Home Recording using [Ubuntu] Linux

Introduction

Welcome to my very first Linux Home Recoding How-To manual. While we’re at it, welcome to my very first (self-published) book. If you are reading this introduction sitting in a bookstore, I would like to say “thank you” for considering its purchase. Hopefully, you’ll buy it and we will both be richer for the experience. If you are reading this book while sitting in front of your future audio recording workstation, I would like to say congratulations! You are embarking on an epic learning experience which will undoubtedly result in many creative projects and (eventually) great fame and fortune.

Many people, both amateurs and professionals, use their computers to record and mix music, sound designs and movie soundtracks. In fact, you may be hard pressed to come up with examples of people who produce audio and movie music projects without using computer equipment. Jack White (of the White Stripes, and other well-known music acts) records his many projects using “old fashioned” 2-inch, 24-track tape, in a process now known as “analog” recording. It used to just be called “recording.” He is one of the rare exceptions. The vast majority of projects now use computerized, automated, digital audio workstations. Among those who record audio, the vast majority do their recording and mixing in an Apple Mac workstation of some kind. A much smaller number use Microsoft Windows computers and compatible software to produce audio. The popular sotware titles you may have heard in conjunction with these platforms include AVID Pro Tools, Sony ACID, Logic, Reason, Ableton, Cubase, Cakewalk and others. You can even use Garage Band on the Ipad if you are so inclined, and produce audio suitable for posting on a website.

 But you are reading this book, which has the name “Linux” on the front cover, big and bold, so I can assume that you are not so inclined. You should feel free to skip some of the early sections of this chapter, if you are just trying to get right to work as soon as possible, and especially if you are a seasoned Linux or Ubuntu user, programmer or Sysadmin. You already know most of this stuff anyway. If you are new to Linux, or Ubuntu you should read most, if not all of this chapter to get some context, history… and entertainment, hopefully.

Why Linux?

There may be only a few of you readers out there that are aware that you can use a Linux workstation to record audio. If (a) you picked up the book randomly and started reading, (b) you are a recording engineer, musician, general techie nerd, or similar social outcast and you are up for a challenge, or (c) you are a seasoned Linux user that wants to use their favorite OS platform to make music you will find this book useful and time-saving, or at least informative.

 This book is for group (b), mostly, but everyone is encouraged to read on. Ubuntu Linux is a user-friendly Linux distribution with tons of free software and the power to get a lot of work done. But it is important to note, here and now, that setting up a Linux-based audio production workstation is a lot like hard work; you will get results based on the amount of effort you apply, and when you are done with this project you will literally be an expert in configuring Linux for audio recording and production. The information provided in the following pages was gained from many, many hours of trial and error, much perusing of online configuration documents, and consulting numerous discussion fora.

 The Pros and Cons

 Pros

So initially, there will always be a discussion that centers around which platform (operating system, hardware configuration) is “best” for recording and production of music, audio, sound samples and hip-hop compositions. The quick and easy answer to this question is almost always some incarnation of Apple”s Mac computer system. OSX, Mountain Lion, with Intel-based hardware, such as the PowerMac, and MacBook Pro, if you are interested in your workstation to be mobile. For many people, aw, who are we kidding, for most people that would be the correct answer. However, you are still reading, so clearly you are not like most people.

You are a Linux enthusiast, but there is still hope for you, because this is a book about Ubuntu Linux, so you aren”t even the typical Linux user.

Now I am sure you are asking, since Linux isn’t currently recognized as the best way to record music on a computer, why would I want to? So here are all the reasons why you would want to do such a crazy thing:

  • Linux (GNU/Linux) is FREE (Libre) Open Source Software, AKA FLOSS. It costs nothing to download the entire operating system, not to mention a boatload of excellent, well written, well supported applications and do with them exactly what you please, including making improvements, just so long as you don”t charge anyone for using the software, including your improvements. (GNU Public License) That means there is no license fee to install the OS or the software, there are no usage restrictions, you can take the same copy of the OS you installed on one machine and install it on as many machines as you have handy, without the fear of some corporation slapping you down for the crime of Piracy (Rrrrr.) The same principle applies to the product you create with the software, in that you can apply copyright to your published works, or you can apply copyleft, it”s up to you.

  • You don’t have to worry about copy protection schemes, such as registration codes, dongles, nagware, subscription fees, expiration dates or any other such nonsense getting in between you and your creativity or your productivity. As long as you respect the Intellectual Property rights of the creators of existing work (i.e. samples, song snippets, trademarks) you are free to create and innovate as your heart desires.

  • The cost of setting up your studio does not have to include the licensing costs for MS Windows or the Mac OS, so that’s from hundreds to thousands of dollars in savings that you can use to spend on audio gear and burritos.

  • Linux works with most standard computer equipment, including Mac hardware, and the vast majority of pro audio gear. If there is any doubt about compatibility, there are places on the Internet where you can check if a piece of gear is compatible with your Linux distribution before you buy.

  • When you’re starting from scratch (e.g. purchasing new hardware and installing Linux fresh) learning how to use Linux-based software tools is no more difficult than their Windows and Mac counterparts. Linux itself at one time was much harder to use than either Windows or Mac, but modern Linux distributions (distros) are now just as user friendly as the other guys (some would say more.)

  • When you’re running a Windows machine that’s connected to the Internet, a virus checking program is not just a good idea, it’s essential to maintaining the integrity of the system. This is not required with Linux for two reasons. (a) almost all viruses (virii?) are written with MS Windows as their target, cause it”s easier and (b) Linux is just a more secure platform. Most virus-checking software packages consume great amounts of system resources, which definitely create problems for resource-intensive applications such as audio processing. Therefore Linux can use virtually all of its CPU cycles and RAM for audio processing, with virtually no concern of virus contamination.

  • When you use Linux for your music production platform, it”s like giving a big “up your nose with a rubber hose” to the MAN. (e.g. Corporate Fat Cats everywhere.) In the process, you are also supporting the Free Software Movement.

Cons

Being a huge fan of Free Software, it is hard for me to list the disadvantages of a computing platform that I love. That”s right. I said love. Nevertheless, to be fair, Linux in general, and Ubuntu Linux in particular are not perfect. Far from it. If either were perfect, it would just be a matter of sharing this miracle of engineering with the rest of the world, and people everywhere would be asking “Windows what” and “Mac who?” and everyone would love their computers as much as I love mine. But this is the real world and there is no such thing as a perfect computer operating system.

So, I will bite my lip and list the reasons why you wouldn’t do audio recording and engineering on a Linux-equipped PC:

  • Obscurity, and access to applications – Most people know what PhotoShop is, but most people have never heard of GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program.) The GIMP is very comparable, feature-wise, with Adobe”s flagship image editing and processing toolset, but it is relatively unknown. Even though there are Mac and Windows versions of GIMP, it is entirely overshadowed by PhotoShop. PhotoShop has a price tag of around $600 US, while the GIMP is free. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are also free. Linux has tens of thousands of very good tools for productivity, fun, creativity, programming and down-and-dirty work tools, but you won”t find any of them in the local Best Buy or Office Depot. In fact you won”t see any of them unless you’ve already downloaded and installed one of many Linux distros. So it’s really more of a public relations issue, in that there is no Linux App marketing department anywhere. It’s not that Linux doesn’t have software, there are boatloads of it. You just have to know where to look. Here, let me Google that for you…

  • Learning curve – To be honest, out of the box, Linux (in any of its many forms) doesnt look like the MS Windows, or Mac desktop. It is somewhat strange looking and unfamiliar. Under the hood, it is even more different. If you know Linux well enough, you can make its desktop look exactly like Windows or Mac. Exactly. But its strangeness puts a great many people off, if they learned how to use computers on either of the other platforms. But a window is a window, a button is a button and an application is an application. In that sense they are exactly the same. People”s negative impressions of Linux are based on a great many outdated beliefs; a modern Linux installation is fast, easy to use, scalable, and mistake-resistant. Individual application learning curves of Linux-compatible software are all over the map, from ridiculously easy to unfathomable, so its detractors might have somewhat of a point with this one, however no one was born knowing how to use Windows, Mac or any software that runs on those platforms, so again, it”s a matter of familiarity and access.

Cons, Continued

 Hardware compatibility

 It”s quite easy to buy accessories and peripherals for a Mac or a Windows PC. In the case of the Mac, you just go to the Mac store, talk to one of their “Geniuses” (using the term loosely here) and they will set you up with devices that are designed to work together and of course, they just workTM. This convenience and peace of mind does come at a hefty price. And, if you want to upgrade your Mac, unless it”s something simple like RAM, you have the option of either buying a newer, cooler Mac, or buying a newer, cooler Mac. This is designed into the Apple business model, so that they can remain profitable with a let’s say, more finite customer base.

 The Windows experience isn’t quite so seamless, but if you want to add new capabilities to your machine, you don”t necessarily have to buy a new machine, you can go to a retailer and as long as there is a little Windows logo on the box, you can be reasonably confident that your new piece of gear will work with your PC. Neither of these scenarios are available to the intrepid Linux enthusiast. The experience of buying accessories, peripherals or upgrades for a Linux machine may sometimes be accompanied by the experience of learning in great detail the return policies of your favorite retailers, because some of the gear you buy for your Linux box just might not work out of the box. This is another area where old attitudes about Linux could negatively color your user experience with a modern Linux distro. In other words, this problem is not nearly as bad as it used to be. Nowadays, your Linux installation can handle almost all of the hardware permutations you can throw at it. The difference is that there is almost never a “penguin” logo on the box to let you know the gear is safe to use with Linux. The best way to get around this issue is to visit the Hardware Compatibility List for your chosen distro. See Appendix D for links to the Hardware Compatibility List for a number of popular Linux distributions.

 Perception

 If you are lucky enough to attract clients to bring work to you, you may get a question like “Is your studio using Pro Tools?” In case you haven”t heard of it, Pro Tools is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) program that is very popular with users of MS Windows and to a lesser extent, the Mac OS. It is one of those products like Coca-Cola that has a generic association with audio engineering software much the way the word “Coke” can refer to any brand of soda. Pro Tools is an excellent product, but it isn”t the only game in town. Linux has numerous DAW packages that are more than capable of producing audio with comparable quality to Pro Tools. Keep in mind that the talent and knowledge you bring to bear is more important to the final outcome of your projects than the Brand of tools you choose.

 If a client insists on you using Pro Tools, you can use it with Linux, by using something called WiNE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) which enables a Linux user to run Windows programs inside Linux. Keep in mind however, that Pro Tools and other Windows pro audio software requires you to install copy protection software and other forms of Digital Rights Management which undermines the Free Software Movement”s objectives of openness and resistance to DRM constraints. Not only that, but Pro Tools, in its fully functional form is a very expensive tool set-especially compared to free software. So if you decide that you want to use open source software to record and produce audio projects, and a client asks if you are using “pro tools” you can honestly answer them that you use some of the same tools that the pros use, because you are. Many professionals use Linux machines with native Linux applications. I mean, I don’t have a count, but I’m working, so…

I’m sure there are other reasons why you might not want to use a Linux PC to do this highly specialized and resource-intensive task. For most people, their choice of OS is based on habit and comfort level. If you are comfortable with a platform, why change? But if you”ve read this far, and you still want to carry on with this adventure, then you are just the kind of person that will succeed.

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