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Professional Audio Production on Linux

And now we come to my favorite part of this series, high-end Linux audio production. Linux is a superior platform for professional audio production: stable, efficient, and you don't get gouged for software licenses. You have to be careful to select audio hardware that is well-supported on Linux, but this is less of a problem than it used to be. Look for USB audio interfaces that don't need custom proprietary drivers, but stick to the USB spec like they're supposed to. The hardy FFADO developers toil away developing and improving drivers for Firewire audio interfaces. No, Firewire is not dead, and you can easily add a Firewire card to almost any PC if it doesn't already have one. I use FFADO for my cherished old Saffire Pro 26 I/O, and neither have let me down.

Saffire Pro 26 I/OMobilePre USB, Saffire Pro 26 I/O, cherished old Pioneer stereo amp

Visit Linux Musicians and LinuxAudio.org to stay current on Linux audio, hardware, and to hang out with other musicians and studio nerds.

Making Good Recordings

I think the most important thing to keep in mind is giant bundles of special effects do not equal good audio software. Special effects are cheap and easy; they're the Allen wrenches of audio software. You know those mechanic's toolkits that boast of their hundreds of tools, and then most of them are Allen wrenches? It's the same deal with special effects in audio. If you enjoy playing around with special effects, then enjoy the abundance and have a great time.

allen-wrenchHundreds of these may or may not be useful

But that's not what makes great audio software. Great software is clean, and does not introduce noise or distortion, or add its own color. It is stable and fault-tolerant, so you don't lose your hard work to a crash. It integrates nicely with other applications and audio routers like JACK. It does not introduce excess latency, or suck up too many CPU cycles. There is a reason professional recording studios are soundproofed and record multiple takes: it's best to start with the most high-quality, faithful recording you can make. And there is one more factor, which is probably the most important one: your own skill and taste.

Your recordings are as good as the weakest link in your audio chain: microphones, instruments, mixers, analog-to-digital converters, and whatever else you like to use. Your recording studio can be as simple as a laptop and a good microphone, to a room full of fun electronics. Using a PC as the heart of your recording setup opens a world of possibilities for a low price. Me, I'd rather edit digital files on a computer than go back to the bad old days of faffing around with tape; it's easier, a lot faster, and a lot more flexible.

Well that's enough rambling on about hardware, so let's take a look at some of the best audio software Linux has to offer.

Recording, Editing, Mastering

The Ardour digital audio workstation is a beautiful creation. You can group tracks arbitrarily (great for streamlining editing), it supports unlimited tracks (until your computer keels over), it has a soundcard picker if you have more than one, processes at 32-bits internally, supports very flexible signal routing, support networked audio, and a way lot more. It's a bit of a learning curve, and it requires the JACK low-latency sound server and audio router on Linux, so this Crash Course in Audio Recording With Ardour DAW should help you get started.

The Audacity WAV recorder and editor is probably the most popular higher-end audio software for Linux. Audacity is easy to learn and chock-full of great features, and it is JACK-aware so you can combine it other audio software and hardware. It supports unlimited tracks, a multitude of effects and filters, and exports to a wide range of audio formats and quality levels. You can make your raw recordings in Audacity and then mix and edit them in Ardour, if Audacity doesn't have the tools to do what you want. (If you buy my fabulous Audacity book from this link the Audacity team gets a percentage of the sale.)

3-multitracksMultitrack recording in Audacity

MIDI and Synthesizer

The world of synthesizers is vast and fun, and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the universal communications standard that lets MIDI hardware and software talk to each other. Rosegarden is an excellent MIDI sequencer, and it is also a composer and score editor. It is easy to learn, and full of advanced features.

FluidSynth is a great real-time software synthesizer and virtual MIDI device that doesn't need a SoundFont-compatible soundcard, so all you need to be a literal one-person orchestra is FluidSynth and a Linux computer. If you want a prettier graphical interface get QSynth, a nice Qt front-end for FluidSynth. FluidSynth is the backend of a lot of other applications, for example VLC and MuseScore.

Score Writing

MuseScore is a sophisticated WYSIWYG music notation editor for writing and printing scores. It includes a mixer and synthesizer for instant previews of your work. It creates attractive-looking scores, and has extensive documentation.

What if you just want to create some nice sheet music with guitar chords and tablature? Then you want Chordii. It includes a database of nearly 400 chords, and of course you can add your own. It is fast to learn: your source files are plain text with the simple Chordii markup, and these are converted to nice-looking sheet music.

Drum Kit

The Hydrogen Drum Machine is still my favorite drum synth. It integrates nicely with Ardour, Audacity, and Rosegarden, it comes with a big batch of demos, and it will do whatever you want it to do because it is incredibly flexible. Check out More Cowbell with Hydrogen Drum Machine on Linux for a quick start with this excellent software.

Be a Radio Station

We still call it radio even though no radio waves are involved. Though they are, if you use a wireless Internet connection. At any rate, you can set up your own Internet broadcast with the excellent Airtime radio station management and automation software. You can schedule programming to run unattended, do live broadcasts, stream to Shoutcast and Icecast, and display program information for your eager listeners.

This is just a bare introduction to the wide world of Linux audio. Check out part 1 of this series for advice on best Linux distributions for multimedia production and best graphics software, and part 2 for a look at my favorite video production software.

 

Comments

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  • Keith Shannon Said:

    Thank you so much for writing this article!! I'm a Sr. Unix/Linux/Windows System Admin (also do network engineering & ethical hacking) but I grew up playing the piano and have been thinking about getting a keyboard and trying to mix music on a computer. I definitely prefer to do it under linux but didn't know there was so much great software that's made even better by the fact it's free. I'm going to be building myself a new computer based off hardware that supports linux. Do you have any recommendations for a good soundcard $500 or less that works well with linux? I would prefer it have an internal and external component but if it's just internal or external that's fine too. Once again thank you so much for taking the time to write this article. It's people like you who make the internet a great place.

  • chris Said:

    scrap the sound card they are rubbish, go for arcams rpac usb dac, link it to good amp, and it will sound better than any sound card you can find. I also have one it cost me £120 new bargain!

  • Lars Said:

    Perhaps this forum threads will help you? http://phoronix.com/forums/showthread.php?68227-Sound-Card-recommendation http://www.head-fi.org/t/289499/best-linux-soundcard

  • Ro b Said:

    Whereas I'd agree a computer is better than four or cheap quarter inch tape eight tracks, for highest quality audio you simply cannot beat 30ips analogue. It's not that much of a faff when you consider the huge jump in sound quality. Interesting article though. My friend who is a pro engineer disses Audacity so it's good to get an alternative view.

  • John S. Allen Said:

    You like the sound of analog. You claim that its quality is better than that of digital. You must like the noise and distortion it introduces, then... Yes, they do produce a quality, and you may like it, and yes, it's better than slower, narrower analog tape, but Even at 30 ips it isn't going to sound the same as the input signal. If the goal is for the playback to be indistinguishable from the input, you have to go digital. And that can be accomplished with very moderately-priced equipment -- a good mike preamp, digital to analog computer, and a laptop computer running Audacity. Now, where is it possible to buy an analog recorder, and how many thousands will it cost, how much does a 3600 foot reel or recording tape cost, and where can I even buy one anymore?

  • Brian Burke Said:

    I agree with John S. Allen! If the "Analog Folks" would do a blind listening test with a tape versus a sacd (Super CD, using bitsteam 2.4Ghz 1bit technology) they will pick the digital every time. Unless they are dishonest and pick the Analog just to pick it. It is easy to hear the hiss and crosstalk and the stetches in the tape and the tape transport slip not to mention the horrible signal to noise ratio. Yes Analog is truly seemlessin frequency reprodution, but it isn't accurate and if the digital is done with 2.4 or even better 5.8 Ghz Bitstream D/A - A/D then there is NO CONTEST. Even with regualr cd encoding or dvd 24 bit 96Khz or 192 Khz sampling it is better. I really wish Bitstream had taken off more in the states, but instead we go for MP3, a downgrade. Go figure.Get a KORG bitstream recorder, either the portable one or the studio version if you want to hear what digital recording can sound like.

  • Brian Burke Said:

    Please excuse my typing/spelling errors. I wanted to add one more thing. I use SONAR X2 Producer to record and also own a KORG MR-1 portable bitstream recorder. I owne Dual's top turntable in the 70's with an outragousely expensive cartridge, so I know what decent analog sounds like, I own quite a few direct to disk and half-speed mastered albums which sound quite a bit different than a normal consumer run vinyl. Direct to disk is arguably better than tape. But who really knows. I prefere a well produced digital version any day.

  • Esurb Said:

    Sound IS Analog and nothing sounds as phat as 2" Ampex

  • Craig Hubley Said:

    "My friend who is a pro engineer disses Audacity " suggests he is either a Mac or an analog bigot. I do not know any digital proficient sound engineer that would see anything other than value in Audacity. I think they might fear the wave of Audacity-trained kids who grew up using nothing else, who will sweep Mac OS/X and expensive proprietary software (and its "experts") entirely out of the business... ...so the dissing I would interpret as competitive fear and not technical assessment. If you like analog and can afford the equipment and tape, great, but I doubt you have a 24 track analog mixing system on hand, and you are certainly not carrying one with you on the train or while waiting in a government office. So at the very least an analog geek would want to have "poor" copies of his tracks in Audacity to play around and try to figure out what to do with his expensive analog recording studio time. Or just when he gets home. In practice almost no one is choosing between 30ips tape, Mac OS/X based studios, and Linux or Windows audio. Dollars make the decision and they will make it in favour of Linux, or perhaps Windows running software designed for Linux. But we are not going to go back to 30ips tape for the garage band are we? Hollywood is all Linux and it would surprise me if they had no use for Audacity though they can certainly afford "better" stuff, they'd have to pay to train people in it, because what people know when they come to work for them is - Audacity.

  • lintyoke Said:

    Often you don't have the luxury to choose your music gear according to their linux compatibility. And while I can fiddle with the kernel/alsa/oss/pulseaudio settings to get the soundcard/jack working on my ancient HP laptop, I'm very sceptical about Average Music Producer Joe, doing something similar. I've got several technically educated musician friends, and believe me none of them has ever thought of switching their Mac OSs to linux for audio processing.

  • Craig Hubley Said:

    I don't get it. There are Linux compatible cards available that do the same thing as the non Linux compatible ones. What's the problem with hedging your bets and buying something that works with the emerging standard, not the dying Windows XP platform? I don't know this "Average Music Producer Joe" but he's using Mac OS/X not Linux. OS/X became the standard for middle class shops (could afford audio proprietary software, could afford to train people in it, but do not have to work in a full film / Hollywood production environment) probably 20 years ago. It's not those people that will be shifting. They will just be made extinct, as they were in video, by the combination of new people entering the field who could never afford high end DAW and video workstation software, and instead learned on Linux (thus learned the Linux tools), and the fact that Hollywood does all its high end stuff exclusively on Linux. If you want to work in this field in 10 years, learn Linux. If you will be retired or have a niche market that will keep coming to you even when a flood of people is doing exactly the same thing on cheaper platforms that perform better for the same money, great, keep using Mac OS/X. In the video market however Apple has seriously alienated its users by making the new Final Cut Pro incompatible with old versions. That will cause *MOST* middle-class video production studios to go Linux, at least over time. Apple has also announced that OS/X will be slowly phased out in favour of iOS. To the audio user, this means three things: 1. More used cheap Macs to buy! An immediate benefit as the video shops ditch theirs. 2. Their video editing friends and colleagues will increasingly be Linux users and want formats appropriate for Linux high end software used in Hollywood. 3. A terrible awful long career-destroying learning curve as OS/X slowly dies and iOS has to learn to be an audio OS. There are a few things like GarageBand that are still not available for Android or Linux but how long before better competitors emerge? Months, not years. These transitions can be rapid. Remember when BlackBerry was the most standard device for mobile email? Hm? But the second their CEO talked about acquiring a hockey team and not about the latest OS, it was inevitable that company would die. Apple's death is now just as inevitable in near term.

  • Nick Said:

    I built this entire song in Linux. LMMS, Ardour/Mixbus, and some LinuxDSP.co.uk plugins. https://soundcloud.com/endlessabiogenesis/128-mxbs-02 The abilities of a Linux based professional audio system are comprehensive, especially for recording live audio. That I was able to accomplish what I linked with purely eletronic music software is a sign of how easy things are now, since electronic music production is Linux's weakest point.

  • Carla Schroder Said:

    Thank you Nick, that is great! I had to get up and move my feets :)

  • Scott Mann Said:

    I've been recording a podcast exclusively in Linux for 2 years now, using Audacity for recording intro/ending material, and all around editing and production. Adding in Skype and Skype Call Recorder (http://atdot.ch/scr/) allows quick and easy recording of interviews. Yesterday, 1-31-13, I upgraded from a USB headset, a Plantronics 655, to a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 connected to a Shure SM-58. The Focusrite is truly plug and play ready with Linux Mint 14, so long as it's attached to a USB 2.0 port. Within 10 minutes of unpacking and physically connecting the new equipment, I was able to start recording, using the ALSA driver, and shortly thereafter an interview. Already the improvements from the clean audio has the potential to save hours on editing time each week. Such a small investment yields great results. For someone interested in recording and producing quality audio in Linux, there are plenty of hardware options now available for just about any budget. Thank you Carla for this article and adding applications to my audio toolbox. I'm off to setup JACK.

  • Ian Henry Said:

    Is there a particular linux version that is best suited for Audio Production?

  • Joseph Said:

    Dear Carla Schroder and flocks, Re: How to install JACK and ALSA in Linux Mint 15 I am new (few days) in Linux. After read Carla's articles, I want to install the JACK2 and ALSA in Linux Mint 15. 1. JACK2: I can download it but don't know how to install (what command should use). 2. ALSA: So many files for download, what files I should download and how to install (what command). I have shearch the web for many hours still cannot figure out. Please help. Thanks a lot. Joseph

  • Tony Said:

    Just a beginner here using a Linux OS to produce my radio show. I'm used to Blaze Audio software. Unfortunately they do not have Rip/Edit/Burn software for Linux. It should be interesting. I figured out that I needed a GUI tool, so I'm using Jack with Audacity & Ardour. Having fun. Only 47% frustrated.

  • Joe Said:

    If you think professionals are using linux to produce, record, and engineer professional music you are smoking crack. Linux just isn't there yet. Look in your local phone book and call the recording studios in your town and see what they use. Ardour and audacity are great products but just don't have the traction.

  • Gord Williams Said:

    30 ips recordings are a relic that belong in a museum, and your recording engineer friend probably just refuses to update because of that "warm" sound that analogue can give. True, but in reality the 'warmth' is distortion caused by the recording process. Oxidization on the play/record heads is a bitch when you get to take 30 and you have to stop to clean everything, hopefully it matches up. In terms of warmth, its been decades since digital recording came into common use. The lack of warmth can be handled many ways without leaving the daw. A Fairchild compressor/limiter is just one. You can pick up a plugin for around $25 that sounds a lot like it. "Oh but not on my Carver deck, with such and such speakers ...." will probably be the retort. If your involved with gear so much, you might miss the sound. Clarity on a set of reasonable headphones can help you hear where the engineer farts during the second chorus, just as easily as the pricey analogue stuff of its day. Everyone has an opinion, and of course everyone has other things that can smell good or bad. The assertion that tape is better could be better support it if you can find the darned stuff. Chances are anything being recorded on in the average studio now has many splices in it and may have been rescued from other reels. Hardly state of the art. A properly outfitted analogue studio is a luxury for musicians who wish to spend a lot of money on something that may produce a truer sound. To me having come from that world as a talent and a producer, its just different. I would never suggest one world is better than another, or is the way to go. Thats like an artist picking one colour to paint with. Luck with that.

  • db33 Said:

    right now in 2014 i can wipe my ass with any pro linux audio ,cause there are none

  • Mr Jeremiah Ross Said:

    Thank You so much for writing this. Today I stopped by the Apple Store to review their OS and determine if their A/V solutions would justify returning to the proprietary world; you have successfully disabused me of this notion.

  • Joe Lynch Said:

    Carla, I am beholden to you. I hung up active performing many years ago, and a recent attempt to get advice on software from a midi-style vendor was, I thought, short-sighted. It seems if one is not a modern-day musician, that one has nothing of value to conribute, thus it is unimportant to know how to communicate in a digital world. Gee, can't I even entertain myself with new approaches to arranging? --Thanks again

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