’s freely expandable.  Also, there is a Free Software clone call Buzztard which, if you use only the open source plugins with Buzz, is more or less compatible.  So I’m including it here as a sort of grey area piece because I love it so much, and songs you make on it have the potential to be cross-platform.  If you’re considering shifting to GNU/Linux and can’t wait until then to get stuck in then Buzz is your best bet.

If you’re not into tracking, and are used to pianos and pianorolls, LMMS is not as expandable or sophisticated, but still a beautiful piece of kit.  Look for LADSPA plugins (like VST, only free from restrictions) to expand it with, although it comes with a staggering amount of samples and synth presets loaded.  Some cool demo songs too.


That’s my recommendations for beginner musicians to start with.  It doesn’t matter what kind of PC you use, you should still be able to start composing music that you’ll like.  All the software is free to download, so there’s nothing stopping you!

GNU OS box

Graphic Design Practise with GNU OS

Background – The GNU OS

In 1984, Richard Stallman decided he wanted the world to have a free operating system.  Since he was working on Unix at the time, he decided to clone Unix completely from scratch.  Working with a small team of hackers, he set about recreating every piece of a working system, calling it GNU, or GNU’s Not Unix (a recursive algorithm).  Most of it was complete by the 90’s but the central piece, the operating system base, or kernel, was still in development.

In 1991 the system became complete with the addition of Linus Torvalds’ kernel, known as Linux.  Since then, the GNU/Linux operating system has exploded round the world, being used in servers, supercomputers, mainframes and home PC’s, in a bewildering array of distributions, such as Red Hat Linux, Debian GNU/Linux, Slackware, as well as the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spin-offs and independants, such as Linux From Scratch.

Since the Linux kernel exists, and is Free and Open Source software, the philosophy of the GNU project has been realised.  The result is a mix of Free Software ideals and Open Source development.  An operating system that anyone can use on their PC, without charge and without restriction, and for companies and individuals alike.

Because many of these distributions follow the Free Software guidelines, there is no longer a need for an actual GNU operating system as such.  I’d like to pay tribute to the GNU OS, and get a little graphic design practise along the way.

Making a box

I am imagining here that the GNU OS is a complete, self-contained distribution, packaged in a modern way, keeping a little historic context and harking back to the 80’s a little in it’s design.  That’s why I chose a combination of beige and brown.  (I normally hate to see these colours together, but I thought I’d like to “date” the design somewhat, as if the product has been going since the 80’s with the original colour schemes and logos to the extent that our pretend customer base has grown accustomed to this.  It’s not often I get to engage a “trousers of time” effect in my graphic design, so I thought it would be fun.

The GNU logo itself has been updated a few times, but the original scribble is still full of life and personality, so I thought I’d feature it as ambient design, and focus on the SVG logo as the main centrepiece.

For the text on the box, I used a nice generic sans font called Liberation.  This is a “free software” licensed alternative to the MS and Mac fonts, familiar to people using GNU/Linux or other Free Software, such as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP.

Anyway, a few perspective transforms later (GIMP should have a proper “perspective” tool with actual perspective formulae, not the headache-inducing transform that’s called “perspective”!  Also, while you’re at it, GIMP devs (and I know you trawl the internet looking for blogs with good ideas!) how about a “path” transform where you can path round a bitmap area and bezier it as well as pulling nodes around?), here is the final box!

GNU OS box

This is the final box, with reflections and a few gradients slapped all over it.

If you have any comments or improvement ideas, I’d love to hear them 🙂

Take care now…