Friday, 7 December 2012

Stuck in the MIDI

I've now been using KXStudio in earnest for a couple of projects. A couple of those were just recording a few audio tracks in Ardour 3, but the latest has been a little more complex. I'm doing a song for the next Six String Bliss album. It's a cover and to make things easier I found a MIDI file of the song to use as a basis. I was able to load this into Ardour as a set of MIDI tracks and then link those to Qsynth using a free soundfont. I've been replacing those tracks I can play on guitar, bass and with vocals, but will keep the drums and some keyboards. Ardour has been very stable. I think it has only crashed a couple of times and I didn't lose much.

I still need to work out how to preserve session data so that I don't have to hook up the MIDI channels each time. I'm sure it's possible.

Once I have everything records I want to apply a few effects to make it all sound better. This is still a new area for me, so I'll be doing a bit of reading and experimenting. The album will be out early next year and I'll put my track up after the release.

In other news, I have joined a band! I was contacted earlier this year via Forming Bands by a bass player who wanted to put a blues band together. For various reasons we didn't actually get together until last month. We've now had 3 sessions and worked on about a dozen songs. I'm doing rhythm guitar and most of the singing. The hope is that we will be ready to gig in a few months and get out there and play to some people. This will be a new experience for me. I was with a band before, but we never got past rehearsals. I'm a little nervous, but I at least have some experience of performing in front of people from the pub sessions.

I'm using my Gordon Smith GS2 guitar and Roland Cube 80x amplifier. I'm considering getting some effects to give me more sound options. The Zoom G3X is very appealing with a low price and lots of sounds. I like the 'stompbox' layout that lets you tweak each effect easily. It may also be useful for recording. I have a few analogue pedals (Boss distortion, DOD compressor and a boost), but I think I need more options. The Cube has basic chorus, phaser etc that I have used when playing at home, but lack control for live use. The G3X also has a nice looper that can synchronise to the built-in drum machine. I ought to try one out some time. Part of me would like a nice set of pedals, but that could get expensive and it might take some time to establish what I need. A multi-effects unit may not sound quite the same, but it will let me experiment and I may later decide to add discrete pedals to the set-up as I see some others have done.

Saturday, 17 November 2012


I've been aware of KXStudio for some time. The main (only?) developer, falktx, hangs out on the Linux Musicians forum and is always quick to respond to queries. He's put together the latest audio applications in a form than can be installed on top of various Linux distributions, including Arch and Ubuntu. He's also developed various applications that help to tie it all together and make life easier.

I actually installed KXStudio some time ago when it was released as a stand-alone distribution based on Ubuntu. I played with this for a while, but it didn't seem quite ready back then. I was hearing about lots of new developments recently and wanted to give it another try.

One route was to install Ubuntu Studio first I tried this multiple times, but eventually realised that my old PC just cannot boot from a USB drive of over 2GB, and the ISO was just over that. So I used the 'Net-Boot ISO' method that starts with a tiny image and installs the rest over the internet. That worked fine. I'm installing it as a secondary boot on my only PC as I need to keep the existing system working for use by the rest of the family. This is a slight inconvenience as I have to re-boot to do recording, which takes away some of the spontaneity.

I'm using the XFCE version as a change from my usual KDE and also hope this will improve performance. I'm also using the default theme, which is a little dark for my tastes. I may change that as I find it hard to see some window controls.

One difference from most distributions is that KXStudio generally runs JACK all the time and routes normal system audio through it. Cadence is used rather than QjackCtl to configure JACK, but the options are similar. I still have to find optimal settings, but I was getting low latency and just the occasional xrun.

The main application I've played with so far is Guitarix. This emulates various types of guitar amplifiers and effects. The options are a bit bewildering. There are lots of valve/tube types to select from. I can't say how close it gets to real amplifiers, but it sounds very good to me. There's some good effects too. I particularly like the reverb. I can see me using this a lot for future projects. There's Rakarrak too, but Guitarix looks like it might be better to get a basic guitar tone.

I've also had a play with Ardour version 3. This has lots of new features to explore. The input/output connection matrix is neat and I like the overall view of the track that helps to see where you are. I have a project that needs some MIDI, so I need to check out that aspect.

Anyway, here's the first this I recorded on KXStudio, using Guitarix. I'll report more when I've had more chance to play.

Update: Good write-up of how some of this stuff works from the Linux Musicians forum.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Cloudy with chance of sound

I recently passed 3000 plays on SoundCloud, which seems impressive to me considering I'm just messing about with music and upload whatever experiments I produce. Actually I've had a lot more plays, but they were on some tracks I did with my old band and you lose the plays for any tracks you later remove.

I accept that many of those 'plays' could just be some playing a few seconds and moving on. I suspect that having covers of some well known songs would cause me to appear in some searches. The wonder and frustration of music is that you can only find out what it is like by actually listening, in real time.

SoundCloud has been just what I wanted from a site to show off your music. I found it when I wanted to share the band tracks. Other sites had too many restrictions. I know MySpace does some of the same things, but I never joined that. The look of many of the pages there was enough to put me off.

I don't anticipate making money from music any time soon, so will probably stick with the free account, even though I could get more stats if I paid, and I like stats :)

I've also heard a lot of cool music there from friends and other bands I knew about or have discovered.

I plan to carry on playing, recording and sharing my music. Who knows, I may actually produce some good, original music one day, and I hope that my production skills will improve.

Monday, 15 October 2012

I still haven't found what I'm looking for

I was going to write an article about the state of Linux audio as far as hardware support is concerned, but not finding the time just now. There has been some involved discussion about the state of interface support and documenting hardware support on Linux Musicians. There's lots of uncertainty about what hardware works and to what extent. I researched this a while back and found it confusing. I went for my M-Audio Delta 66 as it is very well supported and does what I need, despite being about ten years old. I've been considering my next PC build and will either have to make sure it has good support for old PCI cards (seems some chipsets do not) or look for an alternative interface. I have looked into some of the developer mailing lists to see if hardware support is improving, but they are mostly too technical for me. The main area of interest seems to be USB 2.0 as that should handle the needs of most small studios. Apparently some interfaces do conform to some standards in order to be usable with iPad, but it's not clear how well they work with Linux.

Luigi Verona has written a nice blog post on the state of software. This has stimulated a big thread on the Linux Audio Users mailing list. I don't subscribe to that, but I try to check on the archive to see what is happening.

The latest version of the FFADO Firewire driver added support for lots of devices, but it seems that Firewire is losing out these days. Their usage statistics are interesting to get some idea of the size of the userbase. There seem to be a few thousand active users. It seems like that could be viable for commercial support if some manufacturer would work with them to improve the support, but is probably still small compared to other platforms.

I still haven't managed to get KXStudio installed. When I got around to trying in the last week I found I didn't have a flash drive big enough for Ubuntu Studio. I've not ordered one and hope to try again soon, probably just before 12.10 is released. I need to get something up and running for the next Six String Bliss album project. I have a track in mind that will stretch me musically and technically.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Mapping musicians

I like maps. They used to be fairly crap on-line until Google came along and showed everyone how it should be done. Not only that, but they made it easy for people to build apps on top of the map. Years ago there was a site called Frappr that let any group of people put pins on a map to show where they all were. This is useful for any on-line community to make it easier for people to meet up in the flesh. That site is long gone.

Recently I found Musomap that does something similar, but it aimed at musicians who want to find local people to collaborate with. It's still fairly small, with just over 1000 members. That means many areas are still sparsely populated. The site features messaging and chat facilities. I used the latter to chat to the site creator 'Kahne'. He's eager to talk to people about how they want the site to develop and I have said I am happy to help where I can. I've already persuaded a few people to join, including several members of the Six String Bliss community.

A site with similar aims is Fandalism, but that doesn't do maps. That really went viral and now has around 500,000 users. I assume that people are getting something out of it, but I haven't so far. It would be great to see Musomap take off in a similar way, but I don't know what it will take and if it can cope with that many people. Scaling is tricky and can cause a flood of updates that will overwhelm people unless they can filter it.

I'm still on various other 'muso wanted' sites as well. I spoke to someone a while back about a blues band, but nothing has come of it yet. I'm keeping my options open. My little pub acoustic jam session has started up again after a summer break. There were four of us there this week, including a bassist. I also have another Six String Bliss album project to work on. I need to start planning that.

Oh, and just last night I did a quick recording of a cool Paul Gilbert guitar lesson. It's a very rough recording, but it captures what I was doing. I didn't quite get the riff right, but that makes it my own thing!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A Collaborative DAW?

In these days of high speed internet many tasks that previously needed people to get together in one place can be done on-line. That saves time and money, but also makes possible collaborations that would have been impossible before. Since I joined the Six String Bliss guitar community I've participated in a couple of collaborative songs where participants were distributed all over the world and had mostly never actually met each other. These were done by sharing backing tracks using Dropbox that we would load into our local DAW and then send back an export of our own tracks for a nominated producer to mix.

I did the vocals on this with 8 or 9 others doing various tracks.

I was thinking that the tools could make this a smoother process. I'd be surprised if something similar to what I'm thinking of doesn't already exist. I'm thinking that the 'producer' would do the backing tracks as before, but could select an option to share a mix with other participants. That would then automatically appear in their DAW project as a track without manual export and import. They would send their tracks back by the same method. It would be something like a shared Dropbox folder where you all get any files placed there, but would need some tweaks so you just get the final version when it is ready. The files involved will be fairly large, but shouldn't take more than minutes to transfer in general.

A further level would be the ability for others to monitor the tracking as it happened so they can offer suggestions. Actually playing together 'live' over the internet has issues due to the inherent latency (see below), but we're all merrily doing near real-time audio these days via Skype and other services in very reasonable quality.

Ohm Studio offers most of these features, but is not available on Linux. It looks like they anticipated my thoughts. The MIDI should work well as the files are pretty small. It looks like a smooth experience.

It would be cool to see this sort of thing implemented within Ardour.

Another type of collaboration is the jam session. As mentioned above it's hard to get low latency due to the nature of the internet and the limits of the speed of light. Ninjam has been around for years and gets around this by using looped backing and not sharing a player's audio until the loop ends. I've tried it briefly by running Reaper on Wine, but didn't fully get the hang of it.

The standalone Ninjam client hasn't  been updated in a few years, but I just found a project called Wahjam that has taken the code and seems to be in active development.

I also came across ejamming that seems to have found ways around the latency issue. It's also not on Linux,but looks like clever stuff.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Prepare to jump to lightspeed

Disclaimer: I know nothing at all about how to program audio interfaces, but I seem to have been reading a bit about this topic in the last couple of days.

It started with this interesting piece on how development of Firewire drivers is going. I've not used any of these, but I did consider it as an option when I was buying an interface. I've heard that it matters what Firewire chipset you have. I just have what is on the motherboard and I only know that it works with my DV camera. This article has been discussed on the Linux Audio Users mailing list. I don't subscribe due to lack of time, but I check the archives now and again to see what is going on. Dave Phillips said it was on the list after I mentioned the article on Linux Musicians. It features people from the Ffado project who have tried to implement drivers for lots of interfaces, but have not had much help from some of the manufacturers. We have to accept that Linux audio is a very small market and they won't pay developers to work on it.

I also saw this piece on USB3. It's not Linux specific, but it seems there can be issues plugging USB2 devices into USB3 ports. I don't even have anything for USB3 yet. I'm not sure it's really needed for most audio work as USB2 seems to have ample bandwidth to handle many channels. Firewire was big on Apple machines, but even they are dropping it. Someone in the article actually says 'Firewire is dead'.

I also found this blog by a Canonical audio developer. It gives some insight into the sort of things they work on. I mainly work on Oracle database applications, which seem simple in comparison. When you are dealing with audio even the slightest timing glitch will be noticeable. I'd perhaps like to learn a bit about how DSP programming works some time.

On the home front, my next target is to install Ubuntu Studio plus KXStudio. I'll be dual booting with the existing Kubuntu installation as the family all use that. I want to try the newer audio applications, including those to store JACK configurations so I can easily start it up with the applications I want to use and just start recording. I especially want to try Guitarix. I keep hearing about the cool amplifier simulators on other platforms and want some of that action. I hope to get something set up over the next week or so.

Sunday, 17 June 2012


I've been pondering the music I've listened to over the years that may have influenced me, although I'm still not sure what music I want to make. Anyway, here's a rundown of the 'tracks of my years' (or something like that).

I didn't really get into music until my mid teens. Before that I heard whatever was on the radio (generally Radio 2 at home) plus some assorted records that my parents owned. So I got a fair bit of exposure to a lot of 'easy listening' music. I watched Top of the Pops, so I knew what was out there.

At some point I got into ELO. I had their Time album, but also listened a lot to Out of the Blue. I still love that stuff. I think I liked the big orchestral sound. I then picked up on Queen and later Genesis and Pink Floyd. Queen were the first major band I saw live (Works tour at the NEC). I made a lot of use of the record library (and the local blank cassette dealer!).

Although I had a guitar when I was about 10 I was only playing classical for the first few years. At university (well, Coventry Poly) I bought a cheap Strat copy and a little amp. I seemed to play a lot of blues then as I was listening to lots of Clapton from his whole career. I was also getting lots of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and ZZ Top. I wasn't so much into the more 'metal' acts like Iron Maiden, but I listened to whatever I could get my hands on, including the old Friday Rock Show with Tommy Vance.

I discovered Steve Vai via his work on the David Lee Roth albums and he blew my mind. He still does, but I've not kept up with his more recent albums. That led to Joe Satriani, who I do like, but don't find as much fun as Vai. I'd read about all sorts of guitarists in the magazines, but you wouldn't generally hear them on the radio and we didn't have Youtube back then, so I didn't always get to hear them.

More recently I've got into a range of music. I have a real thing for Björk. She doesn't use guitars generally, but her music and her voice really move me. I've seen her live twice and both gigs were amazing. I also got into bands like Eels, Queens of the Stone Age, Radiohead, Muse and King Crimson.

Lesser known artists I've also got into include Camille, Porcupine Tree and Frost*. I listen to a fair bit of classical music, but don't consider myself an expert on it. Composers I really enjoy include JS Bach, Stravinsky and Phillip Glass.

In the last few years the internet has become my main way of finding new music. Whilst looking for bass guitar tutorials I discovered there was such a thing as solo bass music by  Steve Lawson and Jeff Schmidt. Steve is exploring various interesting ways of marketing his music, including giving it away. I've been to a few of his gigs, which were magical, and met some interesting people there. A guitarist works in similar ways is Matt Stevens. I really want to get to one of his gigs some time.

I've been to lots of gigs over the years from tiny pubs to Wembley Stadium. Both ends of the spectrum can be good, but I'm preferring the smaller scale events these days. A great instance of that was the gig I went to last week featuring Static Plan, Dorje and The Drills at the Purple Turtle in Camden. It's a tiny club that was packed with guitarist as Rob Chapman of Dorje runs a guitar forum and Phil X of The Drills is a legend due to his videos for Fretted Americana. The Drills were the real stars and played a storming set. One of the best sets I've seen. You can get a flavour from this video shot there:

I came away with a couple of great, but very short albums

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why use Linux?

Some may wonder why I even bother using Linux when it's probably less easy than the alternatives. Part of the reason is cost. I can try out lots of different free software for nothing, but still contribute something to the projects I really like. There's also the other dimension of free (that may get lost in English as we use the same word for different concepts). This is free as in speech. After my Amiga days I used Windows 98 and 2000, but got frustrated by their limitations. I don't want the operating system to be stopping me from doing things and that's the way Microsoft and Apple were going. The developers behind Linux are not restricted by what they can get away with selling and can concentrate on solving the issues that frustrate them. I know some people in the media industry don't like that sort of anarchy, but they need to concentrate on finding other ways to make money from their so-called 'product'. I'm reading Cory Doctorow's Content at the moment and he has a lot to say on this.

Personally, I am not into getting everything for free as I can afford to buy the music and films I want. I'll try to do this in ways that get the most money to the artist, e.g. via Bandcamp.

I also like the interesting stuff that people are doing with Linux, such as the JACK Audio Connection Kit. I'm sure there are similar concepts on other platforms, but I've not used them.

What I would like to do is to install Ubuntu Studio on a spare partition and then add the KXStudio add-ons that include all sorts of cool stuff. As the guys on the Penguin Producer podcast said, FalkTX, the guy behind KXStudio, is some sort of programming machine and I want to be able to play with those tools. I'm not sure I can optimise my main Kubuntu system for audio and still have it usable by the rest of the family, so I will have to dual-boot for recording. I'd rather not as that adds an extra barrier, but it seems the best way, given that I'm not buying another PC just now.

I haven't done much recording since the Six String Bliss project. That has had some nice reviews and some very interesting comparisons to other artists who I don't really consider to be influences. I think it's just what I sound like and I'd rather sound like me than someone else. I think my next couple of projects will be some cover versions to practice my recording skills. I really need to look more at the available effects.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Blissful Floating

I've been a member of the Six String Bliss community for a few years since I discovered the podcast. It's small compared to some other guitar sites, but very friendly. I've met several of them and regularly chat with others. One of the fun features is the production of an album twice a year. A topic is chosen and people can submit songs either individually or in collaboration with others. I've been on a few of these now. One was a collaboration with several others on a Slade song, but the others have been solo efforts. Previously I have not done full song recordings with multiple parts, so these have been good opportunities to learn about the process.

Previously I've used a MIDI file I downloaded for the backing, but this time I wanted to do it all myself. The topic was 'Songs released in 1987' and I chose She Drifted Away by Hüsker Dü from the Warehouse: Songs and Stories album. It seemed fairly simple and achievable. Then I found myself thrown by the 3/4 time signature. I wrote a bit about how I worked around this previously. Once I had the drums I did the main guitar part with my Roland Cube 80x running direct and recorded in Ardour. I managed to accidentally slightly change the feel of the intro riff, but I don't worry about exactly copying the original. I think I did the first vocal take next, but slipped up slightly. I was monitoring on headphones, but didn't realise I'd left the PC speakers on! You can hear it on the track, but I didn't think it worth re-doing just then. Then I added bass. I'm no bass player, but I've got a Peavey Milestone bass from a friend which I ran that through my Zoom H4 to use one of the bass amplifier models. I need to experiment more with those as I wasn't hearing much difference between them.

I added a couple more vocal tracks to give a bigger sound on the choruses. It wasn't intended, but the result has a bit of a sea shanty feel to it. I also doubled the main guitar part and added some high parts where the intro riff is repeated using a different model with more gain on the Cube.

I asked my friend JMan to have a listen and offer his opinion on what effects I should add to make the mix work. He had a few hints about use of reverb and compression. The bass in particular needed something to make it more consistent. The compressor settings I ended up with gave it a grittier feel that I liked.

Trying to mix was not helped by having blocked ears at the time. That's what prevented me re-doing vocals and the deadline was looming, so I sent it off as it was.

The album was launched in a special show. It's fun to hear the details of each song and the opinions of the hosts Clint and Alicia. Alicia has said before that she's a fan of my singing (!) and was disappointed that I did an instrumental last time. I think she actually said that this track was her favourite on the album. Comparisons were made to They Might Be Giants and Steve Howe, which I'll take as compliments. As always I am stunned by the quality of tracks that others put out. Mine sounds distinctly amateur by comparison, but I'm really happy to be accepted as part of this community. I'm looking forward to the next project.

You can download the album for free. Reviews are posted on the forum.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Don't Tase Me!

I thought I'd write a bit more about the Zoom H4, which does look like something you would use to subdue an assailant with an electric shock. I've yet to have anyone ask me if it's a weapon, but haven't tried taking through an airport in hand luggage.

I bought the H4 when I was trying to expand my options for recording beyond what I could plug into the PC soundcard aux input. I didn't own any decent microphones, so couldn't do any vocal or acoustic recording. I also wanted to be able to record in other locations such as the African drumming group I used go to and some of the concerts my kids play at.

There are some other similar devices out there, but I went for the H4 as you could record either with the built-in in microphones or plug in a guitar and have some effects to use. I never owned a 4-track cassette multi-track, but this is a modern equivalent. You can do most of the same things, including bouncing tracks to get more effective tracks, but I have only done basic stuff in that area. I have done lots of field recordings and the quality has been generally good from that, although you have to make sure you set the correct levels. Loud bands require low gain. I've only once recorded at a professional gig, but that was a small venue where I had the permission of the band. I've not tried sneaking it into any big gigs, but it's quite bulky and tricky to hide.

As an audio interface it is plug and play with Linux. You get prompted whether it should act as a card reader or an interface. It's only USB 1.1, and so limited on transfer speed. As with most such devices you only get 16 bit stereo at either 44.1 or 48kHz. In standalone mode it will do up to 24 bit at 96kHz, but I've not used that mode. I didn't initially realise that you can also play sound from the PC through it, but that means you can do all monitoring from the headphones on the H4.

There are a variety of effects built in as found on other Zoom devices. These are perfectly adequate for practice and demos. One of the downsides of the H4 is that the controls are quite fiddly. You have a joystick on the front and a small wheel on the side that do all navigation. Just tweaking a setting on an effect requires lots of operations. Entering names for tracks and effects is done in the same way. You can apply some modeling to the microphones that is supposed to simulate some classic microphones. This is something else I haven't tried, but ought to run some tests.

For many application you will want to mount the H4 on some sort of stand. It comes with a cover that you strap on with velcro and has a standard camera tripod threaded hole. I've used this with a GorillaPod in various locations. When recording at home a normal microphone stand is more versatile, but the only adaptor I've seen to convert between the two types of thread is by Roland and relatively expensive. I eventually worked around this using a very cheap (£1) tabletop tripod and some tape. I plan to get an 'anglepoise' type stand that I can clamp to the desk. I should be able to attach to that in the same way.

Since I got my new audio interface I've continued to use the H4 as my microphones. You have to hit the record button to get audio (in paused mode) via the line out. I tried running it with USB power, but got some extra noise that way, so am using batteries (rechargeable of course).

I'd recommend the H4 if you have similar needs to me. As there are newer models that do more you can probably get one for a good price now.

I created a page for the H4 on the Linux Musicians wiki. Perhaps others will add useful information there.

Saturday, 28 April 2012


I had a bit of time alone at home, so took the opportunity to turn up the guitar amplifier for a change. Generally I play acoustically to keep the family happy.I bought this blues course a while back and keep returning to it to learn a bit more. It's been a bit of a challenge, but has pushed my playing in some new directions. I did a quick recording using my Zoom H4. The audio is not great as the amp wasn't even pointing the right way and the backing track was playing through the PC speakers. I messed up a few licks and then just did my own thing for a bit.

Bluesing around by steevc

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Going Loopy

A few years back I discovered the music of Steve Lawson and Matt Stevens. These (mostly) solo artists make extensive use of loops in their performances to build layers of sound into complex arrangements. Steve uses the Looperlative and Matt has a Line 6 pedal. I have a looper in my Roland Cube amplifier, but have only done some simple stuff with it, such as this jam

I get some musical ideas based around loops that I would like to play with. These are generally for guitar or vocals. I want to be able to record a series of looping segments and then play something over the top, recording the results into Ardour. I suspect there may be some Linux tools that would allow this. I'm aware of Freewheeling and SooperLooper, but have not tried them as yet. I think they are aimed at live performance, but I would hope they could work in a studio too. Dave Phillips has written a pretty good summary of the options. I would hope that I could use my nanoKontrol to turn loops on/off and adjust levels.

I shall try to have a play soon, but would be interested to hear from anyone with experience of these tools.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Cantina band

Although I've been playing guitar for over thirty years I have very little experience of playing live. It just hasn't happened. As I don't live in a city there may not be the opportunities you might get in a city to meet up with local musicians. Thankfully the internet makes finding them a bit easier than it was in the past.

I want to collaborate with other musicians as I'm not really inspired enough to be a solo artist. So I signed up to some 'muso wanted' sites including:

I've had some success with these. A couple of years back I got an audition with a classic rock covers band that I passed. I rehearsed with them for a while, but after we eventually did a private gig for a few friends it ground to a halt as a couple of people wanted to take a break. I've also met up with a local bassist and done a couple of jams. Just today I got contacted again by someone who wants to do some jam sessions soon. I hope something will happen with that, but it may be a couple of weeks while he finds enough people and a venue. I have had a couple of others, but they were either too far away or required too much commitment in rehearsals and gigs. They may also be beyond my abilities. I'm reasonable at rhythm, but not much good at lead.

After the band broke up I was looking into other possibilities and discovered an acoustic pub session via Lemonrock (a gig listings and general musicians services site). It's at a pub in the middle of nowhere, but I eventually went, totally unsure of what it would involve. It's a fairly informal session where people take it in turns to play songs, mostly to each other although there are generally a few regulars there. I really enjoyed it and it encouraged me to do some singing and to actually learn some new songs to play. It got me playing some new styles such as Irish hornpipes. I even took some singing lessons to see if I could improve things and learned a few things about what was possible for me. Some are biased towards folk music, but it seems you can get away with other styles. I did all sorts of pop and rock songs. I haven't been regularly to that session in a while, but there are several I could get to. Details of some of the local sessions can be found on The Mudcat Cafe notice board.

As I had got to know a few musicians in our small town via Facebook and other means I decided to start a session here. I approached a couple of pubs and have got something going at the one just across the road from me. Numbers are still small, but word is spreading and I hope it will grow. It's a great first step beyond playing at home if you can't face a big audience and just want to meet some supportive musicians. I can recommend it.

My session is at The White Horse in Arlesey, Bedfordshire. Details can be found on Google+ and Facebook.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

I've made a lot of special modifications myself

In a previous post I mentioned my  Ikea Jerker desk. This was purchase back in 2006 to replace this mess. Note the tatty chair that I retrieved from a skip.

Not long after that Ikea saw fit to discontinue the Jerker. This was a real pain as you couldn't get the extra shelves any more either. Luckily I was able to find one on ebay that I could scavenge from and sell on. So I ended up with 3 full width shelves, 3 swiveling shelves and some CD and magazine holders. It's a bit bigger than some computer desks, but can hold much more than most. There was an earlier version that could accommodate a drawer unit.

The replacement was the Fredrik, a pale imitation of the classic with less capacity and flexibility.

Mine is on fixed feet, but I'm sure you could fix wheels to make it easier to move. You can fit the main desk at any level and so could have it as a standing desk. I could use another swivel shelf. Ultimately I plan to put some monitor speakers on the side shelves, but just have my little Yamaha speakers for now.

The Jerker has inspired numerous blog posts and even a dedicated 'shrine' (note many links broken). How many pieces of utility furniture have inspired such devotion?

I have no plans to part with my Jerker unless I suddenly come into enough money to have a totally custom desk built for the studio. Even then I would find somewhere to use it.

I've still to find my ideal desk chair. I have one from Ikea, but it's not the most comfortable. I'd like a much better one, but those seem to be serious money. Jeff Atwood over at Coding Horror writes some good stuff on the topic. I should show it to the boss at work to persuade them to get us better chairs. As I spend most of my life sitting it should be worth investing in something good.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

You seek Yoda

The world of Linux audio can be intimidating for the  beginner. You won't find it mentioned much in the big audio magazines. You can go to the sites for the various applications, but, as with many fields, you need some more general guides to show you what is possible. These are some of the sites that have helped me along the way.

Linux Musicians is a friendly forum where I've found lots of help and tried to provide it when I can too. They have a pretty good wiki where I have been contributing to a hardware matrix of compatible gear. There are other sites that try to list what works on Linux, but I found them limited when trying to work out how well supported an item is and how useful it is for non-trivial recording. They also provide a planet that gives an aggregated feed from various relevant blogs. I'm honoured that this blog has just been added. I recommend subscribing to get a good overview of what is going on.

I don't remember where I heard about it, but when the Open Source Musician podcast kicked off I was listening from the start. There has been some great stuff on there, although it's been appearing less frequently recently. They run some 'tunestorm' projects where listeners contribute tracks on a given theme. I really should try to take part in one of those.

One of the longest running writers on the topic of Linux audio is Dave Phillips who has written loads of great articles for Linux Journal. Unfortunately the latest ones will only be available to subscribers, but there is a great archive there that I recommend checking out.

Some Linux purists will prefer to use a mailing list such as Linux Audio Users. I do look in the archives now and again to see what is happening, but I don't have the time to keep up with a busy mailing list these days.

The FLOSS Manuals book on Ardour is worth a read. I ought to read it again and make some notes on things that could make my life easier. They have other manuals on other audio topics that I need to look at.

There are some IRC channels that may be good places to seek help, but I've not used them so much. Another good place is Youtube where you can find demonstrations of various applications. Feel free to add links in the comments.

Special mention must go to my friend Malcolm who provided a lot of inspiration to try recording on Linux. It was a session he ran at his studio for members of the local LUG that made me realise what was possible.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Learning the ways of the Force

How long can I sustain the Star Wars title theme?

I still consider myself to be a beginner in the art of recording. I've recorded a few songs over the last couple of years, but most have been very simple. Many have just been a single 'live take' with very little in the way of post-processing. Things start getting interesting when you introduce multiple tracks, virtual instruments and effects.

Easy was a first attempt at a full song for one of the Six String Bliss albums. Most of the tracks (drums, bass, keyboard) were provided by a MIDI file that was found on-line. I muted some of the parts to add ukulele, vocals and an acoustic guitar solo. The recording was done in Ardour, with the MIDI played by Rosegarden via Fluidsynth. I wasn't totally happy with the results. I think that some careful use of reverb might have improved it. Maybe I should revisit it.

Some time after that I decided to try and do a full track from scratch. I used a couple of hornpipes I'd been playing at the pub session and 'rocked them up'. I created a basic drum track in Hydrogen and added a couple of guitar tracks. It doesn't sound too bad, but there's a slight sync issue. The JACK settings may have given a bit too much latency. I was just using the on-board sound for that.

My latest effort is for another Six String Bliss album. It's due in a week or so, but I've been putting it off for months. I had concerns about getting the drum feel right. I eventually tried doing it via my MIDI keyboard. That didn't quite work, but it allowed me to see where the beats needed to be. Like most audio apps Hydrogen allows for endless tweaking, but I'm mostly using default settings. I'm using the Big Mono drum kit I found here. I attempted bass on an aborted track a while back, but have had another go on this. Played it through a modelled amplifier on the H4 and used a bit of software compression to even the levels a bit. The track is coming together nicely, but has a different feel to the original. I'm putting several layers of vocals on and intend to add more guitars for a fuller sound. All will be revealed once the album is officially released.

I'm learning more tricks with Ardour for editing etc. I need to check out more tutorials. You just don't realise what it is capable of until I see someone else do it. I've been caught out by a couple of silly mistakes on the recording session, like leaving the speakers on when recording vocals with headphones on. I pretty much got away with that.

I've had a request for my JACK settings. Obviously these are appropriate to my M-Audio Delta 66 card and will not work so well for a USB or other interface.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Look sir, droids

I'll start with my hardware. Even though I've been playing around with computers forever (BBC Micro, several Amigas and assorted Windows PCs) I never seemed to get around to doing any audio recording. At some point I dreamed of a 4 track cassette and read loads of articles/reviews, but never got the gear. In recent years the prices have come down so that it's hard to resist getting something.

Bit dusty in there
The hub of my studio is my PC. This isn't really anything special. I built it about five years ago based around an AMD 64 X2 4600+. Originally it had 2GB and recently went up to 4GB. The original hard drive died and was replaced by a 500GB SATA. The Antec case+PSU may be better than some, but the fans still give off some noticeable noise. I replaced the original AMD CPU cooler with a better one, but that didn't make a huge difference. I'd like it quieter, but it's generally not audible on my acoustic recordings.

A while back I changed from the old 19" CRT to a 23" LCD that gives me a lot more screen space and then acquired a little 15" that's handy as a second screen.

After some experiments with the on-board sound card my first proper recording hardware was a Zoom H4 handheld recorder. This seemed ideal for my needs. You can use it as a standalone stereo or 4-track recorder, or as a USB interface. I've used it in all these ways. I've done a fair few field recordings at concerts my kids played at and at band practices. The built in microphones are pretty good. I've also plugged in my guitar and used the effects, but these are very fiddly to set up using the limited (and tiny) controls. I've heard some impressive results done just on an H4, but I found that a bit frustrating. David from the Six String Bliss forum did a great Thomas Dolby cover using H4 effects. I did a Metallica cover with my acoustic and the H4 4-track. Feeling Good is a simple live recording with the H4 on a tripod above me. I've done other tracks using it as an interface and as my microphone as I don't have anything else decent to use. You can plug microphones in, but I haven't had a need to buy any just yet.

One small issue with the H4 is that it is not easily attached to a standard microphone stand as it just has an adaptor for a camera tripod. I eventually worked out that I could strap a mini tripod onto a microphone stand to make it easier to position.

Omni I/O box
Eventually I decided I needed a better audio interface that would be more versatile and offer better quality. Options on Linux are more limited than other platforms. Many of the newer USB 2.0 and Firewire interfaces are not supported. The older USB 1.1 interfaces generally work, but the limited bandwidth restricts the number of channels and quality (bit depth and sample rate). I did a lot of research into this and recorded some of it on the Linux Musicians wiki for the benefit of others. One range that are well supported are the M-Audio Delta PCI cards. These have been around for ages, but audio standards have not changed much in that time. 24 bit at 96kHz should be ample for my needs. I was able to get a Delta 66 card and the Omni I/O box on ebay for a good price. The Omni is great as it mostly removes the need for a mixer. I can plug in a guitar or microphone (if I had one) and twiddle physical knobs to set the levels. It also has 2 headphone outputs. There are lots of sockets for effects loops etc that I have yet to use, but I just have the H4 line out running into 2 of the channels for the microphones. I can now record up to 4 channels at once. I could even do six if I had something to plug into the SP/DIF input. This is all supported as standard on Linux and you just need to install the Envy24 mixer to set all the levels. I'm still learning how to use that.

I have a few other bits including a MIDI interface to hook up my old Casio keyboard and a Korg nanoKontrol that gives me some knobs and faders to control applications.

Like many musicians I suffer from GAS. It's easy to think that you could make better music with more gear, but I've realised that people produce amazing results with less than I have. I would be better off working on the techniques of recording. That said, there are a few items I want to get some time soon. I'm listening on either my old Yamaha computer speakers, which are better than some, or on headphones. When you are mixing audio you need to hear the full range. Eventually I hope to get some reasonable monitors. I also fancy the Behringer FCB1010 foot controller, but that's lower priority. I have a wish list.

Mention must be made of the Ikea Jerker desk. It's a really versatile platform for all this gear. It's just a shame they don't sell it any more as I could consider adding even more shelves to mine.
The whole set-up

Monday, 26 March 2012

A New Hope

I'm trying this blog as an experiment to see if it gets me posting more often than I have lately. I've used a few platforms previously. My site ran PostNuke for a while, but it was OTT for my needs. I then went to the other extreme of Pyblosxom that uses simple text files instead of a database. I like it, but composing a post takes me a while. I could install something like WordPress or use a hosted version, but as I seem to be putting all my eggs in the Google basket I thought I would give Blogger a go.

I think this blog will mostly be about my attempts to make music. Other stuff is likely to go on Facebook and/or Google+ as it should reach more of the intended audience on those sites.

For those who don't know me I'm a (very) amateur guitarist who dabbles with various styles. In recent years I've started getting into recording using my Linux PC. I know Mac and Windows offer lots of exciting options for recording, but I just happen to prefer the Linux philosophy. I believe that all the tools I really need are available on Linux. Most are free (as in beer), but that doesn't mean you can't make donations to the projects behind them.

I plan to write some posts about the gear and software I use plus details of how I approach each project.

Meanwhile, you can hear some of my recordings on SoundCloud.