After working with the Ubuntu Long Term Service release for a while I have decided that this approach is not working for me. While Ubuntu is a great Linux distribution, there are two major issues that made me change my strategy. My main problem was with the versions of the applications that are supplied through the repositories. On Ubuntu, these are never cutting edge. Usually their focus is on stability. The versions for the L.T.S. releases are generally even older. From the perspective of the average user, this makes perfect sense. Most users want a stable system instead of being on the cutting edge. As a matter of fact that was one of my primary criteria at first as well. But using Linux for music production turned out to be a different beast: many music applications are still in heavy development. So you need to install the latest version to keep up with bug fixes and new features. And there is more. Find this out 'after the break'
The other thing that bothered me about Ubuntu is this focus on "the average user" during operation. Ease of installation is very important in this case. So general distributions like Ubuntu install a lot of things behind the scenes to keep everything working and to check for new hardware etc. While this is again a good strategy for mainstream distributions, musicians are often outside of this mainstream. For one thing the use of resources is a very important consideration while producing music. You'd want to have as many resources as possible available for your music software. And if there is one thing that is absolutely great about Linux it's the amount of choice you have. So I set out to find a different distribution that offered me more of this choice.
It is possible to design and build your own Linux system from the ground up. That would give me total control. And although I do have considerable experience tinkering with computers, I decided that this was a few steps beyond my ambition. I needed a system that would take care of the basic installation and leave me with enough choice. I finally settled on Arch Linux: based on what I read about it, this is the perfect distribution for me with plenty of choice. As a matter of fact, Arch Linux forces you to choose.
A matter of choices
First off: Arch Linux is a great distribution, but it is not for everyone and certainly not for people new to Linux. There is no "point-and-click" installation. Everything is text-based. And basically, after installing Arch Linux you are left with a command-line interface (a shell) and a few tools. No further applications, no graphical user interface, none of that. The first things you'll do after installing Arch is configure the system using a simple command-line text editor to change configuration files. After that everything is up to you. You decide which graphical user interface to install for example. Fortunately I found Arch Linux to be well documented. There is a Wiki and the User Forums are filled with helpful Arch users. Any issues I ran into did take some research but I usually resolved them fairly quick.
It really pays to research your options beforehand. I decided I wanted a system that was quite lean, for example. So I wanted to keep the number of dependencies and loaded modules as low as possible. Researching your options before installing a lot of stuff certainly pays off in this case. I decided to do away with a Desktop Manager (like Gnome, KDE or Xfce) and only install a Window Manager, in my case Openbox. This alone has been quite a performance boost. As far as music applications go, I stuck to my earlier choices.
I believe that professional music production - on any operating system - forces you to become a "power user": you'll have to learn about the ins and outs of your system. To learn how to tailor them to your requirements. Arch Linux demands you to know more than average about your computer, your operating system and your applications. If you are willing to learn more about the nuts and bolts of your system, Arch is well worth the effort: if you take a bit of care you'll be rewarded with a very fast system suited to your personal needs. For example, I installed Arch on my ancient laptop as well and I am now able to watch YouTube videos on it, something that was unthinkable with Ubuntu or Windows... An additional benefit is that I now know how my systems are configured. That means that if I encounter problems I know where to look.