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Linux for Musicians? Part 2

Tux, as originally drawn by Larry Ewing
Image via Wikipedia

How to do Linux if you’re a PC?

So you’ve read my previous post on you Windows PC and I’ve got your interest. “Linux for Musicians? Part 1” has convinced you that Linux and FOSS 1 might meet your needs as a platform for making music. Now you’re ready to test Linux. But how are you going to do that? You don’t have a Linux Computer and you’re not about to purchase one.

Here’s some different ways of trying Linux:

  • CD, DVD, or Linux on a Stick (USB)

You can download Linux for free from many different sites. Burn the downloaded file to a CD or DVD and stick it in your CD/DVD drive. Most downloads and CD’s are configured to run as in a Live CD mode that lets you try the software without actually installing it on your computer.

If you have a slow internet connection you could just order or find a Linux CD you can try. Look in computer magazines for free Linux software CDs. You’ll have to buy the magazine but you’ll quickly get something to try if you can’t wait to have purchase the CD online and have it shipped.

You can also purchase (or install from downloaded software) Linux on a stick – a USB flash drive. This works fairly similar to a Live CD. Most of these offer a “persistent” option where you can actually save data to a section of the USB drive (or your hard drive).

  • WUBI

WUBI stands for Windows Ubuntu Binary Installer. I’ve never tried this but it is supposed to allow you to install Ubuntu Linux on a Windows computer without reformatting your drive. Linux runs as a Windows program. It looks interesting if you want an easy way to try the software.

  • Dual Boot

The classic way to have a foot in both the Windows and the Linux world is to install Linux side by side with Windows. It requires you to create and re-size partitions on your hard drive so there will be a place for Linux. Alternatively you can put Linux on it’s own dedicated hard drive. You must choose which operating system you want to use when you boot, but it is possible to designate one OS as the default that will boot automatically if no choice is made in some specified time (15 seconds maybe?).

I’ve run Linux this way on various computers for years. However, within the last few years I’ve switched to either of the two following methods.

  • Virtual Machine

Virtual Machines (VM) are virtual computers running on a real computer. You can install Linux inside of a VM on your computer and run them both simultaneously. There are some issues with this.

First, the performance of programs you run in your VM Linux is not going to be good as if they were running directly on your real computer. Second, everything will run better with faster, multi-core processors and a lots of memory. I run my virtual machines on a computer with a 64 bit Intel i7 quad-core processor, hardware virtualization (in the processor), 8 GB of memory and a 7200 rpm 500 GB hard drive. You don’t need a computer as powerful as mine. I have also run VM software on XP with 2 GB memory and a dual core processor. I’m just pointing out, there will be consequences for your performance depending on how powerful your computer is.

I recommend using VMware’s VMWare Player to run your virtual machine. You can get FOSS virtualization software but I’ve had problems cleanly installing Linux with some of the FOSS VM software. VMPlayer installs Ubuntu easily without a need for much intervention from you.

  • Dedicated

Finally, if you’re ready to go all Linux, you can either find an old computer you no longer use and install Linux on it, or you can purchase a dedicated new computer for Linux.

Which Flavor of Linux?

There are over 300 different Linux distribution listed at Distro Watch. I’ve tried a handful over the years, usually the better known and better reviewed editions. There are many good Linux editions out that I’ve never tried. But if you want to go with a popular, highly rated edition which I use, use Ubuntu. It is easy to install, easy to use and easy to maintain.

An edition of Ubuntu which may be better for musicians than the standard Desktop edition is Ubuntu Studio – a multimedia edition of Ubuntu. This would be particularly good if you are interested in recording with Linux because the OS has been optimized for low latency.

If you are unfamiliar with Linux, some of the other top distributions are Fedora, openSuse, Mint, Debian and Mandriva.

Why Not Linux?

I’ve already indicated that I’m not a fanatic about Linux, merely an occasional user. I find Linux to be sometimes be useful, even preferable to other FOSS – but I’m not abandoning Windows (though I often want to). One reason you might skip Linux is because many of the excellent FOSS programs that run on Linux are now available on Windows and Macs as well. For example, TuxGuitar is on all three platforms.

The second reason has to do with your needs and how well a software package can meet those needs. If you have particular needs or preferences in how you work and FOSS does not meet those needs (and you can afford the commercial software) then you must go where the solution is. Which may be on a Mac.

Some tasks I do so rarely and my needs are so modest that many programs could satisfy them. Free and open (but practically, free is the key) make a lot of sense for those tasks. Why buy a $200 notation program when MuseScore is free?

But for tasks which you perform regularly and consider vital you may have higher standards. Some free and open source software may meet your needs well. TuxGuitar is as good or better than any commercial guitar tab program I’ve purchased. Then again, you may be forced to make compromises. If you don’t have the money, your choice is easy. Live with the free. But for other things – it depends.

One of the Windows programs I love is Band-in-a-Box. I’ve owned it for years and have upgraded several times. There are some free, open source products which provide some BIAB-like features but they really don’t measure up to BIAB. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to upgrade this year. My software is several versions behind and is not installed on my current laptop. I’ll have to live with free and open or drag around an out of date laptop. But if I had the money, I’d buy the newest version.


  1. FOSS: Free and Open Source Software.

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