Professional Audio on Linux: An Early 2009 Overview

Posted: 18/02/2009 in Software
Tags: ,

It’s not hard to start recording on Linux – it’s just hard to start migrating to record on Linux. The documentation is so fragmented that even I myself have no idea which would be the perfect FAQ, or how I learnt all that. That’s why a lot of times we end up providing information from what we know instead of citing sources to beginners. And that’s exactly why, yet again, there’s another level of fragmentation. This may not be true now, though. I’m probably assuming but things should pretty much be 95% 95% really 95% plug-and-play by now, aside from the occassional quirks, bugs, and glitches.

Dave Phillips, along with a number of other talented individuals, writes the bulk of our guides and tutorials which reside at Linux Journal and some other places I can’t be bothered to remember (mainly because I don’t read a lot these days). Periodically, I’ve noticed Sound on Sound featuring some things open-source but they may be specters from the golden age of < 2004. I don’t keep up with them but I can assure you the following links are enough:

Documentation

http://wiki.linuxmusicians.com/
http://wiki.linuxaudio.org/wiki/start

In summary, you first choose your audio distribution of choice and then pray for hardware compatibility if you’re the boutique type. After that, you pray that all your VST plug-ins get detected and run without issue (saving states/presets is still not a feature yet unless I’m outdated). If you have any other non-Linux plug-ins, stop right there unless you can do without them. Then, you may want to pray again for a stable system that never sleeps. Man, coming from me, this is blasphemy. But well, I’m speaking in commercial terms, not hobby studio.

Personally, I’d love to have proper GUI plug-ins even if I don’t need them, at least for the essential ones like the EQ – with a visual representation of the waveform. Work is going on for this currently with Ardour and maybe some other developer is working on something else but has not spoken up (or I’m not updated).

If you’re keen on deploying a Linux-based studio, I suggest trying out those software that have Windows/Mac ports (some may need extra work aside from downloading and installing).

Software that Work on Windows/Mac
[DAW] Ardour = Mac
[Sequencer] LMMS = Windows | Mac
[Drum Machine] Hydrogen = Windows | Mac
[Sampler] LinuxSampler + QSampler | JSampler = Windows | Mac
[DAW] Traverso = Windows

Commercial Software for Linux
Renoise
energyXT
REAPER (via Wine)

VST Support
1. Since Steinberg forbids redistribution of the SDK, developers can’t build it and offer the binaries for download. As such, users have to get it themselves and then compile the software. This method allows for the use of Windows (.dll) and/or Linux (.so) VST(i) plug-ins.

2. “Wrappers” are basically translators. This isn’t emulation per se, but you can think of it that way less the performance hit. They work together with Wine (another wrapper but for the entire Windows OS). Two such wrappers exist:

DSSI-VST
FST

Most of the time you would use them to launch the plug-ins standalone as part of the universal audio server, JACK, something like ASIO on steroids. Other times, some applications use them in turn for providing the VST support.

3. Software with built-in wrapping code. So far LMMS has pioneered this method and remains to be the only one with seamless (which essentially means painless) support for VST. Qtractor follows closely behind by incorporating the component that does the back-end job for LMMS. It uses DSSI-VST, which uses legal reverse-engineered development code (“vestige header” in technical speak) eliminating the need for the official Steinberg SDK.

64-bit
Not an x86_64 user myself but from what and whom I’ve dealt with and learnt, 64-bit is wonderful as long as you stay away from VSTs (it does work but needs a lot of work from you). This is because on a 64-bit system, you’re going to run 32-bit plug-ins (64-bit VST is not a reality yet). Linux itself (I mean GNU/Linux if you’re a communist) went 64-bit way before Windows or OS X, and I dare say it’s relatively way ahead at this point too.

When we say 64-bit, we mean pure x86_64. The popular commercial operating systems do a fair bit of hybrid processing and there is always a loss of performance due to that. The same applies to Linux distributions.

My personal recommendation as a platform would be Jacklab or 64 Studio. Do I run either? No. If you know the penguin enough you can run what I run and build your own working environment from building blocks – Arch Linux. My own workflow includes the following:

Hydrogen
LMMS
JSampler
Pure Data
CSound
JOST
Ardour
Qtractor
REAPER

I’ve only just started using Qtractor because of the VST support, sequencer and UI. Due to FST getting a restart in development, Ardour may soon be able to allow users the benefit of Steinberg’s rice bowl. Technically, the way fst works would enable Ardour to build with FST in a similar way to how Qtractor uses DSSI-VST. As for REAPER, I just love it (especially the drum sample-replacing JS script).

JOST is an amazing application. Being an all-around plug-in host with a sequencer, sometimes I wonder why one would need anything more than this. Pure Data and CSound are only recent additions although I’ve brushed shoulders with them before.

Hardware Compatibility
Echo
M-Audio
Focusrite
PreSonus

I’m not saying all of their devices will work, or that any particular device will work without problems. However, I am saying that Digidesign stuff will NOT work! See, that’s bold AND capital. Mind-blasting, no? Just take it, and go. Takeitandgo.

Links not mentioned:

will add another day

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