Linux & Radio: What You Can Do With It Now

Al Peterson shows you liberation from the Windows and Mac tyranny

Now and again, you’ll see a Linux article here in RW … just like this one. They don’t come around very often for a few reasons: First, the earth still orbits around the twin suns of Windows and Apple, and most readers have already made major investments in gear that operate under both, so why change?

Raspberry Pi along with Paravel’s Rivendell

Second, the distraction known as Android. It’s nimble and fun, it’s mobile and cheap, and it “just works” without having to take the cover off to tune things up. Amusingly, while not Linux-like, the heart of the Android OS is actually the Linux kernel (see sidebar).

Third, there is a belief that Linux apps are still too primitive to get anything productive done. Besides (whiny voice), “I tried Linux in 2005, and it was just too ha-r-r-d.

Sorry. A lot of those objections are no longer valid. Linux is solid, stable, free for the most part and has become as easy to navigate as Windows. And those old apps are all grown up now.

You may have skipped over previous Linux articles we’ve run, but don’t skip this one. We’re not going to crow about Linux like it’s something brand new, because we both know it has been on your radar screen for 20+ years. This time, we’d rather you read about what you can do with it at your station — and primarily in your production studio — right now.

OKAY, NO ONE’S LOOKING …

Every station has a stash of retired computers. Grab a dual-core PC out of mothballs, max out the RAM, then head on over to http://distrowatch.com, where you can download any free Linux distribution best suited to your hardware and the tasks at hand.

But which one?

Over at Radio Free Asia in Washington, which delivers programming in nine languages to the Eastern Hemisphere, Ubuntu is the preferred distro. Here at Radio America in Arlington, Va., we let CentOS drive all behind-the-scenes functions.

You might be better off with something else, such as SUSE or Fedora. Or even a specialized multimedia distro (more on that later). Grab a few different ones and see which one you like. All it will cost you is a little time and the cost of blank DVD media.

Now ask IT nicely to connect you to the LAN so you can access the internet. Then look around your studio and let’s get busy!

How much did you pay for that DAW? If it’s Pro Tools or Audition, you’re probably still paying for it on a rolling basis. How much are you paying to put it on desktops around the station so anyone can get work done? Oops, you’re not? They can’t?

Screenshots from Ardour’s DAW suite

Change that right now with a copy of Ardour. Full multitrack audio and MIDI recording and editing, loads of free plug-ins, and you can get versions that work on Windows and Mac as well as Linux. Some of the keystrokes are going to be very different from what you use now, but three hours on a Saturday are all you’ll need to become a master ’tracker on Ardour.

Free? No, but cheaper than cheap. You can buy a copy of Ardour for whatever you want to pay for it. If you know how to work with source code, then it’s totally free.

You already know about Audacity and you may be using it on Windows. But pull down the Linux version for your new machine. Why? More plug-ins that do more stuff.

Still like to do stutters in your productions? Then LinuxSampler is for you. No? Vocoding is your thing? Lucky you: There’s a free one in Audacity. And for you auto-tuners, GSnap has a beta Linux version out (www.gvst.co.uk/portpage.htm).

How about a free audio processor to make your webstream sound as punchy as your FM signal? Load up the JackRack virtual audio rack that’s included with many Linux distros, populate it with CALF Gate, Multiband Compressor and Limiter plug-ins (http://calf-studio-gear.org) run some tapped audio from a DA into the sound card and stream the output using B.U.T.T. (http://danielnoethen.de).

If that computer is a laptop, you can do remotes with it. LinPhone uses the Opus codec, which means it should be able to talk to those AEQ, AETA, Comrex, Digigram, GatesAir, Tieline codecs back at the studio. You got nothing to lose by experimenting — that’s what Linux is all about.

Oh, and about that laptop? As long as you’re out and about with it, load it with MIXXX, free DJ software that spins and segues tunes, and does everything that dumb wedding DJ paid hundreds of dollars for.

You know that cool video the intern shot of the morning team stunting at the mall? Edit it down to a nice compact package with fades, titles and transitions, using ShotCut, OpenShot, KDEnlive or Cinelerra. Premiere Elements for Windows or Mac is a bargain at $70 or so, but if you don’t like the flow or the feature set, tough bananas. These apps are all free and while the feature set is not as extensive, you can find one you like.

So let’s see … a DAW, remote broadcasting, streaming and processing, video editing and the operating system. All in a hand-me-down computer you’ve already paid for and all potentially free. What might that have cost in the Windows World?

But then, why kill yourself looking? Do a search for “Linux multimedia distros,” discard the ones that turn your computer into a cable TV box, and you’ll find essentially the guts of a modern day production house crammed onto a single DVD. Among them, AVLInux, UbuntuStudio, KXStudio and Apodio (which also comes with a slew of synthesizers and effects for amazing radio production).

OUT OF THE STUDIO

Down the hall a ways, it looks like everyone’s “Office 365” suite just got hit with a Windows update over the weekend, and won’t start until you plug the Product Key or license code into the nag box yet again.

Really, how many features in Microsoft Office do you need on the station level? Is OneNote, Sway or Teams in use enough to justify the expense?  If your needs are conventional word processing, spreadsheeting, drawing and perhaps a PowerPoint or two, suites such as LibreOffice and Apache Open Office are more than capable. And you don’t have to switch to Linux to use them — there are Win and Mac versions available, with a Libre Android viewer still in the developmental stage but now available.

Then of course, there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: station automation and audio management. Once upon a time this was a DOS affair, and other than a minor diversion into Mac territory (MegaSeg and AudioRackSuite, neither of which are free), it’s an all-Windows task today. And sometimes a pricey one as well.

In the past you’ve seen me write about the free Paravel Systems’ Rivendell radio automation suite for Linux — (www.paravelsystems.com/rivendell-broadcast-appliance) — which is also the driving force behind RFA, Radio America, and numerous Salem radio stations. Probably the biggest surprise to come down the line about this software is that at least two independent developers are working on optimizing it to run on inexpensive ARM-based computers, such as the $35 Raspberry Pi.

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

In the interests of technical accuracy, “Linux” is actually a kernel; the nucleus or elemental core of a computer operating system. Not a lot happens until a shell is added, which is the interface between the kernel and the user; and libraries, consisting of functions, routines and templates which are called upon to execute a desired result.

In general use, especially throughout this article, references to “Linux” imply the open-source Linux operating system and not necessarily the kernel.

— ARP

Try to imagine your main control room with absolutely no computer heat or fan noise; with the ability to swap out defective devices immediately for less than 50 bucks; and with the ability to connect easily to a network and communicate with other automation computers and the music server.

And with the rollout of a new six-in eight-out soundcard designed for the Raspberry (www.audioinjector.net/rpi-octo-hat), it soon won’t be that hard to imagine.

In summary, there’s a lot you can be doing right now to be creative, to improve workflow and to get your message to your audience whether streaming or OTA. Just stop reading and start downloading.

Linux has been here since 1991. Where you been?

Alan Peterson is second engineer and production director for the Radio America Network in Arlington Va., and a longtime contributor to Radio World. His presentation “Run Your Entire Station From Two DVDs” has been a staple at college radio conferences for seven years. Reach him at apeterson@radioamerica.com.



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