Explorations into the world of electronic music production
Apart from playing the recorder flute in primary school and keyboard with my father-in-law, I pretty much never had the chance to make music or even, to create new music. That did not bother me in the past, but when I married into a very musical and creative family I realized I was the only one without musical education or skill in playing an instrument. The family has (ir)regular jam sessions and sometimes arranges (mostly private but) quite high-quality classical music performances.
But, I had other hobbies, Slackware being one of them of course, and reading books while listening to my own music collection (which almost has no overlap with my wife’s by the way). And I was glad when I saw that my son has inherited my wife’s genes and has a knack for languages and music. He is exploring digital music making, has a keyboard or two and installed Ableton Live on his computer. I could never convince him that Slackware was the better alternative to Windows, all his friends are on Windows and what the group does is important for a teen. And furthermore, there’s a slew on tutorial and instruction video’s out there, all expecting you to use Ableton.
I looked at Ableton for its possibilities, and I had several discussions with one of my colleague/friends who is also a DJ/producer and uses Ableton a his primary driver. Seems to be a real nice program… but it costs hundreds of euros. So purchasing a license for Windows 10 and another one for Ableton, just to be able to converse with my son was not an option. I’ll introduce him to my friend and we’ll visit his studio to get inspiration. Then he can implement what he learnt, using tools he is familiar with.
During the past two years, I made some purchases just to have fun with creating sounds and rhythms, buying a couple of Pocket Operators from Teenage Engineering. I had one of these PO’s in my car, plugged into the car stereo and let my son create loops and sounds while on trips. Lots of fun and not too expensive. I also have an external USB soundcard,a FocusRite Scarlett 2i4. and a MIDI keyboard and bass guitar in the attic. But life’s too short and lots of stuff asks for attention – I never spent much productive time with my gear.
But these recent discussions about how to create digital music from scratch, and my wish toe be able to record the live performances of my in-laws, triggered a desire to have a better look at electronic music production and music recording, but then on Slackware Linux of course.
What would be needed for that? I would need software to create sounds (i.e. synthesizers), manipulate audio, create drum tracks, sequence the music, record and mix it. Also my USB sound card needs to be supported and I want my use midi keyboard to enter the notes that I play into the system. I obviously need low-latency real-time performance of my Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
I guess that for many Linux musicians, the Debian-based AVLinux is a first choice when looking for pre-packaged, pre-configured Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) solutions and supporting software. But we Slackers already have Studioware – a Slackware expansion set which gives you a great toolkit with audio- and video manipulation software. My liveslak project even supports Studioware directly, and is able to create a Studioware Live ISO. You should try that out – it has a ton of software, not just for audio but also for video recording, manipulation and recording.
But… again… and that’s just me… I think that there’s no fun in using other people’s ready-made stuff. Here I am thinking again as the software packaging geek who wants to create possibilities for other people while not necessarily using those myself.
Anyway, I decided not to look too closely at what others had already done, and research a decent set of software products that I want to try out, and on Slackware-current too. Studioware is running on Slackware 14.2 and I tend to develop new stuff on our development platform.
And after a couple of weeks spent on reading, compiling, testing and scratching my head at my lack of knowledge, I came up with this list of software that I think is a nice start for venturing into DAW country. All of this is free and open source:
- Music recording/mixing/manipulating:
- ardour: the professional-grade Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
- Sound editing:
- audacity: a graphical sound editor with a GTK3 based UI.
- Drum machine:
- hydrogen: an advanced drum machine with Qt5 based GUI.
- MIDI input:
- vmpk: Virtual MIDI Piano Keyboard is a MIDI events generator and receiver which can be used to drive a MIDI synthesizer.
- Audio manipulation plugins (not counting the standalone applications mentioned above that will also run as an Ardour plugin):
- System tools:
- Support libraries for implementing a DAW:
- aubio: a system to extract annotations from audio signals.
- ladspa_sdk: SDK for sound plugins adhering to the Linux Audio Developer’s Simple Plugin API (LADSPA).
- liblo: implementation of the Open Sound Control (OSC), a protocol for communication among multimedia devices.
- lv2: the LV2 open standard for audio plugins.
- rubberband: a library for audio time-stretching and pitch-shifting.
- vamp-plugin-sdk: an audio processing plugin system (you still need to install actual plugins).
- wxGTK3: GTK+3 implementation of the cross-platform wxWidgets API
- Further dependencies for the above (not part of Slackware) that I had to create as packages to get it all working:
- drumstick: MIDI libraries for Qt5. This is also part of my ‘ktown‘ Plasma5 desktop package set.
- liblrdf: library to access LADSPA plugin metadata.
- lilv: a library for using LV2 plugins in applications.
- mxml: library to read and write XML and XML-like data files.
- serd: RDF syntax library.
- sord: library for storing RDF data in memory.
- sratom: library for serialising LV2 atoms to and from RDF.
- suil: library for loading and wrapping LV2 plugin UIs.
- System libraries that I already had in my repositories and which you may already have installed:
Additions to the above set resulting from the discussion in the comments area below the main article:
- Music notation:
- musescore: a music notation program
- Live Coding:
- supercollider: a platform for audio synthesis and algorithmic composition
- lsp-plugins: Linux Studio Plugins supporting LV2, LADSPA and Jack.
- Support libraries:
- qsynth: a Qt5 GUI Interface for FluidSynth.
Looking back, that is a big list! Actually when I started with my shortlist as mentioned above I did not anticipate that my ideas would require this many tools to support it. However I think that in order to do some serious audio production work on your computer, this is actually the minimum of applications that you require. There may be more, and I am very curious to hear from you if there is Open Source Software not on the above list, which you think is invaluable to your work as a musician or music producer and should be added here.
The ‘big boy’ in this collection, and the center of any DAW activities on Linux, is Ardour.
This is a complex program, but luckily the developers have an extensive manual online. And if you search on Youtube you will find a lot of videos on how to work in Ardour (most of them for older versions and most of them too obscure or too rambling to be educational). However, an Ardour channel on Youtube has just been created with the intention of releasing a new series of quality instruction videos, produced by Unfa who himself has a lot of nice videos on his own channel. Like I said, I have been scratching my head a lot lately, but my hair is still there and I will make progress and understand how to use this tool efficiently… eventually.
And I am glad to finally have Audacity in my repository, something I wanted/needed for quite a while.
All these packages are available in my regular repository, with one caveat (at least for now): I have built all of them for Slackware-current (both 32bit and 64bit). If you are running Slackware 14.2 then for now you need to have a good look at Studioware instead, or you can of course download the sources for my packages and compile them yourself.
The build order is roughly like this:
- alsa-plugins-jack (depends on jack2)
- aubio (depends on jack2, and additionally on ffmpeg on Slackware 14.2)
- liblrdf (depends on ladspa_sdk)
- rubberband (depends on ladspa_sdk and vamp-plugin-sdk)
- sord (depends on serd)
- sratom (depends on lv2 and sord)
- lilv (depends on sratom)
- suil (depends on lv2 and qt5)
- ardour (depends on jack2 aubio lv2 vamp-plugin-sdk liblo liblrdf lilv rubberband and suil)
- portmidi (depends on openjre)
- portaudio (depends on jack2)
- zynaddsubfx (depends on jack2 liblo mxml ntk and portaudio)
- hydrogen (depends on jack2 ladspa_sdk liblo liblrdf rubberband and qt5)
- audacity (depends on jack2 ladspa_sdk lilv suil vamp-plugin-sdk and wxGTK3)
- qjackctl (depends on jack2 and qt5)
- calf (depends on jack2 and lv2, and for Slackware 14.2 additionally on fluidsynth)
- avldrums.lv2 (depends on lv2)
- helm (depends on jack2 and lv2)
- amsynth (depends on jack2 ladspa_sdk and liblo)
- eq10q (depends on lv2)
- vamp-aubio-plugins (depends on aubio and vamp-plugin-sdk)
- drumstick (depends on qt5)
- vmpk (depends on drumstick)
- musescore (depends on jack2 portaudio portmidi and qt5)
- qsynth (depends on qt5)
- lsp-plugins (depends on jack2 ladspa and lv2)
- supercollider (depends on jack2 and qt5)
I hope to get some interesting feedback from you. I am also considering how all of this could be added to a function-focused liveslak variant, as small as possible so it may load completely into memory. Actually I would prefer to attempt such a Live ISO using a bare Plasma5, rather than XFCE or other light-weight desktop environments (everybody else is probably already using XFCE). The Plasma5 desktop framework is very powerful and fast, and it could benefit the user of a DAW if everything she plugs in just works.
Ideas? Enjoy! Eric