An Ecology Of Ardour
This article is a brief report on some of the current news and activities going on in the world of Ardour, Paul Davis's superb open-source digital audio workstation (DAW). What began as a labor of love has become one of the most significant projects in the world of Linux audio and in the more general world of Linux applications development.
Its importance reaches beyond its status with recording musicians by supplying an open-source realization of software on the order of professional-quality (and typically closed-source) commercial products. Designing an audio/MIDI sequencer with fully professional capabilities is a non-trivial task, but thanks to the efforts of Ardour's development team future programmers will be able to access Ardour's freely available codebase to extend the DAW itself or to develop new projects based on its many innovative software resources.
Like many projects, Ardour is developed in two main branches. Ardour2 is the package you're likely to find in your distribution's software repositories, though the available version is probably not the latest release. Currently Ardour2's official release stands at version 2.8.11. A feature freeze is in place at this time while the main developers prepare Ardour3 for its first public appearance. Ardour3 essentially raises Ardour to the functional level of the popular commercial audio/MIDI sequencers available for Windows and Mac users, but it is definitely not yet ready for any kind of public release or use. At this time Ardour3 must be built from its Subversion codebase, and the developers have not approved it for inclusion with any Linux distribution, media-optimized or otherwise.
Ardour3 is a significant evolution from previous versions of the program. Perhaps the most anticipated enhancement is the addition of MIDI track support. Standard MIDI files can be loaded, edited, and saved as integral parts of your projects, or you can record MIDI data directly. If you're the meticulous type you can choose to enter MIDI events by hand, one by one. Another welcome feature is the expanded MIDI synchronization support. Ardour3 now supports MIDI Clock, a method that is especially useful for synchronizing devices such as external arpeggiators and synthesizers that use its timing information to control certain aspects of their sounds.
The Video Track
Xjadeo is Robin Gareus's contribution to the Ardour software ecology. It's a neat utility for synchronizing a video to Ardour via JACK or MIDI Time Code (MTC), and it's become a popular helper application for Ardour users who want to work simultaneously with video and audio. Lately Robin has been working on the inclusion of a video timeline for Ardour3, thus tightening the bond between xjadeo and Ardour. Preliminary tests by fellow Ardourist Patrick Shirkey indicate a successful implementation, but it's unclear when & how the timeline will be added to Ardour3's main development trunk. By the way, the timeline depends on its connection to an external video server, another required component. When A3 finds the server (it's named icsd) a user-specified video can be loaded into the timeline. Ardour alerts the user if the frame rates don't match, but apparently it will play the video regardless whether the displayed rate is correct.
[Note:] A day after writing that last paragraph I decided to join Robin and Patrick in their work on the Ardour3 video timeline. I stay current with Ardour3's development, so I knew I could meet the base requirement (i.e. I can build and run A3). Robin has created a patch that adds the UI and other elements for Ardour3's video extensions. After the patch has been applied the sources are compiled with an option that specifies the inclusion of a video timeline. I also built and installed the latest xjadeo 0.4.12, the preferred external display monitor for this setup. My initial tests revealed some minor problems, but overall I was fascinated by Robin's work. Figure 1 shows off one of my test sessions on Ubuntu 10.04. Observant readers may notice that the time display on the xjadeo monitor does not match the display in Ardour3, but the discrepancy is false. It occurred because I took the screenshot during an active session, i.e. the transport was rolling. In fact, the actual position was correctly reported by xjadeo.
I must emphasize that Robin's work is currently unofficial. I suspect its appeal will attract enough supporters to get it into the main branch of Ardour3's development, but at this time the project is strictly segregated from the primary development code. I will also state that involvement with Robin's project requires some specific skills and resources. You must be familiar with an array of build tools and you should know how to annotate and report bugs. The build process isn't terribly difficult, but in its pre-alpha state testing is perhaps best left to seasoned Linux users who know how to compile, install, and configure pre-release software.
By the way, xjadeo isn't the only project dedicated to bringing together the worlds of video and Ardour. I've written about the Blender + JACK dynamic duo in a previous article, and I'm happy to update that review by reporting that Blender's 2.5.x development track now includes integrated support for JACK. I've learned about this addition only recently and have not had time to check it out, but you can be sure it's high on my TODO list. Interested readers can follow the news on the Blender home site, or you can download the latest test version and check it out yourself. Feel free to leave a message here if you give it a spin, I'm sure other readers would enjoy learning more about the latest Blender/JACK connection.
Ardour has spawned some other useful adjunct projects. I've already mentioned the Harrison Mixbus branch in a previous article, so I'll simply describe it here as a specialized version of Ardour that replaces the original mixer page with one designed with the cooperation of the engineers at Harrison Consoles. More details are available on the Ardour site at Mixbus : Ardour + Harrison DSP for OSX. Yes, the software is available currently only for the Mac version of Ardour, but a Linux version is in its initial test phase. Alas, I have no idea when it will be available to the public. You may be sure that I'll announce it here as soon as it becomes publicly available.
AATranslator is specialized software that imports and exports session formats between DAWs from different manufacturers. It enables users of the supported programs to swap sessions with most settings intact, a rather impressive feat when you consider that most high-end DAWs have proprietary session file formats. Supported programs currently include industry standards such as Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, and now Ardour. So if your friends have recorded some sweet grooves in Reaper and you'd like to do some finish work on those tracks in Ardour, have no fear, AATranslator can do the necessary conversion from Reaper's session format to Ardour's and back again if required. It's a cool tool, an indispensible one if you work in production environments where you're likely to encounter sessions created by various DAWs. AATranslator is commercial software for Windows that runs nicely under Wine (Figure 2). A basic version is priced at US$59, an enhanced version costs US$99, and an upgrade is available from basic to enhanced.
John Emmas is a busy man in the Ardour development community. In addition to his work on the Mixbus project he has also created ArdourXchange (Figure 3), a program that imports sessions into Ardour from DAWs that support the Advanced Authoring Format (AAF) session format (e.g. Pro Tools). ArdourXchange is currently available for the Mixbus software and Ron Stewart's awesome Indamixx (Figure 4), but hopefully it will become generally available for users of Ardour on all supported platforms.
The FLOSS Manuals Project follows the simple agenda of "free manuals for free software". It is a most welcome agenda, especially for programs that can benefit from more accessible documentation. Ardour is one such program, and the FLOSS manual for Ardour provides a fine introduction to its basic use. Completed chapters include instructions on installation and essential configuration details for the Linux and OSX versions of Ardour, a guide to organizing and recording your sessions, and appendices with a glossary and guides to further assistance. Kudos to the production crew for their remarkable work.
Did I happen to mention that Ardour is also available in a version for OS X ? While this development has concerned some of the Linux faithful, I'm pleased to see it. The Ardour user base expands, more developers join the project, a new revenue stream is generated, and the program receives broader notice in the industry. Personally I consider the Ardour/OSX liaison to be a bona fide Good Thing, and I'm fairly sure that chief engineer Paul Davis has no plans to abandon Linux.
Voices have been heard asking about Ardour for Windows. Apparently such a version exists, but various factors currently prohibit a public release. Click the link to read the exchanges on the topic at the Ardour forum, it's a lively discussion with some interesting commentary on scaling distribution and support.
Ardour3 is definitely not yet ready for prime time. It's not even ready for public alpha testing. I hope to see such a release Real Soon Now, but only Paul Davis can tell us when that will happen. I enjoy building the pre-release code, I'm excited to test its new features, but it is not usable for production at this time. The current stable release is version 2.8.11, and that is the only officially acknowledged version for public use.
I've been testing and using Ardour since its 0.xx releases. I know that other Linux DAWs are also excellent programs, but for some reason I'm drawn to Ardour as my first-choice for serious recording. Perhaps it's the support for my Frontier Tranzport or maybe the excellent synchronization capabilities, but whatever the reason, I'm a die-hard Ardourista. You can check out some of my Music Made with Ardour for some examples of Ardour's use here at Studio Dave, or you can check out the announcements of new music on the Ardour forums. The addition of OS X as a supported platform has brought many new musicians into the Ardour camp, and as far as I'm concerned it's all for the better. As this little article explains, there's a lot going on in the world of Ardour. I hope my readers are inspired to check it out for themselves.
Yet one word more: Big thanks to Thorsten Wilms for the use of his fine logo seen at the top of this article. Thorsten has designed a variety of similar logos for Ardour, but this one's my favorite.
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