Saturday, June 27, 2009

Making Music: what software?

When I was in my second year of university I bought a Tascam 424 MkII portastudio. Mark and I had recorded our two albums using his Fostex 4-track and I had long wanted to have a 4-track recorder of my own.

This turned out to be a very expensive mistake, as just after that computer-based digital recording was just starting to take off, making my new purchase pretty much redundant. From that point it functioned simply as a mixing desk, and I used it to mix the output from my computer, keyboards and mic and route them to the appropriate places (i.e. the computer line in or monitoring amp input).

Back then I was using software that I, erm, shouldn't have been using (a well-known commercial DAW package). However, this time I don't want to go that route and would rather stick with the open source world, where I can hopefully be sure of having access to everything I need without either paying out Big Cash on commercial software and/or obtaining it illegally.

So in looking around this subject, it seems to be considered wise to use a Linux distribution that is dedicated to media production. This is for a number of reasons, but from what I can tell the key ones are:

  1. Real-time kernel
  2. Low-latency sound pathways
  3. No bloat from unrelated software
I haven't really looked into why normal distributions can't use a real-time kernel, but I suppose there must be good reasons. It would be good if they could be worked out though at some point in the future.

The second reason appears to be related to the fact that most professional-grade software for Linux is written for the Jack sound server, rather than using ALSA or PulseAudio. Jack is a very clever system which acts like a patch bay for both audio and MIDI streams of data between software and hardware sources and destination. This sets up a very UNIX-like system of small components doing one job well rather than the windows-style approach of one monolothic application that does everything itself.

The obvious choice would be Ubuntu Studio, since I use Ubuntu on the desktop already. However, I have heard that they are having trouble, and have even considered shutting down the project completely. The distribution that I see recommended the most for audio recording is 64 Studio. So unless I get any other suggestions, I intend to use that.

So 64 Studio will go in its own partition, keeping my audio stuff separate from everything else. I'll not talk about hardware at this point because I think it warrants its own post (and this one is getting long enough as it is!)

So the next decision to make really is about the core recording software itself: what will actually record the audio and MIDI and allow me to sequence, edit and mix everything?

Well, there appear to be a number of choices on this front, but unfortunately none of them appear to be quite what I am really looking for... yet:
  1. Ardour. This appears to be the leading package when it comes to handling audio. However, the current stable version does not support MIDI at all, meaning that I would have to handle that in a separate application which I am not keen on doing at all. I want to be able to see all of my tracks in one place. Having said that though, the in-development Ardour 3.0 will apparently have MIDI functionality added. Hopefully it will be decent: it could make this the obvious choice.
  2. Rosegarden. This has excellent MIDI support (including a full score editor), and does also support audio tracks, but the audio features seem to be quite basic at the moment.
  3. QTractor. I just came across this today, and it looks very interesting. It is relatively young, but looks to be very clean and already very well featured (it supports both audio and MIDI tracks, for example).
  4. MusE. Does both audio and MIDI. I haven't read so much about this so I'll need to read into it a bit more and experiment.
At the end of the day, I'm going to need to spend some time with all of them experimenting with how they work and what they can do. One thing I can say though is that it is quite a delight to have such choice available to me: I'm certain that I will find something that will fit the bill.

Phew, that lot was just about the distro and DAW package, and there's plenty more software to talk about. That then will be for another post. :)

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