Can You Produce Music on a Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is a tiny (think cigarette packet sized) computer designed to be cheap and easy to use for projects. Designed as a cheap tool to teach computer science to schools and third world countries, they have inspired many people and are used for millions of projects and tools. They are available for £20-30 and are awesome! There are of course downsides to a system that small, it lacks significant processing power for any major scale work, even the recommended operating systems tend to be smaller versions of Linux.

So the question is, one might ask, is it powerful enough to produce music on it?

Many will say it's not feasible. The only "proper" DAW (digital audio workstation) available for Linux anyway is Ardour, which is way too much for the Raspberry Pi to handle. Since you can't really install another kind of operating system, you are basically out of luck.

So, it turns out there is a way, Non. Thanks to a fantastic person called Jonathan Liles, an American software architect and musician who has made it possible. Setting out to make a DAW under the aim of it being "fast, light, [and] reliable" he has developed a modular system great for use on small computers, such as the Pi itself.

Best of all, Non is entirely FREE!!!

At 43k lines of code, it is an impressive feat, getting most software in that size is admirable, let alone a fully functioning DAW. He aims to maintain the simplicity throughout the life of Non.

Non differs from other DAWs in it's modular nature in which each component can work independently of the others. Originally designed as the Non Sequencer, when Lile's encountered difficulty with the available resources, he kicked the project into gear using JACK, a recently released, low latency sound server.

Non comes with several modular packages:

  • Non Sequencer - A MIDI sequencer 
  • Non DAW - The timeline/arranger section
  • Non Mixer - The mixer section with plugin hosting

The only real issues with Non as a DAW are that it is very much a one man project, he is releasing it for free and updates are sparse. Liles cannot be blamed for this as providing all his hours for free is incredibly noble. In addition to this, if you do plan on running it on a Raspberry Pi, you will find you need more kit eg. a soundcard, however at the price of a Pi, you will likely have some money spare for kit.

It really comes as a shock to realise that most hardware is capable of running these programs. In reality the bottleneck is the size of most software DAWs.

When provided with enough computing power (as most modern computers provide), developers don't need to refine and streamline their products as much. This in turn leads to unnecessary amounts of code in some cases. Yes most computers can handle it, it's still a waste of efficiency.

It's only when you get someone who realises what can be done, and is willing to invest the time, that you realise how little computing is necessary.

It goes to show, if there's a DAW that works well on a Raspberry Pi and other tiny computers, then your computer should be well up to the task of any DAW.

Edit: For those interested, a tutorial that will get you started. Thanks to redditor /u/sspib