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Free Open Source Audio Software

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This post focuses on the availability of free, open source software for audio production.

Free Open Source Software (or FOSS for short) has been with us for a good while now, the most popular example of it being the high profile alternative web browser Firefox, sponsored by the Mozilla corporation. Open Source software means that anybody can download the code, use it, and redistribute it – and it’s completely legal. Obviously this can be a huge advantage to folks with modest budgets or who are strong supporters of intellectual property freedom. Ubuntu Linux, my operating system of choice, has been making strong inroads in taking a share of the market. Recently there has been a lot of progress made on audio software in the open source community. Since I featured the FOSS program Audacity in my last post on noise reduction, I got inspired to feature some of the exciting projects coming out of the community.

First of all I would like to say that the nature of open source software is a little different than commercial software. Generally, commercial software is well tested by the companies that design and control the software before it is released. With open source, one of the most important things is to have the community as a whole participate in the bug finding – that’s because the community is developing the software. There really isn’t any other way to do it. As a result, you’ll probably find that most open source software has several versions of the software available at any given moment: most likely a stable release that has been tested and proven to be reliable, and a cutting-edge version for bug testing that may be stable or may have problems. If you want the very latest features, running the cutting-edge version is the way to go. If you want rock-solid reliability, stick with ‘stable’ releases.

Audacity – Audacity is one of the oldest of the applications I’m listing here. This means that it’s pretty stable and robust. It’s pretty basic, can handle recording and playback of multitrack audio, and offers several effects plugins and file types. Its cross-platform profile means that it’s widely used.

Ardour – Ardour is designed to be a full-fledged professional audio workstation like Pro Tools or Cubase. It features a complete set of features such as edit and mix windows, effects inserts and sends, multitrack recording, automation, and even (if you compile it yourself) limited VST plugin support. This is one of the applications to keep your eye on as it has fairly substantial momentum and support from the community. Support for MIDI is in the works. I can’t wait till the day when I can use this as my primary DAW.

Jokosher – “Jokosher is a simple yet powerful multi-track studio. With it you can create and record music, podcasts and more, all from an integrated simple environment.” Somewhat along the same lines as Garageband on OSX, Jokosher is a quick rising star in the open source audio world.

Rosegarden – ” Rosegarden is a professional audio and MIDI sequencer, score editor, and general-purpose music composition and editing environment.” Rosegarden is probably the most mature MIDI-oriented sequencer available for the Linux platform.

JACK Audio Server – JACK is an ingenious way to create an audio infrastructure. In its own words: “JACK is a low-latency audio server, written for POSIX conformant operating systems such as GNU/Linux and Apple’s OS X. It can connect a number of different applications to an audio device, as well as allowing them to share audio between themselves.” More than anything, this is one trick that open source audio has up its sleeve. Think of it as ReWire on steroids.

LADSPA Plugins – LADSPA is one of the standard Linux audio plugin protocols. There are some pretty neat plugins available in LADSPA format.

OGG Vorbis – A really high-quality free audio compression format. I use this for my personal music collection. Check out my post on lossy audio formats for more information.

Audio Linux Distributions

For those really into open source audio, there are two really cool packages of applications bundled with Linux, called ‘distributions’, available:

64Studio – A complete digital content creation Linux distribution. This is a complete operating system, meaning that it replaces OSX or Windows entirely. One user says…

“I am using 64 Studio based systems since more than a year for my everyday media production work, sound recording, sound design and video editing without any significant system related problems. And for the smaller issues, I always found quick help and a friendly community.
Hermann Vosseler”

Ubuntu Studio – “Ubuntu Studio. A multimedia creation flavor of Ubuntu.  Ubuntu Studio is aimed at the GNU/Linux audio, video and graphic enthusiast as well as professional.  We provide a suite of the best open-source applications available for multimedia creation. Completely free to use, modify and redistribute. Your only limitation is your imagination.”  Again, this is a complete operating system designed to run on its own, just like 64 Studio.

Both of these distributions come with the applications I’ve already mentioned and many, many more.   These are pretty cool.  I recommend checking them out!