Music Production Cheap and Easy

Disclosure: I've never owned a Mac.

Whew, there it is. I will readily acknowledge that a Mac is probably the be-all of digital music production. The album that Gospel Light Worship is recording is being produced on a Mac. But for my own stuff at home, practice, scratch tracks and the like, there's no way I can shell out the coin for a Mac, ProTools etc...

So I began to look for some cheap solutions. What I found was amazing.

I've been a Linux hacker for a little bit now. My laptop has been dual booted through several versions of Ubuntu, and I have an older laptop (OK, an ancient laptop that I run DSL on. But the only thing I really found useful in Linux (so far ) was some of the music apps. (Let's face it, OpenOffice, while good, is not Microsoft Office, and there is no program that does what Outlook does as well as it does it.)

But what I did find is a derivative of Ubuntu called Ubuntu Studio. What Studio is a distro of Ubuntu that is specifically geared for music, video and graphic production. And there are a couple of very significant differences between Ubuntu and Ubuntu Studio.

First is the kernel, which is the most basic level of software that an application has to control. The Studio kernel is specifically written to provide low-latency - in other words, to prioritize media applications to get immediate CPU time so that multiple tracks line up, recorded music is timed properly, etc...

Second, is the sheer volume of applications (called packages in Linux-speak) that come bundled with Studio. There is Ardour (multitrack recorder), Audacity (.wav editor), Hydrogen (butt-kicking drum machine), MusE (MIDI sequencer), Rosegarden (another DAW program), Mixx (a DJ-style program) - and those are just the audio production packages. There are a dozen graphics packages, a couple of video editors, video/audio sychronization tools, music notation editors, animation tools...

All these packages (as well as Ubuntu itself) are open-source, meaning that they are offered without the need for licensing. There is no cost associated with any of these packages, although you can donate to the various development efforts if you see fit.

These are not, by the way, fly-by-night, cheesey applications. Ardour is every bit the DAW that ProTools is. Hydrogen is one of the most complete drum machines you could want. In fact, most of these packages are not for "recreational use-" they are serious, professional-level production tools.

This is a screenshot of my Studio desktop. Here I'm running Ardour and Hydrogen. Using the included JACK Audio Connection Kit, you can basically have Ardour "control" various other packages. For example, you create a drum loop in Hydrogen, and a MIDI sequence in MusE. You can set up tracks for these in Ardour, and the Ardour transport controls will start and stop the other programs. And with the low-latency kernel, everything comes together.

Now, before you get scared by phrases like "Linux" and "dual-boot," let me say "No sweat!" Studio is very easy to install. (You can run "live" CD's of Ubuntu without installign anything.) It will even partition and set up the multi-boot for you. The best bet, though, is to use an older PC that you may not use anymore, and do a clean install onto a formatted hard drive. Ubuntu has a lower overhead than XP or (heaven-forbid) Vista, so it runs well on older hardware. (Trivia: Mac OS X is a derivative of BSD Unix. So are several flavors of Linux.)

Bottom line is this: if you are interested in some serious media production, have some technical skills, and are either thrifty or broke, then Ubuntu Studio may be for you. (Now if I can just get Ardour to import from Wiinstrument...)


Popular Posts