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One frustrating Linux problem that Windows, Mac users don’t deal with

A rant on a particularly frustrating aspect of Linux - re-compiling the kernel.

Linux tux penguin
Credit: Linux

I don't often write about the ways Linux sucks – I usually save that for my yearly rant. The other 364.25 days of the year I prefer to focus on the things that I love about Linux. And there are plenty.

But today... today I need to rant. Because Linux has really pissed me off and deserves a punch to the face. Right on the nose.

I record a lot of audio, you see. Podcasts, interviews, audio books... my ability to sit down and record high-quality audio at my Linux workstation is critical. I may not do it every day, but definitely a few times every week.

And in order to do that, I need a good way to capture the audio from my (pretentious looking) microphone. So I turn to the solution that so many others in my position use: an external USB audio box.

For a while I opted to use the Steinberg UR-22, a modest little piece of gear – modest on price, modest on features – that met my needs quite admirably. Except for one little thing: no out-of-the-box support in any Linux distro on the planet.

But when has that ever stopped me in the past, right? I know how to compile the kernel, I'm a big boy. And this little box is pretty similar to other devices that have support in Linux. A few ducks later and I've got a simple patch in place and compiled. Luckily, other people have done some of the heavy lifting for me there – heck, there's even an Ubuntu bug report with the full code for the necessary patch to make the UR-22 work (in any Linux distro).

Problem solved. Right?

Oh, hell no.

What happens when you have to custom compile your Linux kernel to add support for some of your hardware... and then a kernel update becomes available in your chosen repository?

That's right. You have a decision to make. Update and need to re-compile your kernel again... or ignore the update and face possible security (or other) issues. And what about when there are a lot of updates available? Checking to make sure new kernel updates come through becomes a pain. Or, even worse, if you accidentally update the kernel and don't realize it, then your hardware stops working and you don't immediately know why.

Is that the worst thing in the world? No. But it’s a royal pain in the posterior.

And for a guy like me, who is constantly jumping between distros, desktop environments and kernel versions (for testing purposes), that posterior pain becomes rather acute.

So I ditched that UR-22. Put it off to the side and picked up a similar USB audio box (similar in almost every way that I care about) that is supposed to have better support under Linux – the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. Plugged that in and – WHAMO – instantly working in openSUSE, Ubuntu everywhere I tried it. I didn't have to compile a damned thing. It nearly brought a tear to my eye.

But then I did something... normal. Something that every one of us does a million times a day.

I switched applications.

That's all. I was in Firefox and I switched over to Audacity. Or Chromium. Or VLC. Because, you know, I multitask. Because my computer was invented after 1962.

That fancy little USB audio box freaked the heck out. It flashed its lights at me a few times and made some awesomely annoying popping sounds. Basically, it reset itself. And it does that every time a different application gets control of it.

It doesn't prevent me from getting my work done. I can still record a session in Audacity or Ardour (my audio applications of choice) and move on with my day.

But it's annoying. It sucks. Neither of these are problems that Windows or Mac users need to put up with. And that makes me want to flip a table.

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