new music update

A few months ago I posted that I was working on new music using Ardour 3, and I’m glad to say that my new track is now all but finished. Working with Ardour 3 was a bit nervewracking at times, as you’d expect when testing alpha software — there were several times, in fact, when I couldn’t even open the project’s session due to one bug or another. It all held together somehow, though, and after many bug reports and fixes, I definitely feel like it’s helped

The new track is a bit of a downbeat, ambient-ish thing, with some lo-fi sounds mixed in with some glitchy elements. I definitely put Ardour’s MIDI features to the test: there are MIDI tracks running out to my Blofeld and to Hydrogen, along with LV2 synths (Calf Monosynth and Linuxsampler), along with automation of CC parameters on the Blofeld and automation of plugin paramaters on Calf Monosynth. I’ve done quite a bit of effects automation as well, particularly with the bitcrushing Decimator plugin.

There’s even a VST plugin in there now; I had been beta-testing Loomer Cumulus, using it as a standalone synth, but with Ardour’s new VST support I now have it running within Ardour directly. Cumulus is somewhere between a synth and an effect: it lets you load a sample, and then trigger its playback using granular synthesis with varying paramaters, altering the starting point, pitch, and playback rate, among other things. You can define up to eight sets of those parameters, and then trigger those via MIDI keys. It can turn all sorts of sounds in to eerie textures, but it can just as easily take a drum loop and turn it in to a wonderfully glitchy mess, which is exactly what I used it for.

I’m pretty sure the track is done, but I don’t want to release it just yet. I plan to sit on it for a few days at least, while I read more of my copy of Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, but I like the idea of putting together at least an EP with a couple of other tracks and releasing them all at once. That might not be practical if it takes me four months to finish each track, though, so I may post the individual tracks here when they’re ready, and then do an official Bandcamp release once they’re all done.

everything you always wanted to know about linuxsampler

LinuxSampler is an odd beast — it can be tricky to install, and confusing to configure, but it’s undoubtedly the best tool for working with large sampled instruments under Linux. With its next release adding support for the increasingly popular SFZ format, and the fact that it’s one of the few LV2 synth plugins ready for use with Ardour 3, I think it’s about to get a lot more important.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. What exactly is LinuxSampler, what’s it useful for, and perhaps most importantly, how do we use it?

LinuxSampler GUI

LinuxSampler handles large sampled instruments with ease

LinuxSampler basics

LinuxSampler is a sample-based synth that lets you use very large sampled instruments. Rather than loading the entire instrument in to RAM, LinuxSampler loads just the start of each sample, and then reads the rest from disk as it’s needed. Because of this, it can load instruments much larger than your system would be able to handle with other software, such as Hydrogen or Fluidsynth/Qsynth.

Realistic piano sounds are perhaps the classic use for LinuxSampler — a good piano, like the Salamander Grand Piano, can reach 2GB or more in size — but it works just as well for electric pianos, guitars, violins, trumpets, drum kits (a personal favourite), or any other instrument that calls for large samples, or a lot of samples, to provide a realistic result.

LinuxSampler can be run standalone — it supports ALSA and JACK for both MIDI input and audio output, and can handle an arbitrary number of inputs and outputs mapped to different instruments. It can also run as a plugin; the LV2 plugin runs well under both Ardour 3 and Qtractor.

File formats

The inspiration for LinuxSampler was a Windows app called Gigasampler, which was the first sampler to incorporate on-demand streaming of sample data. It’s a standard feature in professional samplers today, and Gigasampler itself has been defunct for some time, but its legacy lives on in the “.gig” file format, which is also LinuxSampler’s primary file format.

You can still find some great commercial sample libraries in .gig format, but it’s definitely falling out of favour today. To address that, the development branch of LinuxSampler has added support for a new format called SFZ. It’s a young format, but it’s growing in popularity thanks to the availability of free SFZ plugins across all platforms. Also, because of its design (the SFZ file itself is a simple text file, separate from the actual sample data), you can download third-party SFZ mappings for some commercial instruments.

Even though .gig is fading away commercially, it’s still useful for bundling your own sounds. The LinuxSampler project includes a .gig editor called “gigedit”, which you can use to create your own instruments.

Hopefully you now have an idea of what LinuxSampler is and what it can do for you. Now all that remains is to learn how to install and configure it!

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

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

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
so-synths-lv2

The So-synth LV2 synths, with standard Ardour GUIs

LinuxSampler

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-lv2

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

Qin

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

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.

Others

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!

new track: move along

This track has been a long time coming, but it’s finally done! It’s my first original track with lyrics; it’s about leaving my job after so many years there, though I wouldn’t read too much in to the words. It’s certainly a departure from my usual electronic stuff — this has just piano, bass, drums, and vocals — so I’m keen to hear what people think of it.

You can download or stream it below, or at Bandcamp. Some production notes are under the cut.


mp3 | ogg | flac | 3 minutes 47 seconds

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sonatina symphonic orchestra, a CC orchestral sample pack

For a long time, the free culture world has lacked a decent set of orchestral samples. Various projects have produced or compiled samples of instruments, but often just in their raw form, requiring the user to assemble them in to something useful. It would take a hell of a lot of work to pull in samples from these various sources and turn them in to not just usable instruments, but a usable collection of instruments with a consistent sound, but that’s exactly what Mattias Westlund and some helpers have done, in the form of the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra.

SSO (as I’ll refer to it) covers all the basics: the common brass, woodwind, and string instruments, in sections and as solo instruments, with a few important articulations (like staccato and pizzicato notes on the violin sections, for example), along with piano, chorus, and percussion instruments. They’re all bundled in to a single 440MB download (via BitTorrent) with a Creative Commons Sampling Plus licence, and the instruments themselves are all in SFZ format, so they’re compatible with the current LinuxSampler development code from CVS.

Now, at 440MB, it’s not going to rival VSL (it’s individual instruments are several times as large!), but it’s far better than anything I’ve heard from the traditional free options, such as the Fluid GM library. The demo on the SSO website is well worth a listen: it does show the library’s limitations at times, but it also shows just how good it can sound. Scoring believable orchestral parts is as much in the programming as it is in the sounds themselves, but SSO gives us all a solid, Linux-compatible base to work from.

One last word on Linux compatibility — some of the SFZ files in the collection play a bit loose with the cases on the filenames of the samples they link to, which causes problems when loading them in LinuxSampler. The authors are aware of the issue and I’m sure it’ll be addressed before the next release, but for now, I’ve uploaded a complete set of corrected SFZ files. Extract those over the top of the SFZ files from the distribution, and you shouldn’t get any trouble from LinuxSampler.

approximating realism: drumming with linuxsampler

It may be the silly season, but I’ve still had plenty of time to work on a new track. It’s coming along well I think, but it’s been quite a challenge, mainly beacuse it’s a very “back to basics” track, with a minimal, piano-based arrangement. You’d think that would make things easy, but it’s quite the opposite! With just a few instruments in the mix, the quality of the performances and mixing, and the authenticty of the sounds, will be paramount. With Pianoteq taking care of the piano, the drums have been my main focus so far.

My first instinct was to load up Hydrogen, sequenced from Qtractor, with one of the few big Hydrogen kits around. The Big Mono kit from Analogue Drums sat nicely with the feel of the track, but they’re recorded in mono (as the name suggests), and they have a lot of room sound, too. They also push Hydrogen hard — with 210MB of samples loaded, it needs 400-500MB of RAM to run. If I wanted to go with even better sounds, Hydrogen wasn’t going to work.

The answer, then, was LinuxSampler, which laughs heartily at gigabyte-sized sound sets. I took the plunge and spent a whole $25 on another Analogue Drums kit, called RockStock — it has more drums than Big Mono, and they’re all recorded in stereo, with separate close mic and room mic recordings of each. Thanks to some third-party SFZ mappings, it works beautifully in LinuxSampler, and despite having 870MB of samples, it uses just 200-300MB.

One question in using LinuxSampler that I haven’t quite answered yet is how I’m going to mix it, since there’s no way to get separate per-drum JACK outputs from it. You can load the same sound set in to LinuxSampler multiple times, though, with little additional overhead, so there’s nothing stopping me from loading RockStock five or six times for each of the different drums I want to use. Those separate instances can then be routed to separate JACK outputs. I just need to make sure that I split my MIDI drum tracks up in the same way.

I have some basic drum parts written, using just two groups of drums (kick/snare/toms, and hats/cymbals) routed to two instances of RockStock in LinuxSampler, and it’s sounding pretty good — not quite there, but hopefully not too far off. With more attention to detail in the programming (it feels like I’m slowly learning the drums, just without the drums!), and some appropriate treatment in the mixdown (EQ, compression, etc.), I think I’ll be able to produce some solid, convincing drum parts.

playing with pianoteq play

I’ve mentioned Pianoteq in the past, and I’ve played with several demo versions over the years, but now I’ve finally taken the plunge and bought a copy. Pianoteq boasts great Linux support, and its new entry-level version — Pianoteq PLAY — is just 99€, but why is it worth buying when I could use (and indeed, certainly have used) the Salamander Grand Piano for free?
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The Salamander Grand Piano, and LinuxSampler CVS

NOTE: The link below was to an older version of the Salamander, so the link now goes to a download page that lists the latest version. Also, LinuxSampler isn’t as temperamental as it once was when it comes to loading SFZ files, so you don’t have to follow the instructions below to the letter any more — just add a sampler channel, set it to SFZ mode, and load the SFZ file, and you should be good to go.

After a bit of a wait, what’s perhaps the ultimate free piano sample library, the Salamander Grand Piano is available! One of the guys on the linux-audio-user spent I’d-hate-to-think-how-long recording every note on a Yamaha C5 grand at 16 different volume levels with a pair of stereo mics, and the result — all 1.9GB of it — sounds lovely.

Getting it running, however, is a bit fiddly right now. Due partly to its heft, it’s distributed in SFZ format, instead of the more common GigaSample “.GIG” format. Linuxsampler supports SFZ in CVS, but it’s buggy, and the instrument needs to be set up just right to load without crashing Linuxsampler. Once you’ve installed Linuxsampler from CVS — a bit of effort, but fairly straightforward, especially since it comes with Debian package scripts — follow these steps, in order, to get the Salamander up and running:
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