Tom's Definitive Linux Software Roundup: Audio Production

Distro Spotlight: Ubuntu Studio

Ubuntu Studio is a spin of the mega-popular Ubuntu Linux distribution. Ubuntu Studio began in 2007, shortly after the release of Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn, as a standalone Linux distribution. Version 10.10 is the latest, and the one we used for Image, Audio, and Video Apps.

Ubuntu Studio is available as a bootable DVD image. This distribution can only be installed onto the hard drive; there is no live environment to test. Unfortunately, trying Ubuntu Studio in a virtual machine will not really give an indication of its multimedia capabilities, since A/V production often needs full access to real hardware. A full installation on a spare hard drive is really the only way to give this distro a proper test drive.

The installation process for Ubuntu Studio is a stark contrast to that of its parent distro. Instead of a slick GUI, complete with a feature set slideshow, you're greeted by a DOS-style blue, red, and yellow installation screen. This is not a quick installation, either. Installing Ubuntu Studio will take a chunk out of your afternoon. If you opt to install the additional packages or enable real-time processing, it will take even longer.

Ubuntu Studio broke with the theme of Ubuntu long ago, and the new purple and orange theme didn't make the transition. The default desktop theme of Ubuntu Studio is black and blue. Although still GNOME, the standard dual toolbar configuration has been modified. The bottom toolbar is completely gone, and an Ubuntu Studio icon replaces the Application/Places/System menu in the upper toolbar. The trash can and window list are moved to the upper panel, and virtual desktops are disabled. Thankfully, the window buttons are on the right-hand side.

Other major changes from Ubuntu include a lack of the Ubuntu Software Center. Instead, Synaptic serves as the default package manager. The addition of the Ubuntu Studio Controls utility contains settings for memory management.

Overall, Ubuntu Studio doesn't do anything that Ubuntu can't. But setting up real-time processing and installing all of the extra multimedia-related packages is a painful, time-consuming process in vanilla Ubuntu. The best use of this OS is as a workstation for the audio and/or video production enthusiast, though we saw no real benefit for those involved with image-related work. Because of the need to preserve the all-important audio settings for production, Ubuntu Studio should be given its own dedicated machine, or set up in a dual-boot configuration with its own drive. You can download a copy of Ubuntu Studio here.

Other A/V Production Distros

64 Studio, ArtistX, and Musix are three other free audio/video production-oriented Linux distros. Like Ubuntu, both 64 Studio and Musix are based on Debian, while ArtistX is actually based on Ubuntu. Therefore, any of the DEB links and many of the Ubuntu icons appearing underneath the applications listed in this article mean that the applicable software will work in these three distros as well. You can download a copy of 64 Studio, ArtistX, or Musix by clicking on the icons above.

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  • nekromobo
    Now I remember why I read tom's.

    A great article!
  • akorzan
    I found using WINE with, don't laugh, FL Studio works great. Latencies are on par with Windows. Only problem is some VST plugins have mouse problems... I.E: double-clicking has to be absurdly fast. Another trivial problem is that battery life in laptops is nonexistent with WINE and FL Studio.
  • longshotthe1st
    Why would anyone even bother? Time is money, I'm going to just stick with what works.
  • damiensturdy
    Great read. FLStudio is one of only two pieces of software that keeps me tied to Windows. Sure, it runs under Wine, but getting it working is a pain, and you're lucky to get 100% of the functionality. As an advanced user of FLStudio, I use almost everything the app provides, and I need it as low latency as possible. 20ms is too much- 10ms is better. In general I've never achieved
  • damiensturdy
    Damn, it cut my post off. No way to edit that? ah well. I was basically saying that this article has helped me decide what software to use when I build my synthesizer this year.
  • g00ey
    Has anyone tried running software such as FL Studio in Linux using a virtualization software such as VirtuaBox? VirtualBox can even run in seamless mode which allows you to have Windows windows next to Gnome/KDE windows in the same screen.
  • Very nice article you could also have covered comercial productos on Linux like:

    Harrison Mixbus; Renoise; EnergyXT; WusikStation; PianoTec...

    BTW there is big updates soon for Ardour (3.0), MuSe (2.0) and Rosegarden (?).
  • damiensturdy
    @g00ey, yes. Latency and audio are weak through a VM, and the audio still has to travel through whichever audio library the Linux distro is using, it's a no go.
  • caeden
    g00ey, as a general rule of thumb you don't want to virturalize your workstations whether they be for audio or video editing. In part due to stability, and in part due to speed/latency.
    I was surprised at the scoring software. Looks about as good as my wife's version of Sibelius, with the exception that she had to pay for hers.
    Personally I just do editing and cleanup, and while it looks like it is much improved on Linux from what it use to be, it has improved more on the windows side. But nice to know that there are options available if I were to ever cross over.
  • I'm really looking forward to the Video apps review since that is my main sphere of interest.
    But it really sounds like it is time to get the 'ole midi keyboard out of the closet and try some of those synth apps!
  • No love for Pure Data?
  • adamovera
    nekromobo: Thanks! Great name BTW.

    g00ey: If you're only using samples and not recording, going live, or hooking up to any other apps, I don't see why it would be a problem. Although that would definitely reduce the functionality of FL Studio. Oracle VirtualBox is free, if you already own a copy of Windows it can't hurt to give it a try.

    adsgdVery nice article you could also have covered comercial productos on Linux like:Harrison Mixbus; Renoise; EnergyXT; WusikStation; PianoTec...BTW there is big updates soon for Ardour (3.0), MuSe (2.0) and Rosegarden (?).

    Not sure how Harrison Mixbus packages the Linux version, no trial available either. Renoise, EnergyXT, and PianoTec don't qualify due to the package/repo rule - see page 2. I don't think WusikStation has their Linux version ready yet.

    boombipNo love for Pure Data?

    Doesn't qualify due to package/repo rule - see page 2.
  • g00ey
    @damiensturdy & caeden, I can imagine that latency could be an issue when it comes to virtualization but the software I have tried (such as graphics, video playback, office and DTP) works surprisingly well under virtualization so I just figure that maybe audio production software works inside a virtual machine.

    So called Type 1 hypervisors have support for something that is called passthrough which means that some hardware can be assigned to communicate directly to the virtual machine without intervention of a virtual abstraction layer (that usually manifests itself as a ring buffer between the hypervisor and the VM) this is commonly used on network interface cards to ensure a good throughput and lower latency on virtual machines that require this.

    For this to be possible the hypervisor has to be run "on the metal" and not as an application inside an OS (such as the VBox or the VMWare Workstation). Xen is one such example that is integrated with the operating system. The ESXi/vSphere is another, but it is its own operating system.

    Moreover, the hardware needs to support either Intel VT-d or AMD-IOMMU which provides this passthrough feature.

    Edit: Not only Xen is supporting PCI passthrough, we are also beginning to see this on KVM and VirtualBox. This is possible since one has managed to add type 1 like attributes on type 2 hypervisors and the distinction between the two of them is getting fuzzier. This is possible by patching come parts of the (type 2) hypervisor into the kernel. KVM can pass through up to 32 PCI units and it also supports multi-function passthrough. It currently does not support passthrough of graphics cards (or VGA passthrough, which is due to advanced BIOS features of a GPU in a computer) like Xen does, however. I don't know about VirtualBox but I expect it has similar capabilities, but only on Linux. VB currently has no support for this on other host platforms.
  • pelov
    Love the entire series. Great work
  • Fantastic article, thanks Adam.
  • mc84ss
    What would anyone reccomend for taking mp3s and "mixing up" any profanity. I work in a secure building and my boss frowns upon any music with profanity.
  • pocketdrummer
    Linux is definitely not the OS to use for Audio Engineering. Not only is it seriously restricted in the drivers department (most decent interfaces do not support linux), the Sequencers (or DAWs as this article slightly misrepresents) are not sophisticated enough to really stand up to the likes of Cubase, Sonar, Pro Tools, or even Ableton Live. There's no real point in trying to build a Linux system for recording unless you just love working around severe limitations.

    This is coming from an Engineer who uses Ableton Live and Cubase on Windows and Mac systems (depending on the application and gig).
  • I agree with pocketdrummer here, and I must add that i have used Lunix for audio engineering and music making for many years and I can assure you that nothing in the lunix world is as powerful and stable as even a simple DAW like Garageband on the Mac.. Linux is nice for daily computing, but don't go there for serious work...
  • salsaman
    I hope you will mention LiVES ( in the upcoming video roundup.
  • Mixxx is a fun mixing application, that I'm a little surprised didn't make this article.
  • g00ey
    A while back ago I posted here about virtualization and in the meantime I have conducted quite a bit of research. I have found out a few new things so I figured it would be in place post an update.

    First of all there is no "max two pass-throughs" limitation inherent in the hardware as I said before. This is a limitation in VMWare ESXi software and in ESXi only.

    There are situations when the passthrough implimentation is not as straghtforward as one could wish for. Such situations occur when you want to pass through a graphics adapter and/or a multifunction device to a virtual machine. Both situations have been resolved and you can pass through such devices without problems today. The problem with multi-function devices used to be to get the entire multi-function device passed through to the domU. Link to research paper:

    Here is another research paper on VGA passthrough:

    For more information about VT-d and IOMMU in general, the following paper is a recommended read:

    Xen is the most well-implemented hypervisor with these features today. KVM is another (Xen-based) hypervisor that currently seems to lack support for VGA-pass through. But it can pass through up to 32 multi-function devices on machines that have the Intel VT-d or AMD-IOMMU feature enabled. For more information about passthrough look at the following pages for Xen:

    For information abouthardware that supports VT-d or IOMMU look at the following page:

    I use MSI 890FXA-GD70 and it supports IOMMU.

    So by passing through audio hardware to virtual machines you ought to get at least fair latencies when running Windowsas a guest OS for audio production. Of course things are still in development but a lot is happening and I believe the performance is fair even today.
  • I am a trained sound engineer. Since completing my degree i have made my own educated decisions in regards to computers and software. I can confidently say that it does not matter which operating system you use, capturing a good sound lies in the hands of the engineer. I was trained using Protools HD along with all the equipment money can buy. I now use GNU/Linux for personal reasons, I never blame poor sound quality on my tools.