Music is one of the most vital industries in our world today. Music builds us and helps shape us into the persons we are today and the persons we will be tomorrow. It is therefore extremely important to have an environment that ensues productivity. When people think audio production, people think Mac / Logic or Mac / Pro Tools. Audio production on Linux has been for the most part a stable experience but is not without its caveats.
On a Mac, you turn it on, fire up Logic and get to work. Couple it with a class complaint audio interface and everything flows from there. On Ubuntu Linux, you can achieve similar results, but if you are not careful you will often be greeted with varying opinions and recommendations about which distribution you should use in order to achieve the best performance. This can make it more difficult for new users that it has to be. In this article I will do my best to be up front and tell you to use vanilla Ubuntu with its default desktop environment known as Unity.
Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distributions available and is therefore well supported. You do not need an “audio focused” distribution in order to achieve optimal performance. However if you do have a computer that is low on memory, then I’d recommend you use Xubuntu. Xubuntu is a variant of Ubuntu Linux with a lighter desktop interface called XFCE. Linux has always and still commands over 90% of the server world with the likes of companies such as Red Hat, SUSE and more recently Ubuntu being the beneficiaries of this competent market share. It is no surprise considering the fact that when you need a platform that is secure, fast and stable there is no comparison to Unix/Linux (Linux is based on Unix).
In addition to its security the Unix/Linux platform has always been known to be the most efficient with its resources, hence the reason of it powering a variety of devices such as those running IOS & Andriod. It also powers motor vehicles, Smart TVs among many others. It is the driving force behind Google, Amazon, Facebook and many other businesses. It is these same reasons why Apple’s Unix-based operating system known as OS X is currently the only platform currently recognized by the entertainment industry. If you are doing audio/video production on a professional level it is imperative that you own a Mac.
With that said, the state of audio/video production on the Linux platform has been improving significantly over the years, with JACK (The real-time audio framework) receiving many bug fixes, along with application support from commercial products such as Bitwig Studio and Lightworks Video Editor. It will only be a matter of time before others make it to the platform. Now that we have completed the introduction, it is now time to turn ourselves over the specifics.
To record music on Ubuntu Linux, you must have QJackCtl (aka QT JACK Audio Connection Kit Control). And a class complaint USB audio interface (Fire-wire interfaces are supported as well, Google is your friend). The JACK software enables you to record audio at the lowest latency possible, while giving priority to audio related tasks. It is the equivalent to ASIO drivers on Windows with “ReWire-like” functionality to boot. The Mac is not mentioned here as it uses CoreAudio which was designed for low latency audio tasks from the get go. Ubuntu Linux uses ALSA as its default sound server. PulseAudio provides a means for applications to interact with the ASLA sound server and is thus placed on top of it. Think of PulseAudio as a bus that carries audio for all your non-professional audio needs like listening to music from Tomahawk Media Player or watching movies from YouTube. PulseAudio handles these tasks exceptionally well, where it falls short however is when it comes to professional low latency audio monitoring. This is where JACK comes into play. When you activate JACK, PulseAudio is bypassed and all priority is given to JACK (professional) enabled applications. By default this will also disable all audio activity from PulseAudio related applications. This should not be an issue as you never run other applications in conjunction with your DAW. However, if you require this functionality, it can be remedied by installing the pulseaudio-module-jack from the Ubuntu Software Center (The equivalent to the Mac App Store on OS X). This module will enable the PulseAudio sound server to route itself to JACK, when it is enabled. Allowing you to still use PulseAudio based applications but instead, having them routed through JACK.
When purchasing an audio interface for Mac OS X or Ubuntu Linux it is always best to purchase one that is “class-compliment. This simply means that the device does not require any special drivers to function, in other words, when you plug it in it should “just work”. The majority of class-complaint audio interfaces should “just work” with Ubuntu Linux, but there are a few that I would recommend: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, 2i4, M-Audio M-Track, M-Track Plus, M-Track Eight. I recommend these audio interfaces as (in addition to being class complaint) they do not require any special/proprietary software to control/configure their settings (it can be all done right from the hardware device). A more comprehensive list of compatible audio interfaces are available at wiki.linuxaudio.org
Look for class-compliant MIDI keyboards and you should not run into issues. M-Audio wins this round again. Check out the Axiom and Oxygen series.
In regards to DAWs we have: Ardour, Mixbus and Bitwig Studio. After sifting through various audio applications I can confirm that these are currently the most solid audio applications available on the Linux platform.
Ardour, created by Paul Davis and his team in the past received funding from both SSL (Solid State Logic) and SAE institute for the development of this DAW. Development has come a long way and progress continues to be made in this department. It is best integrated with JACK Transport, enabling seamless synchronization with other audio applications such as the Hydrogen Drum Machine. Ardour exposes all available channels to JACK and thus enables you to route anything anywhere. It also provides post production support using Xjadeo. Ardour + the CALF plug-in suite are great companions. Be sure to install Ardour from its website, as the one present in the Ubuntu Software Center may be outdated.
Mixbus is packaged and maintained by Harrison Consoles, creators of legendary analogue consoles used by countless audio professionals to record the likes of bands such as Queen, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Mixbus is based of Ardour and thus provides you with basic Ardour functionality, but in addition to this you are provided an entire virtual analogue console in which to to work. Each channel strip is a console channel strip, complete with filter, equalizer, compressor and gate. The channel strips have also been modeled to operate like their hardware counterparts and thus is said to provide you with rich lush sound. Mixbus supports LV2 and LinuxVST plugins on the Ubuntu platform. The company also provides plugins which are available for purchase from the Mixbus website.
Bitwig Studio is aimed at music composition, it provides a decent repository of sounds, clips and loops. It comes with great sounding instruments and plug-ins out of the box. It also features a Clip launcher, useful for getting ideas down and testing them out before committing. Bitwig Studio takes features from Ableton Live and Logic Pro and merges them into its DNA.
In addition to the above, the Trackton DAW is also available for use, although it is currently in beta.
Reaper can be installed on Ubuntu using WINE software. See my article on installing Reaper on Ubuntu. Reaper will be able to run properly coded VST plugins made for Windows. Some of the plugins confirmed to be working by the WineHQ team include Native Instruments Kontact and Guitar Rig.
If you are looking for quality professional plug-ins to go with your setup, sadly you will not find any plugins from Waves. I do hope this changes in the future but until then I’d recommend visiting OverToneDSP.co.uk, Loomer.co.uk. Loomer has a great sounding synth by the name of Aspect, be sure to check that out. OverToneDSP.co.uk feature plug-ins which model analogue hardware such as the Fairchild 670. The hardware in JJPs own words makes material sound Long and luscious. While the plug-ins provided by OverToneDSP is modeled on a different unit, I doubt the sound would be far off. Do install the Guitarix AMP simulator LV2 plug-in suite from your software repositories as it will provide great value. When you have installed QjackCtl you may be saddened by its low resolution icon (or if you are coming from the Windows platform you may not even notice). If it becomes a nitpick be sure to follow my article on “Upgrading your Icons” to solve that.
Alexander Lindo is a singer-songwriter, producer, audio engineer, technology enthusiast, Apple Certified Pro and Pro Tools Certified Operator. If you enjoyed this article don’t forget to like me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter & Google Plus. When you are done, please check out my music. Thank you for your continued support.