My Open Studio Project – Part 1

Hey folks, not many new reviews here the last couple of weeks I know, I’ve been busy with the podcast and the madness surrounding LugRadio Live. I have been plotting a new project though which will hopefully bring together two of the things I love most, open source software and record production.


You’ll probably know this if you’re a regular reader but I’ve been a musician since I was kid, I went to music college when I finished school and on to work as a sound engineer for a while before getting into computers. I have a small home studio and still produce music when time allows, it’s a real passion of mine. I post my music over at www.shedmusic.net as often as I can. My heroes are producers like Brian Wilson, Trevor Horn and Brian Eno. There’s something about this studio however which is the source of some shame to me… it’s based around a Windows XP computer. Shock horror!! I use Linux in every part of my house except the studio, so I figured it was time to see if I could really set up a professional quality studio around Linux and open source tools. I also want to produce some music with this new studio and see how it compares to the old freedom hating stuff.

The Plan:
Much like the video and graphic production industries, the music production world is still dominated heavily by proprietary software. Windows and Mac are the favoured platforms and in the past Linux hadn’t quite caught them up. This is the key thing for me really, I love open source and I love Linux but I’m afraid I won’t compromise when it comes to making music, I want to be able to do everything I do now but in the Linux studio with similar ease. Linux has advanced so much in the last couple of years I want to find out if it’s possible these days and if not why not? I’ll document the whole process and maybe help find solutions to some of the problems too if I can. I’ll also list the hardware and software, hopefully making some sort of guide for any other musicians who want to embrace the open source philosophy.

At the moment I mostly use a program called Cubase SX by Steinberg, this is a proprietary Windows application and it’s quite popular among musicians, along with the likes of Pro Tools by Digidesign. These programs allow you to sequence and mix all of your audio and midi tracks, combining synths, drum machines, samplers and even video if you want. A powerful sequencer or DAW (digital audio workstation) is really central to any computer-based studio I’d say and in Linux the best option I can see is Ardour. I haven’t used Ardour too much yet but it looks very professional and I hope it can do everything the proprietary apps can do. I have some reading to do but I’ll make an effort to learn Ardour and really get the most out of it. I also make heavy use of VST plugins which are proprietary for things like guitar amp modelling and virtual istruments, I’ve heard you can make VSTs work on Linux and I’m curious to see how well this compares.

I have a rough plan for the project which breaks down into convenient phases. So here they are:
  1. The Hardware Phase – Collect and fit Linux compatible hardware
  2. The Software Phase – Install Linux on the studio PC and get it running
  3. The Learning Phase – Try and work out what the hell to do
  4. The Recording Phase – Actually make some music in this new environment and release it under a Creative Commons license
The Hardware Phase:
One of the major stumbling blocks to an open source studio is hardware or more specifically finding compatible hardware. This was the first issue I ran into as my main audio interface between the PC and the mixer was a Hercules 16/12 Firewire box. It doesn’t seem like there’s a compatible Linux driver for this and I’m not competent enough to write one myself. Since I was already in the process of converting my studio from analogue to digital anyway I decided I needed a new Linux compatible audio interface. I recently bought a Soundcraft 328 digital mixer to base the studio around and this has 16 ADAT optical inputs and outputs, so I wanted a PC interface that could work easily with these. After some research I decided on the RME Hammerfall DSP 9652 PCI card. It gets good reviews on Linux audio forums and has a native ALSA driver so should work nicely with JACK and Ardour. They normally retail for about Β£350 in the UK but I managed to find one on eBay for just over Β£200. I’ll be selling some of the old analogue kit to refund this and hopefully break even. Fingers crossed on that one.

Here’s a list of the kit I’m using:

There are other bits and peices such as microphones and guitars which I’ll discuss as they come up but this is the core of the studio. The RME card arrived a few days ago and I’ve installed it into the computer. It’s a standard PCI card so wasn’t hard to fit and I’ve connected and labelled the optical cables. I got 4 TOSLINK optical cables to give me full 16 channel digital I/O and bound them into 2 little home made multi-cores. I also labelled the cables up to avoid confusion. Finally I connected the midi cables to the mixer as well to enable automation with the PC. You can see all of this from the pictures. in the gallery I’ve also tested it out with Cubase and a couple of other Windows apps with mixed success, I have a lot of learning to do getting to grips with the digital domain but I’ll get there.

CHECKOUT THE PHOTO GALLERY

What’s next?
The core hardware is installed and phase one is complete, the only problem I have is some minor digital distortion at times due to my incompetence routing everything through the digital desk. I’m getting better though and I expected a steep learning curve, I spent too many years with clunky old analogue mixers and this is quite different. Next I’ll install a Linux distro like Ubuntu Studio or 64 Studio on a spare hard drive and get the software phase under way. I’ll report back and let you know how I get on with that this week.

It’s time to get some open source software installed so wish me luck πŸ™‚

Dan

Posted in Audio Production
17 comments on “My Open Studio Project – Part 1
  1. Brian says:

    Good luck with this. I’m interested in getting back into home recording, but without the cost associated with Windows software, this sounds like the perfect solution! Hope it works, I’ll be watching with interest.

  2. Dan says:

    Thanks for the comment Brian, I hope it works too, fingers crossed hey πŸ™‚

  3. vleon says:

    hey dan its great you finally move your studio to linux, have you considered reading the guide i gave you from arch wiki?

    you dont have to use the guide with arch it is quite informative about linux in general.

  4. Dan says:

    Thanks Leon, I have got the article you sent bookmarked but I forgot about it, thanks for the reminder. I’ll look it up πŸ™‚

  5. Fab says:

    That mixing desk you have there looked really spiffy. I’m still all in awe about all the LEDs and the flying faders…. :O

  6. Dan says:

    @Fab – Thanks, it is a great mixer. I’m a bit in awe of it myself still though, trying to route signals requires an A to Z πŸ˜€

  7. Anonymous says:

    FYI, you may want to check out this forum thread from someone who said he is now using Linux for Midi using hundreds of midi instruments in his project(s):

    http://forum.cockos.com/archive/index.php/t-15238.html

    Good luck with your Linux exploration.

  8. Dan says:

    Wow thanks for the information it looks really useful. I hope to find replacements for all my proprietary synths, I suspect that will be the hardest part of this project. This could help a lot

    Thanks again πŸ™‚

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hi Dan im Nill from Mauritius Island and im planning to open a music studio in my country and wanted to know if you can help me in this new business for me. Maybe we can form business partnership. My email is nilkinpark@hotmail.com

  10. redbrain says:

    ah thats awesome Dan! πŸ™‚

    Let us know how it goes on the podcast!

  11. Clumplestilskin says:

    hmm, there are a few nx studio distros .. (as seen rumbling round the web)
    ever tried dynebolic?

  12. Dan says:

    No I haven’t tried it but I have heard of it, I thought it was more of a VoIP distro with Asterisk setup by default. I must have misread it or something. I’ll add it to my list thanks. I’m very happy with 64 Studio at the moment but I want to try all the alternatives just to be sure πŸ™‚

  13. Zak says:

    Hey Dan!

    Glad to see you are joining the fledgling linux audio crowd! I am a very satisfied musician using linux for all my recording (though my hardware is a notch or two below yours!). I use JAD, a audio distro based on openSUSE (my preferred linux flavor). Of course, stick with what works for you, but it is an alternative. Dave Phillips, the renowned linux audio writer, uses both 64 Studio and JAD. There are some experienced users on the forum, and we’d love to see you round (don’t worry, we’ve got Ubuntu and Debian users there too. We’re very tolerant! πŸ™‚ ).

    As we Suse fellows say, have a lot of fun!

  14. zak says:

    Er, my link was bad. Here’s the real one. . And a review of JADby Dave Phillips

  15. Dan says:

    Thanks Zak I appreciate the warm welcome πŸ™‚ I haven’t tried JAD yet but I will have to take a look. I want to try out a few different music distros like Musix and maybe Dynabolic as well. 64 Studio and Ubuntu Studio were just the first ones I got to, unfortunately other things have gotten in the way lately but the project is still going, just stalled at the moment.

    What kind of music do you produce I’d love to hear some. I know Dave Philips work in Linux Journal and I’m a big fan πŸ™‚ Sadly that 2nd link you posted doesn’t seem to work either sorry

  16. zak says:

    Arg! Sorry! Here’s the link for REAL! Here’s the link for REAL!

  17. Dan says:

    Hehe got there in the end, thanks mate

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