MMML#3 – the MusE sequencer (in progress)

Simple LInux MIDI sequencers may be adequate for many users. But it takes a while to get used to any sequencer interface, and when users find that a sequencer can’t do everything they need to do, they’re forced to learn a whole new interface.

In MMML#1 and #2 I checked out the QTractor sequencer. It’ll do a lot of useful stuff. What it doesn’t do, though, is let users access ALL CC (continuous-controller) messages for editing. For those who want to be able to record pitchbends, filter moves, LFO moves, patch-changes, pedals, or the output of MIDI-controller hardware … and save and edit ALL of that input … a more versatile sequencer is needed.

The MusE sequencer has been around for a while (more than 10 years). It’s still being maintained and improved. “It was originally written by Werner Schweer and now is developed by the Muse development team.” I’ve seen it referred to online as ‘the best MIDI editor available for Linux’. One thing it certainly does is give complete access to CC-editing.

the MusE Sequencer website
the MusE Manual

The manual page called Window Reference Guide shows lots of images along with descriptions of most sequencer operations. The section called “The Pianoroll Editor” gives a glimpse into how CC’s (velocity in this case) can be edited.

One other thing: while MusE handles audio tracks as well, that capability may not be needed. It can be started without loading audio support by opening a terminal window and typing $ muse -a.

more MusE Sequencer resources

• the Recorders and Sequencers forum at LinuxMusicians
• There are several MusE tutorial videos on Youtube.

MMML#2 – Qtractor + ZynAddSubFX = audio file

When checking out a new MIDI sequencer, I like to import a simple, familiar MIDI file. Most modern sequencers are similar, but figuring out where all the features are hiding takes time. The Qtractor seq (like most) may be scary at first, so having something pleasant/familiar to toy with helps me get oriented. It also means I don’t having to figure out the editing features right away to make a couple of notes to listen to over and over!

I also like to check out the complete path from MIDI to getting audio into a file to see how painful that’s going to be. Since I wanted to listen to what I was doing, I decided to load a software synth to avoid any possible hassles with external interface/hardware.

The ZynAddSubFX software synth gets mentioned a lot, so I installed and started it to see how complicated it was. Luckily, it offers a choice between Noob and Advanced modes … luckily because Zyn goes waaaay deep. In Noob mode you see a simple interface. Unlike some softsynths there’s also a list of patches for familiar-sounding instruments, not just “acid space” sounds.

I started Qtractor  (which in turn started QJackCtl, cutting out the audio I was listening to) and clicked the little red Connections icon. This gives direct access to the Patchbay, which offers sections for Audio and MIDI.

In the MIDI section the readable clients list includes Qtractor and the writable clients list included ZynASF. Selecting one port of each, and clicking the connect button created a ‘virtual patchcord’ line. I selected one track of my midi file to ‘S’olo, and then listened to what Zyn was sending to the audio outs.

The final step of getting audio into a file first involved creating a new Qt audio track because the audio playback from the synth needs to be recorded. On the new audio track I enabled the ‘R’ecord button to its left, then up on the menubar I clicked the Red record button next to the blue ‘Play’ button. I moved the playback cursor to the beginning of the solo track and pressed play.

As before, I could hear the Zyn, and the audio track started filling in with a red bar all right. But there was nothing ‘inside’ it … no waveform. Hmmm. Oh wait, maybe that’s because I haven’t patched any audio source into the Qtractor input.

Going back to the Connections box and clicking to the Audio section, I noticed that Zyn audio output was wired to the System input … but not to the Qt input. Yep, I had to create a second ‘wire’ from Zyn to Qt and click the connect button. This time when I started play, the red bar contained an audio waveform. Bingo!

When the track finished playing, I started looking for a way to save the audio track. But then I noticed that a file with an .ogg extension was already sitting in the folder I’d saved the .qtr session into. Midi to audio file … I was all done!

MMML#1 – Making Music with MIDI on Linux

I’m going to document my learning about MMML right here. I’ve made lots of MIDI music in the past (mostly on OSX), but very little on Linux. So, for those who may care, let’s get right to it.

There’s a lot of technical stuff to be concerned with in making music with a computer, and so I’m aiming to Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). One of the lessons I learned the hard way in the past is that you can so swamped with the technical stuff that you spend WAY too much time on it. That’s why I’m sticking with basics for now.

First of all, if you’re going to use an external synth, you need a MIDI interface, and the drivers that go with it. I’m using an M-Audio MIDISport 2×2 from back in the day. They’re fairly simple, inexpensive and the drivers have been around a long time and just work.

The MS uses a USB port (you’ll need a spare) which handles 2 MIDI ins and 2 MIDI outs. Each MIDI port handles up to 16 channels of MIDI data. Meaning I can drive up to 16 MIDI patches on one of two hardware instruments.

To get my computer talking to the Midisport I hunted around to find this program: midisport-firmware_1.2+dsfg1-0ubuntu6_all.deb. Linux distros will install deb-packages using different methods. You can use a program called GDebi, or – in the terminal – you can navigate to the directory your package is in and type: sudo dpkg -i package.deb.

MIDI tracks are laid down in a program called a sequencer. Of course, you can drive programs called softsynths from a sequencer and skip the hardware part. Either way, you have to route the audio output of these sequencers to an audio input port in order to record your track.

I’ll be starting with a sequencer app called Qtractor. There are others, notably MusE and Rosegarden. They are somewhat more involved. Another necessary program is called QjackCtl; it interfaces your sequencer to the Linux OS and is a patchbay, which lets you patch MIDI and Audio gozintas and gozoutas. Installed along with it are several other bibs and bobs, but QJackCtl is KISS.

Linux music resources collection (growing)

• Linux music software: HitSquad/Linux
• Advice/Help forum: LinuxMusicians
• Distro resource: Producing Music on Linux
Fedora Musicians Guide. Excellent for newcomers; details basics, guide to major software packages.