Hello from Keyboard Magazine

We’ve been following the development of Ardour for some time, and are planning a story on the current state of musicmaking on Linux as part of a DAW tech feature in an upcoming issue. On this thread, we’d love to hear from folks who are doing all or most of their production on a Linux-based system. We’ll be gearing the article towards users who may be largely unfamiliar with Linux, and indeed, the entire open-source culture, but from my lurking here, it really seems like both the community and the tools are mature enough that we’re able to talk about them alongside the familiar commercial products for Windows and Mac OS X.

I look forward to getting to know folks here, and should you have an interest in the keyboard-playing realm, I invite you to participate in the Keyboard Corner forum at http://forums.musicplayer.com. Cheers,

Stephen Fortner, Technical Editor

To make sure I’m absolutely clear on this, would the Musix and 64studio distros be a good place to point Linux newbies who might get scared off by the idea of compiling source code? That is, is the experience of downloading and installing them similar enough to doing so with a commercial, retail binary? Thanks!

Hi Stephen,

I’d suggest 64studio (www.64studio.com) and Studio To Go (www.ferventsoftware.com) as the best starting points for someone who is new to Linux and wants to skip right into using Linux Audio apps. Ubuntu Studio, when it is done, will likely be another good place for a newbie to start.

The Musix and Dynebolic distros are worthy of mention but I would not suggest them to someone with a Windows/Mac background, mainly because their websites are not very approachable to this type of user. (your mileage may vary)

Keep in mind that currently none of the distributions include Ardour2, the version of Ardour which has been under development the last 2(?) years, and is the focus of most of the conversations on this site. Currently the only way to try out Ardour2 is an OS X beta build, or by building it yourself for Linux, or getting a prebuilt Xdubber from Harrison (www.harrisonconsoles.com)

-Ben Loftis

My wife just completed the RPM challenge using Ardour though apparently the CD is still in the mail.

Regarding the post by Reuben, I think he’s confusing the issues of “computer administration” versus “making music”. Installing computer hardware and OS’s of any kind is a challenge for the majority of computer users.

Once you’ve got a system up and running, I’d say the Ardour system is much more likely to “just work” than any commercial product. I have an Ardour system which I loan to friends who want to check out Linux and/or Ardour. Since the soundcard, network, etc are all preconfigured, they have no problems at all using Linux as a recording tool.

As more computers are delivered pre-configured with Linux (the #1 requested feature at http://www.dellideastorm.com/), the hardware configuration problems will begin to disappear. And the stability of Linux is legendary, which is why we’re seeing reputable companies like Harrison, Waves, Korg and many others basing their products on it.

"Regarding the post by Reuben, I think he’s confusing the issues of “computer administration” versus “making music”. "

I’m not confusing the two. It’s just that given that most people doing recording don’t have an IT staff. This usually means they have to administer the systmes themselves, and most of these people are going to percieve (reguardless at to weather it is true or not) that a linux based system is the harder route to go.

I think it’s easier and more reliable too. Bur I know many people who are not convinced, even if their reasoning doesn’t hold water.

How do Linux audio plugins compare against their commercial counterparts? I’m relatively new to Ardour and Linux audio in general, and I’ve been absolutely thrilled with how functional and full-featured Ardour is, as well as with the broad spectrum of plugins available for it. However, my system at home is not equipped to do any real critical listening for sound quality (on-board sound card and mediocre amp & speakers), and so the big question that’s remained unanswered for me is how good is the quality of the available plugins, and are they able to hold their own against medium- to high-grade commercial products.

I would love to outfit a Linux-based home studio capable of mixing and mastering professional-quality music. Is this currently realistic, or would I have to resort to using commercial VST plugins and external effects processing in order to get the quality that I need? If any of you have seriously tested Linux plugins against your favourite commercial products I would love to hear what you have to say. I’m particularly interested in the EQs, compressors, reverbs and limiters available on Linux.

Like I said, this is the one big question that remains to be answered for me. In everything else I am utterly convinced that professional quality is available.

Another issue with plugins is that many of them are not anti-aliased. Some plugins are of excellent quality, but present problems when automating them because they’re not anti-aliased.

(A really good example of a plugin that would be great to automate, but isn’t antialiased is the TAP Rotary Speaker plugin)

Thanks both of you. That was really helpful, and exactly what I wanted to know.

I will recommend you an audio distribution that comes as LiveCD (i think it’s installable too).
It’s called “Musix”. Current Version is V0.99.

It has an optimized Kernel by default.

The Link is http://www.musix.org.ar/en/
This project seems to be very active. Some month ago the version was 0.35…

Ardour, Jack, Audacity and a lot more Linux Audio Software is included and should run “from scratch” without additional configuration.

Another great distro that I’ve been using is 64 Studio (http://64studio.com/). It has been optimized for professional media development and comes with Jack, Ardour, Rosegarden, Hydrogen, Jamin and other music software included and ready to run. It should be fine for those who don’t have much experience with Linux, and they offer commercial support for those who need it.

Also, Ubuntu Studio is in the works and looks promising.

A few things about my experiences…

Linux supports a subset of the pro audio hardware out there. It pays to do your research before and hardware purchases. Usually it is pointless asking the companies themselves… Searching on-line or asking other users is the easiest way to figure out how well a particular piece of hardware will work. Attitudes of manufacturers towards linux vary from quite helpful to outright hostile.

Using Jack is something that is hard to figure out and set up initially but very powerful once you get your head around it. Plugins become less important as you can hook the outputs of any jack aware audio application into the inputs of any other audio application.

If I had somebody show me how to set up and use jack physically I think I would have been able to use programs like Ardour years before I did. I still haven’t gotten my head around using LASH or saving jack sessions which is something that would be incredibly useful.

The list of Linux Audio Software that I use regularly includes

Ardour (obviously)
Rosegarden (for Midi - the time stretching of audio in the latest version is a lot of fun)
Hydrogen (Drum Machine)
ZynSubAddFX (virtual Synth)
Patchage (for managing your Jack Connections)
JackRack (FX rack, plug it into the input or output of any app).
FMIT (tuning app - does a lot of different analysis stuff)
Freewheeling (compose music with loops in a live setting - Believe me this is sooooo much fun)
QSampler - (play gigasampler samples)

For me the big draw to doing this on linux is that my capabilities are dictated by my ability to learn and communicate and to try things rather than the amount of money I have to spend on toys. Its a different headspace that has both its advantages and drawbacks… Tools in the commercial world are generally a lot more polished and give a lot more in the way of instant gratification. On the other hand you will never find an Linux/OSS app that only allows you to record 16 tracks of audio because they want you to upgrade to a more expensive version. For me at least psychologically I find that sort of thing limits my creativity.(probably not a rational thing I might add)

Well, I think I would probably be correct if I categorized most of the people using Ardour as that small group of people where technical and artistic skills have a lot of overlap.

Ardour is getting better and better, but to be honest, I think most people who expect to sit down and have things “just work” out of the box will probably find Ardour a bit frustrating.

I can’t speak for the Mac users, but when people try to jump into the world of Linux and Audio, they often run into problems because there are different obstacles and skill sets required that they didn’t have to deal with before.

It’s not really “hard” so much as “very different” to the extent that you might end up wanting to shoot your computer if you don’t have much of a background with the technical aspects of a Linux system. There are so many new concepts for people to learn that it can be a bit daunting at first, but it’s mostly a matter of learning to think differently.

Before I changed to a Digital Media Arts degree, I was working towards a degree in Computer Engineering. So I have good background in both the technical and artistic aspects. I’m sure most of the other users of Linux+Ardour have similar stories, to varying degrees, where they have had exposure to both worlds.

The average Mac+Ardour user is probably a little less familiar with the technical aspects of things than the average Linux user. (At least from my observation of discussions)

I tried to show a friend who is familiar with Windows based workflows how I use a Linux workflow and I totally blew his mind when I starting getting into things like a customized kernel, applying patches and compiling source code. Although distros are making it easier to get by without getting into the gory details of working directly with the system internals, it always seems that eventually you will run into the oddball situation where you have to deal directly with things that some people may find intimidating like shells, scripts and source code.

I personally use Ardour (and related Linux based software) for tracking, mixing and mastering recording projects. I love it and have become quite comfortable with it.

The soon to be released Ubuntu Feisty should also be a good distribution for people trying out Linux & audio. There is a project called ubuntustudio which is contributing a lot of audio software into the mainline Ubuntu distribution. Ubuntu has been credited to be one of the most easiest to use distribution (“Linux for humans”) and the next release should be especially good for audio use.

I recommend a Live CD for newbies
At least initially for them to see if it’s worth continuing. Essentially a no risk trial. I participated in the RPM Challenge as well and used the Musix distro as a live cd on my XP laptop. The challenge is to record an album in 28 days. I never installed the OS to my hard disk. I didn’t want to upset my XP install. I had never used linux software to record music before. I use linux at work and have used Cubase so I had a grasp of the basic concepts. I used Ardour, Rosegarden, Hydrogen and JACK. I blogged on the experience at rpmchallenge.com as the band Thomas F. I was amazed to see that I could learn the tools and not get blocked by technical issues like installation and administration tasks. I did have a little trouble mounting an external USB drive. I also ran into problems with the speed of the drive being too slow for Ardour. Probably not the recommended configuration however.

Just as on Windows, the range of plugin quality varies widely.

The first thing to be aware of is that at present, the Linux native plugins hosted by Ardour have no GUI of their own, so visual chrome is absolutely not part of the experience there (there are people who actually prefer this, although I know that many users respond well to shiny hardware-emulating GUIs).

There is probably no equivalent to anything at the level of the Waves plugins, and because of Waves Inc.'s use of iLok for copy protection, there isn’t a good way to run their plugins even with Ardour’s VST support (its not impossible, but its probably beyond a normal user to configure this).

That said, there are compressors and limiters that do a very good job. You might or might not like their qualities - thats always an issue and is often why there are so many plugins in the first place. There are a couple of good reverbs. EQs are harder - I still haven’t found one that sounds as good as the Paris EQ to me, but there are a couple that come close.

The bigger problem is finding the good stuff. The problem is that the plugin sets that are available (for example, swh, CAPS, TAP) contain a mixture of:

  1. utility plugins where quality is not really an issue
    (e.g. splitters, delays, etc)
  2. high quality plugins
  3. experimental, unfinished or lower quality plugins

Plugin authors don’t want to remove (3) for a variety of reasons. As a result, when you see the list of LADSPA plugins, its very long and there is no way to know a priori what is good and what isn’t.

On the other hand, this is hardly any different than the situation with VST plugins, with the one exception being that there are vendors who in general never seem to release anything except (2). Searching the KVR Audio website for good quality plugins is much more hard work since you can’t actually just try things out as part of the search.

My recommendation is that you try them out. If there are no LADSPA plugins that meet your requirements, consider using Ardour’s VST support (which is problematic to build because of Steinberg’s licensing). This opens the door to a number of free, high quality VST plugins (I very much like Paris EQ, Ambience and Transverb for example).

The most important thing is that it is absolutely possible to mix and master professional quality music on Linux with Ardour and other tools. There maybe some specific things you cannot do (you will not find POW-R dithering anywhere, for example, and timestretching technology on Linux is either not very good quality or is very very good and very very slow). But just as the hoary old cliches of audio engineering tell us, given the technology used to record Sergeant Peppers or Dark Side of The Moon, the idea that you can’t do production at that level with the tools available already is just silly.

Hi, newbie here!

Not a Linux newbie but an audio engineering newbie, and I just want to say that early experiments with Linux sound have me pumped.

I want to chip in here that the quality of output on Linux can far exceed anything I’ve ever heard through a commercial system – THX, whatever. The low-latency kernel from CCRMA renders sound perfectly – you can listen to Buddy Holly and the Crickets and feel like you’re in the bathroom with them while they were recording. The low-latency kernel has its drawbacks if you want to use the computer for anything but sound, but if all you’re doing is sound, all I can say is WOW!

Recently I recorded some stuff in a professional studio. One song was finished by a professioanal using ProTools and all that. He gave me the dry tracks for the same song and I played with them on my home Linux system. His result was, admittedly, a little (just a little) smoother, largely because of the MIDI sequencing that he did and I didn’t. (I still haven’t figured that out yet.)

Can professional-sounding stuff be produced with Linux? If a rank amateur like me can sound as good as I do after a few weeks of tinkering, I would have to say that the answer is a resounding YES! And the payoff of low-latency output alone is worth the price of admission.