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eContact! 11.3 — Logiciels audio « open source » / Open Source for Audio Application (September 2009) [Return to issue…]

Your contributions to this [wiki] page are most welcome. Please visit this page for more information and guidelines for contributing.


Open Source Travel Guide [wiki]: Getting There


Today open source software is available for pretty much every operating system that exists. In fact many important developments in the early days of the “public” computer were open source. For example, the original “hackers” at the MIT labs kept current versions of codes needed to run the mainframe computers in a drawer beside the terminal that anyone could “hack”, i.e. reduce or otherwise improve, the code that the system ran on, as well as the programmes that were developed there.


Each operating system today allows for or supports open source to varying degrees. Below are some pointers and information about the open source capacities of various operating systems and what is needed to have them running open source applications or systems. Following the operating system section, a number of some of the more common open source applications related to audio and sound are listed with basic information about what they do and where to get them.


Operating Systems






Linux is based on the Unix operating system which was developed in the 1960s and released in 1970 and which was widely adopted by academic institutions and corporate world. In the early 1980s Richard Stallman started the GNU project which aimed at creating an entire free operating system which was similar to Unix. At the same time the GNU Public License (GPL) was born. In 1991 Linus Torvalds started developing a kernel which by 1992 (when released uner GPL)  became the de facto kernel of the GNU project. 


Today Linux comes in different “flavours”.  Some are provided by hardware vendors and manufacturers (IBM, Dell, Novell, Sun Microsystems etc.), others by Linux OS vendors (Red Hat, Mandriva or Ubuntu). Some other distributions are entirely community driven (DebianGentoo). The choice of Linux distribution for an individual or an institution will often be made based on need for support. Another potentially important factor to influence one’s choice is the particular vendor’s philosophy and hence choice of software that is actively supported and maintained without resorting to third parties repositories.


There exist specialized audio distributions, which really are mainly specific efforts to provide a stable, up to date collection of audio applications for professional audio work.  Such efforts include ProAudio (based on Gentoo), ArchAudio (based on Arch Linux), Planet CCRMA [*] (based on Fedora), Ubuntu Studio (based on Ubuntu) and a couple of specific distributions such as Musix and Puredyne. The latter two are particular in that they can be also run as live systems from CD-ROM or USB and no installation onto the host hardware is necessary.


*) See Fernando López-Lezcano, “A Very Brief History of Computing at CCRMA,” eContact! 11.3 for a description of how CCRMA has implemented and worked with open source.


Software and System Resources


Linuxaudio.org is a not-for-profit consortium of indivuduals and institutions involved in the development and coordination of software for audio work on Linux-based systems, “with an emphasis on professional tools for the music, production, recording, and broadcast industries.” Several resources are available on the site, including a wiki with linux audio tutorials, documentation and a Newbie page with basic information to help, well, the newbie, get started.


Mac OS X


Since the introduction of OS X, which is based on a UNIX-like kernel (just like Linux), the Mac has become an increasingly interesting and open source friendly operating system. Since it has basically become a UNIX under the hood, it is not too hard to port FLOSS over from Linux, and that is indeed what is happening.


Many applications are available that run on their own with no third party software or plugins or what-have-you. Many applications will require the JACK sound server on top of CoreAudio, which involves an extra step but enables you to pass audio data in realtime between different applications.




Not too surprising, very few open source applications are exclusive to Windows. That is in part due to the fact that most if not all freely available development tools come from the GNU/Linux universe anyways, and it’s partly a cultural issue. Closed source (but often reasonably priced) shareware is more frequent.


However, an increasing number of open source projects are using cross-platform development toolkits and are thus available to Windows users as well. A notable example is Audacity (see below). And with high-profile open source projects such as Firefox and OpenOffice, a significant percentage of Windows users are now aware of the existence of the OS software development model.


Open Source Software for Audio


Key Individual Applications



A DAW (digital audio workstation) developed and maintained by Paul Davis. “Ardour’s recording capabilities are limited only by the hardware it is run on. There are no built in limitations in the software.” (Wikipedia, “Ardour” entry)

Mac | Linux



Multi-track audio editor and recorder that can also be used to convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs, edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV or AIFF sound files, and more. Audacity is “developed by a group of volunteers and distributed under the GNU General Public License (GPL).” (Audacity page on Sourceforge site)

Mac | Windows | Linux | BSD


JACK (Jack Audio Connection Kit)

A professional-quality low-latency audio server and transport control interface. Several open source audio applications (e.g. Ardour, Audacity, SuperCollider) require JACK to work. See a categorized list at: http://www.jackaudio.org/applications

Mac | Windows | GNU/Linux | Solaris | BSD


Pure Data (PD)

“Pd (aka Pure Data) is a real-time graphical programming environment for audio, video, and graphical processing. It is the third major branch of the family of patcher programming languages known as Max (Max/FTS, ISPW Max, Max/MSP, jMax, etc.) originally developed by Miller Puckette and company at IRCAM.” (PD site)

Mac | Windows | Linux



“[E]nvironment and programming language for real time audio synthesis and algorithmic composition. It provides interpreted object-oriented language which functions as a network client to a state of the art, realtime sound synthesis server.” (SuperCollider page on Sourceforge site)

Mac | Windows | Linux


Lists of Applications and Sources


Linux Audio and Sound — Application and Software Index 

Originally started by Dave Phillips and now maintained by the community, it is a list of possibly all audio/music/sound applications available for Linux.



A number of lists of software are maintained on Wikipedia.


Sound Sources


The Freesound Project

“[A] collaborative database of Creative Commons licensed sounds,” Freesound is a great source for finding or contributing “audio snippets, samples, recordings, bleeps” etc.


The Internet Archive

A growing non-profit “digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts,” The Internet Archive is a great place to find content from now defunct or no longer existing websites.



“[A] community of free, legal and unlimited music published under Creative Commons licenses.” Mainly mainstream pop, jazz, electronica but some electroacoustis or experimental musics can found with a bit of digging. Also has a radio feature for Jamendo-hosted works.



“[A]n experiment in applying the model of free software to music,” Opsound allows users to use and share sounds, interviews, field recordings and more.


Music Publishing


The following net labels are dedicated to release and produce copyleft music exclusively produced with Free and Open Source Software:


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