Making music with Linux

I use Linux as my desktop OS, which means using it for all the music that I make. I’ve been using it for years. I love it, but I have to admit that the state of music software on Linux is nothing like what’s available for Windows or Mac. The following is an overview of my music-making environment.

My setup is very simple: It’s just Seq24 and ZynAddSubFX, plus a little bit of processing in Rezound.

ZynAddSubFX is a softsynth written by Paul Nasca. It’s very self-contained, which is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand the limited palette of options prevents you spending time hunting around for components to fit into it. On the other hand, it’s a limited palette.

It has three synthesis modes: An additive synth with analogue-style resonant filters. It’s easy to get that to sound like a basic analogue synth, but the additive synth has some nice features that can make it sound more interesting. I particularly like its ability to randomly vary the volume of the frequency components. That can make it sound a lot more human. I use that for the sound that you hear at the end of Shadows Across the Path.

It has a subtractive synthesis mode. That works by filtering white noise through an array of bandpass filters. That creates a lovely airy sound. That’s used for the melodic component of Resting in a Cold Place.

It also has a synthesis mode which it calls Pad Synth which seems to be of Paul Nasca’s own invention. It generates a looping sample from a bunch of parameters that are controllable in the same way as the additive synth. The nicest feature there is that the harmonics can be detuned, making for some nice bell-like tones.

There are also a bunch of effects, all of which are of a high quality. I use distortion and reverb a lot. The routing isn’t very flexible, which again is a double-edged sword. It’s all set up to be musically useful, so you don’t spend time wiring components together like you would in a more flexible environment, but sometimes I’d like to be able to do things a little differently.

The sequencer I use is Seq24. It’s very minimalist, and designed for a use in a live environment. It’s easy to create a few loops and then play around with how they fit together. Having used a more traditional song-based sequencer before, I much prefer this style of working. There’s then a song editor which I sometimes use to arrange the sequence before I master a track, but sometimes I’ll just play it live as I’m mastering. It depends on the complexity of the track.

One odd feature of my setup is that I don’t have a keyboard. Instead, I enter most of my music in a piano roll editor. I’m quite tempted to get a keyboard now, but for a long time I resisted because I’m quite interested in the way that my tools influence my music, and it’s clear that not having a keyboard influences the way I write music. For example, the main melodies in Trasen would not have been written that way if I’d been playing a keyboard.

I’ve deliberately avoided spending much time tinkering with my setup. I’m sure I could be doing all sorts of cool things with some of the software that’s available now, but I know that that can be an enormous time sink. I will keep on doing bits of fiddling here and there, and I’ll keep my eyes open for bits of software that I’d like to try. I haven’t got into using JACK yet, and I’d like to play with DSSI plugins. But that’s a low priority compared to actually making music.

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