some daw notes: mixing in qtractor, and testing ardour 3

So far, I’ve been using Qtractor for all of the recording and sequencing on the track I’m working on. As an exercise, I’m going to try to stick with Qtractor throughout the mixing process, too. I’ve used different synths and sequencers on different tracks over the last 18 months, but everything has been recorded in to Ardour at some point, so I think it’ll be good to put it aside for one track to see how the other half live.

I’m certainly happy recording MIDI in Qtractor, but it doesn’t yet feel as robust as Ardour for recording audio. It’s working fine, though, so I might get over that initial feeling once I’ve used it a bit and built some confidence in the fact that it’s not going to keel over at random. One thing I haven’t found a way to do, though, is to use a shared reverb bus, as I do in Ardour (as discussed in my last tutorial). It hasn’t been a problem yet, since I’m not using much ‘verb yet, but it will definitely be a problem if I decide to use a convolution reverb later.

Qtractor's new quantise dialog, with percentage options

One very nice thing that’s landed in Qtractor SVN is percentage quantisation, which lets you bring your MIDI notes just part of the way towards being perfectly quantised; it’s a great way to tighten up the timing of a recorded MIDI part without completely eliminating those nice, human timing variations. I described it to Rui on the LinuxMusicians forum the other day, and to my surprise, he had it written, working, and committed to SVN by the very next day. Now that’s service!

Ardour 3’s non-MIDI improvements

I’ve also been testing Ardour 3 from SVN, and I’m very, very happy with how it’s coming along; both its stability (ie: its ability to run for more than five minutes without crashing) and its reliability (its ability to do what you tell it to do in a consistent, repeatable manner) have increased dramatically over the last few months. My good friend (and guitar/drum extraordinaire) Stuzz gave me a link to a list of Ardour 3’s new features, which is an excellent read — going through the new features, which are all described in great detail, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a lot more to Ardour 3 than just MIDI sequencing.

Internal sends to aux buses make shared reverbs even easier in Ardour 3

One thing I noticed quickly is that it handles reverb buses very well. Setting up the bus is much the same as it is in Ardour 2, but once it’s there, adding sends to your tracks takes just a few clicks, and each send has a tiny gain slider next to it in the track’s effects list, so you can adjust your send gain straight from the mixer. The sends are also given meaningful names, now, so you know which bus they’re sending to at-a-glance.

Another nice change is what’s being called the matrix router, which is used whenver you need to connect Ardour’s inputs and outputs (audio or MIDI) to external apps or devices. The dialog for this in Ardour 2 was a bit cumbersome, and I know more than a few users that used an external tool like Patchage to connect things to Ardour. The matrix router, while initially a bit of a confusing sight, makes it much easier both to see what’s connected to where, and to change those connections.

…and the MIDI stuff, too

MIDI editing is done a little differently than in some other apps, but it’s not totally dissimilar to apps like Qtractor, and it follows Ardour’s audio editing model very closely. MIDI regions work much like audio regions — you can copy and drag them around and trim them to length with ease. By default, copying a region makes a “linked” copy, so editing a region changes every copy of that region; if you do need to edit one specific copy of a region, you can “fork” it to create a duplicate that can be edited independently. Speaking of editing, it happens inline — that is, within the main Ardour timelilne window, rather than in a pop-up — which seems odd at first, but it works well enough once you expand your track vertically.

Editing the contents of a MIDI region in Ardour 3 SVN

You can use instrument plugins, too. When you create a MIDI track, it starts with just a MIDI input and output, but if you add an instrument plugin it spawns a matching set of audio outputs, which can be routed just like the outputs of a standard audio track. It also has the best automation implementation I’ve seen on Linux; Ardour’s traditional plugin automation works on instrument plugins on MIDI tracks, and you can also draw automation curves for MIDI CCs. One catch right now is the lack of DSSI support — Ardour only supports LV2 plugins for now, along with VSTi plugins in VST-enabled builds, and AudioUnits on OS X.

Paul Davis wisely warns in his description of Ardour 3’s MIDI features that since this is Ardour’s first attempt at MIDI sequencing, we shouldn’t expect Ardour to necessarily to everything as good as, or better than, other apps that have been working with MIDI for years, and I think that’s very fair. I don’t expect people to dump Rosegarden and Qtractor en masse just yet, since there are certainly features that Ardour 3 lacks. Overall, though, I think he and his team have done a brilliant job, and I think Ardour 3 will have more than enough MIDI functionality to cover most of my projects.

blag updates

Over the last few months I’ve been trying hard to add more detailed and interesting content to this site, beyond personal opinions and the usual ramblings; essentially, I’ve been trying to treat this whole blogging thing with a bit more professionalism, and I hope that comes through in my writing. With that in mind, I’ve been making some changes to the site itself as well. Most of the changes are minor, such as adding a “related posts” feature, and the “recent posts” box over on the right, but there’s another, more significant addition to that right panel: ads.

I’m just serving some Google ads, as you’d see on a lot of other sites — I hope they’re subtle enough not to be annoying, and I hope they’ll be relevant and interesting, but given the various niches this site inhabits, I’m not completely convinced of that yet. You can consider this a trial, since if they haven’t done a lot after a month or so of being on the site, I’ll likely ditch them. I’m also looking at Amazon’s affiliate program, which might be a better fit for me given how often I discuss audio hardware.

Ultimately, I write this content because I want to, not because I think it’ll make me rich. It’d be nice to make a few bucks here and there to help with hosting costs, but I don’t want to do it at the expense of my readership or my credibility. If anyone has any thoughts on what they do and don’t find acceptable, or any experience in working with either Google or Amazon, I’d love to hear it!

welcome back, bandcamp!

It seems I may have jumped the gun a little with that last post about Bandcamp’s policy change on free downloads; as is often the case with the Bandcamp team, they’ve taken user feedback on board and come up with a compromise that’ll make just about everyone happy. Now, any accounts that have less than 200 free downloads left will be topped up to 200 once a month, so free music guys (like me) can keep using Bandcamp for nothing, as long as they’re not too popular (also like me).

Given Bandcamp’s generous definition of “a download” — streaming playback within the browser is still unlimited and free, and album downloads count as just a single download — 200 a month will cover a fair bit of activity. I’ve yet to reach 200 downloads in total so far, so 200 a month will probably always be enough for me.

Once again, Bandcamp proves that it’s a class act. Rock on!

so long bandcamp, and thanks for all the fish

I’ve long been a fan, and user, of Bandcamp, the fantastic music hosting site, but Bandcamp is growing up, and as part of that, it looks like we’ll be growing apart as well. It’s still a great service, and I wish it well, but for free artists like myself, the honeymoon is (mostly) over.

The writing was on the wall earlier this year when Bandcamp started taking a 15% cut on sales in order to cover its costs. I think that’s perfectly reasonable, but the question remained: how would Bandcamp cover its costs on free downloads, where there’s no revenue to split? It answered that question today by announcing an end to unlimited free downloads.
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roasting bacon

I don’t often listen to the TLLTS podcast, but I caught a recent episode (number 361) featuring Jono Bacon, and I was not impressed. I wish Bacon would stop commenting about the state of Linux audio, because it’s clear to me — but probably not clear to the larger community — that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

He explained on the show that he doesn’t use Linux for his music production, and I should say up-front that I don’t have a problem with this. Linux certainly isn’t ideal for everyone, and if Bacon has a solid, working Windows-based setup, there’s nothing wrong with him sticking with that and focusing on making music.

However, it’s very clear to me that he has no idea about the current state of Linux audio production, spreading the usual outdated nonsense about JACK being overly complex to set up, ignoring the existence of quite usable MIDI sequencers like Qtractor and Rosegarden, and giving very short shrift to Hydrogen’s abilities as a drum synth. These tools, with a suitable velocity-layered drumkit, might not give the same results as quickly as Bacon’s proprietary setup can, but they’d certainly do the job, especially once you run each drum in to Ardour for separate processing.

Why do I have such a problem with this? Well, it’s because Bacon is widely known and respected as an open-source evangelist, and also as a musician, so his words carry weight. I and my fellow Linux musicians know he’s mistaken, but a casual listener would assume that he knows what he’s talking about, given his background, and would probably write off Linux as a music production platform because of it.

Again, to be clear, I’m not saying Bacon should use Linux. I’m not even saying that he should spend the time to learn about making music on Linux. I just wish he’d stop talking about it as if he does know what he’s talking about.

ascap vs creative commons? seriously?

It seems like that last post of mine detailing my selfish reasons for making my music available for free couldn’t have been better timed. ASCAP has launched an attack on Creative Commons, the EFF, and Public Knowledge, asking its members to donate to a fund that will be used to campaign against copyleft licencing in the US Congress. The letter it sent to its members reads like the kind of FUD you’d expect from 90s Microsoft:

“They say they are advocates of consumer rights, but the truth is these groups simply do not want to pay for the use of our music. Their mission is to spread the word that our music should be free.”

This could not be further from the truth — Creative Commons gives artists tools to control what they wish to allow other people to do with their own work. It’s not aimed at tearing down traditional copyright, and it’s certainly not aimed at providing free access to existing copyrighted works. I’ve talked about the fact that I use CC because it’s in my best interest, but I wouldn’t claim that it’s the best option for all artists.

I can only think that ASCAP is targeting Creative Commons because it’s becoming a credible alternative to the old performance royalty model. If a cafe owner wants some background music for their customers, they can play any appropriately-licenced CC music; that is, any work not using the “Non-Commercial” clause. As more music becomes available under these licences, and awareness of its existence grows, it will be increasingly practical to work with CC music rather than pay ASCAP fees.

congratulations to spacex, but sad pandas for humanity

Saturday morning marked a significant milestone in spaceflight: the successful maiden launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. For years, spaceflight has been ruled by governments and the military, but SpaceX is shaking things up by developing rockets on a purely commercial basis, and at a fraction of the price of competing offerings. SpaceX has had success in the past with its smaller Falcon 1 rocket, but the Falcon 9 is a much bigger machine: with around 20 times the payload capacity, it’s more than capable of launching crew and cargo to the ISS.

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uncharacteristic productivity

I don’t know if I’ve been feeling particularly inspired lately, but I’ve definitely been feeling productive. Today I submitted my entry for Tunestorm02, a music challenge that called for creating a track entirely from samples of household items. Last Tunestorm I whipped up something really rough and ready at the last minute, but this time I put the effort in and came up with a proper track that I’m actually pretty happy with.

With that done, that’s four tracks I’ve finished in the last two months. Sure, one was a cover, and one was a bit of cheap ambient art-wank, but that’s still more than I managed last year, and we’re only a few months in. I think it’s just the result of practice more than anything — I’m definitely getting quicker, not just with the tools, but with the writing and arranging as well. Working with some new tools, like Seq24, has helped as well I think.

I don’t have any particular ideas right now, but I’m sure I’ll jump on my PC over the weekend and start playing around with something!

html5 audio problems

For my last few sketches now I’ve used HTML5’s built in “<audio>” tag to handle embedded streaming of my audio files, rather than using a Flash component. It’s a convoluted solution right now, due to a lack of ubiquitous support — I need to post Ogg Vorbis files for Firefox and Chrome, MP3s for Safari, and then a Flash-based MP3 fallback for other browsers — but it’s worked pretty well for the most part.

Unfortunately, it came a little unstuck today, when I checked my web server logs and saw that there’d been more than 100 downloads of my latest sketch — far more than I expected from seven minutes of abstract wank. I did some testing, and saw that every time I opened the page, it was downloading the entire track, rather than downloading just the headers. As it turns out, it looks like the transparent proxy at the office is to blame; I guess it has problems with partial content downloads.

For now, I’m just gonna fall back to ye olde Flash player for my audio posts — it’s not pretty, or elegant, but it works, and it doesn’t have these kinds of problems. I’ll keep an eye on HTML5 though, and on the office proxy. Here’s hoping for a future where I can post just a single audio file and have it streamed seamlessly everywhere without a need for plugins!

looking back on 2009

Around this time last year I said (not on my blog, but on my LJ, for those that are reading this there) that I wanted to do a bit more with myself in 2009, rather than just wasting time online. I can’t say that I spent a lot of time reading or writing (probably a lot less time writing, in fact), and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time outside with my telescope, but I did play a good few games, watched some new TV, and spent a lot of time cooking lunches for work.

Most importantly, though, I actually did something productive musically. Until 2009, the best I’d managed since high school was a couple of minutes of generic techno, but in 2009 I produced two complete tracks, both of which I’m still pretty happy with. My dalliances with music in the past have usually ended in frustration, but this year, through a combination of new hardware, much-improved software (mad props to the Ardour guys), and perseverance, I got over the hump. I now feel like I have the tools I need to make whatever I decide to make, and perhaps most importantly, my desire to make music is just as strong as it was a year ago.

I’m usually not one to set hard goals, but if there’s something I’d like to make this year, it’s a proper song — lyrics, singing, and all of that good stuff.