lv2 synths for ardour 3: a list

With Ardour 3 alphas coming thick and fast, and the beta looming on the horizon, I thought it was high time to examine the soft-synths that are available for use with it. While support for other synth plugin formats, like DSSI and native VST, may come in future releases, Ardour 3.0 looks set support only LV2 synths (though it of course supports LADSPA for effects, too). That obviously limits the selection somewhat, but there are still some nice synth plugins on offer.

Of course, Ardour 3 works just as well with external JACK synths, and with hardware synths, so you can still use old favourites like Hydrogen or Yoshimi, but using plugins certainly makes things easier when saving and loading projects.

NOTE: Some of these synths rely on a library called lv2-c++-tools. Versions of this library before 1.0.4 include a bug that prevents Ardour from loading any synth plugins built against it, so if some of the synths listed here fail to load for you, make sure you check your lv2-c++-tools version.

Calf plugins: Monosynth, Organ, and Fluidsynth

The Calf plugins are some of my favourites — the Flanger, Phaser, MultiChorus, and Vintage Delay are all great — and it comes with a couple of synths, too. Calf Monosynth is a classic analogue-style monophonic synth; it handles legato just like an old monosynth, which is something that a lot of soft-synths mess up, so it’s great for both electro basses and proggy leads. The git version adds LFOs and a modulation matrix.

Calf Monosynth

Calf Monosynth handles classic lead and bass sounds

Calf Organ is based on a drawbar organ; rather than emulating a specific organ it takes the basic idea and expands on it. You can adjust the harmonic and the waveform of each drawbar, and independently pan and detune them, too. It also has a pair of resonant filters, and three envelopes for modulation, which make it capable of all sorts of synth sounds beyond what you’d expect from an organ.

Calf Organ

Calf Organ is half-organ, half-synth

Calf Fluidsynth does what you’d expect it to do — it lets you load SF2 soundfont files, using the Fluidsynth engine. It’s only available in the git version of Calf, and it’s marked as experimental, so you have to enable it explicitly when configuring the build. Despite all that it does seem to work, though I haven’t had a good chance to really put it through its paces yet.

Calf Fluidsynth

The experimental Calf Fluidsynth plugin loads SF2 soundfont files

foo-yc20 organ

If you do want a classic organ, foo-yc20 may fit the bill — it emulates a Yamaha YC-20 combo organ, down to the tacky red background in the UI. It does a great job of emulating those cheesy 70s organ sounds, and it works really nicely through a chorus or rotary speaker plugin.


foo-yc20 emulates a deliciously-cheesy combo organ

MDA EPiano

The MDA plugin set, which contains a variety of synth and effects plugins, has long been popular on Windows, and since going open-source a couple of Linux LV2 ports have appeared. Dave Robillard has ported the effects plugins, but he hasn’t yet started on the synths. The lv2-mdaEPiano project has ported one of the synths, though — the electric piano. It’s a very nice little synth, with a great sound and low resource usage.

lv2-mdaEPiano has its own GUI, but it’s a bit plain — I actually prefer Ardour’s standard plugin GUI controls. Thankfully, you can bring up a standard Ardour GUI for it (or any other plugin, for that matter) by right-clicking on it in the plugin list and selecting “Edit”. lv2-mdaEPiano uses lv2-c++-tools, so make sure you’ve upgraded that to 1.0.4 or later before installing it.


lv2-mdaEPiano is a port of the MDA EPiano VST plugin

So-synth plugins: SO-404, SO-666, and SO-KL5

These three plugins started as stand-alone JACK synths, but they were ported to LV2 by Jeremy Salwen:

  • SO-404: a single-oscillator monosynth; it’s similar to a 303, and while it’s not a strict emulation it certainly capable of the same kinds of sounds.
  • SO-KL5: a “piano” synth — it uses Karplus-Strong string synthesis, and while it doesn’t sound a lot like an actual piano, it sounds really nice in its own way, but a bit of an electric piano-ish vibe to it.
  • SO-666: a feedback drone synth, capable of some crazy, dissonant drones; the original website has the best description of how to use it

The So-synth LV2 synths, with standard Ardour GUIs


I wasn’t sure about using LinuxSampler as a plugin initially, but it actually seems to work quite well! When you add the LV2 plugin within Ardour, you don’t get a GUI — it just launches an instance of LinuxSampler in the background and defines a MIDI input and audio output. Then, you can fire up LinuxSampler’s Fantasia GUI to load the instrument you wish to use. It’s a little clunky, but the settings are all saved as part of the session and restored when you reload it, just as you’d expect with a plugin.


LinuxSampler's LV2 plugin uses an external GUI to load sounds

The Newtonator

I’m not sure how to describe this one, though words like “bizarre”, and perhaps “insane” certainly come to mind. The Newtonator uses some unique forms of synthesis, which are extensively, and entertainingly, in its manual. Its sound starts off as a simple sine wave, but after a few quick adjustments of some of its modulation parameters you find yourself knee-deep in some rich, distorted sonic mayhem.

The Newtonator

The Newtonator creates sounds that are harsh, distorted, crazy, and very cool


Like SO-KL5, Qin is a little string-based synth; it simulates plucked strings using a pair of oscillators and a pair of filters. Being monophonic limits its usefulness, but it can make some nice sounds.


Qin is a monophonic plucked string synth

ll-plugins: Rudolf-556 and Sineshaper

The ll-plugins plugin set contains two quite unique synths: Sineshaper, a monophonic synth based (unsurprisingly) on sine waveshapers, and Rudolf 556, an analogue drum machine emulation that creates bass, snare, and hat sounds. Even with the updated version of lv2-c++-tools, Sineshaper doesn’t work in Ardour for me, but Rudolf 556 does.

Rudolf 556

Rudolf 556 creates drum sounds similar to those on analogue drum machines

Composite Sampler

Composite Sampler is the plugin component of the Composite project, which aims to create a realtime sampler and sequencer based upon Hydrogen. The sequencer itself isn’t usable yet, but this plugin, which plays Hydrogen drum kits, works just fine (as of version 0.006.1). With no GUI to speak of it’s a bit fiddly to use, but the release announcement includes basic instructions.


There are some others that I either haven’t tried or couldn’t get working, or which simply aren’t finished yet. If anyone else can elaborate on these, let me know in the comments so that I can improve this article in the future:

  • Minicomputer-LV2: this is a work-in-progress LV2 port of Minicomputer. i don’t think it’s in a usable state yet, but it’ll be awesome when it gets there.
  • Calf has another “experimental” synth, called Wavetable, which I assume will be modulatable wavetable synth, like those from Waldorf. It doesn’t actually work yet, though, so we’ll just have to wait and see how it develops.
  • lv2_guitar: another string synth; thanks to Jeremy’s comments below I was able to build it, but it won’t load in to Ardour.
  • Zyn: this project aims to port the various synth engines from the almighty ZynAddSubFX to LV2. I haven’t had any luck getting Ardour 3 to load it, though, and I’m not sure if it’s actively maintained.

Have you had better luck with some of these? Have you found any that I haven’t listed? If so, let me know in the comments!

ardour 3 midi progress

I have a new track in the works, and as an exercise, I’m sequencing it all within Ardour 3. The alphas of Ardour 3 have been great on audio-only projects, but for MIDI work they’ve been highly unstable until quite recently. Each alpha just gets better, though, and while it still crashes, and has some odd behaviour, alpha 8 has behaved well enough that I’ve been able to make some solid progress.

I think it’ll still be a while before I’ll be recommending Ardour 3 for MIDI-intensive work (it may not reach that point until after the 3.0 release, even), but it’s developing well, and I figure that actually using it and reporting any problems I find is the best way I can help make it the brilliant all-round DAW I think we’re all hope it will become.

An Ardour project with only MIDI tracks? Madness!

I’m using a combination of synths — my Blofeld and Hydrogen, using a2jmidid to bridge Ardour’s JACK MIDI to ALSA MIDI, and some LV2 synth plugins within Ardour — and they’ve all worked well so far. The reliance on LV2 for synth plugins is an issue I’ve mentioned before, and there are still only a handful of LV2 synths, but I’ve had good fun with Calf Monosynth (the git version adds LFOs and a new UI), and with Jeremy Salwen’s ports of the “SO” synths. The SO-KL5 “piano” synth sounds really nice in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar to an electric piano.

Calf Monosynth, with some smooth filter cutoff automation

Calf Monosynth, with some smooth filter cutoff automation

Automation, especially on MIDI CC messages, is quite sketchy at the moment (it should be addressed in alpha 9), but I did get it working for plugin parameters; in this case, the filter cutoff of a Calf Monosynth instance. This worked really well, giving me some lovely, smooth filter sweeps. If alpha 9 lets me automate parameters on my Blofeld just as easily, I’ll be a very happy man.

Qtractor is adding automation in its next release, too, so one way or another, it looks like we’ll definitely have some solid synth automation features under Linux this year.

child of eden

Few games have had as powerful a combination of sight, sound, and action as Rez, Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s music-driven shooter, so when Mizuguchi demonstrated its spiritual successor at last year’s E3, I was sold on it instantly. Child of Eden plays much like a Rez sequel, but with its Kinect controls, it feels like a very different experience.

It’s a very pretty game, of course, and with a controller that would probably be about the end of it, but the Kinect controls not only work well, but they feel great. You sweep across the screen with your right hand to target groups of enemies, and then push your hand forward to fire; there’s also a rapid-fire attack that you can target with your left hand. Firing in time with the music gives you a scoring bonus, and with many sequences calling for rapid switches between the two firing modes, you start to feel like some bad-ass Jedi conductor.

Or rather, a bad-ass Jedi conductor that’s tripping balls.

The Kinect controls do suffer from the odd mis-detection, but once you get used to how it works it’s easy to keep them to a minimum. I had the best luck holding my right hand fairly close to my body, giving myself plenty of room to push it forward to fire. I also found it important to keep my inactive hand by my side, to prevent any accidental firing-mode switches. You can play it with a controller, and I’ve no doubt I’d score better that way, but it wouldn’t be as much fun.

Like Rez, Child of Eden isn’t a long game — the main game takes no more than 2-3 hours — but there’s a lot of fun to be had in replaying the levels for higher scores, or just for the experience. However, it does lacks some of the sense of mystery and wonder that came from playing Rez. Playing through Area 5 in Rez is a powerful, chilling, and uplifting experience, and while I’m glad Child of Eden doesn’t try to simply replicate that experience — you can’t go home again, as they say — it does feel like it’s missing some of Rez’s emotional highs.

Despite that, it’s still a brilliant game, and perhaps the best demonstration yet of Kinect’s ability to deliver precise, responsive controls.

lunar eclipse, june 2011

In the wee hours of this morning, the Moon moved in to the Earth’s shadow and fell in to near-complete darkness — a lunar eclipse. This eclipse was especially long and dark, as the Moon traveled right through the centre of the Earth’s shadow, giving it a very deep, eerie red glow before fading to near-invisibility as it neared the horizon.

I had the telescope and binoculars out for visual observation, but the Canon 550D provided the real fun, with the 75-300mm lens giving enough zoom to get a reasonably close look at the action. The timing didn’t allow me to see the whole thing (it started around 4:30AM, and was still heavily in shadow as it set around 7AM), but I still got some pretty good shots.

4:48AM: a chunk of the Moon goes missing

5:25AM: parts of the Moon fall in to deep shadow

I had to increase the exposure time as the Moon grew darker, which caused some slight blurring from the Moon’s motion across the sky. To limit the blurring, I also had to progressively increase the ISO setting, which made later images more noisy, but these shots still give you some idea of just how dark the Moon became in the sky.

5:44AM: the entire Moon glows red

You might expect the Moon to go completely dark during the eclipse, but even when it’s entirely within the Earth’s shadow, our atmosphere scatters a small amount of light toward it. Only the reddest parts of that light make it all the way through our atmosphere, though, which causes the Moon’s red colour.

6:15AM: the Moon all but fades from view during totality

I think this is the photo of the night, though:

6:05AM: a timely encounter with a morning jet

It’s not uncommon for jets to fly past our house, and after seeing one fly past, my wife was ready at the camera when a second appeared. The camera was still set on a two-second exposure to capture the (by this point very dim) Moon, but that just makes the jet look like something from a sci-fi movie.

Another eclipse will be visible from here in December — it may not be as spectacularly dark as this one, but it starts at a more reasonable hour (around midnight) and the whole thing will be visible. I’m sure I’ll have more photos then, at least as long as the weather co-operates.

music video: frozen summer

I recently upgraded my DSLR camera to a Canon 550D, which shoots beautiful 1080p video, and after shooting some test footage of my drinking bird, I decided to have some fun with it. “frozen summer” seemed like a good fit — it’s also a bit whimsical, and (mercifully) it’s quite short, too.

UPDATE: I’ve also uploaded a copy of the video in WebM format for download.
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