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

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
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.
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

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