Ardour DAW – Fifth Generation

Symphony No. 5

© Lead Image © Pavel Konovalov,

© Lead Image © Pavel Konovalov,

Article from Issue 194/2017

The fifth generation of the free Ardour digital audio workstation is easier to operate, offers more Lua support, and comes with a variety of improvements and extensions.

Just six weeks after the announcement of a forthcoming new Ardour version, the Ardour project released the fifth generation of its free digital audio workstation (DAW) [1]. The impressive list of new features does not promise a total revolution of the proven music production suite, but a variety of improvements and extensions definitely have revolutionary potential. I investigated how the software works in practice.

Saddle Your Keyboards

The free Ardour 5 software is not only available from Ardour's GitHub repository in the form of the current source code [2], the project also offers tried-and-tested installation packages – for Linux, Mac OS, and now, starting with Ardour 5, Windows – in return for a single donation in an amount that you get to choose.

If you want to avoid the fairly complex process of building Ardour yourself from source [3], you might want to acquire such an installation package. Although Ardour can be installed from the repositories of all the major distributions, the packages offered by the project itself are generally more up to date and often more stable than the packages for Debian and openSUSE. Also, the developers on the forum might be slightly irritated if you ask questions about problems with the distribution packages. The packages built by distribution maintainers always contain small deviations from the current state, over which the Ardour team has no influence.

The Ardour project is entirely funded by end users. The previous industry sponsors only support the project with logistics and through a very laudable exchange of information; Ardour developers no longer get a salary from this corner.

The installation package copies the application, as well as various components supplied as new Lua modules to /opt/Ardour-5<x>/. Different versions of Ardour can be set up in parallel, but each generation creates its own configuration files and backups of old projects. If you open a project recorded with Ardour 3 in Ardour 5, the new Ardour only copies the old project to a numbered backup and then opens the original file (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A project recorded in 2011 with Ardour 2 loads in Ardour 5 without problem; Ardour makes a backup copy for the old version as a precaution.

When first launched, Ardour displays a configuration tool for the desired audio interface, even if the preferred audio server Jack is already active. You can also run Ardour on a second sound card with ALSA while Jack manages other applications. If you select Jack, the dialog in Figure 2 tells you that Jack is already running and that Ardour is connecting to it.

Figure 2: Do not be confused by the flashing red message: The connection to Jack will work after clicking OK.

The tools offered on startup also include a new wizard for calibrating the audio system. It measures the latency from digital processing that a signal experiences between input and output. Ardour adjusts internally to this latency and can thus avoid unwanted shifts in recordings.

The tool displays various additional pieces of information about the signal, such as the phase shift and distortion because of incorrect inputs and faulty wiring. It is strongly recommended to send a measurement signal to the input, such as a smooth sinusoidal tone. Fluctuations typical of guitars can very quickly change the output.

Visibly New

At first glance, Ardour 5 is visually almost indistinguishable from its predecessors, but even with the simplest actions, significant new features show up.

At the top right, new buttons switch between the Editor and Mixer views and the Preferences. Unlike earlier versions, instead of creating new windows, the selected module appears as a tab in the main window. However, the original behavior also remains available: a right click on the new toggle buttons displays a menu (Figure 3), where you can specify that the Mixer occupies its own window, which is a better solution for some users, especially those with multiple monitors.

Figure 3: The Editor, Mixer, and Preferences can be displayed both in tabs and in standalone windows.

The tab view comes with a practical side effect: the bar at the top from the Editor view with the transport controls and time displays is kept in the Mixer tab, which means you can now finally manage these controls on just one monitor when mixing, without having to learn masses of keyboard shortcuts.

An entirely new element has appeared in the Mixer that you can add to a project as a new track: VCA tracks. They let you intercept the signals of several individual tracks upstream of the master input and adjust the volume across the board. Ardour does not create a submix in the strictest sense; all tracks can be set up, wired, and edited individually using plug-ins, without VCA, just as easily.

The VCA channel acts as a shared volume, and it has an additional function, which its role models in expensive hardware mixer consoles do not have: When you click on the VCA, the Mixer only displays the tracks connected to it. You can thus create a custom VCA channel for the tracks of an individual musician when recording a band – an elegant method for quickly shifting these tracks into the foreground in the Mixer (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The new Mixer view with two VCA channels. Only the tracks connected to a channel are selected. At top left, you can see the transport controls in the Mixer.

Many new tools can be found in the Preferences tool. One particularly striking newcomer is the management of color palettes, which comes with a series of well-thought-out presets. You will find some nice combinations of colors in bright pastel colors.

Cutting and Assembling

Tempo ramps are the most visible new feature in the Editor. Thus far, you could only change the tempo in Ardour gradually during a piece in beats per minute (BPM) units (the number of strokes on the downbeat: the faster the music, the more BPM). The new feature allows for a gradual, natural-sounding tempo slowdown or speed-up (Figure 5).

Figure 5: A tempo ramp from 120 to 108.3BPM. Regions bound to bars and beats automatically follow the speed change.

If you want to use typical sequencer functions with recorded audio material, you would probably appreciate a region for each played note on the timeline. However, it would be extremely time consuming to break apart all the recordings manually. That is why Ardour has an automatic cutter with the strange name of Rhythm Ferret for this operation.

Hidden in the Region context menu, this useful animal is found below <Name_of_Region> | Edit | Rhythm Ferret. Ardour 5 gave the cutting tool some new options that significantly improve the precision, especially in less percussive material.

Especially when working in the Editor, keyboard shortcuts allow faster, more convenient operation. You can split, normalize, duplicate, and move individual MIDI notes and audio regions using preset keyboard shortcuts far more easily than with the mouse. Moreover, you can assign key bindings by tab to suit your needs.

Searching by specific functions is not supported, however. It's particularly annoying that when attempting to register an already assigned shortcut key for another function, you receive a terse request to delete the existing combination, although the message does not let you know what function already owns that shortcut combo.

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