A Linux Recording Studio: Part 2
Previously, I wrote about my "Linux recording studio" which is driven by free software. In this entry, about both the hardware and software involved, I'll describe how my setup has changed since then and why.
→ The Hardware
Last time around, I talked about my hardware after the software. This time, I'm discussing the hardware I use first because they have influenced my software choices.
I split my recording between two machines: One a Lenovo IdeaPad Y510P which is used for vocal recordings, the other a Thinkpad T61 which is used for everything else (primarily: instrument recordings). 1
Why two machines, instead of doing everything with one? This is mostly an implementation detail of my home and my gear layout. I've got all of my musical equipment, including two mixers and the aforementioned Thinkpad, in a designated music space in my home.
The IdeaPad is in my home office, along with my mic and an audio interface. The mic sits on a short stand that's perfect for my standing desk, so this space sort of became my de facto vocal recording area. There's nothing stopping me from doing my vocal recording in the same area as the rest of my gear, well except for a tall enough mic stand! For now, this is how my setup exists. 2
→ Vocal Recording
Last time, I was recording on hand-me-down hardware. It worked fine for someone who didn't really know what they were doing, but now that I've got some experience under my belt it was time to get some better hardware. To that end, I've got a new audio interface and a new condenser mic.
→ Audio Interface
I'm currently using the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 audio interface. This was a recommendation from a friend, and simply adding this device into the stack vastly cleaned up my audio recordings. Previously, I had a mixer going directly into my laptop via the audio in and there was a lot of noise on anything I recorded. Now, with the Scarlett in place my audio is much cleaner without the need for post production.
This device connects to my IdeaPad via USB, nothing really special here. I plug my mic into the Scarlett via a standard XLR cable. When I connect it to my laptop, I get a notification from Pulseaudio about it and I can control it via the
The main downside of this device is that it cannot (as of this writing) work with JACK audio. This limits my choice of recording sofware, but more on that later on.
→ Vocal Mic
My former mic (a Samson R21S) was a hand-me-down gift and was also likely heavily used before I received it. Even with a decent audio interface, I'd still get a lot of noise on my audio tracks when using it.
With the Lewitt, not only is there no noise whatsoever, but it also picks up noise from passing traffic in front of my house! While working on the OpenMW 0.47.0 Release Announcement video, I had to redo a few tracks because of accidental background noise. This mic sounds extremely good and so far I'm very happy with it.
→ Instrument Recording
As mentioned before: my setup for recording instruments is quite different in many ways, mostly for space reasons.
The mixer I wrote about last time is still in service but now I use it for a PA system (mainly for playing music while I work out or jam). I've replaced it with two Behringer Xenyx mixers; the 802 (I did write about this one last time) and the 1002B.
I originally purchased the 802 to replace the PMP2000 I had been using and so that I could connect my mic to my IdeaPad for vocal recordings. Since then I've gotten the Scarlett as I described above, and so the 802 has been repurposed as my "guitar mixer".
To supplement the 802, and because I needed a mixer with at least five XLR inputs for drum mics, I got the 1002B. Both this and the 802 connect directly to my Thinkpad's audio input.
My primary guitar amp is an Orange Micro Dark connected to a Hughes & Kettner cabinet with four twelve-inch Celestion speakers. I've also got a Revv G3 overdrive pedal in between the Orange and my guitar to provide a bit of a metal crunch to my sound. The Orange alone does in fact provide quite a thick, beautiful sound of its own though. I'll swap between just the Orange and the Orange with the Revv depending on what I'm playing. 3 4
I could write quite a bit about the subleties of mic positioning and the configuration of settings on my amp head and pedal, but that will have to be left for another blog entry. I've also got another, smaller guitar amp that I won't go into details about here, as well as some other hardware I don't use too frequently.
We have four electric guitars in our house, for now I'll just mention my main guitar that I keep in standard E tuning: an Ibanez S621QM.
For recording I'm using the Shure Unidyne III that I mentioned above. The positioning of the mic relative to the speakers is something I'm still working out, but I generally point it to the inner center of the speaker cone and like that sound a lot.
→ Drum Kit
I purchased the kit and the various componenets separately over the years and it's eventually become what I play on now. There's definitely a lot of room for improvement, someday I'd like to do a blog entry just on the drum kit and related setup options.
On the recording side, I've got the Shure PGA DrumKit5 mic set going into the aforementioned 1002B mixer. More experienced audio engineers than I have mentioned that drummers generally want an overhead mic, and while I could feasibly repurpose one of my tom mics for this I have yet to try it. Even still, I think the sound I get is pretty okay. 9
Down the line I'd like to get some rack mounts for my toms, an overhead mic, maybe some new cymbals. The kit is good but it could be better. I should probably do another blog entry about that someday.
One relatively major disadvantage of this setup is that each of my drum mics are merged into the same track in my recording software. As I understand it, this is a limitation of my mixer and I'd require some more complex (and naturally, more expensive) gear that may or may not work at all on Linux (more research into this needed would be needed).
→ The Software
That wraps up my hardware/equipment tour, but you may now be wondering: how does he make it all come together (without any proprietary software)?
This is the one aspect of my setup that hasn't changed a bit since I last wrote about it: I still use OBS for capturing footage from my computer. For me, OBS is boring software in that it works as I expect it to and I never have to touch it.
When I need to capture video footage of something on my computer, I run OBS and hit record (more or less). Although hardware encoding is available for my AMD Navi 10 GPU, for most games at least the CPU-based renderer produces a better-quality output with less of a performance hit. If I had an Nvidia GPU, I'd use hardware encoding for sure as I recall it had great performance (and produced quality output).
This is the part of the software side of my setup that's changed the most: that is the requirent of JACK by Ardour.
→ Why Ardour?
It's worth asking: why use Ardour when you know Audacity and it works very well?
For me personally, Ardour was recommended to me by a friend that also happens to be a Linux-using musician. His reasons for going with Ardour at the time were different than mine, but having previously heard about Ardour from yet another Linux-using friend that's a musician, I decided to give it a try. 10
→ Working with JACK
The idea of interacting with another audio system on Linux may sound awful. Thankfully, with Ardour and JACK it doesn't have to be so bad. For my workflows, QjackCtl does everything I need as far as starting or stopping JACK goes, but even that's not needed since Ardour offers to manage JACK on startup if it isn't detected.
One could also invoke
jackd manually. I wouldn't recommend it unless you're looking for a time sink; QjackCtl and other similar software do all that's generally needed.
Even though Ardour is firmly a part of my instrument recording stack, Audacity remains in the mix because as mentioned before my audio interface is not compatible with JACK.
Not only that, but my workflow for OpenMW release videos remains centered on Audacity. This is primarily due to the fact that Audacity is more accessible than Ardour on windows, but also its feature scope is perfect for projects like this. And, it's what Atahualpa used before I came around anyways.
In this case, I don't experience much friction from the dissonance of two recording user-interfaces, but it would be nice if the Scarlett 2i2 played nice with JACK. In any case, Audacity remains a great piece of software in my stack.
Last time around, I wrote about using Kdenlive for video editing. I sort of foreshadowed the move to Blender because even at the time I knew it was great software, and now here I am a happy Blender user!
The latest Blender version as of this writing (2.93.0) has a very nice UX for video editing, whereas at the time of my previous writing it seemed overwhelming and complex to me. Now, when you fire up Blender you can select a video editing template and are then presented with a UI that should feel familiar to those with experience, and be easy enough to "get" for those trying to learn.
My primary motivation for moving to Blender from Kdenlive was the fact that my OpenMW video editing partner was already using it, and kindly offered to go over it with me. I still think Kdenlive is great software and would probably recommend it to someone looking for a video editor.
As of this writing, I've just began using Pipewire on all machines in my household. The project is still relatively new and hasn't realized all of its goals, but one apparent goal is that Pipewire would serve as a JACK replacement. So far, I have yet to do any serious recording with Pipewire, so I don't have much else to say about it.
I think it's probably too early to start messing around with Pipewire + Ardour (if it's even possible), but it's something interesting to keep an eye out for in the future.
In the end, I can't say I'd try to convince someone who's used to using Apple or Windows-based stuff to even look at any of this. But my experience has been really good, and I think I've got a productive environment and workflow that produces audio that sounds good.
I don't think the Linux audio experience is even close to a drop-in for folks currently using the big proprietary stuff, but if you want to go the free software route it is thankfully not one that's doomed to a subpar experience.
In the future, I'm looking to expand my setup in ways that aren't obviously Linux-friendly (such as the hardware I mentioned before, for enabling multi-track drum recording). Whether or not this environment holds up as my requirements grow remains to be seen, but I'm also not opposed to a bit of hacking to get things going. Only time will tell, until then: jam on!
→ Footnotes And References
2 As of this writing I am renting and don't have the freedom to do many things I'd like to. In my theoretical dream home, I've got a large enough space for all of my audio recording to exist in one room and I can design the room specifically around that purpose. For now, though, my basement studio will have to do.
3 I purchased the H&K cab so long ago that not only can I not recall the precise model, but any identifying tags have been stripped away from its body. So for now, it's just a bit of a mystery cab that sounds amazing even after twenty years.
4 When I go from the Orange + Revv to just the Orange and vice-versa, some config changes are needed on both pieces of hardware; when using just the Orange I might add more gain or volume, whereas when I'm running it through the Revv I'll back off on that. I could do an entire blog entry on tweaking this for the right sound, and probably will at some point.
5 It's rather hard to find information about this device, this writeup on Shure's website was the best I could find. Friends of mine that know about mics have told me that this is the precursor to the SM57, which is an industry standard today.
6 Paul: you probably won't ever read this but.. I love you man! The bass amp is pretty nifty too :)
7 The link actually points to the SR300E; Ibanez doesn't seem to have any specific information about "SRX 300" on their website but that's what is printed on the back of my headstock.
8 I could write quite a bit on cymbals but for now I'm holding off. It's sort of off-topic for this entry, and I'm also still learning a lot about them.
9 This was a wedding gift from my amazing mother-in-law who has worked for Shure for going on five decades. She also gifted me the Unidyne III mic that I mentioned before. Thanks so much, I love you Max!