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Let It B…SD – and how to record songs with Audacity (Open Source Free Software)

A few week-ends ago I had a go at recording “Let It BSD,” a pastiche of “Let It Be,” focused on the BSD operating system. It was the first time for me in years that I had had a go at recording music.

What I used to do when I was in high school was to record myself playing on a cassette tape, then play that back through my parents’ dual-tape hi-fi system whilst recording the vocal track onto the second tape. If I was happy with that I would be able to record a third time by re-recording in similar fashion over the first tape. Onerous, time-consuming (especially when I made mistakes), and with very limited mixing opportunities (read: none), it was a rather challenging (vexing) experience.

That was 2002. 14 years on, the technology available for casual hobbyist recording has come leaps and bounds; and no, I did not need any particularly powerful equipment for this at all. A modern laptop (from within the last couple of years) and a couple of small accessories are enough.

The song, the subject

play

Play Let It BSD (new tab)

  • BSD stands for “Berkley Software Distribution,” and generally refers to a variety of related operating systems based off of the original 386BSD from the 80’s, itself derived from the original portable version of UNIX.
  • Let It Be is a fairly cheesy, albeit popular, song by the Beatles, which I am not sure is appropriate to sing in all times of conflict (I was never sure of what we should “let be.”)
  • Let It BSD“‘s lyrics were written by Jacqueline Kory Westlund, as a result of having heard one too many episodes of her husband’s favorite tech security and systems podcasts, TechSnap and BSD Now.
  • JKW released her parody lyrics under a Creative Commons with Attribution license (CC/Attr), which is a license for content creators that allows everyone to share and modify material, so long as the original author/s is/are given credit in appropriate and visible form. Which is fortunate for me, because I was not able to place a comment on her blog to ask/thank her.
  • My recorded track is, as such, also released under Creative Commons/Attr 4.0 license, for anyone to do what they would like to with.

My Setup – hardware and software

On the hardware side, I used

  • a Lenovo Flex laptop and simply its built-in mic
  • a set of headphones (really good Sony ones, cost me about £40 a few months ago)
  • and a USB stick.

I used headphones (not earbuds) to get the best pitch range on playback.

I used the USB stick to record the temp files to – in Audacity preferences under the Directories section, you can specify what space to use for the temp directory. Since my laptop has a HDD and I did not want the fans or disk kicking in, a USB was a suitable workaround. It wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d had an SSD.

4GB might have been just about sufficient with no other apps present and a lightweight desktop; and as I type, I wonder, if I’d had less RAM, if using a file on the USB stick for a swap file, would have helped…

For the software, recording and “mixing” was done in Audacity, running on Ubuntu MATE (a Linux system — yes, ironic isn’t it). I had two windows with the lyrics open so that I could have everything in front of me fully annotated, so no scrolling would ever be needed. Paper would have been an acceptable substitute.

bsd_tracks

Instruments involved

  • a mandolin (two actually for different sound qualities and ease of handling)
  • a steel string acoustic guitar
  • a Spanish nylon-strung guitar
  • a tambourine
  • and a metronome (because I had not yet found out about the click track feature built-in to Audacity!)

You can tune manually, but having a guitar tuner makes it all the easier. Pity my cheap penny whistles are all out of tune.

bsd_instruments_600

Method

The most frequently used keyboard shortcuts used during recording will likely be these:

  • (R) record
  • (P) pause
  • (Space) stop/play
  • (J) jump to start of track
  • (K) jump to end of track

Starting a recording writes to a new track, always. You can use the ←→ dual arrow tool to move track pieces around, and split tracks on the cursor in the Edit menu: Labeled Audio.

  • First take: I recorded myself strumming and singing against a metronome, to lay down the reference track.
  • Second take: playing the first take back in the headphones, I did a new take solely recording the guitar being strummed.
  • Third take: this was supposed to be the vocal track, but since I had to turn off the first recording I lost the metronome ticks, so third take was …. clapping in time to the first track to create a poor man’s click track.
  • Third take (bis): I recorded a first take of the vocals. This was not so much to be a final take, but rather to serve as a guide as to where I was in the song on subsequent takes.
  • Fourth take: tambourine. It turns out playing a tambourine so that it blends in to a song decently is not quite as easy as just shaking and beating it. You want to shake it fairly deftly to avoid jangling at odd moments, which requires constant concentration…!
  • Fifth take: Spanish guitar arpeggiations, nothing too fancy. The bright timbre of the steel string folk guitar was much more preferable for strumming the background, so arpeggiation was left to the mellower nylon-strung Spanish guitar. I could have used an electric guitar to get a different timbre, but I wanted to keep it all as “acoustic” as possible.
  • Sixth take: Here’s where I cheated a little – I tuned the Spanish guitar to a drop-D, and played my bass track on it. In Audacity I then used the Change Pitch effect to drop the track by an octave, amplified it a little to bring the sound back and voilà – I have no bass guitar, but still have a bass track :-) The downside is that the low D does not translate well to digital re-tuning down by an octave, so it sounds a little funky. Not sure how to resolve this.
  • Seventh & Eighth takes: by now with my old cassette tape method I’d probably have been tearing my hair out and weeping in despair. At this point I was recording two backing vocals at the end of the track; harmonies to accompany the final slew of choruses. I actually reduced the volume on the reference vocal track to minimize distraction. Singing a harmony and keeping to it is not easy when a more familiar tune is being sung into your head. Even trickier to get two harmony voices in and keep to them. I sang in my normal voice, and in falsetto, to be sure to get different timbres.
  • Ninth track: solo time. Grabbed the ash mandolin to do this, it has a slightly higher action which suits me better for melody playing. I didn’t write anything for this, in fact I replayed the entire track from the beginning and practised scales and mini-licks until I got to the solo area, paused a bit, and improvised along through the solo area. I cut the rest from the take, it took me about 2-3 takes to get something I liked, then another one when I realized I had deleted it during an ill-advised bout of undo-redo. Bleh. No two takes were the same.
  • Tenth track: easy one – redburst mandolin with a lower action, which I just tried to strum as fast as possible. I was originally going to have it all through the choruses, but sustaining that proved too much for me, so only kept it in the final flourish.
  • Eleventh track: final vocals. I can sing in different registers. You don’t want to hear what happened when I went up an octave. For this one, rather than use my normal baritone voice, I tried to keep the timbre higher. The original take (3bis) made me sound a bit like an opera singer trying to do folk. Yeuch.
  • Final track: the Allan track. My intention was to grab clips of Allan Jude saying the names of each of the BSD flavours and substituting them accordingly, but I didn’t have the courage to actually go through a whole heap of shows to identify where he might have said each line, if at all. So we’re stuck with my cheap imitation-Canadian accent.

How affordable does this make hobbyist music recording?

(The rig I did all this with is a little more powerful than regular laptops; I have a small Gigabyte Brix with 4GB RAM and a HDD, 2 processors. I will need to use an external webcam as it has no built-in mic, but could still make sure to keep it near the unit to simulate an internal mic. I’ll do some tests there too to find out whether recording with that setup would be viable.)

System

If you do not have access to high-end PCs or modern laptops with top-specs, you’re probably finding yourself limited in choice. Getting a second-hand laptop from the last 3 years would probably work fine for the task, preferably with at least 4GB RAM

Your base minimum would probably be dual-core at 1.4GHz, 2-4GB RAM, and 2-4 USB ports. Any PC/laptop produced within the last 4 years should be able to manage that.

The laptop I used has 8GB RAM which probably helps in keeping recording + playback in memory responsive, reducing recourse to the fans I expect.

If you do not have this amount of RAM, and can’t get/afford any modules to expand, there still might be a way – create a swap file on a second USB stick, which would burn through the stick faster (and you probably would only ever want to use it as swap thereafter), but would prevent the HDD from kicking in when memory needs to be offloaded to disk. I’ve heard that the stick burns out faster used in this way, but no idea what timeframes – hours, days, weeks or months of usage.

I don’t think you can explicitly and dynamically configure swap location in Windows or OS X (even though the latter is lightly related to BSD), but in strict BSD and Linux it’s a doozy – as root just do the following

swapoff # turn off normal swap, wherever it is  
SWAPFILE=/path/to/swap/file/swapfile
dd if=/dev/zero of="$SWAPFILE" bs=1024 count=$(( 4 * 1024 * 1024 )) # 4GB swap file
mkswap "$SWAPFILE"
swapon "$SWAPFILE" # since we turned off all other swap, we only swap on this file

And then remove it from swap and turn on the normal swap

swapoff
mount -a # assuming swap is normally set up in fstab

Recording Software

You would be hard pressed to get such a complete solution for basic audio recording and mixing as Audacity for free. Apple’s Garage Band costs to acquire now if you don’t have it preinstalled (I don’t, I had to reinstall my Mac some time in the past) or want the latest version, and requires off the bat that you buy a Mac. Microsoft does not make or bundle any similar-grade software out of the box, and Adobe’s solution is aimed at professionals, with a price tag to match.

Audacity works on BSD, Linux, Windows and Mac OS X and whilst not as feature-complete and pretty as its commercial counterparts is still very flexible and powerful. Also it doesn’t chew memory just to launch – it’s a lean mean recording machine.

It is Open Source Free Software, and supports recording to OGG (for lossy compressed files) and FLAC (non-lossy compressed files), both open standards that any software can read (if it wants to). There’s no patent tax on the software makers to pass down to their users.

If you want to record video at the same time as the audio, you can try Open Broadcaster Software which is released for Linux, Mac, and Windows which can record desktop, multiple webcams, and audio as required; also open source free.

To mix the video portions you could check out Blender which is also multi-platform, including BSD, open source free as well.

If you are into electronic music and trackers, there’s LMMS, which I have not tried but may eventually come to explore if I get back into recording with trackers more frequently.

Conclusion

I don’t think I could have done this easily on commodity hardware without Linux and Open Source Free Software in general. To do even simple home recording, I expect without FOSS, I would have had to shell out for a proper system – or stuck to tapes and hi-fis.

And Allan’s wish for this to be sung at a BSD con may yet come true; what I hope to have done is laid down a reference version to build upon. It would be fun to see an instrumental team get together to record a version, or do a live take at a meetup, with Allan doing his part too…

Or at least a Jupiter Broadcasting version, recorded on Noah and Chris’s pro-grade equipment – if they can put aside their other allegiance for the sake of a song 😉

The Kingdom of Prosol and the Village of Fresol

A little allegorical tale about Proprietary, Free and Open Source :-)

If you’re looking for a tale to introduce the concept of freedom of software to younger generations, or people who just “don’t get computers,” take this one and run (with) it :-)

I’ve tried to maintain as many parallels as possible to the story of Free Software, for the fun of it, but also to be able to enable points of discussion. I’ve deliberately kept to generic characters and actions so as to remain general, and allowing anyone else to build upon the story. On that note…

Unlike a bard of olde, I have at my disposal two extra tools: the Internet, and Copyright Law. Regarding the latter:

I release this text under the Creative Commons License 4.0 Attribution-ShareAlike

You may copy, adapt and redistribute the work, even commercially, PROVIDED you grant this same license to the derivative work.

You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.

See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

Read more

The Surf

I was reading an article on why DRM has always been a bad idea, with mounting evidence to show it when the following came to mind:

Spread out your arms to stop the waves
From crashing into your lovely little sand castle
And be vanquished by its might

Or swim out into the unknown waters
Tussle with the ever changing unmarked currents
Fight to stay afloat in these tides

And then turn shorewards once more
Rush in with the swell and the implacable force of nature
Ride in on a wave of victory

Voila.

BitTorrent Bundles – True Free Advertising is Just Around The Corner

BitTorrent is currently trialling their new “Bundles” file format and mechanism, which allows content creators to create packages for their work to be freely distributed.

Anyone receiving the work will be able to view some of it for free, then be asked to take action to unlock the rest of the content:

  • pay a fee
  • provide their email
  • share the work

I’m hoping that they’ll also include a “View item in store” option as a mechanism for unlocking the content, to give the sharing and viral marketing paradigm a real boost, and turn the face of online advertising on its head!

Thus, persons who specifically do not wish to pay money will still not have to, but ensuring a store link for that particular content (and not the artist in general) accompanies the piece in an otherwise free-distribution format

  1. allows sharers to share, and recipients still have a no-pay way of viewing the material
  2. enables artists to edge persons amenable to the idea of paying towards a store, removing the requirement of said consumers to proactively locate a retailer
  3. which subsequently would make the act of sharing a real free-advertising mechanism

This could work really well, so long as sharing gratis and libere is still possible, and if artists using this can provide direct access to the specific item in an international store.

Here’s to hoping!

 

Copyright Should Make Way for Creative Commons

Currently, “Copyrighted” is the default state of any creative piece. I think it is time this is changed to be Creative Commons – or something similar. I would distinguish also a right for a piece not to be spliced/abridged. Part of a set, do not distribute separately.

For one, this is the way fandoms view intellectual property, and, let’s face it – without fandoms, merch does not get sold. Additionally, it is through the enrichment of stories and content that better content is created.

I think of storytellers who retold and embellished other people’s stories, I think of folk songs passed down, re-interpreted and re-matched against other tunes, and a flurry of other great things that we’ve gotten from being free to rework, rehash and recombine, and then compare that against an imperative to ensure that only one body has the right to copy and distribute an expression for fear that it is inherently in the copying that money is to be made (a very Pre-War point of view).

Abiding by the book: in law, buskers playing popular songs are repeatedly breaching copyright, fan fictions are a theft of trademark, every design on TeeFury and other t-shirt site is a violation of rights on intellectual property. Taken to an alarmist extreme, referencing popular culture in a published or performed piece is potentially a breach of copyright (the walls surrounding fair use are not watertight – they’d need to be clear for starters).

I think we need to relax a bit. More money is wasted on legal battles than earned riding the waves of popularity and fandoms – who, by the way, really want other people to know about your material. Since we can’t simply say in court “Copyright sometimes applies,” I’d vote for more permissive licenses to be the legal standard. This does not exclude the ability to copyright a work, but a change would highlight the differences between the two licensing schemes, and open up further discussion as to what is really, truly necessary to foster creativity without causing the collapse of creative professions.

Art – but no thought for money?

I often read quotes from successful artists – including writers – who insist that they started out with little income, if any, and that in working, they would give little consideration to money, if any at all.

But then I wonder, “if you were making as astoundingly little as you say, how the devil did you survive?

“How did you physically go about subsisting once you had decided that your artistic endeavours trumped all else, even if you may not make a dime from any of them?

“How much of it was down to shrewdness? How much came down to luck? And how much support did you get, from whom – and were they all willing supporters from the start? Or were you even one of those who had help thrust upon them before greatness?

“And, if it were your own dream-filled, bright-eyed, empassioned child you were to advise, and you hadn’t a penny or pencil left to give them yourself: would you recommend they walk that same path?”

I’m sure they mean to foster encouragement – but budding artists in their early days still have to face the fact that they need a plan that doesn’t involve “ditching” their current lifeline – and they’d love to hear how their heroes made it through.

I took a train to London town

The following is based on a true story told to me by my flatmate. Here, re-told in verse and in her voice.

I took a train to London town one day in February
A journey I would not forget for this is what happened to me:

I sat at a tabled seat – you know, the ones where two face two
And as we pulled away, two drunks approached from out of the blue

The two men sat at my same berth, before me and beside
And every time one smiled at me, I died a little inside;

His teeth were rotten, breath was foul; his skin was rugged, limp and white
And every time he slurred his words I died a little inside

My neighbour spoke to me foul words, half in jest and half insult
But I remained polite for fear a fight may otherwise result

He hurled abuse accross the carriage at an Asian family
The turned to me and showed he bore a swastika under his sleeve

“I left the prison just today,” declared the drunken savage,
“And I’m going home to my bonnie lass to ask her hand in marriage”

His friend exclaimed, “excuse my pal, he’s normally not this bad;
We’re getting off at the next stop.” For this I was truly glad.

Then up they stood, up went their hoods, and they turned to another drunken pack
“Yer all a bunch o wankers, eh!” — Oh kettle! Oh pot! Oh black! Oh black!

And on the platform they did stand swaggering side to side
And thinking of their brides to be I died a little inside …

The Walk

I’d like to take your for a walk in town this evening
I thought it might be a fun little thing to do
I didn’t know what kind of things you liked
So I thought we could go out, and decide along the way
It’s just, I wanted to spend some time with you

May I offer you a coffee?
It may be slightly strong, I hope it will do
A coffee from a street stall on an evening promenade
These little things you might remember for a time
It’s just, I’d like to give something to you

May I share my scarf with you?
It’s not particularly long, I hope it can do
As we stop on the brow of a wintery hill
Looking out across the grey tranquility of this town
It’s just, I want to share something with you

May I hold your hand as we walk?
Mine’s hardly even warm, I hope it will do
As we tread the freshly iced evening streets
And you smile at me when I blunder speaking
It’s just, I need your reassurance when I talk

Shall I walk you back to your place?
If you’d allow, I would certainly like to
And when we’d arrive I’d move for a good-bye embrace
And hope by chance, maybe…
Hope that maybe…
It’s just, I’m hopelessly in love with you.

The Working Week

Monday is met with courage, to face the coming trials
Five days hard work, short sleep, and tired nights

Tuesday tells little, as we quietly carry on

Wednesday wishes for the courage of Monday
Eye on Friday as nearer we creep
A limbo in the middle of the working week

Thursday sighs hope, and awaits the coming dawn

Friday hails the free days, to cure with much delight
Five days hard work, short sleep and tired nights

A silly poem

My friend Tom told me a tale once, which I versify here.

I took a little toy that I had acquired
To setup on the lawn to be admired
It was beautifully sturdy
I got it up by seven-thirty
But was sad to learn I had to take it down

I was told that I had raised an illegal erection
Which I thought was rather odd upon reflexion:
There were no explicit directions
To forbid my splendid erection
On a delicate piece of turf by Sallie’s gate

Really, he set up a gazebo in St Salvator’s (“Sallie’s”) Quadrangle (St Andrew’s University, Scotland) and was promptly told by the staff that he could not leave it there, as it was an “illegal” (“unauthorized”?) erection.

For some strange reason I remembered it today whilst going to buy lunch and composed the two verses above on my return (well, the second one came first…)