Home Recording with Ubuntu Studio Part One: Gearing Up
Twenty years ago, the cost of building a studio for the creation of electronic music was pricey, to say the least. The cost of a computer that was suitable for multimedia production could cost the average musician between $1,000 and $2,000. Add in the cost of recording software, additional instruments and equipment, and one could easily spend between $5,000 and $10,000 just to get started.
But nowadays, you do not have to break the bank to start making music at home. The price of personal computers has dropped substantially over the past two decades. At the time of this writing, it is possible to get a notebook PC that’s suitable for audio production for around $500. Other pieces of equipment have also dropped in price, making it possible to build a functional recording studio for around $1,000.
In this series of articles, I will walk you through the process of building a Linux-based home recording . I will cover how to choose the right PC hardware and outboard gear. I will also show how to install Ubuntu Studio, a Linux based operating system that is specifically made for audio production. I will show how to extend the studio’s functionality with additional applications and software plugins from the KXStudio repositories. Finally, I will show how to work in this new environment to record music and other forms of audio.
Getting the Right PC
When building a home recording studio, choosing the right PC is one of the most important decisions that you will make. Ideally, a mid-priced PC with an Intel i5 processor, eight gigs of ram and 256 gigs of hard disk storage can easily be found on Amazon for less than $500. However, in order to reap the benefits of free and open source software, our PC must also be able to run Linux with little more than a simple install.
The good news is that device support for Linux distributions has improved over recent years. It is easy to install Ubuntu on most notebook or desktop PCs with little to no issues. However, there still are some edge cases that one has to look out for. Ideally, if you’re looking for a new computer to serve as the workhorse for your studio, try to find one that uses the Intel integrated graphics card. Additionally, if you wish to use wireless Internet, avoid network cards manufactured by Broadcom or Ralink. Both of these drivers have proven to be problematic and are best avoided due to driver issues.
Finally, before you break out with your credit card, do a Google search that consists of the make and model of the PC you want to buy and the word Ubuntu. If there are any Linux compatibility issues, you will see them on the first or second page of the search results, along with ways to work around them.
Getting the Right Audio Interface
For the sake of this discussion, an audio interface is a USB or Firewire device that provides inputs for recording the sound from live instruments into a PC. These instruments include guitars, basses and vocal microphones. While is is possible to to plug instruments and microphones directly into a computer’s sound card, the results are often noisy and of low quality. As a result, a good audio interface is one of the first pieces of gear that you should buy for your home studio after you have selected your PC.
As is the case with finding a good computer for audio production, finding a USB audio interface that works with Ubuntu may require some detective work. However, this process is not very difficult. Visit https://help.ubuntu.com/community/UbuntuStudio/SupportedHardware and look at the list of USB audio devices. From here, start researching the various devices for one that suits your needs. At the time of this writing the Alesis i02 express, which retails for around $80 is a good low cost solution. If you want something with excellent build quality, you can’t go wrong with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 which retails between $130 and $150.
MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface, a set of standards which assures interoperability between electronic musical instruments. Devices that use MIDI include synthesizers, samplers, sequencers, and effect processors. However, with the introduction of PCs into the world of home recording, many of these hardware devices have been replaced by software applications and plugins.
One device, however, is still essential in home studio recording. A MIDI controller provides the musician a physical interface to enter notes from a piano-like keyboard which is then played with a software synthesizer or recorded by digital audio software. The good news is that many Linux distributions like Ubuntu comes with MIDI support out of the box, providing the user numerous choices when purchasing a controller.
Some controllers, like the M-Audio Oxygen series, also feature a collection of knobs, sliders and drum pads which allows the controller to act as a mixing board and drum machine as well as a musical instrument. For recording simple bass lines, melodies and chord progressions the M-Audio Oxygen 25 is a solid choice for around $100. However, if you prefer a larger keyboard with better mixing capabilities, you may want to check into the Oxygen 49 or 61 priced respectively at around $170 and $230.
Note: a blog post written by Rafal Cieslak, USB MIDI controllers & making music with Ubuntu details how MIDI controllers work under Linux, and shows some examples of how to set up a controller for various performing and recording environments
If you’re recording vocal tracks or miking acoustic performances, you will need at least one microphone. Fortunately, this is one component in your recording studio where you really don’t need to spend a lot of money. On websites like Amazon, it is possible to purchase a Shure SM58 vocal microphone, with an accompanying stand and XLR cable for around $120. Alternately, it is possible to buy a cheaper microphone from Samson or AKG and buy the stand and cable separately. When purchasing a Microphone, bear in mind that it does not have to be self-powered. The audio interface that we discussed earlier will power the microphone through the Mic’s XLR cable. Additionally, you will want to purchase a hyper-cardioid microphone for vocal recording as it will cut down on unwanted background noise.
Monitor speakers are possibly the most overlooked components in a home recording studio. Some beginning musicians even go as far as to use their PC speakers as a reference point when mixing audio. Do not be this person. Consumer-grade speakers will often boost or cut sound frequencies in an attempt to sweeten the sound. This is good if you’re at home listening to music on your home stereo or PC. However, it does not provide a good point of reference when you’re mixing your own audio. Monitor speakers come at a fairly economical price, with entry level products by Alesis, Behringer, JBL and M-Audio costing around $80 to $100.
Cables, Stands and Accessories
Depending on your needs, you may probably not need to spend a lot of money to purchase MIDI, XLR and Guitar Cables, however some of the devices I mentioned in this article will not include the appropriate cables in their packaging. Additionally, if you are using a keyboard or microphone, you also need to get appropriate stands for these instruments. Finally, there will come a time when cables deteriorate and short out. Ideally, for every cable in your recording studio, there should be a backup within reach. Ideally, you should spend between $50 to $150 on additional cables and accessories just to be on the safe side.
Let’s Look at an Example Studio
Now that we know about the components that are needed to build a home recording studio, let’s put this knowledge to use. In this demonstration, I have scoured the Internet to find good prices for the gear that is necessary for this project, in an effort to build my recording rig for under $1,000. Bear in mind that the prices of this gear reflect current prices on amazon.com, and may be subject to change.
The PC I selected is a refurbished Lenovo T420 Laptop. The T420 features an Intel i5 processor, 8 gigs of ram and 320gb or hard disk space. On Amazon, this unit currently sells for $287.61, which gives me some wiggle room when it comes time to purchase my audio interface and other outboard gear.
The audio interface I chose was Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (first generation). Although it is possible to purchase a newer version of the Scarlett, there really is no difference in either units functionality with the exception of its cost. On Amazon, the first gen Scarlett sells for $122.94, whereas the newest version sells for $149.99. The twenty-seven dollars I save can be used to purchase cables and accessories later on.
For the MIDI controller, I decided to go with the M-Audio Oxygen 49 Key Mark IV. Since I am a keyboardist, and work a lot with MIDI sequencing, I needed a controller that has a good amount of keys, as well as the knobs, faders and drum pads. On Amazon, this unit can be purchased for $135.00.
Now for a vocal microphone. Here, I decided to purchase the Shure SM58 stand and cable package. This package includes the microphone itself, an entry-level stand and an XLR cable. The accessories included in the package cuts down on my having to scour the net for more accessories. On Amazon, the SM58 stand and cable package retails for $109.99.
Finally, I chose a set of monitor speakers. Here, I decided to go with the Alesis M1 Active320 monitor set. The reason I chose the M1 Active320s was because they had an excellent product rating on Amazon, and sell for $79.
By adding the prices of the above selections, I’ve demonstrated that it’s possible to get started in home recording at the cost of $734.54. This, however, does not factor in the cost of shipping, applicable sales taxes, and accessories, such as additional cables, stands, etc.. But even if these items were added into the budget, I’d still have built this studio for under $1,000 and would most likely have some money left over for PC upgrades, a newer audio interface or MIDI controller.
In this article, we discussed the feasibility of creating an entry level home recording studio for under $1,000. In the next article of this series, we will start to look at the software needed to turn our collection of hardware into a fully operational recording studio. We will install Ubuntu Studio, a Linux-based operating system that is made for audio recording, and extend its functionality with the software repositories from KXstudio. Looking forward to seeing you.