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: Install-O-Rama we installed Ubuntu Studio, a Linux-based operating system that was specifically created for audio production and added in a boatload of additional software from the KXStudio repositories. In this final installment, we will connect some of the hardware we discussed in part one with some the software we installed in part two and start to explore our new environment.
Note:When recording under Linux, you will have a dizzying amount of options when it comes to instruments, effects and recording software. The purpose of this article is to gently guide you through the process of getting sound from your equipment into your PC. Future articles will build on this series and cover more topics in depth.
By now, you probably have the equipment you ordered from Amazon sitting patiently in its boxes and waiting to make some noise. Take this time to open your parcels, examine your new purchases and breathe in that new gear smell. Then connect the equipment as directed by the manufacturer, turn on your PC and log into Ubuntu Studio.
Getting to Know JACK
In part two of the series, we briefly discussed JACK, a software application that acts as a sort of patch bay between audio hardware, and the software that we use for recording sound. Start by opening qjackctl from the application menu and click the Setup button. The setup applet opens to reveal the settings tab. The settings in this tab provide a good 42.7 milliseconds of latency, which is the time from when you strum a guitar or scream into a mic to the time it is processed by your operating system’s software. To adjust latency, tweak the sample rate, frames/period or periods/buffer settings. Bear in mind that lower latencies use more system resources. Usually, the defaults in this tab are sufficient for smaller recording environments.
On the settings tab, switch from parameters to advanced. There are a lot of options here and, conversely, a lot of ways to mess up your audio setup, so we’re only going to concentrate on two entries, the Output Device and Input Device. On the drop down-menus, select the make and model of your audio interface, as seen in the screen-shots below and close out the Setup menu.
Making the Connections
By now, you should have already connected your audio equipment to your PC. Before we proceed, let’s go down a pre-flight checklist.
Your audio interface, and MIDI controller should be connected to your PC via USB cables.
Your guitar (if you’re a guitarist) should be plugged into your audio interface through its ¼ input.
Your microphone (if you’re a vocalist) should also be plugged into your audio interface through its XLR input.
Your monitor speakers should be connected to your audio interfaces line-out jacks.
Your audio interfaces, instruments and monitor speakers should be powered on.
With the preliminaries out of the way, click the start button on qjackctl, hit some keys on the keyboard, strum some guitar chords or sing into your microphone. You should now hear … stock … still … silence. Although your equipment is connected to the PC, the signal coming from your mic, guitar or MIDI controller has nowhere to go. Let’s fix these issues, starting with the guitar.
Guitar Effect Processing with Rakarrack
Rakarrack is a software effects processor for guitarists and bassists with a healthy number of presets on which to base your instruments sound. From the applications menu open Rakarrack. Next, go back to qjackctl, and click the Connect button. You will notice that a new connection has been established between the rakarrack entry (its output) on the left and an entry for system (its input) on the right. Think of this as a real world effects processor being connected to your guitar amplifier.
Next, click the system entry on the left and the rakarrack entry on the right so both are highlighted and click the connect button. Your instrument is now connected to the effects processor. Qjackctl’s connection panel should now look like this.
Finally, in Rakarrack, turn on an effect preset by clicking the fx on button on the top left corner of its interface. Adjust the volume, input and output sliders to your liking. Try out some of the software’s built in presets and when you’re done shredding, we’ll move on to vocals.
Testing our Mic with Carla
To test out vocals, we will be using a an application named Carla. Carla is a virtual instrument and effects rack that supports numerous Linux audio formats including LADSPA, DSSI, LV2, and VST. Additionally, Carla supports some Windows VST plug-ins through the use of the Wine comparability layer. For this example, we will be using a simple reverb effect provided by the TAL reverb plugin. From the applications menu, launch Carla and click the Add Plugin button at the top of the interface.
A new applet will appear. On the new applet, click the Refresh button and a third window will appear. Click start on the bottom right corner of this window and Carla will search your system for all available plugins. Refreshing your plugin list will take a few minutes, but you only have to do this with new installations of Carla and whenever a new plugin is added to your system. Once the process completes, close the newest window, and type the word reverb in the search bar of the second window.
A list of reverb plugins will appear. Dsouble click the selection named Tal Reverb. The second window will close and a rack mounted version of the plugin will appear in Carla’s main interface.
Tal Reverb is almost ready for use. All that we need to do is connect our microphone to the reverb, and the reverb to our audio outputs. Once again we can use qjackctl, but there is another way to do this without having to leave Carla. First, click the Patchbay tab in Carla’s main window. Next find the box labeled system that has two capture outputs. Click and drag the first output to the input labeled Tal Reverb Audio Input 1. Repeat this step with the second capture output and Tal Reverb Audio Input 2.
Now, let’s connect the reverb to our audio inputs. First, find the box labeled system that has two playback inputs. Click and drag the first playback input into the output labeled Tal Reverb Audio Output 1 Repeat this process by connecting the second playback input into the output labeled Tal Reverb Audio Output 2. The patchbay screen should now look like this.
Tal Reverb is ready to go. Sing into your microphone and you should hear your voice with the effect we selected. To adjust the settings on Calf Reverb, select the Rack tab, go to the Tal Reverb object and click the small button shaped like a gear. A graphical representation of Tal Reverb will open, complete with knobs and sliders. Adjust the settings to personal taste, sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, do a brief stand-up routine or anything else that you would normally use a microphone for. When you’re finished, we’ll hook up our MIDI controller.
Tickling the Ivories with ZynAddSubFX
ZynAddSubFX is now wired for sound but it still needs to be connected to our MIDI controller. In Connect, select the MIDI tab. On the left, expand the list entry for a2j and select the make and model of the keyboard controller you’re using. On the right, select the entry for ZynAddSubFX and click the connect button.
Play a few chords or a melody line and the sound of a very dull and simple sound should come out of your speakers. Let’s find a sound that is a little more interesting. In ZynAddSubFX, open the instrument menu and select Show Instrument Bank. A new applet will appear with a drop down menu that displays your current bank or collection of sounds. To change banks, use the drop down menu. To select a specific sound, click one of the buttons below. Jam out and enjoy.
Wrapping it Up
In this series of articles, we built a complete home recording studio from the ground up using inexpensive recording equipment and open source software. But although this is the end of this series, this is only the beginning of your journey with Linux and audio recording. There are a lot of software synthesizers, effect processors and digital recording software that are installed on your system that are waiting to be discovered. I will be writing more articles on audio recording with Ubuntu Studio. But while you wait, allow me to direct you to some additional resources for your immediate edification.
Libre Music Production is a website dedicated to open source software and audio recording. On this website, you could find tons of articles on open source software as they pertain to the field of music and audio. Libre Music Production also has its own Youtube Channel.
Another YouTube channel of note is Linux Music for Beginners. This channel teaches the basics of various software synths, sequencers and recording applications in a simple, digestible manner. Additionally, Linux Music for Beginners discusses a lot of fundamental topics for music production, such as how to use software synthesizers, filters and other pieces of studio technology.
Kris Occhipinti’s YouTube channel is another excellent resource for learning open source software for music production. In addition to discussing various software synths and recording applications, Occhipinti’s channel also offers tutorials for 3d graphic creation, image editing with GIMP and other topics for the open source creative.
Finally we come to Yassin Phillip’s YoutTube channel. Yassin’s tutorial on his creative workflow with Qtractor, a powerful digital audio workstation for audio recording and MIDI sequencing is both educational and highly entertaining.
The above resources are among the best tutorials for music production under Linux. Enjoy them and until next time, go out there and create something awesome.
Thank Yous and Unattended Business
I’d like to thank everyone who has read these articles and have found them to be useful. I’d also like to give a big thank you to Tyler Beller who loaned me the equipment to make this series possible.
Finally, I’d like to offer more thanks to those who have generously donated to my gofundme campaign so I can purchase recording equipment to write future articles and tutorials about audio recording under Linux.
At this time, the gofundme campaign is still active andneeds your help. If you’ve found this material useful please take the time to donate whatever you can afford. Thank you for your time.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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