Articles

Review: “Crafting Digital Media”

In Uncategorized on 2010-01-06 by Kyle Maxwell


Crafting Digital Media
, by Daniel James
Apress,$40
Available at Amazon for $26

Crafting Digital Media does what it says it will do: explains to creative professionals how to use Free / Open Source Software tools for their work. While Daniel James explains things in such a way that technical types can certainly get a lot out of the book, he really focuses on teaching artists and other people comfortable with the creative work how to do what they want to do with software for which they not only don’t have to pay but also have the rights to modify and use for any purpose they like.

Content

The book starts off with a fairly cogent explanation of free software, GNU, the GPL, Linux, and even includes a headshot of Richard Stallman (something we don’t see often for any number of reasons). After the obligatory chapter on how to install and use Linux (primarily focused on Ubuntu and GNOME), he moves right into the set of tools. F-Spot, GIMP, and XSane get a bit of coverage, as one might expect, but the following chapter covers Inkscape (for vector graphics) and FontForge, both of which receive ample attention. Animation gets its own chapter as well, using GIMP, KToon, and Synfig. Obviously, the 3D modeling chapter centers almost exclusively around Blender. Typesetting mentions TeX (though not LaTeX), but primarily relegates it to programmers and instead chooses to explain Scribus in far greater detail.

Given the author’s primary work interest, the three chapters on audio alone shouldn’t surprise us, nor perhaps the jokes about mistreated drummers. One chapter deals with the creation of music, using terminatorX, Mixxx, Hydrogen, JACK, AlsaModularSynth, and seq24. The next audio chapter explains recording intricacies using Audacity (particularly for podcasts), Ardour, and even how to install a real-time Linux kernel. We get instruction on mixing and mastering using JACK and Ardour again, including JAMin, and even GNOME CD Master. Moving back to some of the earlier material, James presents the creation of CD labels using Inkscape to round out this part of the book.

Video editing uses Avidemux for conversion, Kino or dvgrab for grabbing the video from tape, and Open Movie Editor for nonlinear editing. Interestingly, these tools really exemplify the Unix philosophy of small tools that do one thing well, and so the book explains how to pull together material from the graphics tools described earlier and chain things together rather than use one large suite. This may require a perspective adjustment for users accustomed to the Windows way, but James handles it well.

Finally, the chapter on web content talks a bit about Apache and MySQL, but generally recommends Drupal for content management and Icecast for streaming audio. The appendices are well-organized, with a brief but useful introduction to the command line, the GNU Free Documentation License (as a few bits of the book came from earlier FDL-licensed material), and a fairly complete index.

Approach

James writes engagingly and clearly, from the perspective of a creative professional quite comfortable with the technology he uses to accomplish his work. While he does occasionally delve into the explanations of  “tar xzf filename ; configure ; make ; make install”, he doesn’t focus too much on installation but more on actually using the software tools. I found this a welcome respite from articles that seem to imply that everyone just needs help getting packages installed and gloss over how to use them. Given all the work that developers have put into Synaptic and the like, this is as it should be. James also covers a few bugs and other “gotchas”, though generally the resolution is to upgrade to the newest versions of the software rather than what came packaged in the original release of Ubuntu 9.04.

I would have made a few other choices (WordPress over Drupal as a CMS, for example) and perhaps spent a bit more time on image editing or even drawing and painting. Also, the video editing probably could have come before the audio portions, though again this is nothing more than a minor quibble and I can certainly understand the logic behind the placement as it stands. And I would have liked a little more coverage of finding, using, and publishing content with a Creative Commons license (and the benefits of doing so).

Don’t expect this book to teach 3D modeling, music theory, or anything more than the very basics of  photo manipulation. Crafting Digital Media focuses on tools rather than techniques, but it does that well.

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