Article from Issue 267/2023

This month Graham looks at Ardour, FluffyChat, PlugData, Cameractrls, hiSHtory, CadQuery Editor, and more!

Audio workstation


There has been a steady influx of new audio software for Linux over the past few years, and PipeWire looks set to make the Linux audio stack professionally performant and flexible. When it comes to digital audio, there's one application in particular that rules them all, and that's Ardour. Ardour is almost 20 years old now, and over that time it has become the most powerful open source digital audio workstation you can use. It's installed on macOS, Windows, and Linux desktops everywhere, from recording studios in Africa to universities in South America. Like Blender, it's powerful because it's flexible, and (also like Blender) because this power comes from its modularity, there is a learning curve. But if you're interested in recording more than one thing at a time, this shouldn't put you off. In Ardour, your audio hardware's inputs and outputs can be freely patched into and out of tracks and channels, routed through software effects, or configured to provide surround sound. Even without a single input and only headphones for output, you can create MIDI and audio tracks with virtual synthesizers or software drum machines, editing and mixing parts together across the horizontal timeline common to many DAWs. In many ways, this flexibility mimics a recording studio with its infinite audio sources and destinations to rewire, reconfigure, and experiment with. The recording studio metaphor has also helped make Ardour an excellent tool for professional recording engineers and student engineers in training, especially because it's a way of working that's already well established in software such as Pro Tools.

The release of Ableton Live 20 years ago, however, challenged that metaphor and changed what musicians and recording engineers want from their audio workstations. Rather than attempting to emulate a mixer and multitrack tape recording, Ableton instead focused on crafting music from "clips." Clips are blocks of audio, such as four bars of a drum loop, a repeating melody, or a series of chords, and Ableton lets you place these in a grid with variations of the same clip in the same column, or track. Clips that accompany each other are arranged in the rows across neighboring columns, and the entire row is known as a scene. With a single click, often performed live, the piece of music could seamlessly transition between scenes in a song. The magic sauce is that Ableton keeps everything in time, regardless of a clip's original tempo, pitch, or even groove. This simple idea and spreadsheet-like presentation turned Ableton Live into the DJ's tool of choice, ideal for remixes and improvisation.

Ableton Live still dominates the clip-launching DAWs, but it now has some serious competition from Bitwig Studio (which offers native Linux support, unlike Ableton) and even Apple's Logic, which has been augmented with its own clip arranger. Ardour can be added to that list, too, because clip launching is a huge addition for version 7, built atop a four-year project to change the timing algorithms used internally by Ardour. The clip launcher hides behind a new "Cue" mode and transforms the main UI into a place where you can drag and drop loops and samples from the new clip library or from outside the application entirely. Each drag and drop will create a new channel, with clips aligned vertically. These can be edited from a new panel to set the trigger and stretch modes, as well as the option to trigger a new clip from the current one. A horizontal strip of clips can be triggered as a scene, and scenes can even be triggered from the more traditional timeline view. It all works extremely well and feels like a natural extension to the recording, editing, and mixing views which are only a single click away, finally bringing Ableton into the 21st century.

Project Website

1. Clips: Ardour now supports clips for creative loops, live performance, and recording. 2. Scenes: All clips in the same row can be played together, and everything stays in time. 3. Effects: The same channels and tracks are used in the background, including their insert effects. 4. Context help: Hover over an area to get some help on its function. 5. Clip library: Create a library of clips and regions to use across other projects. 6. Monitoring: Clips coexist with the standard Ardour functionality. 7. Properties: Set lengths, stretch options, priority, and clip triggers from the new properties pane.

Audio router

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