I just read an article on Slashdot in which the author claims to have created fire from water. No, really. Although Fervent Software's Studio to Go! doesn't claim such impressive magic, it sure does make the life of the traveling musician easier.

Studio To Go! (STG for short) is a live CD—a single disc that contains the complete operating system, system utilities, and all necessary applications and drivers to run a complete PC workstation. Unlike conventional operating systems that are installed to your hard disk, the operating systems and applications on live CDs run from the CD itself—nothing is installed to your PC.

Fervent Software goes one step further with STG by integrating its audio and MIDI applications so they run on a modern graphical desktop in a nice, neat package. STG lets you audition, experiment with, and operate a Linux-based digital audio workstation (DAW) without the hassles of installation—essentially decoupling the PC hardware from the audio session. With STG you can be a true traveling troubadour, roaming from town to town, PC to PC, carrying your next album's work in your pocket.

The Charm Within

Built for Intel- and AMD-based PCs, STG has modest system requirements. It will operate on the vast majority of recent Pentium or AMD PCs and notebooks with a minimum processor speed of 800MHz (1.2GHz recommended) and 256MB of RAM (512MB recommended). Mac users shouldn't feel left out—perhaps you have a PC in the garage that'll do. If not, ask a friend or visit Freecycle.org. It's well worth it to check out STG!

STG and Thumb Drive The Studio To Go! CD-ROM and a thumb drive will let you instantly transform almost any recent PC into a Linux music workstation and back again.

STG comes bundled with audio recorders, MIDI sequencers, score editors, soft synths, a virtual keyboard, audio utilities, plugins, and all of the necessary audio drivers and system utilities to create a modern DAW—for just $99. How is that possible? Thank the programs' authors for their foresight to license their software under the GNU General Pubic License. (See the "Demystifying Linux" sidebar.) It's a labor of love that brings their extraordinary audio software to the rest of us.

Here are a few notable applications included with Studio To Go!:

Application

Description

Why It's Cool

Rosegarden Audio and MIDI sequencer and score editor A professional audio and MIDI sequencer, score editor, and general-purpose music composition and editing environment.
Ardour Multichannel digital audio workstation ProTools for Linux. A multichannel recording, non-linear, non-destructive audio recorder, with full automation support; a mixer whose capabilities rival high-end hardware consoles; and lots of plugins to warp, shift, and shape your music, which is controllable from hardware control surfaces at the same time as it syncs to timecode.
LilyPond Music engraving system Advanced score typesetting for creating beautiful notation output.
Audacity Audio editor Popular audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, and GNU/Linux
JAMin Mastering software Performs professional audio mastering of stereo input streams. Works well with Ardour and Audacity.
JackTime Machine Audio Recorder Records any audio at any time. Filenames are saved as a time stamp of the recording. Very handy!
ALSA sound drivers Audio device drivers for all ALSA-supported devices Supports all major audio cards and on-board audio chips. Note: FireWire audio devices are not supported.
JACK Audio server JACK can connect a number of different applications to an audio device, as well as allow them to share audio among each other.
K3b CD/DVD burning Supports numerous audio and data formats, as well as ripping.
QAMix, HDSPMixer, envy24control Mixers A variety of mixers for specific audio hardware.
FluidSynth SoundFont sample player A real-time sample-playback synthesizer based on the SoundFont 2 specification.
QSynth Front end for FluidSynth Provides a graphic user interface with knobs, buttons, and meters.
Hexter DX7 modeling synthesizer A software synthesizer that models the sound generation technology of a Yamaha DX7. It can load most DX7 patch files.
Hydrogen Drum sequencer User-friendly, pattern-based drum sequencer.
ZynAddSubFX Realtime polyphonic synthesizer Has microtonal ability.
TiMidity++ General MIDI synthesizer Can play MIDI files by converting them into PCM waveform data. It can also save the generated waveforms in various audio file formats.
LADSPA, DSSI, and VST plugins Audio plugins Hundreds to choose from.
Also included are a video player, web browser, email client, PDF viewer, and other programs, including internet/network connection software.

Old Dog, GNU Tricks

Although first-timers may be leery of Linux, its day-to-day desktop operation is not much different from Windows or the Mac OS. Today's Linux desktop managers, like KDE and Gnome, are very easy to use. On the other hand, installing and configuring a PC for Linux audio can be a daunting task for the beginner. It still requires a bit of hocus-pocus and patience. Some even compare the process to black magic.

It is here that Fervent pulls the rabbit out of the hat. At boot time, STG will not only configure Linux for you, it will also search your system for audio cards, MIDI systems, USB drives, and the like, automatically configuring support for each hardware and audio device it finds. The result is a no-hassle, portable DAW.

Demystifying Linux

GNU General Pubic License (GPL): Known as a "free software license" that grants the user the right to run the application for any purpose, to copy the application, and to study, modify, and redistribute modified versions of the application.

Linux kernel: The fundamental core of the Linux operating system. The latest release in Studio To Go! contains the latest Linux kernel, with additional low-latency patches for realtime audio.

Distribution: A package comprising the Linux kernel, system utilities, and applications assembled and usually tested before release to the public. Red Hat, Debian, and SUSE are popular Linux distributions.

OK, Let's Write a Tune

To show you what STG is like in action, I'll take a real-life tune I created for a client. It's a MIDI-based tune that uses a few MIDI channels (i.e., instrumental parts) and a General MIDI (GM) instrument set.

Put the CD in your drive and power up your computer. You'll soon see the Studio to Go! logo instead of the familiar Windows one. Press Enter to boot STG. (You can also boot with custom parameters. I often use the parameter fb1280x1024, since my monitor supports that resolution. Press F1 for help.) After a few spins of the disc, the K Desktop Environment will boot and you'll be presented with a familiar desktop (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The KDE Desktop Figure 1. The KDE Desktop puts a familiar graphic interface on Linux (click to enlarge).

At this point, the desktop will display all hard-disk partitions on the left. (Note that your Windows partitions will also be available to read.) STG should have recognized your audio hardware, as well. If not, there are simple steps to configure it. In my case, STG recognized my M-Audio USB MIDISport 8x8 interface with no problem, but did not automatically turn on audio—although it did recognize my M-Audio Delta66 audio card.

No problem. To check the sound system's status, open the Control Center from the KDE Menu by pressing the "K" button in the bottom left and selecting Control Center from the menu. After Control Center starts, select Sounds & Multimedia -> Sound System (see Figure 2).

Fig. 2: Sound System Figure 2. If Studio To Go! fails to detect your audio hardware, you can usually find it yourself with a quick trip to the Sound System controls. (Click to see the full window.)

The "Enable the sound system" checkbox should be checked. If not, follow these three steps:

Check that JACK has started. Open QjackCtl from the bottom panel (see Figure 3; it's the icon that looks like a quarter-inch audio plug) and make sure that the Jack Server is started. (See Figure 4.) If not, press the Start button. Like a virtual cable, Jack allows you to route audio between programs.

Enable the sound system. Select the "Enable the sound system" checkbox in the Control Center. Now select the Hardware tab and select Jack Audio Connection Kit in the dropdown box for "Select the audio device." Press the Apply button at the bottom.

Verify the sound system. Go back to the General tab in the Control Center and press the Test Sound button at the bottom. You should hear a test sound.

Fig. 3: KDE Bottom Panel Figure 3. The recursively named JACK lets you route audio and MIDI between programs and physical inputs and outputs


Fig. 4: JACK Running Figure 4. JACK is now running

For my on-the-go project, I used Rosegarden as my sequencer and FluidSynth as the synthesizer. Start Rosegarden either from the bottom panel (the fancy "R" icon; refer back to Figure 1) or from the desktop or the KDE menu. To make it easier, let's use the popular QSynth front-end to FluidSynth. Since this is a GM project, I'll use the "FluidR3 GM" SoundFont bank.

After you've started Rosegarden, start SoundFont Synth (QSynth) from the Synths menu (see Figure 5).

Fig. 5: QSynth Menu Figure 5. Launching QSynth from the Synths menu

I won't go into the details of Rosegarden and QSynth here, because Fervent Software provides a basic tutorial for Rosegarden on the desktop and a good online manual called the Rosegarden Handbook, which you can access from the program's Help menu.

QSynth is easy to use. To load the "FluidR3 GM" in QSynth, select the "Setup..." button (see Figure 6), select the Soundfonts tab, and load the SoundFont by selecting the "Open..." button. You might want to delete the SoundFonts currently loaded to give you more RAM, since the FluidR3 SoundFont is rather large. (Note: Fervent has supplied the CD with SoundFonts; note the default location of the SoundFonts for later reference.) See Figure 7.

Fig. 6: QSynth Setup Figure 6. QSynth adds a graphic interface to the powerful command-line FluidSynth


Fig. 7: SoundFont Bank Location Figure 7. Make a note of the SoundFont bank location; it will come in handy later

LinNeighborhood

What if your SoundFonts are on a Windows network drive? There is a nice utility called LinNeighborhood that allows you to access your Windows network. LinNeighborhood is not available from the KDE menu, but you can access it by starting a terminal window and typing LinNeighborhood. See this tutorial for help.

Rosegarden comes with many device-definition files to assign instrument names to tracks. (These files define a synthesizer's bank, program, and MIDI controller data.) That makes selecting and playing instruments a lot easier than pick-by-number! Also check the Rosegarden library for up-to-date files for your favorite synthesizer.

You can load patch information from SoundFont files into Rosegarden, too. Open the Manage MIDI Devices dialog box (choose Composition -> Studio -> Manage MIDI Devices from the main menu) and select the MIDI Soft Synth Connection drop-down menu. This should already be assigned to the Synth Input Port connection. If not, assign it now or to a device of your choosing. I assigned it to the General MIDI device (see Figure 8).

Fig. 8: GM Input Device Figure 8. Loading a device definition file via the sequencer's MIDI device manager

You can now import the bank, program, and controller data from the FluidR3 SoundFont by selecting the device on the left (General MIDI Device, in my case) and then clicking the Import button on the right. Navigate to your SoundFont to load the data, and then close the window. The main Rosegarden window contains the Instrument Parameters section to assign your instruments. (See Figure 9.)

Fig. 9: Instrument Parameters Figure 9. Instrument parameters

The Nomad

After I composed the tune at my studio, I traveled to my partner Don's studio to record a few percussion tracks. Don's studio is a bit different than mine, but no worries: I had saved my SoundFont bank and tune to my USB thumb drive so I could boot up my tune where I left it.

STG will automatically mount the USB drive when you open it; you can easily open it by double-clicking the icon on the desktop. The USB drive will often be auto-mounted to the location /mnt/sda1.

If it is not mounted, you will not be able to see its contents. For instance, if you traverse to the directory /mnt/sda1 within Rosegarden to load a tune and you have not mounted the USB drive, there will be no contents shown. In that case, it's easy just to go to the desktop and double-click on the USB icon to mount the USB drive.

We booted the STG CD on one of Don's PCs (containing an M-Audio Audiophile 2496 card) and connected the USB thumb drive containing the tune and SoundFont bank. The sound system, Rosegarden, and QSynth all booted fine. The only issue we had was with Rosegarden. When we called up the tune from the USB drive, it loaded fine into Rosegarden. Unfortunately, the instrument assignments were missing—they all defaulted to Patch 1. We had to reassign all of the instruments. The Rosegarden file should have saved those assignments, but it didn't for us.

Once we got past this hiccup, we were able to compose, mix, and deliver the file to the client. Back at my studio, Rosegarden behaved fine. Subsequent trips to other PCs produced no problems for instrument assignments, so this was likely an isolated event.

That Ol' JACK Magic

JACK (Jack Audio Connection Kit) is a utility that lets you route audio and MIDI data between applications and audio devices. To show its versatility, let's connect a playback meter to monitor the output level of QSynth.

1. Open the Connections panel in QjackCtl by pressing Connect on the front panel. You'll be presented with all recognized Jack devices and their current connections:

JACK Control

2. Pick a playback meter from the Meters menu. I'm partial to the digital peak meter because of its compact size:

Meter

3. Jack will automatically connect the meter's input to QSynth and Rosegarden and the output to your audio device. The meter is labeled "bridge-3448" in this example:

Meter Gets Connected

Studio To Go! Astray

I experienced a few disenchantments with STG.

  • A few popular audio applications are not included on STG. For instance, Muse and seq24 (both popular MIDI sequencers) are missing. I contacted Fervent about the absence and they indicated that both will be included in future releases.

  • STG will only run on audio cards that have ALSA drivers. (See the ALSA Soundcard Matrix for audio card compatibility.) Many are supported, but FireWire audio devices are not.

  • The wizards at Fervent Software perform their magic by utilizing the technology found in the popular Knoppix Linux distribution: the complete system is compressed onto one Live CD. When an application is launched, it is decompressed on the fly into RAM and then executed, which leads to a slow startup. Once in memory, though, the application usually runs fine. Because of this, I strongly suggest you have adequate RAM (I recommend 1GB) and CPU power. Note that the popular "FluidR3 GM" SoundFont bank is 145MB alone. You'll definitely need enough RAM to run synthesizers and applications, especially if you're recording digital audio.

  • Since no software is written to hard disk, you cannot update drivers, the system file, or applications. However, registered users can purchase newer versions of the CD at a reduced rate. Depending on the cost, that could be a gotcha.

    The alternative is to install STG to hard disk. (There is a simple menu selection in the KDE menu for hard-disk installation.) When installed on hard disk, there are helpful system utilities that will update the software automatically—the likes of which are not found on the "other two" operating systems. Or course, once you install the software to a hard drive, you lose the portability of running it from the CD.

    If you decide to install STG, you have several alternatives: install over Windows (losing your Windows installation), install Linux to a separate partition and create a dual-boot PC (at boot time, you can choose between Windows or Linux), or install Linux on a separate drive. Hard disks are so cheap these days that I recommend this choice.

Portable or To Go?

An immediate comparison one might make with STG is with a laptop configured for audio use (for an example, see "The Ultimate Portable Studio"). There are five major differences between packing a laptop and pocketing an STG CD and USB drive combo:

  1. STG and a USB drive will cost $150-200. A laptop alone will be $800-$2,500, and then you must add software. (Up the cost if you add portable hardware.)
  2. STG is bundled as a complete and open source music production suite configured by someone else (Fervent Software), while the laptop is most often self-configured with selected purchased software and hardware.
  3. The STG-CD-plus-USB drive combo is small, while a laptop is a bit more cumbersome to tote around. (You might also be packing a few small hardware items.)
  4. While STG allows you the flexibility of using more powerful PCs as you travel, the laptop gives you the convenience of a known and well-tested configuration.
  5. A USB drive is tens of gigabytes smaller than a laptop's hard disk.

Charmed, I'm Sure

Fervent Software must be applauded for their magical gift to the audio community. Automatic device configuration, the high bang-for-the-buck ratio, the wealth of audio software, and the ability to travel from PC to PC are clear advantages of Studio To Go!. Minstrels and music hobbyists alike can conjure an audio DAW without the necromancy of installation. And once you're sold on Linux audio, you can easily install STG to hard disk to eliminate the disadvantages and create a no-fuss DAW in minutes. The lack of updates is minor if you require the freedom to travel light.

In fact, as I wrapped up this review, Fervent announced version 1.5 of STG. Spokesman Richard Bowd told me it "contains the latest releases of many packages; some slightly different packages, including some loop-based audio production tools, improved documentation and integration of that documentation, [and a] better installer. It's not a major change from the previous version, but it's much improved." Although I'm looking forward to trying the new version, I don't think it will affect my conclusions, particularly since the major applications I covered here are essentially unchanged. But I'll be sure to leave my impressions in the Comments section below, and I hope you'll do the same. Studio To Go! is a big step forward in computer music production, and it has the potential to significantly expand the Linux music community. If you're interested in either area, this could be your magic ticket.

Other Audio Linux Distros and Helpful Links

A GNU/Linux Audio Distribution (Agnula) Develops GNU/Linux distributions "completely based on free software and completely devoted to professional and consumer audio applications and multimedia development."
Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA) Audio and MIDI drivers
Fervent Software Developers of Studio To Go!
GNU General Public License Designed to "guarantee your freedom to share and change free software."
K Desktop Environment A free graphic desktop environment for Linux and Unix.
Linux-Sound.org A list of audio and MIDI software for Linux.
PlanetCCRMA at Home Offers a wealth of applications pre-packaged for Red Hat and Fedora Core Linux distributions. Fernando Lopez-Lezcano keeps the PlanetCCRMA repositories up to date and offers invaluable instructions and help on the site and on the PlanetCCRMA mailing list.

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