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Editor's Note: Making Multi-Channel Firewire Music With Linux

Nov 07, 2009, 00:15 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

This column is a bit premature because I haven't had time to set things up and test them yet. But I'm excited about getting started, so here are some preliminary notes on multi-track recording in Linux using a Firewire device.

I scored a nice deal on a Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 Firewire recording interface. My studio PC does not have Firewire so I also bought a SIIG PCI Firewire 400 card and a 6-pin to 6-pin cable. Focusrite is a good supporter of the FFADO project, which writes Linux drivers for Firewire recording devices. (I do not understand Linux users who make themselves crazy trying to force an unsupported or poorly-supported piece of hardware to work on Linux. So they save a couple bucks, it's still a losing proposition.)

I'm curious to see how this will affect performance. I have an M-Audio MobilePre USB that I do a lot of recording with. This is a two-channel USB 1.1 preamp and ADC/DAC. Two channel recording doesn't challenge a system very much. My studio PC has a single-core Athlon and 4GB RAM. This is a bit lightweight for multi-channel recording, but since the Firewire card will take some load away from the CPU I expect to get at least four channels without problems.

I've done some recording on PCs with Intel Core 2 Duo processors and those are great little performers for audio production. I don't have any fancy benchmarks, but my impression from doing both audio production and digital photo editing on various machines is that the Core 2 Duo CPUs outperform their AMD cousins. (Wikipedia has a nice article that sorts out the confusing naming of the different Intel multi-core processors.)

Installing FFADO

The FFADO drivers are not included in 64Studio, which is what I use for audio production. They plan to in their final 3.0 release. So I'm going to grab the tarball from FFADO and build it from source. What fun, just like the olden days!

I have no expectations that this will be a smooth ride. 64Studio Beta 3 has some rough edges, but their stable 2.whatever release is way too old for me. I had a problem with their 2.6.29-1-multimedia kernel; it panicked at boot after I upgraded my motherboard. I got up and running by copying in an older Ubuntu kernel. Then a newer 2.6.31-1-multimedia kernel became available, and that works fine. (This story tells the tale of the warring kernel and mobo.)

But I do expect that once it is up and running it will work well. For all of its warts and hassles Linux is a superb multimedia platform. Polish will come in time.

Why not stick with USB, you ask? Class-compliant USB 1.1 recording interfaces work fine in Linux. They don't need any special drivers, even though hardware manufacturers write dumb extra drivers for Windows anyway. Why? Beats the heck out of me. I installed the extra drivers that came with my MobilePre on a Windows XP machine, and they gummed it up and I had to remove them. The best you can get out of USB 1.1 is four-channel recording, and that is under perfect conditions. I consider it to be good and reliable for 1- and 2-channel recording.

USB 2.0 seems like a natural for high-resolution multi-channel recording, but the vendors went insane, broke the USB 2.0 standard, and all went to special custom Windows and Mac drivers. I have asked many of them why; I had grand visions of surprising an honest answer out of at least one. But no, they're all sticking to the "improving the customer experience" party line.

So an itchy pox and a flux of the bowels on all of them. I'll stick with Linux-friendly vendors like Focusrite.

Another worthy option is Behringer's line of Xenyx USB mixers. These are all nice USB 1.1 class-compliant two-channel mixers that plug right into any PC that speaks USB. No muss, no fuss. With these you have to get your mix right during recording. What I like about something like the Saffire is being able to record several tracks at once, and then fine-tune the mix on the computer.

The Behringer mixers have good clean mic preamps and lots of nice features, and range between $100- $500 US. I almost got one of these instead, and maybe I will. After figuring out this Firewire business.