Renoise For Linux
On January 17 of this year the first beta release of Renoise 1.9.1 was announced. Along with new features and fixes for its Windows and OSX versions, this release includes the first version of Renoise for Linux. This is rather significant news: Renoise is a popular program, with an active community of developers and users in the Win/Mac music worlds, and a native Linux release has been a community priority. The wait is over, so let's see (and hear) what Renoise brings to the Linux audio software party.
What Is Renoise ?
Renoise is a modernized music composition and production environment based on the design principles of the module tracker, specifically on the NoiseTrekker software by the late Juan Antonio Arguelles Rius (a.k.a. Arguru). Renoise's modernization expands the basic tracker design into a complete music production environment, with support for FX and instrument plugins, flexible audio output, MIDI I/O, synchronization capabilities, integral instruments, and parameter automation. The Linux version adds support for LADSPA plugins, native Linux VSTs, and JACK. Obviously the Linux version does not support OS-specific features of the Win/Mac releases (VST/VSTi plugins, ASIO), but in all other respects the platform versions are designed to be identical in form and function.
Installation And Configuration
The Renoise developers did their homework to avoid Linux installation woes. The process is simple, and the program's dependencies are minimal and easily met (a full list can be seen in the Renoise Linux Discussion). It's unlikely you'll need to retrieve anything from your distribution software repos for a basic installation, but for best performance you'll need JACK, the LADSPA plugins, and a kernel optimized for realtime media performance. Check your distribution's software repositories for these components, but I recommend A/V-optimized systems such as PlanetCCRMA, Ubuntu Studio, or JAD for out-of-the-box best performance.
The current download package is a standard Linux tarball. Unpack it in your home directory with your favorite archive tool, e.g. with this simple command-line invocation :
tar xzvf renoise-x.x.x.tar.gz
A Renoise directory will be created. Enter it, take a minute to read the README, then become root user and run ./install.sh to install the program system-wide. That's it, Renoise is now completely installed. To uninstall the program, simply run the uninstall shell script in the same way.
Once the program is installed, enter renoise at an X terminal prompt to start it. Renoise starts up with an empty set of tracks, ready and waiting for input, but first you should check to see if you can further streamline your configuration settings.
Renoise will configure itself according to what it can discover from your system. For example, if JACK is running Renoise will configure its audio output to JACK's parameters. The program will run with plain ALSA or OSS as well, but you'll want JACK for low-latency performance. Renoise will also find your LADSPA plugins, as long as your LADSPA_PATH is set correctly. Further configuration is done in the Edit/Preferences panel (Figure 2). As you can see in the screenshot, this panel provides dialogs for optimizing your audio and MIDI I/O, along with details regarding file import/export, keyboard bindings, GUI details, and a few other amenities.
Save your changes (if any), close the Preferences dialog, and you're ready for your first session with Renoise.
The Renoise GUI
For best results you'll want to know some details about the Renoise user interface. The program presents itself in a single window divided into these six sections :
- The top menu strip and status displays.
- The main volume fader and the disk/scopes/spectrum view selectors.
- The transport/tempo controls and the disk/scopes/spectrum view display.
- The main display.
- The FX/instrument/automation/song and main display view selectors.
- The FX/instrument/automation/song settings views.
The view selectors switch between the various functions of the program. For example, the main view selector switches the main window between the displays for the pattern/song editors, the mixer, the instrument editor, and the sample editor. Of course, each diplay has its own set of tools and controls. The GUI thus balances Renoise's complexity by presenting a fixed layout with "multifunction" selectors to reveal any part of the program as needed.
This flexible GUI also indicates the multipurpose nature of Renoise. As I cruised the various relevant forums and mail-lists I learned that people use the program for a variety of purposes. Depending on the tools and views invoked, Renoise can be used for music composition, sound design, sample editing, film scoring, and more.
What Can I Do With It ?
Renoise is too rich an environment to fully explore in the confines of this article. For present purposes I'll demonstrate two simple examples of working with Renoise. Both examples primarily exploit its tracker orientation, but hopefully I'll expose enough features to entice readers into checking out Renoise and its capabilities for themselves.
In my first example I'll create a pattern over two measures of 4/4 time and play it with a bass. That's it, short and sweet, so let's see how to do it.
Classic tracking is keyboard-centric. Typically, some part of the computer keyboard acts as a primary device for playing your selected instruments and entering their notes into a track in non-realtime. This method is similar to the step-sequencing technique used by many MIDI-based composers. I used it to write my single-track bass line following these steps :
- Select an instrument for Track 01.
- Set the track pattern length.
- Arm the Record status.
- Add track events from the keyboard.
- Play the new pattern.
Renoise comes with a useful collection of instrument samples, so I selected my bass sound from the Instruments panel (double-click to select) in the Disk Browser seen in Figure 3. The instrument will sound at its default base pitch when you select it, a nice feature for auditioning instruments before making your selection. For this example I chose the bassDnB instrument.
Next I restricted the pattern length. In Figure 4, at the immediate left of Track 01 you see a column of numbered event points descending along the tracking timeline. At the top of that column there is a numeric display of the pattern length and pair of scroll buttons for increasing or reducing that value. By default a pattern is 64 beats long, or four measures of 4/4 time represented as 16th notes. My pattern is a walking bass line two measures long, so I set the value to 32.
Alternately, I could have set a pattern fraction in the Block controls. My pattern is a 2-bar walking bass line, so if I set the Block fraction to 1/2 the track will loop through only its first thirty-two measures. This is a sweet feature, very valuable when auditioning sections of a pattern.
I clicked on the Record button in the transport control panel and I was ready to boogie.
Note: The following examples assume an American QWERTY keyboard. Users of other layouts should note that only the key locations matter, not their letter assignments.
The event entry cursor should be sitting on the top left space in Track 01. I pressed the Q key on my keyboard and heard a relatively high C played by some kind of bass instrument. I scrolled down to the next highlighted event number, pressed the E key, and again I heard my bass instrument, this time playing a nice high E. The highlighting indicates the major beat divisions of the track, in this instance quarter notes in 4/4 time. I proceeded in this fashion for each major beat, using this key sequence :
Z C B N J N B C
The corresponding musical note names (C E G A Bb A G E) appeared in the track display seen in Figure 4. I wanted a fairly driving groove, so I set the tempo to 200 BPM. When I played the pattern I heard a nice walking bass line. I was happy, I saved my work as a native Renoise project file, and I was ready for my next example.
Before moving on I want to note that this example demonstrates a popular use for Renoise, i.e. prototyping parts and loops for use in Renoise and other applications. Composition with Renoise can be very fast, and the program's excellent resampling produces first-rate musical loops and lines. I admit that when I first heard of this practice I thought it was overkill to use Renoise for the purpose, but now I think it's a cool way to use the program, especially in combination with its Sample Editor (Figure 5). I've already begun to build my own library of useful patterns and passages, thanks to the help of Renoise's flexible rendering process. I can save an entire piece, a pattern, or only a specific track as a WAV file with the File/Render Song To Disk dialog (Figure 6), yet another sweet amenity.
Advanced Simple Tracking
For my advanced exercise I expanded the bass line from the previous example and combined the results with a drum groove loop and a track played by a native VSTi plugin. As a final flourish, I added a reverb effect to the entire mix.
After re-opening my first example I added the same bass line to Track 02, but this time using these keys :
Q E T Y 7 Y T E
This line creates the same pitch sequence as the earlier example, sounding an octave higher. When I played the combined tracks the higher pitches tended to dominate the sound, so I selected the Mixer view in the main display and balanced the track levels for a better mix.
Next I added the drum loop. Alas, I have no loops played at 200 BPM (the tempo of the bass line), but I figured that a 100 BPM loop would work if it were transposed an octave higher than its base keynote. I added such a loop to the Instrument list, moved the edit cursor to the start of Track 03, entered a C5 with the Q key, and listened to the loop played at the higher octave. I liked it, I kept it,
My last musical addition was a line in Track 04 created for the mdaEPiano VST plugin, one of the many mda-vst plugins compiled for native Linux. I used the QWERTY keyboard to write the line just as I'd used it to compose the bass parts.
Finally I sweetened the mix by adding a LADSPA plate reverb effect to the Master Track. I moved the edit cursor into the Mst track, selected the desired plugin from the Track DSP list, and set its parameters in the effect editor panel. Renoise supports native processors, the LADSPA plugin collections, and the expanding set of native Linux VST/VSTi plugins, so there's no shortage of available effects.
The entire process takes longer to describe than it actually takes to perform. In fact, the process is uncomplicated, and my tracks were completed within a few minutes (see Figure 7).
Making The Song
The classic tracking workflow moves from pattern creation to song composition. Patterns are linked together to create the larger form (i.e. the song) in the Song Editor. I copied my original pattern for a total of twelve instances (treating it as a single measure in cut-time), transposed where necessary (very fast with the Ctrl-F1/F2 key combinations), and added a few extra notes to my EPiano part. In a very short time I had the 12-bar blues cycle you can hear at renoise-mix.ogg.
Song composition is a rather straightforward process, so the song editor needs only a few tools for adding, deleting, and copying patterns. Patterns may be re-ordered freely, and any pattern can be selected for play by moving the song editor's slider up or down to relocate the pattern selector frame. More song-oriented tools and utilities are available in the context-sensitive pop-up menu (right-click to summon).
Documentation And Community
Documentation is available in various forms and formats, including on-line HTML help, video tutorials, the Renoise wiki, and user-written pages. There's even a man (manual) page for the Linux version, a thoughtful addition from the programmers. The lively Renoise forum provides a platform for sounding off on about any Renoise-related topic, and the In:Depth e-zine "... explains features and concepts in greater detail and shows how Renoise is used in practice", to quote its Web page. The Renoise package comes with a set of demo and tutorial files, and more links to music from the community can be found on the Renoise Web home.
Renoise's user community is a driving force in its development, and its programmers are very responsive to user requests and concerns. In point of fact, the existing users affirmed the developers inclination to port Renoise to Linux, an indication of the growing popularity of Linux as a viable platform for music and sound production.
Price And Availability
Renoise is commercial music software for Windows, OSX, and now Linux. The current price is €49.99 (about US$75). The program is proprietary and closed-source, but its licensing policy has a nice twist: Registered users on any one platform are entitled to download the program for its other target platforms at no extra cost. A demo version should be available by the time this article is published, but if not, please be patient, it's on the way.
The Renoise developers want the Linux version of their program to be fully functional and without grievous problems or difficulties. As far as I can tell they haven't rushed the production of the Linux version of Renoise, and their diligence shows in the overall polish to the package. The program installed easily, configures itself, and runs beautifully on both my 32-bit JAD system and my 64 Studio box. Renoise is not available yet in a native 64-bit version, but it runs nicely in 64 Studio (sans JACK, alas), thanks to the system's 32-bit emulation libraries.
As usual in these reviews I've barely got beyond the surface of Renoise. I'm still exploring its MIDI capabilities, ditto for its synchronization possibilities, and I'd like to check out some of the tips in the In:Depth 'zine. No fear though, you can check it all out when the demo's released (check the Renoise Web site for release dates and details).
Some readers will want to know about free/open-source alternatives. Alas, development of native Linux trackers is all but moribund these days, with the notable exceptions of Leonard Ritter's excellent Aldrin, a more Buzz-like environment, and the QPsycle project. Even my old favorite, Michael Krause's great SoundTracker hasn't been publicly updated since February 2006.
Is Renoise for you ? Well, if you've used trackers already you'll feel at home with the program quickly enough, and if you haven't used a modern tracker you're probably in for more than a few neat surprises. Personally, I like it, and I look forward to getting further into it.
As I put the wrap on this article I learned that Garritan plans to release a native Linux version of their upcoming ARIA sampler engine. Do commercial sound and music software manufacturers finally realize that there is a market for their products in the Linux audio world ? Maybe, maybe not, but I'll be sure to let you know what I find out about it, along with news from the truly free audio software realms.