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Linux & Audio Recording Systems

This is a new thread that has recently come out of the Permaculture Musicians Forum & I quickly realised that it needed a page of its own... There will be more added to this page in the near future & I urge you to send in any of your own experiences using Linux to record music....

What is Linux?

Linux is an alternative computer operating system to Windows & Mac OS, which is based upon a very powerful & reliable server-based system called UNIX. It has been developed mainly in the academic sector & has become the choice of many computer technicians for several reasons. The first & perhaps most important reason as far as we are concerned is thatLinux has what is known as 'open source' code. A good analogy here is a car that you can fix yourself if it goes wrong (with the right know-how of course!). Windows & Mac OS are the equivalent of cars with their bonnets welded shut & their cars are only going to get fixed when they get around to doing it for you! Linux is ultimately customisable & repairable, so it will of course appeal more to technical folks & this has been one of the barriers to it becoming a genuine competitor to the 'big two'.

Whilst 'open source' doesn't always mean free, a lot of programs that have been written for Linux are available for free download from the internet or on CDs for just a few pounds. This versatility & diversity has meant that different groups of people have developed Linux distributions (packages of programs) geared to particular needs. This means that you have different 'flavours' of Linux, some very full featured (for which you usually pay) & others dedicated to always being free of charge. Of course amongst those flavours we can now find some very good audio packages & we'll look at those more in a moment....

Why Linux?

As well as this , there are several other very good reasons to make the switch to a Linux based operating system. Firstly it has been developed in a completely cooperative manner (as opposed to the competitive ethos behind Windows, MacOs & other major software companies). Everyone can contribute - even those of us who can't program can report back on bugs to help the whole process. Linux also currently has far less security issues than the others - Windows in particular. An article I recently read on the web (see below) documented how a determined programmer did all he could to help a whole bunch of popular viruses to run on his Linux system, but they just weren't up to the job.... Linux is far less of a security risk! Oh, I'm told that it just about never crashes either... which will come as a bit of a revelation to us Windows users out there!

I've already mentioned that there are a lot of free distributions, including Open Office which does just about everything that the Windows Office Suite does (except making a big whole in your wallet!), including being able to work on your existing Windows files! Even when Linux distributions cost money, they are still considerably cheaper than the Windows / Mac equivalents & once you have them you can pretty much keep on upgrading them for free. Unlike the big two, your software isn't going to suddenly become 'obsolete' - pushing you into yet another paid upgrade to the new version. To put it in a nutshell, Linux has been developed by much nicer people! One of the principles of permaculture is; 'Cooperation, not competition' & Linux follows this principle...

So why aren't we all using Linux already?

Well, up to now Linux has been mainly used by the programmers that have been developing it & because they could all program, there was no great drive it seems to make it a user-friendly system for the rest of us. On top of this there has been a huge amount of marketing by Microsoft & Apple which now sells us Windows systems with just about every new PC & more expensive Macs that 'are more reliable than PCs & look great'. ...And of course, once we get acquainted with something we don't really like to change.... Thankfully, there are at last some Linux distributions that are becoming very much more user-friendly & now offering a familiar Windows-style interface to tempt us across (for instance Linspire).

As well as this, several distributions are available on what are called 'Live CDs'. This means that you can pop the CD into the CDROM drive of your computer & reboot from the CD itself (this might involve changing the order of booting devices in your computer's BIOS, but this is a simple task when you know what to do). By running the whole operating system from the CD, you can try out Linux & see if you like it without having to install it first (& risking damaging any of your existing system). Running from the CD will be slower, but it's worth it for the opportunity of a 'risk-free' trial. Once you decide which distribution you like best, you can install it to your hard disk. Most distributions will then give you the opportunity to create a dual booting set-up (so each time you boot your computer you can choose which operating system you'd prefer to use).

So can I run my existing software under Linux?

Well, the answer to this is both yes & no..... Firstly though I should mention that there are already a lot of excellent programs written for just about anything you might want to do that run on a Linux system. I've already mentioned the excellent Open Office & there are lots more; browsers, image editors, multimedia players & a whole lot of specialist stuff that you'd have to pay for as extras on Windows or Mac. However, most of us are likely to find ourselves in a bit of a legacy situation. If we've been computing for a while on another system, we are going to have lots of files that only run under the software we have been running. If these are pretty much restricted to Windows Office files, music & images, then there should be little problem for us in making the change.

However if we have been using any more specialist software, we might find things a little more problematic. I have several programs that I use a lot which only run under Windows, along with plenty of files that I've created with them (Dreamweaver MX2004 that I use to create these pages is one such program). If you are used to using a computer-based audio recording set-up, this is also likely to be an issue. So I & many others of us may need to either find a way to run our existing programs under Linux or to stick with our current system, whilst making a gradual changeover to a new one. In the meantime there are a few options for running Windows programs under Linux for those of us who'd like to be able to... WINE (which runs some Windows programs without requiring a Windows installation), Crossover Office (which will run Windows Office under Linux - but actually why bother when you can use the free & excellent Open Office instead?). A slightly different option is to use a program called VMWare Workstation, which creates as many 'virtual' computers on your real machine as you wish. This allows you to run Linux alongside Windows or any other OS (including other Linux distros) without having to reboot each time to move from one OS to the other... Tidy, but not a particularly cheap option, though there is a 30-day trial available for you to decide if it's worth it.

What audio software is available for Linux?

Whilst we have plenty of (too much?) choice nowadays when it comes to buying high-end audio recording & mastering software for Windows or Mac platforms, Linux has up to recently been lacking such programs. Then a year or so ago I came across an article in Sound on Sound magazine about Mirror Image - a professional studio in the US that had put together a system that was running entirely under Linux - apparently the first studio in the world to do this. At last I thought that there may be some options out there to try, but further reading informed me that a certain amount of programming knowledge had been required to make all the modules work together. Bugs were still to be expected it seemed... Also, the timing wasn't exactly great as I had just upgraded to Steinberg's Cubase SX (running under Windows) - a considerable financial investment & steep learning curve.

However, a year or so on & a lot of that Linux software is becoming of a high enough standard to warrant further investigation. There are several projects around now that provide audio-based distributions that are worthy of investigation. I'll just make the introductions & let you do a little more surfing for further info (& there is a lot out there!). The AGNULA project is dedicated to producing a free Linux distribution tailored towards musicians & composers. Similarly, dyne:bolic is also a free distribution aimed at multimedia artists & available on a Live CD optimised for slower, older computers. These both collect together a variety of modules into a package that can be used to record & master audio to a high standard. The one package I found that asks for payment is still very cheap considering what comes in the package (a lot!). Studio to Go is an excellent looking & comprehensive suite of recording & mastering software, with lots of plug-ins & help files. It is provided as a Live CD that you can install to a hard disk if you wish. This means that you can take your recording studio wherever you go & use it on any other computer without having to install anything!

Used in combination with a USB flash drive (for saving your recorded files onto) you have a completely portable studio in your pocket! Of course, running from the CD will mean extra RAM requirements, so how well that will work in practice is yet to be seen, but it's an innovative development that we might be seeing a lot more of in the future. Some of the programs included, like Rosegarden (a professional audio & MIDI sequencer, score editor & more) & Ardour (a digital audio workstation) are said to now rival the high end packages available for Windows & Mac. The price? A measly £50!... about a tenth of what you would pay for similar software on the other platforms (& then you'd still have to buy the OS to run it on!). If Studio to Go is half as good as it sounds, I can't wait to get my hands on it & play around... & maybe in time it will completely replace my current Windows / Steinberg-based system.

So, any recommendations?

Well, it may take some more time for me to give any firm ones (but check out the experiences of everyone else who has given Linux a try below). So far I have downloaded Live CDs by Knoppix (which has a user-friendly & familiar Windows style interface - this is a Linux tryout & not particularly audio-orientated) , dyne:bolic (a free multimedia distro, optimised musicians & film makers with older & slower computers) & Ubuntu (a general distribution that seems to have a lot of fans as well as a really great philosophy - check it out!). Alas, the Ubuntu Live CD I burned was buggy (which may have been a problem with the download) & I've not tried it as a proper install yet, so more about my experiences with that in future...

My first proper steps into using Linux have been with a distribution that has got rave reviews across the net - Libranet 2.8.1. Whilst this is one that costs a few quid, they also give you an 'unlimited free trial on as many computers as you like! So far I'm very impressed, but I won't kid you; Linux does things a little differently than what you might be used to & there will be some new stuff to learn... Libranet 2.8.1 comes on two CDs or as a 1.4MB download from their website that you can burn onto 2 CDs at home. It does require some knowledge of 'behind the scenes' computing, but I managed to get it up & running on my second PC with little difficulty. Hopefully in time it will become as familiar to me as Windows currently is & that will certainly feel like a step in the right direction! I'm also on the verge of investing in 'Studio to Go' so I'll report back on that when I have tried it for a while too...

Personal experiences with Linux & Audio

There's room left here for your own experiences.... so please send them in! We all look forward to hearing them....

Useful & interesting links (additional to those linked above)

Linux Musician

JACK low latency audio server

JACK Audio Mastering Interface

Planet CCRMA audio project

Audacity free sound editor

SWEEP audio editor & live playback tool

MusE audio & MIDI sequencer

Wired audio & MIDI sequencer

Hydrogen - advanced drum machine for Linux


Linux audio plug-ins

Using VST plug-ins under Linux

List of VST plug-ins that can work under Linux

Sound & MIDI Software For Linux

Advanced Linux Sound Architecture - support for your existing audio / MIDI hardware under Linux

AGNULA article from 2003 in Sound on Sound magazine

Trying to get viruses to run on a Linux Windows emulation - a bit of techie humour!


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