"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
- 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?
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.
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.
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)
- 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.
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?
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.
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)
- 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
- 'Scribus' was used for layouting, CMYK-conversion and the final PDF-creation
- Only free fonts: Free UCS Outline Fonts (GNU FreeFont), Liberation fonts, Forgotten Futurist
- ECI's 'ISO Coated v2 300%' ICC profile based on fogra39l.txt (No proprietary ICC profiles)