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Discovering Seq24 and Going Temporarily Crazy With It For 72 Hours

Date/Time Permalink: 05/02/13 05:47:24 pm
Category: Reviews

Long about trying to get audio to record with video, I wandered into Linux desktop audio toys, and one of them has stuck to me like glue.

This post will, eventually, be about composing original MIDI music on the Linux desktop using the funnest, easiest toy for this purpose. However, we've got three disclaimers to get out of the way first:

Disclaimer #1 Setting up audio-studio software on your desktop will be the most frustrating, aggravating, hair-pulling experience of your life. No, really, even programming or designing 3D animated graphics or grokking Middle Eastern politics pales in comparison to setting up audio-studio software on a desktop. Don't look for logical reasons for anything. Just accept that random crashes, horrible default settings, blatantly anti-user behavior, invisible documentation, and gremlins are now a part of your life if you want to compose audio on the desktop. Take it for granted that every audio program is designed with maximum sadism in mind. Just flash back to your Windows days and reboot compulsively.

Disclaimer #2 Audio work by its nature is complicated beyond mere mortal comprehension. Sound engineers speak in sound-engineer-ese, and - not being subjected to the same egalitarian pressure that computer geeks are - have not the slightest interest in breaking down the jargon for common people. They love plugging things into other things, for the sake of plugging things in. Check the stage floor at your next concert; the entire surface is carpeted in thick black cables, a safety hazard that would be intolerable in your server room. Show a sound engineer a stove, and their first reaction will be "Why have the knobs, oven, ranges, and clock all together in one handy unit when you could split all those up into separate boxes and connect them all with cables?" This mentality extends to sound engineering software - there are no sound engineering programs. There are families of sound engineering programs, and they all have to run together like a litter of kittens.

Disclaimer #3 I'm going to present here audio files which I, myself, have created. I have no musical talent. I have no musical training. I have only a smidgen of musical knowledge, and that all comes from writing about music all these years at places like Lyric Interpretations. Bottom line, listen to the MP3 files at risk to what sanity you have left after attempting to run sound engineering software.

WHEW!

OK, I do recommend Linux Mint for the distro to use here, since Mint at least puts you ahead by installing lots of those annoying codecs so you don't have to hunt them all down yourself. A close second is Dyne:bolic, which is a sound-studio Linux live Cd in-a-box with everything set up. Second, if you're going to install Seq24, you'll need at least all this for support or extras:

  • Hydrogen
  • Xsynth
  • Audacity
  • Timidity
  • Rosegarden
  • Ubuntu Studio Audio Plugins
  • ...plus all their dependencies, which Synaptic will handle.

Like I say, you don't just install one thing. You shovel piles of crap onto your hard drive and pray that the Angry Audio Gods will be appeased at your offering. (Note: There's no such thing as a non-angry audio god.)

If you run on Linux, chances are (like, 99.9%) you already have PulseAudio crammed up your hinder whether you like it or not. This is bad news, because music synthesizer software requires Jack Audio (at least all of it that I've seen), and Jack and Pulse installed on the same system is like having two wildcats and a bee stuffed in your underwear. Whenever either of these two territorial bears sense the other running, they will crash your computer trying to fight with each other. So if a program that used to work suddenly freezes, it's because it depends on Pulse and you were just running something that required Jack, which caused them to slash each other's throats in the background and now sound is mute and your mouse pointer stopped moving, no matter what program you use.

Two YouTube video tutorials that will get you addicted to Seq24 too: part one here and part two here.

As you can see from that masterful demo, first you need to have the jack-dssi-host program running 'hexter.so' (which shows up in my menu as "hexter"), because it has the instruments. (What, did you think the same program where you're pressing buttons to make sound should also be the one making the sounds??? Are you kidding?) Then you'll need Hydrogen, just for the drums (You thought synthesized instruments and drums would be in the same program??? Are you CRAZY?). And every time you add a new instrument, you have to start a new instance of jack-dssi-host running hexter.so.

Oh, and saving the file won't work the same way you think it will. See, every one of those little boxes you create in Seq24 won't make any noise without that hexter menu telling it what instrument's voice to use. That data is not saved in MIDI, the only format Seq24 knows. Here's my solution:

How else do you save your song? Well, in an ideal world, you'd just be able to fire up one of the 3000 Linux desktop recorders and "roll a tape" on your song. Nope! Wrong! See, desktop recorders can't handle MIDI playing over Jack, so they won't record anything. You can't start something with Pulseaudio at the same time or it will crash Jack's sound. What do? Here's my solution:

Yes, there's good reasons to have multiple computers in the house. I'm astounded that this worked, even though the MP3s I recorded did have some background noise from computer fans and such, which you'll only notice if you blast them, which you won't because they suck. Anyway, that's what you'd want Audacity for, to trim whitespace off the beginning and end of the recordings (I didn't with mine. Who would care?) and tweak the noise and whatnot.

Finally, some dippy little MIDI songs in MP3 format composed in Seq24. I'm releasing them Creative Commons to the public (oh hell, steal 'em if you want 'em), mostly because I can't stand to own them anymore myself. But they do show off the range of capabilities of Seq24, beyond the mere toy you'd at first expect it to be.

Around WFMU's Beware of the Blog, they call this "Outsider Music." I've blogged about outsider musicians many times before covering Ubuweb's 365 Days Project on the aforementioned LyricInterpretations.com; now I am proud to join their ranks!

On the whole, Seq24 is dangerously, mercilessly addicting. It is by far the easiest program for the novice to pick up, and presents the kind of interface that I love: It makes perfect sense for its purpose, while driving usability experts to hang themselves.

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