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Editor's Note: Professional Audio Production on Linux

Feb 13, 2010, 00:02 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

I was happy to read From Windows to Linux: a sound decision, by Sam Varghese, which ran earlier this week on IT Wire. Mr. Varghese interviews Geoff Beasley, the owner of Laughing Boy Records, and "a producer, composer, arranger and performer." Because it confirmed what I've felt all along, that Linux is a superior audio production platform. I don't have the skills of people like Geoff Beasley, so I wasn't confident in making that claim.

In my own experience, audio production on Mac OS X starts out easier than on Linux or Windows. You don't have to fuss with hardware and system tuning, just hook up your audio gear, load up your software, and away you go. AppleScript is a great scripting language for GUI applications. There are three downsides: cost, inflexibility, and inconsistent application quality. It's the same old bushwah from the beginning of time: most audio production software runs on both Mac and Windows, and rarely equally well on both, but better on one or the other. Sometimes a lot better. (I'm puzzled why vendors don't mind supporting two completely different platforms, but don't want to bother with OS X's close cousin Linux.)

Apple is the least flexible; if you're not happy with Apple's way of doing things, too bad for you. Cost isn't really higher than Windows, in fact my own rough calculations make the Mac the cost winner over Windows. How? By factoring in everything: stability, speed, not having to spend masses of time and money dodging malware (and failing anyway), and not having to do regular reformat-and-reinstall dances. Windows wins only when your own time and peace of mind are not valuable to you.

Windows? Oh dear deity, don't make me laugh. It is the worst of all worlds, with a little more tweak-ability than Mac, but not enough to be really useful; an unstable system resource hog; its famous friendliness to malware; and increasingly customer-hostile "features" such as DRM pushiness and license paranoia, phoning home to tattle on you and you have no recourse if it's wrong. No, Windows 7 is not more secure, and it is not less lardy than Vista. Use XP for audio production if you must use Windows; at least it won't require two cores of a four-core CPU, mass RAM, and 12+ gigabytes just for itself.

Both Apple and Microsoft are way too happy to push closed standards, formats, codecs, and patents. That is a great big negative for me. Just think if they put their clout behind open standards and codecs, instead of perpetuating an unhealthy system that wants to put locks and surveillance on everything.


Naturally I favor Linux (which is a big surprise to you, I'm sure) even though it has several disadvantages. One, many rough edges. It can take a fair bit of tinkering to tune a Linux system and find all the drivers you need. Drivers, as always, can be real pain because I haven't found hardware vendors that are more behind the times than audio hardware manufacturers. A lot of them are just now wising up to Windows Vista, let alone non-Windows platforms. OK I'm exaggerating, but not very much.

There is not the same wealth of pricey audio production suites as there are for Mac and Windows, and proprietary and patent-encumbered codecs are troublemakers. But the upsides are many. Linux has its own universe of wonderful audio software of all kinds: synths, samples, filters, special effects, mixers, recorders, media servers, streaming servers, and despite the proprietary world's best efforts to the contrary, support for all codecs. Even some hardware vendors are waking up to the possibilities, so every day we see more good audio devices that work in Linux.

Linux is all about power, stability, and flexibility. That flexibility comes at a price; there is a lot to learn. But with high-end audio production you're facing a learning curve anyway, it is not for the one-button-make-it-go crowd. It's like the difference between paint by numbers, and learning real painting skills. You make it your own. As Mr. Beasly said

"There's a great difference between working with commercial software and Linux," says Beasley. "One is the speed at which things get fixed - it is simply amazing. Another thing is that though I am always running software which is in a constant state of development, it is incredibly stable. It is not possible to get fixes at this speed from commercial vendors - the guys I work with are driven by the sheer elegance of their software and its flexibility. And I am constantly amazed at what I can do with my limited knowledge...

"This (pointing to his studio) is science," he says. "Windows is commerce."

With Linux, the more you learn the more you can do. And that, I think, is the shortest and best answer to "Why Linux?"