July 25, 2007

Ubuntu Studio supports serious audio, adds little for video and graphics

Author: Nathan Willis

Ubuntu Studio bills itself as the "multimedia creation flavor of Ubuntu," an official Ubuntu project "aimed at the GNU/Linux audio, video, and graphic enthusiast as well as professional." It is certainly flashy on the outside -- even if it is mostly the same Ubuntu Linux distro under the hood.

Ubuntu Studio's first release is 7.04 -- the release number indicating that it is built on top of standard Ubuntu 7.04, although it was in fact released later, at the end of May. This version is available only for 32-bit Intel architecture. You can install it by downloading the DVD ISO image, or you can convert an existing Ubuntu 7.04 installation into Ubuntu Studio by adding the project's APT repository.

That repository gives you access to a dozen or so new packages -- some containing just a single application (such as the digital recording suite Ardour), and some containing multiple tools.

Because of its non-free status, video editing app Cinelerra is available through a separate individually-hosted repository -- at least such is the plan. I never got the repository to work, nor the parent domain to respond to HTTP queries. Whatever the cause, I was unable to test Ubuntu Studio's version of Cinelerra. Others reported the same roadblock on the ubuntu-studio-users mailing list and forum, but the only solutions reported to work involved retrieving third-party packages built for a different distro. I concluded that that would not be a fair circumstance in which to review Ubuntu Studio, and that trying to install Cinelerra was more trouble than it is worth.

I did install the rest of Ubuntu Studio via DVD, though, and it was painless. The installer is text-mode only (which is a bit ironic). The process is a basic desktop Ubuntu install much like Ubuntu's OEM Mode process, in which the normal package selections are replaced by four custom software collections: audio, graphics, audio plugins, and video.

Beyond these multimedia tools you are only given a handful of basic packages: Firefox, Gaim, OpenOffice.org, and so on. But after the system is up and running, you can add any package available through standard Ubuntu repositories.

JACK and a dark gray theme

Right off the bat, Ubuntu Studio looks different -- gone is the brown-and-orange color scheme beloved by Mark Shuttleworth and criticized by others. The Ubuntu Studio team has discarded all of the traditional Ubuntu artwork: splash screens, login manager and window manager themes, and GTK+ and KDE themes. Replacing those elements is a low-contrast, dark-gray look that will be familiar to users of expensive proprietary multimedia apps like Avid or Shake. It is a look sported internally by at least two free software heavy-hitters, Ardour and Blender, so adopting it system-wide might make the rest of the desktop look more cohesive, even if it won't win over any new converts. It is not quite smooth across the board, though, as the multimedia apps use GTK+1, GTK+2, and KDE widget sets, and many utilize custom "canvas" elements that do not conform to the system's theme colors. Plus, reading text is hard in certain circumstances, and the dark gray button and checkbox elements look weird on Web pages in Firefox.

Exploring Ubuntu Studio, you will find dozens of audio editing, mixing, and synthesizing programs, plus a wide selection of effects plugins for those programs -- and that's about it. The "video" and "graphic" enthusiasts and professionals targeted by the project's mission statement get literally nothing new.

Don't misunderstand: there are video and graphics applications in Ubuntu Studio, but they are standard fare available in almost any run-of-the-mill Linux distro. For graphics, the offerings are nice ones -- some of free software's best, such as Blender, Scribus, Inkscape, and Hugin.

For video, the picture is less rosy. You get Kino, a capable (if not fancy) DV video editor; the less mature but similar editor PiTiVi; and if you can manage it, the aforementioned Cinelerra.

This makes Ubuntu Studio about 80% pro audio, 10% graphics, and 10% video. I don't think that one can attribute this lopsidedness to a lack of interest in graphics and video; the situation is roughly the same in other "multimedia distros" like dyne:bolic and 64 Studio. Rather, it illustrates the state of multimedia on Linux: pro graphics is simple, pro audio is possible, and pro video ... well, it just doesn't exist yet.

Pro audio on Linux (regardless of the distro) always comes down to two components: the high-end audio server JACK and a low-latency kernel. Both are available through standard Ubuntu repositories, but Ubuntu Studio makes them the default and provides sane setups preconfigured.

Ubuntu Studio does build on top of JACK with an impressive array of audio applications, from hard disk recording to MIDI control. Foremost in this arsenal is Ardour, the multi-track recording, mixing, and editing workstation. Ubuntu Studio provides the latest revision, Ardour 2.0; vanilla Ubuntu is stuck with a much older 0.99-series build.

In addition, there are samplers (SooperLooper, LinuxSampler), sequencers (Rosegarden, Shake Tracker, Timidity), software synthesizers (Csound, Hydrogen, FluidSynth), mixers (JAMin, Mixxx), effects racks (JACK Rack), even music typesetters (Lilypond) and soundfont editors (Swami).

The distro breaks out special effects plugins -- both Linux Audio Developer's Simple Plugin API (LADSPA) and DSSI -- into a separate package collection. The selection is geared for modular synthesis, and includes everything from basic oscillators like BLOP to extensive personal collections like Steve Harris's.

The sound and the fury

The long and the short of it is that if you are a musician or audio enthusiast, Ubuntu Studio is a big win: you get a stable, tested, preconfigured source for the high-end audio components you need to do serious recording and editing, and you get it built upon one of today's most popular, well-supported mainstream distros. The millions of vanilla Ubuntu users on 32-bit Intel machines can add the Ubuntu Studio goodness with a simple cut-and-paste APT repository addition (instructions are at ubuntustudio.org) -- a far nicer alternative than installing a separate distro.

Graphics and video mavens have far less to gain by adopting Ubuntu Studio. You don't need to compile a new kernel or switch X subsystems to enable pro graphics, but Ubuntu Studio doesn't even offer you minor improvements. Let's be cutting edge: on the graphics front, include some experimental stuff like Krita's wet paint mixing, natural media simulation, or Photoshop filter support with PSPI. At the very least, give us GIMP 2.3.

On the video front, naturally, the apps are less mature, so reasonable suggestions aren't as easy to make. Still, the unreliability of the external Cinelerra repository is a major problem. If it is the best non-linear editor available for the present, it needs to be as easy to install as Ardour.

Luckily, with open source, users can contribute to making future releases better. The project has a dedicated multimedia forum on ubuntuforums.org, and an active wiki.

As multimedia distros go, Ubuntu Studio's decision to build on to an existing distro instead of reinventing the wheel gives it a leg up on its competition. I look forward to seeing what Ubuntu Studio will release once Ubuntu 7.10 is out the door.


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