The Raspberry Pi is a complete computer in a miniature format. In its standard enclosure, it’s only slightly larger than two boxes of matches – that’s incredibly compact, especially if you consider the amount of available connectors. And it’s expandable, too. But is that enough to replace a DAW computer in the near future, or will the Raspberry Pi remain a DIY PC for nerds and hackers?
The tiny computer is surprisingly powerful. The Raspberry Pi was first released in 2012, and is now available in its fourth generation. It offers a 64 bit ARM CPU clocked at 1.5 GHz (Cortex A72), 1-4 GB RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, Wifi, Bluetooth, USB2 and USB3, two 4K graphics outputs including a 4K 60Hz decoder (HEVC video), and still has room for expansion.
Amazingly, the open source computer only costs GBP 34 – 54 or USD 35 – 55, depending on the amount of RAM. That’s still incredibly affordable, especially for a UK-made item. You can find an in-depth review here.
While the Raspberry Pi certainly packs a punch, a lack of power is also the biggest obstacle that still prevents it from seeing widespread use as a desktop PC. The graphics in particular aren’t quite sufficient for demanding games and other applications. It’s a cross between a DIY computer and multimedia PC. While the Pi may not be ready to replace your desktop PC just yet, it does have its uses around the house, for example as a KODI entertainment center or a controller for your NAS system.
That’s not to say that people don’t use it for work. But the Raspberry’s CPU architecture can present problems. Simply speaking, ARM is a different processor architecture, which requires different software. While some very popular devices like the iPad use ARM CPUs (Apple’s A series derivatives), they’re much less common than the x64 architecture used by desktop computers running Windows and macOS.
The Critter and Guitari Organelle is an example for an ARM-based sound-generating device.
Raspberry PI as a DAW
The Raspberry Pi runs a standard Linux operating system, which forgoes all the eye candy and flashy animations. There is now also a derivative of Windows 10 for the ARM architecture. And where there’s GNU/Linux, there’s also some well-known software for it.
Tracktion offers an ARM version of the Waveform DAW. Ardour is also available for ARM systems. There’s even an ARM build of Reaper, albeit an experimental one. And Non DAW was developed specifically for the Raspberry Pi.
These DAWs come with everything that’s included in their x64 versions. Third-party plug-ins are available from CALF, for example. And it has already been proven that even the older Raspberry PI 2 can be used for making music. But at least for the time being, the question remains: Are the small size and inexpensive price enough to justify using a Pi over a standard PC for DAW applications?
But the Raspberry Pi can do much more besides hosting an OS and a DAW. It’s also a great platform for software synthesizers. There are numerous projects, mMn TronPi (Mellotron), Joytone, Looper/Synth/Drum Thing, FM Touch Synth and Zynthian being some of the most prominent ones. All of them are based on the little DIY computer and use it to produce sounds. However, these are stand-alone synths and not instrument plug-ins for use in a DAW.
Software synthesizers inside a DAW
If you’re looking for software synths that run inside a DAW, check out ZynAddSubFX, Helm or Amsynth.
In theory, all software synths that run on iOS should work. But it’s not that simple, as the different systems have different restrictions. An iOS application must be written in an entirely different way than a Linux program. Although there are similarities, they are based on different libraries and structures. This means that adapting plug-ins for the Raspberry Pi usually isn’t commercially viable for the developers, unfortunately.
The iOS theory applies to this segment as well. In reality, Guitarix is about the only option. It’s a virtual guitar amp for Linux, which must be addressed via JACK. Guitarix can sound really good, but it does have a somewhat steeper learning curve than GuitarRig and others.
Raspberry Pi, the music computer of the future?
So, will the Raspberry Pi become a serious platform for music production anytime soon? Maybe. If the iPhone and iPad are such platforms, the Pi certainly has the potential to become one, too.
And it does have one great advantage: It is entirely open-source. That means that the hardware and software can be modified and expanded by anyone. This is the main reason for the Pi’s popularity among DIYers. The possibilities are limitless, from educational projects to controllers for technical applications (e.g. 3D printers, CNC milling machines), to controlling garage door openers and lighting in smart homes. Just be sure to properly secure the system, or someone might cause trouble.
We think that the Raspberry Pi definitely has what it takes to become a viable option as a DAW computer. But it will likely remain a niche product. It probably won’t lose its reputation as a device for nerdy hackers anytime soon, which could deter audio professionals. And yes, if you’re going to use Linux, you shouldn’t be afraid to dive deep into the core of your system.
Do you use the Raspberry Pi?
Now it’s your turn! Do you use the RPI? Are you planning to get the new Raspberry Pi 4? Have you experimented with audio applications? Tell us your story!