October 14, 2011

Dream Studio: The Linux for Music, Movies, and Art

Dream Studio 11.04, the Ubuntu-based multimedia production Linux, was released on August 26. Is this just another Ubuntu respin, or does it have its own identity?

Dream Studio is maintained by musician and artist Dick Macinnis, and it is more than just a minor Ubuntu respin. There are a number of significant differences aimed at making it easier for creative artists to get up and running without needing crash courses in system administration and engineering.

Dream Studio is 100% compatible with Ubuntu. You can use all the Ubuntu repos, including the PPAs, and most of the help documentation applies to Dream Studio. The KXStudio Team PPAs are included by default. KXStudio is not a distro, but a nice collection of multimedia applications and tools packaged for Arch Linux and Ubuntu.

11.04 defaults to a modified Unity desktop, and classic GNOME is available just like in Ubuntu. Dream Studio has its own artwork, and adds a weather applet and a one-click workspace switcher to Unity. Unity does not support the old GNOME dreamstudio-menu template (though classic GNOME does), so multimedia applications are not grouped as nicely by category as they are in classic GNOME. Mr. Macinnis plans to include some Unity Lenses for audio and video applications in the 12.04 release. The Unity application menu is inefficient and painful to customize, so some better organization will be welcome.

The current release is available only in 32-bit. A low-latency kernel is installed by default. The low-latency PAE (physical address extension) kernel is automatically installed on systems that have more than 3GB of RAM. There is not yet a 64-bit version, but there may be for the July 2012 12.04 release. Macinnis hopes to also add ARM and PowerPC support, and is working on a migration package for a seamless upgrade from 32- to 64-bit on an existing installation.


Dream Studio comes with a great assortment of audio, video, and graphics applications, and offers quick access to hundreds more via the included PPA repositories. The DVD includes excellent graphics and video applications like the Blender 3D creator, the Hugin panorama creator, Stopmotion (for creating stop-motion animations like the Wallace and Gromit movies), the Agave color scheme designer, OpenShot movie editor, and Luminance HDR (high dynamic range) imaging. Some of the bundled audio applications are the Linux Multimedia Studio, which is an underrated and wonderful digital audio workstation, Qsynth MIDI sequencer, Rakarrack guitar effects processor, the Calf audio plugin pack for JACK, Aeolous pipe organ emulator, and of course Ardour, Audacity, Hydrogen, and many more.

If you use apt-get or Synaptic you'll find a nice bundle of tidily-organized metapackages, such as dreamstudio-video, dreamstudio-photography, dreamstudio-audio-effects, and dreamstudio-audio-recording. Just search for "dreamstudio."

Hardware Support

Dream Studio shines in out-of-the-box audio hardware support. Audio on Linux is a bit of a mess, though it's simpler and cleaner than it used to be. In the olden days we had to wade through OSS, ESD, aRTs, ALSA, and then came Phonon and PulseAudio. ESD and aRTs have gone away, OSS is an optional ALSA replacement, and Phonon is quietly useful and doesn't bother anyone. On my audio production PC I rely on the JACK low-latency sound server in combination with ALSA and FFADO. ALSA provides drivers for internal and USB sound cards, and FFADO supplies Firewire sound drivers and control panels. JACK controls routing between audio software and hardware.

PulseAudio, being new, has been troublesome, but it's evolving into a useful, reliable audio router. Integration with JACK and ALSA is pretty good, and it supports routing options that JACK can't do, or can't do very easily. For example, fast switching between multiple sound cards, individual volume controls on multiple audio streams, and recording any and all audio streams that play on your PC, such as system sound effects and Web streams. Users who prefer to not use PulseAudio can remove or disable it.

FFADO works out of the box for supported Firewire audio interfaces like my wonderful old Saffire Pro 26 I/O. If you're looking for a FOSS project to support, consider the FFADO project. They're doing great work with limited resources. Dream Studio also includes drivers and control panels for RME Hammerfall and Envy24 sound cards.

About:Dick Macinnis

My impression of Dick Macinnis is the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. I have great fondness for do-it-yourselfers, and Linus/FOSS is the ultimate playground for DIYers. He started out customizing Ubuntu for audio production for his own use, which evolved into Dream Linux:

"Since the other multimedia distributions available at the time...either weren't Ubuntu based, included far too many programs that did the same thing, or weren't set up for optimized performance, I thought there must be others who would appreciate using the same system I used in house. Once I realized this, I came up with the Dream Studio branding (the name, the logo, the themes, etc.), learned some basic packaging and repository setup, and had an installation disc ready within a couple of months. It is a fair bit of work maintaining a distribution, but in most cases I would be doing it for myself anyway, and since I wouldn't be able to make my albums, videos and advertising without the efforts of others (who designed the applications I rely on), giving back is the least I can do."

Macinnis started out using Mac and Windows, and eventually migrated entirely to Linux:

"When I first discovered Ubuntu (about 2005) I began using it exclusively for office and web browsing, having gotten quite sick of virii (pun intended) on Windows. Then I began doing design work (album covers and posters) on GIMP, and slowly started replacing all my proprietary tools one by one. On the modest hardware I started out with, Linux outperformed windows and OSX by a mile, and as such, I used it whenever I could, using proprietary systems only when the FOSS tools lacked functionality. The nail in the coffin came when I found audio trigger and autotune plugins in open source variations (ladspa-trigger and autotalent respectively), and ditched Windows and OS X altogether. I haven't missed them one bit since then, and even my old ibook G4 now runs Dream Studio."

Macinnis is also on the KXStudio team and is the art director for Ubuntu Studio.

Thumbs Up

My main audio production PC is Ubuntu Studio 10.04. My GNOME menu is customized, and I've put a lot of work into tuning the system for performance, hardware support, and configuring the applications that I use. I'm not throwing all that away for the sake of shiny new releases that break everything and make me start over.

I've tested a lot of multimedia Linux distributions, and so far Dream Studio leads the pack. It performs well and is a pleasure to use (in classic GNOME, that is!). If you're looking for a Linux multimedia distro to try, give Dream Studio a test-drive. If you run it from a USB stick it's almost as fast as a hard drive installation.

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