Mixing It Up with the Behringer BCF2000
Linux and open source are practical matters for me. I couldn't run my business without them. But occasionally, the demands of a job grow way beyond what the tools I'm using can handle.
Take Audacity, for example. As far as sound-effects-editing software goes, it strikes almost an ideal balance between user-friendly and extremely powerful. Snd and ReZound let you do a lot more, and Sweep lets you bring in nondestructive editing and some other nifty things, but all of them sacrifice a certain amount of intelligibility in the process (from the non-engineer's perspective). Now, I am an engineer, at least in the practical sense. I've been editing, recording and mixing audio now for almost a decade, and I do know better than to use Audacity for complicated long-form projects. Knowing better and doing better are two different things, and Audacity is just so darn simple that it's easy to get stuck with it even when you know better than to consider using it for certain kinds of jobs. Like, for example, my current big project: a 13-hour full-cast audio book with ambient sound, original music and complex stereo imaging.
I've long used Ardour for recording and for mixing music, but for the past several years, I've used Audacity mostly to do my mixing and sound FX editing. I must confess, I've actually mixed a number of long-form video projects, several short films and countless long-form podcast episodes in Audacity over the last few years, before the post-production work I was doing got complicated enough that I needed to be able to work with the signals in ways that Audacity simply doesn't let me do. The need to change EQ and reverb parameters over time, do complex stereo imaging and subtle sound-layer shifting all jumped out at me in glaring relief when I launched my recent dramatized podcast novel.
However, shifting to Ardour for mixing (instead of just recording) immediately opened up a whole new wondrous world where my options quickly multiplied to the point of paralysis. A 20-track mix isn't a big deal when you're mixing down mono and you're doing simple, sound separation EQs, but when you're using elements that change over time on each track, the time that goes into mixing a show goes up exponentially with every new element you add. Mixing it all one element at a time with a mouse can be done, but as I found out very quickly, that way madness lies.
In the world of well-monied studios, such things are handled by devices called control surfaces. In the most basic sense, a control surface is a mouse that's shaped like a mixing board. It plugs in to a computer's MIDI port and uses the MIDI command language to control different elements in a given piece of software. Ardour (along with most MIDI programs, like Rosegarden) plays very nicely with control surfaces that are supported by the kernel. Most good control surfaces with motorized faders, like the ones made by Mackie, start selling at around $800 for an eight-track unit. This is well out of the price range for hobbyists, and it's a stretch for small studios like mine. However, there is another surface on the market at $200 that competes very well with the $800 Mackie, and it is completely, gloriously supported by the Linux kernel.
The device is the Behringer BCF2000 (Figure 1), and it has a number of nice little features. It has eight faders, eight pan pots, 16 programmable buttons, an additional bank of four buttons for transport control (play, stop, fast forward and so on), and all of these buttons, faders, dials and switches are programmable, groupable and toggleable so that, with the proper configuration, you can control up to 32 tracks at any given time.
But, it gets better. The units are stackable—you can link a number of them in a daisy chain and have them act in tandem, and you also can link another MIDI device, such as a keyboard, through the BCF2000. The scalability of the unit is a big deal—a 24-track Digidesign control surface runs around $10,000, while three stackable Behringers cost only $600 plus another $30 or $40 for extra MIDI cables and will give you 80% of the same functionality. (For that last 20% on the Digidesign 24-track systems, you get more sophisticated transport control, more programmability and a real jog/shuttle wheel. If you're creative with your configuration though, you can approximate a jog/shuttle on the Behringer, and stacking the units will give you everything a hobbyist or a small studio really needs.)
Although you can use the Behringer control surface family (the BCF2000 is one of several models in the BC line) with any MIDI program that supports control surfaces, if you're looking to control Rosegarden or TerminatorX, the companion BCR2000 might be a better bet for you. The internal electronics are nearly the same, but the physical interface is better for voice and event triggering, while the BCF2000 is laid out like a mixing board and is ideal for the kinds of complicated mixing that I do for my audio projects.