Saturday, January 30, 2010

Linux Music Production Distribution Comparison Part One

Linux Audio

I first used Linux in the late 1990's, probably 1997. Back then (after the first Linux Expo and before Red Hat's headline-making IPO) it was a very good day when I installed Linux on a PC and the sound card worked at all. A Linux system to produce music on was out of the question, at least for me. Thankfully, things have changed.

Hardware Support

The variety of Linux distributions and the breadth of their hardware support have both mushroomed. This radically improves the odds of being able to put your hand on a distro suitable for your system and purposes that doesn't leave you hunting for driver and utility packages after install. Even live CDs of many distributions can be counted on to boot with working network and sound on many PCs.

It is still true that many Linux distros will have devices and apps fail on some systems. Take it from an IT professional; Windows isn't any better. Out of the box Windows has only a portion of the drivers it may need for any given system. Users are shielded from this because we so often use pre-installed systems with Windows and drivers pre-configured by the PC manufacturer. As anyone who has ever done their own Windows upgrade or installed a second video card will tell you, once you deviate from the manufacturer's carefully controlled hardware-software combination all bets are off.


Virtualization also solves a lot of problems. By mediating between the operating system, drivers and hardware virtualization software (Parallels Desktop, Virtual Box, Virtual PC, various VMWare products) allows two important things to happen that are otherwise impossible. It lets more than one operating system run on a computer at the same time. It also allows software to use pieces of hardware it does not have drivers for nor direct control of.

What these tools offer musicians is freedom to use apps and virtual instruments made for any OS on the same computer. It also means you can try out Linux and other free software without disturbing your current setup.

What's the big deal? Is there music production software for Linux? Oh hell ya!

Distribution Comparison

I am very excited by how virtualizaton lowers the barriers to adoption of free software [1][2], especially free music and audio software. In just a few short days I found, downloaded and installed several multi-media oriented Linux
distributions containing free music and audio software. Not averybody has the free disk space to do this but many people have the resources to set up one or two at a time. Creating a virtual machine is much less risky and less of a committment than setting up a dedicated physical computer or configuring your current PC to dual or multi-boot.

Since I waded back into electronic music a few years ago I have been doing almost all of my
production on Mac OS X. Every now and then I am reminded that, while perhaps not as evil as
Microsoft in it's worst moments, Apple is a secretive, DRM-using, exclusive agreement-
making, litigious behemoth of a company that would sell its own customers into slavery if it
that would increase the profit margin on the iPod Nano. Being thus reminded this week I've been thinking about Linux.

The Distributions

I downloaded:

64Studio GNU/Linux (3.0 beta 3)
Puredyne (9.10 Carrot And Coriander)
AVLinux (3.0 R1)

To my surprise there isn't a single RPM-based distribution in the lot. These distros are all Debian GNU/Linux derivatives. I've always been partial to SuSE Linux [1][2] but is seems Ubuntu is the current choice to fork your multi-media distro off of. Three of these distros credit Ubuntu (a Debian derivative itself) as their sole parent. One credits Ubuntu and Debian. One, Musix, claims only Debian as a parent.

As I put these through their paces I will write about it here. I don't expect the lineup to change, but if it does I will write about why. For example, one distribution listed above has already failed my rather elementary "Play an Audio File in Audacity" test. Unless things change, my discussion of that distro will be very, very brief.


Michael Jackson said...

a RPM-based music distribution would be PlanetCCRMA (who laid down the groundworks for audio production work on linux). You install Fedora Core then add PlanetCCRMA in with its low-latency kernels, etc.

DJ Dual Core said...

I hope to give PlanetCCRMA a spin. It's pedigree is pretty hard to argue with.