Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Linux Music Production Comparo Part III: LMMS 0.4.5 on Ubuntu Studio

As I have written more than once, even small steps outside the mainstream way of doing ANYTHING are punished. If you want things to be easy and predictable you best go with the flow. Shop at the mall. Play a standard version of a popular instrument. Use Windows.*

But what fun would that be? Eh?

The good news is that there are people out there who want to help freaks like us get things done. Bagvapp/ ( offers disk image downloads of many free and/or open OS's preconfigured as VMs. This is an enormous time saver and
Bagside is where I got the nicely working copy of UbuntuStudio I'm writing about in this bloggI may have gotten this copy of Ubuntu Studio there but the truth is, I can't remember and I can't tell by the date on the VM. I downloaded so many ISOs that week... Anyway, the ISOs I did get from Bagside rock and they have my undying gratitude!

I decided it was also time for me to try LMMS, Linux MultiMedia Studio (not to be confused with XMMS[1][2]). This cross platform DAW (like Linux Sampler it doesn't just run on Linux) emphasizes a friendly interface and ease of use. Reading the website and doc you will see multiple references to FL Studio, an app I have never used. At first look LMMS primarily reminded me of Apple's GarageBand. Maybe it is the inviting, green, smiling logo mascot or the coarse granularity of the default Song-Editor view, but even when I was having trouble making something happen I felt like I was being lead by the hand.

I was not able to drag and drop audio files into an LMMS arrangement as I can Ableton Live in Mac OS but shared folders were working correctly between Ubuntu Studio, VMWare Fusion and Mac OS so browsing to a couple of beat loops and importing them was still trivial. You can see them in the screen capture in the track labeled "Sample track." Below that you can see tracks representing a couple different types of sequences I was able to create.

Prior to any sequencing, I had a problem to solve. Although LMMS was playing back my samples they were very distorted, and not in a particularly good way. I have gotten a similar effect applying a bitcrusher to drums in the past so I assume it had something to do with sample rate or bit depth mismatch, but I can't prove it. I was able to fix the problem by setting LMMS to use OSS (Open Sound System, as opposed to the JACK, ALSA or SDL sound frameworks). I also spent some time getting Linux, VMWare and Mac OS agree on an audio output but that's par for the course if you have more than one sound device installed.

The other tracks I created use virtual instruments. Beginning to use them I began to realize that the developers of LMMS are really onto something. While editing settings in Triple Oscillator and later, using the Piano-Roll Editor I could see that LMMS is a "real" DAW. Don't be fooled by the smiling green guy or the sub-1.0 version number. LMMS is a capable app and it ships with capable virtual instruments.

The bundled instruments (and effects) are LADSPA plugins but LMMS also supports VSTs and VSTis. Big deal, right? VST is a pervasive standard that has spread to Linux. Everybody supports VSTs. No, get this; LMMS supports VSTs written for other platforms. I have not tested this but the whole idea is just unspeakably cool!

The bundled instruments open in very small windows. At first glance they look like simple little bits of software that, you hope, do one or two tthings well. After a couple of minutes I realized that Triple Oscillator has more in common with Rob Papen's Blue of U-He's Zebra than some tossed off plugin that can only do a few sounds. The small amount of screen real-estate it takes up is quite deceptive.

The Piano-Roll Editor, on the other hand, is exactly what it looks like. It seems to be a 50/50 mix of the Logic 7 era Matrix Editor and the MIDI editor in Ableton Live. There is something quite comforting about grabbing a music tool and having it behave exactly as expected. LMMS's Piano-Roll Editor works. Enough said.

The two remaining track types are not found in other DAWs I have used. One is dedicated to automation. In LMMS the automation for any given parameter gets its own track. Other than that it appears to work much as it does in other software.

The other track type is Beat and Bassline. These are virtual instrument tracks optimized for creating and arranging large-grained patterns quickly. As you can see in the second large screen shot these tracks have a special editor that displays one bar of the track and 16-step sequencer by default (this can be changed for longer patterns). The resulting clip/pattern/region can be copied and pasted or re-edited in the Piano Roll editor if more fine-grained changes are called for.

The one place where I feel like LMMS falls down is audio editing. Basically, you can't shall I put this. . .any. It may arrive later but when I look at how good some parts of this 0.4.5 release are, my guess is that the developers don't consider audio editing a priority. I can hardly blame them. They have nailed virtual instruments and have a great interface, considering it is a sub-1.0 product. Maybe they have decided to leave audio editing to the Ardours and Audacities of the world.

To be fair, Ableton Live doesn't include a real audio editor either, but at least you can split audio clips into smaller pieces for finer arranging. LMMS lets you move audio segments around in the arrangement, truncate them and that's about it. If you want more than that you either need to do it in another app or load your samples into sample-based instrument plugins.

Once I got my sound devices sorted out LMMS worked great for me in this Ubuntu Studio VM. Audacity does not work which I find very disappointing. Hear is a wrap up of apps in this distro that I did and did not get to work. These are apps. I am not listing plugins--too many to test.


GNU Denemo

Doesn't Work

JACK Timemachine

Partially work or not tested by me

FreqTweak (no test)
Aeolis (no test)
Creox c (no test)
Genpo (no test)
PureData (no test)
Qsynth/Fluidsynth (partially tested, probably mostly works)
Seq24 (partially tested, probably mostly works)
Terminator X (partially works, some features crash, once took down whole system)
MusE (no audio output but probably would have worked if I spent more time with JACK)

* Actually, using Windows won't make everything go smoothly but when it doesn't people will assume it is the computer's fault, not yours.

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