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Build A Serious Multimedia Production Workstation With Arch Linux

Pretty much any Linux distribution makes a satisfactory multimedia production PC. But some are better than others, and my favorite is Arch Linux. Audio, video, and graphics are all CPU-intensive, so I want my processor cycles doing actual work rather than shoving a lardy operating system around. With Arch we get a stable, lean, clean operating system, an active developer and user community and good, up-to-date packages.


There is also the Arch User Repository (AUR), which contains thousands of user-supported packages. AUR packages that are popular enough and well-packaged often get moved into the official Arch repository. AUR does not contain binary packages that you install with pacman, Arch's package manager. Rather, you download and compile sources using makepkg, Arch's excellent package-builder, and then install them with pacman.

Getting and installing Arch is like any Linux distro: download an .iso image, copy it to a CD or USB stick, boot and install it. Easy peasy. You can also purchase an installation CD or USB stick for a small price. There is a smaller netinstall image, which is nice for customizing your installation exactly the way you want and for getting the freshest package versions at installation instead of having to run a big update afterwards. Both images also function as system rescues.

Arch only supports i686 and x86-64 CPUs, so you need a Pentium Pro, Pentium II or AMD Athlon (K7) processor or higher. The Pentium Pro was first released in 1995, and the K7 family in 1999, so if you still have any of those hanging around they're pretty old machines.

Realtime Kernels

Back in the olden days we had to install special kernels with low-latency patches for best audio recording. Now it's not necessary because the newer kernels include realtime schedulers, and Linux audio applications are getting better at auto-configuration for best performance. Problems with high latency are most likely from a buggy device driver or audio application. You can download and try a linux-rt kernel from AUR easily enough to see for yourself, or to try for über-low latency, which is under 10ms. Just keep in mind that all the elements in your audio chain affect latency: hardware, software, instruments, and more complexity means more potential trouble spots.

You'll need to do some system tweaks as well, so refer to the Realtime Kernel for details on kernel configuration, environment variables, and assorted tips and tricks.

This is just a wee taste of the dozens of great multimedia-creation programs in Linux, a starting point for using Linux as a creative platform. Enjoy and have fun!

Audio Applications

There is a vast array of audio applications of all kinds available for Linux: recording, editing, and mixing, synthesizers, special effects, score-writing and printing.

JACK2, the JACK audio connection kit, is a professional low-latency audio server and audio router, and it is required by a lot of higher-end Linux audio applications. It lets you connect any number of devices and software, with an important limitation: it only works with a single sound card at a time. So you can hook up a batch of audio software and any hardware audio devices that connect to your sound card, and create connections between them however you like. For example, you can connect the wonderful Hydrogen software drum kit to the Ardour digital audio workstation via JACK, and add a live drum track to your Ardour recording session.

JACK also lets you configure performance for the best balance of reliability and lowest latency.

Ardour is a first-rate digital audio workstation that rivals its spendy commercial cousins. Ardour is my first choice for heavy-duty, multi-channel recording and mixing because it supports mix buses and master bus, network audio, nice video sync, MIDI, and bales of other great features. (Arch extra.)

audacity screenshot Audacity is my other favorite recording, editing, and mixing program. It's simpler than Ardour, but has more than enough features for making great studio and live recordings. It's my first choice for recording live shows. (May I plug my excellent Audacity book, Book of Audacity. Buy early, buy often!) (Arch extra.)

FluidSynth is a first-rate, realtime software synthesizer based on the SoundFont 2 specification, which means broad support for MIDI devices and languages. (Arch extra.)

The MuseScore music notation program is a wonderful score writer, editor, and printer. (Download)

Be an open source DJ with Mixxx, the slick DJ app that supports playlists, iTunes, MIDI, M4A/AAC, OGG, FLAC, MP3, Shoutcast, and is easy to use. (Arch extra.)

Making Movies

In my day, back when velociraptors roamed the Earth, we had wind-up Super 8 cameras that used actual film, which was expensive and required nasty chemical processing. Now all you need is a digital camera and a computer, and you can easily mix multiple media formats: still images, video files, audio files, and in multiple file formats and resolutions.

openshot screenshotOpenshot is the perfect video editor for beginners, and for users who want a good useful set of features but don't need every bell and whistle in creation. It has a clean, simple interface, plenty of functionality and good documentation. (Arch community.)

At the other end of the scale CinelerraCV is "a movie studio in a box" for advanced capture and editing. There are two versions: the original release by Heroine Virtual LTD, and the friendlier community-supported CinelerraCV (community version). Heroine Virtual only offers a source tarball, dire warnings about its instability on Linux and no support whatsoever. They are pretty much the same thing, except CinelerraCV is in distro repos, and it has good community support. (Arch community.)

For high-end 3D creation, try the superior Blender suite for making animated movies, games, special 3D effects. (Arch community.)

Graphics and Photos

It seems that people always get stuck on GIMP, as though it were the only graphics app in Linux, and always complain that it's not an Adobe Photoshop replacement. It is a Photoshop replacement for all those bazillions of users who poach Photoshop for free, and use a tiny fraction of its capabilities. It is not a replacement for professionals who actually need Photoshop for high-end print work.

Of course Arch Linux includes GIMP. There are many other graphics applications you might consider as well.

Once upon a time I called Krita "a real jewel, a hidden Linux treasure", and I still feel that way. With Krita you can create beautiful, detailed illustrations, comics, matte paintings, and gorgeous images of all kinds. If you can imagine it, Krita can draw it. (Arch extra.)

Digikam, of course, is one of the best photo managers and editors on any platform. Organize, tag, RAW editing and import, HDR, slideshow and calendar creator, and tons more. (Arch extra.)

Electric Motor 3D graphicIf you want a great RAW editor, try Darktable. It's a powerhouse of advanced tweaks and even supports tethered shooting. 

For amazing 3D graphics try POV-ray, the Persistence of Vision Raytracer for creating stunning still and animated images. The graphic at right shows how it can render objects moving in multiple directions, with changing light.

Don't forget Inkscape, the advanced vector graphics drawing program, and CinePaint, the excellent GIMP fork for creating and editing high-resolution (8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit) images.



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  • Michelle Klein-Hass Said:

    You forgot two things: there is Celtx for screenplay processing, storyboarding, and other pre-production good stuff. And Lightworks, a professional video editor with a lineage that goes all the way back to the '90s and movies like Pulp Fiction, is currently not ready for prime time in Linux but it is on its way. Like Blender, it was proprietary software that was shifted into community development. Its Windows version is fully functional right now, and there is also a Mac OS X port being worked on concurrently with the Linux port. Celtx: Lightworks:

  • Nemo Said:

    Lightworks is a closed source app that is merely available in a free edition with limited features. Everything else is just marketing.

  • lg Said:

    There are also two great programs - "Hugin Panorama Creator" and "Luminance HDR"

  • Martin Munthe Said:

    Lightworks has not been released for Linux yet and no date is set. I doubt that we will see it unless the Windows version gains enough momentum. Celtx is a horrible piece of software and it's not Open. There are other better Open options for screen writing...but not for Linux. Other than that this article shows us that Linux is still at a stand still as a multimedia production option. The article could have been written in 2006.

  • joker159 Said:

    I'm sure hollywood use linux heavily for video editing but with their own very secretive and proprietary software , it's the beauty of linux, you can do what u want to do with it even if it's not shared :)

  • joker159 Said:

    Novacut open source vdeo for profesional hdslr oriented user editor in dev kickstarter funding :)

  • jediafr Said:

    Personally i wouldn't base my workstation on something as shaky as a rolling distro that frequently breaks while updating ... Agree you have to RTM before each pacman -syuu but it is tiresome and counterproductive on a workstation where you have work to do....

  • Tawny247 Said:

    Thanks to Carla for a good heads-up regarding some of the graphics applications available for Linux today. Although this article is based around an Arch Linux installation, the applications mentioned are available for any distribution, so it really doen't matter if you use Debian, Mint, Arch, or what-have-you. Apologies if this is slightly off-topic, but for the record I have been an Arch user for over 4 years and in that time I can remember a grand total of 2 minor breaks during updates. One of those was due to an error made by a package maintainer, which was fixed within hours. The other was due to an upstream problem (a graphics driver) which affected multiple distibutions and so can't be attributed to Arch. This certainly doesn't strike me as a distro that 'frequently breaks while updating'. If you spend a couple of seconds scanning the home page of the Arch website before you update, you will be given ample warning if user intervention is to be needed. If you can't be bothered doing that, then don't use a rolling distro. Thanks again for the article Carla - there are a couple of great apps in there!

  • terminhell Said:

    OR you can choose to not upgrade, or selectively upgrade things. Why arch to begin with? So your base system is about as lean as possible.

  • theinterjection Said:

    Not upgrading on Arch? Good luck with that. Your system will break and you'll be unable to update or install anything.

  • kfan Said:

    CinelerraCV for video editing? I would hesitate to use that, but Kdenlive is stable and powerful. I use it for school projects all the time.

  • Dick Said:

    Getting & installing arch... What you describe is what I remember. But lately it became more complex.

  • Aditya Raj Bhatt Said:

    Please update your article. Now Arch Linux offers only a NETINSTALL so that you get the latest base and base-devel packages directly in your system. Of course you can build and go wherever you want from then on.

  • millymedia Said:

    "kdenlive" for video-editing, over Cinnerela or openshot.

  • skearney Said:

    Honestly, from what I can tell, I think Linux users ought to stop thinking that the only option is free. This is a fun little multimedia setup, but it's hardly the only, especially if you're professional and have the ability to spend a little (a lot) of cash. Free is going to cost a lot if you can't perform for your customers. While I have no doubt that these options can already or some day will cut the mustard, there is simply no truly professional complete set of truly professional options on Linux that is free. A combination of free and pay, however, and you do have a substantial, production-worthy platform.

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