switching back: the 2011 macbook air

UPDATE: I’ve just posted some updates on the state of Ubuntu on the 2011 Macbook Air.

With my old Dell laptop starting to suffer some physical wear and tear, I figured it was time for an upgrade. I couldn’t find a solid PC laptop that fit my needs, particularly in terms of portability and battery life, so I made a potentially controversial decision — I chose the brand-new 13″ Macbook Air. I won’t be using it for music-making, but after using it for work over the last week, I’m definitely happy with my choice.

I had sworn off Mac laptops for a few reasons: Apple’s power supplies and slot-loading DVD drives have always given me trouble, and my Macbook Pro ran very hot at times. Thankfully, the new power supply design seem less fragile, the Air has no DVD slot to worry about, and while it does howl a bit when working hard, that’s preferable to getting super-hot.

It’s also surprisingly quick — its 1.7Ghz i5 CPU outpaces even my 3Ghz Core 2 Duo desktop, and the SSD makes everything feel snappy. The Intel video isn’t brilliant, but it’s fast enough for most indie games, and even for a bit of Civilization IV or Left 4 Dead 2 on low-quality settings.

The Air’s fixed hardware is definitely a departure from my easily-serviceable old Dell, but it does help it to fit both a powerful system and a lot of battery in to a very light and slender frame. I wouldn’t want it to be my only computer, but it’s great as a portable extension of my desktop and home network. I’m sure I’ll have to give up the whole machine if it ever needs repairs, but with Time Machine backups configured (using my Ubuntu file server), I don’t really have to worry about losing data.

Mac OS X is, well… it’s Mac OS X. It has its advantages: it’s very well tuned to the hardware, making the most of the multi-touch trackpad, resuming from suspend in a second or so, and lasting a good seven hours on battery with a light load. It’s also great to have access to things like Steam. On the other hand, it’s still a bit annoying as a UNIX compared to Ubuntu, the Mac App Store is a shambles, and having to hack the OS just to stop it opening iTunes when I press my keyboard’s “play” key is completely asinine.

However, the reality is that I spend 99% of my working day using Firefox, Chrome, Thunderbird, a text editor, and a bunch of terminals, and Mac OS X meets those needs just fine. (For the record, I’ve been using TextWrangler and iTerm2.)

Ubuntu on the 2011 MBA

Ubuntu running, in a fashion, on the 13" 2011 Macbook Air

The Air can run Linux, too, though it’s not terribly usable yet. The trackpad works in mutli-touch mode after some hacking, but there’s no power management, and the Intel driver doesn’t work with the built-in display, so you’re stuck with unaccelerated 1024×768 video. The wireless works, too, which makes it unique among current Mac laptops, though only in 2.4Ghz mode.

I generally think it’s a bad idea to buy a Mac to run Linux, since the hardware is odd enough to cause these kinds of problems, but it’s always nice to know that I can run it if I need to. There’s a thread on the Ubuntu forums with all the details, and one post in particular that has a script to install patched keyboard and trackpad drivers.

a new lv2 synth: the newtonator

I’ve just updated my big list of LV2 soft-synths with a brand new entry: a bizarre synth called The Newtonator. It’s a unique synth, with algorithms based on the laws of gravitation. The sounds it makes are almost all bizarre, distorted creations, though the samples on the website suggest that it is capable of being tamed a bit to create more melodic sounds. In any case, it’s a lot of fun to play with, so if you’re in to sound design and unique sounds, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Newtonator

The Newtonator: a new LV2 synth that makes bizarre, distorted sounds

an experiment with ccmixter

Creative Commons licences allow musicians, artists, and other creative people to create new and unique works based on the works of others. While you can often do interesting things based on finished pieces, having access to the individual components gives you a lot more flexibility, and it’s that access to components that ccMixter aims to provide.

ccMixter lets users do two core things: upload samples of their own creation, and upload remixes made using samples from other users. The samples that people upload range from individual sounds and solo recordings through to the stems (that is, the individual tracks) from full, mixed songs, so there’s a wealth of stuff to work with.

The most impressive thing feature of ccMixter is its attribution tracking on remixes. When you upload a remix, you tell ccMixter which samples you used, so it’s very easy to see what samples are used in a remix, or what remixes make use of your samples. It all gets complicated once you start using remixes within other remixes, but ccMixter displays the attributions as a tree, giving you a simple, and very cool, overview of a remix’s entire history.

I’ve always had a “do-it-yourself” attitude with my music, creating a lot of my own sounds and recording all of my own tracks, and I don’t see that changing just yet. As an experiment, though, I uploaded the stems for “move along”: complete and separate main and backing vocal, bass, and piano tracks, and a mixed stereo drum track.

I wasn’t sure if anyone would do much with it, but to my surprise, there are three remixes on the site using those samples — you can check them out from the link above. There’s a constant influx of new material, so you don’t have long to catch people’s attention, but it’s definitely exciting to know that people are listening to your work and using it in new ways. I’m sure I’ll be uploading more tracks in future to see what other users can do with them.

farewell old router, hello new router

For about the last seven years our home network connection has been served a Linksys WRT54GS, the slightly-upgraded version of the iconic WRT54G that began the custom router firmware craze. Thanks to the excellent Tomato firmware I’ve been hesitant to upgrade it, despite having a house full of 802.11n laptops and gigabit Ethernet desktop, but it had been flaky of late, so it was time to jump ship.

Linksys WRT54GS

My dusty old WRT54GS, with one missing antenna, has been better days

My chosen replacement is the Netgear WNDR3700. With dual-band 802.11n and gigabit Ethernet it’s a major upgrade — I can easily get 60-70MB/s between my desktop PC and HTPC/file server (maxing out the disk), and about 12MB/s over the wireless from my laptop. There’s also a USB port, though I’m not sure if I’ll do anything with that, yet.

The stock firmware lacked some features that I’m used to having, such as DNS hosting for the local domain, so I soon switched to DD-WRT. Installing it was more of an ordeal than I expected, though; the version linked from, of all places, the DD-WRT wiki entry for the WNDR3700 caused the router to sit there rebooting in a loop. After much frustration some I found an older build that I had better luck with, and by working through the Atheros tuning guide I managed to get a little more speed from the wireless network.

DD-WRT is a far cry from the elegance and simplicity of Tomato, but it definitely has a wealth of features. It’ll take me some time to dig through it all, but for now, it’s doing everything I need.