sketchbook: musopen musings

Musopen is a fascinating project — it hosts public domain recordings of, and sheet music for, a large number of classical pieces. Many of the most famous classical works have long been in the public domain, but while the compositions themselves may be free to use, recordings of those works are still subject to copyright. Musopen, then, hosts recordings of those works that have also been released in to the public domain, mainly from student and college orchestras.

Nearly two years ago, Musopen’s founder had an ambitious idea: use funds from a Kickstarter project to commission classical recordings from a top-quality orchestra, which would then be released in to the public domain. The campaign was a great success, and the resulting recordings are now complete. The final mixes aren’t ready yet, but I’m more excited to see that the raw multitrack recordings are available!

The sessions are in ProTools format, but the recordings themselves are WAVs that can be imported in to Ardour or any other DAW quite easily. With some 560GB of high-quality orchestral stems to work with, there’s tremendous scope to incorporate these recordings in to other works, or process and edit them to create entirely new works. This is an incredible gift to the recording community, and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing elements of these recordings for decades to come.

In that spirit, I spent some time over the weekend playing with one of the pieces in Ardour. I took one of the shorter (and more frantic) pieces — Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro — and extracted a few short elements, stretching them out to create a short ambient electronic (the genre I affectionately call “artwank”) track. Beyond Ardour’s time-stretching and pitch-shifting tools, I used Argotlunar and Cumulus, which are both granular synths, to add a bit more textural variety.


mp3 | vorbis | 2:04

rui’s new synths: synthv1 and samplv1

The last week has seen the announcement of two new LV2 synths, both from Qtractor and QJackCtl developer and all ’round good-guy Rui Nuno Capela: synthv1 and samplv1. Both are in the early stages of development, but they’re already looking very promising.

synthv1 is a classic analogue-style synth with a few twists

You can never have enough good analogue-style soft-synths, and synthv1 is a welcome addition to the list. The basic synth design is pretty straightforward — two oscillators (with saw, pulse, sine, and noise waves), a multi-mode filter with its own envelope, and an LFO with various routing options. However, each patch actually has two instances of this synth engine, which are mixed and then processed through an effects section.

This layered design is particularly handy for adding sub-octaves to create strong bass sounds, or adding some high-end sizzle to pads, especially when combined with the filter’s high-pass mode and the LFO’s panning control. It can also create very wide stereo sounds, by building subtly different sounds on each layer and then panning the layers in opposite directions.

There are some other unique touches, too. For instance, the saw wave is actually continually variable between saw and triangle modes, which gives you more basic oscillator timbres to work with; hopefully later versions will allow the LFO to be routed to this wave shape control, both for saw/triangle variation and for pulse width variation. Also, the LFO has its own envelope, which can be used to adding vibrato or filter cutoff variation to a sound after the initial attack, for instance.

samplv1 fills a major gap: a simple sampler plugin

samplv1 is the more interesting for me, though, because it fills what I feel is a major gap in Linux audio: a simple plugin sampler. LinuxSampler is great, and it’s available as a plugin, but sometimes you just want to take a single sample and do something creative with it, especially when making percussion parts, and LinuxSampler doesn’t make that easy. Specimen (for which I recorded a video tutorial) is a better option for this, but as a standalone JACK app, it’s cumbersome to use, especially if you’re using multiple instances to host multiple sounds.

In a lot of ways, samplv1 is like a plugin version of Specimen — it lets you load a sample and map it to your keyboard within seconds, and then optionally use other synth components to process that sound. samplv1 uses the same envelope-controlled multi-mode filter and LFO as synthv1, which gives you a lot of scope for creative sound design; Specimen has a bit more modulation flexibility, but it’s not as immediately accessible as samplv1 is. samplev1 also shares synthv1’s stereo effects section.

It’s still early days for both of these, so don’t be too surprised if you run in to problems (I’ve had a few crashes with Ardour 3, for instance, but I haven’t narrowed down their cause yet), but they’re definitely worth checking out!

music video: periapsis

Here’s a little something I put together: a video of a trip to the Mün in Kerbal Space Program, edited in to a music video for the first track from my RPM 2012 album, periapsis:

I had to cut about two-thirds of the video to fit it to the track, but you get to see all the major events in a flight to the Mün:

  • takeoff
  • booster stage separation
  • Kerbin orbit insertion
  • transmünar injection (that’s the burn that sends you to the Mün)
  • Mün orbit insertion
  • orbital adjustment for landing altitude
  • orbital braking burn
  • core stage separation
  • final descent and landing

The rocket design is the smallest and simplest I’ve come up with so far that can get to the Mün and back again; you don’t see it on the video, but I did get those Kerbal astronauts back home safely.

I captured the video using ffmpeg, with KSP running under Wine on my Linux desktop, and then used Kdenlive to edit it. Kdenlive worked well for the edit (no crashes!), though I suspect there was something funny happening with the audio/video sync — I’d place an edit right on a beat, and then find upon repeat listens that it sometimes didn’t quite match up, but it was such a close-run thing that it may have all been in my head.

the salamander drumkit is out!

This is just a quick post to mention that the Salamander Drumkit is now available! As you might expect from the author of the Salamander Grand Piano, the Salamander Drumkit is a sampled acoustic drumkit that’s distributed in SFZ format under a Creative Commons licence. There are a lot of individual samples in there, but instead of using a lot of velocity layers, it instead has many “round-robin” samples — samples of the same drum hit in the same fashion which are used for successive hits.

Having so many round-robin samples adds a tonne of realism, especially for rolls, because you can trigger the same drum multiple times in quick succession without ever hearing the same sample twice. I think it also helps make this a really fun kit to play, too — even with just my MIDI keyboard to play it with, it feels lively and dynamic in a way that sampled kits often don’t.

Being in SFZ format means that you’ll need LinuxSampler from SVN to get it running. If you haven’t used LinuxSampler before, this guide should get you started.

rpm 2012 update: day 26

I’m on the home stretch now! I just completed track 7, and track 8 shouldn’t be far behind — with any luck, I’ll get that done tonight. Track 7 is a pounding industrial track with heavily distorted synths; I’m not entirely happy with it, but it has its moments, and it was definitely fun to try something different.

Track 8 should be a bit more of a success — it’s a bit more like one of my older tracks, with looping bass and pad patterns and 909 drums. It’s hardly going to set the world alight, but once I get a lead part in there and finalise the arrangement it should be a nice enough little track.

If I get that finished tonight, I”ll have two tracks left to complete (both of which I’ve started) and three days to complete them, which is a great position to be in. I’ve left these until last because they’ve caused me some trouble — one of them is a solo piano piece that I’m not sure how to expand past about one minute, for instance — but I’ll just have to get stuck in to them and hope for the best.

Come February 29th I’ll have to burn these tracks to CD, and instead of just using Brasero to burn my exported tracks to disc, I’ve decided to master the CD in Ardour. Within Ardour, you can import your finished tracks in to a new session, arrange them in order, add CD track markers, and then export the entire project as a single CD-length WAV with accompanying TOC/CUE files, which you can then pass along to cdrdao.

The main advantage of working this way is that you can run tracks together with no gaps between them, just like on a “real” CD, but it also gives you a chance to adjust relative volumes and the length of any pauses between tracks, which helps a lot to make the CD flow as a whole.

an electro remix of “move along”

AutoStatic has been busy working away on an electro remix of my track “move along”, and he’s now posted the results. “move along” is by far my most acoustic track, with piano, bass, drums, and vocals (the instruments were all actually softsynths, but it certainly sounds fairly acoustic), so it’s very cool to hear it so completely altered in to a danceable electro track, with a tonne of vocal processing work and all manner of synth sounds.

It’s obviously very cool to hear what’s been done with my original track, but I think it’s even cooler just to see this sort of track being made under Linux, and with all software instruments, no less. Check it out!

rpm 2012 update: day 5

It’s the end of day 5 of the RPM Challenge, and I think I’m making good progress! I may have to pick up the pace a little to finish by the deadline, but I’m still fairly confident that I’ll manage it. The strategy that’s been working for me is to brainstorm and come up with demo ideas of a weeknight after work, and then flesh out those ideas on the weekend when I have more time to work with.

So far, I have one finished track (an ambient experimental piece), one half-finished track (a lo-fi downtempo track a la Texel), and two short demos (a chiptune and a solo piano piece). I’ll try to finish the track I have in progress tomorrow, so with any luck by this time next week I’ll have three or four finished tracks, and four or five demos ready to be expanded upon.

Some random things I’ve learned so far:

  • Plugin soft-synths are super, super handy when you’re in a hurry — just drop them in a MIDI track, load up a preset, and you’re good to go, without worrying about routing signals or configuring external software or hardware.
  • Speaking of soft-synths, the TAL-NoiseMaker native VST synth is my new go-to synth. It’s a standard analog-style synth, but it sounds great and has a straightforward UI and a solid feature set.
  • Ardour 3 is still a bit crashy while working with MIDI, but it’s made some nice improvements recently, like being able to double-click to enter or leave note edit mode, and the addition of a drop-down list of synth plugins in the “new track” dialog, so you can start composing more quickly. I could switch back to Qtractor, but even with the crashes I think I’m more productive in Ardour, just because I’m more familiar with it.
  • Sound design is fun! It’s hard not to have a good time when I fire up the Blofeld and start twiddling knobs. I should do it more often!
  • In fact, I should do this whole music thing more often. I might not come up with something interesting every time I sit in front of the keyboard, but definitely won’t come up with anything if I don’t try.

sooperlooper rhodes remix

If you enjoyed yesterday’s sketch, you really should check out this great remix by ioflow. He took my original loops and rearranged them in Renoise, mixing things up to great effect with some micro-edits (the little reversed bits sound awesome) and some low-key, distorted beats. Unfortunately I forgot to save the final set of loops, so he had to make do without the melody part, but it definitely hasn’t hurt things.

I very nearly neglected to post yesterday’s sketch, since the timing was rough and the whole thing was musically very simple. Needless to say, I’m glad I did post it now — chalk this up as a win for online collaboration and Creative Commons!

sketchbook: sooperlooping the rhodes

I’m starting the new year the right way this year — with a sketch! It’s just a rough, simple, improvised jam, captured using SooperLooper, but I love the mood that the sound of the Rhodes imparts, especially as more note sustain over the top of each other and intermingle. I put the Rhodes sound through a rotary speaker emulation (Calf’s, in this case), and the melody part went my VM1 delay pedal, but it’s otherwise free of processing. It doesn’t really need much, anyway — those high notes sustaining that are left at the end are just magic.

SooperLooper is great for capturing new track ideas, especially for the kind of music I make, which is often driven by repeating patterns. In the past I’ve started with a drum beat and recorded loops on top of that, but this time I went freestyle. The nanoKONTROL is great for controlling it — I was able to add a bunch of empty loops, and map a separate fader and record button to each of them, making it easy to both record your loops and control their playback afterward. Once I had some appropriate loops I just played them all at the same time, using the faders to control their relative volumes while recording the output straight in to JACK Timemachine.

I don’t know if this sketch will go any further than this, but with some glitchy drums, some additional synth parts, and a bit more complexity (like, more than two chords), I think it could work as a track.


mp3 | vorbis | 2:51

a great article on using multiple audio devices with JACK

I’ve been meaning to write a tutorial describing how to use multiple audio devices with JACK, using the “alsa_in” and “alsa_out” tools, but as it turns out, I don’t have to now! Linux Home Recording is a new-ish blog that already has a number of great articles about various Linux recording topics, and the most recent post there is all about using alsa_in and alsa_out.

It pays special attention to one of the most common cases — using a USB microphone — so it’s well worth a read.