Computer based recording studio on the cheap

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Open source software is coming into it's own, and there is enough out there now to make a pretty nice set up...

Alright, we have all heard the buzz about the "Open Source Software" movement. "Open Source Software" (OSS) is the name given to the collection of software made by generous developers that is just given away. Not only is the software given away, but so is the code, so, if you know how to program, and you see an improvement that can be made in an application, just grab the source, add the improvement, and, if the OSS mantra holds up, you donate it back to the author to add in for everybody else to use too. The theory in this practice is that if everybody adds improvements and donates back, everybody ends up with a better piece of software for no money, just the time and energy of the programmer donating.

The most notable OSS applications have been reserved for mostly business uses, things like the Linux operating system which is reserved mostly for server use (though is popular in some circles as a desktop OS as well), OpenOffice, which is a free OSS that goes head-to-head with Microsoft's own Office suite of applications, The Gimp, which is an image manipulation application like Adobe Photoshop, and a large collection of database and web technologies such as the PHP scripting language, MySQL database and the Apache web server. Though there are MANY others as well.

There have, for a long time, been freeware plugins, virtual instruments and small audio utilities, but until recently there really haven't been any OSS applications that could compete for a decent market share for the host application spaces, such as tracking, sequencing, sampling and mastering applications. That is now starting to change.

Operating System

OK, let's start from the beginning, the operating system. Everybody say it with me...L-I-N-U-X...the most widely known and used freeware operating system around. Some say poised to knock out Microsoft...while I see that as a laughable pipe-dream, it is free, stable and secure none the less. All distributions of Linux are based around the same subsystem of Unix. The biggest different between different distributions for desktop use is the user interface and bundled applications.


For multi-track recording, programs such as Ardour and Kristal Audio Engine (if you are going with Windows rather than Linux) have come along and been developed to a degree where for many poor and starving home recording artists it can be a viable option to use in their studios and many are already.

Both of these trackers have some very good press going around about them, they are very useful and very feature filled. However, one thing you will find about most any open source developed application is that there are often holes in the feature list. With these two apps that hole is MIDI. They can both record audio, they can both work with many, many different hardware sound devices and they can both edit audio, mix and process as well. But, MIDI sequencing they do not support. Though, both have it planned in the future.

That said, if you are happy enough with the audio editing and mixing features, and really, really like the price, there are options to help you get around the MIDI issue. It can be remedied by finding yourself and open source MIDI sequencer, sequencing your work in it, exporting it as audio files, then importing those files into your tracking application.

MIDI Sequencers

Just as there are free, open source tracking applications, you can bet there are free MIDI sequencing applications as well.

Rosegarden is a pretty cool, a freely available, Linux based MIDI sequencer. Plus, it does audio recording as well. It comes bundled with synths and supports the LADSPA plugin standard for Linux that will allow Rosegarden to use any of the many free plugins available around the internet within the application.

Add to that the notation features of Rosegarden and the MIDI editing and you have yourself a pretty powerful MIDI sequencer for free.


For free mastering tools, you need only know one word..."Audacity". Audacity is a freely usable, open source audio editing, mastering application. It is an incredibly powerful tool that runs on many platforms, comes bundled with many effects, and can use third party VST effects as well, of which there are also many freely available online). It can import and export many file formats, including the ever-popular mp3 format with the LAME encoder.

It has a full arsenal of editing features including cut/copy/paste, unlimited undo/redo, fades in and out, and more. It can have up to 16 tracks for any given project (which, with clever use could actually work as a tracking app as well, just not as conveniently as some others mentioned above) and even has a draw tool to redraw sample points, which is a very powerful tool to have if you have ever needed one, they are priceless.

Audacity also comes bundled with some decent noise reduction tools to help you restore old, nasty recording to a higher sound quality. it records and edits 16, 24 or 32 bit recordings at up to a 96kHz sample rate and can resample and dither to other to other sample rates and formats.

Audacity is a very usable, very powerful application for your editing and mastering needs.

There you have it

Well, there ya go, a completely free computer-based DAW. Well, not completely, you still have to buy the hardware, people aren't giving that away yet, and likely never will, but, it'll still save you many hundreds/thousands of dollars in software and still be able to do virtually the same thing.

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User-submitted comments

Dec 06, 2005 05:52 am
The Audio Distros
Hi there, I've been using OSS for audio and general porpouses for a while. I've been using DeMudi 1.4 (stands for Debian Multimedia Distribution) from AGNULA (A GNU Linux Audio project)( a while on, and I think it's lovely. I still missing some thnigs from my Windows soft, but the lack of price and the possibility to modify it to meet your needs, makes Open Software the best option for the home recordist/musician, even if you never worked on Linux, or if you don't have programming skills. In this distro you'll find all the programs mentioned above as well as some synthesis software (alsa modula synth) and the wonderful Hydrogen rythmbox, and hundreds of common aplications. In the same AGNULA site, you'd fin as well the Red Hat variant of this distro (ReHMudi. But there are few more distros available for music porposes over there. Now I'm starting to use the Musix distro ( It is based on the Knoppix Linux distro, and it's perfect for the begginer. But if you want a professional support, for few bucks you can get the StudioToGo! distro, that is a live distro: that means that is bootable from a CD, so no installation is needed. For the 64bits emerging platforms (AMD and Intel, not Mac), there's an experimental distro called 64 Studio (, based on Debian's pure 64 port. Please notice that not all the hardware over there will work on linux. You should check the ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture) project site, to check if you're soundcard is supported. And even if your soundcard works under linux, some of the features may not work (tipically the S/PDIFs. There's nothing more to say, except that if you want to save hundreds of dollars in software, simply use linux. You could invest all the money saved in mics, cables, stands,.... :)

To check the soundcards working on linux go to


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