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.
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:
- The Hardware Phase – Collect and fit Linux compatible hardware
- The Software Phase – Install Linux on the studio PC and get it running
- The Learning Phase – Try and work out what the hell to do
- The Recording Phase – Actually make some music in this new environment and release it under a Creative Commons license
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 £350 in the UK but I managed to find one on eBay for just over £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:
- Soundcraft 328 Digital Mixer
- RME Hammerfall DSP9652 PCI audio interface
- 4 TOSLINK optical cables for ADAT I/O
- 2 Midi cables for machine control
- M-Audio Keystation 61es Midi Controller Keyboard
- Studio PC – AMD X2 4200, 1gb RAM, 30gb HDD, 250gb HDD
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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 🙂