The Linux-Based Recording Studio

With a Linux-based hard disk recorder, you can create your own project studio on a budget. Now the only thing between you and that great album you want to make is practice, man, practice.

I grew up using keyboards. Cold-war grey TRS-80s, green-screened Apple IIs, IBM clones, 8088s, 286s, PC-DOS, then Windows (missing the command line) and finally UNIX command lines. Later, the recording bug bit me and took me away from the command line and into studios. I still was a PC guy, but there never was a reason to bring a computer into the studio. Affordable hard drives and memory were too small for audio, sound cards were junk and processors were too slow.

Then, Linux came along. Sure, I had to wait for hard drives to get bigger and chip speeds to increase, but even after that, proprietary software still was way out of reach. So I upgraded my studio, learning a lot about Linux along the way. Here, I share a bit of what I did in my studio and explain how you might start a Linux-based studio. General information about Linux audio and recording is vast, so I refer you to further resources where appropriate (see the on-line Resources section).

How to Set Up a Linux Studio

Like anything, what you need to buy for your studio and how you set it up is determined by a few key decisions, especially when it comes to studio hardware. The hardware is easy as 3.1415. Anything that runs Linux can run Linux audio applications, but bear the following in mind:

  • Audio uses 5MB per track minute at CD quality (44.1KHz, 16 bit), meaning a three-minute song recorded in stereo takes up 30MB on the hard drive. Multitracking uses more than two tracks. A typical project of 24 tracks that is three-minutes long would use 360MB, not including captured audio being used.

  • Slight upgrades to things like RAM size and CD-ROM speed are nice if you have older equipment. A CD writer is your friend, too, as you might have guessed.

  • Some bad video cards introduce noise into the sound card.

  • Drivers in Linux are sometimes hard to come by, so read and ask around before buying hardware, especially sound cards.

Acquiring software is almost as easy. Latency needs to be low, so the kernel needs a bit of a tweak in the form of a low-latency patch. The hard drive needs to be tuned correctly too. This subject is more than I can cover here, but check out the Resources on the Web for other readings. Also, keep a dual-boot system with Microsoft Windows for troubleshooting. You may need to test hardware on another operating system to narrow a problem to a Linux driver, or you may have tasks, such as upgrading firmware, that need to be done on a Windows box.

Now that we've got the box, it's time to decide what studio hardware we need. I like to think of the signal flow for a given project, and that tells me what I need. Figure 1 shows the basic concept of where a signal goes in a recording project. Also take a look at Figures 2 and 3; 2 is a wiring scheme for a simple studio and 3 shows my studio's scheme. I begin with the lynchpin, which actually is a couple of rungs down on the signal chain.

Figure 1. Basic Recording Signal Flow for a Simple Project

Figure 2. A Simple One-Way Signal Flow in the Studio

Figure 3. The Author's Studio

Analog-to-Digital Conversion

The key to digital recording is analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters (ADCs and DACs). In other words, you need to get sound in to and out of your computer. In both directions, you have some decisions to make.

ADC must be done in order to record. This happens in the sound card, in a digital mixer or in a standalone ADC.

Getting sound out (DAC) consists of two parts, listening (or monitoring—more on that below) and mixing. When mixing, you might never convert back to analog. You might mix digitally inside or outside the computer, saving a mix as a .wav file or transferring digitally to a digital recorder. The thing to understand here is that at some point before you can hear it, a DAC must happen. If you've done everything digitally, make a CD and play it in your car, that's where the DAC has happened.



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Anonymous's picture

Thats the funniest looking penguin I've ever seen


Jack's picture

I have just installed ubuntu studio on computer i built for the purpose for under $700.
I use it for recording for radio. It installed quickly, easily and flawlessly works...
Ubuntu studio has kept me awake for two days now...
I love it!
Community radio stations everywhere need to use it!

McCaw. Get a life.

Anonymous's picture

McCaw. Get a life.


Anonymous's picture

Well just a little addition to this, for those who don't know yet:

These days there is Ubuntustudio, which is a complete audio/video studio operating system, comes preinstalled with jack, ardour and more...

Installer is more simple then installing windows :)

We need an update to this article

SuperPenguin's picture

With all the advances we've seen with low latency kernels, as well as extended support to cards like the m-audio family, I would like to motion for a follow up on this article with current software packages and systems. Nevertheless though, this article has truly helped me achieve a great sounding soundbooth in my place and some clean results. For the record I use Hydrogen for drums, Audacity for recording and mastering, m-audio 2496 audiophile and 64studio for the distro.

Thank You for writting this article

Joe Galvan's picture

I found this article to be very helpful. I am not a professional musician, but I dabble in beat production and MC'ing. In my regular life I am a Systems Engineer/Developer who focuses on Open Source. I really like having an alternative to Pro Tools!


Joe Galvan

Re: The Linux-Based Recording Studio

Anonymous's picture

(notice the article date .. the date)

Re: The Linux-Based Recording Studio

Anonymous's picture

great article, but isn't it weird it's fallen into a timewarp and is
presently available before it was authored?