As a musician and long time Linux user I have often found myself stuck between a rock and a Microsoft place, when it came to recording. With all the industry standard software being available only on two platforms and with many of the sound cards and interfaces available having elaborate binary drivers not available for Linux.The world of mixers, Mic's, proprietary hardware and its accompanying software seemed like one that that didn't have any room for Linux and its "volunteer" coders (cue snicker). That's how it seemed anyway and those of us wanting to set up a simple, yet capable recording studio, without studio dollars were faced with two options. Pirate or sacrifice.
I'm not one to justify piracy but I have seen more than a few small studio's running more pirated software than legal. Linux would seem like the perfect solution for these small studios with its zero price tag and innate adaptability, however things are rarely black and white and such is the case here. Many manufacturers of medium to high end audio hardware have been less than forthcoming with driver source code and related information, making it very difficult for members of the ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture) team to create fully featured drivers which maximize the abilities of the various cards on Linux systems. Leading open source audio projects Ardour, a 'Digital Audio Workstation' or DAW and Hydrogen, an 'Advanced Drum Machine, are also facing financial difficulties without major financial backers.Many projects are also struggling to get past the 0.x versions of their software and get out a stable 1.0 release.
All this being said, over the last two years since I last attempted to build a Linux based studio, the wheels have been moving at a rapid pace. There are now several distributions of Linux based on Debian and Redhat which are compiled and tuned with multimedia work in mind. The distribution I decided to focus on is the relative new-comer Studio 64. Studio 64 has risen from the embers of the Agnula Demudi project which seems to have been abandoned, although the Agnula mailing list is still alive and well serving the people still using Demudi and those that have migrated to Studio 64. The list is frequented by Studio 64 developers so the help available is relevant and informed. I went for Studio 64 for several reasons, which follow in order of importance to me personally:
Debian based - Although not an advantage for everyone, Debian is my distribution of choice for servers and desktops alike so I know the tools and the directory structure. Another reason Debian based Linux flavours seem to fare well in the real world is due to the excellent APT package management system which makes software installs and upgrades a snap.
Cutting Edge - As the name suggests Studio 64 is designed with the recently released affordable 64-Bit processors, from Intel and AMD, in mind. Although a 32-Bit version is also available which I used for testing.
Purpose Built - Although there are other excellent 'Multimedia' distributions such as Dynebolic, which cater to every kind of Multimedia production including audio, video and graphics. I want a dedicated recording studio box and Studio 64 seemed to be better aligned with my needs.
Stable - Studio 64 just reached 1.0, what better time to give it a run through its paces?
It is surprising to see that the Studio 64 1.0 release still uses the standard Debian text mode installer and appears to install the rest of the system via post-install scripts. This may discourage some intrepid new users who have never installed an operating system before, however anyone with an intermediate skill level and a standard setup should be able to find their way through without incident. The graphical installer from Etch is being investigated for the 2.0 release.
The decision to go with Gnome as the desktop is an interesting one as many of the other distributions in the specialist multimedia field have chosen one of the lightweight window managers to save CPU cycles. Gnome doesn't seem to have any performance hit here however and its inclusion makes the transition for new Linux migrants, ex Windows users in particular, a fairly painless one. The desktop gives a feeling of robustness and simplicity which will appeal to the technical types Studio 64 appears to be aimed at, XP, OSX and Vista users however will find the Desktop very dated looking.
Where many similar distributions have included virtually every package related to multimedia regardless of its quality and development state, the Studio 64 developers wisely chose to be a bit more picky. That being said there are still over twenty applications under the 'Sound & Video' menu. The applications that I found the most useful are detailed below. This is not a complete list, merely the tools that I found useful in the creation of a song.
JACK is a low-latency audio server, written for POSIX conformant operating systems such as GNU/Linux and Apple's OS X. It can connect a number of different applications to an audio device, as well as allowing them to share audio between themselves. Its clients can run in their own processes (ie. as normal applications), or can they can run within the JACK server (ie. as a "plug-in").
Jack Audio Connection Kit (qjackctl)
QjackCtl is a simple Qt application to control the JACK sound server daemon, specific for the Linux Audio Desktop infrastructure.Written in C++ around the Qt3 toolkit for X11, most exclusively using Qt Designer.Provides a simple GUI dialog for setting several JACK daemon parameters, which are properly saved between sessions, and a way control of the status of the audio server daemon. With time, this primordial interface has become richer by including a enhanced patch-bay and connection control features.
Ardour is a digital audio workstation. You can use it to record, edit and mix multi-track audio. Produce your own Cd's. Mix video soundtracks. Experiment with new ideas about music and sound.
Ardour capabilities include: multichannel recording, non-linear, non-destructive region based editing with unlimited undo/redo, full automation support, a mixer whose capabilities rival high end hardware consoles, lots of plug-ins to warp, shift and shape your music, and controllable from hardware control surfaces at the same time as it syncs to time-code. If you've been looking for a tool similar to ProTools, Nuendo, Cubase SX, Digital Performer, Samplitude or Sequoia, you might have found it.
A professional audio and MIDI sequencer, score editor, and general-purpose music composition and editing environment.
Rosegarden is an easy-to-learn, attractive application that runs on Linux, ideal for composers, musicians, music students, and small studio or home recording environments.
Hydrogen is an advanced drum machine for GNU/Linux. It's main goal is to bring professional yet simple and intuitive pattern-based drum programming.
JAMin is the JACK Audio Connection Kit (JACK) Audio Mastering interface. JAMin is an open source application designed to perform professional audio mastering of stereo input streams. It uses LADSPA for digital signal processing (DSP).
Recording a Song
Before doing anything else your sound card needs to be set up.I was using a fairly middle-of-the-road Creative Soundblaster Live Platinum, which Studio 64 set up automatically. Once I verified that the required ports were working I fired up Qjackctl and did some tweaking managing to trim my latency down to under ten milliseconds which I had never been able to do with my modest hardware under Windows.
I started using Ardour due to the fact that it seems to be the most advanced Digital Audio Workstation for Linux, however I eventually moved to the Rosegarden sequencer which was more like Cubase. Rosegarden provided all the functionality I needed to record audio and apply effects, while providing an interface which I was more familiar with. Ardour appeared to be aimed at far more advanced engineers than myself, however I plan to learn Ardour in the future as my skills and needs increase. Using Rosegarden for my recording also meant that I could compose my midi arrangements in tandem with my recordings, within the same application, which made the process extremely efficient. The midi features of Rosegarden were excellent but VST support would be appreciated.
For Drums the package Hydrogen is used. Hydrogen is, quite simply, the best drum machine I have ever used. It has a friendly, simple interface and several built in drum kits ranging from classic Roland beat-boxes to full acoustic kits. It uses a simple matrix editor that is easy for beginners to learn yet powerful enough for the most intricate beats. Hydrogen can also be patched through as an instrument for Rosegarden which is extremely useful.
Once you have composed and recorded your masterpiece, the next step is to master it. For this the package Jamin is included. Jamin can be quite intimidating for the new user unfamiliar with mastering tools. However, like most of the applications included, Jamin has an excellent project homepage with tutorials and installation instructions. I was able to learn enough on the Jamin website to get a mix that I was happy with using the informative on-line tutorials and tips.
The last step to recording a song is burning it to disk. For this Studio 64 includes the Gnome CD Master utility, I found this tool to be slightly archaic, considering the polish of the rest of the system, albeit usable. There are plans to include K3b in the future which would be an interface more people would probably be comfortable with. Gnome CD Master is however capable of getting your mix on to plastic which is the most important thing.
Studio 64 is a very encouraging step in the right direction and is at a very usable state. I have changed the window manager and added a few other tools using apt and now have a great looking system that squeezes every ounce of performance out of my hardware and works like a dream.
The latency patches to the kernel, coupled with other enhancements made to the operating system make it extremely hardware friendly compared to Vista or OSX which are multipurpose and much more inflexible. This is an important strength, unique to Linux, which will see it penetrate in many niche markets such as this where people are currently getting a rough deal through monopolism. With licensing fees and hardware requirements making other legal solutions extremely prohibitive for the home user or small studio; Distributions like Studio 64 offer an extremely viable alternative to the closed source high cost solutions currently on offer to an ever-increasing market. Anyone currently making music or planning to make music, with the aid of a computer should download Studio 64 and give it a try. It doesn't cost a thing and will run well on most computers made in the last five years. If you end up using it permanently as I have, you can show your support by making a donation towards the development of the applications that make it all possible.
Thanks to the work of many clever and committed people in the wider GNU/Linux community there are finally options for the rest of us who would rather spend our money on the instruments.