Free Software! Yeah, buddy! (Part C)

Home | Computing Lunacy | Free Software! Yeah, buddy! (Part C)

So I’ve become somewhat comfortable manipulating various audio files around and Ardour is a really user friend and relatively easy to learn piece of software… at least relatively speaking. It’s still a beast, but it’s strangely addictive.

After working with Ardour for probably a month or so, I decided I wanted to add something new to the system. I wanted a MIDI Digital control surface. Simply said, it looks like a mixer. It’s a box with a bunch of buttons, knobs and sliders on it that connects to your computer with a USB cable. It is supposed to integrate into Ardour to allow the user to use it as a mixing console. The sliders are even motorized so that when you’re playing back a previously mixed recording, the volume controls will track the positions where you originally placed them. It’s a Behringer BCF-2000. If you would like to see one in operation, just go to YouTube and search on that model. There are a number of people who have done some pretty funky things showing the sliders moving around without human intervention. Pretty cool!

Before I bought it, I checked to see that the Control Surface was supported in Linux and by Ardour. It was. In fact, I saw (via Google) a bunch of different tutorials for setting the control surface up with Ardour.

I ordered one through Amazon. For some reason they had a white version of the controller for somewhere around $30 less than the charcoal gray one, so I ordered it. Turns out there is a waiting period of around six weeks for the white ones for some reason.  Finally after about 4 weeks of waiting, I happened to check the prices again. The charcoal one had been adjusted to the same price, so I cancelled the order for the white one and ordered the dark one. Within 4 or 5 days, it arrived. I was SOOO stoked!

I opened it, read the manual (which said nothing about Linux) and then went to Behringer’s website, where I did find Linux drivers. I also looked around and found a couple handy utilities for it that run under Linux.

Upon first attempt to install the Behringer, I met absolutely no success. I tried one set of directions “guaranteed to work” by a Linux user who had reportedly done this on several different machines. Maybe if he had done mine, it would have worked… but mine didn’t. There were several other attempts made, usually after wiping the hard drive and restoring the Linux box to the state it was immediately before the Behringer arrived. Before all was said and done, I’ll bet I did 20 installations and attempts at making the Behringer hook up with Linux and Ardour. All were unsuccessful.

The closest I ever got to making it work was once, I recorded a couple of test tracks and then attempted to mix them. The very first time I tried to move one of the sliders on the Behringer, the Linux machine threw a segment fault error in Ardour. Next time I booted Ardour, there was no link up with the Behringer. Reboot, retry, repeat! No other attempts ever got that close again. This over and over process was carried out in small parts every evening with just one or two hours. All this time, I’m not practicing my guitar and not spending any time with my wife. It got me absolutely nowhere.

After probably two weeks of trying to get the Behringer to work with Ardour on my computer, I finally decided to bite the bullet and try Windows. Off I went to CompUSA and bought a new 1 terabyte drive and a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit. That way, if I didn’t like Windows 7 (which I had never seen before), I could yank out the new drive and go back to Linux or even dual boot one operating system or the other.

It took about an hour to install the drive and install Win7. I had several options available then. I have an old copy of Adobe Audition, but it is old enough that support for Control Surfaces was minimal. I installed it. It recognized the Control Surface, not as a Behringer, but as a Mackie board and accepted it. Don’t get me wrong. I love Adobe Audition (used way back when it was Cool Edit, probably back around 1995 or so), but it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that Ardour had. So I looked around and discovered that Cubase 6 Elements would probably do about everything I wanted. I went to Steinberg’s website, paid for and downloaded a copy of it. Another 45 minutes or so and I had Cubase 6 Elements installed and working with my sound card. I turned on the Behringer and nothing happened. Then I read something in the manual for Cubase that said any USB devices should be powered up or connected before Cubase is started. Close Cubase, Power cycle the Behringer. Start Cubase. Now, according to Cubase directions, I went to the Devices section and selected Mackie as my control surface. As soon as I did that, the Behringer sprang to life. The sliders followed the virtual sliders on the screen. I was able to create a profile for the surface. The learn function of Cubase let me click on an onscreen function and then wiggle a control on the Behringer and the two find each other.

Since then, I have done literally dozens of different recordings, mixes and various audio manipulation and abuse with Cubase 6 and the Behringer.

Bottom line, it cost me $75 for the hard drive, which I really didn’t need. A hundred bucks or so for the copy of Win7 and another $99 for Cubase. So for less than $300 I could have saved myself at least 20 hours of frustration. At my age, the $300 still isn’t trivial, hindsight always being 20/20, I would gladly have forked out the $300 to save myself the hassle I went through.

Having said all that, I still like Ardour better than Cubase and if I could be reasonably assured that I could make the Behringer (and a few other pieces of hardware added afterwards) work, I’d re-install Linux.

Since I did the Windows 7 installation, my kids bought me a Tascam US-1800 USB mixer/sound card. It’s a great piece of gear in a 1 up rack mount cabinet. It has 8 XLR mic inputs on the front panel and pair of Line level inputs (suitable for direct plug-in for a guitar) as well as 4 channels out. Installing it was as simple as going to Tascam’s website and downloading the drivers for Windows 7 and then plugging the USB cable into my computer. Cubase supports it. I can switch back and forth between it and the in-cabinet Delta1010LT in a matter of seconds via the control panel of the computer. I seriously doubt it would have been that simple under Linux.

For others, Linux may be the answer and I still have to admit, I have a soft spot for it. But the hidden costs of my experience with “free software” has put me back in the Windows camp, at least for now.

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