Linux on the desktop

Anyone on here running Linux as their main OS?

To cut a long story short: I need a new display (my 30" Cinema Display is way too past it) and I’d like to get a 4K one as I really like the retina display on my MacBook Pro. My current Mac Mini won’t support 4K and is also getting a bit old. So, hop on to and configure a new Mac Mini, then start cursing at the prices they charge for SSDs and 16gig of RAM. This get’s me thinking… does it need to be a Mac?

Really I’ve started to use my phone more and more for casual computing, and my computer is reserved for serious computing and web browsing. The only software I really run is Chrome,, iTerm and Emacs. When I run Ableton, 9 times out of 10, it’s just as a glorified mixer. Everything else is command line, or easily done on my phone.

I’ve run Linux in various guises for 20 years or so. First version was from a cover CD in 1995 or 1996, I think it was Slackware (and I had no internet connection…). But I’ve never used it as my main desktop, OSX has generally offered me the best of both worlds.

I’ve managed to cobble together a little test computer sitting on my desktop next to my Mac to try out. It’s currently got Arch Linux on it with XMonad as the window manager. Debian has always been my choice on the server, but I’d like a rolling release (and testing always gets a bit wierd before a stable release). Plus PKGBUILDs seem easy to write. I did try NixOS and I really like the concept, but it’s a bit too rough around the edges for me, and is sometimes too opinionated.

I think I’ve got my head around audio, basically I need to go PulseAudio -> JACK -> ALSA, but I haven’t set it up yet, and more problematically my MOTU 828mk3 doesn’t look like it works under Linux. In all likelihood I’ll keep the Mac around for audio anyway.

So, who else is running it as their main OS, what distro, and how are you doing audio?


I switched to Linux around 2010 after having been a mac user for a long time.

I’ve bounced around from distro to distro like everyone else, but the last couple years I’ve settled on arch linux for audio & development work. I have a laptop in the studio running linux mint and ardour that I use for recording as well.

I’ve personally always had trouble with pulseaudio and tend to just stick with ALSA – and I use JACK pretty much only when I use ardour.

I have a MOTU UltraLite AVB and a Traktor Audio 6 which both work great with linux – although when switching sampling rates on the MOTU I always need to start jack a second time.

The biggest hump in switching for me was weening myself from 10 years of accumulated Max/MSP patches and switching to Pure Data, which in the end wasn’t a very big deal.

Ardour made switching away from Logic pretty easy – and they have made a ton of progress in recent years. Ardour 5 is awesome imho.

This is the year of linux on the desktop! :wink:


Paging @wrl

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been using exclusively linux (with odd times I’m forced to use a win box at work) since 2002-ish, so pretty much all my adult life. Drank a load of the FSF kool-aid at a tender age, thus never owned a macbook for music-making. First forrays into computer multitracking were ardour2.0 on slackware linux2.6RT with a m-audio delta1010lt on a then-dated cpu!

Like everyone else, bounced around slackware -> fedora (for the ccrma repo), -> ubuntu (till it got so bloated and buggy) -> arch. Fell back in love with the linux world after discovering arch - kind of felt like a return to the slackware days of performance and stability, but with a package manager…

Since converting to emacs and getting hired to work on software originating from the symbolics lisp machines I started gravitating to the desire for a ‘modern’ lisp machine, both for embedded/server-like and on the desktop. After dabbling in xmonad, realising I had no hope in hell of ever getting it set up how I wanted, finally settled on a desktop setup based round stumpwm, which is easily configurable for the moderately experienced lisper. I’ve even had my window manager communicating with a DSP flow using OSC to display readouts as wm overlays - kind of cool to be able to add this kind of functionality without ever ‘rebooting’ the window manager.

Using jack for everything, with dummy loopback alsa device so I can connect the sound from web browser or whatever to wherever. My main tools for DSP dev are:

  • jaaa / japa: audio spectrum analyser / test tones
  • lisp-scope: an opengl/jack scope I wrote on top of common lisp - it provides a really speedy scrolling scope where all the audio data appears as arrays inside emacs/slime. A blob of RT C ‘expands’ the jack buffer to around a second so that bursty common-lisp can keep up. So you can just grab random bits of audio by jack-piping them into the program, zoom around with keyboard/mouse, then do whatever analysis you want interactively from the REPL using common lisp. This is gonna go open-source but first needs tidying up / docs…
  • faust2jack: the main thing modern common lisp implementations really suck at is realtime. I was originally trying to do a load of DSP prototyping in common lisp, but this always blows up in your face when you want it to run realtime. So I discovered faust through aleph & forum - haven’t looked back! faust communicates with emacs/lisp via osc, garbage collection pauses become less problematic and everyone gets a pony…

I’ve been running Gentoo Linux as my main desktop for around twelve years and as a music creation environment for about ten. Looks like you’ve all the knowledge you need to get started!
My only suggestion is, for your external audio interface, to use JACK and ALSA without PulseAudio unless you really need to integrate it with your desktop tools (volume slider, etc).


i have no real history with linux for music mostly due to lack of knowledge and laziness

but i have partitioned my ssd to run ubuntu in case i ever need something there

there seem to be newer stable options, and i’m a more confident i could handle messing with what i setup before

any recommendation on how to clear out whats there and start fresh? perhaps with arch linux or something


I can’t say I’ve fallen in love with Arch, some stuff seems a little obtuse for the sake of being obtuse. I’d much rather there was an official AUR helper, rather than having to decide which of the 3rd party ones I trust most. The AUR seems to be unusable without a helper of some description. I ran FreeBSD on my home server about 8 years back and I definitely remember there being an included tool to make installation, upgrading and dependency management work smoothly.

Again, I thought that was last year… or was it the year before. :stuck_out_tongue:

Speaking of ye olde Slashdot memes, I actually know some people that work at Netcraft (they’re in Bath), scarily one of them was young enough to not even know! (Netcraft confirms, I am old now.)

@rick_monster I can see why you’d like stumpwm as I know you’re a big common lisp fan, for me I’m now at the point where Haskell is my first choice for a programming language, though I still end up doing a lot of little things in Python as the ecosystem is so much larger. One of the big draws of switching is being able to get my WM set up just so, I’ve got cVim installed in Chrome, so hopeful my mouse can start to gather dust…

The Symbolics stuff must be super cool, although perhaps a tad ironic given your love for the FSF! Wasn’t the Symbolics brain drain at MIT one of the driving factors in the creation of GNU?

@murray I definitely have a soft spot for Gentoo, I dual booted a PowerBook G4 for a while back when OS X was so slow. There were so few distros that supported PPC, and Gentoo was one of them. From what I recall I went full on stage 1 install, and I definitely learnt a lot. Two things held me back this time, I vaguely remember some of the bad times Gentoo had (sob wiki) and the period of general instability that ensued, plus I think I’d rather have a systemd based distro. Arguably the differences between the systemd distros really comes down to packaging and software availability.

I shall keep everyones recommendations for Pulse Audio in mind, I was under the impression that running it on top of JACK for those applications that only support it was okay, but maybe ALSA loopback is the way to go instead.

@glia Linux distros come in many shapes and sizes depending on what you want, if what you’re after is an OS that is striving to be like Windows or OS X, then Ubuntu is probably the best of the bunch (IMO). I expect you can happily use it without ever opening up a command line, but you’ll probably never learn what an init system is and why that’s controversial. What OS are you using at the moment? And how do you feel about command lines (and command line text editors like vim, emacs and nano)?


@sam my needs in order of importance: audio input & arrangement, file storage, audio synthesis output, plus text-based research/doc-editing.

i use windows at work, but my personal computing is all apple right now (mac mini and iphone).

my exposure to command line tools has always been exclusively for music related stuff on a very limited basis (like installation of supercollider, aleph sample prep etc)

so i’m a novice
but willing to learn more if the reward is worth it


Would you mind sharing your configuration?


This is such a hard question to answer. I’ve always struggled with determining when it’s best to invest time in ‘process’, and when it’s counterproductive (and possibly my subconscious engaging in an act of structured procrastination). At least now I’m a bit more experienced and I can rely on intuition to guide me.

Arch Linux is very much a command line Linux, if you’re not used to that it will feel like you’ve been chucked in at the deep end. But it’s probably the easiest to use of the ‘hardcore’ distros. Have a look through the installation guide and see how much sense it makes. FYI, at the end of the guide you still have no GUI installed!

I’d definitely recommend playing with Linux in a virtual machine (VirtualBox is free and runs well enough on OS X) rather than installing it on an SSD. If you install on your SSD there is always the risk of screwing up your OS X partition, especially if you want to ‘distro hop’ (i.e. try out lots of different distros).

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i think ezra recommended virtual boxing when i installed this yrs back…honestly cant remember what i chose or why off head @sam

gonna peak under the hood when i get home

btw youre right…it’s such a loaded question but i guess when i ask “is it worth it?” i mean: what would i miss by continuing with the same basic setup?

seems like most folks appreciate the latency/performance and openess of the linux platforms

If i’m beginning to dabble with pd, supercollider, and haskell but only use these tools for home recording rather than live performance, what advantage does linux provide (if any)?

would it be wiser to spend my time/effort gaining proficiency with these tools on a familiar platform instead?

think I found the spells here here is my own personal .asoundrc - bear in mind it’s tailored to crappy codec on c720 chromebook, which can’t run jack at low-latency. Might have to read that whole long boring article from alsa website to get your own system running smoothly…

someday I’ll splurge on a good trackball, since pointing devices are actually awesome for ‘real work’ not involving text, such as zooming in on little bits of a waveform, schematic-entry etc…

umm yea should get off my high horse about free software before someone calls bullshit :wink: - I only play at being a GNU monk in my spare time! (Also worth mentioning apparently symbolics machines came with full source code) As for the schematic capture & simulation code I work with, don’t want to say too much about it at the moment - scrape around my github there’s some code for a genera-like presentation system (mostly not written by me) - possibly not helpful to have it up there in that form - doesn’t do anything on it’s own and needs a proprietary lisp to run as things stand.

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Hmmmm, started watching it, then read the seriously dodgy video description and shut the tab. Sorry.

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i’ve run linux as my sole, or primary, OS since 2004. been a gentoo linux developer for most of that time. i’ve run, long-term, gentoo, ubuntu, ubuntu studio, and arch linux. have used all of them to record and perform music. in every case, i didn’t use pulseaudio, but simply alsa+jack. pulse has historically been bad news for low-latency and realtime audio, especially if it’s the bottom-most layer in your stack. but surprisingly, it hasn’t been an issue over the last few years of using arch linux. it used to be the first thing i removed from prepackaged distros, but i haven’t noticed it getting in the way during my time on arch.

software: if you just need a mixer/timeline-layout DAW, then ardour, audacity, or similar linux alternatives can do that just fine. there are of course many environments and specialty tools for working with midi, detailed sample-chopping, and other manipulation available for linux. i’ve run renoise very successfully, including for live shows.

hardware: motu has always been extremely hostile toward linux. support has improved over the years as smart linux developers manage to figure out what’s going on with its proprietary protocols, but in general, motu interfaces are best shunned. that being said, the 828mk3 should be working as of the last 3 years, assuming you have a non-generic kernel configured for low-latency work. most kernels precompiled/configured by the distros shipping them are generic, so you’d likely need to do some tuning.

macs: there is no mac mini that’s capable of usable 4k output. the quad-core 2012 mini can’t do it, nor can the “current” (2014) dual-core mini, which uses a CPU that was already couple years old when the mini was released two years ago! only the rMBP, retina iMac, and nMP can handle 4k output.


oh boy i did not see that :pensive:

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… I’m sorry, you’ve been hired to do what? That sounds positively delightful. Is the symbolics source itself or this derivative going to see the light of day publicly? You must share a little more for those of us who are also quite enamored with CL and its lineage. :slight_smile:

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Arch is great but does involve some more legwork initially to get things set up as you’d like. It’ll also expose you to more of what’s under the hood.

Ubuntu was great for many years but has seemed a little hit and miss since 2013 in my opinion as a first real foray into Linux. There are certainly worse options but I’ve been recommending beginners investigate Linux Mint these days. Ubuntu has been making too many regular large changes between releases and they are not always fully baked.


In a past life, I was one of the main developers on Paktahn - an AUR helper written in Common Lisp. At some point I arrived at the same opinion of Arch and have gotten by either on Mac or Debian Testing since. Most everything important runs in Emacs, Renoise, or Chrome anyway, doesn’t it? :wink:


surely not the kingcons of coleslaw fame!? Anyway it’s not symbolics source, but a presentation system based on the genera one, and other tools written by Martin Mallinson which I believe are descended from stuff that used to run on his lisp machines. Our whole office pretty much runs on code built on top of a version of it, which isn’t in public domain. Not getting to work on that much right now - other matters became more pressing.

Check my github for mallinson utils if you’re really curious - check through the logs pretty sure I checked in the original unmodified code from ILC 2005 presentation before starting to try and make a start making certain things a bit more portable/generally useful. I may have screwed-up/broken things in process of making sense of things & refactoring - probably best to hunt around for the original sourcecode if you’re interested in any potential history there…

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I can understand that, the video itself was so full of bright flashing lights, it was hard to notice much else. Plus I think we’ve all been conditioned to avoid looking at any actual text on YouTube as it seems to represent the worst of humanity…