"X marks the spot" - a proof of concept

Not only, are we happy and proud to present you new and great XBloome sounds on our new album, but for some of you it might also be interesting "how" this album was produced.

"X marks the spot" is the world's first album that was produced exclusively with Free Software from beginning to end.
It is a proof of concept that shows that high-quality audio- and graphics-production is possible using exclusively Free Software tools.

The hard facts

Note: Across the whole article, the word "free" refers to "free as in free speech" - not "free as in free beer".
So, the term "Free Software" should not be confused with "Freeware"!

  • Audio recording, mixing, mastering on GNU/Linux, with a free DAW and free plugins.
  • Graphics either completely self-made, or based on existing material under a Free License.
  • All image/graphic modifications done with Free Software.
  • Only free fonts used.
  • No proprietary ICC profiles used.

The world's first? Come on...

We know that there are already many many others out there who use Free Software for making music. And that's great!
Many songs out there were produced like that, but there's more to a CD production than just the audio recording.

What about these things:

  • Audio plugins?
  • Image manipulation?
  • Layouting?
  • Fonts?

So we've managed to do the whole chain from A-to-Z only with Free stuff.
If you find someone else who did the whole package like this, please let us know! Until then, we're proud to be the world's first band who did it. ;)

Why did we do this?

Art (and especially music) exists because of interaction between people. Its existence and brilliance requires cultural, personal and all other kinds of exchange.

We were surprised that it's often not legally possible to share our experience, know-how and the fun we have with making music, if we use state-of-the-art, proprietary tools. And talking to other artists, VJs, etc. confirmed that their know-how was also locked to conditions/restrictions of a certain vendor.

Because these artificial restrictions are blocking creativity and exchange - we've decided to go open.

Personal experience

One could write a whole book about probably every audio production out there, but in this article, we'll outline some of the most important things we've encountered during the process.

Find a professional Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)

The heart of any digital recording studio is the software used for recording, mixing, etc. Our drummer Peter has been working on previous album-productions of other bands with proprietary "Digital Audio Workstations" (DAWs) before, and therefore had high set of requirements for a replacement.
The quite popular audio-editing application 'Audacity' is nice, but for a multi-track recording/mixing/mastering album production it's not the right tool.

Right at the time we've started our production at the end of 2008, 'Ardour' had tremendously gained maturity thanks to SAE financially sponsoring its development.

Ardour is an awesome DAW that offers all the features required from a professional audio recording tool - and thanks to JACK, connecting it internally with other audio applications is easier and more seamlessly possible than with proprietary solutions (because Free Software vendors work together - whereas proprietary vendors usually believe in vendor-lock-in).

Find a multi-channel soundcard

Most hardware vendors don't like to let others join their game, and therefore don't play well with open tools. It was relieving to see that not all of them are so short-sighted, and that some vendors do work together with Free Software developers.
Since Terratec supports the FFADO developers, they were able to write a free and open GNU/Linux driver - and so we bought a Terratec 8 channel firewire soundcard.

Life without proprietary audio plugins

Even after getting to know Ardour, we've realized that in all previous productions anyone of us made before, there were always proprietary plugins used.
So it was necessary to find replacements for all the vitally necessary things like compressor, limiter, reverb, etc.

Surprisingly, it was easier than we thought:
Almost all required basic plugins are shipped by default with GNU/Linux repositories! And there were lots of them to choose from (e.g. 113 in Steve Harris' LADSPA package)

So we mixed everything using only LADSPA plugins.

We've compiled a full list of used plugins, more details and hands-on tipps and information in a tutorial about 'Audio recording with GNU/Linux' on our website.

Free fonts are not always "free"

This one hurt us very much:

We wanted to release the Scribus layout file (="source") of the CD artwork under a free license, for other to use, study, share and improve.
Think about it: As a designer/layouter, how much could you learn, if you had access to the original Photoshop or InDesign file of a professional graphic production?
Now, how cool would it be to see behind the scenes of a CD production from a band? How did they do it?

...but the fonts we originally used for the design, prevented us from releasing our layout-sources!

There are tons of sites on the internet, offering "free fonts". Unfortunately, most of them are only gratis - but you cannot use them freely - and you cannot redistribute them.

The redistribution of used fonts is very important if you release layout-templates, artwork-sources, etc. as downloads. In most cases it even limits the license of the created artwork to be non-free, because it would otherwise conflict with the font's license.

Luckily, we've only used 1 proprietary font in the design, because the default fonts on GNU/Linux systems are free. The whole layout was changed to replace that font with a free alternative, and now we are able to publish the original Scribus layout source file used for "X marks the spot" for others to play with (Warning: 122 MB!).

No layout templates for non-proprietary applications

Most production facilities (or printing companies in general) offer template files that make it easier to stick to certain requirements and layouting-constraints. The formats they offer require you to have (or buy) a certain, proprietary application.
The formats usually are:

  • Adobe Photoshop (PSD)
  • Adobe InDesign

(Some also offer CorelDraw, but that's no help either)

That's why we've released our CD jewel case layouting file as template. In order for others to quickly find it, we've contacted the Scribus developers and asked them to offer the template on the official website - which they did. :)

Now it's a breeze to create new CD layouts, because it contains all necessary size constraints, safety- and bleed-areas, layers, etc. Additionally, we have used exactly this template for our own production - so one can be sure that everything's correct!

The template was already used for the new Edelbrand-Records Sampler V layout.

Digital audio master files

Most CD production facilities expect the audio master files to come as DCA's Disc Description Protocol (DDP). Some proprietary applications offer to export in that format.
Unfortunately, it still seems unclear if DCA's license terms allow it to be implemented in Free Software applications. :(

Other alternative formats offered by some production facilities are:

  • NRG (Nero Image)
  • BIN/CUE
  • Audio CD

Nero was no option, since it's non-free and we didn't want to send an audio CD because of the possibility of burning-errors.

BIN/CUE has been around for many years now, and it's straight forward: The BIN file is a raw PCM, 44.1kHz, 2-channel, encoded audio stream, and the CUE sheet is a simple textfile. We've written a tutorial about creating a BIN/CUE master.

Professional quality?

There are a lot of prejudices about the quality of Free Software (Open Source) tools - and mostly they're negative. Especially when it comes to multimedia production.
Although Free Software and GNU/Linux is already used in high-class professional audio equipment, most of those vendors who use it, don't mention it (or just as a side-note). For example, Harris, a manufacturer of professional audio mixing consoles, uses Ardour as DAW in one of its products (but of course, does not mention that it's Free Software).

Consider this when comparing the quality of "X marks the spot" to other productions:
We did everything ourselves. This means that everything: audio-recording, mixing, mastering, graphics-design, layouting, etc - was all done by self-taught individuals, and not full-time-audio-engineers or designers as you would probably expect in "normal" productions.

So if we were able to create such a high-quality album ourselves, with Free Software tools - what else is possible?

Audio quality

You might want to do a listening-comparison between our first album ("...Done!") and "X marks the spot", because "...Done!" was produced the usual way:
recorded in a studio, mixed and mastered using a proprietary DAW, only non-free proprietary audio plugins, etc.

And it was made by exactly the same people - but using standard "professional" equipment.

Printwork quality

We've asked several individuals, including trained graphic designers, and none of them had guessed that this production differed from any other.

And that, although "it's 100% Photoshop-free!"

The hard facts again - in detail...

Audio recording environment:

(It goes without saying, that every software mentioned here is Free Software)

  • Free operating system GNU/Linux: Debian, Ubuntu
  • Recording/mixing: Ardour digital audio workstation (No 'Samplitude', no 'Logic', no 'Cubase', ...)
  • No proprietary audio plugins used - only Free LADSPA plugins (No 'VST', no 'DirectX', ...)
  • Audio hardware driver: FFADO
  • JACK for routing audio (no ASIO, ...)
  • Hydrogen as drum sequencer
  • FMIT (Free Music Instrument Tuner)

Audio mastering

  • Mastering compressor, limiter, etc: JAMin
  • Gnome CD Master for generating TOC/CUE files
  • SoX for creating RAW audio BIN
  • cdrdao for creating a pre-master audio CD

Artwork and graphics

All graphics were created using Free Software, too:

  • GIMP for all 2D graphics and photo-effects (Yes, it's 100% Photoshop-free!)
  • Inkscape for all vector graphics
  • Krita for CMYK/RGB conversion of 2D graphics

Layouting and pre-press

[]

Hardware

On which computer hardware was 'X' recorded? Which microphones did you use?

Thank you for releasing all this FOSS info! It's very interesting :-)

Kim

peter_b's picture

Hardware

Hi Kim,

Most of the equipment we've used is written inside the album's booklet" (Audio-gear, instruments, software, microphones, etc).

However, I just realized that I didn't write which computer we've used for recording :(
It was Bel's old, unused desktop-machine. It was something around a 1,2 GHz Pentium 3, and I've upgraded it to around 512 MB RAM. Unfortunately that machine was finally replaced shortly after the release of "X Marks the Spot", so I can't look it up.

The microphones are listed in the booklet:

The Neumann was borrowed for those recordings, but since then we've bought a "RØDE NT1-A" and are really happy with it!
With louder input signals it doesn't play together too well with the mic-gains of the Behringer boards (slight distortion too early).
So I'd suggest using an external mic-preamp when working with the NT1-A - depending on the dynamic input range.

If you have any more questions, feel free to ask! :)

Hardware

Great! Thanks for the quick reply :-) If any other questions pop in my head, i'll be sure to ask them. I'm currently researching if i can do a studio-only FOSS project and your tips have already helped me a lot in figuring out how to do it with open source software.
Thank you :-)

Kim

World's FIrst

Hi! I just thought I should mention that I had done an album made entirely with FOSS almost two years ago. I used Ardour/Ladspa, GIMP, Inkscape, and Scribus. I even went one further and used Cinelerra for the videos. I also designed my own website using Kompozer and hosted it on Hostmonster, which is all FOSS based (runs on CENTOS). Nice to hear that others are doing things like this, and keep up the good work. Visit www.dickmacinnis.com to check it out.

DickMacInnis.com

peter_b's picture

Great to hear that!

Thanks for letting us know.

I guess you're talking about 'Everything You've Heard About Love', right? Unfortunately, I couldn't find concrete information about how you've produced that album (So we would have never figured out that you might have done the same thing).
I'd be happy to update our text to include your work, if you could provide us with additional information, like:

  • 'Copyshop & CD-R', or 'offset-print & glas-master'?
    (That's important, because FOSS is used by millions for copyshop/CD-R productions, but hardly when it comes to dealing with real production facilities)
  • Did you use proprietary audio plugins?
  • Which format did you use as production audio master?
  • Font licenses: For example: Many 'free' fonts are non-redistributable

...because those are the small details we've figured out that a lot of people simply overlook, and that were the last 1% missing to be completely 'free'. ;)

btw: The 'Dream Studio' distro, you mention on your website sounds quite cool!

And Thank You!

I will make sure to add some information about the open source software I used to create "Everything You've Heard About Love" to my site very soon. Meanwhile, I'll quickly answer your questions:

1. Copyshop & CD-R, or 'offset & glass-master'. I've never worked in a duplication house, but I'm assuming they use the latter (They're the pressed kind of CD in shrinkwrap, not burned). I've also burned them myself with print shop covers (the first 100 were custom made with a special poster insert that would have been too expensive to have done in such a small run at a duplication house.). So, I guess, both. The only difference has been the layout files, for the duplicated cds I had to send postscript artwork, and at the copy shop I send PNG. One thing I've got to mention is that I LOVE your idea of open sourcing all these files!. When I was making this album I was very new to graphic design, and as such was in the bad habit of saving all my .xcf files for the gimp only after I had used the "flatten image" option, exporting to png, and then importing into scribus. I also never saved any scribus files. I would simply export the needed format and save that file for future use. I've since changed my working habits and hope to make my entire next album available in the original open source files for non-commercial use. It's ideas like yours that really enable newcomers to make sense of open source!

2. Did you use proprietary audio plugins? No. In fact, although I use an amp-simulator with built-in effects on guitars in a live settings. I used CAPS amp simulators and various LADSPA effecs as replacements on this album. All you hear is open-source ;-)

3. What format did you use as a production audio master? After the mixes were complete, I added each songs two track wav to a master Ardour project, on separate tracks. The master channel of this project had relatively static mastering tools like a JAMin insert, limiting, eq, compression and tube-warmth. By keeping each song mix on its own track, I had lots of fine control over how each song balance with one another, and was able to do smooth transitions between songs and some sound effects as fillers. This whole section was exported to a wav/toc file pair, which I burned with cd with k3b. That burned CD was the master for the duplication house.

4. Font licenses? I used FreeChancery Italic and DejaVu (both sans and serif). All are Free fonts.

Nonetheless, as you mentioned, you couldn't find any of this info about "Everything You've Heard About Love" anywhere on the web, so as far as you could see, you were the first! First "First entirely Free album" post, anyway ;-)

BTW, I love your tunes.

DickMacInnis.com