It’s hard to pinpoint the precise day that a project like Ardour started. But if that’s the goal, then right now, December 28th 1999 is probably about as good a date as any. That means that today Ardour is 20 years old.
It’s hard to write this, let alone read it. If you had told me back in the last few days of 1999 that I was starting something that would last (at least) two decades, I really do not think I would have believed you. But I did start, and it has lasted, and so I thought that it would be worthwhile to put down on paper the story of how it started. I’ve told this story in person to countless people, and even described it at several conferences and meetings, but I’d like this version to be considered definitive.
THE BACK STORY
In the winter of 1996, I left Amazon.com to become a stay-at-home parent to my 1 year old daughter. By 1998 her mother, worried that I was vanishing into what I lovingly referred to as “the zen of parenting” started to encourage me to pick up some of my own hobbies to balance the time spent with a very young child. I decided to start ultra-distance cycling again, something I had enjoyed before she was born (and was quite good at, which helps). I also decided to pursue my lifelong interest in electronic music, but this time by trying to make music myself. After a brief consultation with a student I had known from the University of Washington who was into some of the same sort of music as I was thinking of making, I ended up buying an Oberheim Matrix 6 synthesizer, a Doepfer MAQ16 sequencer and an Alesis FX unit. It didn’t take long before I started to realize that I would probably benefit from having a computer as part of whatever process I was developing.
Strange as it might seem, since I had already been a programmer since the mid-1980s, this was a troubling thought, because I had avoided having a computer at home until that time. I did have an X Terminal at home for a while during the period that I worked for Amazon, but this didn’t really count as a computer in the conventional sense. There was the dilemma that a Mac was clearly overpriced and I had taken a vow (yes, really) in the 1980s that I would never use Windows. While at Amazon, I had pushed for us to use Linux (Slackware) as the basis for a machine that we called “CC Motel” (as in “Credit Cards check in but they don’t check out”, a riff on a popular meme), and I had been working on Unix-based systems since 1986, so the idea of setting up a Linux machine seemed like an obvious one.
I ended up buying a second hand 486, deliberately staying well behind the leading edge so as to discourage me from doing more on the machine, and picked up a Turtle Beach Tropez+ audio interface for it. I installed an early version of Red Hat on the machine, eager to use a program I had found called “Multitrack” which promised to be a multitrack, multichannel digital audio workstation, or something like that.
It turned out that there was no device driver for the Tropez+ (I think there was for the Tropez, and I had assumed they were similar, driver-compatible hardware). I had written device drivers before, and wasn’t too intimidated by the idea of needing to do this. It didn’t take too long, although I also wrote a patch editor for the Tropez+ which was of some use since it had a wavetable synth on board. I never used that for anything, as it turned out.
Quite against my original intention, I was programming again, a few years after I thought I had decided to give it up for good. The original plan had been that my daughter’s mother would finish her post-doc in Philadelphia, we would all move back to the Pacific Northwest, I would become a farmer with the time to slowly bring a small farm into production my way while mom did research and teaching at some PNW institution. It didn’t quite work out like that. By the summer of 1999 we were divorced, and I had already written a couple of MIDI software tools to “help with my music”. The farming idea began to really slip away as that year rolled on, as I recognized that my energy had really been refocused on software, albeit in a wholly new context - music, audio and open source. (The phrase “my energy” refers to whatever I had left over after being the at-home parent for a 3 year old, which was still my primary role in life.)
Sometime during 1999, I became aware of the RME Digi series of audio interfaces. I still wasn’t really making any music, and so like most music gearheads decided that more equipment was obviously the answer. How could having 24 channels of I/O not help my compositional and performance processes? Winfried Rietsch in Vienna had already written a Linux driver for the RME card but his was based on the increasingly obsolete “OSS” audio driver architecture. I decided to take his work and use it as the basis of a driver for the ALSA system, which was more or less established by then as the new audio driver architecture for Linux. RME were helpful and cooperative (as they had been with Winfried), and by sometime in early December of 1999, I had a working ALSA driver for the massively multichannel (by the standards of that era) device.
Which then led to a fundamental problem: I had a working 24 channel I/O device for Linux, but what was I going to do with it? From reading around (Electronic Musician and Sound On Sound magazines in particular), it was obvious that I needed a “Digital Audio Workstation”. It had turned out that “Multitrack” was utterly useless. Another application, “Jazz++” seemed promising but on deeper investigation was also very, very far from doing what a DAW would do. I decided to call the company that made the 800lb gorilla of the DAW world, called “ProTools”. At that time PT was primarily a macOS application that had only recently appeared for Windows (and even then, was only supported on a single piece of Windows hardware).
I’LL PORT ProTools TO LINUX FOR FREE
I managed to get forwarded through a couple of layers at Digidesign and finally found myself talking to someone who seemed to understand what I was talking about. I asked them for the source code and offered to port ProTools to Linux, free of charge. They laughed, and made it clear that this was never, ever going to happen. I remember ending the phone call with an offhand remark to the effect of “oh well, I’ll just write it from scratch on my own”.
My daughter was going to spend New Years with her mother that year, and so on about December 28th 1999, I sat down and started to write what was initially going to be a 24 track hard disk recorder and playback application. It was initially called HDR32/96, the numbers coming from the fact that it recorded 32 bit floating point data to disk, and could function at up to 96kHz sample rates (though to be honest, it didn’t really care). It took me about 3-4 weeks to get this working (borrowing button images from the photographs of the relatively Mackie HDR24 which had just come out!).
So there it was: I could record and playback 24 channels of high quality digital audio on my Linux machine. Exciting, no?
LIVE TO EDIT
Well, no was the answer. Being able to just record and playback really seemed like a very uninteresting capability the moment it was available. You could not edit the sound in any way at all, which from the perspective of creating music seemed like a total non-starter. I continued to work on polishing aspects of the program, and announced it in the still fairly nascent linux audio community. A young programmer called Taybin Rutkin soon got involved with the project, bringing lots of nice idiomatic C++ aspects to the codebase, and we would talk on the ardour-dev mailing list about what to do about the program’s inability to edit.
There was an exciting extremely powerful and supremely geeky audio editor called “snd”. Its developer, the venerable Bill Schottstaedt, ported it to GTK+ over a single weekend, mostly at our prompting, and this encouraged us to go down the path of merging snd and ardour. snd appeared insanely powerful - this was long before I really understood what “non-linear, non-destructive” editing really meant - and even had a Lisp interpreter builtin which seemed to allow for unimaginable possibilities. Alas, snd stumbled over something much more basic. Like so many audio projects of the time - certainly the open source ones - it assumed that you could either load all the audio into memory, and if not that, then you could read it from disk on-demand without any problems. Neither of these were (or are) true for the sorts of projects I imagined Ardour being useful for, which at that time were imagined to be something like 18GB of data spread across 24 tracks. snd could barely handle 6 tracks at that time, and even then it wasn’t reliable in terms of playback or recording without clicks and pops.
HOW HARD COULD IT BE?
So, somewhere in the middle of 2000, Taybin and I decided that we would just write our own editor for Ardour. “How hard can it be?” we said to ourselves, and got started.
NOW WE KNOW
In a few days, it will be 2020. The editor is still a work in progress. Some of the features that Ardour had back in 2000 are announced with great pride in the new releases of other DAWs. Some of the most basic features of ProTools are still not available in Ardour. Some of Ardour’s design has crept into other DAWs without much fanfare, but we know where they got the idea Somebody starts the program somewhere on earth (at least) every 3 minutes, all day every day. The income from Ardour has grown to levels that are largely unprecedented for niche creation-centric applications in the open source world.
GIVE THANKS AND PRAISE
Every day I am thankful for the life that Ardour’s users have allowed me to lead for the last 20 years. Every day I am thankful for the incredible contributions of the nearly 80 other developers that have contributed to the program over the last 20 years. 20 years is a long time for a piece of software to be around, though in the DAW world, perhaps less so. It is notable that Ableton Live began its life at about the same time as Ardour, and has completely changed the zeitgeist of computer-based music production as well as creating jobs for hundreds of people and making a lot of money. By that standard, Ardour hasn’t been that much of a success. But I always remember the night desk man at a little hotel in Paris who told my daughter that his band used Ardour to record themselves every week. I think of the laptops that were distributed into the favelas of Brazil with Linux and Ardour preloaded. I remember the screenshot of Ardour recording the chatter during the Mars lander launch at NASA. And I remember everyone who has made Ardour what it is today. I can’t promise anything about the next 20 years, but I will do everything I can to keep advancing and improving Ardour in small and big ways. If you’ve been here since the beginning, THANK YOU. If you’ve just discovered Ardour, stick around - it should be a fun ride!