Audio recording and editing with computers is still in
its infancy, and is full of pitfalls. Just figuring out what
hardware to use is enough to drive a person to drink. But once you
get it all figured out and get everything working, it's fun and
There are boatloads of great Linux software for every imaginable
recording, editing, and special effects task. Finding
Linux-compatible recording interfaces is rather vexatious, though
don't feel picked-on because many audio hardware vendors don't even
write decent Windows drivers. The easiest PC audio production
platform is Mac OS X. It has its own share of glitches and hassles,
but in my experience you're up and running pretty quickly.
Using Windows highlights just how deficient the poor thing is.
Windows XP SP3 is by far the best Windows for audio production,
which is not saying much. Audio recording and editing can be very
resource-intensive; dual-core CPUs and lots of RAM are good to
have. (Though it depends what you're doing; making podcasts and
recording interviews can be done on low-spec machines like
netbooks, and older PCs and notebooks.) You need a mighty beast
just to have enough power for Vista to get out of its own way, and
Windows 7 is only marginally better. Vendors are still slow to
release Vista drivers let alone Windows 7.
Linux has its own hassles; simple one- and two-track recording
is easy and doesn't need any special hacks. You can make
satisfactory podcasts on most any stock Linux distribution. But for
high-quality multitrack recording and editing you want a
low-latency kernel and well-supported audio hardware, and that can
lead to some serious hair-pulling trying to make it work. The
easiest way is to use a special distro like 64Studio, Ubuntu
Studio, the Planet CCRMA packages for Fedora, or dyne:bolic. These
have everything you need including tweaked kernels, so all you need
is supported audio hardware.
Don't use PulseAudio, aRts, or ESD. Use ALSA all by itself, or
ALSA plus JACK, the excellent low-latency sound server and
One- and Two-Track Recording
Two-track recording is the easiest in Linux; it's not very
resource-intensive, and there are a lot of affordable recording
interfaces to choose from. I like USB 1.1 recording interfaces.
Find one that is class-compliant so you don't need any silly
special drivers and it should just work. All manner of devices use
USB these days: microphones, turntables, mixers, preamps, and
Some examples of USB 1.1 devices that work well in Linux are
Behringer's Xenyx USB mixers, the M-Audio MobilePre, and the
M-Audio FastTrack Pro.
Visit the ALSA
SoundCard Matrix to see more supported audio interfaces. The
Linux Audio Users Mailing
List is a great place to find current information and help.
USB 2.0 in theory should be a wonderful boon to Linux audio,
allowing low-latency multitrack recording and plug-n-play devices,
but unfortunately it seems the entire audio industry lost its
collective mind, and instead of making class-compliant devices
chose to go the hard way of writing special proprietary Mac and
Windows drivers. Stupidity? Corruption? Who can say, but the next
time some dimwit tries to tell me that supporting Linux is too hard
I'm going to twap them with a USB 2.0 spec book.
There are a number of good PCI and PCMCIA recording interfaces
that work well in Linux. These are less flexible than USB and
sometimes they will pick up internal noise and interference. The
M-Audio Delta PCI cards are famous for working well in Linux, and
have been around long enough to support a healthy second-hand
market. RME Hammerfall makes high-end expensive audio interfaces,
and a number of them work great with Linux.
Firewire is the ultimate in multitrack recording, and thanks to
the FFADO project there are some good supported devices, and lots
more on the way. (See the supported devices
Using Firewire recording interfaces in Linux means getting JACK
working, and possibly doing some custom compiling to get everything
working correctly. Some distros are not very careful with their
build options or making sure the related applications are
up-to-date and compatible. I use 64Studio 3.x beta and so far so
good, though a friend of mine uses Planet CCRMA on Fedora 10 and it
looks even better. It's stable and he has suffered few
I am waiting most eagerly for a Focusrite Saffire Pro
26 that I ordered earlier this week. It has everything that I
want: eight microphone preamps, phantom power, and expansion via
all manner of external devices. Focusrite is supportive of the
FFADO project so they get my hard-earned clams.
One thing to beware when you're shopping for external recording
interfaces is they like to boast of having skillions of plugins.
But they may not be the types of plugins you want. For example,
it's common to see numbers like 16 and 24 I/O, but then they have
only two mic preamps and the rest are midi, SPDIF, ADAT, MIDI,
line, or instrument ports. I need lots of mic preamps and
line/instrument ports; the rest, no.
Stay tuned for further Linux audio production adventures,
hopefully happy ones!