The Ultimate ‘Free’ Music Home Studio

Certainly, there are many approaches to building a home studio depending on goals, stylistic constraints and monetary resources. My aim is to configure a digital tool chain capable of professional grade digital and analog source recording, whether I have the skill to produce a professional grade master is another matter entirely. This article shall focus on the tool chain, not the sound engineer’s skill. My personal music taste is ‘wall of sound’, classically infused, progressive metal. This style, and many others, requires a sophisticated chain allowing an arbitrary number of tracks from a variety of sources and the ability to manipulate tracks in a complex manner. This can all be accomplished at minimal cost using the tool chain outlined here.

I will take a ‘big-picture’ approach and outline how a number of different software applications are used together to achieve a sophisticated tool chain for recording music. I will not cover the operating details of each individual tool. However, I will reference external resources such as documentation and tutorials. Each individual tool has a learning curve of its own and will require time investment.

The Foundation
A personal computer running a Ubuntu Studio; a ‘mostly free’ distribution of the Linux OS geared toward multimedia production. It features a low-latency kernel that allows real-time monitoring while recording an analog source. Unless otherwise specified, it includes all the software discussed below. A reasonable quality sound interface is also required. Generally, a consumer grade sound card geared toward gaming is not appropriate. A sound interface designed for recording music with support for multiple balanced line inputs will save a tremendous amount of hassle and preserve fidelity. Many ‘pro’ and ‘prosumer’ grade interfaces use firewire to communicate with the PC. For a list of all supported firewire devices, click here. I personally use a Focusrite Saffire 4-in/10-out. Beware of Motu interfaces. They have a poor reputation with regards to supporting the Linux community.

The Plumbing
Browse the Ubuntu Studio menu and become familiar with it’s layout and contents. One of the items is ‘jackcontrol’ or ‘qjackcontrl’, a software version of a studio patch-bay. Consult the Jack Quick Start guide for an overview of basic functionality. Ensure that your sound interface inputs and outputs are visible from within jackcontrol before continuing. This application allows all other components of the studio to communicate with each other. It is the cables running from box to box in a physical studio.

The Kitchen
This is where it all happens. The Ardour application is a muti-track audio mixer/recorder with extensive track editing facilities. It communicates with your sound interface via Jack and can synchronize with all other sound applications, such as drum machines and sequencers, over the Jack protocol. Besides mouse and keyboard, Ardour can be controlled via external surfaces such as Mackie or Tascam mixing consoles. Enough information to get productive with Ardour is available through their online documentation.

Ardour supports LADSPA (Linux Audio Developer’s Plugin API) for effects processing modules. For most users, Steve Harris’s library will be more than enough to meet processing requirements. Effects can be added and removed from individual tracks via Ardour’s mixer console.

If you plan to record mostly ‘real’ audio sources, i.e. non-midi, then your sound interface + Ardour may be all you need. However, most folks don’t have a fully mic’ed drum set handy and many will want to emulate instruments they don’t actually play or own themselves. For these purposes, some additional software is required.

Instrument Sampler
Linuxsampler is capable of playing ‘.gig’ or ‘giga’ format instrument samples which was the format of some of the highest quality sample libraries. I say ‘was’ since Tascam discontinued in-house development of the format. However, development continues within the open source community. Regardless, giga samples are still widely revered in terms of quality today and many libraries remain available. Although the tool is free for non-commercial use, one generally must pay for the instrument libraries, which can run in the hundreds to thousands of dollars. However, a fantastic concert grand piano is available on the Linuxsampler site free of cost. Due to the software license, Linuxsampler is not included with Ubuntu Studio and must be downloaded from the Linuxsampler site.

The caveats aside, it’s the best sampler I’ve been able to find for the platform. Linuxsampler is a command line interface, so I recommend installing JSampler as well (also on the Linuxsampler site). This provides a graphical interface to the sampler engine. Consult the Jsampler documentation for installation and usage details.

Midi Sequencer/Tracker
Alright, we now have a nifty sampler that can be patched to Ardour either via the ‘mixer’ window or Jack directly, but there’s a catch. Ardour does not currently support midi-tracks. That is, the recording of midi data rather than the raw audio coming from the sampler. Capturing the midi data is ideal because Ardour can play back the track, using it as a midi source, into the sampler allowing different instrument setups to be substituted. If the audio is recorded then we’re stuck with that audio. Preserving the original midi-data provides extensive flexibility for re-mixing at a later time.

Enter the application Muse, a midi/audio sequencer. Rather than directly recording the audio output of the sampler with Ardour, we’ll patch the midi controller (i.e. a midi keyboard) to Muse, patch the output of the muse midi track to the sampler, and patch the sampler output to Ardour. Muse is responsible for capturing the midi-data while Ardour optionally records the audio simultaneously. If we’re unsatisfied with the instrument or sampler settings, the midi track can simply be played back in Muse with different sampler settings and re-recorded in Ardour. Muse also provides editing facilities for midi data.

The documentation for Muse is sparse. However, there are some decent tutorials to gain quick productivity. In particular, see Tutorial 2 that is relevant to patching Muse to an external sampler.

Drum Machine
Traditional hardware based drum machines are about as fun as drilling into concrete. To track a sophisticated song takes so long you just end up not doing it; the interfaces just stink. At least from my perspective, this all changed with Hydrogen. I don’t recall even needing documentation to begin using it, but a good manual is available on the site. A number of alternative drum kits are available, including a ‘death metal’ kit. Hydrogen will synchronize with Ardour over Jack. Mixing and panning of each individual drum piece can be performed through Hydrogen’s mixer. Like Ardour, Hydrogen also supports LADSPA plugins. When satisfied with the drum track and mix, just patch the output of Hydrogen to Ardour using jackcontrol and lay down the track.

Personally, I consider ‘mastering’ the art of ‘pulling the tracks together’ to sound like a cohesive performance rather than x-consecutive weekends in front of a computer. Many people would actually classify this as part of the mixing process. Either way, it can be accomplished by ‘mixing down’ tracks in Ardour, possibly with some EQ or reverb plugins.

The other side of mastering involves loudness control and saturation of the dynamic range; ‘filling the sound space’ to produce a sonic perception of ‘fullness’. The tool for this job is JAMin. It provides a suite of filters, limiters, EQs, analyzers and other processors. Tracks are routed from Ardour to JAMin and then back to Ardour. Tutorials are available on the site.

One part of the chain excluded from this discussion is tools to take the final master track from Ardour and publish it to one of many formats, mp3, CD, etc. This is because I’ve not yet reached this phase myself as of this writing. I’ll be sure to report my findings in a future update to this post.

The best of luck and satisfaction on your own musical endeavors!

One thought on “The Ultimate ‘Free’ Music Home Studio

  1. I’m sorry for the off topic question but could you please tell me wher I can find this design? I would like to have the same theme or perhaps one that is similar to yours. Could you say who made it?

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