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Over the years, I've heard both Windows users and Linux enthusiasts make the claim that professional media production on Linux is impossible. While there may be some workflows so over-engineered that legacy software is a must, I firmly believe that, with effort, using Linux for media production is doable.
In this article, I'll share application titles that can help make media production with Linux possible. The key thing to remember is that in order to be successful you will have to put forth some effort. Because some of the applications are quite complicated and require an education all their own.
Hurdles to overcome
Before we jump into each title, consider the following hurdles that must be overcome for media production: dependability, latency control, and stability. Dependability with Linux software is a simple matter of testing out updates before putting them into production.
The next consideration is latency control with regard to audio. This can be tackled a number of different ways, ranging from using JACK audio to individual application settings designed to compensate for such things. And if you're really hardcore into getting things just right, you could even go with a realtime-preemptible kernel. This would allow you the ability to provide smooth audio regardless of the project. Most people, however, will look to JACK with individual application settings in order to keep things simple.
And the last thing to consider is stability. Regardless of the type of Linux distribution you choose to run, each update has the potential to break something. The odds are extremely low, but if you're putting together a highly customized production box without a sandbox for testing, you're taking a gamble.
My advice is to clone a copy of your successfully setup media rig. Then on another drive install it for sandbox testing. When updates come out update there first. When you're ready to work on your project, a failure on this installation won't translate into serious downtime for troubleshooting. Best of all, if the sandbox is broken, just nuke and pave the installation with the last working disk image.
You might be thinking containers are better suited for the task. You would be wrong and here's why – a broken plugin or a buggy update to an app behaves the same regardless of its running environment.
Containers are great, but I don't feel they match up to a dedicated partition for testing. There are too many variables that containers don't address. On the flip side, containers are great if you're upgrading the rest of the distro and not the software within a given container.
Now that we have a handle on some of the general hurdles one might face, let's get right to the software itself.
Ardour – It’s without a doubt, the ultimate DAW (digital audio workstation) for the Linux desktop. This software will walk you through from pre-production to post, with ample editing tools in-between. The controls and overall flow will require spending some time getting to know the software. Ardour will support any audio equipment that your distribution supports natively. Work confidently with multiple tracks, mix them together and route your audio to other applications or hardware. Ample plugin options such as VST and LinuxDSP are also available.
Usable for production: Yes, with configuration. JACK must be setup and proper latency compensation using read-ahead and write-behind is needed. If someone is willing to setup each project with this in mind and utilize Linux compatible equipment with Ardour, then it's safe to say that this is production ready.
Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) – OBS is the best solution available today for streaming video to an Internet audience. OBS provides outstanding streaming capability to services like Twitch, YouTube and others. You're also able to simply create your own RTMP to anything you wish. Any feature missing from OBS out of the box is usually handled by one of the user created plugins. This provides options like scene switching or selecting additional video sources. Perhaps the best feature of OBS is that it's able to successfully capture GPU output such as games.
Usable for production: Yes, but it requires plugins to realize its full potential. Some features one might find in proprietary alternatives might work differently than with OBS. Those specific differences aside, I believe OBS is perfect for podcast streaming. As to its value for higher end production, it depends on what feature set you need. OBS will allow you to do much of what you might find with proprietary alternatives, however there is going to be some functionality left to community created plugins.
Icecast -- Just as OBS provides solid live streaming support for video, Icecast does the same for audio. At its core, Icecast has the ability to create an Internet radio station. Unlike other solutions, Icecast doesn't try to be a catch-all media streamer. It streams audio and does it well, but that's it. Despite the long term goal of adding video streaming support, Icecast will always be used for its core purpose which is steaming audio to those who choose to listen to live streams.
Most people familiar with Icecast equate it to streaming music. But those who wish to live stream their audio podcasts are actually using software like Icecast to make their latest episode available to their listeners live, as it happens.
Usable for production: Icecast is ready for most production requirements. It's a mature project with a solid base for audio streaming. Streams provided with Icecast are enjoyed by anyone using software capable of listening to audio streams. For anyone looking to start a schedule audio stream for their podcast or even a full-on Web based radio stream, Icecast is a strong candidate.
Blender -- Two parts 3D modeler and one part video editor - Blender is an amazing software application. This 3D rendering software is capable of rendering 3D models, wire frame models, and even 3D animated movies. Blender has been compared to Maya based on its capabilities.
Perhaps the biggest strength Blender presents is that it runs great on Linux and on closed source operating systems as well. Once you're familiar with the software, there isn't much this software can't do.
Usable for production: Blender isn't merely ready for production use, it's highly recommended. This software has been used successfully to make TV commercials, create assets for film and allow digital professional to create amazing things.
Lightworks -- Unlike other Linux compatible NLEs (non-linear editors), Lightworks has been used to create Hollywood movies seen by millions. Like with any video editor, there is a workflow to get used to. It's not going to feel natural to someone coming from Final Cut. However, once the layout and controls are mastered, Lightworks is a solid video editor capable of producing high-end production media.
Usable for production: The catch with using Lightworks is you'll get what you pay for. The free version will allow you to edit video and export it to YouTube friendly formats. Unfortunately you won't get the ability to export your creations into a more professional format. That functionality among other advanced features is left to the paid version. That said, the cost is made very affordable thanks to the option of paying a small fee monthly or paying all at once. With the paid pro version, Lightworks is indeed ready for serious production work.
Other software considerations
Now you might have noticed previously I neglected to include changing workflow in my list of hurdles to overcome. The reason for this is simple – a new workflow is a self-imposed barrier. I also neglected to mention software such as Audacity, OpenShot and Kdenlive. As important as those software titles are, the fact is most of them are not really comparable to the applications I listed above.
I believe software such as OpenShot, Audacity and Kdenlive are fantastic for producing podcasts. These are titles I rely on myself. But for studios with a budget, it's tough to beat Lightworks, Blender, Icecast and OBS. These application titles are ready for prime time assuming the end-user is willing to put in the time to learn how to use them.
What say you? Are you left feeling that even with the available software Linux remains behind? Perhaps there are software tools you rely on more than those I've listed -- tools such as FFmpeg for example. Hit the Comments and share your experiences.
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