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Modular Synth Studios

Tom's Definitive Linux Software Roundup: Audio Production
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This page showcases applications that can create a nearly limitless variety of synthesized sounds using a number of different synthesis components. The user interface of most modular synthesis apps use the hardware analogy: a 'floor' to arrange any number of devices, and 'cables' to connect them in any desired sequence. Some of these applications have extra functionality, like built-in sequencers, input, or playback, making them more like virtual music studios.

BEAST (v. 0.7.1)


BEAST stands for Bedevilled Audio System. BEAST is a hard app to define; it is a synthesizer with composition, sequencing, mixing, effects, and editing capabilities.

New instruments can be created using a combination of modules representing different audio hardware. The routing tab of the custom synthesizer view serves as a work area, where different modules can be placed and attached to each other. Below is a screenshot of what it takes to create a synthbass instrument.

Instruments can be used to create patterns of notes in a piano roll editor. Patterns can be combined with others to create a track for that instrument. The track editor allows you to edit, combine, and mix tracks. BEAST provides an easy visual method for creating synthetic instruments.



Buzztard (v. 0.5.0)

Buzztard is a multifunction music composition application, serving as a modular synth, pattern editor, and sequencer. Sound sources can be generated in two ways: from the machine tab or from a WAV file.

The machine tab holds the modular synthesis function of Buzztard. There are two types of machines: generators and effects. Generators originate sound, while effects modify it. Connections are made between machines by clicking and holding the left mouse button and shift key from one machine to another. The wave table tab allows you to add sound samples from WAV files. This makes Buzztard useful for creating patterns from either synthesized or sampled sounds.

Multiple patterns of notes can be created for each machine in the patterns tab. The bottom half of the computer keyboard is used to enter different notes in the pattern editor. Patterns for each machine can be selected and sequenced in the sequence tab. This tab also lets you mute or solo each machine without having to go back to the machine tab. The info tab simply holds project metadata. Output can be recorded as MP3, Ogg vorbis, Ogg FLAC, WAV, or RAW files.

The user interface is nice and clean, making good use of tabs to switch between major functions. The menu bar contains most of the tools in Buzztard, though some are hidden in plain sight as keyboard commands. The main toolbar houses the playback controls, master volume, and file controls (open, new, and save). CPU usage is displayed in the bottom status bar.

A nice UI, synthesized or sampled input, and not requiring JACK to function are big pluses for Buzztard. Minuses include keyboard shortcuts for essential functions that aren't obvious and no undo/redo history.



ALSA Modular Synth (v. 2.0.1)

ALSA Modular Synth (AMS) is--you guessed it--a modular synthesizer. The AMS user interface is made up of a menu bar and large brown work area that takes up the rest of the application window. The work area is where modules are added and connected to each other to produce synthesized sounds. The connections are represented by cables that droop and twist like their real-life counterparts, complete with little jacks on each end. While this may not seem an essential feature, we found it much easier to follow a chain of modules than with the straight thin lines of other applications. Unfortunately, you will need this extra bit of help, since AMS only comes with 15 instrument presets. This application works well when connected to the Virtual MIDI Keyboard (VKeyBd) via JACK Control.



gAlan (v. 0.30. beta4)

gAlan stands for The Graphical Audio Language, but it is essentially a modular synthesizer application. Though the official Web site says that it can be fashioned into a drum machine, mixer, or sequencer, we'll be focusing on its core function as a modular synthesizer.

The user interface of gAlan is much like AMS, with only a menu bar and work area for the modules. The main difference between the two is that gAlan supports multiple open projects simultaneously through the use of tabs.

Modules are added to the work area by right-clicking anywhere that is empty and choosing a module from the pop-up menu. However, the way in which connections between modules are made is not obvious. You must left-click and hold over one of the connection dots and drag to another, then release the mouse. gAlan also lacks any full instrument presets, which we greatly missed. The virtual keyboard function of ZynAddSubFX hooks into gAlan via JACK for an easy software input source.

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  • 1 Hide
    nekromobo , March 2, 2011 4:56 AM
    Now I remember why I read tom's.

    A great article!
  • 1 Hide
    akorzan , March 2, 2011 5:00 AM
    I found using WINE with, don't laugh, FL Studio works great. Latencies are on par with Windows. Only problem is some VST plugins have mouse problems... I.E: double-clicking has to be absurdly fast. Another trivial problem is that battery life in laptops is nonexistent with WINE and FL Studio.
  • -3 Hide
    longshotthe1st , March 2, 2011 5:04 AM
    Why would anyone even bother? Time is money, I'm going to just stick with what works.
  • -1 Hide
    damiensturdy , March 2, 2011 9:43 AM
    Great read. FLStudio is one of only two pieces of software that keeps me tied to Windows. Sure, it runs under Wine, but getting it working is a pain, and you're lucky to get 100% of the functionality. As an advanced user of FLStudio, I use almost everything the app provides, and I need it as low latency as possible. 20ms is too much- 10ms is better. In general I've never achieved
  • 0 Hide
    damiensturdy , March 2, 2011 9:49 AM
    Damn, it cut my post off. No way to edit that? ah well. I was basically saying that this article has helped me decide what software to use when I build my synthesizer this year.
  • 0 Hide
    g00ey , March 2, 2011 10:45 AM
    Has anyone tried running software such as FL Studio in Linux using a virtualization software such as VirtuaBox? VirtualBox can even run in seamless mode which allows you to have Windows windows next to Gnome/KDE windows in the same screen.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 2, 2011 12:03 PM
    Very nice article you could also have covered comercial productos on Linux like:

    Harrison Mixbus; Renoise; EnergyXT; WusikStation; PianoTec...

    BTW there is big updates soon for Ardour (3.0), MuSe (2.0) and Rosegarden (?).
  • 1 Hide
    damiensturdy , March 2, 2011 12:09 PM
    @g00ey, yes. Latency and audio are weak through a VM, and the audio still has to travel through whichever audio library the Linux distro is using, it's a no go.
  • 0 Hide
    caeden , March 2, 2011 12:14 PM
    g00ey, as a general rule of thumb you don't want to virturalize your workstations whether they be for audio or video editing. In part due to stability, and in part due to speed/latency.
    I was surprised at the scoring software. Looks about as good as my wife's version of Sibelius, with the exception that she had to pay for hers.
    Personally I just do editing and cleanup, and while it looks like it is much improved on Linux from what it use to be, it has improved more on the windows side. But nice to know that there are options available if I were to ever cross over.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 2, 2011 3:44 PM
    I'm really looking forward to the Video apps review since that is my main sphere of interest.
    But it really sounds like it is time to get the 'ole midi keyboard out of the closet and try some of those synth apps!
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 2, 2011 5:35 PM
    No love for Pure Data?
  • 0 Hide
    adamovera , March 2, 2011 6:44 PM
    nekromobo: Thanks! Great name BTW.

    g00ey: If you're only using samples and not recording, going live, or hooking up to any other apps, I don't see why it would be a problem. Although that would definitely reduce the functionality of FL Studio. Oracle VirtualBox is free, if you already own a copy of Windows it can't hurt to give it a try.

    adsgdVery nice article you could also have covered comercial productos on Linux like:Harrison Mixbus; Renoise; EnergyXT; WusikStation; PianoTec...BTW there is big updates soon for Ardour (3.0), MuSe (2.0) and Rosegarden (?).

    Not sure how Harrison Mixbus packages the Linux version, no trial available either. Renoise, EnergyXT, and PianoTec don't qualify due to the package/repo rule - see page 2. I don't think WusikStation has their Linux version ready yet.

    boombipNo love for Pure Data?

    Doesn't qualify due to package/repo rule - see page 2.
  • 0 Hide
    g00ey , March 2, 2011 7:00 PM
    @damiensturdy & caeden, I can imagine that latency could be an issue when it comes to virtualization but the software I have tried (such as graphics, video playback, office and DTP) works surprisingly well under virtualization so I just figure that maybe audio production software works inside a virtual machine.

    So called Type 1 hypervisors have support for something that is called passthrough which means that some hardware can be assigned to communicate directly to the virtual machine without intervention of a virtual abstraction layer (that usually manifests itself as a ring buffer between the hypervisor and the VM) this is commonly used on network interface cards to ensure a good throughput and lower latency on virtual machines that require this.

    For this to be possible the hypervisor has to be run "on the metal" and not as an application inside an OS (such as the VBox or the VMWare Workstation). Xen is one such example that is integrated with the operating system. The ESXi/vSphere is another, but it is its own operating system.

    Moreover, the hardware needs to support either Intel VT-d or AMD-IOMMU which provides this passthrough feature.

    Edit: Not only Xen is supporting PCI passthrough, we are also beginning to see this on KVM and VirtualBox. This is possible since one has managed to add type 1 like attributes on type 2 hypervisors and the distinction between the two of them is getting fuzzier. This is possible by patching come parts of the (type 2) hypervisor into the kernel. KVM can pass through up to 32 PCI units and it also supports multi-function passthrough. It currently does not support passthrough of graphics cards (or VGA passthrough, which is due to advanced BIOS features of a GPU in a computer) like Xen does, however. I don't know about VirtualBox but I expect it has similar capabilities, but only on Linux. VB currently has no support for this on other host platforms.
  • 0 Hide
    pelov , March 2, 2011 9:49 PM
    Love the entire series. Great work
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 2, 2011 9:59 PM
    Fantastic article, thanks Adam.
  • 0 Hide
    mc84ss , March 3, 2011 12:25 AM
    What would anyone reccomend for taking mp3s and "mixing up" any profanity. I work in a secure building and my boss frowns upon any music with profanity.
  • 0 Hide
    pocketdrummer , March 3, 2011 8:40 PM
    Linux is definitely not the OS to use for Audio Engineering. Not only is it seriously restricted in the drivers department (most decent interfaces do not support linux), the Sequencers (or DAWs as this article slightly misrepresents) are not sophisticated enough to really stand up to the likes of Cubase, Sonar, Pro Tools, or even Ableton Live. There's no real point in trying to build a Linux system for recording unless you just love working around severe limitations.

    This is coming from an Engineer who uses Ableton Live and Cubase on Windows and Mac systems (depending on the application and gig).
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , March 4, 2011 6:43 PM
    I agree with pocketdrummer here, and I must add that i have used Lunix for audio engineering and music making for many years and I can assure you that nothing in the lunix world is as powerful and stable as even a simple DAW like Garageband on the Mac.. Linux is nice for daily computing, but don't go there for serious work...
  • 0 Hide
    salsaman , March 9, 2011 5:32 AM
    I hope you will mention LiVES (http://lives.sourceforge.net) in the upcoming video roundup.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , April 22, 2011 5:59 PM
    Mixxx is a fun mixing application, that I'm a little surprised didn't make this article. http://mixxx.org/
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