studio slimdown

Last weekend, almost exactly five years after I bought my Blofeld synth, I sold it. With plans to move to the US well underway, I’ve been thinking about the things I use often enough to warrant dragging them along with me, and the Blofeld just didn’t make the cut. At first, the Blofeld was the heart of my studio — in fact, if I hadn’t bought the Blofeld, I may well have given up on trying to make music under Linux — but lately, it’s spent a lot more time powered off than powered up.

Why? Well, the music I’m interested in making has changed somewhat — it’s become more sample driven and less about purely synthetic sounds — but the biggest reason is that the tools available on Linux have improved immensely in the last five years.

Bye bye Blofeld -- I guess I'll have to change my Bandcamp bio photo now

Bye bye Blofeld — I guess I’ll have to change my Bandcamp bio photo now

Back in 2009, sequencers like Qtractor and Rosegarden had no plugin automation support, and even if they had, there were few synths available as plugins that were worth using. Standalone JACK synths were more widespread, and those could at least be automated (in a fashion) via MIDI CCs, but they were often complicated and had limited CC support. With the Blofeld, I could create high-quality sounds using an intuitive interface, and then control every aspect of those sounds via MIDI.

Today, we have full plugin automation in both Ardour 3 and Qtractor, and we also have many more plugin synths to play with. LV2 has come in to its own for native Linux developers, and native VST support has become more widespread, paving the way for ports of open-source and commercial Windows VSTs. My 2012 RPM Challenge album, far side of the mün has the TAL NoiseMaker VST all over it; if you’re recording today, you also have Sorcer, Fabla, Rogue, the greatly-improved amsynth, Rui’s synthv1/samplv1/drumkv1 triumvirate, and more, alongside commercial plugins like Discovery, Aspect, and the not-quite-so-synthy-but-still-great Pianoteq.

I bought the Blofeld specifically to use it with a DAW, but I think that became its undoing. Hardware synths are great when you can fire them up and start making sounds straight away, but the Blofeld is a desktop module, so before I could play anything I had to open a DAW (or QJackCtl, at the very least) and do some MIDI and audio routing. In the end, it was easier to use a plugin synth than to set up the Blofeld.

Mystery box of mystery!

You can probably guess what’s in the box, but if not, all will be revealed soon

So, what else might not make the cut? I only use my CS2X as a keyboard, so I’ll sell that and buy a new controller keyboard after moving, and now that VST plugins are widely supported, I can replace my Behringer VM-1 analog delay with a copy of Loomer Resound. I might also downsize my audio interface — I don’t need all the inputs on my Saffire PRO40, and now that Linux supports a bunch of USB 2.0 audio devices, there are several smaller options that’ll work without needing Firewire.

I’m not getting rid of all of my hardware, though; I’ll definitely keep my KORG nanoKONTROL, which is still a great, small MIDI controller. In fact, I also have two new toys that I’ll be writing about very soon. Both are about as different from one another as you could get, but they do share one thing — they’re both standalone devices that let you make music without going anywhere near a computer.

sketchbook: faking guitars

As someone that plays keyboards I’ve been mostly resigned to the fact that I can’t put guitars in any of my tracks, but after some playing with guitar samples available at the Flame Studios website, I’m cautiously optimistic. Flame Studios has high-quality recordings of various guitars (like the Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul) in GigaStudio format, and when used appropriately, they sound great. Their website has been down for most of the last few years, but I’m hoping that it’s now back for good.

Most of the recordings are straight from the guitar’s line-out, which I think is ideal: if you want a clean sound, you can use it as-is, or you can run it through your choice of amp simulation to get a more typical guitar sound (something I’ve always been curious about but never had a chance to try). I was testing the samples using the Linuxsampler LV2 plugin in an Ardour 3 MIDI track, so I decided to try Guitarix, which as of version 0.25 includes some pre-built combinations of tube amp, tonestack, and cabinet as LV2 plugins.

The new Guitarix LV2 plugins, alongside some old favourites

The new Guitarix LV2 plugins, alongside some old favourites

So far, I’ve been quite impressed with Guitarix. I haven’t had much experience with amp simulations, but even so, with appropriate twiddling of knobs I’ve been able to get some crunchy distorted sounds, and some cleaner sounds that add a lot of character without over-the-top distortion. There are other options — Rakarrack has some amp/cabinet simulation features (though it focuses more on effects), and the C* Audio Plugin Suite provides amp/cabinet simulations as LADSPA plugins — but the simplicity and quality of the Guitarix LV2 plugins won me over.

The sound itself is just one piece of the puzzle — the other is to play things in a believable way. Keyboards can do a lot of things that guitars can’t, so you have to limit yourself playing parts that at least sound like they would be possible on a guitar. Arpeggios with wide gaps between notes are an easy cheat, but if you want to play chords, a list of guitar chords mapped out on the keyboard, like this one, is very helpful.

Of course, the reverse is true, too — guitars can do a lot of things that keyboards can’t. Many of the Flame Studios guitars include extra samples of finger slides and other guitar sounds beyond just the notes, which you can sprinkle in to a part to add some realism. Subtle MIDI pitch bends can help add some expression, too, though they really stand out if they’re done poorly. You’re not going to be able to capture the subtlety and nuance of a real guitar, but with a bit of care, I think you can definitely create basic guitar parts that sound convincing enough to work in a mix.

On to the sketch! Using the Telecaster line-in sample set recorded from the bridge pick-up, I came up with a simple little arpeggio-ish riff thing, and then tried running it through various Guitarix settings. In the sketch you hear three versions of this riff: the first is completely clean, the second uses the Guitarix GxAmplifier-IV plugin with fairly heavy drive settings and a CAPS Plate reverb, and the third uses the GxAmplifier-II plugin with much cleaner settings, along with a Calf Vintage Delay, dRowAudio Flanger, and the CAPS Plate reverb again.


mp3 | vorbis | 1:07

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!

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.

it’s here! native vst support in ardour 3

Ardour 3.0 is still in alpha, but it gained a substantial new feature last week: support for native Linux VST plugins. It’s a feature that’s been on wishlists for a while, but it’s become more important over the last year or so, as the number of VST synths for Linux has increased. The big drawcards are the commercial synths — Pianoteq, discoDSP Discovery, and the various Loomer plugins, for instance — but more open-source VSTs are appearing now too, such as the TAL synths, ported from Windows by KXStudio developer falkTX in his new DISTRHO project.

The new features use the unofficial Vestige VST headers, which means that Ardour avoids the need for users to download the official Steinberg VST SDK and build Ardour themselves. Having said that, the new VST support is a build-time option that’s disabled by default, but I’m hoping that it will be enabled by default, and available in the official binary builds of Ardour, before the final 3.0 release.

Ardour 3 SVN, running the Loomer Cumulus and TAL-Dub-3 native VSTs

As handy as this is, there has been some discussion about whether or not native VST support is a good thing. VST isn’t a particularly elegant plugin system, and given Steinberg’s licensing restrictions, it’s always going to be harder for the developers of hosts like Ardour to deal VST with than other plugin formats, such as LV2. I would hate to see this VST support discourage developers from working with LV2.

Realistically, though, it’s hard to expect commercial plugin developers to embrace LV2, on top of the effort already required to bring their plugins across to Linux. Indeed, now that Ardour has joined Qtractor and Renoise in supporting VST plugins, the size of their combined user bases might encourage more plugin developers to offer Linux support.

I hope we’ll see more ports of open-source Windows VST plugins too, but for anyone developing a new open-source synth plugin, or working on a plugin version of an existing standalone synth, LV2 makes much more sense. Regardless of how open-source they may be, VSTs that rely on Steinberg’s headers will never be allowed in to distributions. With David Robillard’s new LV2 stack, which is already in use in both Ardour and Qtractor, LV2 is a fast, reliable, and highly capable standard, and its use will only increase, regardless of what happens with native VST support.

a new lv2 synth: the newtonator

I’ve just updated my big list of LV2 soft-synths with a brand new entry: a bizarre synth called The Newtonator. It’s a unique synth, with algorithms based on the laws of gravitation. The sounds it makes are almost all bizarre, distorted creations, though the samples on the website suggest that it is capable of being tamed a bit to create more melodic sounds. In any case, it’s a lot of fun to play with, so if you’re in to sound design and unique sounds, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Newtonator

The Newtonator: a new LV2 synth that makes bizarre, distorted sounds

lv2 synth updates

I’ve just finished some updates on my big list of LV2 synths — here’s a brief list of the changes:

  • Calf Fluidsynth, despite being marked as “experimental”, does actually seem to work quite well for me — it’s definitely worth testing yourself if you’re interested in soundfonts
  • Composite Sampler has been updated (it’s now at version 0.006.2), with fixes for the bugs that prevented it from working in Ardour 3
  • lv2-mdaEPiano and ll-plugins Rudolf 556 both work after upgrading lv2-c++-tools to version 1.0.4; earlier versions have a bug that prevents synths built against it from loading in to Ardour

Check the original post for the full details.

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!

IR: the convolution plugin i’ve been waiting for

It’s not every day that you wake up to find something that you’ve always wanted, but it happened this morning when I read the announcement for IR, an LV2 plugin that combines the convolution engine from Jconvolver with a slick, powerful user interface. It doesn’t do anything you couldn’t already do under Linux, but its ease (and speed) of use takes convolution under Linux to an entirely new level.

IR plugin

IR gives you incredibly quick access to your convolution reverbs

It’s great that IR runs as a plugin (it’s certainly easier than using Jconvoler as an insert via JACK), but its greatest feature is its file browser, which lets you browse through collections of impulse response files with ease, and load new files for auditioning with a single click. It’s hard to overstate how handy this is; finding the right IR file for a particular job is often a case of trial and error, and IR’s file browser lets you test your options and narrow the possibilities very, very quickly. IR automatically resamples your IR files to your session’s sample rate as they’re loaded, too.

IR also borrows some reverb-shaping ideas from its proprietary Windows and Mac OS X counterparts, like SIR2 and Altiverb. Beyond simply adjusting the wet/dry gains (so you can use it on individual instruments, or on a send bus) and adding pre-delay, you can actually shape your impulse respones: you can stretch and shrink their length, and use envelope controls to shape their volume over time. That means that if you find an impulse response that sounds great, but isn’t quite the right length, you can trim or extend it to match your needs with ease.

The envelope and length controls let you shape your reverbs

To me, IR is a great example of open-source at its best. Plugin author Tom Szilagyi (who, uncoincidentally, is also the author of the excellent TAP plugin suite) wanted a convolution reverb plugin, so he built one! Normally that’d be a massive undertaking, but by “standing on the shoulders of giants” — building on top of Jconvolver’s “zita-convolver” library, as wel; as libsamplerate for audio resampling and libsndfile for reading the audio files — he was able to put it together in just a few weeks.

If you want to try IR yourself (and if you don’t, I haven’t done my job properly), it may be worth waiting a few days — the current version has some minor issues, including a potential memory leak on multi-core systems. It’s definitely a project to keep an eye on, though!