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Why Linux Could Be Your Next Digital Recording Studio

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Imagine a Mac versus PC ad about digital audio recording. The Mac guy would talk about his creativity, and how talented he is with multimedia. The PC guy - actually a Windows guy - would tell us that he is a stable workhorse, and very reliable. The banter would go back and forth. What would be missing from that ad? Linux.

This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which has moved on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each week.

Like Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows, Linux is an operating system, but it is one that many people have never met. You won't see ads for it on TV, and you're unlikely to see it running on a computer in a shop. Nevertheless, Linux has a growing base of enthusiastic users, and there are good reasons to consider it for a digital recording studio.

This article comes in two parts. This week we will consider what makes Linux worth considering for digital audio. Next week we will look at the large range of audio software available for Linux. But first we'll have look at what you may lose by choosing Linux.


1. What Do Musicians Lose by Using Linux?

Let me say at the outset that Linux will not be the best option for everyone. You may already be comfortable with Windows or Mac OS X, and have invested in a considerable amount of software that you have taken time to learn. And Linux is often regarded as a system for geeks. There is some truth in that, though it's becoming easier to use and set up every year.

If you have never used Linux before, it may feel unfamiliar, especially once you start to look under the hood. And most of the audio programs you are familiar with (Audacity being one of the only exceptions) will not have a Linux version. There may be ways of getting some Windows programs to run, but isn't the point of using Linux to explore Linux software?

Undoubtedly, the biggest thing most serious recording musicians will miss are their favorite commercial plug-ins, effects and soundfonts. Good alternatives are available, but the best plug-ins are subject to vendor lock-in, and those vendors aren't making their software available for Linux.

And on a positive note, you'll also lose lots of restrictions. Linux values freedom and openness. The software is free to use, free to customize, and free to share. It is also normally free of cost.


2. Linux Gives You JACK

Most Linux software is designed to cooperate and work together. More than this, Linux provides an entire audio infrastructure called JACK that allows you to connect hardware and software together in ways you've never dreamed of.

JACK is an audio connection kit which (as the JACK website says) "was designed from the ground up for professional audio work, and its design focuses on two key areas: synchronous execution of all clients, and low latency operation." It is a system for handling real-time, low latency audio and MIDI.

Essentially, JACK has incredible patching abilities that allow you to connect music hardware and software in many ways. Here are a few suggested on the website:

  • You can take the audio output of one piece of software and send it to another (or two others).
  • You can then take the output of those two other programs, and record it back in the first program.
  • You can connect a number of different applications to an audio device.
  • You can distribute audio processing across a network.

If you like the sound of JACK, but prefer to stay with Windows or Mac, you may be able to get JACK running on your operating system of choice, because it offers support for most operating systems. You may also like to look at ReWire from PropellerHeads and Steinberg, which offer some of JACK's features.


3. A Studio On A CD

Most Linux distributions can run as a Live CD. This means that you are able to run the entire operating system from the CD without the need for a hard drive.

By using a Live CD, you can turn any computer into a music studio simply by inserting the CD and restarting the computer. While traveling, you can take your music studio with you simply by carrying a CD and external hard drive. The possibilities are endless. Because of this portability, you may wish to consider Linux for your secondary recording system.

CDs run much slower than hard drives, so the applications will load more slowly. But once loaded they should run at their normal speed. Some live CDs give you the ability to run the entire operating system from RAM. As long as you have plenty of memory, you may end up with the most responsive studio you've experienced.

Most of the Linux distributions mentioned below can be run as Live CDs. You can create an instant recording studio by downloading the CD (of DVD) image, burning it (if you use Nero, this tutorial may be helpful), and rebooting your computer with the CD in your drive.

Live CDs are also a painless way to see how successfully Linux recognizes your hardware and runs on your computer. There is no risk, because it will not touch or alter your hard drive. Some distros include drivers that others do not, so you may wish to try several Live CDs to see which works best with your setup.


4. Pre-built Custom Music Systems

Setting up a computer-based recording system is a daunting task. Your operating system needs to be tweaked for low latency, software programs need to be downloaded and installed, and settings need to be properly configured. With Linux, someone else does this work for you - before you even run or install the software.

A Linux distribution is not just an operating system, but a customized setup including software put together for a specific purpose. A music-specific distro comes with all of the software you need preinstalled, and all of the settings preconfigured. In other words, after installing the operating system, you don't have to download, install and configure your software. It's already there! That takes a lot of leg work out of getting up and running with audio.

Many Linux distros have been put together with music in mind. Here are the best of them, along with a summary from the distro's website.

ArtistX

"ArtistX is a free live DVD which turns a common computer into a full multimedia production studio. It contains nearly all the available free audio, 2D and 3D graphics, and video software for the GNU/Linux computing platform. It doesn't need to be installed, and boots directly into a running system without touching hard drives. The files produced with ArtistX can be easily stored on USB devices or CD/DVD medium while it is running."

Ubuntu Studio

"Let Your Creativity Fly. Ubuntu Studio is aimed at the GNU/Linux audio, video and graphic enthusiast as well as professional. We provide a suite of the best open-source applications available for multimedia creation. Completely free to use, modify and redistribute. Your only limitation is your imagination."

JackLab Audio Distribution

"A Linux-based distribution that is designed for music needs to be flexible, powerful, yet easy and quick to use. It contain a full production environment for media production, primarily music. For this, the JackLab team added a Realtime Kernel version 2.6.19 to have fast audio processing with a latency up to 1.5ms. The default audio system will be based on the the Jack Audio Connection Kit (JACK) which is designed for the needs of musicians and producers and gives a professional audio/midi controlling interface."

Musix

"It's a 100% free multimedia operating system intended for music production, graphic design, audio and video edition, and all kind of tasks. It contains an enormous collection of free (as in freedom) programs that can replace Windows. The system will boot from your CD/DVD drive, with no need to install anything on your hard disk. Later, it can be installed."

64 Studio

"64 Studio is a GNU/Linux distribution tailor-made for digital content creation, including audio, video, graphics and publishing tools. It comes in both AMD64/Intel64 and 32-bit flavours, to run on nearly all PC hardware. We aim to combine stability and quality with a specialised real-time preemption kernel and the latest creative tools demanded by multimedia artists."

dyne:bolic

"You don't need to install anything, you don't even need an harddisk to run a whole free software operating system running out of the box on your PC! dyne:bolic is shaped on the needs of media activists, artists and creatives as a practical tool for multimedia production: you can manipulate and broadcast both sound and video with tools to record, edit, encode and stream, having automatically recognized most device and peripherals: audio, video, TV, network cards, firewire, usb and more; all using only free software! You can employ this operating system without the need to install anything, and if you want to run it from harddisk you just need to copy a directory: the easiest installation ever seen!"


5. Make the Most of your Old Computer

Linux runs well on old hardware. If you are starting out with digital recording, consider using Linux to turn your old computer into a recording studio.

Some Linux distros specialize in working on old hardware. For example, the dyne:bolic website claims, "It is optimized to run on slower computers, turning them into full media stations: the minimum you need is a pentium1 or k5 PC 64Mb RAM and IDE CD-ROM, or a modded XBOX game console - and if you have more than one, you can easily do clusters."


6. Outrageously Good Free Software

And finally, the topic of next week's article: there is loads of excellent free music software available for Linux. Arguably much better than the free audio software for Windows we covered two weeks ago. Tune in next week to find out.

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