Semi-Pro Linux-Based Recordingby John Littler
First, a cheer to the people who've been writing the code for these apps that make it possible for me to write an article like this. Make that plural -- cheers! Not so long ago, an article about making a semi-professional music studio with Linux would have seemed more optimism than reality. Not so now. It is still true that putting the components together for a music studio can be time-consuming, but this is true of any complex music-making program on any platform, not just Linux.
(A quick look at aspects of a pro studio including interoperability and gee-whiz stuff.)
Let's look at a pro studio. Within your market segment, you'll need to interoperate with other studios and will need gear and software that is known and widely used. If you want to have eccentric moments, you'll need to have them in some kind of secondary studio room.
In a certain segment of the market you'll need many-input SSL desks and the likes of Westlake monitors with dual 15s for the bottoms. Once you've heard this sort of setup, you'll want it. Also remember that while you were listening to that very expensive studio setup, you were doing so in a carefully crafted silence that is also very expensive to achieve.
In lots of ways, a semi-pro setup is more fun. You can do exactly what you want, and if no one else on the planet understands how it works or how to turn it on, who cares?
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For now, let's say that semi-pro means good quality output, but not necessarily the last word.
The Studio Chain
There are several components of the studio. In rough order, they are: room, inputs, mixers, soundcards, computer, monitors, and outputs. We'll treat them individually.
Ideally, we don't want noise from outside. Neither do we want to pollute our neighbors' lives. What you have available in the way of a room might well determine what you can do. If you live in an acoustically transparent apartment in a big, busy city, the only sort of live recording you will be able to do without spending money and time on sound deadening is the sort that actually incorporates your sonic background. Hopefully, it won't have your neighbors taking out contracts on your life.
In that sort of situation, you may do well with electronic music monitored with headphones.
The actual design of the acoustics of the monitoring space is another subject again, and somewhat subject to the vagaries of fashion. Live end/dead end is one example of a design philosophy. This setup has some reflectivity at one end of the room and very little at the other. You can achieve these sorts of effects cheaply by using thick carpets in ways that might aesthetically offend those who have to share the space.
Have a look at specialist reading on the subject; Fostex used to have a nice booklet on arranging domestic studios, and might still have.
Buy the best inputs you can afford. Cheap leads, for example, whatever their sonic qualities, will develop intermittent faults and drive you completely nuts as well as wasting time. Mics may or may not be crucial to your plans. We'll come back to them in a minute.
If you are planning to do any sort of recording or mixing of multiple tracks, you'll need a mixer or control surface. A mouse and GUI are fine, useful things, but they can't be in two places at once. Fingers can.
Mixer choice is very personal, so go to the shop and play. Mackie and Soundcraft are good brand choices for our semi-pro studio. Some people say that Behringer models are quite okay, while others say they are wooly. Some people also like some of the small digital mixing desks, and the Yamahas are popular.
If we're talking semi-pro equipment, we should talk about a limited subset of the cards we can use in Linux. Let's start by mentioning the RME cards and the M-Audio series. The more sophisticated cards allow for high sample rates, multiple inputs and outputs, low noise, and full-duplex operation. Full duplex allows signals to travel both ways simultaneously. In other words, you can monitor inputs at the same time as recorded tracks -- just what you need when adding a vocal track to an already recorded instrumental background, for example.
Occasionally, you'll find that the Linux driver doesn't support a card's full capabilities. Do your research! We'll discuss this in a moment.
Computer and Monitor
Recording two or three tracks and mixing them with few effects doesn't require much computing power. If you render your effects in non-realtime, you can use fairly ancient hardware -- a PII is conceivable. Having lots of RAM and gobs of disk space will help, though.
For lots of tracks and lots of realtime effects processing, then the faster your setup, the better. Lots of RAM is good for holding large files in memory. For storage, SCSI disks used to hold the lead. They're still fine, but more people have started to use fast-spinning ATA hard drives.
GUI apps take up a lot of screen space. If you want to record a large number of tracks, you might need a large screen. A dual-headed setup is a useful option, even though we can take advantage of multiple desktops on Linux.
You can't mix music properly if you can't actually hear what's there. For monitors in our semi-pro studio, one good approach is to consider self-powered, active, bi-amped small speakers. Mackie makes a very nice model, and cheaper, though still good, options come from Yamaha, Genelec, and Tannoy. Some of them are quite compact, too.
For a general look at speakers, see my MStation article that looks at different aspects of speakers.
There are also some very good headphones available, but it can be difficult to put together a good stereo mix for speakers on them.
A variety of people use surround sound. I don't have space here to explore it fully, but if you're recording for domestic devices, you could just use one of the better quality domestic systems.
By outputs I mean Red Book CDs and different file types such as WAV, MP3, and Ogg Vorbis. We need to able to produce compressed files, even if some of us (me) think that compressed music sucks. I've recently published a recent test of various output formats.
Types of Music
The primary type and genre of music you intend to record has implications on how you put together your studio.
Classical and Acoustic
Here we want purity and smoothness throughout the signal chain. This is the most expensive of the categories here; mic and mixer quality is essential. For mics, think Neumann (a solidly pro brand if ever there was one), with some models of Shure as a minimum. If you're recording this kind of music at home, you also need a very quiet space.
If there's a natural category for our semi-pro studio, this is it. If you don't having any acoustic instrument additions, you won't even need a mic. You will most likely need a music keyboard, as entering notes with a mouse is unbelievably tedious, but you can use software keyboards and the computer keyboard for entry if the budget is very tight.
Some might say that with grunge you don't have to worry about any sonic quality, but although distortion is welcome, you'll usually prefer a certain sort of distortion that can be as difficult to produce as purity. If you really want to do this, consider assembling a second-hand analog studio using tape. There are some nice and cheap tape decks available, but beware of the costs of tape head replacement. Not that you can't do grunge on digital.
The attractive thing about tape is that the second-order distortion that tape produces is quite human-friendly. You can also buy second-hand gear cheaply that once cost a small fortune -- Studer mastering machines, Otari multi-tracks, and the higher end of brands such as Teac and Fostex. I'm not the only person thinking this way, as prices in some parts of the world have gone up again.
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