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Free/Open music software guide

Last updated September 7, 2015.

Quick links to jump to sections below:

Note: software here is often listed as FLOSS. Read the first section to understand what that means.

Philosophy: Freedom and Free Software

As a teacher, I believe in the values of freedom, access, creativity, and community. Besides traditional approaches, I also teach students to explore music in unconventional ways. As a guitarist, you the freedom play however they desire and to even modify the instrument if they wish. After all, it is your guitar. And if you develop a new guitar technique, surely you would not try to patent it to stop others from copying your way of playing.

Imagine a choir learning a song arrangement where some of the pitches are out of range for the singers. Because the director has the score and music theory understanding, they may alter the arrangement while working to keep the overall musical effect. Maybe the director would then wish to share their update with other choral groups who might have the same issue. Unfortunately, our restrictive copyright laws make this excessively difficult (see my article A Rational View of Copyright). Still, any director can at least adjust things for their own singers.

Similarly, a computer user may wish for something to work better or differently. If they have some programming skills, then they can make adjustments as desired — if they have access to the program code and permission to change it. Furthermore, the global community (programmers and non-programmers alike) can benefit from programmers choosing to share their software improvements. Unfortunately, as with sharing music arrangements, excessive restrictions can get in the way.

This issue is the focus of the Free Software Foundation created by Richard Stallman in 1985. "Free" in this case means freedom rather than price. This is often clarified by borrowing the Romance language term libre (as in liberty) to contrast with gratis (zero price). The official Free Software Definition specifies the following four freedoms:
  • The freedom to run the program for any purpose
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it as you wish
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
  • The freedom to release your modified versions to the public, so that the whole community benefits
Access to readable source code is necessary for software freedom to be possible, and that led to the term "Open Source." However, the Free Software Foundation sees "Open Source" as an inadequate term that deemphasizes the ethical issues of freedom. Typically, Open Source means also free/libre, but to be clear, I often use a common acronym: FLOSS for free/libre/open-source software. Elsewhere, you may see "FOSS", "Open Source", "Free Software", "Software Libre", or "FLO" (for "free/libre/open", an adjective not specific to software). Beware of just the term "free" on its own — it often refers only to price and not freedom.

Many FLOSS licenses are also copyleft, which means that derivative versions must be also shared under the same terms. Richard Stallman invented that concept when he wrote the first Free Software license: the GNU General Public License (GPL). You can learn more about his philosophy behind software freedom from the inspiring essays at gnu.org. I especially recommend:
Unfortunately, restricted proprietary software dominates much of modern computing. Our current economic and legal system isn't designed well for funding of FLOSS, so many developers choose to restrict their software in part to ensure their pay (and control). Once developers get users to choose their software, they then have the power to control how it works, how it is updated, and thus to keep users tied to their system. If a program becomes popular enough, this control ensures continued funding that will help proprietary software out-compete any FLO alternatives.

In principle, all software could be FLO. Developers who care about the ethical issues (or even just about their own freedom) have already created many robust alternatives to restrictive proprietary programs. In some cases, Free Software has actually dominated. Much of the internet today runs on FLOSS.

How does FLOSS get funded? In many cases, institutions such as schools, governments, and businesses hire developers to make software for specific purposes and then license the programs as FLOSS. Besides supporting ethical values, the original institutions share the benefits of improvements made by others in the community. Some companies create FLOSS and then offer optional support services. Finally, individuals around the world donate funds and volunteer their time to support FLOSS development, promotion, and documentation. Despite these mechanisms, FLOSS struggles with low funding, so I am now co-founding a new non-profit cooperative system to help improve the situation: Snowdrift.coop

Though I support these ideals, I am not dogmatic. In an ideal world, all software would be FLO, but reality demands pragmatism and compromise. I respect and support some software developers who choose proprietary licenses for their work (even though I disagree with their choice). Nevertheless, I still want developers to meet a minimum of ethical standards. I support only software which at least: does not include intrusive advertisements; has no significant anti-features such as obnoxious Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) or invasions of privacy; does not have unreasonably frequent update costs; and is not limited to saving work in proprietary file formats.

Furthermore, whether to accept any proprietary software should depend how much power the proprietary developers have. A proprietary puzzle game is benign (assuming the developer can truly be trusted not to do anything malicious, such as spying on the users or worse). On the other hand, developers of proprietary operating systems (such as Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS and iOS) have the power to influence everything about users' whole computing ecosystem.

Get Linux Mac, Windows, GNU/Linux?

As an alternative to Windows or Mac OS, I now use a whole computer operating system made by FLOSS development: GNU/Linux.* Renowned for its security, privacy, and flexibility, GNU/Linux has traditionally appealed to computer programmers and professionals. However, thanks to recent improvements in features and user-friendliness, GNU/Linux systems are now in use by schools, governments, businesses, and individuals all around the world (including even my computer-illiterate parents).

*The full name "GNU/Linux" identifies two of the main components of the system: (1) the GNU user space software (GNU uses a wildebeest mascot) and (2) Linus Torvald's "Linux" kernel (which uses a penguin mascot). Many people refer to the whole system as simply "Linux," but this is confusing because Google's Android and Chrome OS systems also use the same Linux kernel but not the rest of the GNU/Linux operating system.

For basic computing (web browsing, music and photo sorting, word processing etc.), GNU/Linux systems work with minimal learning curve. There are also supportive communities and other resources to help learning at any level from beginner to advanced. GNU/Linux has software for everything from office and school work to scientific research to games to video-editing and 3D modeling — nearly all free.

To learn more about the whole concept, the pros and cons, and how to get started, the best thorough introduction is at GetGNUlinux.org

With many variants (called distributions) of GNU/Linux, choosing among the options can be confusing. There are specific systems designed for multimedia, for business, for science, or for younger children… Because GNU/Linux software is mostly interchangeable, advanced users can mix and match different system elements in any way they like, and they can offer their variations to others — which is why there are so many options. Because it's all free, you can try different systems and change your mind later. Or just go with whatever variant seems appealing, or ask for advice from someone knowledgeable. For the most part, all the same programs work on any version of GNU/Linux, only the default setup and window-dressing varies.

You can try GNU/Linux on your Mac or Windows machine without affecting your current system. On Windows, the easiest way to set up GNU/Linux for either testing or installation is the user-friendly program Linux Live USB Creator. That handles everything from downloading the GNU/Linux system to making a USB flash driver ready for install. It even can automatically set up the free-of-charge Virtual Box software for testing without installing. Mac users might try Mac Linux USB Loader, although I have not tested it myself.

When ready to make a full install, you can still dual-boot and keep your existing OS X or Windows OS on the same machine. Each time you start your computer, it will give you the option to choose between the systems. There is also a free program called WINE that can run many Windows-based applications within GNU/Linux!

Most computers will work with GNU/Linux, but you can search online for information about any issues with a particular computer model. You can also just purchase a new GNU/Linux-dedicated computer from any of the companies listed at LinuxPreloaded.com.

GNU/Linux audio is a bit different from other systems but is modular and flexible. Though the basic audio software works well enough without hassle, there are advanced tools for serious music production. I recommend (and use myself) the superb KXStudio, which is essentially a pre-compiled collection of GNU/Linux audio software along with powerful tools for configuring and working with the system. It includes everything from synthesizers to recording programs to special effects and more.

KXStudio can be installed as its own GNU/Linux distribution with a simple download which is then enabled on a USB drive or burned to DVD. Alternatively, the KXStudio repositories can be added to any system that is itself based on the Debian GNU/Linux distribution (including any Ubuntu-based distro). Also, the Cadence tools, which are the heart of KXStudio, will work on any distribution of GNU/Linux. All of this a work in progress, but it is already very powerful and capable. Documentation and beginner tutorials are in progress as well.

I am happy to advise any student interested in trying GNU/Linux, and there are also many helpful community forums online of all sorts. For audio, check out linuxmusicians.com. A reference wiki is at wiki.linuxaudio.com. and see also this this full list of Linux-related audio groups. There's also a new project creating guides: libremusicproduction.com

Regarding iOS (iPhone/iPod/iPad) and Android systems:

Before moving to GNU/Linux, I mostly used Macs, but Apple's secrecy and locked-down control went past the tipping point for me when they introduced the iOS. The iOS system (iPhone/iPod/iPad) requires users to go through Apple for their software, a situation called a walled garden. This makes support, security, and profit easier for Apple — at the expense of user freedom. As Richard Stallman puts it:
"Apple iThings pioneered a new level of restricting the users: they were the first general purpose computers to impose censorship over what programs the user can install." [source]
Apple has used this control to lock users in, violate their privacy, and embed a whole advertising system into the software. The idea that a simple guitar tuner program now flashes ads at you is frustrating enough. For me, the most troubling issue is that Apple's Terms of Service are incompatible with many Free Software licenses, thus effectively blocking the use and development of FLOSS for iOS. Essentially, the FLOSS licenses guarantees certain rights (see above), but Apple wants to add further restrictions. So, Apple simply blocks anyone from installing any software that requires sticking to FLO terms. You can read more about this here.

Although users can legally bypass many of Apple's restrictions by jailbreaking their devices, this is not a real solution. Apple does all they can to stop jailbreaks, and if only a minority of users jailbreak their devices, it limits the size of the market for apps that require jailbreaking. Apple's policies are a sabotage of Free Software and an attack on the community. In opposition to a free market, Apple's App Store is a restricted market dictated by Apple with no checks and balances.

To read further, see the Electronic Frontier Foundation's article Apple's Crystal Prison and the Future of Open Platforms. Apple uses truly outrageous terms for any software included in their iOS app store. Also, for music concerns specifically, using Apple's iTunes and music-streaming service can result in complete loss of your music.

Google's Android system is somewhat better for freedom than Apple's iOS (and also better than Microsoft's Windows Phone). Android is based on the free/libre Linux kernel, and the base system is free/libre — although many of the programs and other system functions are not. Android devices allow users to install software from multiple sources without too much hassle. All Android users should install the fully free/libre alternative app repository F-Droid. With F-Droid, you can trust that every single app is FLOSS and not have to go through Google's store.

For those especially committed to software freedom, a first step is to root your Android device to have a little more control and use better ad-blocking. A further step is to install a more free system like OmniROM. It is possible to have that working without the proprietary Google Apps, but you can add those back also if you accept the compromise of your freedom and privacy. The process can be a bit screwy and varies from device to device. For hardcore software freedom, Replicant is a 100% Free/Libre version of Android that works on select devices if you accept (at this time) giving up things like wifi or video recording.

There are also some up-and-coming alternative portable systems that are freedom-respecting. Mozilla's FLOSS Firefox OS runs all features using the open standard HTML5. That potentially avoids platform lock-in. GNU/Linux is also coming to mobile devices via the Ubuntu Phone OS. Some of these may turn out to be similar to Android with a FLOSS base yet many proprietary elements and some other potential issues, we'll have to see. They are all generally more community-focused than Google.

Issues of freedom aside, both Android and iOS devices have tons of useful apps available for music students. There are apps for these devices for all the categories I'm addressing on this page. I would certainly hesitate to buy separate chord-chart books or guitar tuners before considering the options for your device. Unfortunately, the options can be confusing and overwhelming. Android and iOS systems have incredible numbers of apps (the vast majority of which are redundant clutter, mediocre gimmicks and app versions of fully functional websites). While many apps are worthwhile, others are a scheme designed to get you hooked in and then sell you more features or content; and free/gratis (i.e. not libre) apps commonly show (obnoxious) ads. I have not evaluated the options, but if you know of particular apps that you feel truly deserve mention here, please let me know.

UPDATE 2014: Although the options are still much smaller than the generic app store, I just learned that F-Droid (the fully FLOSS app collection for Android, mentioned above) a good metronome and a great strobe tuning app! VLC is also available for simple speed change for playback.

Concerns about the future of OS X and Windows desktop systems

The introduction of the Mac App Store now has OS X moving toward the walled garden of iOS. Apple says that they will never restrict OS X quite as much, but while this may be technically true so far, they have implemented anti-competitive designs to effectively lock-down their monopoly in the OS X world as well.

OS X users can still adjust their system to install whatever software they like, but the system default is for Apple-approved installations only and a scary message if anyone even considers trying something else (see article at EFF). The dominance of the Mac App Store means that developers will have to play by Apple's dictated rules if they want to reach the widest audience.

The latest OS X version is also full of built-in connections to services like Facebook which are based on spying on users in order to display ads. Facebook is itself a closed system which works in opposition to the values of an open internet. We can now expect our computers to be always advertising at us even when we don't actively access the internet.

If you still aren't convinced about Apple's anti-freedom direction, consider that the latest Apple hardware now uses non-standard pentalobular screws just to stop users from upgrading or repairing their own machines. Some MacBook models even glue in the battery, so it is virtually impossible to replace, and this planned obsolescence lowers the machine's life-span.

Using Apple's otherwise high-quality products means losing freedoms and becoming locked in to their restrictive platforms. At the same time when technology could be more freeing than ever, we are facing digital feudalism imposed by unethical monopolies and oligopolies.

Despite the marvellous technology, I am ending my own use Apple products. I am not happy with this situation. I will miss a lot of wonderful programs that offer real value. I wish we had legal protections of user freedom and privacy. If Apple were forced to respect these rights of users and the community, then I might consider Apple products again. Side note: OS X users can take a tiny step to protect a little more privacy by following the advice at fix-macosx.com.

Microsoft Windows, of course, presents its own complex issues for freedom. Microsoft has a long history of monopolistic business practices and an anti-freedom philosophy, and now they are following Apple's lead toward locking-down the systems even more. With Windows 10, they have moved to the most invasive, controlling system yet — it spies on users and tracks their every action. And then there are the problems with Windows viruses and other malware — issues which the much more secure GNU/Linux handles dramatically better…

For the time being, both OS X and Windows still retain the ability to install FLOSS programs, and there are admittedly some advantages to using the most popular systems. I don't expect everyone to switch to GNU/Linux right away. For those who do switch, the GNU/Linux systems have built-in tools for managing and discovering software. Once inside the GNU/Linux world, it is easier to be aware of the options for FLOSS and identify what is Free/Libre and what is proprietary.

For those who continue to use Apple and Microsoft systems, my recommendations below emphasize FLOSS resources that are compatible with Windows and Mac OS. Many programs here are also GNU/Linux compatible, and not all the suggestions here are strictly FLOSS).


General recommendations for all computing:

The one program I strongly recommend for every computer is f.lux (Free/gratis, Mac/Win; on GNU/Linux use Redshift instead). This software adjusts your screen color (not just brightness) based on time of day to make it healthier for your eyes under indoor lighting. It is fully user-adjustable. I love this and would not want to go back to using any computer without it.

[F.lux is available for Apple's iOS, but its functions don't fit Apple's restrictions, so Apple doesn't allow users to install it! To install f.lux for iOS, you have to jailbreak your device. The f.lux website has old instructions on this although it may not work for the latest versions of iOS. Jailbreaking is free and legal, but it wouldn't be necessary if Apple didn't try to stop users from running this in the first place.

For Android, there are dozens of different apps, but none that I have found are FLOSS. Several are gratis though. Generally, they do not work as well in default mode because they add color instead of subtracting, thus it brightens the black colors, so the result is not so good. For supported devices that have full root access, some of the apps can actually do it the right way. I wish the clutter would go away. I can't tell what's best of the many redundant apps. A fully FLOSS version would be ideal. Anyway, you can search the Google app store or Amazon app store for things like "flux" and "eye health"… "Twilight" seems popular…]

Online privacy:


To be in control of my web browsing, I use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. DuckDuckGo is a simple, clean search engine that doesn't track or bubble you and has many useful features (for example, you can search other sites instantly with "!bang" syntax such as "!w" for Wikipedia).

I also use the FLOSS Firefox web browser which has features including security and privacy protection, password management, syncing of history and bookmarks across many devices, and more.

Within Firefox (although this works for other browsers as well), I use the FLOSS ad-blocker and privacy-protection plugin uBlock which stops nearly all advertising (even video ads) and blocks other tracking. You can whitelist particular websites if you prefer to allow their ads — you are in control. uBlock is also available for Chrome and Chromium.

For complete listings of freedom and privacy tools, especially for advanced users, check out prism-break.org.


Task Coach is a nice FLOSS task management/to-do/organizing software. It is cross-platform (Mac/Win/Linux) and has a companion iOS app that syncs to the main program. A companion Android app is in the works by a third party developer and is somewhat usable as well.

Task Coach is powerful yet flexible. The features include limitless levels of subtasks, marking prerequisites, time tracking, flexible priorities, reminders, schedules, tags, sorting, notes, and more. Organizing systems like GTD can be easily implemented, but no particular system is forced on you.

Though powerful, Task Coach is far from perfect. There are many bugs to fix and hundreds of feature requests that the small team working in their spare time cannot get to. Since 2012, I have been on the team volunteering to help where I can. Anyway, please try it out, be patient getting used to it, feel free to ask questions, report bugs, request features, and otherwise get on task, track your time, and be productive!

Other general tools:

Finally, just a quick mention of the best FLOSS options for non-music stuff (all cross-platform for Mac/Win/Linux):
  • LibreOffice: a powerful suite for all types of office and school work: word processing, basic graphics, presentations, spreadsheet, charts, database, and more.
  • Inkscape: for vector-based illustration and other graphics
  • GIMP: for raster-based graphics like photo editing
  • MyPaint and/or Krita: illustration and virtual painting/drawing
  • Blender: a complete 3D graphics, animation studio, and video editor
  • Scribus: for page-layout, publications
  • Open Clip-Art Library: a huge online library of public domain, unrestricted images
Most types of tools have FLOSS options, and not only are these more ethical but in some cases are technically superior to proprietary options. A great way to explore is to use alternativeto.net (note: for that site, "Open Source" refers to FLOSS, and "Free" means zero-price but proprietary).


Hardware: audio recording

In addition to what I've written here, another simple introductory resource is the well-illustrated hardware section of the Audacity manual (the first software program listed below under recording software).

Most computers today include a microphone, and the sound can be adequate for practice feedback or playing around. However, built-in mics pick up the nearby noise from the computer. The most important factor to good sound is to get the microphone close to the sound source and away from unwanted noise.

The built-in 3.5mm jack on most computers works okay with two types of sources: (A) dynamic microphone(s) and (B) stereo line-level sources from electronic instruments, mixers, or other preamps. Though far from optimal, direct connection of electric guitar or similar instruments is also possible.

The cheapest functional option is to get a budget mic designed for computers. While not ideal, any external mic allows you to get the away from the noise of the computer and closer to the sound source.

Note: computer-focused mics usually have 3.5mm plugs, but it is common for other lower-end mics to have larger 1/4" plugs. There are also microphones now with built-in USB connections. Professional mics use XLR plugs designed to work with an appropriate interface or microphone preamp (see "better studio recording" below).

For larger microphones (as opposed to the little lapel style), you'll want a good mic stand and appropriate mic clip(s) in order to record with your hands free (such as while playing an instrument).

Electronic instruments, mixers, or other preamps
Electronic instruments like digital piano or line-level outputs from a mixer or other preamp can simply be plugged into your computer's mic jack (with appropriate cables/adapters if necessary). Make sure to turn the gain (sometimes called "boost") down in the computer's settings (on some systems, just switch the setting from "mic" to "line") and set the volume output from the keyboard, mixer, or preamp.

Recording electric guitar or similar instruments
For basic recording or sound effects, it is possible to plug electric guitars directly into a computer's built-in input using the right adapters. The sound can be a bit noisy but acceptable for basic recording, and the output can go to a speaker or headphones, so no separate guitar amp is necessary. Some of the noise comes from the input having the wrong impedance for the guitar signal. To correct this, one option is to use a guitar preamp such as a mixer with a true guitar input, or the line-out on some guitar amps or appropriate guitar pedals or effects units. The output from the preamp can then go into the computer's audio in jack.

For low-noise guitar sound without a separate preamp, there are under $20 guitar-to-USB interfaces that provide proper impedance. These interfaces can also directly link input and output (the setting in this case is done in on your computer, whereas some interfaces have a physical switch). This bypasses the computer's processing to remove any latency while monitoring your playing.

Some guitar multi-effects pedals include USB audio interfaces. For amps with USB, consider the Fender Mustang line which ranges from the least expensive Mustang I to the optionally-battery-powered Mustang Mini to several larger amps. In addition to USB audio, the Mustang amps include a wide range of built-in effects, and the settings can be saved and tweaked with software (and the PLUG project brings these features to GNU/Linux).

Better studio recording

For more serious recording, there are higher-quality audio interfaces ranging from around $60 to over $1000. These interfaces have built-in preamps, XLR mic inputs, basic mixing controls, and sometimes built-in effects and other features.

For electric guitar or similar, look for mention of "guitar" or "hi-Z" unless you plan to use a separate preamp. For microphones, anything with specific mic inputs will work, but phantom power is required for condenser mics (which are used for their high-sensitivity and crisp studio sound). When moving beyond intro-level interfaces into professional quality, there are a range of picky details to consider.

I recommend "class compliant" hardware that works well with GNU/Linux for those already using that or wanting to consider switching. Of options there, the highest quality sound for reasonable enough price is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4, and a good budget option (functional, clean signal, just not as premium sounding) is Behringer UMC202HD. Those both have two inputs and preamps and standard options otherwise. For an interface with more inputs, all with built-in preamps that all work with hi-Z inputs, and is still USB-bus powered, consider the Behringer UMC404HD.

Hardware: MIDI controllers etc.

The other common music hardware used with computers are controllers which can play computer-based instrument synthesizers and samplers, enter notes in notation and sequencer software, and activate software commands. Your computer's alphanumeric keyboard is a type of controller and lots of programs include settings to actually play musical tones using your computer keyboard. However, the precision, expression, and options from dedicated music controllers is much better.

Many digital piano-style keyboards (even many used keyboards as much as 30+ year-old) include a MIDI interface. Newer models sometimes include a USB connector as well. For keyboards with a MIDI connection but no USB, USB-MIDI Cable Converters are available under $5. Thus, an old keyboard or your state of the art digital piano can both be used to control and input musical data to your computer.

Piano-style controllers that are dedicated for computer use are also available, many of which are powered by USB. These include tiny truly portable keyboards, smallest of which are 2-octave 25-keys as well as medium and larger keyboards up to full 88 piano keys. Other music controllers include DJ and mixing controls, foot-pedal options, drum pads, electronic drum sets, guitar-style controllers, and even controllers based on wind instruments. More expensive options may include specialized features like aftertouch (expressive control after pushing a key down). You can explore all the mainstream options online at many sites such as the MIDI Controllers section of Amazon.com. There are also many less-mainstream controllers out there (e.g. the Tonal Plexus, mentioned below in the section on ear-training and theory).

With these controllers, your computer can be a full expressive musical instrument able to be performed with live; or they can simply assist the process of inputting and adjusting notes and parameters while creating and recording music.

Other hardware notes

Some sort of headphones are necessary to hear recorded tracks while adding new ones with a microphone. Over-the-ear closed headphones offer further sound isolation. I suggest also having external speakers (ideally dedicated studio monitors, although any decent stereo speaker system or external computer speakers will be better than a computer's built-in speakers). Once you get started, there are lots of resources out there for learning more about recording tools and techniques. Most hardware works with Windows or Mac. For GNU/Linux, all the options above work; if you are considering other choices, it is best to get advice or check wiki.linuxaudio.org to see whether specific interfaces are compatible.

Audio recording software:

Audio recording can help with music practice and offers amazing creative possibilities. Computer software is by far the most flexible tool and offers much more features than separate dedicated audio recorders. Audio software can also be used to play and edit lesson recordings. I generally record all my lessons and transfer the files to students on a USB flash drive. Instead of just listening the whole lesson, however, specific parts of a recording may be clipped out and saved separately.

Audacity is a FLOSS audio recording and editing program for Mac, Windows, and GNU/Linux.
Audacity is great for basic audio recording, editing, multi-track mixing, effects, and more. It can also open and save in a wide-range of file formats and can use many add-on plugins. I recommend it to everyone. Audacity is the best simple introduction to recording and offers lots of depth as you dig in.

For more advanced music production, mixing, and effects, check out Ardour (Mac/Win/Linux, FLOSS), a robust full Digital Audio Workstation. Ardour emphasizes asking for donations before letting users download fully-working version, but it is fully free/libre/open-source which means that anyone who gets a copy of the software can share it freely with everyone else. In fact, GNU/Linux users often get it from system packages at no charge. So, everyone can legally use Ardour fully without donating, but for the convenience of an easy download, the developers ask for donations — which is reasonable enough as the software is high quality and takes a lot of dedicated work to create and update. I recommend Ardour as the best option for anyone doing more complex audio recording than can be easily handled in Audacity.

Although proprietary (not FLOSS), an honorable mention goes to REAPER as another professional multi-track audio and MIDI sequencer (Mac/Win and can work under GNU/Linux via Wine). REAPER allows unrestricted trial with the honor-system requirement that you pay the $60 non-commercial license fee if you decide to keep using it. REAPER offers a lot of high-quality features, a set of effect plugins, and various advantages in some respects over Ardour (though the reverse is true as well).

Garageband: If you have a Mac that came with it or have this for iOS, Garageband works great for many things. The main benefits of Garageband are ease of getting started, lots of ready-to-go loops and effects, and aesthetic appeal. But Garageband has restrictions and simplifications that partly reduce its creative potential. And it is not FLOSS nor does it respect the other values I've expressed here.

GNU/Linux options: I am not emphasizing GNU/Linux software here, but alongside Ardour, additional options include Rosegarden, MusE, and Qtractor. These and others are included or easily installed in KXStudio (mentioned above).

Audio effects plugins:

After getting the basics of recording and editing working, you can visit KVRAudio.com or Hitsquad.com for their huge databases of plug-ins and related software. Search options can specify types of effects such as distortion or reverb, or virtual instruments (electronic synthesizers or samplers), free/gratis plugins, compatibility with your operating system, and other parameters. These plugins can be installed to add further options beyond the built-in effects in Audacity, Ardour, REAPER, Garageband, or other programs (which are also listed in these databases).

The most common plugin type is called VST (for Virtual Studio Technology), and is cross-platform. There are other types such as Audio Unit (AU) on OS X and LV2 on GNU/Linux. Installing plugins varies based on what system you are using, but it is mostly a matter of just unzipping the files and putting them in the right folder. Some plugins come with installers that take care of this. The VST and AU frameworks are unfortunately proprietary, so they are not widely supported by free/libre/open developers. NOTE: GNU/Linux users who install KXStudio (see above) will automatically have a large set of FLOSS plugins and effects, but you can additionally download Windows-based VST plugins and many will run successfully within GNU/Linux through WINE.

Plugin effects can be used for live playing outside of recording and sequencing software. There is a powerful FLOSS framework called JACK which allows any program or effect to be plugged into each other in any order using virtual cables. JACK is primarily for GNU/Linux, where it has the most support and compatibility, although versions exist for Mac and Windows. With JACK, audio input can be sent to plugins and the result sent to speakers, and prerecorded audio or programmed drum beats or anything else from multiple programs can be all synced together and the mix can be controlled. For a simpler program with some of JACK's features, try PedalBoard2 (FLOSS, Mac/Win). This is good for live performance or just playing around and testing plugins.


Audio speed/pitch change for practice and learning:

The ability to slow-down recordings for practice is very useful. Also, speeding up is useful for lesson recordings so students can quickly review their lessons (also for quickly studying song form!). Pitch-change is useful to adjust songs to match capo changes.

Audacity (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux, see above under audio recording) can handle this with "change pitch" and "change tempo" effect options.

Note: Audacity also a setting called "Sliding Time-Scale / Pitch Shift" which can create the effect of speeding up or slowing down (or sliding pitch) over time. The "sliding" effect uses a superior algorithm which takes longer but sounds better than the "change…" effects, and you can set a steady speed or pitch with the "sliding" algorithm by making the end and beginning amounts the same.

Note: many advanced studio recording programs, such as REAPER (see above), include pitch and speed changing features, but they are overkill and the wrong tool for just studying recordings or practicing.

The simplest program for pitch and tempo change is Slow MP3, which is a free/gratis (but not libre/open-source) Java applet (thus cross-platform). It has limited features but good sound and simple interface. As the name implies, Slow MP3 opens only MP3 files (and not all encodings) and only slows but does not speed up.

Stretch Player for GNU/Linux (FLOSS) is a similar limited-but-easy program which opens many formats but not mp3 (this is because the mp3 format is actually burdened by problematic patent restrictions — learn more about this issue at xiph.org and the related vorbis.com). Play It Slowly is a similar simple program for GNU/Linux that does play mp3 along with other formats, but the system it uses doesn't sound quite as nice.

The FLOSS program VLC (Mac/Win/Linux/Android) is already the best all around media player for all sorts of file formats. VLC also has a simple control for playback speed. Because it handles video too, you can slow down video performances for careful study or speed-up instructional videos or lectures to save time. Note: You can download audio or videos from YouTube videos and to then open in VLC by using the Firefox extension YouTube MP3 Podcaster (or any of several competing plugins).

Among the best sounding and most fully featured programs is the FLOSS Sonic Visualiser (Mac/Win/Linux). The tempo is controlled by a simple knob. It also has many additional advanced features for audio analysis. Notably, Sonic Visualiser has a greater speed range — both slower and faster — than any similar program. Pitch change isn't as simple but can be achieved easily with optional plugins. Users of KXStudio (GNU/Linux) will have access within Sonic Visualiser to the whole range of included plugins, and the best for pitch change is probably the Rubber Band plugin.

There are also many proprietary software options dedicated to learning and practicing with recordings (including apps for iOS, e.g. AnyTune, and Android some of which are free/gratis but have ads). The best proprietary tools feature high-quality sound, easy controls for looping, changing tempo and pitch, additional tools for identifying pitches, marking song sections, and more. The overall best is Transcribe from Seventh String Software (Mac/Win/Linux, $39 — note: license purchase is system-specific, i.e. must purchase separately for Mac vs Win vs GNU/Linux). Transcribe has a large range of features, is easy to use, and also handles video. Capo (Mac, iOS) is also great, more guitar-oriented, and has a very clean and simple interface.

Music notation software:

Notation software is designed to work with the Western music staff, guitar tablature, or sometimes other notation styles that represent music symbolically. In many cases, writing notes with paper and pencil is great, but software offers valuable features. Notes can be entered for any number of different instruments, and then the computer can play the music. It is like word-processing for music, with copy, paste and many other edit functions, but with additional control over computer playback. Some programs also have many additional features to support instrument practice.

Musescore is the premier FLOSS notation and composition program for Mac/Win/Linux. Musescore is especially great for printing, but also plays the score.

Notes can be entered with mouse, computer keyboard, or with an external MIDI Keyboard. All manner of time-signatures and rhythmic groupings are possible. Individual notes can also be independently edited (though a bit tediously) for exact timing, volume, and tuning. Musescore also handles lyrics, drum tracks, guitar tablature, and more.

The other great option for high-quality notation printing is the FLOSS program GNU Lilypond which produces supreme scores with a text-based input interface. There are also a some graphical front-ends for Lilypond such as Denemo and Frescobaldi.

Tux Guitar is a FLOSS guitar-based tablature/notation program for Mac/Win/Linux (and also can run directly on the web). Everything is based in tablature, though it can be hidden to see only notation. Includes basic sounds; a drum pattern editor; and a virtual guitar neck which shows chords, scales, and the location of notes in a song. The guitar neck can be also be used for entering notes. Fretted instrument with other tunings and numbers of strings are also supported. Adjustable pitch-bending and other effects are included.
Tux Guitar can import files from many proprietary formats including Guitar Pro (v5 & older), TablEdit, and PowerTab. Music in these formats can be found online for an extremely large selection of music, particularly for pop/rock music (see online resources below).

Tux Guitar vs MuseScore: Musescore 2 now covers many of the functions of Tux Guitar including file import and tablature. Musescore is likely to eventually include nearly all the Tux Guitar features, but currently there are still some elements of Tux Guitar worth using.

Guitar  Pro
Among the most popular from a number of proprietary guitar-tab focused programs, Guitar Pro (Mac/Win/Linux, $60). This is the program the free Tux Guitar is mainly modeled after. Guitar Pro has much higher sound quality, adjustable effects, better printouts, and a nice-looking interface. It does most of what Tux Guitar does along with additional features. One notable benefit over Tux Guitar is the ability to incorporate non-fretted instruments without forcing them to be based in tablature. It is specifically designed around guitar and pop/rock/folk type ensembles but can also do piano/keyboard, bass, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, drums, woodwind, brass, classical strings, and percussion. The main benefit is the superb sound quality, including effects and special techniques. It can handle most any guitar notation, though not everything is fully editable or customizable. Tablature can be hidden if desired.
Demo can be tried but nothing can be saved without purchase. Be aware that this is a large program requiring a lot of drive space. Printouts are decent, but less adjustable than MuseScore or other notation-focused programs.
Basically Guitar Pro is a better version of Tux Guitar for those who like that type of guitar-oriented approach and are willing to pay for higher quality sounds, more appealing layout, and better support for other instruments.

Harmony Assistant from Myriad Software (proprietary, Mac/Win/Linux) is like an older version of MuseScore with a wide range of quirky unique features. Like MuseScore, H.A. offers detailed control over all sorts of elements. It offers more control over sound and effects, more markings, and plays back more articulations. It costs $85, but that is a one-time charge—Myriad software doesn't charge fees for any updates ever (unlike most other commercial software), but note that the license is platform specific (you have to pay again to switch from Mac to Linux, for example).
H.A. also has many of the features of Tux Guitar, including tablature, guitar-neck interface, and the ability to import Guitar Pro files. It also has some additional features including:
  • Virtual singer, $25 extra (again, only one-time charge; functional demo is included in regular program). This sings lyrics, though it sounds funny. It is extremely adjustable. Advanced users can use recording capabilities to make a model based on their own voice. It is good along with H.A.'s microtonal tuning capabilities (which are comparable to MuseScore).
  • Sounds for hundreds of instruments from around the world and the ability to expand more and even record your own.
  • Audio recording and editing that can be played alongside the notation.
  • Automatic arranging features
  • Adjustable sound effects
Overall, H.A. is a bit complex and has an interface that is dated. I hope Musescore eventually adds more of the deeper features of H.A. because Musescore's interface is nicer and I prefer the FLOSS licensing

Sibelius/Finale/Notion and others...
There are many other programs, notably some expensive ones. The most popular high-end programs are Finale, Sibelius, and Notion. They all include very professional instrument sounds with subtle variations that are used to play different sounds for different markings in the score. They also run plugins in VST or AU formats (mentioned above under audio-recording), and thus have an unlimited variety of sound outputs including everything from professionally-recorded orchestral and ethnic samples to the latest complex techno synthesizers. They also offer various types of "humanized" playback where either the computer creates more subtle interpretations in dynamics and rhythm, and/or the user can choose to "conduct" the score by tapping a key. None of these features are currently available in less expensive products.
These all are available in discounted versions that are okay in some ways but intentionally limited. List prices for full, unlimited versions cost hundreds of dollars. These companies also charge substantial fees for regular updates. For really getting into composition, preparing scores and parts for large ensembles, or creating really high-quality sounding audio for movie soundtracks and such, these may be worthwhile. However, MuseScore now competes with these in *some* respects (and is better in a few ways), and I hope it will eventually grow to compete with these proprietary products for playback and other features.

There are a handful of additional programs out there each with their own quirks, some more dedicated to avante-garde contemporary notation. Many may warrant some attention, but I don't have time to discuss them further here. 

Sequencers, loopers, and other composing software:

Although audio recording software and music notation software both are used in composing and creative purposes, they are often dedicated to musical activities that aren't primarily computer-based. Other software is more focused on computer-generated music including programming instructions for MIDI note playback, loop triggering, and more. Many multi-function programs like REAPER and others (mentioned above under audio recording) are actually sequencers combined with audio recording. Music notation programs also do much of the same things as sequencers, except the notation programs are more focused on preparing visual symbols for printing and display. Many sequencer programs also include some traditional notation as well. So there is a lot of overlap, and the distinctions are confusing.

Put simply, if your goal is to work with traditional notation or tablature, go with notation software. If you want to record live performances or just mix and edit recordings, go with audio recording software. If your goal is control over the details of how the computer generates sound, consider sequencers and loopers.

Aria Maestosa (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux) is a good basic sequencer for beginners. It has the traditional "piano roll" view which lays out pitches vertically and shows timing horizontally using lines of different lengths. It also has an excellent notation mode but is not appropriate for preparing printouts. The drum sequencer mode is nice. It is a good tool for record live keyboard input. It offers some odd rhythms and changing time signatures.

Ear Training and Theory

For learning the standard stuff that most people think of as "music theory," there are many resources. The vast majority are based on the assumption that the piano and the Western major scale are the basis of music. While familiarity with that classical system is useful (especially in communicating with others who have that background), it is a flawed approach to understanding music overall.

The assumptions made in most music theory and ear-training are problematic and often make the subject confusing and frustrating even for students interested only in Western music. A particular concern is the flawed idea of identifying individual intervals completely out of context. My own experience is that intervals are heard mainly in relation to their categorical function, not as pure musical distances (see my article on Absolute vs Relative Pitch). That said, among the best starting points for this common flawed approach to music theory is the popular website musictheory.net which is licensed as Creative Commons.

For traditional ear-training (i.e. out-of-context testing of different intervals and chords etc.), the best FLOSS option is GNU Solfege (Windows and GNU/Linux compatible — Mac is possible but installation involves complex advanced setup). GNU Solfege does the full gamut of traditional ear-training tests as well as several extra tests for rhythms, tempos, and more.

Another option for traditional music theory/jargon/notation is the interactive textbook combined with exercises LenMus Phonascus.

Another nice program is Nootka, (FLOSS, Win/Mac/Linux). Nootka is guitar-oriented but works with other instruments or with vocals. It is a training / testing program for standard notation. It tests inputting of different notes, location on guitar fretboard, and it will recognize notes when played into a microphone. It includes some flexible exercises and quizzes.

A good overall intro book on music theory is Music and Memory: An Introduction by Bob Snyder. It does not teach the generic Western music jargon at all, but actually describes theories about what music really is as we perceive it. Though far from basic or simplified, it makes no assumptions of the reader having any prior music theory knowledge. Snyder describes the basic ways that the human mind experiences music over time and groups events into pitches, melodies, rhythms, and more. It is completely universal in scope rather than focusing on any particular music culture. Readers will even gain insight into the nature of human consciousness. The one major element of music not addressed by Snyder is harmony. For harmony and many other subjects, there are other books and resources I recommend, and I hope to organize a separate page of book reviews in the future.

For the study of pitch, one tool I use in my teaching is a Tonal Plexus keyboard from H-Pi Instruments. With its unique 205-pitches-per-octave layout, it is unique in being visually clear, flexible for accessing any pitch, and more precise and consistent than completely continuous-pitch instruments (though it is not as easy to control smooth gliding and lacks other dynamic subtlety). It is connected to Western theory, but is capable of playing any non-Western tuning. The maker also produces some software for anyone to explore tuning.

Perhaps the best pitch-related software out there is Alt-tuner (proprietary, Mac/Win and Linux via WINE). It works within REAPER or via a plugin bridge called ReaJS. Unfortunately, it isn't available even in a demo version, but it's really excellent overall. It can visualize and perform a wide range of tunings that can be adjusted readily using any regular MIDI keyboard.

For a free, simple tool that is probably the simplest start for exploring just intonation, see tommudd.co.uk/JustIntonation. That tool works on Mac and Windows and Linux via WINE. It simply allows one to play various pitches on the regular computer keyboard.

I also have some music theory / ear-training projects of my own that are just getting started, but it is too early to provide any time-frame on when they'll be available...

Jam tracks, drum beats, metronomes, tuners, and more

There are countless basic metronome programs (including built-in metronomes with many of the software listed above), mobile apps, and websites, but nothing else compares to the phenomenal Bounce Metronome.

Bounce is Windows-native but has been adapted to work with WINE under GNU/Linux (and maybe also Mac). This is proprietary software, but basic features are available at no charge. For $10, you can get more odd time signatures and additional features, and the full extensive program is a reasonable $30 for a lifetime license. Substantial discounts for education or low income users are available, and there is a 30 day free trial. Also, the license is not restricted a single computer, it is a fair and flexible license. This is about as ethical as software can be short of being real FLOSS.

Bounce Metronome provides the ultimate in visualization for beat with many different features found nowhere else. The visualizations are unparalleled for basic metronome use. Plus, it has support for a huge range of different visual presentations, uneven beats, world-music rhythms, poly-rhythms, complete range of swing, even lengthening of the final beat of each measure (something live musicians commonly do). The power and versatility is mind-blowing. It has full Flamenco rhythm circle options, African drum beats, Afro-cuban beats, all varieties of polyrhythms, and novel things like rhythms connected to the harmonic series. It is quite simply the most remarkable software for rhythmic music study. Check out the enormous selection of Bounce Metronome demonstration videos which are educationally and artistically valuable on their own merit!

Beyond metronomes, music that is worth practicing with a steady beat can be fun and engaging with a good drum beat (even for classical music practice). I recommend the Hydrogen drum sequencer (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux). Hydrogen is simple to start at first, just to write your own simple drum loop, but it has many advanced features. It can vary the sounds in many ways, play with a swing rhythm, arrange complex shifting patterns, and download many free extra sound sets. It can also arrange full songs with changing drum patterns. Hydrogen even is a full sampler with an interface for adding your own sound sets.

Beyond just drum beats, a jam track is a full musical backing, often in a particular style and structure, such as a 12-bar blues. Some programs include demos with jam loops. Or, search online for free jam tracks, and you will find lots of resources. Some are Creative Commons licensed, some not. Some are tied to sites with obnoxious advertising, some less so. Students can also simply jam along with any music, of course, whether intended for this purpose or not. There are tons of interesting music and sound resources at the sites listed at creativecommons.org/music-communities. If anyone knows of any more specific community-oriented jam-track sites that are not just limited gimmicks to promote commercial products, please let me know.

Singing training, karaoke / rock-band games

There are many reasons people may be skeptical of the popular guitar hero and karaoke type video games: the excessive focus on prescriptive right/wrong notes, emphasis on social ideals of fame and glory over community participation, pop-music industry focus over other musical styles; and so on; but these games offer some real positives as well. Rock band games encourage musical involvement, active listening, social participation, some legitimate skill building, and they are fun.

As an alternative to the commercial, proprietary games, there are FLOSS options (though not as well supported as would be nice). Performous (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux) is a complete program with karaoke, guitar, bass, drum, and dance modes. It can use any microphone, a computer's normal keyboard, or any of the specialized USB hardware sold for the proprietary games. The program comes with just a few songs (all Creative Commons licensed), but more can be downloaded from the website or elsewhere online. You can add your own songs with its composer tool. It actually uses file formats designed for other FLOSS games: Frets on Fire (a guitar game), Frets On Fire X (altered version with full band features), and UltraStar Deluxe (a karaoke game). All these games are more complex to set up than some software, but they bring FLOSS ideals and community engagement to this idiom of gaming.

Though karaoke games give feedback on pitch, they aren't as flexible or practical for serious singing practice. For visual feedback on pitch for singers, try Canta (FLOSS, Windows-only, but works w/ WINE for Mac and GNU/Linux). Canta works either open-ended or connected to songs in MIDI format. While Canta only uses standard 12-tone tempered tuning, it is perfectly functional as long as the user knows that sometimes pitches other than the "correct" ones can be musically desirable.

On GNU/Linux, there is also a nice FLOSS program called Free Music Instrument Tuner. FMIT gives feedback for tuning vocals as well as for any instrument, and it includes visualizations of harmonic spectrum, Just Intonation tuning, and more.

Online resources:

blanksheetmusic.net  - customize and print sheet music for free. Younger students who want a larger staff can choose that, and it can do tab, notation and various combinations.

One of the most popular of a huge number of guitar-related websites out there. Ultimate-guitar has free user-submitted chords and tabs for all sorts of guitar music. Being tab-focused, the majority are pop-music related, but there's lots more including jazz, classical, flamenco, etc. Many are available as downloadable "Guitar Pro" and "Power Tab" files that can be opened in Tux Guitar or Guitar Pro (Harmony Assistant also opens Guitar Pro files). None of this is the same as carefully edited scores designed for professional publication, but chord-sheets are great for simple strumming and tab and program files often are very detailed for specific work on particular pieces. Some of the pieces here are not available in any other form and there are certain advantages to using these program files that no book or recording can match. The site also features reviews, articles, and a forum (and lots of confusing ads and links, so try not to get overwhelmed). While the resources here are impressive, this is now still connected to the reactionary traditional music industry that seeks to control music publishing. I encourage everyone to instead focus on Creative Commons music rather than the traditional pop music emphasized here; but, to be practical, if you want to play traditional pop music, this is one of the best resources.

Free (no charge) Classical guitar scores (and other sheet music)
Here are just a small selection of the huge number of free music scores on the internet. Search and you can find complete scores of all the classic composers like Sor, Giuliani, Aguado, Coste, Tárrega, etc. The links here are well-organized enough to be accessible to students and easy to read. Some of the older public-domain material includes full instructional methods.

  • delcamp.net — Connected to the forum at classicalguitardelcamp.com, this community-generated collection of tons of PDFs and other resources is quite robust. The forum has more, and there's lots of stuff, though sometimes challenging to navigate or sort.
  • www.classicalguitarschool.net — hundreds of great pieces, well-engraved, easy to read, lots of the classics of great guitar composers, a few new pieces

  • Jürg Hochweber's guitar compositions — Swiss guitarist and composer's collections from absolute beginner to advanced, mix of pseudo- [classical, folk, flamenco, blues, jazz, and rock styles] all written for classical guitarists

  • International Music Score Library Project —Ambitious project to share all public domain sheet music. Mostly PDF scans of original publications, but there are also MIDI files, some other music files, some performance recordings… Lots of the classic etudes and other repertoire are available here. The site has the best open policies without real ads or anything else. I encourage everyone to contribute further. One great contribution would be to engrave the scans with MuseScore (see music notation section above) and upload your files to the IMSLP.
  • There are lots of other resources, of course. One worth checking is mutopiaproject.org. Please contact me if you know of other sites worth including here.
  • I know of one guitar method with a Creative Commons license, available here: cnx.org/content/col10421/1.2. Please let me know of other CC guitar method resources!

Free Music recordings and more:

There are many online resources for free music. One of the best is the non-profit public-library oriented Internet Archive (archive.org) which is mostly Creative Commons and public domain material. They have videos and recordings of many concerts, lots of other material, and it is all free, and they do not have ads like YouTube or other sites. Users can upload their own material to archive.org as well.

There are also many other resources listed at creativecommons.org/music-communities. There are also other great CC-music sites not listed there. Kompoz and FreeSound.org are especially great for samples and resources that can be used in your own creative projects. For a more extensive list of CC content sites, click here. Search online for "creative commons" music and you'll find still more sites, such as Split-notes.com — a free online "record label" dedicated to microtonal experimental music.

Beyond listening and sharing, music that is licensed under Creative Commons (with the exception of the no-derivatives license) may be altered, combined with your music, or used in other multimedia creative projects! Just be sure to follow the license guidelines, including credit for the original creator(s). With all these resources, you can easily find sounds for your own music, music for your videos, music for just listening, and more — all free (as in freedom).

Note: Look especially for the two truly Free Culture licenses: CC-BY and CC-BY-SA. The NC or ND restrictions are problematic even though they permit sharing the original work.

Public library:

In Ann Arbor, where I grew up and taught for many years, the Library is one of the best for any city of similar size. The resources are vast and there's something really satisfying about using real books instead of computers. I've reviewed nearly all the guitar methods and related books (a few hundred) that our library has, so I can recommend things when appropriate. They also have huge music CD collection, and instructional, historical, and concert DVDs. And since 2012, they have musical instruments and effects pedals etc.! The Toronto public library has some traditional instruments too!

Of course, one library can't have everything. The Michigan eLibrary online catalog allows you to quickly request titles from most libraries in the state and they will be delivered for you at no charge to your local library branch. I highly recommend utilizing these resources and only buying retail books when it truly makes sense.

Future for this page...

If you have any suggestions about resources you think should be mentioned here, please feel free to let me know. If you have trouble with or other opinions about the programs mentioned here, let me know. Thanks!

General note about all resources:

There are, as you know, seemingly infinite resources online. It may be worth trying all sorts of things. You can watch videos of great performers, chat with fellow students on forums, download various compositions, read about all sorts of related subjects on Wikipedia and elsewhere... I can tell you from personal experience how easy it is to get absorbed in all of this. Every choice you make is not only to engage in one thing but that also means not engaging in something else. Try to keep a balance between checking out new things and appreciating and progressing with what you already have going.

Of course, that is part of my job as a teacher: to provide direction and keep these things balanced for my students. I always welcome feedback and appreciate students who ask thoughtful questions and who are both self-motivated to make use of the resources out there and also willing to follow instructions and try suggestions.


Mark said...

What an excellent overview! Thank You.

Dark Horse said...

Agreed... Well done!

Karl Fogel said...

I know it's just a "me too" post, but: seconded (or thirded) -- well done!