Friday, February 5, 2010

AV Linux: Linux Music Production Comparo Part II

The Audacity of Editing

Recently I set out to finish up some editing in my familiar Mac OS environment. When I went to open the files I found I had saved my work as Audacity .AUP files while also somehow breaking my copy of Audacity 1.3.11 beta. Whatever I did also kept newer Audacity betas (and nightly builds) from running. In stead of just being aggravated I decided to do my Audacity work in AV Linux, where I (hopefully) hadn't broken Audacity yet.

My copy of AV Linux has the 2.6.32 Linux kernel (slightly newer than described at [1] at the time of this writing), with real-time mods and physical address extension (RAM support beyond the usual 3.5 or 4GB limit of a 32 bit OS). The default window manager is Compiz running in the LXDE desktop environment. The default file manager is PCManFM, which I'm not wild about but certainly works and is relatively quick and responsive. The default web browser is the very nice (and totally free, as in speech) GNU Iceweasel, which may have the best name of any desktop application, ever. Since this release of AV Linux, Iceweasel has been renamed GNU Icecat. I'm sad to see the name go but the browser still works a treat, so I guess I shouldn't complain.

Like the other music and multimedia GNU-Linux distributions I have touched, AV Linux bundles the increasingly fine cross-platform audio recording and editing app, Audacity, in this case 1.3.10-beta (Unicode), ever so slightly older than I had been using in Mac O S. I had planned to update it to the latest beta but it worked great so I left well enough alone. It opened my Mac OS-created AUPs quickly, played them without error and let me get right to my editing.

Blazing Speed? Check!

Speaking of "quickly," AV Linux screams. I only gave it 512MB of RAM in VMWare Fusion but performance is right snappy. I don't know if it's the real-time kernel extensions, the light-weight desktop environment or that I spend entirely too much time using Windows, but I am impressed.


Another very cool thing about working in this environment is the plug-ins. The default install of AV Linux comes with hundreds of effect and instrument plug-ins. While working in Audacity I was floored by the number of EQs I had at my disposal.

Most of these plug-ins conform to the LADSPA standard although Audacity for Linux also supports Nyquist and VAMP effects. What is really important about this isn't simply that these effects are available in Audacity for Linux. What is important is that LADSPA is a viable open standard. I launched Rosegarden, one of AV Linux's pre-installed DAWs, and there they are, the plug-ins I saw in Audacity accompanied by a bunch of DSSI instruments. DSSI is an extension to the LADSPA standard for instrument plug-ins.

Open standards = good. Remember that.

Ardour and the JACK of Hearts

Another DAW that is relatively common and also found in AV Linux is the cross platform (Linux, Mac OS, FreeBSD) Ardour. Firing up Ardour in AV Linux forced me to get a little more familiar with JACK. The JACK Audio Connection Kit is a system and a standard for routing audio and MIDI between software and devices. JACK is available for other operating systems but it is most closely associated with GNU/Linux. Getting an application to talk to a sound card is one thing. Getting multiple apps, plug-ins and devices all on the same page is another.

I don't know if it h as something to do with being virtualized or what, but I had major JACK problems with Ardour the first couple of times I launched it. For some reason Ardour and JACK would disconnect (with an error message saying Ardour was failing to keep up with JACK), stopping my work dead in its tracks. Sometimes I could get them to reconnect by restarting the JACK server from its floating control panel and/or asking Ardour to reconnect with JACK from Ardour's JACK menu. Other times I had to restart Ardour W ITHOUT SAVING MY WORK. This is not cool. Under some circumstances Ardour will not let you save your your session because it does not have valid routing information (for which it relies on JACK) to save with it. No. Not cool at all.

My only other complaint about Ardour is that it does not cope well with imported audio that is of a different sample rate than the official rate of the session. Logic 7 (the only version of Logic I have used) was the same way, but it is 2010 and Logic 7 dates back to. . .ummm, long before 2010. Since then I have been spoiled by Ableton Live's free-wheeling attitude toward audio where sample rate, bit depth, speed, pitch and everything else is wide open and free for all. In this regard Ardour is for experienced, serious users who A) know what sample rate is and B) don't mind taking a minute or two to convert a file before adding it to a session.

Delayed Gratification

On the up side, while working with Ardour I met an fell fast in love with Delayorama [1][2], a decptively simple LADSPA delay plug-in by Steve Harris. Right away it started letting me do the sorts of high-feedback things I get in trouble for with other delays. The delayed signal also came back with more interesting texture than I was expecting, really adding something to the source material. I haven't really learned how to use it yet and I'm already getting interesting results. I'll be coming back to this little beauty!

Notes On VMWare Fusion

I would like to make a few comments about about the role of VMWare Fusion in these tests. Desktop and server virtualization are an ever increasing part of my day job in IT at a mid-sized university and I can say honestly that Parallels Desktop for Mac [1][2] and VMWare Fusion[1][2] are both good products but when it comes to OS integration, especially with Linux, Fusion is better. Historically both products have developed the tightest host-guest integration, slickest automated install features and easiest "tools" installations for Windows[1][2]. So, I was very pleased to find that VMWare's Unity [1][2] feature, which hides the guest OS desktop and has all guest and host windows share the host desktop GUI, works great with AV Linux. This and Fusion's very smooth shared folder system made accessing the same files from both OSs a breeze. Thank you to the VMWare and GNU/Linux people who made this happen!

More On Ardour

The more I use Ardour the more I like it. The automation works in a reasonably intuitive way. The relationship between the editing window and the main mixer is logical. Tool bars can be easily made to float and returned. Meter, tempo, CD track markers and various other things can be set in a master track area above the editing lanes/tracks in the editing window. Regions can be non-destructively layered (think Photoshop). Ardour even has built in spectral analysis! If I didn't need to keep reconnecting it with JACK I'd be truly thrilled.

Not Ready For Prime Time...Yet

I subscribed to the Linuxsampler-Devel mailing list some time ago. Mostly I've been watching for messages related to the Mac OS port of Linux Sampler. I've never had much luck with it, but the whole Linux Sampler project (Linux Sampler, QSampler, libgig, etc.) is mostly less than 1.0 and primarily suitable for hackers. Sadly, my luck with it on AV Linux wasn't much better than last time I tried it on Mac OS. I was not able to create a new instrument and it shut down on me a couple of times. I am sure that given some time I could get it going, but I don't have that time right now. The goals of this project extend to matching and exceeding the feature sets of commercial samplers like Gigastudio, Kontakt and ESX. There are bound to be bumps along that road.

My poor luck continued with Qtractor, a DAW that would not launch, and a couple of sound modules/virtual keyboards/synths that received MIDI data from my Korg microKontrol (seemingly, a good sign) but produced no sound.


Things started to look up when I returned to Rosegarden, for a closer look. Where Ardour is all about audio, Rosegarden also wants to handle your MIDI and musical notation. Shortly after launch I had recorded MIDI events in from my keyboard and played them back out through an organ plug-in. Not bad!

Rosegarden allows you to do your MIDI event editing in a musical score editor, a matrix editor or event list. Internally Rosegarden only allows you to record, play, move and split audio segments but will link to an external waveform editor for more involved manipulation of audio files. Importing audio files is more of a problem than with Ardour. Rosegarden supports WAVE, FLAC, MP3 and OGG, but I was unable to import any files successfully. As of this writing the online documentation is not clear about whether or not files to be imported needed to match the current JACK sample rate or when imported files would be converted to Rosegarden's preferred internal format of 32bit WAVE.

Conclusions, Such as They Are

AV Linux probably deserves a more thorough going-over than I have given it but at the same time I would have people understand that this is precisely the problem. People only have so much time to learn new tools and if the learning curve is too steep those tools will not be adopted. How much time should I be expected to put into learning the ins and outs (literally) of JACK and the other technologies underlying these apps and plug-ins?

As an IT professional I know I can probably learn a lot about why some apps failed to launch by consulting log files but I do that at work. When I come home I want to make music.

1 comment:

DJ Dual Core said...

As I have worked with some of this software more it appears some of my observations and conclusions in this review were at least partially wrong. Specifically, I encourage you to read my later posts concerning Ardour.