Is Linux a Viable Option for Professional Multimedia Production?

Feb. 3, 2012, 5:09 a.m.

In this article, I will examine what free and open source alternatives can be used to create multimedia in a variety of categories.  As an avid Linux user and freelance audio recording engineer/mixer, I've often wondered how viable of an option Linux and open source software is for true professional multimedia work.  Small business professionals such as freelance videographers, photographers, graphic designers and musicians/recording engineers have very thin margins. I will examine some of the commonly used open source alternatives to common multimedia software.  They probably aren't full replacements for hardcore professionals needing the flexibility and reliability of big time software, but they could work perfect for the right situations.


I'll start this list with what I know best, Audio. The obvious go-to choice is Ardour.  I've use it for a few tasks such as simple multitrack recording and editing out pieces of a song creating a seamless and shorter song for a clients dance number.  It seems to be able to perform most tasks that I require out of Pro Tools and could be a viable option for those doing things such as tracking live bands or recording music not relying heavily on virtual instruments or effects.  Ardour lacks MIDI support (coming in version 3, you can already test the beta if you desire) and isn't as effects oriented as DAW software such as PT or Logic.

For those interested in more more plugins and analog emulations, a very good, but commercial piece of software based on Ardour is Mixbuss by Harrison Consoles.   It is available for Mac, Windows and Linux and a can be tried for free. This article is mainly about free software, but if good commercial options are available on Linux, many artists would be willing to pay the money for the flexibility of being able to use their OS of choice.

For those looking to do only MIDI sequencing and notation, Rosegarden is a good option, and it can also be used in conjunction with Ardour and the Hydrogen drum sequencer via JACK.  JACK allows all this software to be connecting using internal software audio and midi cables, allowing for very flexible software setups that can be recalled using simple scripting.  Basically a type of ReWire available for OSS.

For those looking for an Ableton live replacement, Bitwig Studio  is coming out with a great looking offering capable of traditional audio editing too in the near future.  No timeline yet, but the features are worth getting excited about.  A current option for those interested in chip style 8 bit sounds is the tracker Renoise.  The most exciting thing about Renoise is it's advanced scripting that allows it to be used with multiple controllers and have very advanced user created additions.

I also would like to quickly mention two open source effects that I've had good experience with.  Rakkarack is a great guitar effects processor and Bristol Synth is a vintage synth emulator with dozens of hardware emulations.  Both are a little rough around the edges but provide great options for people exploring creating sounds on Linux. The biggest issue I've found in using Linux for recording is finding an audio interface that works.  I currently have a Digi 003 which does not work on Linux.  Firewire support in general seems to be spotty, but some of the more recent USB offerings from companies like Presonus allowing up to 18 tracks  seem like viable options.  For desktops, PCI cards from companies like RME are also a good option, but are pretty pricey.


For video, the lack of options is actually pretty disappointing.  Options even as flexible as the simple Apple iMovie are pretty lacking. There is an impressive option on the horizon however, Lightworks.   Lightworks was professional software for a long time and many feature length major movies were edited on it. They are currently in the process of opening up the source code and porting to Linux and Mac.  You can try it out on windows now and the Linux version should be available soon.

While many huge companies already use linux for  animation, the large server banks and millions of lines of custom code required for movies like Shrek 3 are out of the reach of most freelance animators.  However, there is a great option for average Linux users, Blender.  While Blender can be intimidating at first, there are many tutorials that can get you up and running quickly.  The video below was found on YouTube and made with blender and some of it's add-on scripts.


When it comes to image editing, there is no question that Linux is able to handle just about any task using the GIMP.  Using the gimp, I have been able to accomplish any image editing task I've needed over the last 5 or so years.  Simple cropping, contrast adjustments, image rearrangement and pasting layers on top of one another and logo creation.  RAW file support and other features are available through 3rd party plugins. More serious professionals might have need for features I can't imagine, but I can't recommend enough that everyone try out the GIMP for free before running out and spending hundreds on software like Photoshop.


In conclusion,  there are a great many professional tools available to Linux multimedia creators, and many more are still to come.  While every option might not be a complete replacement for standard commercial software yet, in the right situations, freelance professionals can save some money and increase their flexibility by working on free open source software(FOSS).