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: aspect and sequent

I got two great new studio toys for Xmas: Loomer Aspect and Sequent. This sketch is a quick demo I made while getting a bit of a feel for them both. Loomer’s plugins are all available as native Linux VSTs (as well as Windows and OS X), so they work well within Ardour 3.

Aspect is an analog-style soft synth with hugely flexible modulation options — it’s very easy to route its modulation sources, including three envelopes and three LFOs, to a wide variety of parameters, which gives you a lot of creative power. My favourite feature so far is its unison control, which lets you use up to five voices for each note. The coolest part of this is that the unison depth is a modulation source, so you can, say, route the unison depth to the pan control to spread those voices out across the sound stage, or route it to oscillator pitch to create massive detuned sounds.

It’s not as flexible as my Waldorf Blofeld, but Aspect is far more flexible than TAL NoiseMaker while remaining quite approachable to program. My RPM album really taught me the benefit of having synth plugins to use; now I’ll be able to do a lot more in-the-box, saving time and effort.

Sequent is an entirely different beast, and it’s not the easiest thing to explain — the simplest description is that it’s a multi-effects module that lets you sequence the parameters for each effect. It can create rhythmic delays, pans, and distortions, but perhaps its most versatile effect is the looper, which lets you slice, reverse, and loop the incoming audio to produce all manner of glitchy, stuttery effects. You can sequence everything precisely, or use any degree of randomness that you like, and it’s even MIDI-controllable, which opens possibilities for live use.

Now, for the sketch. It’s based on an Aspect pad that uses a clock-synced LFO routed to the filter cutoff, giving it a rhythmic rise and fall (I tried this using MIDI clock sync on the Blofeld on an RPM track, but it didn’t quite work). On top of that, I’ve added some simple percussion, again using Aspect — the kick is one of the included presets, but the hat and snareish-thing are my own patches.

While the kick keeps time, the hat and snare are sent through Sequent to glitch them up. I used a Sequent preset for this, which operates mostly randomly — if I was using it for real I think I’d want to either remove the randomness, or record a bunch of random loops to audio and hand-pick the best ones.

As you’d expect, I recorded this in Ardour 3 — it’s shaping up very nicely right now, so I’m hoping we won’t have much longer to wait before the final 3.0 release.

mp3 | vorbis | 26 seconds

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.