Linux Professional Audio Pt 1: What is Linux & Which Version is Best?

mr-tuxbotIf you have never used Linux before, you will probably wonder why anyone would use it for producing music. It has a reputation as an operating system for geeks that lacks support from DAW and plugin software companies. While this reputation is partly true, being a total geek I wanted to find out what Linux was all about!

Three months ago I decided to embark on the epic quest to discover if running Linux to record, mix and master music was even possible. So let the tale begin…

What is Linux anyway?

All computer operating systems are split into different layers. If you use Windows or a Mac, you probably have never been introduced to this concept. The idea behind these operating systems is to hide all the complexity and ‘just work’ for the average user.

Linux is not that more difficult to understand, but you will need to learn a little more about how operating systems work to be able to get the most out of it.

Linux is the name of the part of the operating system that the different ‘Linux’ distributions share

kernel_layout1The very bottom layer of the operating system, the one that can be thought of as ‘running the show’ is the kernel. It sits between the hardware and the actual software you use. It controls things like the file system, the memory, and the CPU.

The name Linux is the name of the actual kernel that all Linux operating systems use. The different versions of the operating system are called distributions. What ties them all together is that they use the same kernel. Anybody can make their own version of Linux using the official Linux kernel, but the vast majority of people choose to use the best and most widely known ones such as Ubuntu and Fedora.

While each distribution shares the same Linux kernel, they can all have a different GUI and different software pre-installed.

This is a vast oversimplification, but it’s nice to imagine that an operating system is split into 2 parts. The lower part that does all the hidden essential things and the upper part that you communicate with to control the lower part. As we discussed, the kernel is the lower part.

The kernel is the most complex and advanced part. It needs to understand and talk to thousands of different bits of hardware from manufacturers all around the world. If you buy a new graphics card then the kernel needs to understand exactly what it can do and how to speak to it. This is what a hardware driver does. If the OS is going to be super fast and reliable the coding of the kernel has to be fantastic, and if it is to run new hardware it must be constantly updated.

Luckily the Linux kernel is of a very high quality. Not only do many skilled people work on it for free, but massive corporations like Intel contribute a huge amount of code. As it is used to run the majority of the worlds web servers it has to be extremely stable.

The GUI is called the ‘desktop environment’, and you can pick the one you like best on Linux

When using Windows or Mac you may have thought of the GUI as the entire operating system. That nice file explorer just magically accessed the files on the disk and displayed them onto the screen for you? It’s not that simple.

The file explorer has to go down the chain of command to access the file system and the graphics card, down and down until it reaches its own kernel (with it’s own name, in Windows it’s called the Windows NT Kernel).

In these operating systems there are no other GUI’s that you can download to make your own version of the operating system, on Linux there is. Here is a popular one, Gnome 3 running on Fedora:

Fedora running Gnome 3 Desktop Environment


Which distribution of Linux should i use?

Of the most well known distributions, many are based on other distributions! This is confusing at first, but as everything is free people take entire distributions and try to make their own better versions. An example of this is that the most popular Linux distribution today is Mint, but that is developed from Ubuntu, which in turn is developed from Debian. I will try to make this relationship clear in the list below.

Top 10 Linux distributions in page hit popularity at DistroWatch

DistributionBased onSupportApproximate Popularity
MintUbuntuRegular: 9 months
LTS: 5 years
Debian3 years1711
UbuntuDebianRegular: 9 months
LTS: 5 years
openSUSESUSERegular: 18 months
LTS: 3 years
Elementary UbuntuRegular: 9 months
LTS: 5 years
ManjaroArch LinuxRolling release system1031
Fedora1 year approx1017
ZorinUbuntuRegular: 9 months
LTS: 5 years
CentOSRed Hat Enterprise Linux Up to 10 years779
Arch LinuxRolling release system730

So which is best?! The first thing to understand about Linux is:

Linux is about choice and freedom

linuxvwindowsIf you come from Windows or Mac then you have never had any choice. You get what you are given. You can load your own programs onto them, but you can’t change the operating system itself. With Linux you can, and people do, and with this choice comes great benefits and added complexity.

Now you can’t just say which is best, Windows, Mac or Linux. How about Windows, or Mac, or Ubuntu, or Arch, or Debian or Fedora, or the Linux distro some cool guys wrote last week?

You want a simple answer.. OK.. It’s Fedora 28 right now, and next year it will probably be Centos 8 which is the 5 year support ultra stable version of Fedora. LOL Of course, this is just my opinion based on what I want.

One really great thing about Linux distributions are that you can try them all totally free without even installing them. You just copy the downloaded ISO file onto a USB key and boot into the operating system. You can play around with it to your heart’s content without changing anything on your computer’s hard drive.

What version is best for you depends on what you are looking for.

  • Are you a fan of tinkering and customizing your computer, or do you want to set it and forget it?
  • Do you value many different features or want something simple and easy to use?
  • Do you want cutting edge latest versions of software, or old tried and tested versions?
  • Is security very important to you, or maybe you find additional passwords and restrictions annoying?

Use the Linux Distribution that is perfect for YOU

I would argue that most people actually want a happy compromise for most of the above questions, but some want more of one thing and less of another.

For example, you want recent versions of software, but probably not bleeding edge beta test versions. You want good security, but not to the point where the system enforces a minimum of 50 character passwords. You want a nice balanced well maintained operating system that for the most part just works. Welcome to the world of Linux, now you can have exactly what YOU want!

This is only part one of the series, we have not begun to touch audio specific questions like which audio interface, DAW and plugins to choose. More on that soon.

If you would like to promote your favourite version of Linux in the comments please go ahead and tell us all about your choice and why you made it… but keep it civil, people tend to get rather excited about Linux distributions.

Part 2 is now on-line, check it out! Linux Professional Audio Pt 2: Setting Up Fedora


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