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Feature: Integration

Making music with M-Audio on Linux

By Phil Thane and Gwyn Jones on February 15, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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M-Audio has supplied hardware and software to computer-based musicians for 20 years. Its new "make-music-now" line of products, aimed at musicians just getting into computers or PC users with an interest in music, includes a microphone, speakers, drum machine, and DJ mixer deck. Unfortunately, its bundled software, called Session, is for Windows only. Our challenge was to try out this hardware -- specifically the KeyStudio MIDI keyboard and Fast Track audio interface -- with Linux applications. We were half successful.

The KeyStudio keyboard is well made, with 49 full-size, touch-sensitive keys. The action feels a little light, but the 'touch' is OK and you soon adjust to playing forte or pianissimo. Like Fast Track, it is USB-powered. There are Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels on the keyboard to tweak the sound as you play, and Octave buttons for when you want to emulate a piccolo or double bass.

The keyboard has no built-in sound capabilities of its own; it is intended to be used with the Session software, which has a good collection of MIDI samples and effects and outputs via Fast Track, or with M-Audio's Micro USB Audio Interface, which is supplied with Session. Our plan was to try it with LMMS, Rosegarden, Timidity, and any other Linux MIDI and audio software we find.

Whether you have basic on-board sound or a surround sound card for gaming, inputs are usually limited to line-in and microphone jacks. These are adequate for VoIP phone calls or recording from tape/record decks, but not much else. They are certainly not compatible with electric guitar jacks or XLR plugs for stage mics. According to M-Audio, the Fast Track USB interface is 'ideal for recording guitar and vocals,' but it could also be used to record any line level sound source, as long as you have the correct cable.

The design is nice and simple; the front panel has three knobs, one controlling the mic input level, another controlling the input/playback mix ratio, and the third controlling the main output level (this only affects the headphone and the RCA output volume). It also sports signal and peak indicator LEDs, 1/8-inch stereo headphone output, and a stereo/mono monitoring selection button.

The rear panel of the unit consists of a balanced XLR input socket, a quarter-inch jack line/instrument input, input level switch button (line/guitar), stereo RCA outputs, USB connection socket and also a Kensington lock connector. There's no power supply needed; Fast Track takes its power from the USB port. A possible 'gotcha' is that Fast Track replaces your sound card or on-board sound system, so you need to plug a couple of speakers into the interface.


Typical PC sound systems are created for playback, with inputs a poor second-level task they can just about cope with. In a Microsoft Direct Sound system the signal is transferred from the sound card via PCI to the CPU and back, and during the trip it may have to queue up while the CPU does other stuff for Windows. To avoid such latency Steinberg (of Cubase fame) developed the ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) protocol, which allows the audio interface to connect directly with the PC hardware, reducing latency.

Under Linux we have a similar latency problem with ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound System), but there is no Linux implementation of ASIO. There are hacks involving compiling some Wine code with Steinberg drivers, but instead we turned to LMMS, the real-time kernel JACK, and Ubuntu Studio.

KeyStudio and LMMS

Though work on LMMS (Linux MultiMedia Studio) began in 2003, the project is still in its infancy. We did our testing under KDE in Kubuntu 7.10, and the version supplied by the Ubuntu repositories is 0.3.0, and it is a bit unstable but usable. LMMS is a MIDI editor with built-in recording and playback which works with 'dumb' keyboards like this one with no sound system of their own, or with hardware synths.

When you install LMMS, plug in the KeyStudio keyboard, and run LMMS, the software automatically detects the keyboard. To get started, click the Samples tab and open the instruments folder. Double-click the instrument of your choice to open it in the Beat+Baseline Editor. Click the keyboard icon, select MIDI Input, and select your keyboard. Repeat the process for MIDI output and select your sound card. Now you're ready to start playing. To record, double-click on the track in Beat+Baseline editor to bring up a Piano Roll editor with a Record Button.

LMMS comes with a decent supply of virtual instruments and some beat and bass loops. It somehow manages to avoid latency problems, and it just works. However, it cannot save a MIDI file to send to a real muso to arrange properly, and it can't create a traditional score upon which you can enter the lyrics. However, Rosegarden with LilyPond can.

KeyStudio and Rosegarden

Rosegarden is, like LMMS, primarily a MIDI editor, but unlike LMMS it is aimed at professional users and follows the normal Linux practice of linking to existing applications rather than being a standalone application. Rosegarden can link to various software synths, effects, drum simulators, and audio applications via JACK (Jack Audio Connection Kit), a software version of the cat's cradle of cables you see in real studios. Rosegarden can also link to LilyPond, which is a conventional musical notation editor that lets you print 'real music.'

However, these applications don't work well under Kubuntu. Start Rosegarden and it will tell you the JACK server isn't running and you don't have a low-latency kernel. JACK can link every bit of audio or MIDI software and hardware with ever other bit, but it won't play nice with aRts the KDE sound system; run JACK and aRts dies, so you get no audio output.

To continue, we installed Ubuntu Studio, which is a distro in its own right, but you can also install it as a meta package from a conventional Ubuntu or Kubuntu installation. As a distro it comes with a patched kernel Linux-RT (Real Time) which gives priority to media work and reduces latency. If you install Studio from normal (K)Ubuntu, install the RT kernel first. Reboot and press Escape to enter the GRUB boot menu, and choose the RT kernel. If the system loads correctly, you can install Studio.

Rosegarden is less intuitive than LMMS, but ultimately more versatile. Once you've discovered all the settings in JACK needed to make it work, then it works well with the KeyStudio keyboard. We also tested the KeyStudio with ZynAddSubFX, a virtual synth included in the Ubuntu Studio distribution. The setup configuration was simple -- just a case of creating a connection between the MIDI out device of the KeyStudio and the MIDI in device of the ZynAddSubFX using the Connection window in the MIDI settings section of JACK. Thus the MIDI from the keyboard is sent to Rosegarden, Rosegarden outputs to ZynAddSubFX, and in the Audio lists you connect ZynAddSubFX to the sound card. Performance was good, with no apparent delay in hearing a sound after striking a key.

Ubuntu Studio, JACK, and Fast Track

Buoyed by our success with the KeyStudio, we set up Fast Track USB, but this time we didn't get far. The unit's power LED lights up when plugged in, and the unit is correctly recognized by JACK and listed as Fast Track in the interface list. A problem with any audio recording on a computer is that the PC's other activities can interrupt the smooth flow of data, resulting in pops and pauses. On Linux systems these are known as Xruns, and JACK will let you know if you are suffering from them. Fast Track didn't cause any, which is good, but we were not able to record any audio in Audacity, Rosegarden, or Ardour. Out of the three, Audacity was the only one that gave any indication that something was wrong, telling us to check our interface settings whenever we attempted recording. Rosegarden and Ardour didn't throw up any errors at all, they just failed to capture or transmit any audio to or from the Fast Track.

There is an open source driver for M-Audio USB interfaces, but unsurprisingly it hasn't been updated for the recently released Fast Track yet. Until it is, it doesn't look like we'll be using Fast Track on Linux.

However, KeyStudio's support under Linux is a triumph for open standards. The keyboard uses MIDI and works with MIDI software on any platform, much as you'd expect. Fast Track uses Steinberg's ASIO, and doesn't.

Phil Thane was a design and technology teacher before becoming support manager at an educational software company in the UK. He wrote for various educational and technical magazines for many years before becoming a full-time freelance writer in 2005. Gwyn Jones studied studio recording and performance technology at NEWI in Wrexham, UK, and is working on various music projects whilst looking for a permanent job.

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on Making music with M-Audio on Linux

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Making music with M-Audio on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 15, 2008 09:29 PM
I really don't think I could part with Reason4 at the time.... Oh how nice it would be if they ported to linux. Then I'd be all set.


Making music with M-Audio on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 15, 2008 10:55 PM
The brand is Keystation--not Keystudio.


Making music with M-Audio on Linux does work

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 16, 2008 11:31 AM
I've been experimenting with the USB keystation midi only keyboard and a Linux Audio distro from - and have no problems with Jack or the Bristol series softsynths while using Rosegarden...the only pain in the ass is having to setup the Jack system to run everything. When they can automate this process then linux will really be a viable alternative. They should setup an autopatch system like Reason does...hurry up and wait... mellosonic


Useful article, thanks!

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 17, 2008 07:37 AM
Useful article, thank you.

The comments are a bit depressing, though. 'if they ported to linux then I'd be all set' ... 'when they can automate this process' ... 'They should setup an autopatch system' ... Guys, if you want 'they' to do everything for you, you should pay 'they'. How about getting off your duffs and doing something useful? Free software is for people who contribute something to the world, not couch-potato consumers. You don't have to be a programmer. Find out how to write a bug report, for example.


Re: Useful article, thanks!

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 18, 2008 02:09 AM
Musicians, please stop selfishly creating music, and get off your couch potato arses and produce software to create music because the people who create software to create music are tired of your whining.

Not everyone who has valid comments about the quality of a piece of software is a coder, nor should they be. If you manufacture a musical instrument, expect musicians to have valid criticisms. If you are striving for an exemplary instrument you will take this criticism onboard. They are your target audience, after all.

Alternatively you can tell them to piss of and make their own and be satisfied with your own mediocrity.


Making music with M-Audio on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 17, 2008 06:40 PM
I'm using M-Audio Axiom (midi keyboard) and it was immediately detected. I used KAconnect to forward midi events to Timidity and QSynth. Those in turn used ALSA. I didn't experience any latency and didn't used JACK. I'm quite happy with the Axiom. Rosegarden was too much for me tough.
Don't worry about missing hw support. Most of the times you just need to wait a few kernel releases before you get support.
I enjoyed the article and will try LMMS and ZynAddSubFX now.


Making music with M-Audio on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 18, 2008 04:27 AM
I've used the fast track for over a year, you don't need any special drivers. You didn't mention phantom power. Make sure it is selected if you need it . And then the pad button, press it a few times, mine seemed a little stuck when I first got it. The simplest way to test was with aplay and arecord. First use:

$ aplay -l
**** List of PLAYBACK Hardware Devices ****
card 0: Pro [FastTrack Pro], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
Subdevices: 1/1
Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 0: Pro [FastTrack Pro], device 1: USB Audio [USB Audio #1]
Subdevices: 1/1
Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 1: Intel [HDA Intel], device 0: HDA Generic [HDA Generic]
Subdevices: 1/1
Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

I'm also having some luck with the firewire interfaces.


Making music with M-Audio on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 21, 2008 02:18 PM
You might want to try Reaper instead. It's a (very reasonably priced non expiring shareware) complete DAW for Windows, but works under Wine if you install the Wine ASIO emulation patch.
The installer is just 3.1MB. Yep, no mistakes here: 3.1 megabytes for a first class sequencer+audio recorder+mixer+effects+VST support.


Making music with M-Audio on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 22, 2008 05:20 AM
I found that OSS drivers work better than ALSA drivers for my MAudio 24/192 hardware. I use OSS drivers with Jack and get better performance than ALSA + Jack.

You guys should do some more research next time you write reviews on audio and Linux.


Making music with M-Audio on Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on February 23, 2008 09:26 AM

I've been using 64studio for about a year and Demudi before that. My MAudio O2 has worked since Demudi (control knobs worked, but the midi instrument change will only change the instrument to select for channel 1 bank1 which is fine live but a pain when in Rosegarden) and the advanced functions button even works on my Keystation 61! The keystations have no display, but I can select the first 16 instruments with the advanced function button. The only downside is I can't change banks so I'm stuck with the first 16 instruments (although I can reassign those 16 as I please. I'm using kernel 2.6.17-2-multimedia-486 (real-time) currently.

I Just got a fast track and it shows up as "Bus 004 Device 006: ID 0763:2010 Midiman" in my devices, but nothing else. I Checked lsmod and made sure that...

snd_usb_audio 69856 0

snd_usb_lib 14848 1 snd_usb_audio

snd_hwdep 9092 1 snd_usb_audio

...were loaded.

No mention of the USB box in jack, and a quick check with alsamixer yielded nada as well. Maybe this thing will work with OSS, but I've been working with it and it seems like it only wants OSX. It works worse than my Soundblaster MP3+ external USB (1.0) on Windows. I bought this thing as a fire sale item at CompUSA's GOoB sale, and I think it's going to be an early Xmas present to one of my musician friends (as soon as I can find one who can afford a Mac).

My Audiophile 192 hasn't been supported in alsa after four years, which is another investement flushed. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I should've checked the HCL, but I figured since it uses an IDENTICAL chipset as the 24/94, all would be well. Alsa says it's supported even, but all I get is gains all maxed with no way to turn them down (Bad distortion, baaaaaad).

MAudio seems to have made a strong showing for the OpenSource community a long time ago, but I haven't seen squat recently as far as them sharing hardware information with open-sourcers. I've been impressed with their keyboards, but I'm giving up on purchasing anything from them again. My dad has started using a Behringer keyboard controller and I'm gonna let him beat that one around for a while and see how it holds up. If he doesn't destroy it, then I'll replace my keystation with one of those when the time comes.



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