Home Recording with Ubuntu Studio is a three part series of articles that discusses how to create an affordable home recording studio with free and open source software. In Part One: Gearing Up, I discussed the hardware components that are integral to home studio recording, and demonstrated how you can acquire this equipment for under $1,000. In part two of the series, we will start to go into depth about the software aspects of the studio. First, I will walk you through an installation of Ubuntu Studio, a Linux-based operating system that was made for content creation. Next, I will install additional software from the KXStudio repositories and finally, I will make some adjustments to the installation to improve its user experience.
Ubuntu and Ubuntu Studio
Ubuntu is a popular, Linux-based operating system which is well known for its functionality and ease of use. It has been around for over thirteen years, but it is a little known fact outside of the Linux community that there are multiple versions of Ubuntu which are available for download. Some of these versions feature a different desktop environment than the one offered in its stock installation. Other versions of Ubuntu were developed for a specific use case or a collection of specific tasks. Ubuntu Studio falls into both of the above categories.
Ubuntu Studio differs from regular Ubuntu in three ways. First, it replaces its default desktop with the lighter XFCE environment. Secondly, it comes bundled with a large collection of applications for audio production, video editing, digital photography, graphic design and desktop publishing. Finally, it uses a low-latency kernel to mitigate those nasty delays that occur when you’re recording audio. This makes Ubuntu Studio an excellent choice for home studio recording.
Getting Ubuntu Studio
To install Ubuntu Studio, you will need a computer like the one we discussed in Part One: Gearing Up. You will also need a stable Internet connection and a USB thumb drive with four gigs of storage.
Once you have these items ready, open your web browser and go to Ubuntu Studio’s download page. On the download page, you will see two versions of Ubuntu Studio, a standard release and a long-term service release. Bear in mind that the computer you’re using will serve as the future workhorse for many of your creative projects. You will want an operating system that doesn’t end its support every nine months. Avoid the new shininess of a standard release and go with an LTS.
Additionally, if you’ve followed my suggestions in the previous article and selected a computer that uses an Intel i5 processor, you will want to download the 64-bit version of Ubuntu Studio. Only use the 32-bit version if you’re running older hardware. Finally, the download page features a direct download link and one for a torrent file. Torrenting Ubuntu Studio is not illegal and provides a faster download speed than if you were to select the direct download link. For Linux users, torrenting applications like Transmission are available in most software repositories. For Windows and Mac users, I recommend uTorrent which is available on all major platforms.
The download for Ubuntu studio is quite large, weighing in at around 2.8 gigabytes. On a standard broadband connection in a fairly developed area of the United States, the download should take between ten and twenty minutes. As the download progresses, let’s talk about what it is we are downloading.
Ubuntu Studio comes in a special type of archive file called an .iso. To use an .iso file, it needs to be extracted and written to USB thumb stick in a special way, so it can be read by your computer when it first starts up. For Linux and Mac users there is a command-line command that will perform this task quite handily, but for now we will keep it simple by downloading and installing an application called Etcher. Etcher is a USB/SD Card writer that is available for all major platforms. It is fast and incredibly easy to use. Once the Ubuntu .iso is downloaded and Etcher is installed, plug in your USB thumb drive and start the application.
Writing an image file with Etcher is a three step process. First, select the newly downloaded .iso image. Next, choose the device you wish to write the image to (in this case, it will the USB thumb drive), and finally, click the flash button. Flashing Ubuntu Studio to the thumb drive should take between five to ten minutes, but once it is completed you will be able to install the operating system to your computer.
Installing Ubuntu Studio
Before installing Ubuntu Studio, you will need to know how to change the order in which your computer reads storage media when it first boots up. This change needs to place your newly-flashed USB drive as the first device it tries to boot from. Depending on the make and model of the machine that you are using, you may have to change some settings in the computer’s BIOS. A Google search consisting of the words change boot order, combined with your computer’s make and model will give you the information needed to accomplish this task, but always proceed with caution and take note of the settings you have changed in the event that you have to restore your computer to its factory settings.
Now, power off the computer, insert the USB thumb drive and turn the computer back on. If all goes well, you will see this screen:
Select your language of choice and press the enter key.
You will now be presented with the option of trying Ubuntu Studio without installing it to your hard disk, performing a full installation, checking the USB drive for errors, performing a memory test or booting into your computer’s pre-installed operating system. Select the second option and in a few moments, your computer will load the first screen of the installation app.
Here is where you select the language that Ubuntu Studio will use for its installation process. Note that this is not the language which will be used in the actual installation. Setting the language preference for the installation itself will occur in a few steps. English is my own language of choice, so I leave this setting at its default, and click the continue button.
Note: If you are conducting this installation from a PC with a wireless network card, another screen will appear, providing you the option of connecting to a nearby network. If you’re at home or feel comfortable in your present surroundings, select your network of choice and enter its password to connect. Doing this now will save you the trouble of having to connect to a network after the installation completes and makes the next few steps a little easier.
Next, we come to a screen that provides you with two check boxes. The first check box lets the installer take care of some system updates during the course of Ubuntu Studio’s installation. Although you should always update a freshly-installed operating system, I find that taking this option saves me time when I perform these additional updates later on. The second check box allows for the installation of proprietary device drivers and codecs that allow for the playback of .mp3 and flash media. Once again, I select this option because the playback of .mp3 files is crucial to computer-based audio recording. With both options selected, click continue to move on to the next screen.
The next screen provides a selection of applications that can be installed with Ubuntu Studio. As stated before, Ubuntu Studio is not just for recording audio. It also comes bundled with software for video editing, photography, graphic design and desktop publishing. This is all well and good if you are multi-talented, but since we’re only discussing audio production in this series, I’m going to uncheck ubuntu-fonts, ubuntu-graphics, ubuntu-photography ubuntu-publishing and ubuntu-video. Opting out of these software packages will save us a few minutes when we’re done entering all the necessary information and the actual installation begins. Again, click continue to move on.
This screen asks us what type of installation that we would like to perform for Ubuntu Studio. Here you can choose to encrypt your Ubuntu Studio installation or use Logical Volume Management. If there is a pre-existing OS on the machine’s hard disk, it will also an additional option to install Ubuntu Studio alongside the older OS in a dual boot configuration.
Since the PC we’re using is going to be used exclusively for audio production, I’m going to select the default option, which will erase the hard disk and install Ubuntu Studio as its sole operating system. Click continue and an applet will appear to confirm that you want to use this extreme nuke ‘n’ pave tactic. Click the continue button to confirm, and move on to the next screen.
This screen is used to set the time zone settings which will be used by your operating system’s clock and other applications. If you chose to connect to the Internet earlier, your time zone will automatically be populated in the text field below. If it doesn’t, click on the map near your estimated location, or use the drop down menu to find the time zone that matches your own. When the correct time zone is entered in the text field below, click Continue to move on.
Now, we choose the keyboard settings and language preference of your Ubuntu Studio installation. Based on the information you’ve entered thus far, Ubuntu Studio is usually smart enough to figure out these settings on its own. Unless you prefer a different keyboard setting or language setting, stick with the defaults, and click continue to move onto the next page.
On this last screen of user input you are presented with a form that asks for your full name, the computer’s hostname, your username, and your password. Additional options on this form allow you to log into Ubuntu Studio without providing a password, and encrypting your home directory. I keep these last two options at their default settings as a matter of preference. For the last time, click continue to move on.
The actual installation of Ubuntu Studio typically takes between fifteen and twenty-five minutes. When it finishes, you will see a dialog box that asks if you’d like to restart your PC. Click the restart button and when prompted, remove your USB thumb drive. A fresh installation of Ubuntu Studio is now installed on your PC, and is ready for use.
Packages, Repositories and PPAs
In Ubuntu Studio, there are many ways to install software. The methods that we’re going to use, will mostly consist of the Linux command-line commands, but we will also use a graphic application called synaptic package manager. In the next section of this article, I will be using terms like packages, repositories, and PPAs. So before we go any further it might be a good idea to define these new words.
A package is simply a piece of software. It could be an application like the web browser that you’re using to read this article, or a mysterious piece of software that makes other applications work in your operating system. Ubuntu Studio comes with thousands of packages pre-installed, but as is the case with all software, there comes a time when package creators will make newer versions of their software. These newer versions or updates improve the security of their software, enhance its performance or adds new features. When a maintainer releases an update to his or her software, they upload the new version to a repository.
A repository is an on-line collection of packages, which is maintained by whoever created your Linux-based operating system. In many ways, it is like the app stores available for Android, iOS, Windows and MacOS. From repositories, it is possible to install and update software packages using command-line tools or through a special application called a package manager.
Sometimes however, a repository will not have all the software you want. In Ubuntu-based operating systems, it is possible to add additional repositories to your system. These repositories are called Personal Package Archives, or PPAs. To clearly define the relationship between repositories and PPAs, think of a repository as a shopping mall. In this mall you can purchase general merchandise like housewares, clothing, fashion accessories, and frozen yogurt. However the mall does not have a bookstore, a place that sells musical instruments or vintage recordings. By adding a PPA, it is possible to add an additional repository to your system that provides a single application or a collection of related software. Therefore, PPAs can be thought of as the small boutique stores that specialize in items that you would not go to a larger shopping mall for.
Updating Repositories and Software
Now that we have some basic Linux terminology out of the way, it is time to address some of Ubuntu Studio’s weaker points. Ubuntu Studio offers a good collection of software for audio recordings and editing, however some of the software in its repositories are a little dated. Additionally, there are other applications, instruments and audio effects that are simply not available in Ubuntu’s default repos. To extend the functionality of Ubuntu Studio, we will be adding some additional PPAs, provided by the KXStudio project.
First, sign into your new Ubuntu Studio installation. After the desktop loads, open the application menu on the top left corner as of the screen (as shown in the screenshot below) and select the entry named web browser.
Firefox, the default web browser for Ubuntu Studio will now open. From your web browser, visit the KXStudio repository page. From this page, we need to download two files. The first file, kxstudio-repos.deb, is a package that will be used to add new PPAs to your system. These new PPAs will provide us with some new applications, software instruments and effect plugins, as well as updated versions of the software we already have installed from Ubuntu Studio. The second package, kxstudio-repos-gcc5.deb, is used to support newer versions of Ubuntu from versions 15.10 and later. Download and save both packages.
Next, reopen the application menu and select the entry named file manager. Thunar, the default file manager for Ubuntu Studio, will now open to show your home directory. Use Thunar to navigate to downloads and with Thunar still open, go back to the application menu to select terminal emulator. In the newly opened terminal, enter the following:
sudo dpkg -i
The command-line application dpkg is used to install packages that are downloaded but have not yet installed. Since we cannot install software without administrative privileges, the dpkg command is always preceded by a the word sudo which grants us the ability to manage software on our system. Finally, the -i flag tells dpkg that we want to install a package. Now, all we need is the location of the package itself. From Thunar, drag the kxstudio-repos.deb file directly into the terminal window (as shown in the next screenshot).
In the terminal, the dpkg command should now look like this:
sudo dpkg -i '/home/[user name]/Downloads/kxstudio-repos_9.4.1-kxstudio1_all.deb'
Hit the enter key to complete the command. You will be asked for your system password, and once it has been provided, the kxstudio-repos package be installed, and additional PPAs will be added to your system. Follow this same process to install the kxstudio-repos-gcc5.deb package on your system. When both packages are installed, close Thunar and enter the following command into the terminal.
sudo apt update
Apt is a command-line application that is used to download, install, update and remove software. A common apt command is update which checks the on-line repositories for newer versions of the software you already have on your system. Once again, hit the enter key and wait for the apt update to finish. Once it completes, apt will tell you how many packages are out of date on your system. Next, enter this command:
sudo apt dist-upgrade
The dist-upgrade command will download and install newer versions of the software and dependencies that already exist on your system. Press ‘y’ to confirm the process, sit back and relax. This process typically takes between twenty and thirty minutes. During the course of the upgrade, you will be asked if you wish to change a configuration file named /etc/security/limits.d/audio.conf. Hit ‘Y’ to allow this change and wait for the rest of the process to finish. Finally, restart the PC and log back into Ubuntu Studio.
Adding New Software
One of the things I love about the KXStudio repositories is that it has newer versions of the software that is already packaged in Ubuntu Studio. The other thing I love about the KXStudio repos is its capability to expand Ubuntu Studio’s collection of virtual instruments, effect plug-ins and provide some additional applications. Since we already performed our updates, it’s now time to add some beef to our Ubuntu Studio Installation with some additional instruments and effects. To accomplish this task, we will be using an application called Synaptic Package Manager. From the Applications Menu, open a terminal and enter the following command:
sudo apt install synaptic
So far, we have used apt to update and upgrade our system. Now we are using it to install our first package. Hit enter to continue, provide your administrative password, and press ‘Y’ to confirm. In a few seconds, synaptic will be installed on our system and ready for use. Once the installation completes, go back to the application menu, and in the search bar, enter the word synaptic. Synaptic Package Manager will appear as one of the first search result entries. Click the menu entry and Synaptic will launch.
Like the apt command that we have been using for the last few minutes, synaptic is used to download, install, update and remove software from our system. The difference is that it uses a graphical user interface instead of a terminal. With this being said, working with software packages still requires root access. The first window synaptic opens is a sort of gatekeeper which asks for our administrative password. Enter your password and click the authenticate button. Synaptic will then open an applet that tells us a little bit about the application. Close the applet and double click the application’s title bar to expand synaptic to a full screen.
Next, click the search button at the top of synaptic’s main window. A search field will appear. In the search field type kxstudio-meta. A list of packages will appear on the top half of the screen. From this list, we are going to select a few meta packages that will install KXStudio’s entire collection of virtual synthesizers and effect plugins, as well as support for some windows-based VSTs. Right-click the list entry named kxstudio-meta-audio plugins and select mark for installation from the context menu. Repeat this step for kxstudio-meta-audio-plugins-dssi, kxstudio-meta-audio-plugins-ladspa, kxstudio-meta-audio-plugins-lv2, kxstudio-meta-audio-plugins-vst and kxstudio-meta-wine.
Click the apply button at the top of the screen, and a new applet will appear to confirm your software selections. Click apply to continue. During the course of the installation, you will be asked if you accept the end user licensing agreement to install Microsoft true-type fonts. These fonts are essential for the rendering of some Windows-based VSTs. Accept the EULA and wait for the installation to complete. When the process completes, synaptic should look like the screenshot below:
Note: During the course of this installation, you will probably see a dialogue box that states that the downloading of the Microsoft true-type fonts has failed. This is not an issue with Ubuntu Studio or Synaptic. Ubuntu-based operating systems use the Microsoft fonts provided by Sourceforge, a website which has been in serious decline for ages. For now, close out this dialogue box without taking action. We will be fixing this issue shortly.
Thus far we have installed Ubuntu Studio, updated its packages with the KXStudio repositories and added a vast collection of software instruments and plug-ins. At this point, Ubuntu Studio is functional, but there are some minor problems that still need to be addressed. First, there’s the issue with the downloading of Microsoft truetype fonts. To fix this problem, open a terminal and enter the following:
wget http://ftp.de.debian.org/debian/pool/contrib/m/msttcorefonts/ttf-mscorefonts-installer_3.6_all.deb -P ~ /Downloads
wget is a handy command-line application for downloading files. Here I’m using it to download a newer version of the Microsoft font installer which is not yet available in the Ubuntu repositories. Once the file appears in my downloads directory, I can use the same technique that I used earlier to install the KXStudio repositories.
The next issue we’re going to fix is with an application that we will be using extensively in part three of this series. Jack is an application that runs in the background, and allows us to connect our audio equipment with the software we installed earlier. Jack can be accessed through the command-line, however we will use qjackctl, which provides us an easy to use, graphical interface. Out of the box, qjackctl, is functional, however it has a couple of issues.
To demonstrate, go to the applications menu and open qjackctl. A small applet that resembles a tape recorder (like the one shown below) will appear on your desktop. On the applet, click the start button. Wait for qjackctl to start and click the connect button. In the connection window, select the audio tab and you will see that PulseAudio is connected to Jack and Jack is Connected to PulseAudio.
Now, open Firefox and go to https://www.youtube.com and select a video of your choice. This video will invariably fail to play. Whenever Jack initializes, it tends to clobber Ubuntu’s default audio system, resulting in a lack of sound for any application that does not use connect to Jack directly. Another issue is that some MIDI applications will not work with Jack by default.
The good news is that both issues can be resolved with one simple fix. First click the stop button on qjackctl. Next, click the setup button and select the options tab. Below you will see a series of four check boxes with accompanying text fields. Check the box that says execute script after Startup, and enter the following text.
pactl set-default-sink jack_out && a2jmidid -e &
This command will execute a script that completes the connection between Jack and PulseAudio. Additionally, it adds a MIDI interface for software synthesizers that are not Jack compatible. Click ok, to exit setup, quit qjactctl and restart Ubuntu Studio for these changes to take effect.
In the previous article in this series, I discussed the equipment that was integral to building a Linux-based home recording studio. In this article, I provided detailed instructions on how to install Ubuntu Studio with additional software provided from the KXStudio repositories. I also showed how to fix some common issues that arise from new installations of Ubuntu Studio. Last but not least, I provided a very brief introduction to Jack.
In the next article of this series, I will discuss at some of the software provided in our new recording studio, and work with some of the equipment we purchased earlier. Looking forward to seeing you.