Making Music on Ubuntu Linux

May 9, 2008

Ubuntu is the Linux distro ‘for human beings’. This means it’s easy to install, maintain and use by ‘real people’ for everyday tasks. It’s available free and supported on an open source license by a global community of developers (and commercially supported by Canonical Ubuntu’s founders). In practice it’s a joy to use – lightweight, responsive with an uncluttered GUI, it genuinely works ‘out of the box’ on even the most obscure hardware (almost), and, importantly, doesn’t further line the pockets of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. I’ve been using Ubuntu for about a year with the aim of eventually liberating myself from the tyranny of Windows and OSX – yet however good the OS is, it’s only as useful as the software that runs on it. I would like to see a free, open-source professional set of music tools running on a freeopen-source professional platform; The latest version of Ubuntu (8.04 Long Term Support) has just been released so it’s a good time to review the feasibility of music making with open source only software. Most of the applications detailed here are bundled with Ubuntu Studio a ‘multimedia’ dreivative of Ubuntu – or can be installed separately via Synaptic Package Manager.

Audio Recording and Mastering:

Ardour Digital Audio Workstation (2.4.1)
Too many open source applications look and feel like they were conceived enthusiastically as a university student projects that ran out of steam somewhere along the line – this is particularly the case with open source audio software where obscure functionality supersedes application design best practice – clearly Linux is still the domain of technicians rather than aesthetes.Thankfully Ardour breaks this mold being robustly constructed with a functional, rather dour, user interface. The application is a serious and professional DAW duplicating many of the features of expensive proprietary systems such as Pro-Tools. Ardour supports the standard unix LADSPA plugin format and runs of the back of the JACK linux audio connection system – a requirement for installation. (Ardour does also reluctantly work with VST plugins though not recommended).

Ardour Screenshot

is the open source ‘audio Swiss army knife’ i.e. it is a no-frills tool that does simple audio editing well . I find it works well as a default rapid audio editor and manipulator, again using LADSPA plugins. One complaint is that it has no proper ‘loop’ function. Another is the rather grim (but functional) interface design.

Audacity Screenshot

Audio Synthesis

There are plenty of software synthesisers and attempted Reason clones for the Linux platform but to be honest i haven’t looked at them because, one, they are so f-ugly and two, i don’t use synthesisers at all these days. For the record here are a few: ALSA Modular Synth, BEAST/BSE (actually, BEAST does look interesting…), Spiral Synth and many others here:

Super Collider
We are big fans of Super Collider and have been using since around 2000 when it was a mac only project – most of the BQ ‘On Uncertainty’ album was authored using SuperCollider. Supercollider is a “real time audio synthesis programming language” which means you can build your own synthesisers, granular manipulation application, real time sound processors and all sorts of previously unimagined audio stuff if you are prepared to learn what has been described as ‘the worlds most difficult programming language’. Obviously this isn’t for your mainstream ‘Reason’ users and even hardened developers (which i am not) struggle to keep up with ongoing development. For this reason (and the fact that it was prone to crashing – see the youtube video of our live performance in napoli– though probably more to do with our programming than the language itself) i’ve more or less dropped it in favour of the much more inefficient and inflexible but FAR more easier to use ‘Reaktor‘ (from Native Instruments) on Windows. For this reason i haven’t completely moved over to Linux. Reaktor can run under Wine in Ubuntu without XP but that seems to be missing the point a bit, so maybe it’s time to bite the bullet and get back into SuperCollider…

Code example:

// play a mixture of pink noise and an 800 Hz sine tone
{, 0, 0.1) + }.play; 

// modulate the sine frequency and the noise amplitude with another sine
// whose frequency depends on the horizontal cursor position
        var x =, 100)); * x + 800, 0, 0.1)
        + * x + 0.1)

// list iteration: create a collection of indices multiplied by their values
[1, 2, 5, 10, -3].collect { |item, i| item * i }

// factorial function
f = { |x| if(x == 0) { 1 } { f.(x-1) * x } }

Pure Data
Basically an open source fork of the MAX MSP project. Never used MAX much because, imho, SuperCollider does the job better and it seems that everything made in MAX sounds like MAX – a kind of granular glitchy quality beloved of ‘sound artists’. Despite this, pure Data is a robust audio synthesis/manipulation environment with a much less steep learning curve than SuperCollider.

Pure Data Screenshot

MIDI and Audio Sequencing


Rosegarden is a ‘fully featured’ MIDI sequencer and Audio recorder which has been in development for around fourteen years – current version 1.7 was released on May 1 2008. Rosegarden uses a standard Cubase/Logic style scrolling bar editor or for real musicians, a score notation interface. The application is a practical, no-frills (compared to Logic etc) audio and MIDI sequencer and does the composition job very well. My only complaint, again, is that the interface design is very 1990s -a bit bland and dated.

Rosegarden screenshot

7 Responses to “Making Music on Ubuntu Linux”

  1. I. Khider said

    I use Ubuntu Studio on my desktop and Ubuntu on laptop. Currently the latest version of Audacity “1.3.X” is in beta form and is far too glitchy to work. I am not alone in encountering this problem. That is why I dowgraded to the “stable version 1.2”. In a Windows-like turn, my Ubuntu operating system strongly objected and strongly suggested I use the latest beta when I downgraded. I will upgrade once team Audacity gets their excrement together. Another problem, media playback software, like Amarok is too buggy to work on Ubuntu. As these operating systems are cutting edge (Hardy Heron version 8.10 just came out), it takes weeks for developers to get things running. One work around is a media playback program called “NCMPC” which runs off of command line terminal. I adore it as it is very powerful yet takes very little CPU. Perhaps in a year when I get savvier I will run all applications on a command line operating system.

    I also purchased one year technical support with Canonical which goes for less than a copy of Vista. Worth very penny as it is incredibly stressful to have a computer that doesn’t work due to software glitches. One cannot be a passive user with linux.

    I still dual boot into Windows XP for the desk top to get things like ITunes and e-music as they are not available for linux just yet it seems.

  2. crab said

    Hi Ibrahim,
    got to agree about Audacity, 1.3 beta is ‘glitchy’ on windows and ubuntu – a re-install seemed to fix it for me. Never had any trouble with amarok – command line seems a BIT extreme – maybe your MP3 collection has hit some kind of file limit! either that, or it doesn’t like muslimgauze (can’t argue with that). The general point is, open source relies on the community to resolve these types of issues whereas if Itunes (if you must) screws up on XP you have limited resources or alternatives to resolve the problem…

  3. Bill said

    Did they remove a lot of packages? When I used the older version of Ubuntu, seemed like there was a lot more in add/remove.

    However, I am going to attempt to use your blog and other sources to put something together because I am far too poor to afford hefty Windows based apps or hardware.


  4. crab said

    Hi Bill,
    there are options to view third party apps in Synaptic Package Manager though all of the well developed software; Ardour, Rosegarden etc is in the main depository. Let us know how you get on! (who CAN afford to buy windows software and hardware? not me…)

  5. I. Khider said

    Actually, Ubuntu and most open source is incredibly un-fucking-reliable–simple rudimentary programs like word processors, stand-by mode, shutting off, booting on simply do not work. Not just one computer BUT ON ANY FUCKING COMPUTER. I cannot believe such a platform is offered for use when the basics do not work.

  6. crab said

    Hi Ibrahim,
    a BIT harsh perhaps? I think it’s fair to say that the most common experience with Ubuntu is of a stable and reliable environment…of course there will be exceptions (like yourself), but i suspect these will be fewer, percentage wise, than the daily experience of frustrations with Windows/MacOS.

    (“stand-by mode, shutting off, booting” issues tend to be hardware specific i.e. inbuilt hardware functionality designed for machines that were intended to only ever run windows – usually very easy to rectify; one doesn’t usually come across this when using XP/Vista because microsoft dominate the OS market and have hardware designed specifically to support their OS, likewise Apple design their own hardware to run MacOSX)



  7. angel said

    i am the newest of new to linux through ubuntu,,, i am hooked,,, have not goten off the lappy for 5days now,,, very different and a bit complicated for me for now but i am making huge advances,, and fact is , figuring stuff out is half the fun,,,,

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