hisham hm

Linux audio: report of my first day making music with Ubuntu Studio

Yesterday I had my first experiences with Ubuntu Studio, a Linux distribution specialized in music and video production. For a long time I wanted to setup somewhat of a mini-home-studio environment, and I decided to give the Linux audio ecosystem a try once again. My previous attempts usually resulted in all sorts of trouble from compilation difficulties with beta software (ever tried Ardour back in 2001?) to driver problems (ever tried USB soundcards on Linux-PowerPC?). Evidently, I was not playing the odds to my favor, so this time I wanted to make things as straightforward as possible: I decided to pick a Linux distribution that’s dedicated to music production.

At first I considered 64Studio, a Debian derivative which used the best-known music distro, but it seems dormant, with the latest release being 2 years old. The other option was Ubuntu Studio, so that’s what I went with.

The distro

The release I’m using is Ubuntu Studio 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat). Installation went smoothly, as is expected these days, especially for an Ubuntu derivative. A negative point is that the laptop’s WiFi was not recognized — I need to look into that later. Apart from that, everything seems fine. The distro has a dark gray theme typical of audio apps. I made a full installation, installing software for 2D and 3D graphics, video and music. Clearly, the distro is biased towards music: there’s a great number of music apps and only a few in the other categories. I don’t mean this to be a full review of the distro; I’m sure you’ll find a few of those out there.

My gear

I installed the system to an HP laptop (dual-booting with my main distro, GoboLinux, of course). It has one of those HDA-Intel sound cards, which are pretty standard (can’t verify the exact models right now). So far, I tried it with two devices:

Audio with the PODxt

Experiences with the PODxt went well. It was recognized correctly and I had success recording and playing through it using Ardour. The Ardour setup screen had an option for using two devices, and for a while I thought I could record with the PODxt and listen through the laptop speakers driven by the HDA-Intel, but selecting this option and clicking “OK” froze the system entirely — by the way, this was the only way I managed to crash the system so far. I doubt anyone would want to use laptop speakers as monitors anyway, so I guess sticking to the headphones plugged into the PODxt makes more sense for now anyway. (That won’t cut it when I get to recording with other people in the room, but I’ll think of something.)

One cool thing was plugging Hydrogen, the drum machine software, to Ardour via JACK. After I properly configured Hydrogen to use JACK and enabled the “JACK transport” button, both apps would play and stop in sync when I used the Play and Stop buttons in Ardour. By creating a bus in Ardour and hooking Hydrogen to it I could even control the volume of the drums through Ardour (including automation). One thing I notice but didn’t look further, though, is that seeking the track (rewind, fastforward) doesn’t sync between apps, but I think I was doing something wrong — I need to look more into it.

For plugging devices and applications via JACK I used Patchage, which has a great interface. Took me a while to figure out that green slots are ALSA, blue slots are JACK and red slots are JACK-MIDI.

MIDI with the S90 ES

No success with the Yamaha yet, but it looks like it’s possible. After plugging the keyboard to the computer via USB (using the “USB To Host” connection), new MIDI devices were detected and a number of ALSA ins and outs (properly named as “Yamaha S90 ES”) showed up in Patchage. After learning the difference between JACK-MIDI and ALSA-MIDI I reconfigured JACK Control to use MIDI “raw” mode and restarted the JACK server (which often required a number of retries). Red ports for capture and playback showed up and I could plug them to MIDI apps, but there’s something missing still, as I can’t get notes recognized by the apps when I play the keyboard; perhaps some configuration in the keyboard. So far, I could only drive MIDI apps using the Virtual MIDI Keyboard application, clicking notes on the screen.

Conclusion

Ubuntu Studio solved half of my problem: compiling all this stuff. The other half of the problem is configuring everything. But I can already be productive with the setup I have at this point, which is great. MIDI would be nice to have and would open a number of other possibilities, especially after playing with the various virtual instrument apps available.

It’s nice to see how well Linux audio has progressed. Device plug-and-play is really here and apps respond accordingly. Configuration still has a number of variables and can often be complicated but that’s almost to be expected — the ethos of Linux is to give the user endless possibilities. That’s really the feeling I get by playing with all this great software… I still have hundreds of plugins to try out!