Corey Mwamba

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Audio set-up rundown

This will be quite technical.

I have used Linux exclusively for (among other things) making music since 2005-6. Since I'm about to start the next instalment of (s)kin, I thought it would be informative to those of you thinking about making music on Linux if I listed my current set-ups and workflows.

I have three scenarios for which I use the various software: live performance, recording (live or single-site), and notating.

This isn't a "best software" list, nor is it exhaustive (although I have tried different software). It's just what I have decided to settle on. There are links to all the software. Don't ask me about Windows or Mac versions — I haven't used Windows since 2005, and have never owned — and will never own — a Mac.

hardware

I only buy reused computers, or accept donations of old computers to refurbish. This is not as tricky as it sounds, and has the effect of reducing my impact on the environment.

The computers under discussion are

  1. an HP Elitebook 2540p with 4GB RAM (£120 from a local second-hand PC/games shop + £30 for a new battery, ordered online); and
  2. a Dell OptiPlex 790 with 8GB RAM (£95 from Potts).

I am very aware that most people wouldn't buy a desktop any more. But I wanted a computer that came with a flexible range of connectivity in terms of devices, and the desktop simply has more physical area to do this (for example, the Optiplex comes with ten USB connectors). The Dell is used solely for single-site recording and some transcription.

I use the laptop for all sorts of things, and the Elitebook is a replacement "journal laptop" (it turns out my lifestyle was far too harsh for the HP Mini 2133, which had motherboard failures). 4GB RAM is enough for most things, except high-end games. The laptop is used for off-site recording, performance and transcribing.

For the audio equipment, I was looking for a practical, low-cost, range that would be suitable for recording the vibraphone, as well as general situations. Here's the list:

  1. AKG P120 large diaphragm condenser (£66, Thomann)
  2. Behringer C-2 matched condensers (£56, EBay)
  3. Superlux HD-669 closed back headphones (£23, Thomann)
  4. Zoom U-22 audio interface (£51, Thomann)

I have a mic stand (£13) and a couple of XLR cables (around £5). I also have speakers but these were a donation.

In total, the cost of the hardware is £464.

operating system/general setup

I use Arch Linux, but really — you don't have to. I stick with it because I'm very used to it, and now cannot be bothered to switch to another distribution — but I'd love to try out Void Linux at some point when I have time. The wiki is the best thing about Arch Linux, even if you don't use Arch itself. There is a "pro-audio" mailing list which is only useful to get a heads-up on changes to packages you may use.

I'm not going to go into installing it here; but just to note that setting up the desktop computer from scratch to a full system with all applications ready to record (using pacstrap; then installing yaourt and installing applications from the AUR) took just two hours.

It is important to note that I use a realtime kernel for most recording and live performance work. Using the standard kernel for those tasks was constantly frustrating, due to skipping, and crashes. The realtime kernel is available in the Arch User Repository; before compiling, I have to edit CONFIG_HZ to 1000 rather than 300 otherwise the audio and MIDI jitters.

In most cases, I use JACK. But I have recorded things using the standard audio system, Alsa.

the desktop

All of my computers use the same graphical experience. I immediately install JWM and Conky. I also use bash-fuzzy-clock and estonta, but that's hardly surprising since I wrote them! I don't use a desktop environment.

live

My live set-up has always been very simple. For live-looping I use Sooperlooper; and I use an effects rack, such as JackRack. I have used Puredata in the past, but much less in recent years.

recording

For quick things I actually use Audacity. I have read many comments about Audacity being a basic editor, or not being a good enough for "pro-audio". But at the heart of it, all a DAW does is record sound, and Audacity has a perfectly acceptable interface for doing exactly that.

But for more involved projects, I'm using Ardour. I have used Non, but unfamiliarity combined with lack of LV2 support has meant I haven't spent as much time with it as I would have liked. Still, Ardour just works. I record and mix; then have a separate workflow template for mastering, using ddptools after exporting for CD production, and flacon for digital tracks from the digital master.

I make beats in Hydrogen. I absolutely love making drum beats: ask Joshua Blackmore. I also use Bristol, the keys emulator. For MIDI recording, I use Rosegarden, but I believe Ardour can also handle MIDI so that will require some investigation...

transcription

Audacity again! And Sonic Visualiser is very handy for more analytical tasks.

notating

There is only one: Musescore. And it is great, really great. The customisation of chord symbols is difficult (and I have spent a lot of time trying to get that how I want it), but it's just superb at everything else.