New features in Ardour 4

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Music Maker

We take a look at the new features that have been added to the digital audio workstation, Ardour 4. Although not exactly eye catching at first glance, a closer examination shows the changes to be well thought out and extremely useful.

Just a month after we published a previous article [1] about the numerous small improvements that had been made to Ardour 3, developer Paul Davis publicly announced a brand new version [2][3]. So, in this article, I'll take a look at what's new in Ardour 4.

When you start up Ardour 4 for the first time, you will probably not immediately notice that significant changes have been made. The layout and the control elements in the two versions are almost identical. The only visual differences are found in the upper left under the mouse tools, but the tools themselves work the same way as before.

The fact that you are dealing with a new release first becomes apparent when you load a project from the previous version. The new release converts the project and automatically makes a backup of the Ardour 3 project version. At this point, you can also begin to see the improved performance of Ardour 4. The program reacts noticeably faster and, according to the release notes, it requires up to 80 percent less working storage. Paul Davis and his team achieved these savings through radical code optimization of the interface rather than by reducing functionality. (See the "Download and Installation" box for more information.)

Download and Installation

Ready-to-use Ardour 4 installation packages for all current distributions are available from in exchange for a contribution in the amount of your choice, with the minimum being $1. You can sign up for a regular contribution by registering on the site. The project recommends a monthly contribution of $4 but you will need to have a PayPal account with a registered credit card. It is possible to purchase the package via PayPal for $45 even if you don't have a credit card. Just as with a subscription, you will get all of the updates for Ardour 4 and also the first release of the planned successor, Ardour 5. The packages automatically installs to /opt and no longer require the Jack audio server because Ardour 4 works directly with Alsa.

Because Ardour continues to use open source software under a GPL licence, you can anonymously download the current source code from the Git server for the project for free. Additionally, Ardour 4 can be installed with a package manager. Ubuntu users will also need the KXStudio extension [4]. Fedora, openSUSE, etc. offer similar special repositories in which Ardour 4 became available within a few days after the official release.

Big improvements in the rendering of written text also stand out. Thanks to Cairo, Ardour 4 renders even very small text razor sharp. Taken together with the new SVG icons, this rendering capability creates a fresh new appearance for the interface. The changes become abundantly clear to the user who switches back to the older version after working just a few hours with the new version. The scruffy-looking icons and blurry rendering in version 3 aren't as easy to tolerate anymore.

Another significant improvement is hiding behind the very familiar button of Ardour plugin windows. The selection button for saved, default settings is located in the upper middle part of the windows. Not only can you see the presets generated by Ardour but also the presets that come with the plugin. You will also find default presets that were generated in a standalone version or in a different plugin host.

These features make it possible for the first-time user to easily use presets, such as those found in Calf Monosynth, that are downloaded from the Internet (Figure 1). The user simply has to copy the presets into the configuration directory of the plugin.

Figure 1: The preset sounds delivered with the complex plugin Calf Monosynth are easy to use and now also available in Ardour.

The empty area under the tracks in the main window is another of the familiar elements that has acquired new functionality. It can now be used as a Dropzone . Audio and MIDI files that are dropped from a file browser into this area automatically create a new track with a suitable configuration. A button under Project | Clean up copies these files to the project directory (Figure 2). In addition to MIDI and uncompressed WAV files, Ardour 4 also imports OGG Vorbis and Flac. In theory, MP3 can also be imported, but this format was not activated in the Ardour installation from that I tested.

Figure 2: Ardour 4 automatically imports audio files dragged from a file manager like Dolphin into the drop zone in the tracks.

Thanks to GTK, there are key combinations that lead directly to menu options. Aside from this quick but not very structured method, Ardour 4 provides the capability under Window | Keyboard shortcut , which is a nifty tool for setting several hundred keyboard actions. The list also contains actions that cannot be set with the direct GTK method. The price for this piece of progress is that on the first start, Ardour 4 reverses the keyboard shortcut settings that have been created in a previous version.

Under the Hood

Some of the innovations are not readily apparent, because they work in the background on startup to drastically alleviate longstanding problems. For example, when using Ardour 3, it was easy for troublesome plugins to interrupt a start. Scanning for plugins is an independent process in Ardour 4. If a defective module causes the scan to stall, Ardour 4 will simply keep running and record the faulty plugin on a blacklist. Future scans will then skip over the offender and only read other plugins.

If you would like to give the plugin culprit another chance once you have updated, you can erase the blacklist in the main menu under Edit | Preferences | Plugins and start a new scan (Figure 3). You can also specify arbitrary paths for your plugin search in this same settings window. If you think the plugin manager list is too long, you can simply create your own folder in the home directory for plugin selection. If you use Symlinks on plugins that are installed under /usr , you will receive all of the updates of the modules that you have selected. At the same time, this is a simple method for connecting plugin software on your own that you have built from source code or downloaded from websites.

Figure 3: Ardour 4 lets you control your plugin search. By activating the scan progress display, you can also monitor plugins loaded at the beginning of a project.

Once you notice during startup that the Jack audio server is not running, you will have discovered the largest innovation in Ardour 4. The dialog that used to start Jack has been enlarged in Ardour 4 to permit selection of the desired audio system.

Ardour 4 now cooperates in Linux directly with Alsa. In Mac OS X and Windows, it is possible to also select their native sound systems. Jack works very well on Linux and offers some functions that Alsa does not deliver. However, on Mac OS X and Windows, Jack was more or less experimental and caused problems that outweighed its advantages.

Now that Ardour 4 supports the native sound systems for each of these three platforms, these problems belong to the past. Ardour 4 is the first version of the application officially supported on Windows. Linux users also benefit a great deal from broader acceptance of Ardour. For one thing, you can now exchange projects recorded in Ardour much more easily with your Windows colleagues.

Another positive development is that these projects can also be identically edited on all platforms, keeping in mind that there are some platform-specific plugins. The independence of Jack does not at all restrict the unique possibilities found in the concepts underlying Jack for signal relay in Ardour. Additionally, there are already strong indications that venturing into the world of Windows will result in greater financial support for the project.

A New Device

In addition to the new options for settings, Ardour 4 also offers new capabilities for actually working on the music. The loop mode for example can now be set up as a general transport mode. The space key will start the loop instead of the normal transport as long as the loop switch at the top left in the transport panel remains active. A button has been added to the transport panel to play back selections in active areas.

In addition to the various improvements for editing MIDI music, Ardour 4 has a brand new tool for manipulating single MIDI notes or groups of notes. Selecting the top left corner of notes with the new mouse tool editor that is to the far right in the tool bar, and then right-clicking on the selection will bring up a menu that includes the entry Transform (Figure 4). The Transform tool provides qualities for the selected notes such as increasing and lowering pitch or strike force.

Figure 4: The plus symbol in the Transform tool lets you add rather cryptic conditions based on arithmetic along with the selected action. Most users probably prefer a simple crescendo.

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