The Advantages of Choosing an Audio Orientated Linux Distribution

Category: 
Level: 

Linux distributions have a lot to offer and some are geared more towards certain tasks than others. There is nothing wrong with stock distributions, and any distro can be tweaked to work well for whichever task you wish, provided that you know how to tailor them to that specific task. If you are working with audio, however, choosing a distro specifically geared towards that purpose can save you a lot of hassle.

Audio orientated distributions aren't just stock distributions with audio software installed on top. This is a misconception that a lot of people have, and it is a misleading one. A lot of people don't see the benefits of using one, and instead they just install the audio software they want to use on any given distro. With audio distros there are many layers that are carefully chosen to give you an operating system that will perform well for all aspects of audio production. As well as the end user software being up to date, there are a lot of tweaks under the hood that add up to give you a much better and stable experience with superior performance for realtime audio, compared to any stock distribution.

Why not a stock distribution?

It is an unfortunate fact that much of the troubleshooting on audio software forums and IRC channels ends with a similar conclusion, that it is not the software that's the problem but rather how the users distro is set up, that it is using outdated software libraries, etc. If you have the technical know-how, time and interest to work through these issues, it's not as much of a problem. However for someone who just wants to get down to making music, it is important to not have to deal with these issues. Fortunately, there are some passionate users out there who have helped create audio orientated distributions to make it easier for you to get your audio work done.

Recommended audio distros

There are a number of Linux audio distros, but the two that LMP recommend are KXStudio and AVLinux. We feel they are the best compilations currently available and, as they are both quite popular, it also means they are well tested and stable. They both also have very active communities.

AV Linux is geared towards a complete 'Install, get to work and leave it alone' type of scenario with updates and optional packages completely at the user's discretion, whereas KXStudio is more of a rolling platform with regular automatic updates like a traditional distro.

KXStudio website
KXStudio manual
KXStudio download
KXStudio forums

Screenshot of KXStudio's website

AVLinux website
AVLinux manual
AVLinux forums

Screenshot of AVLinux's website

Advantages – in detail

Additional repositories/software

From an end user point of view, this is an important aspect. If you choose an audio distribution, you don't have to run the latest Linux distros to get up-to-date audio software. You can have the latest and greatest without having to compile the software yourself; it's all done for you. You will also have access to much more audio software than is available in stock repositories.

In addition to the latest user end software, other things such as software libraries, that are important to Linux audio, are also updated more often. These are things that aren't visible to the end user but they do make a difference. They are useful in that they often allow for newer versions of software to be made available to you and they can also help with the stability of audio software in general.

Up to date version of Ardour running in AVLinux
AVLinux, based on Debian 6 which was released in 2011, runs up to date audio software on a very stable base

Stability

Linux audio distros are very stable. This is because of the fact that they update their software, while remaining on stable base releases. In the case of KXStudio and AVLinux, software is often made available soon after official releases for that software are made. This means you can have a more stable base, for example Ubuntu LTS or Debian Stable, and not be stuck with older audio software. It's a win-win situation.

LMMS running in KXStudio 14.04
Up to date version of LMMS running in KXStudio 14.04

Specific audio performance tweaks

Realtime audio performance is important to many when working with audio software. What this means in real terms is having the recorded signal played back through your playback system without any audible delay. This is important when monitoring your performance. Latency is inherent in computers but there are things that can be done to minimize it.

There are many tweaks, big and small, that Linux distros make under the hood that are beneficial to this and general audio performance. As an end user, you don't need to know the technical ins and outs of what these do. You just need to know that the end result is that audio processes are prioritized by the operating system, thus, allowing you to more easily achieve stable and/or low latency audio.

Testing

The maintainers of stock Linux distributions and their repositories take care to get things as correct as possible, however, audio production software and the general Linux audio ecosystem can be very complex. There are often issues that need to be worked out, even with stable distribution releases.

Since the maintainers of audio orientated distributions are so familiar with audio related issues in Linux, they do their best to make sure these areas are as trouble free as possible. They have more direct experience with the inner workings of Linux audio software and its libraries. Also, another thing to consider is that with popular audio distros, the users often pick up on problems as well and report them to the maintainers. Audio orientated distros are far better tested in this regard.

Screenshot of the AVLinux forums
The AVLinux forums

Screenshot of the KXStudio forums
The KXStudio forums are hosted at Linuxmusicians.com

Convenient JACK set up

Almost all Linux distros use PulseAudio for managing audio. While it works well for desktop audio, PulseAudio isn't suited to professional audio. Furthermore, it has been known to clash with JACK in some cases. For these reasons, audio distros usually don't come with PulseAudio installed but rather route all audio, desktop and otherwise, through JACK.

Audio distros have JACK set up in a way so you have to deal with it as little as possible. This includes using bridges between general desktop audio and JACK. All this is done in the background so you don't even need to be aware of it. This makes for a very convenient audio set up that allows you to enjoy normal desktop audio from your browser, media players, etc, as well as from JACK software.

KXStudio has JACK set to run automatically upon login. From the end user point of view, all audio just works. There is no starting and stopping JACK. You will have to make sure that JACK is set up with your audio interface initially, but after that you can almost forget it is there.

Image of Cadence
Cadence in KXStudio. Note the option to auto-start JACK at login

Lightweight desktops

One thing that almost all audio distros have in common is a lightweight or stripped down desktop environment. For example, AVLinux comes with XFCE, while KXStudio comes with a stripped down version of KDE that is more lightweight than the stock KDE (disabled effects, etc). These decisions are made to maximize available system resources. Newer, and more fully featured, desktop environments have heavier overheads. This can affect audio performance. The choice of a low demand environment on many audio distros helps you get the most out of the hardware you already have.

A lot of people like fancy desktop effects but these can put strain on the computer if you are, for example, trying to utilize realtime monitoring or if you are mixing with a lot of plugins. The use of lightweight/stripped down desktop environments can help towards making audio performance more reliable. Aside from realtime performance, they can get more out of your system than heavier and non-optimized systems.

AVLinux showing it's lightweight XFCE desktop
AVLinux uses the lightweight desktop environment XFCE

Not Just for Audio

If you are focused on using Linux for audio, there really are no downsides to choosing an audio orientated distro. Some non-audio software might be outdated but if you are working with mostly audio software, you can be sure that this software will be up to date. Also note that while these distros focus on audio, many also cater towards the wider multimedia ecosystem and also often include up to date version of graphics and video editing software (Inkscape, Kdenlive, Blender, etc). If you are serious about any aspect of multimedia, you will be far better served by using an audio distribution that leans towards those requirements.

Graphics software running in KXStudio
Inkscape and GIMP in KXStudio

Ubuntu Users

If you are using Ubuntu and are interested in using a system more tailored towards audio production, you don't necessarily need to reinstall. KXStudio is based on Ubuntu/Debian. It comes as a live disc that you can try out or install but its software repositories can also be added to any existing Ubuntu or Debian install. There are instructions on how to do this in the FAQ section of the website -

I am running Ubuntu/Debian. How do I update to KXStudio without having to do a reinstall?

Copy and pasting into the terminal to set up KXStudio repositories
Updating from Ubuntu to KXStudio is as simple as copying and pasting a few lines in a terminal

Summary

If you want a stable audio work environment and don't want to do the tweaking yourself, there is no better starting point than an audio orientated Linux distribution. You will have access to all your usual desktop software alongside an up-to-date, stable audio recording environment.

Written by Conor Mc Cormack

Comments

I run Ubuntu Studio 14.04 and it got LMMS 1.0 by default, so I would suggest the statement "The 1.0 stable release of LMMS didn't make it into Ubuntu 14.04 but it is available for KXStudio 14.04" is not correct.

Yes, you are correct. My mistake. I have corrected it now. Thanks for letting me know.

Why not Ubuntu Studio? When I first set up my machine, I was trying 64 Studio and Ubuntu Studio. This was back in 2008/2009, and 64Studio is basically dead now, but Ubuntu Studio is still current. Is the issue that Ubuntu Studio doesn't package the latest audio production stuff when relying on LTS Ubuntu versions? Or that they've had to switch to XFCE with all the focus on Unity in mainline Ubuntu? Basically: I'm using Ubuntu Studio now. Why should I switch to KXStudio or AVLinux?

if UbStu works for you, that's fine. stay with it. UbuntuStudio is basically just Ubuntu with extra packages. AVLinux and KXStudio go to great length to also tweak the system default config, provide rt-kernel and many related tweaks relevant for reliable realtime audio (64studio did the same back in the day). This can make a huge difference for e.g low latency with USB soundcards or when performing live on stage (no automatic disk indexing in the middle of the concert etc etc).

Not quite true. Yes UbuntuStudio is based on Xubuntu, but it does come with the same lowlatency kernel as KXstudio (last I checked) and there are additional system tweaks as well. Jack is properly installed as has access to locked memory, the user is already in the audio group etc. Swappiness has been set to keep the sw in memory not on swap... my swap has had no use for almost since install. There are other tweaks as well, but I can't remember them off the top of my head. That said, there is more work to be done for sure. The list of audio applications is defined by the ubuntu/debian repos and so lacks things like linuxsampler with non-debian approved licenses. And of course Ubuntu tends to freeze included versions of software for a release at sometimes bad versions. It is sometimes good to try other than LTS for this reason. So no ubuntustudio is not xubuntu with extra apps, it has had more work than that.

You forgot Ubuntu Studio, it's a very good audio/video production distro!

I did leave out Ubuntu Studio. I have nothing against it personally but I didn't want to bombard people with a long list. Choosing a normal distro can be tough enough so I wanted to keep it short. Also, some of the information is specific to AVLinux and KXStudio.

Congratulations for this post. I've used Ubuntu Studio for 2 years, but now i want to try KXStudio.

I am downloading the ISO now... my biggest problem is when monitoring, i can't seem to get the latency down and it's quite annoying. This is what got me researching audio-specific distros and came across this post. I'm very glad to see there are distro's built specifically for audio related tasks. Hopefully my choice in switching to KXStudio will work better for my needs.

Do you know if there's somwhere I can read about exactly what proprietary packages AV Linux include? They don't seem to care a lot about clarifying that

This may not be a complete list but the following is the main proprietary software in AV Linux - Harrison Mixbus, Harrison plugins, LinuxDSP plugins, Loomer plugins, Pianoteq, Renoise, EnergyXT.

The main logic why Ubuntu Studio should be included in this list is because this is the official Ubuntu based multimedia distribution. And when a big company like Cannonical is behind this project (although its clearly not their main company priority) this means that Ubuntu Studio is here to stay. Their obvious disadvantage is that it may contain some inferior programs from version to version. That is because most of the packages that are shipped with Ubuntu Studio are from ubuntu's 'community' repository. This means that these packages are not directly supported by Cannonical. Nevertheless the user is free to add additional PPA repositories, like KXstudio repos. Also (according to distowatch.com) Ubuntu Studio is relatively the most popular multimedia related distribution to date and it exists with mixed success since 2007, so it could be said that it proves itself to be a reliable multimedia distribution, also a great base for a power user to build a quality and solid audio workstation suitable for her needs and goals.

I'd like to second the above: What I'd really like to see is a brief description of the differences between the three major audio production distros - Ubuntu Studio, KXStudio, AVLinux (64Studio looks dead, and I have never heard of any other that has a significant user base)

I am still proud to say, that 64 Studio was my production operating system between years 2008 and 2011. This distribution, unfortunately is in deep dormant state for more than 5 years. 64 Studio and the successor Opendaw, is in this questionable state, because the developers failed to build and maintain a business strategy around their product, which was their initial goal. http://lac.linuxaudio.org/2011/papers/42.pdf But most of them are contributing to Debian directly, as part of the Debian Multimedia Project.

I've discovered "io GNU/Linux" a few time ago and it just works :)

I know! I just recently discovered this one myself. Still exploring, but everything seems to be rock-solid. Fantastic! I don't know why this one hasn't caught on like wildfire yet...I have a feeling soon though : )

One problem I encountered with Ubuntu studio (2 years ago I reckon) since I was a newbie at this... I'd start recording and the system would freeze... I eventually realized it probably was that all of the system + recording software was in the RAM and when it'd run out... you were left out in the cold. Anyway, that's my newbie theory. I was using a smaller bare bones computer... Now I'm using a computer with about 3G of RAM, I'd love to use AVLinux... but am worried... will it freeze?

This ultimately depends on your workload. You say your new computer has 3GB of RAM so I’m assuming your old computer had less? In that case, it sounds like that could have been the problem alright. AVLinux is more stripped down than Ubuntu Studio as well. You would be less likely to run into those issues when running it. In this case, with your system having limited resources, AVLinux would be your best bet.

I have been frustrated by trying to replace Adobe Audition with a Linux system. I look forward to trying out your recommendations. BTW, The title should use "Oriented" as "Orientated" is not a word. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/oriented

Orientated is British usage.

Orient. Oriented. Orientate. People say orientated because they hear the word orientation or orientate and think that's the verb made from it. It's called a "back-formation". Whilst it is in common spoken usage, it should be avoided in written English. I personally see no need for it. what's wrong with oriented? Why add the extra "at"?

I agree very much with this article. I switched to Linux for music production a few years ago. It takes a little getting used to but once you get rolling with it Linux Audio is unmatched. There are now enough high quality programs and plugins available for Linux that there isn't much that will be missed from Windows/Mac. Plus it is very true that you can have the most stable system possible. I was running solydX with Tangostudio for the passed year or so and it literally never crashed.

i have been using linux [various versions]for about 5 years i currently run mint 17.2 as my main linux opp system but i also run win7 64 bit for stuff the i have no or cant get to run on linux .i have just orderd ubuntu studio dvd and repositorys [64 bit] but are now wondering if their is a better option , by the sounds of reviews and opinions thair my be better ones the ubuntu [ i had ubuntu 14 but was not happy with the desktop layout as i prefer widows type layouts and menus + cinnimon desktop menu i find very configurible with the right editor can you seagest a more approprate opperating system for audio editing [ i am very confused about the versions avallible] [please exquse the speeling as engilsh is my second langauge[ i am scotish]] thanks iain

I think he was wise to leave out Ubuntustudio. Here to stay maybe, but it has always been beta (like) buggy and fraught with config issues (I have tested every version) a redheaded canonical stepchild. The point of the article is getting up and running with a minimum of hassle. Kxstudio is by far the most user friendly out of box experience, and AVlinux is well built with some great drum kit libraries, and other xtras (not to mention that the Kxstudio developer and AVL developer work on projects together to make both distros better. I will look at new Ubuntu studio versions as they come out, but it is behind the curve. Great article!!

I tried avlinux, kxstudio and ubuntu studio on my main pc. All three distributions worked without any problems (jack and guitarix). I tried avlinux, kxstudio and ubuntu studio on my old pc. I could not get any sound with either of these distributions. Apparently a hardware problem. Then on my old pc I installed peppermint six, qjackctl and guitarix. Now it worked directly but with many xruns. So I installed a lowlatency kernel. and performed some minor tweaks Now it runs perfectly without any xruns. So when a main audio-distribution does not work there is still a possibility to easily get a working lowlatency distribution.

Just curious what everyone's thoughts are on DreamStudio, MusixGNU+Linux, and ArtistX? So far though, I'm going to try those listed here (Live USB first before install): AVLinux, KXStudio, and UbuntuStudio. This is my first time turning to Linux. In the past, I've worked with Windows 10 with LMMS and Audacity. The person I collaborate with more these days is using a Mac with Garageband. Oh, one thing I found, using a cheap generic keyboard (Casio CTK-2080), I could use LMMS in Windows 7 to work with it. In Windows 10, I cant work with it at all in LMMS, though plugging it into the Line-In port, I can use it with Audacity (one of the things I hate between LMMS and Audacity...LMMS didn't support Line-In, and Audacity doesn't support MIDI (unless I missed something somewhere)... Anyway, thanks for any thoughts/tips...

The link to the AV Linux website is outdated. The new one is: http://www.bandshed.net/avlinux/

Thanks for the heads up. This is now fixed!

I found more broken links regarding AV Linux (you spell it as AVLinux) and I believe the article should be updated to reflect the recent changes in AV Linux. It's now based on Debian Testing and includes the software repos from KXStudio :). This is a great website btw! :D

Nice article, very informative. Thanks for the time you took to write it. Good comments too, (apart from all the usual.. "You forgot this version blah blah....) and the annoying grammar pedantic's (is that a word)? It was nice to see a review Orientated towards what are (to me), lesser known production suites.

The disadvantages outweigh the advantages for me at this point. There are things I like about Debian, and it gets the job done. But it's not my top choice. I just want to use the distro I like to use, and if that requires more setup, so be it.

Despite this being an old article (updated in 2016, but I see 2014 comments), this has been a very useful read on the comparisons of such distros. I am currently running UbStu 14.04. Before that it was ArtistX. What I like most about UbStu is the fact that I had very little issues with audio, unlike ArtX and your standard Ubuntu release, which I could never get audio to function AT ALL. The only issue I have with UbStu is getting recordMYDesktop and other screen recorders to capture sound, both what is coming from my desktop environment and mic. Besides that and an occasional hiccup with LMMS sound, I quite enjoy it. BUT... I have been on a search for something else. I was wanting to look into more info on KXS and came across your article. And lo-n-behold, you mention AVL. Now, my deciding factor is based on what you had noted, "Install, get to work and leave it alone". It comes off as a very reliable system and will more than likely install it within the next two months. Any query on changes on these releases since the article was published (ie: issues/concerns)? Thanks again for your research.

You mean Ubuntu, right? Because personally that's how I've been doing for *years* now : 1-Install the latest Ubuntu 2-Launch a script that I have : https://github.com/xaccrocheur/kituu with all the software I need (xfce, linux-lowlatency, Dropbox - where my current project lives - And of course and loads of other packages, like Qtractor and the audio and MIDI plugins, Audacity, etc.) 3-Work :) The point of using a general, all purpose out of the box Linux distribution is to be able to use it to do other things :)

I run Manjaro now, after running Arch for many years. It's got it all, it's pretty lightweight, has the realtime kernel... I run Ardour 4 & Bitwig on a 6 year old MSI A6200 laptop with an i3 processor, just upgraded to 8gb RAM & an SSD drive with no issues. I even play/record my guitar using the great Guitarix through a Roland Quad-Capture with no noticable latency at all.. It's only when I run my guitar straight into Bitwig with lots of effects, like I mean A LOT of effects on that signal that I notice any issues but I rarely use more than 2-3 effects anyways on my guitar so... Manjaro thumbs up here!

I realize your post Is a year old but I found it interesting because I am thinking about Manjaro for audio as well. Do you use Kxstudio or what is you setup?