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If I had a dollar for every person who told me they’re switching to Linux because it’s free, I could buy a few copies of Windows 10.
It’s a wise reason to choose Linux; after all, financial responsibility is something everyone should practice. The point of free and open source software is the liberty to access and modify the code (“free as in speech”), but it doesn’t hurt that the majority of Linux distros are available free of charge (“free as in beer”).
If you’re an independent artist, a creative professional, or a hobbyist dedicated to digital art, you might appreciate Linux even more. Investing in education, equipment, and materials can quickly drain your wallet; the last thing you’ll want is having to pay for software. And you don’t have to. There are specialized distributions for music production, video editing, graphic design, and 3D modelling, with a wide range of software covering basic and advanced needs.
Don’t be mistaken: these distributions are not merely collections of apps slapped together. Most of them are optimized for multimedia-related tasks from the ground up. For example, they can:
- offer low-latency or real-time kernels, and use the “deadline” IO scheduler in order to minimize delays in processing system requests and tasks
- use a lightweight desktop environment and optimize swap settings to conserve RAM for resource-hungry activities like 3D rendering
- provide a complete JACK setup out-of-the-box
- include tools for monitor calibration, and support various devices (graphics tablets, scanners, MIDI keyboards, microphones…).
The downside of Linux distros for artists is that they’re often maintained by a very small team, or just by a single person. The risk of being discontinued is much higher with such projects than with big, popular distributions.
On the bright side, most multimedia distros have a stable, well-documented base like Debian and Ubuntu LTS releases, and you can use them even if they haven’t been updated in a while. Any problems will likely have been spotted and resolved upstream, so you can always turn to Debian and Ubuntu forums for help.
Now you know what to expect, let’s glimpse into the colorful world of Linux distributions for multimedia production.
Fedora Design Suite: Best of the Basics
Just like Ubuntu comes in different “flavors” (Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu…), Fedora has Spins and Labs alongside the standard edition. Fedora Design Suite is brought to you by the official design team that creates all Fedora-related artwork. It’s a collection of tried-and-true apps that can be added to an existing installation, or downloaded and installed as an independent version of Fedora. The Design Suite inherits features from the main Fedora release, including the Gnome desktop environment.
The default selection of apps is modest, and leans in favor of image editing and desktop publishing software. The fact that it doesn’t overwhelm you with dozens of unknown apps makes Fedora Design Suite perfect for artists who are just starting with Linux.
Highlights: Fedora Design Suite does a great job of introducing you to graphic design via its extensive list of tutorials, which is accessible from the main Applications menu. As for bundled software, Entangle is a fantastic app that lets you control a digital camera from your computer.
Alternative: If openSUSE is closer to your heart than Fedora, try Newt OS Studio [No longer available]. It’s a project similar to Fedora Design Suite, but based on the latest stable version of openSUSE. Newt lets you choose between two slim DEs (LXDE and Loki), and the apps it offers — Gimp, Inkscape, Darktable, Audacity, Scribus, Sweet Home 3D… — should sound familiar to everyone.
Ubuntu Studio: All-Around Simplicity
Probably the most popular multimedia Linux distro, Ubuntu Studio has been a part of Ubuntu family since 2007. There’s a lot to love about this distribution: from a rich software catalogue and a bunch of fonts installed by default to a low-latency kernel and helpful JACK tweaks. For example, Ubuntu Studio makes it possible to use Pulse Audio and JACK simultaneously, and it comes with a graphical tool called Qjackctl that serves as a user-friendly control panel for JACK.
The default desktop environment is Xfce, and you can use a LTS version if you’re aiming for stability, or upgrade every nine months to keep up with new Ubuntu releases and features. Like its Ubuntu cousins, Studio is simple to use, and should you require more apps, they’re only a few clicks away in the repositories and PPAs.
Highlights: Ubuntu Studio offers more than just one app for every category, so you’ll find both Darktable and Rawtherapee for RAW photo editing, Kdenlive, Pitivi, and Openshot for video editing, and a long list of audio tools, including complete workstations like Ardour and Rosegarden. Among the most interesting apps is Synfig Studio in which you can make your own high-quality 2D animations.
Alternative: Musix sounds like it might be just for music production, but it nicely covers everything else, offering several video editors (Cinelerra, Avidemux, Kdenlive), Gimp, Inkscape, and Blender, alongside audio tools. What makes Musix special is that it contains exclusively free software, without any proprietary parts. It’s 32-bit-only, based on Debian, uses a real-time kernel, and your default DE options are LXDE, KDE, and IceWM. (If you’re on the hunt for more music production apps, there are plenty of GarageBand alternatives for Windows users, one of which also offers a Linux version.)
KXStudio: Focused on Sound
If you’re serious about making music with Linux, KXStudio is for you. Like other multimedia distros, it offers a bit of everything, but the focus is on sound editing and production. KXStudio is based on Ubuntu, uses the “old” KDE 4.11.x as the desktop environment, and comes with a low-latency kernel.
The majority of included apps are free and open source, but KXStudio makes it possible to install proprietary software (mostly plugins and support for various file formats) from a special non-free repository. Even better, if you don’t feel like installing a whole new distro, you can just install KXStudio’s software collection on any other compatible (Debian- or Ubuntu-based) Linux distribution.
Highlights: KXStudio features its own suite of audio-related tools called Cadence. The apps — Catarina, Catia, and Claudia — are maintained by the KXStudio developers, and can be installed on other distros as well. They’re helpful for all patchbay management tasks, and the main Cadence interface lets you control JACK. Another fantastic app from the selection is Renoise, a proprietary digital audio workstation with a tracker-based interface and a ton of effects and plugins.
Alternative: AV Linux, because it uses KXStudio’s repositories and provides the same software. The main difference is that AV Linux is Debian-based, and the installation is slightly more complicated than with KXStudio. The desktop environment is Xfce, and the users can choose between a low-latency kernel and a custom real-time one.
Apodio: Filled to the Brim
I can see why anyone would be skeptical about Apodio. The website looks like it’s seen better days, and the documentation is sparse. Yet Apodio is not some recent project on a downward spiral; quite the contrary, it’s been around since the early 2000s, and it’s currently in its tenth iteration. Previously based on Mandriva, now it runs Ubuntu 14.04 under the hood, and sports a simple and welcoming Xfce desktop.
What it lacks in documentation, Apodio absolutely makes up for in software quantity, and then some. With an ISO image of almost 4 GB, Apodio probably has every multimedia app you’ll ever need, and they’re all neatly categorized in the main menu.
Highlights: As expected, most apps are sound-related, but you won’t be disappointed if you’re a photographer, filmmaker, or animator. Apodio has three different desktop recorders, so you can also use it for screencasting. One of the coolest apps is Stopmotion, which can capture input directly from cameras (including your webcam) and help you create wonderful timelapse photography.
Alternative: If your goal is to have as many multimedia production apps as possible, you can try ArtistX or Open Artist. Both distros are based on Ubuntu, and they’re both well-known in the community, but I didn’t list them as primary choices because they are no longer actively maintained. Still, Open Artist has a unique approach where it lists all available apps in the menus, but very few are actually installed. This gives you the freedom to install only those apps you really need by simply clicking their name in the menu.
io GNU/Linux: Enlightened Portability
io GNU/Linux is a refreshing collage of apps and developer choices. It’s based on Debian and uses Enlightenment as the main desktop environment, with a few KDE apps thrown into the mix. The software collection is massive, and you can choose between a regular and a real-time kernel.
However, it seems that the main point of io GNU/Linux is to be one of those distros you can run from a USB drive. Instead of regular installation, the idea is to use io GNU/Linux in “persistence mode”, which means copying the distribution to a portable drive so that you can work in it on any computer.
Highlights: io GNU/Linux strikes a fair balance by offering the classics (Openshot, LiVES, Guitarix, Rakkarack, LMMS, MyPaint…) and making room for undiscovered, but powerful apps like sound visualizers, fractal generators, and Flowblade. The latter is a multi-track video editing tool with a timeline, options for trimming and compositing, and plenty of audio and video filters.
Iro: A New Model
Compared to distros that cram their menus full of apps, Iro feels frugal, but in a good way. It’s a highly specialized distribution for animation, 3D modelling, compositing, digital painting, and image editing. It makes sense for Iro to contain only a handful of relevant apps, since a visual artist would not have much use for a bunch of audio production tools.
Iro is based on Ubuntu and supports only 64-bit systems. The maintainer states that Iro is still a work in progress, but you can use it normally without any severe issues. The only tricky part is the nonstandard installation. Iro uses Systemback, which is primarily a backup and restore application, instead of Ubuntu’s default installer.
Highlights: Once you’ve successfully gone through the installation process, you’ll be greeted by a slick, attractive desktop. Iro uses Cinnamon as the default DE, and the circular launcher called Gnome-Pie is bound to catch your eye. Applications worth mentioning include Makehuman (for creating realistic 3D models of humans) and Natron (a professional grade tool for compositing and special effects).
Creative work on Linux is so much more than endless debates on Gimp versus Photoshop. Alongside already supported free software, more and more proprietary apps for digital art professionals are becoming available on Linux. It’s not a secret that Pixar and DreamWorks have used Linux in their projects, so you should definitely give a chance to the distributions presented here.
In case you need some specialized apps that are not included in your multimedia distro of choice, here are a few resources to check out:
- TechEDV’s collection of CAD and modelling tools
- WikiBooks’ list of apps for film production, storyboarding, video editing, compositing, and much more
- openSource VFX, a directory of tools for all kinds of visual effects
- LinuxAudio.org, an exhaustive database of audio applications for Linux
- Saving the best for last: Christian’s recommendations for screenwriting apps.
Now we would like to hear from you—are you a musician, a photographer, or maybe a filmmaker? What multimedia distribution do you use? Which apps are essential in your creative workflow?
And if you’re in search of Linux apps for enhancing your creativity, take a look at Flathub vs. Snap Store for where to shop.
Image Credits: Ubuntu Studio login screen via Wikimedia Commons, Natron screenshot, Linux home recording studio by Lauri Rantala via Flickr, Apodio logo, Entangle screenshot, Flowblade screenshot, Renoise screenshot, Stopmotion screenshot, Synfig Studio 1.0, KXStudio screenshot, io GNU/Linux screenshot.