Little Boxes: Audio Production Hardware At Studio Dave

Linux sound software has been the foundation of my music studio since the late 1990s, but as we all know, that software won't produce so much as a peep without the right hardware. Setting up a stable Linux system for audio production can be problematic enough, and the wrong decision about your hardware can render your otherwise powerful system mute and tuneless. This article briefly describes some of the audio production hardware I've acquired and employed here at Studio Dave during the last ten years. I hope that my readers find this information helpful when making their own decisions about their audio hardware purchases.

Some caveats: the gear described here is oriented toward music production, not consumer audio requirements. However, Studio Dave is hardly what I would call a professional studio, so please understand that when I use the term "professional", I'm referring to the equipment, not my studio's physical plant. Also, bear in mind that features common to consumer-grade devices might not be found on equipment designed for use in audio production, so if you're looking for the best soundcard for playing MP3s and DVD surround-sound audio, these devices are not likely to be your best solutions. I'll get into the reasons later, but now, let's see what hardware devices I use in my studio and how I'm using them.


Audio and MIDI Devices

Studio Dave includes two desktop machines dedicated to audio/video production and a notebook for miscellaneous tasks. The desktop boxes are equipped with M-Audio Delta 66 digital I/O systems and Creative Labs SoundBlaster soundcards. The M-Audio systems are slightly different from one another. One box uses a plain-vanilla Delta 66 with only the internal card and an external break-out box that provides jacks for balanced or unbalanced 1/4" plugs (Figure 1). The other machine includes the same internal card, but the break-out box has been replaced by the M-Audio Omni I/O box (Figure 2). This unit furnishes the same audio connectivity as the regular break-out box, adding amenities, such as a mic/line pre-amp, two headphone jacks, and a variety of controls for audio levels and effects sends.

Figure 1. The M-Audio Delta 66 System

Figure 2. The Omni I/O Box

The plain-vanilla system requires a pre-amp in order to achieve strong and clear input levels, so I've added an M-Audio AudioBuddy (Figure 3) pre-amp to the system to boost my microphone and electric guitar signals. The pre-amp raises the output signal from a typical dynamic microphone or electric guitar to a level better suited to digital audio recording. Some consumer-grade soundcards include a mic gain channel, but inherent noise is still a significant problem with such devices.

Figure 3. The AudioBuddy

Kernel support for the M-Audio interfaces comes from the ALSA snd-ice1712 module. Unlike consumer-grade devices, such as my SoundBlasters, the Delta cards do not include an integral mixer. The Delta supports four channels of analog audio I/O and a stereo S/PDIF digital I/O connection. It has no synthesizer, no MIDI or game ports, and no on-board mixer. This design is not a problem for a DAW system centered on JACK and Ardour, but some normal desktop audio applications fail to recognize a device without an integral mixer. As I said, this hardware is not designed for normal desktop audio applications.

ALSA supplies the Envy24Control mixer for systems based on the ice1712 chipset (Figure 4). This utility organizes the features of the M-Audio hardware and presents them in an easy-to-understood GUI. The alsamixer program can be employed instead, but it lacks the logical organization and usability of the Envy24Control software.

Figure 4. Envy24Control

The SoundBlaster cards, a Live Value and a PCI128, are installed for their MIDI hardware. Thanks to ALSA's snd-emu10k1-synth driver, I can employ the Live's on-board synthesizer, but software such as QSynth and SoundCrab have eliminated the need for it. More important, the snd-mpu401-uart driver enables access to the MIDI ports on the SoundBlasters. A special cable attaches to the game port to supply two MIDI ports, one input and one output, for connection to external MIDI devices.

My current notebook claims the ubiquitous (notorious?) Intel HDA as its integrated audio chipset. Unlike my desktop machines, I've kept the chipset active, but it's hardly a useful device for serious recording. That's okay, because I don't plan to use the notebook for serious work, but I do want audio I/O superior to the HDA chip. I made some inquiries on the Linux audio users mail-list and decided to buy an Edirol UA25, a USB audio/MIDI interface (Figure 5). I still need to lower its latency when working with JACK, but its output sound quality is much better than the on-board chipset. The device also offers variable sample rates, digital I/O ports, MIDI connectivity, a 1/4" headphone jack and a built-in peak limiter. Linux support for the UA25 comes from the snd-usb-audio module and nothing else (that is, no firmware). The unit draws its power from the USB line; no batteries are needed, and it can be hot-plugged at will.

Figure 5. The Edirol UA25 and the MidiMan MidiSport 2x2

I also have a couple items left over from the days of my now-defunct HP Omnibook. That machine was too slow to do much useful audio work on its own power, so I expanded its capabilities with a CoreSound digital audio input card and a MidiMan MidiSport 2x2 (Figure 5). The CoreSound device is driven by the ALSA snd-pdaudiocf module, and the MidiSport requires the same snd-usb-audio module as the UA25. Alas, the CoreSound card requires a PCMCIA slot that's not available on my new notebook, so that device has been retired. The MidiSport is still perfectly usable.

The MidiSport also requires firmware and a firmware loader. The necessary packages are available for all major distributions and most package managers will provide complete installation of the software, but further action may be required. For example, the Ubuntu 8.10 system on my notebook provides the midisport-firmware package. When I selected it for installation, the package manager also installed the fxload utility, but I still had to edit /etc/fstab to set up the usbfs driver for the device. On reboot, I had to unplug and reconnect the unit to activate the firmware. After reconnection, the I/O lights flash for a moment, the USB light remains on, and at that point, the device appears in the MIDI devices listed by QJackCtl. I searched Google for a way to activate the unit completely on boot-up, found an excellent HOWTO on one of the Ubuntu forums, followed its directions (and added a few of my own), and now the unit is functional by the time startup reaches the login dialog. It takes some work, but I no longer need to hot-plug the device to get it started.


The Tranzporter

My most recent audio extender is a Frontier Tranzport (Figure 6), a wireless controller for the Ardour DAW. The Tranzport provides remote control of Ardour's record and playback transport controls, freeing me from having to trek back and forth between the computer and my recording seat. Support for the device formerly depended on libusb, but recent development has produced a more stable kernel driver. Developer Mike Taht has revised his earlier work in Ardour to support this new driver, and I'm pleased to report that Mike's labors have resulted in perfect operation of the Tranzport. A few features are still missing from his latest code, but those items are likely to be supported by the time this article is published.

Figure 6. The Frontier Tranzport at Work with Ardour2


Racked Up

I have a standing rack for synthesizers and other external gear, but over time, my need for hardware synths has dwindled to naught. I have kept two pieces there: a Yamaha DMP11 mixer and a Yamaha MJC8 MIDI patch bay (Figure 7). The DMP11 is my main system mixer; the MJC8 is connected to every other MIDI connector in the studio. Thus, I can use any machine as a MIDI control device for the other machines, a rather nice arrangement. Yes, I know they're not really little boxes, but they are central pieces in my system, and they are connected to some (most) of the boxes described in this article.

Figure 7. The Yamaha DMP11 and Yamaha MJC8


The Wish List

So, what hardware is coming soon to Studio Dave? Well, thanks to Dan Sawyer's excellent review of the Behringer BCF2000 (subscribers only) I'm convinced that I must have one. I refer readers to Dan's article for the full scoop on this neat piece. In brief, the BCF2000 is an automatable mixer that can be controlled from a DAW, such as Ardour or QTractor. I already have a good mixer, but the BCF has motorized faders, and what could be sexier than flying faders?

I'd also like to buy a Firewire audio interface. Thanks to the FFADO Project, now I can choose from a variety of Firewire devices, and I want to try one. I welcome suggestions from my readers, so if you'd like to steer me toward something or warn me off, feel free to make your recommendations in the Comments section.

______________________

Similis sum folio de quo ludunt venti.

Comments

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Edriol UA-4FX standalone riddle

Brian Clem's picture

Hi Dave. Great article. I have a lot of the same gear but my Edriol is the UA-4FX. I want to use it as an analog, stand-alone mixer but it NEEDS usb power. That is fine. So would my M_Audio Fast_Track_Pro but the maudio can use USB adapter power from an assortment of usb power converters... But the Edriol series is a different animal. It needs something from a computer bios to allow the hardware to activate. How would one simulate a snd-usb-audio signal from client end of a usb computer signal? It can use USB 1.1 or 2.0 and still be of high quality. There has to be a way. I am not sure if it involves the DATA + and - part of the USB cable. Would you have any suggestions on where to search for info? ** I have contacted Cakewalk by Roland and they said it needs a computer. But I still believe it can be done without it somehow.

Brian Clem

Similar to my own

Rensa's picture

Hi Dave,

I found your blog through the Ubuntu forum as I am considering trying out the linux stuff for my acoustic song writing production studio. You have a similar set up to my own with the delta 66. I have aquired a Tascam PCI-822 witch works so much better with my Tascam TMD-100 digital mixing board that provides 8 track mix downs and a great PC interface through Tdif.

Both the 822 and TMD-100 are obsolete now and no support remains for them. I havn't found another board that will do what this one does for my specific needs at a resonable price. 8 track mixdowns to ADAT are better than the sterio mixing through Spdif. Take the ADAT mix back to the PC and do a two track master an you have an above average home demo production, even better if you know the science behind compressions and use good mics and pre amps.

My concerns about GNU/Linux is that my sound card won't work and the DAW software I am so used to using (Cakewalk Sonar) won't work. If I stick with Windows and unpgrade to Vista I will have to purchase a higher end sound card, the soundesign Mixtreme, which by the way works with Windows, Mac, and Linux and is one of the most stable cards on the market. Cost is about $500-600. My brother has two of them in our 32 track studio, and one he has been using since 1998! The Soundesign software gives Pro-tools a run for their money too.

I will be reading more brother, thanks for the good info!

Tranzport... perfect only for small values of perfect

Mike Taht's picture

Thanks for adopting the tranzport!

Several comments:

The tranzport kernel driver was also written by me and it is now in the 2.6.29 kernel as part of the staging (unstable) drivers.

The kernel tranzport driver for ardour is NOT part of ardour at present (it still has a few problems). It is available separately in a git tree available via

git clone git://git.teklibre.com/home/d/src/git/frontier

And can be patched into ardour by applying the patch therein and symlinking the frontier directory in an ardour build into the git checkout.

There is also a very preliminary and not very useful ardour driver for the Alphatrack in there as well.

I appreciate your confidence in me re "should be done when this article is published" - but it has been a very long development process (2+ years now) and I'm still not at the stage where I consider the code "done" enough to be a 1.0 release.

The tranzport code is in a darn useful state at this point however, I'm very dependent on it for mixing-in-hammock use, especially.

Studio Dave includes two

rowery's picture

Studio Dave includes two desktop machines dedicated to audio/video production and a notebook for miscellaneous tasks. The desktop boxes are equipped with M-Audio Delta 66 digital I/O systems and Creative Labs SoundBlaster soundcards. The M-Audio systems are slightly different from one another. One box uses a plain-vanilla Delta 66 with only the internal card and an external break-out box that provides jacks for balanced or unbalanced 1/4" plugs (Figure 1).
- Thanks for the info

Image sizes?

DBenson's picture

Nice post, I enjoyed it but you should really scale/size the images that link to the larger versions. Everyone that loads the page is transferring 21.7mb in images! Even on a fast connection, that is still too much... Then there is the added bandwidth costs...

Still, great article... Thanks!

Presonus fp10

Mitch S's picture

I've been recording an album with a presonus fp10 and ardour, and I've been reasonably happy with it. Issues that I've experienced have been:

  • FFADO vs. new kernel firewire stack (juju)
    Last I tried, they still didn't play together well, although it's supposed to be close. I reverted back to the old stack (1394) and it's been working fine. I tried using freebob but got lots of xruns. With ffado and the old fw stack I've been using 2 periods of 1024 samples at 96khz and only experience very occasional xruns.
  • Occasionally, JACK and the FP10 lose their connection/sync. No idea why.
  • no internal mixer
    Presonus has some newer hardware with some features that would make things a bit more convenient, but so far the fp10 has done what I needed it to do.
  • JACK connection weirdness
    Sometimes my JACK connection setup gets lost, and once or twice (without me touching them) the connections have gotten re-jiggered in a really strange way (with loops). Now I know what JACK feedback sounds like. Not sure if this is in JACK, ardour, FFADO, something else, or an interaction between things.

awesome stuff!

Anonymous's picture

Thanks Dave, this is seriously excellent.

Cool discussion

David Lane's picture

Thanks for the overview. I, too, have been looking at the Behringer since Dan reviewed it to go with my UA-101. I looked at the 25 but needed more inputs. I have even fewer demands on my studio - mostly for training material - so I don't need a lot of gear but I am finding my Windows system cutting out at key points in mixing so I am going to have to step up and get a modern system to run a Linux studio on. Of course, that will leave me with extra capital to re-engineer a couple of other devices.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

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