On paper, Linux has many advantages over macOS and Windows. How easy is it to get started with Linux Audio and how far will it take you?
The question was innocent enough. “Can you help me put together an affordable recording setup for my studio?” Then came the kicker. “Can we use Linux?” Cue eye roll and a flashback to 20 years ago, where I am listening to a friend extol the virtues of Linux Audio whilst glossing over the missing features in the DAWs available at the time, the lack of supported audio hardware and functional plug‑ins, and the regular need to resort to using the command line to make anything function.
In my own experience of professional recording studios, they’ve always been equipped with a Mac or a Windows PC, and nearly always running Pro Tools. I had not considered alternatives. For me, Linux seemed too complicated and ‘unformed’. I worried that DAWs used in most commercial studios around the world are not supported in Linux — this includes Pro Tools and Logic Pro — and that hardware such as audio interfaces and controllers might lack the necessary drivers. I was also concerned that by not offering a Windows‑ or macOS‑based solution, my friend’s ability to create and find work may be impacted. But as my friend had a preference for the Linux OS, I figured a little research into the subject couldn’t hurt.
Before embarking on this project, one of the first questions that crossed my mind was: who is creating music on a PC running Linux? Answers include musicians and audio enthusiasts, people with financial constraints looking for a cost‑effective solution, and studios looking to run a second workstation as an alternative to their main system, to name a few. There are also people ideologically opposed to subscription models or dependency on a single manufacturer’s ecosystem. This was not something I would have thought to consider — until now.
Luckily, the host hardware was already decided on and there was no need to purchase a new PC. Linux will happily run on low‑spec hardware, which presented the opportunity to repurpose an older PC in the studio, potentially helping to reduce electronic waste. For reference, the host was a Dell Optiplex 3020M Small Form Factor PC (normally available on eBay) using an Intel Core i3 CPU clocked at 3.1GHz with 4GB RAM, with built‑in Intel graphics and sound.
Next, some research was needed on the preferred version of the OS. I was aware that Linux is predominantly known for its stability, performance, and the level of security it brings to servers, supercomputers and smartphones. But what about audio?
The Linux audio ecosystem emerged through the 1990s. Developers, musicians and enthusiasts worked together to create an open‑source platform for audio production. Linux kernel developers, led by Linus Torvalds, worked on providing the groundwork for audio support within the kernel. The Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA) project, initiated by Jaroslav Kysela, developed essential audio drivers, libraries and utilities that formed the foundation for Linux Audio. An audio framework was being created. With the arrival of Ardour, an open‑source digital audio workstation (DAW), the development of the Jack Audio Connection Kit (JACK) that allows real‑time, low‑latency audio connections between applications, and the continuing work of the Linux Audio community on developing and improving the platform (for example with PipeWire https://pipewire.org), there is now a wide range of audio production and processing tools built to run on the Linux OS. These tools include DAWs, audio editors, synthesizers, effects processors, audio routing systems, and a wide range of plug‑ins. But would this be enough to provide a viable solution for my friend?
There are many, many versions of Linux: RedHat, Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, to name a few. So, the first task was to decide on a Linux distribution. I chose Ubuntu, for its track record of stability and user friendliness to the desktop user. Linux’s open and modular architecture empowers users to tailor the environment to meet their specific needs, but although I had the option of installing Ubuntu 22.04 LTS and selecting the applications relevant to my requirements during the install process, my preference was to use a distribution where the audio‑related software and drivers were pre‑selected for install.
I decided on Ubuntu Studio, which has a wealth of production tools covering audio (including Ardour and JACK), graphics, video, photography and publishing. Ubuntu Studio is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which means it is free to download and use [https://ubuntustudio.org]. Updates are released every six months, with a long‑term release (LTS) version released every two years if you prefer to stick with your current OS version, only installing security updates as required. For those who are interested, Ubuntu Studio 22.04 LTS is based on Ubuntu 22.04 LTS “Jammy Jellyfish”.
After downloading the ISO image from the Ubuntu Studio website, I used an application called Unetbootin to create a USB installer. This creates a bootable thumb drive from which you install the OS: simply plug the USB drive in, power up the PC and follow the on‑screen instructions.
As previously mentioned, neither Pro Tools nor Logic Pro is an option on Linux. But although the range of DAWs, creative tools and sequencers available for Linux might not be as wide as on operating systems like Windows or macOS, there are several noteworthy options to consider:
- Reaper is the same program that is available for other operating systems, providing you with multitrack audio and MIDI recording, editing, processing, mixing and mastering tools.
- Bitwig Studio is also fully cross‑platform, and is designed to be an instrument for live performances as well as a tool for composing, recording, arranging, mixing and mastering.
- Waveform Free by Tracktion is a free, fully featured DAW for Linux, Windows and macOS, with unlimited audio and MIDI tracks. It has a user‑friendly interface and is suitable for beginners and intermediate users.
- Qtractor is a multitrack audio and MIDI sequencer.
- Rosegarden is an audio and MIDI sequencer, score writer and musical composition and editing tool.
- Ardour is a cross‑platform, open‑source DAW that offers advanced audio and MIDI recording, editing, mixing and mastering capabilities.
- Harrison Mixbus is based on Ardour but tailored for mixing and mastering tasks, with a professional mixing console interface.
- Renoise is another cross‑platform music‑creation application. With a design developed from the ‘tracker’ software of the ’90s, it lets you record, compose, edit, process and render production‑quality audio, and has a wide range of built‑in audio processors.
- Audacity is an easy‑to‑use multitrack audio editor.
- Musescore 4 is a free, cross‑platform, open‑source composition app that lets you create sheet music.
Note, though, that the availability and compatibility of DAWs on Linux can vary, depending on your specific distribution and hardware setup.
Even though Ardour is installed with Ubuntu Studio, my friend had been using Reaper for years, and wanted this to be installed too. I downloaded and extracted the Linux install package relevant to my host’s hardware from the Reaper website. The package contained the software, a Readme file, and an installation script. After reading the Readme file and some quick research on how to run the installation script from a terminal, along with what options to select during the process, the install was complete. Reaper now appeared in the PC’s Application menu. I also installed the optional ReaPack and SWS Extensions.
In the past, this is where things used to be a little tricky. The primary obstacle when using a Linux machine for something that requires external hardware, such as audio interfaces, is driver support. For a piece of hardware to work with an operating system (OS), a driver needs to be written that tells the OS how to communicate with the hardware. Unfortunately, developing drivers consumes a lot of time and development resources. This means that it costs money to develop drivers, with an ongoing investment in testing and support necessary. Consequently, there is a certain amount of understandable inertia amongst manufacturers when it comes to Linux drivers. Without a large existing user base the investment is not deemed financially viable — but without drivers the user base cannot grow. There appears to be little sign of this Catch 22 position changing.
There is a certain amount of understandable inertia amongst manufacturers when it comes to Linux drivers. Without a large existing user base the investment is not deemed financially viable — but without drivers the user base cannot grow.
Knowing this, I was concerned about whether I could find manufacturers who had written Linux drivers for their audio interfaces, or whether I would be reliant on a developer in the Linux community to have written a driver I could use. Luckily, there is a solution today. USB Audio Class 2.0 compliant interfaces have become very common. This is a universal standard that is supported at the OS level, meaning compatible interfaces will work out of the box on macOS, iOS and Linux (they will work for general‑purpose audio on Windows, too, but you’ll need a separate ASIO, Audio Stream Input/Output, driver [like https://asio4all.org] to use them with most music software).
It is worth bearing in mind, though, that many manufacturers also provide additional software to help with the interface’s configuration and keep their firmware up to date. If your interface has an internal digital mixer to handle low‑latency monitoring, for example, this will typically be controlled using a bespoke macOS or Windows app. Since most manufacturers don’t offer Linux versions of their additional software, you will need to do some research to find out whether your interface will retain its functionality if you adopt a Linux‑based solution, and/or look for guidance from the Linux audio community. If your interface does not require a software app to access functions, and uses buttons and switches to make a selection, you have a ‘plug and play’ solution. This is the case with many small desktop interfaces, and for this project I used a Behringer U‑Phoria UMC22, which does not use a control app.
The news was more positive on the plug‑in front. There are now more developers designing instrument and effect plug‑ins for use natively on Linux. Companies such as Auburn Sounds, Audio Damage and Applied Computer Music Technologies Ltd, to name but a few, provide a selection of plug‑ins in formats such as LV2, CLAP and VST. My friend also asked me if it was possible to install some Windows VST plug‑ins onto the Linux PC, and the answer is yes. There are several applications that facilitate this, including Wine, Carla and Yabridge. (Note, though, that those plug‑ins probably won’t be officially supported on Linux.)
There are now more developers designing instrument and effect plug‑ins for use natively on Linux.
With a little effort and some research, the project was successfully completed, and despite my initial reservations, I was pleasantly surprised at the ease with which the project came together. But I recognise that whilst the strides made by Linux Audio are impressive, challenges do persist. The demand for standardised driver support, greater hardware compatibility and control software for audio hardware remains, but with important technologies such as PipeWire on the horizon it’s clear that Linux Audio is evolving rapidly.
Ultimately, the decision to use Linux for audio production depends on individual needs, preferences, and the specific requirements of your workflow. While Linux offers many advantages, it may not be the best fit for everyone, particularly those heavily reliant on commercial software, specific hardware, or certain established workflows. But it’s a viable solution that is capable of supporting music creation, recording and mixing work to a high level, whether as a cost‑effective setup or as an alternative to mainstream production tools.
More info: linuxaudio.org
If you’re considering Linux as an option for your own musical endeavours, what are the main pros and cons?
- Stability and reliability: Linux’s reputation for stability is particularly welcome in the audio realm. It offers an environment where audio professionals can work with confidence.
- Customisability: Linux’s open and modular architecture empowers users to tailor their audio setup precisely to their needs, be they lightweight home studios or complex professional environments.
- Real‑time audio processing: Linux excels in real‑time audio processing, making it ideal for live performances, electronic music production, and any situation where low latency is critical.
- Open‑source collaboration: The heart of Linux Audio beats with open source. A global community of developers and artists collaborates to continually improve existing tools and create new ones.
- Professional‑grade software: Linux Audio now offers an increasingly impressive suite of software, from DAWs like Ardour, Reaper and Bitwig Studio to an array of synthesis and audio processing tools that rival their proprietary counterparts.
- Community values: The Linux Audio community is renowned for its inclusivity and willingness to help. Supportive forums, blogs and social groups provide guidance and assistance for users at all levels of expertise.
- Environmental sustainability: Linux’s efficiency allows it to run on older hardware, extending the lifespan of equipment and reducing electronic waste. It aligns with eco‑friendly principles in a world where sustainability is increasingly vital.
- Limited commercial software support: Some of the most popular commercial music production software, including DAWs such as Pro Tools and Logic Pro X, is not available for Linux. If you heavily rely on these specific tools, switching to Linux may not be practical.
- Hardware compatibility: While Linux audio drivers have improved significantly, there can still be issues with hardware compatibility, especially for specialised audio interfaces, external audio gear and MIDI controllers. Ensuring that your hardware works seamlessly under Linux can be a challenging task.
- Plug‑in compatibility: Linux may not support all the plug‑ins available for Windows and macOS. While there are workarounds like using compatibility layers (Wine), and there are native Linux plug‑ins (LV2 and CLAP), the selection might be more limited compared to other platforms.
- Learning curve: Transitioning to Linux can be a steep learning curve for users who are accustomed to Windows or macOS. The different software installation methods and terminal‑based commands may be intimidating for some users.
- Industry expectations: In professional studio environments, where other software and hardware is prevalent, Linux may not be the preferred choice due to potential compatibility and support issues.
- Workflow familiarity: Users who are deeply entrenched in a particular operating system and software ecosystem may find it challenging to adapt to Linux and its associated tools. Familiarity and workflow efficiency can be significant factors in choosing an operating system.
- Lack of support: While the Linux community is generally helpful, support and troubleshooting can sometimes be more challenging for Linux audio setups, especially for users with unique hardware configurations or software requirements.