Get your beat on with the Hydrogen drum machine

Jack Wallen
Jan 17, 2010
Updated • Jan 19, 2013

All too often the musically inclined seem to feel a bit left out of the Linux, open source community. At least that was the way for a long time. And then came along a few new tools and a few recording-specific distributions (such as 64 Studio and Linux Multimedia Studio) and the open source music world was turned on its head. Now you see tools for recording, editing, sampling, and more. With Linux (and open source) you can create an entire symphony of music, without ever touching a real instrument (although the real thing is certainly preferred).

One of the tools you will want to play around with is the Hydrogen Drum Machine.  The goal of Hydrogen is to offer users a professional, yet easy to use, tool to allow the creation of drum tracks for recording purposes. With this tool, and a little rhythm, you can have a drum track created in minutes. In this tutorial I will show you how to install Hydrogen and then begin using it to get your first drum track up and running.


Before we get to the installation, you might want to know what Hydrogen has to offer. With this tool you will find:

  • A modular interface.
  • Sample based audio engine that supports importing (.wav, .au., .flac, and .aiff formats).
  • Unlimited number of patterns with 64 tracks per pattern.
  • 32 instrument tracks.
  • Multi-layer support for instruments.
  • Import/export song files.
  • Human velocity/time/pitch.
  • JACK, ALSA, PortAudio and OSS audio drivers.
  • Export song to .wav and .midi files.

And much more. So, are you ready to rock?


Installation is actually quite easy. If you are running a modern Ubuntu distribution, you can fire up either Synaptic or The Ubuntu Software Center, search for "hydrogen" (no quotes), and select for installation. Outside of that, the only other binary files available for download are for Debian, Mac, and (experimental) Windows. Outside of binaries, you can install from source (you will need QT3 installed) by following these instructions:

Download the source.

  1. Unpack the file with tar xvzf hydrogen-XXX.tgz Where XXX is the release number.
  2. Change into the newly created directory with the command cd hydrogen-XXX (Where XXX is the release number).
  3. Issue the command ./configure
  4. Issue the command sudo make
  5. Issue the command sudo make install

That's it. You should now find Hydrogen in Applications > Sound & Video.

Using Hydrogen

Figure 1

When you fire up Hydrogen you should find three modules open in the main window (see Figure 1):

  • Song Editor: Put together a song by piecing together patterns.
  • Pattern Editor: Create rhythms using different instruments.
  • Mixer: Mix your instruments.

To begin creating a song you first focus on the Pattern editor.  Come up with your pattern and then create it, piece by piece, by clicking on the instrument you want to add in the beat you want it. So if you want a kick drum to hit on beats one and two you would click the kick drum line at beats one and two. Do this with all the instruments you want to use to create the pattern.

Create more than one pattern so you can vary your song (otherwise the same pattern will repeat over and over). To create a new pattern click on the "+" sign to open up the next pattern (the patterns start at zero). Once you have created all the patterns you need go to the Song editor.

Figure 2

In the song editor you will create a song by adding patterns in strings to create a song. Say you have created a pattern for the first four sections of a song, a pattern for the next four sections, and another pattern for the final four sections (might be a short song). For this your song would look like that shown in Figure 2.

With the song pieced together, you can go to the mixer and adjust the sounds of your piece. To play the song you would go to the mixer, click Song in the MODE section, and click the Play button. When you are satisfied with your piece, you can save it or export it from the File menu.

Included with Hydrogen are a few demos you can play with by going to the File menu and selecting Open Demo. That is a good way to see how to really get involved with Hydrogen by viewing a much more complex sampling of patterns and songs.

Final thoughts

You will be surprised at what you can create with this open source drum machine. Add this to your stable of open source recording tools to piece together an entire open source recording studio.


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