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Pre Fade Listen (PFL) in DAW software - Ardour v Cubase - and which is really free?

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I bought my Steinberg UR824 in the hope of getting it to work with Linux, and on the basis that in the mean time I'd have to let go of Ardour in favour of the version of Cubase AI with which it is bundled.

In this article I want to talk about monitoring. I come from the background of using live desks, mostly for broadcast, where you need the concept of Pre Fade Listen (PFL) rather than Solo. WIth Solo, the effect is to mute all the other channels, so the mixes are all affected. With PFL, the selected channel is routed to your headphones or monitoring speakers, but all the mixes stay as they are.

Cubase AI 7 is, of course, a cut down version of the full product. It is (when you buy some hardware) free as in beer, but it is most definitely not free as in speech. It has limitations (e.g. on the number of channels you can use), and some features are missing, but for someone working with audio at home on conventional projects, you are unlikely to find the restrictions hurt. You get the wondrous concept of Direct Monitoring, by which if you create a mix in Cubase, the signal flow is still entirely within the UR824, so there is zero latency. That's pretty good when it works, but of course not every combination that you can dream up in Cubase can be handled by the hardware, and when you take a step too far, the result is silence - not a message informing you that you will have to turn direct monitoring off - just silence in the channels concerned. This makes those early learning experiences of "I can't understand why I can't hear anything" even more confusing.

One problem as far as I am concerned, is that the great Control Room which apparently provides the solution to any monitoring or routing problem you might have, is missing. In fact it is not even present in the paid-for but cut-down versions Cubase Artist and Cubase Elements. Cubase provides Solo, but has no concept of PFL. The only work-around I can find is to use a mix bus as the PFL bus, duplicate faders for the channels, link them in pairs, and engage Solo Defeat on the ones that feed into the main mix. It's a mess.

Now community support in terms of forums of users, is pretty good for Cubase itself, so that is useful for all the features that the different versions have in common. However, if you want to get help with something like monitoring when you don't have the mighty Control Room, you are unlikely to find answers easily. All the "real" musicians are using the full product.

So now along comes Ardour 3. I'd put off upgrading to version 3 for a while, partly because my version 2 wasn't broken (well ... I'd got to know the bugs around fader automation well enough to live with them), and partly because it is no longer free. It is still free as in speech, but not as in beer, although to be fair, you are only asked to pay less than the price of a beer to have it. Now I come to try it, Ardour 3 looks beautiful, it's slick, it is way more easy to work out what is going on, the concepts in the mixer window are much more sensible... and best of all, you can tell it you want to monitor using a PFL bus!

So this brings me back full circle, I am now keener than ever to get the UR824 working properly with Linux. The new Class Compliment mode means that anyone can have 8 analogue in and 8 analogue out working, but there is no routing control, no DSP, and I think the one which I most can't live without - the light pipes are muted.

So it's back to work on the driver... but if you think this could be useful.... I could still do with some encouragement!

Sunday, 16th June 2019

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