Audio Production Tools for Linux

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in August 2007, contributed by Chris Scheidies. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Just the thought of Linux conjures up many different variants of emotion. For some, there are thoughts of freedom; for others there are thoughts of horror as hours of lives have been lost trying to configure this beast. Does Linux have anything to offer the Pro Audio community? I hope to shed some light on this subject for you, as I do believe that Linux is a tremendous gift to the Pro Audio community and society as a whole.

I am not going to give you an entire history lesson about how Linus Torvalds created the first Linux kernel and so on. There are huge books and thousands of web sites on the subject. If you do want a history lesson I would suggest Wikipedia. I am going to discuss modern audio technologies, the Linux equivalents, different high end Linux audio programs, and different Linux flavors.

I’m involved in the 3D animation and compositing world, and in these markets Linux is the norm rather than the exception. So, if any of you do post- production work it may be beneficial to at least know what Linux is and be able to talk to your clients intelligently about it. We will also discuss the pros and cons of Linux since you need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

A Linux Primer

If you have never heard of Linux before there are a few things that we should discuss. First, Linux is not “set in stone” and can take many forms. It is not OSX 10.4, for example. When someone says they don’t like Linux that usually means that they don’t like a certain variant of it. It is probably the only variant they have tried. Linux can be used in mobile phones, Tivo, and even complete operating systems. It is so flexible (both the license and the software itself) that there are actually versions of Linux designed with the sole purpose of being used in a recording studio. Everything from the driver to the included software will get you up and running, recording music very quickly.

When a custom version of the Linux operating system is designed, it is called a distribution. This is really one of the most confusing things about Linux. Some of the more popular distributions or “flavors” of Linux are Red Hat, Suse, and Ubuntu. The license to the Linux kernel guarantees that it will always be free both in a monetary sense and in a freedom sense. No one can own Linux. To use Linux in a project you must agree to put those projects back out to the community. To learn more about the Linux license here is another Wikipedia link.  The good news is that most Linux related projects are free to the end user.

I am not a programmer. The thought of tweaking a Linux system at a low level fills me with dread. So I found ways to get a reliable Linux system running without too many tweaks. I am looking for a quick, out of the box, up and running experience. Apologies in advance if I leave someone’s favorite distribution out. I am writing this article with the Pro Audio community in mind – not the computer hacker Linux community.

Before we dive in, it would also be a good idea to discuss some of the technologies in Linux and the more traditional software equivalents. As most of you know, you can’t do audio in the computer without a low level audio driver. This ensures that latency is kept to a minimum. Windows has ASIO and WDM, OSX has Core Audio, and Linux has ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture.) The list of pro audio interfaces that are supported is staggering. This page can tell you if your sound card is supported.

Another fantastic gift to the Pro Audio world is from Propellerheads. They found that there was a need to move audio and MIDI data in real time between different applications, and thus Rewire was born. Linux has a similar technology called JACK. This works just as well as Rewire, if not better as it has more than sixty-four audio channels. The last Linux technology that needs defined is the main plugin format. Windows and Mac users have VST and Audio Units. Linux users have LADSPA (Linux Audio Developer’s Simple Plugin, API.) This plugin format works amazingly well. There are hundreds of plugins available in this format and most of them are free. However, there are no commercial plugins. I would love to see URS and Waves make plugins available in LADSPA form.

Popular Distributions for Audio

So let’s take a moment to discuss Linux distributions designed for the Pro Audio user (there are several ways to get Redhat and Ubuntu turned into a Linux DAW, but it almost always seems easier to just get a distribution that’s designed for it.) Almost all of these are free so if you have a spare computer sitting around feel free to download anything in this article and play.

First stop: Ubuntu Studio. If you have not guessed it from the name, it is a modified version of the Ubuntu distribution. This distribution is designed for the Multimedia Professional.

Its focus is not only on audio, but video and animation as well. The strength of this distribution lies in the fact that it is based on Ubuntu. There is simply an overwhelming amount of tutorials, forums, and so forth on how to tweak and use Ubuntu on the web. It has a very nice installer and is easy to use.

The next distribution we are going to look at is 64Studio.This distribution is based on one of the oldest distributions of Linux, Debian (Ubuntu is also based on Debian.)

Like the its name, it is designed for sixty-four bit operating systems. This is a significant upgrade over Windows XP Pro, as sixty-four bit processors give you a huge performance upgrade and the ability to handle much higher RAM counts. The company that makes 64Studio, (64 Studio, LTD) offers commercial tech support for the distribution. This makes the distribution very appealing as Linux is often criticized for not having enough tech. support options. This distribution also has something for all Multimedia Professionals, but its main focus is Audio Professionals.

The last distribution to discuss is different in this aspect: it is a “live” distribution. This means a person can boot off the CD/DVD and receive a full operating system without changing the contents of your hard drive. It’s an ingenious concept, but I feel that most Audio Professionals will want their operating system installed on the computer. Luckily, you can install about any “live” distribution to the hard drive.

The name of the “live” distribution designed for audio (and not as much for video and multimedia) is Studio To Go. The cost is $150.00 (U.S.) – you are basically paying for support. It has tools built in to perform professional recording, mastering, sequencing, and notation. If you look at the picture, you can see that it has support for VST plugins (this feature is not unique to Studio To Go). The user can add notation to any of the distributions, which is wonderful that the creators of Studio To Go thought of this particular feature as a priority. Hundreds of soft synths also come with Studio To Go ready to be utilized.

Audio Software

Now that you have a Linux distribution up and running, let’s talk about what software you are going to use. First of all, you will need a DAW. The 10,000 pound gorilla in Linux multitrack digital audio workstations is Ardour. This is a fantastic application. It very much tries to emulate the feel of Pro Tools. It supports full automation, loop recording, external control surface support, LADSPA plugin support, it can sync to MIDI time code and is just a fantastic editing environment. I have used Ardour from start to finish in two different CD’s and was blown away.

One of Ardour’s coolest features was its crash recovery. I have never used a DAW software that I couldn’t crash, but I have used a few that came close. When Ardour crashed, the program restarted in under five seconds, and all my inputs and outputs where routed correctly. Plus,the tracks that I had armed to record where still armed. It was almost as if it didn’t crash at all, like it took a snapshot of itself just before crashing. Amazing! In fact, never once did my clients even know that it had crashed. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Pro Tools. As you know, when it crashes its a big mess.

So the million dollar question will obviously be: “Is it as good as Pro Tools, Sonar, Nuendo, or Logic?”

Yes and no. The MIDI support in Ardour is very lacking although that is being worked on. Ardour performed its best for me on live recording projects and not composition. It’s a fantastic editor/recorder/mixer. I would not recommend it as a tool for song writing. The biggest negative is that learning Ardour will not get you a job. I don’t care what anyone tells you; if you want to be a studio engineer and work for someone else then you learn Pro Tools. Period. Not learning Pro Tools is like a graphic designer refusing to learn Photoshop.

Now most people on ProRec own studios, or just record their own bands. Then you don’t need to worry about what everyone else uses and you can use what ever you want. One last thing about Ardour: There is a OSX version, so you Mac users can have at it!

Next, of course, we need a dedicated audio editor. There is no clear leader here but the top three are: AudacitySweep, and Rezound. They are all actively developed and have similar functionality. Audacity does have both OSX and Windows versions as well so anyone can use it.

For the purpose of this article, let’s focus briefly on Sweep. Sweep has the features you would expect from an audio editor. The user can zoom with the scroll wheel. It supports LADSPA plugins, Scrubbing, 32-bit files, and live audio recording. I also love that I can change the color scheme. Sweep is a joy to use. One thing that must be said about both Linux and OSX programs: They do one thing and do it well! Many Windows programs tend to be jack of all trades, master of none, monolithic programs. I love the simple elegance that I receive when a program just does its job. That’s how I’d describe Sweep-it just works!

Next, let’s discuss two MIDI sequencing programs: Rosegarden and Hydrogen. Rosegarden is almost a full featured DAW (although I prefer the audio features in Ardour.) But its focus is MIDI sequencing. As you can see from the screen shot, it does not necessarily have the most modern look, since most Linux programs go for function over form. It reminds me of old Opcode stuff. I personally don’t care how a program looks as long as it does a fantastic job.

Rosegarden excels in a few areas. First it has excellent support for external synths. I know many readers are soft-synth only users and are amazed that anyone ever had to actually plug in a MIDI cable. But for those of us that still have fond memories of tweaking that real ADSR envelope to get the sound just right will love being able to plug everything in to a MIDI patch bay and patch right in to your old synth and tweak away, without having to change your workflow. Very nice! Rosegarden also has great notation features. It supports LADSPA as well as JACK so it can play well with most other Linux audio programs.

I would suggest that Hydrogen is like Reason’s Redrum module on steroids. It’s a pattern-based sequencer that you can load your own .wav files in and jam away. Perfect for those Hip-Hop or Electronic music folks. I love this program. Again its very simple but what it does it does very well. A user can sequence with a MIDI input device or with the pattern editor and then export the performance as a .wav file or a MIDI file. It has a full mixer and supports JACK, so you could run the audio directly into Ardour. Great stuff. Hydrogen also has Windows and OSX versions. So I expect to hear some block rockin’ beats from everyone!

Finally, after all your recording and music making is done you will need to master your project. Thats where JAMin comes into play. This is an amazing full-featured mastering suite. Think of it like T-Racks. It has a spectrum analyzer, lookahead brick-wall limiter, loudness maximizer, and all kinds of other tools that an inexperienced engineer can get in trouble with. I have used this program in a pinch when a project did not have the budget for full-fledged mastering, and the results where exceptional. A user should definitely work with a professional mastering house when possible, but if the money is not available then this is the next best thing. The user interface is clean and self explanatory. It also supports JACK so I can run my audio output from Ardour right in to it without having to bounce down to a stereo .wav file. It’s just a nice little time saver and it sounds great!

Conclusions

So what is the conclusion to all this tinkering? Is it time to throw out your current DAW and switch? That’s a tough call. Linux is as perfect an audio platform as OSX is with audio drivers being built in to the heart of the operating system. But it can be a fickle friend. If Linux breaks, it can be difficult to reconfigure. There are times when installing a program can be difficult (although most of the time it’s easier than installing a program in Windows, but not always). If your audio card does not work “out of the box” then if can be very challenging to set up if you are new to Linux.

Don’t let the zealots fool you. I love Linux but it still can be challenging to work with at times. That being said, I love having full control of my system, not having to worry about viruses or spyware  – and most of the time it is a very predictable system. Not to mention the financial situation, which is great, as the user doesn’t have to purchase any software at all. If I’m being particularly tweaky I can write whatever functionality into the software I want. If only I was a programmer. A comforting fact: no company is going to go out of business and leave the users in a pinch. If the developers get bored, another team of programmers can pick up where they left off and there are no legal issues.

I personally have not completely replaced my studio with Linux. I have a Mac that runs Reason/Pro Tools and Logic, a Windows PC that runs GigaStudio, and a Linux machine that runs Studio64 with Ardour/Hydrogen/JAMin as the main apps. This way I get the best of all worlds.

I am amazed at how far Linux has come in the last few years. The sheer amount of programming hours that has gone in to all the programs available is staggering. I don’t think it’s time to throw out Sonar, Digital Performer, or Logic for Linux but I think its fair to say that musicians and engineers do have a third platform choice now that is completely capable of competing in a Pro Audio environment.

Leave a Reply