I took the opportunity of being alone in the house to set up for some recording in our living room. It's a much bigger space than the study, so I was hoping the acoustics would be good. The Zoom H4 was on a tripod in front of me on the sofa with my acoustic. It took a few attempts with me messing it up to get this version of an old song.
I also had a go at some more high-tech recording. For my next Six String Bliss album track I am starting with a MIDI version I found and will replace as many tracks as I can manage. I'm going to try using Rosegarden for both MIDI and audio this time, if it can do what I need. I didn't get far today as I was having trouble getting all the MIDI tracks to play. This may be down to the messing around I did to get the USB MIDI gadget working, but I also found that there is a bug in the version of the synth plug-in I have. I'll try again some time.
I got a little help with my MIDI issues on the #opensourcemusicians IRC channel. It's a fairly active channel that includes the people behind the associated podcast. Getting useful information on Linux audio can be tricky. A lot of How To documents are very old, but there are a few resources I look to:
I still see a need for some more approachable reference material for people who don't know much about Linux, but want to make music. They need guides on what sets of applications they could use for various scenarios and how they connect together. In some cases the information is out there, but it's spread across various sites, including video demos. I may try collaborating with others on one of the wikis to try and bring it all together so people have somewhere to start. I should learn more myself in the process.
I've pondered further on which interface to get. Current favourite is the M-Audio Delta 44. It's getting on a bit, but can handle 4 inputs at high quality. It should give lower latency than a USB unit. I've seen a few on ebay and will see if I can pick one up there.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a pretty old system. It's a simple serial protocol that dates back about 30 years. I remember a friend making an interface to hook up to the serial port of his computer, an Acorn Electron I believe. It still seems to be the default interface for sending note and other information between all sorts of gear. Modern kit may be sending it via USB or even within the PC to virtual instruments, but I think it's still pretty much the same.
About 15 years ago I bought a Casio CTK-530 keyboard to learn to play piano. The sounds are okay, but it has a five octave velocity sensitive keyboard. My kids have since also used it a lot. I think I have had it working with a PC via a cable that attached to the games port, but I recently realised this PC does not have that port. Luckily a friend had a spare USB MIDI adaptor that he sent me. It's an M-Audio Uno. I hooked it up, but nothing at all happened. A little research revealed I needed to install the midisport-firmware package. A quick reboot later I had some lights flashing on it.
I could see the Uno (as MidiSport) in the Jack ALSA tab. I wanted to get it playing sounds in Qsynth, but that is in the MIDI tab. I had to set the Jack MIDI driver to raw or seq to get the interface to appear as n output under MIDI. Then I could use my keyboard to trigger some of the nice sounds in the basic soundfont I have installed. I may have to look at some of the other sample libraries out there.
I also had to check if the Casio would receive MIDI. I loaded up a file in Rosegarden and selected the MidiSport as output. Out it came in spectacular cheesy 80s style. Not sure I need this capability for recording, but it's nice to have everything working.
This is actually the second piece of MIDI gear the studio has gained in the last week or so. I bought a Korg nanoKONTROL to give me some convenient control over the recording process. That really was plug and play. It was very simple to select it in Jack and then assign controls to any feature of Ardour. I need to experiment further with programming it using the Korg software that works on Linux via Wine. It has limitations, but it was cheap and fits on my crowded desk. I mentioned that I considered the Akai MPK Mini, but that cost a bit more and I didn't really need another keyboard.
There are still lots more Linux audio applications for me to experiment with. I did have a play with Rakarrack. It has a bewildering selection of effects with loads of parameters. I tried the presets, some of which didn't work. There's some interesting noises in there. I used their 'Satriani' preset on this track just to try it out.
As previously written I've finally been doing what I would classify as 'proper' recording at home. This is something I have wanted to do for years, but have not got around to. I did a little more at the weekend and have been thinking about what I should do to make the process easier, more productive and improve the quality of what I record.
Some people have said I'm making life hard for myself by using Linux. I've not used any recent Windows/Mac audio applications. I'm aware that applications such as Reaper can run on Linux via Wine, but I'd prefer to use the open source options where possible. I have no plans to install Windows. I dumped it a few years back and haven't felt any need to have it again. Linux has a number of applications in active development that should suit my needs. They are available for free, but I am happy to contribute financially to the projects. I need to explore more of these, including the various software guitar effects.
I've been exploring what Ardour can do. There's so much more in there than I really need, but it's pretty simple to do a basic recording. You create a project, add a track, connect it to an input (can be audio interface or another application), arm the track and hit Record.
Last weekend I recorded two tracks. The first was a composition my daughter wrote for a school project. This consisted of a piano/keyboard backing from my old Casio, a Stylophone solo(!) and a vocal. The keyboard and Stylophone were recorded via the PC aux in. Vocals used the Zoom H4. For the piano we recorded one verse/chorus and copied it. I'm thinking of re-doing the piano by sequencing it and using a soft-synth to get a better sound. I may try Rosegarden for that.
The second track was an instrumental I've been thinking about for a while. It's a version of some hornpipes we play at the acoustic session with added rhythm guitar and drums. Drums were done with Hydrogen, once I'd worked out how to copy sections. All guitars went via my Korg Pandora. The playing is a bit rough, but I wanted to try building a track from scratch.
With both tracks we had some issues with levels and something is not right with my Jack settings as we were getting a lot of xruns. Getting that optimised is probably the trickiest part of getting set up and can involve editing some configuration files, but most of it uses GUI forms. The fact that I was switching between the soundcard and the Zoom made it a little trickier as you have to stop Jack to change the input source.
The studio got a slight upgrade this month with the arrival of a 23" Samsung LCD monitor to replace the mighty 19" Iiyama CRT. The extra width is useful when editing tracks. I'm wondering whether I should run a second screen, perhaps a smaller LCD where I can put the secondary apps where I can keep an eye on them.
A potentially useful accessory comes via my Android phone. Fingerplay MIDI is an app that provides several screens of touch-sensitive controls that can send MIDI data to applications via a host application on the PC. I've had it controlling aspects of Hydrogen, but need to learn how to configure it. The main use for this would be to remotely start/stop recording as I'm sometimes across the room. I found some instructions on getting it working with Jack at woo, tanger.
So I seem to have the tools I need to make music. I need to learn more about the techniques. Luckily there has never been a better time to learn as there is so much information on-line. I listen to a couple of podcasts on the subject, read some blogs and participate in some forums. I recently found out that the Stack Overflow/Exchange Q&A sites now include some covering audio production and guitars.
One effect of all these information sources is that I know how much wonderful gear is out there. I don't plan on spending a fortune on this hobby, but I can see a few areas where a moderate expenditure would make life easier, and, I hope, encourage me to do it more.
The Zoom H4 functions as an audio interface as well as a recorder, but has some limitations. It only records 16 bit via USB and it's fiddly to change settings. I'd prefer an interface that could sit on the desk all the time with convenient controls for adjusting levels etc. There are plenty of these available. I don't think I need more than two inputs for now and I'm thinking I could still use the H4 as a microphone by feeding the line out into the interface. At the lower end of the price range the Lexicon Alpha looks interesting. It has a mono instrument input for a guitar if I wanted to use software effects or I could feed it stereo from something like the Pandora. It lacks second headphone output for when I want to record with others, e.g. the kids. I may check out the second hand market as people must be upgrading all the time.
My Yamaha PC speakers are better than a lot I've seen, but are nowhere near hi-fi quality. If I'm to do any
sort of accurate mixing I could do with something better. Again there are lots of options, but I'd probably be
looking at spending at least £200 for reasonable powered monitors. An alternative may be to get some reasonable
speakers that I can run from the old Sony amplifier I have here.
Finally, I could do with something to make it easier to control the various audio application without having to navigate via keyboard and mouse. A lot of the budget USB devices in this area work with Linux. I considered the
Korg Nano devices, but the Akai MPK Mini appeals as it combines a two octave keyboard, drum pads and some control knobs in a compact device that would fit in the desk.
Something else I should consider is making the PC quieter. It's not outrageously loud, but the fans may be
audible if I'm recording vocals or acoustic guitar. My old Athlon CPU has the fan that came with it, which is not going to be the quietest. I need to do some checking to see if the PSU and case fans would also need replacing. At least the hard drive I boughht recently is practically inaudible. If I don't fix the fans for now then my friend Dave has written a piece on noise removal using Audacity. I use it for basic editing, but had not explored this aspect.
Even if I don't buy any more gear for now I will carry on recording. I have some tracks to work on for the next Six String Bliss album. I've got my own track to do and others have invited contributions on theirs. Stay tuned.
As I still haven't found a way to get audio recording working properly on my Kubuntu system I've been thinking of
alternatives. One is to do a fresh install of the latest version and hope that it resolves my various issues, another
would be to rearrange my drive and install something like Ubuntu Studio with a
dual-boot. Somewhere I picked up on dyne:bolic and its derivative
pure:dyne. These are audio/video-biased live CDs that can write to
existing partitions and even be run from there. I downloaded the latter to check it out.
It booted fairly quickly, but seemed to confuse my monitor which had problems locking onto a signal at times.
Eventually I got to their very minimal desktop. It was running in what looked like 800x600. It was using the open
nvidia drive. The preferences only offered 640x480 and 320x256. I'm not sure anyone would want to use those modes.
Everything is run from a menu when you right0click the desktop. It offers things like Ardour, Audacity and Hydrogen along
with Jack. I had a go at setting it up, but could only get playback with a bit of
distortion at fairly high latencies. I obviously need to tweak it for my on-board sound. I didn't manage to record
anything on the first attempt. Ardour didn't even load properly. So not a great first impression, but I will try it
again after reading up. There is a later version that uses a DVD to provide more modules.
Malc had more success when he used it on an
electronic music course. So it should be
possible to do someting on my 'mighty' PC.
This week's Secret Bass drumming session had more atmosphere than usual when there
was a power cut. We were drumming by candlelight, in a building made of straw. Torches were used at times for
demonstrations of technique.
I'm starting a new category for this post as I hope to be setting up my own mini-music studio
Jokosher is a multi-track recording application for
Linux. It's a project instigated by Jono Bacon of
LugRadio fame. It's aimed at musicians who just want to
record several tracks rather than those who want to tweak waveforms and perform all sorts
of manipulation. It still has facilities to use software effects and other add-ons.
I've been keeping an eye on the project, but yesterday they announced the latest
release (0.9), so I installed it. It's looking pretty good, but there are a few issues,
mainly in the sound quality, but that may be specific to my PC. I don't normally have problems,
but with the audio I imported it sounded very garbled some of the time. I quickly plugged
in my electro-acoustic, after finding the appropriate jack plug adaptor, and played along. I
managed to get some sound recorded, but the guitar really needs to go via a pre-amp to get a decent
level. It was a very brief test, but I posted my
impressions on their forum.
There's a nice set of
videos of Jono talking about the project on Youtube.
I've been reading up on audio and recording. There's lotsofforums out there, of varying audio geekiness.
It's a field with no limits on the amount you can spend on equipment, but I intend to just get the
basics for now so that I can record at least some guitar, drums and my daughter's violin. Some of those
require a reasonable microphone and probably a mixer or pre-amp to plug it into. For my guitar I have
my old Korg Pandora that
can act as pre-amp and some effects. Later I can look at
things like better sound cards
and guitar effects.
One of our LUG members is planning on giving a talk
on Linux Audio at the July meet. That should be interesting. He is likely to using stuff like
JACK and Ardour. I will also
be seeking guidance from my good friend Malcolm who has
far too much gear.