LJ Archive

Interview with Australis

Fred Mora

Issue #236, December 2013

Linux developers are usually interesting people. So are graphic artists, musicians and sound engineers. So when a successful musician combines all of these traits, we simply have to interview him.

FM: Australis, who are you?

Australis: I am Oscar Aguayo, a music composer and producer. Australis is, of course, the name under which I release my music. I've released three physical albums since 2005, along with one free digital compilation. I am currently completing the material for a fourth album that I hope to release later this year.

Oscar Aguayo

FM: You are a successful indie musician. Do you have a day job?

A: Yes, I do have a day job. I'm a software engineer at a well-established local company in Salt Lake City, Utah.

However, we indie artists define “success” differently from what the music industry has got the world used to for a few centuries. As independents, we have absolute freedom to define what “success” means to each one of us.

To me, success is when my music is listened to and enjoyed around the globe, or when listeners from as far away as Singapore or The Netherlands ask me for the release date of my next material, or when I am approached by serious contributors to serious publications, like you.

The money that comes from my music is nice—I can't deny it. But it is not part of what I consider my personal definition of “artistic success”.

FM: How did you discover Linux?

A: Some years ago, I was working as a head of software development. I discovered that several of the paid Windows tools we needed to develop and test our product existed as comparable and fully functional open-source projects on Linux. That was my turning point.

I started with an Ubuntu Live CD to try things out without repercussions to the existing Windows installation we used, and it almost felt like I had been lied to all my life. As I explored office suites, development environments, tools and utilities, I kept asking myself why I hadn't explored this universe of openness and power before!

After a few months (mostly spent convincing the directors), the company's software development department had migrated to a pure Linux environment.

For me, the conversion also was complete. I still find myself forced to use Windows in one specific context, but for all others, I use only Linux.

FM: Your music is, schematically, melodic instrumental synths. It has been compared to Jean-Michel Jarre and recent Tangerine Dream. Do you agree?

A: Yes, but it is a relative “yes”. Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream are, among others, some of the first exponents of electronic new age music. I was a very young teenager when they were the only source of music in this genre. Their influence on what would become my personal composing style is something I have to admit. Vangelis and Enigma are other particularly strong sources of influence in my music.

As a composer though, I discovered that without a conscious effort, every composer ends up “boxed” in his own style, repeating himself again and again, creating music that is only a copy of what he has already created before. For that reason, I always get away from my comfort zone in order to explore other genres and styles and offer a fresh and varied mixture of musical landscapes to listeners.

FM: Do you use Linux for the composition?

A: This is the one context in which I am forced to use Windows instead of Linux. Unfortunately, and I say this with real regret, the number of synths and virtual libraries for music production available on Linux is still seriously behind compared to what's available on Windows.

There are some very serious pieces of software for music production out there, don't get me wrong. But you have to see it from the composer's point of view. Inspiration comes to you at any moment, and when it does, you have to record what it's telling you by whatever means you have at hand at that moment.

A piano is ideal if you are at home. A digital recorder works too if you are away from an instrument. If nothing else, a notepad or even a napkin can work too. But later, when you are ready to build your new music piece from that initial annotation, would you do it with only a fraction of the orchestra present?

That's the dilemma when trying to compose in Linux. You have very nice instruments available, but not all. And, since you are composing—in other words, you don't know beforehand what sounds you'll want to use to assemble your piece—you need all sounds available, all libraries and instruments on standby in case you need to use or tweak them.

FM: You do use Linux to master the MP3s and other files you sell or distribute, in order to guarantee they are not propagating viruses. Is the public sensitive to the security argument?

A: I do use Linux when mastering my material, yes. And one of the many strong reasons I do is because of how secure and clean Linux is regarding viruses and malware, compared to Windows. I know the public is very sensitive to the security of their computers and networks, especially now that phishing, malware and identity theft are so widespread.

Personally, I have not heard concerns about how secure the digital versions of my music are. That is a main concern of mine, however, and knowing that the systems I use to produce, master and deliver my music to the world are 100% secure and clean is a very important step in the whole process.

FM: You are using Linux for composing CGI images. Can you tell us about your graphic artist side? Which tools are you using?

A: I've always been interested in graphic composition, including 3-D modeling and rendering. In fact, I used to do commercial 3-D animations in the previous century. I had to relegate all of this to an “as-needed” level when I decided to concentrate on music composition and production back in 1999 even before Australis.

Fortunately, indie artists have more possibilities of participating in other aspects of their music. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to create the covers for all my albums, the graphics for Australis' Web site and its profile on Facebook. Obviously, there have been other people behind most of those graphic compositions, like photographers and graphic designers providing their talent here and there. But for the most part, I've been lucky to be able to be directly involved in the graphic side of Australis too.

When dealing with photography—like for the cover of my album The Gates of Reality—I use GIMP almost exclusively, complementing with Inkscape for typography and vectors. When creating abstract compositions, I use other tools. For example, for the cover of Sentient Genus, I used a Linux port of the fractal app Apophysis that allows you to manipulate all parameters directly to create incredibly complex images. Lately, I've been exploring a 3-D fractal creation tool for Linux called Mandelbulber.

Australis Cover Image

Australis Cover Image

Fractal Image Titled “Inside the Castle, Part I”

Fractal Image Titled “Left Behind”

Whatever tools I use to create the main graphic components though, I always finish the final images on GIMP.

FM: From your very first release (Lifegiving, 2005), you were noted for your polished sound and high-level production. You were clearly not a beginner when you released the first Australis album.

A: Well, I've always been the composer for the bands I have played with, but in 1999, I had the wonderful opportunity of also being the producer for an independent rock/pop band called Cabala (pronounced with an accent in the first a, like cAbala). You should have heard the first material I produced! It was so deficient, lacking and even disproportionate in how every element participated in the mixes. You may know how to use the tools for the production of audio, but until you have educated your ears, you can't produce clean and high-quality music!

The band dissolved in 2004 (which is what pushed me to create Australis as a solo project that same year), but by then I had a better trained auditive perception, which fortunately has helped me with Australis' sound.

FM: Do you find uses for Linux in sound engineering?

A: Part of the pleasure of becoming a Linux user is to migrate as many of your normal tasks to Linux as possible. As I mentioned earlier, most of the composition of my music has to be done in Windows. But as soon as I am done with the creation part of the process, I switch to Linux to do sound processes like mixing, normalization and mastering, using Audacity's many professional-level features.

Oscar's Workstation Running Linux

As a side comment, I wish more companies and/or developers would engage in producing serious virtual music instruments and libraries for Linux. The platform is more stable and reliable than the rest out there. And I am sure I am not the only composer who would make a complete migration if there were enough tools for music creation on Linux.

FM: Do you rent time in a professional studio, or do you have an in-house studio?

A: I have had an in-house studio for several years. When playing with Cabala, we rented a professional studio at the beginning, and although the results were very satisfactory, the expense left us broke for a couple months. That's how I became their producer and sound engineer—we couldn't afford that expense again for a long time.

When I created Australis, I was in a better position to modify a room at home in order to get a clean input when recording acoustic instruments.

FM: What instruments do you play? Do you hire musicians for recordings?

A: With a few exceptions, I play all the instruments you can hear in my music—piano, synthesizers, guitar, drums, percussion. Even some vocals throughout my albums are my real voice. When I need something I can't do by myself though, I bring in other musicians to participate—every time I need a female voice, for example, or whenever I am creating an ethnic piece that requires very specialized performances with less traditional instruments.

FM: Do you carry over your software development habits when you work on music? Or does the musician side prefer improvisation and inspiration-driven, spur-of-the-moment setups?

A: No, I am a structured being. I need everything organized in a meaningful manner to be able to function musically—or to function in general. I've come up with my own ways to organize files, backups, documentation and so on—nothing weird or cryptic, just my own way to place things where I know I'll search for them later.

This is an enormous advantage when the “musician side” kicks in and wants to improvise and follow the inspiration of the moment. I know where to go to load the sounds I want at that moment, and I keep adding tracks to the improvisation as inspiration keeps flowing. You really appreciate being organized when you are in a hurry trying to register the inspiration suddenly striking you. Being able to load a specific percussion set within 30 seconds of arriving to the studio, for example, versus spending ten minutes browsing through libraries in search of some useful percussive sounds, may actually be the difference between registering your musical idea or losing it.

FM: What was your first computer? Do you remember your first program?

A: I do remember my first program, and it was in BASIC!

My first computer was a Tandy TRS-80. It was the early 1980s, so not many young people may be familiar with that computer. It was the time when personal computers were still very expensive, and a new line of hobby computers (like the Commodore 64, and others) came about. It was basically a keyboard attached to a small CPU that connected to your TV.

I was a young teenager then, and living in Peru, I knew no English whatsoever. The youth-oriented BASIC book that came with the computer was, of course, in English. But the attraction was too strong, and with the help of a dictionary and equivalent amounts of frustration and curiosity, I started to understand the underlying concepts and finally make sense of the new universe opening in front of me.

My very first BASIC program was a simple implementation of the “hangman” game.

FM: Let's go back to your software engineering side. Your Web site says: “I believe there's an important difference between 'engineering' software and merely 'programming' it. I believe in engineering. I also believe in sound logic. I believe in clean code. I believe in documentation. I believe in coding with the future in mind....I believe in creating solid components for the software I develop.” That's a strong philosophical statement about how you view your work. Do you think that using Linux helps you adhere to this philosophy?

A: Definitely. I was a software developer way before I became a Linux user. Windows was all I knew at that time, and like people who have not had the opportunity to travel to other cultures and see other societies and idiosyncrasies, I ended up thinking this small circle was all there is. I developed programs with Microsoft tools, using Microsoft languages, deployed on Microsoft platforms. However good of a developer you are, your ignorance about what else is there in the world is a strong limitation.

Beyond developing, engineering is the ability to see the whole of a system, not just its parts. If you don't have a clear view of the whole picture (which includes other platforms, issues like portability, compilation and so on), how can you be an engineer?

Moving to Linux from Windows first and Mac later gives you a wider understanding of these issues, allowing you to code better, thinking ahead for possibilities like migration, compatibility, maintenance and so on.

Another big help comes from the development infrastructure available on Linux. Not only does it have nothing to envy Microsoft's or Apple's, but also I honestly feel it is much better. The open-source philosophies have reached maturity and have favored such an amount of environments and tools and resources—most of them naturally oriented towards open-source platforms like Linux—that I would seriously recommend to any developer or software engineer to use Linux from the start.

FM: Some musicians complain that the Internet makes it too easy to pirate music. You don't use DRM in your releases. That's a hot topic among OSS supporters. What's your opinion?

A: This is a touchy subject in the music industry, and every publishing musician I know has an opinion, one way or another.

My own opinion is that, yes, the Internet makes it very easy to pirate a musician's work. However, it is also my opinion that piracy always has existed. Remember when you would insert a blank cassette into your tape recorder and wait for hours until your favorite station played the song you wanted to record? According to the modern definition of music piracy, we were pirates when doing this in the 1980s.

Why is it that nobody cared about piracy back then? Why is it such a hot topic now? Imagine musicians lobbying for the suppression of sales of blank cassettes. Ridiculous, isn't it? What is different now though? I believe the answer is money.

The Internet allows the acquisition of music, for free, at a much, much larger scale. And then the record labels started to lose money (the musicians too, but at a much smaller scale; the big money from music goes to record labels). Is this bad? I honestly don't know.

I can't go into the philosophical principles at play here, but I think there is something fundamentally wrong with the model the music industry has been following since the last century. Piracy is a problem, yes, but I think it is more a problem for the record label than for the musician. Record labels keep 90% of music sales while the artist receives 10% or less.

On one hand, this is understandable because a record label has professionals and facilities and channels to make the artist's music reach the audience, and that has a cost. But on the other hand, doesn't it ring wrong when 90% of what you are paying for a CD is non-artist-related overhead?

So, yes, the Internet has allowed the piracy that has existed for decades to grow much wider. But is it wrong? Or is this a sign that the music industry's model is obsolete? I don't know. Maybe record labels need to make themselves leaner now that the Internet is doing most of the distribution work for them? Maybe we artists need to find a way to give more to listeners if they buy the CD than if they download the music for free?

FM: Your work is independently released. Any misgivings about big labels?

A: Yeah. Distrust. Without any disrespect intended, a record label is nothing more than a company with the sole purpose of making money. Their purpose is not to mentor aspiring artists or to provide them with useful artistic services. And certainly, their purpose is not to “help” any artist, but themselves. I know it sounds bitter, but consider it at the same level as a bank or an insurance company. They care about their customers as long as they produce profit for the company. The moment customers become expenses, the company loses all interest in them. Although cold, this is just the way any commercial company works.

We artists, however, tend to “romanticize” record labels as some sort of benefactor that will recognize our true artistic potential and will then, out of love for art—“the world needs to hear your talent” kind of thing—will take our hand and guide us through the maze-like path to stardom.

The truth is that record labels are looking only for an investment. And they expect a return on that investment. After all, as any commercial organization, they need to pay salaries, expenses and so on and hopefully make a profit while at it. So, when searching for a potential new artist, their first criteria has to be “will this new artist make us money?”

I went through the process of sending demos to dozens of record labels when playing with Cabala, feeling confused when only a few responded with a “got your demo” e-mail, and a couple “we'll give it a listen and will let you know”. The band had a decent following, and its sound was better than what was on the radio at the time.

In time I realized that, like our band, thousands of other bands were constantly sending demos to record labels. They have literally piles of submissions waiting to be heard by their scouts. If a demo—typically two or three songs long—requires 15 to 20 minutes to be heard and analyzed, imagine how long it would take to go through hundreds of them every week!

So, unless you are lucky and are “found” by a label, that approach resembles a lottery more than a professional step. I learned this as Cabala was starting to dissolve and went to create Australis with the intention of releasing my music independently.

FM: Any advice for young aspiring musicians?

A: Yeah. Take your dream by the steering wheel and drive it yourself. Don't invest your time and energy trying to find someone to drive it for you. It is your dream. Nobody understands it like you do. Just perfect your skills and prepare to do everything by yourself. Your chances to succeed will be much, much better that way than trying to be chosen by labels that are drowning in the noise made by hundreds of others like you.

FM: Any advice for young aspiring software engineers?

A: Hmmm, I would say to remain a learner forever. There are no plateaus in engineering, and if you feel you've reached one, it should be a warning that you are falling behind compared to the rest of the world. However creative and innovative you are, there's always someone better. Keeping a learning attitude will always push you to be better.

Fred Mora is a software engineer working in DevOps. His day job and hobbies involve Linux. He lives in Connecticut with his geeky wife and his Linux-using kids.

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