Linux helped me grow as a musician

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Opensource.com

In the early days of Linux it was possible to do high-quality audio recording, but it was often difficult to set up. Then Ubuntu Studio made it a lot easier.

Back in 2000-2002, after studying B2B marketing, I started to work at an engineering office. Aside from marketing and sales stuff, I was in charge of optimizing the number of workstations and licenses to match our real needs and cut costs.

We had many expensive CAD workstations that were mainly running Unix at the time, from vendors such as SGI, IBM, and Sun, with costly CATIA, Euclid, and Unigraphics software.

I was a computer geek but because of my studies in marketing, I didn't have the opportunity to play with Unix systems. Then I discovered GNU/Linux, and I downloaded some available distributions, including Red Hat, Mandrake, and Debian. These distros were not easy to install like they are today, and often even getting the network working was difficult, but having a terminal on a cheap laptop was great.

In 2004 I adopted Ubuntu, a version of Linux that was good for new users.

Thanks to Framasoft.org, I already was using a lot of open source applications before switching to Linux, such as Firefox, OpenOffice, Gimp, and Inkscape.

Recording music with open source software

I am a bass player, and I record from time to time with my friends in a studio and at home, depending on the project and the budget. With a quality sound card and a few inexpensive tools, recording audio with a Mac or PC was easy.

On GNU/Linux, I used Audacity and a pair of microphones to record "garage demos" and live gigs with a laptop. Each week we recorded two or three hours of music, which was a good way to improve our songs, archive our work, and prepare the studio sessions. For my job, Audacity made editing interviews and working on audio for an event or talk possible.

Of course, Audacity does not operate in real time, and you cannot enable or disable an effect so that it functions like a traditional digital audio workstation (DAW). Even though using Audacity is easy on GNU/Linux, you might need a different application to do heavy editing and add audio effects. However, back then, professional sound cards were mostly available for PCI or Firewire; USB audio-compliant devices are quite recent in professional audio. Because of restricted drivers, running a professional sound card on most of GNU/Linux distribution was not possible, which was frustrating. Of course, if you didn't have a good sound card, using Ardour, the best open source DAW, didn't work well.

Because I was running GNU/Linux, needing to use another operating system just to record audio was a pain. There were other distributions and add-ons, such as Planet CCRMA and 64 Studio (which is no longer active), but installing and getting them to work was complicated. Another option was to build dedicated workstations with carefully selected hardware, tweak drivers, and so on.

The beginnings of Ubuntu Studio

Like many other open source enthusiasts, I am not a developer or a sysadmin. I don't program, and I don't package software. I just like open source solutions and want to use open source tools, so I needed to find the right tool for me.

A the time, Ubuntu offered out-of-the-box drivers, codecs, and more, including restricted options. Plus its community was growing fast, so I knew I could rely on it when I had questions and needed help.

My goal was to be able to record audio with Ardour, using a quality sound card, with an easy-to-install GNU/Linux distribution. Quickly, I and a few other community members began working on the Ubuntu Studio project. At first, the project was a wiki page, explaining how to configure a vanilla Ubuntu installation for music production. Then we gathered a lot of information from forums, mailing lists, tutorial tweaks, and IRC chats with developers.

Ubuntu Studio had three main challenges:

  • Debugging the Ubuntu/Debian ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture) driver for professional sound cards, which mainly involves issues with firmware.
  • Having a low-latency or real-time kernel for Debian and Ubuntu, based on the work done by Ingo Molnar at Red Hat.
  • And, most importantly, getting help from upstream project developers and package maintainers.

Because I had "pro" sound cards available at home and was able to borrow others via my personal networks, I spent a lot of time testing, tweaking, and reporting bugs. After checking all firmware licenses and, in some cases, contacting vendors, I found a solution to host the firmware in a repository. Other people from the Ubuntu Studio team worked on the real-time kernel, with the help of developers interested in developing a Debian real-time kernel for industrial purposes.

At this stage, using Ardour in Ubuntu to record audio with good performance became possible. We had a small repository with a few custom packages, so anyone could follow the tutorial. The solution was not perfect or always stable, but it was an important step forward.

Eventually, Canonical invited members of our team to an Ubuntu Developer Summit to meet with developers in person. The event also led to the decision to create an Ubuntu derivative dedicated to multimedia production.

We had more and more support from developers and packagers. Over two years we created artwork, did a lot of optimizations, backported recent applications, and made the most important packages available in Ubuntu repositories.

Now I use Ubuntu Studio to produce music records, interviews and tutorial videos, and more.

Anyone can contribute

While discovering and adopting open source software and GNU/Linux, I learned that contributing is possible, even if you aren't a developer. As you are learning, you also can help others on forums, write documentation, report bugs, test, and help developers.

Being active in open source communities changed my life, and a few years ago it helped me to start a new career. These days I am less active in Ubuntu Studio, and prefer to spend more time using, promoting, and teaching open source software to others.

This fall, the Ubuntu Studio project will be 10 years old.

The project welcomes new contributors who want to help write documentation, back-port applications, package software, and more. Learn more about how you can contribute, and if you already use Ubuntu Studio, share your story.

Open source evangelist at Prestashop, the open source ecommerce solution. Founder of Une Jolie Musique, a not for profit studio using open source and open source based software only to record music and produce videos. I also teach and advise on open source, and write tutorials.

18 Comments

This is awesome, it was tough indeed doing multimedia with linux/Ubuntu years ago. I didn't know there have been so much improvements. Kudos. I will give it a try.

Great article. I have dabbled with Ubuntu Studio when I first learned about it. Thanks for sharing your story.

Great article, and a great initiative. I'm a big fan of Ubuntu Studio, and even used to carry it around with me on a pendrive!

Ardour is an amazing daw! I can't get over how much quality has come out of this particular open source software. It has changed me for the better in a significant manner. I will keep donating to ardour to hope someone else will enjoy it too.

I'd like to see the Ubuntu Studio Web site become a hub for all OSS audio production, along with showcases and tutorials on the various software options available for Open Musicians.

http://libremusicproduction.com/area/audio-recording is a pretty great "central" hub which, more or less, is distribution-neutral. They tend to promote Kx Studio (an addon repo set for Ubuntu) but mostly it's just generic open source music production news and articles. The problem with Ubuntu Studio being the one hub for all open source music production is that not all open source production happens on Ubuntu, so generic, I think, is better. Or at least, more flexible.

In reply to by Daniel Langlois (not verified)

I have still not managed to get Ardour to work with my hardware. Audacity on the other hand works perfectly with all my hardware.

I have an Alesis IO2 and a Behringer Xenix Q802, both of which work perfectly with Audacity.

Jack can see them both, but there seems no way to connect them to Ardour.

As a consequence, I layer all my instruments (drums, bass and guitars) in Audacity, and mix down to a Stereo wav file from there. On the other hand given that I record all effects "live", I'm not sure what Ardour would add to the production.

Audacity does not manage well the latency. That's why you would prefer to use Ardour. If jack sees your devices, you should be able to use them with Ardour tracks. You just have to select a track, and map an input. Easy.

In reply to by tracyanne (not verified)

If it was easy I would have managed it by now. I've been trying for quite some time (more than 12 months). reading everything I can find on connecting devices via Jack and setting up Ardour.

So no it's NOT EASY.

In reply to by Antoine Thomas

What version is that? I have KX Studio PPA installed on Ubuntu Studio 14.04. As soon as I get time I will be upgrading to 16.04

In reply to by Antoine Thomas

Ardour 4 and 5 don't need Jack. Start Ardour (do not start jackd), and you can select the alsa sound card you want. click on start, take care to frequencies and other information, and here you go, Ardour, will start your session without jackd.

In reply to by tracyanne (not verified)

Well that wasn't entirely unexpected. Ardour 4 doesn't see my devices. They are there in the Sound Settings registering whatever I happen to be playing on my guitar. But as far as Ardour is concerned, nothing.

BTW, I've never had any problems with latency issues with Audacity

In reply to by Antoine Thomas

Yes, I've not been able to figger it out, and I don't have access to anyone who might be able to work it out. I'm the most knowledgeable Linux person I know. I've been hitting my head against a wall over this for quite a while.

According to Patchage there is no channel or means of connecting those devices via jack, and once again with Ardour 4, there is no sign of those devices during the setup stage.

In reply to by Antoine Thomas

Antoine, thank you for this great article! Never having tried to record anything before, I have mostly ignored the issues but this makes them very clear without requiring a deep technical understanding.

Very nice, congratulations!

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