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Ardour et al., or Free and Easy Laptop Pro Audio

An Essay Perspective from a desperate working mother composer

In my book, Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States (Ashgate, 2006), I make the following observation about the emergence of MIDI technology and the home computer in the 1980s:

Composers associated with educational and research institutions, popular artists with plenty of money to spend on studio time and equipment, and the few lucky individuals who each year received National Endowment for the Arts funding and other grants were the only ones allowed the luxuries of time and resources to experiment with synthesized sounds … The personal computer and MIDI synthesizer now provided an easily implemented and relatively inexpensive way for [composers] to meet their creative needs. Additionally, many smaller educational establishments, community colleges, and primary and secondary schools began building studios; their small budgets had never allowed for the purchasing of expensive analogue equipment in the past. A greater portion of the population in general had access to technology benefiting … groups previously excluded from these innovations. Personal computers and MIDI technology freed many composers from the need to seek academic employment in order to maintain access to extensive electroacoustic resources. (p. 118)

The same observation can be made about the open source software/freeware/shareware movement and discussions on listservs such as cec-conference have frequently centered around the pros and cons of using open source software in terms of its technical capabilities, ease-of-use and reliability. These discussions have become particularly important as the world economy continues to suffer and university budgets shrink to the size where even composers in the academy must look for alternatives beyond expensive commercial software and hardware solutions. There is also the appeal of being completely free from the “indentured servitude” often demanded by commercial software applications in terms of frequent upgrades (rarely free of charge) and those headache-inducing licensing management schemes, license servers, dongles, and node-locked licensing arrangements etc.

But to understand my particular individual interest in the theme of this issue of eContact!, the reader must understand how I currently compose music and why (from a logistical standpoint especially) I compose music in this way. I am a mother of two very active and demanding sons. I am a working mother with a full-time 8:00 am – 5:00 pm job with a lunch break. I am the wife of a husband who until very recently was extremely and expensively ill. These factors mean that I frequently compose music: 1) as far away from my children as possible; 2) during my lunch hour; and 3) on the cheap.

Out of desperation I have become an expert in laptop-based electroacoustic music (and digital video) composition with mostly free tools and in a variety of locations like hospital waiting rooms (quite handy when your husband is ill), airplanes, and — most inspiring and very far away from the children! — the beautiful Dallas Arboretum. For years I have used an elderly Mac “PDQ” G3 laptop running OS9 for one reason: free Pro Tools! I finally got a MacBook Pro which I have been using for a couple of years for everything except music composition but now quite frankly any use of the G3, especially at work around my snarky technical colleagues, is getting just a tad embarrassing. So my venture into open source and free musical production software is motivated by finances and by ego! I did discover the wondrous Audacity early on but the quest for a substitute for my ancient free Pro Tools download took me awhile longer. At last, I hit upon Ardour 2.x and this essay briefly details my initial experiences with the application.

Ardour runs on GNU/Linux and Mac OSX. Though I use Linux daily in my work as a systems administrator, I have always used the Macintosh hardware and operating system for my creative production. This discussion pertains to the use of Ardour 2.8.2 on a MacBook Pro Intel 2.4 Ghz Core 2 Duo with 4 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running OSX Version 10.4.11 Tiger (I had not switched to Leopard because of some incompatibilities with work software but these have now been ironed out and I am about to upgrade… just in time for Snow Leopard which introduces… more software incompatibilities). By the way, as of this writing, Ardour (and JACK) have issues with Snow Leopard but work fine with Leopard.

I must say from the beginning that my Ardour Quest would have been much more arduous were it not for this great document from Ben Powers, the Ardour 2 Tutorial . There are no screen shots in my essay as a matter of fact because great illustrations of everything I discuss are included in the Powers tutorial and I encourage all readers to check out this site for further technical information. There is also an Ardour Manual . For the testing I did for eContact! I embarked on the same straightforward tasks I utilize in all my recent music: taking already recorded and processed audio files produced in other applications, importing them into a multi-channel session in their proper places on my “piece timeline” and automating panning, volume and other mixing data for a final stereo soundtrack. In this case, I experimented with the raw audio recordings of trombone and water selections I have gathered for use in the soundtrack for my current video work, I Will Play the Swan and Die in Music.

Technically and compositionally, Ardour met all of my needs quite well. The greatest difficulty I encountered was with the setup and installation of the application, but a quick read-through of the opening sections of the Powers tutorial and the documentation available in the CEC’s Open Source Travel Guide [wiki] (in this issue) gives you most of the information about open source software and its installation and use that you need. Downloading and installing Ardour on Mac is easy, just go to the Ardour website to download the software bundle. Before installing Ardour be sure that you carefully read the Information for First Time OS X Native Users document, as it explains about the JACK server (more on this in a minute) and also gives important configuration settings you will want to implement on your machine, such as simulating a 2- or 3-button mouse so you can take advantage of all of the application’s features.

A system requirement for Ardour is the JACK Audio Connection Kit . The JACK site describes this application as:

a low-latency audio server, written originally for the GNU/Linux operating system, and now with Mac OS X support. It can connect any number of different applications to a single hardware audio device; it also allows applications to send and receive audio to and from each other. Jack is different from other audio server efforts in that it has been designed from the ground up to be suitable for professional audio work. This means that it focuses on two key areas: synchronous execution of all clients, and low latency operation.

JACK is easy to install and configure and Jackpilot (where you go to set coreaudio driver preferences for Ardour) reminded me a whole lot of the old OMS setup that used to power my 90s-era MIDI studio. In fact, I look forward to delving into JACK further and using it with more applications than just Ardour.

Users should make absolutely sure that everything on the first-time users document is set up correctly on your Mac before installing Ardour. This will help you to avoid all the pitfalls and foibles that one can find documented on many an Ardour discussion list. I configured everything on the document, installed Ardour and it ran like a champ with all features enabled from the very beginning! In fact, the only issue I had with the installation of Ardour came from my lack of reading the instructions on how to pay if one wanted to pay (totally optional). When downloading Ardour you first read a vaguely cranky “we are going to give this to you for free but we are going to whine about it” paragraph asking for a suggested donation. You can put in any amount you wish. I choose $60 and dutifully used Paypal to pay completely ignoring the instructions to not use eChecks. I always use eChecks and blithely did so this time. And the Ardour site griped at me and wouldn’t give me my product. So I emailed Paul Davis, the developer of Ardour, who generously (and foolishly?) in the way of most open source developers put his direct email address on the site. Paul answered me right away (within 30 seconds!) and very nicely and politely informed me that I “did not read the directions.” So even though I donated money to Ardour and in return was supposed to get some additional features as a result, I have not received those features yet. But I bear Paul no ill will and he has promised to refund my money and even if he doesn’t, well, I am feeling generous today! If one reads through the large Ardour discussion site, one finds that Paul always seems to answer quickly and politely and really, when was the last time that someone from DigiDesign answered you quickly and politely, eh?

I literally found there to be no learning curve on Ardour. Most of it was intuitive to this longtime Pro Tools (and on occasion, CuBase) user. The controls and buttons all have rollovers explaining their purpose and I was able to consult the Powers tutorial for the rest. Automation proved to be the most difficult for me to understand. Whereas in Pro Tools all I did was select pan or volume from a pull-down menu and lines and handles appear for me to easily click and arrange into place, in Ardour I had to first chose to show automation and then figure out the playback mode needed to actually hear what I had done. It was not intuitive for me but once I got through the “a-ha!” moment, it proved to work just as easily and as well in Ardour as in Pro Tools.

Bouncing down my tracks into a final experimental mix was easy as well. I just chose “export session to audio file” and was able to select from a variety of file types, sample rates, and sample formats. Wow, I have all the basic digital audio composition tools I need for free on my MacBook! I can at last retire the ten-pound G3 laptop! Please note that the initial experiments done here were simply to test the basic operations and automations that I absolutely must have to create my music. I still have not fully explored the audio processing and design aspects of Ardour. I did import several plug-ins but I have not had much time to play with them. Plug-ins are well-documented on the Ardour website and the site also thoroughly discusses which ones are the most reliable and stable. I look forward to adding what I find to the wiki pages provided for this purpose by the CEC.

I am currently “a composer in constant desperation” due to life and work circumstances. Someday I will retire and my lovable but demanding sons will leave the nest and I will have all the time in the world to sit in my nice home studio and create music. However, for the time being while I chew on a sandwich and do a bit of composing in my office during lunch hour (I have really nice headphones thank goodness!), it is great to have found an open source and free pro audio tool in order to get my musical work done under these less-than-optimal circumstances. I strongly encourage readers to add Ardour to their open source audio tool kit and further explore the possibilities offered by this application and the others mentioned in this essay.

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