My Experience Recording Vocals and MIDI Keys with Ardour 3 Beta

I spent the weekend getting all my packages up-to-date and trying to familiarize myself with Ardour 3 beta 5*. I then spent the last three days recording MIDI keyboard parts and vocals for my upcoming EP.

I got a lot of my information from a video tutorial I found on Ardour’s website. It was made back when Ardour 3 was still in alpha, but I did find it useful as far as getting proper signal flow between various programs using JACK. Upon opening Ardour 3 beta, I did notice that there were quite a few changes to the program since the video was made, but I would still recommend the tutorial, especially if this is your first time recording using MIDI. Unfortunately, the demonstrator is using a USB connection for his MIDI keyboard (guess he did not have a MIDI cable?) but I was able to translate that into what I would need to do to use a MIDI connection with a little thought.

I found that constantly opening a new session and forcing myself to establish those connections again and again was the best way to solidify the process. Sure, I was slow at first, but now I just open all my programs and connect them with out thinking. In the end I used Ardour 3, JACK, QjackCtl (a JACK GUI) and Qsampler (a Linux Sampler GUI) to record my keyboard parts and vocals.

I was pleasantly surprised by a few of the changes to the newest version of Ardour. Here are a few of the things that I loved:

  • Having just come from several months of using ProTools 9, then 10, I see that some of my favorite little details from ProTools are now integrated. I love that there is now a “smart tool” that changes your mouse icon into a different tool depending on where you are in the track. It really saves time when you do not have to keep going to the tool bar to change to the select/move object tool or the select/move range tool.
  • If the way QjackCtl is presented is difficult for you to visualize, I really like having the alternate, more graphic interface that is available right in Ardour. Click on the “Window” tab, check the boxes for “Audio Connection Manager” and for “MIDI Connection Manager” and it shows those same JACK connections between hardware and software, but in a different way. In the beginning, I referred to both just to double check that I had everything set up correctly. In the end, I used the QjackCtl interface more, but I like them both.
  • The dialogue window for exporting makes it a no-brainer for those who might not know about sample rates etc. Want to make a CD-ready track? Select the option for CD in the edit window and it automatically sets your parameters to a 44.1kHz, 16bit WAV file. Want to amend that? All the other options are clearly marked and easy to see. You can even add dither at this point. I think it is nice to be able to just click one button and go if you are not trying to do something unusual.
  • One of my favorite little surprises was something so small and yet it is one of the things I was the most excited about. I was trying to edit one of my vocal tracks. I didn’t like how I sang a phrase, so I wanted to replace it with another take. When I went to line up the preferred version in my working track, I placed the new take on top of the old one and it was translucent. It was SO EASY to line up the takes because I could see one wave form through the other. If you are zoomed in, lining them up takes literally a second or two. I love this feature. So simple! So intuitive!

I will be sure to post more of my thoughts as I continue to record additional songs and play more with my MIDI options. I plan to try to program a very simple drum part for one song that will not have a live drummer, and I will mess around with some ambient sounds as well.

*I am currently running Ardour 3.0.0 svn13084 on 64 bit Ubuntu Studio 12.04

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I Present to You: The Ardour 2.8.12 “Box”

As I previously posted, I really wish Ardour 2 came in a box so that I could quickly reference its specs and get an overview of what it can do for me. Well, this “box” – even a virtual one – does not exist, so I made one.

I present to you, the Ardour 2.8.12 “box”:

Recording:

  • In Ardour, you have the choice of recording in 16 bit integer, 24 bit integer, or 32 bit floating point formats.
  • Ardour supports the following native file formats: Broadcast WAVE, WAVE, WAVE64, and CAF.
  • Ardour can import over a dozen libsndfile-supported file formats including, WAV, WAV64, AIFF, CAF, RAW, Ogg, and FLAC.
  • Ardor exports to WAV, WAV64, AIFF, CAF, RAW, Ogg Vorbis, and FLAC.
  • The number of tracks that can be recorded at one time in Ardour is only limited by what your hardware can handle.

Mixing:

  • Ardour utilizes a 32 bit floating point mixer and has bit-for-bit fidelity for 24 bit samples.
  • It has total automation and a large selection of plugins.
  • You can mix as many tracks as your hardware can handle.

DSP (Digital Signal Processing, aka plugins):

  • Mixbus is recommended on Ardour’s homepage (for a fee of $219.) However, for the adventurous, the official Ardour website lists dozens of sites where users can download free plugin packages…though they admit some are better than others.  The official website also lists a few recommended plugins in various categories.
  • The operating system determines which plugins work best:
    • In OS X, you can use AudioUnit, LADSPA and LV2 plugins. AU plugins with Cocoa or Carbon GUIs are both supported. As of Ardour 2.8.5, Ardour provides tempo and meter information to AU plugins.
    • In Linux, as of Ardour 2.5, you can use LADSPA and LV2 plugins. In the current version of Ardour (beginning with version 2.8.3) plugins that use the LV2 external GUI extension get their own custom GUI displayed, rather than the generic one offered by Ardour itself. Some Windows VST plugins work in Linux, though not all will function correctly and they can make Ardour unstable.  It is, after all, software created for a different operating system so you cannot depend on it.

MIDI:

  • Ardour 2 is not a MIDI sequencer (although that function is implemented in Ardour 3, which is currently in beta testing.)
  • For both OS X and Linux, there are free-of-charge tools for making connections between MIDI hardware and “virtual” MIDI ports like the ones that Ardour creates and uses.
    • On OS X, Ardour developers recommend Pete Yandell’s MIDI Patchbay.
    • On Linux, a wide variety of tools are available including QJackctl, aconnect, Patchage, and more.

Audio Interfaces:

  • Ardour is closely integrated with JACK, a computer sound system which is a hub for all of your audio hardware and software. It can even connect to other computers. JACK lets numerous audio programs run simultaneously, and even exchange information, while still operating at a low latency. This functionality is a major advantage of using Ardour.
  • In Linux, JACK uses ALSA to interface with audio hardware (and FFADO for FireWire audio hardware).  In Mac OS X, it uses CoreAudio.

Latency:

  • JACK is designed to operate at a low latency and this can be fine-tuned in the JACK configuration. A new Ardour session will automatically use the current JACK configuration for its settings.
  • Choosing the correct latency setting depends on several factors: your computer hardware, the audio driver you are using, the sample rate you are using, and the amount of audio data being processed.
  • In addition, Ardour offers automatic latency compensation for plugins.

Mastering:

  • Ardour offers three forms of dither: Rectangular, Shaped, and Triangular.
  • In addition to its other features, Ardour can be used in mastering a project because its use of JACK allows you to connect to free open source programs such as JAMin (JACK Audio Mastering interface).

And the Angels Sing (Chapter 4 of Setting Up a Linux-based Recording Studio)

Late this afternoon, my husband and I sat down with the intent to figure out this buzzing issue, and he had an additional computer-nerdy agenda item that was not explained to me beyond “I am trying to fix the problem.”

So I read several articles about the Casey Anthony trial verdict while he worked his programmer angle, accomplished what he intended to do, and we got started on our scientific study. We systematically ran through the variables.

We recorded as it was currently set up in Ardour and Jack (QjackCtl) and there was in fact a buzz.

This evening we adjusted two factors in Jack: the sample rate and the periods/buffer*, and also the gain on my Layla (my digital audio recorder.**) The gain was an afterthought as the levels were rather low in the mixer in Ardour. I took down notes to keep straight what we tried, and it is all a jumble now. That makes no difference because the weirdest thing happened: after we adjusted the gain the first time, we were unable to to replicate the buzz – not even when we set the parameters back to what they were at the start of the night. We tried to get the gain back to where it was when we had buzzing, but it is a dial with no numbers, so it would not/could not be exact. We wonder if there was some quirk about the dial.

No combination of 44000 vs 96000 sample rate, and/or 2 vs 3 periods/buffer could make it buzz again. So we are guessing it was the gain. Or a tricksy gain nob.

What ever the reason, Hallelujah the BUZZ IS GONE!

* We have yet to learn what this periods/buffer thing does. It’s on the to-do list. We decided to adjust it because we saw it mentioned in various problem-solving threads on forums.

** reference my entry called “My New Toy (in 3-5 business days)” to learn more about the Layla.