At Home With AV Linux
My studio computer collection includes two custom-built desktop machines and a Hewlett-Packard G60 laptop. As described in my previous article, the primary desktop box has been running an old but rock-steady 64 Studio 2.1 that has recently been replaced by a shiny new 64-bit Arch system. The secondary desktop machine and the laptop are both running the 32-bit version of Ubuntu 10.04. However, while I like and enjoy using Ubuntu I hardly require two identical installations of the same Linux distribution, so I decided to replace one of them with AV Linux.
What It Is
AV Linux is a complete Debian-based Linux distribution that includes optimized audio and video subsystems along with the expected wealth of system utilities and productivity software. A live version can be tested and used without disturbing your installed system, and an installer is provided if/when you decide to permanently add AV Linux to your boot menu.
Figure 1. AV Linux 5.0.1, at your service. (Full-size)
The AV Linux Web site tells us that the system is based on the stable "Squeeze" release from Debian Linux, the LXDE desktop and Openbox window manager, and the Remastersys utility. That last item is of particular interest - Remastersys can make a distributable copy of a personalized Debian or Ubuntu system, which is how AV Linux came into existence. At some point in 2007 Glen Macarthur recognized that his custom Debian-based audio/video production system could be useful to more users, so he spruced it up with some neat extras, pulled it all together with Remastersys, and voila, he created a new Debian-based media-optimized Linux distribution.
You can read the full story of the growth of AV Linux in its excellent manual. It's enough here to note that AV Linux has become a popular and recommended audio-centric Linux distribution. For good reasons, too, as we shall see.
I downloaded the AV Linux 5.0.1 ISO and burned it to a DVD. I tend to use disc-based installers, but my habitual way isn't always the best way to go, as I learned when I tested my first burned disc. On Day 1 it worked without incident, but on Day 2 it opened to a login dialog that should not have been there (this was a live session). Worse, for some reason the dialog rejected all my attempts at logging in. I checked Google, and sure enough I wasn't the first user to experience the problem. I thought I had verified the MD5 checksum for the ISO before I burned the disc, but I figured that starting over might give a clue to solving the problem. I retrieved a fresh copy of the ISO image, verified the checksum, and burned it to disc at a lower speed (8x). Alas, the same problem occurred, so I decided to try a Live USB stick instead. Still no joy, the problem persisted, until at last I realized that I needed to boot into AV Linux in its Failsafe mode. At once, the login problem was resolved and the system's performance was more responsive - and thus more enjoyable - thanks to the use of the USB key instead of the DVD. The DVD works, but use the USB method if you can.
By default AV Linux boots into its standard live mode, which should work well for most users. However, if you experience the problem I've described try the Failsafe mode. I would have tried it sooner, but I mistook "failsafe" for "recovery", i.e. the single-user boot mode used for system maintenance and repair. In fact, the Failsafe mode simply starts a live session that bypasses certain boot-time options that can conflict with some hardware (such as mine, evidently).
After the system boots and passes its basic configuration you should see a screen similar to the display in Figure 1. You're now in the LXDE/Openbox environment, from which you can launch applications and perform further system modifications. You'll probably want to change certain system defaults, especially the settings for JACK. AV Linux has pre-configured JACK with rather conservative values that you'll need to change if you want the lowest possible latency from your hardware. You may also need to add yourself to certain groups to ensure that you have the correct permissions to access requested devices (e.g. a Webcam or an external drive).
Using AV Linux
In the lower left corner of the opening display you'll see a row of icons. The icon at far left summons the main menu for the AV Linux applications stack and system maintenance tools. As mentioned, you'll find all the major players in the Linux audio applications arena, from Ardour to ZynAddSubFX, along with a generous helping of video applications and utilities. System administration tools can be found in the main menu, or you can simply click on the AV Linux Control Panel (Figure 2), the icon just to the right of the main menu's icon. The Control Panel provides easy access to tools and utilities for system management, administration, and customization. Its amenities include an installer for ATI/nVidia binary video drivers and a very useful tool that scans and analyzes your system for its readiness for realtime performance.
Figure 2. The AV Linux Control Panel.
The other icons invoke the system's default file manager, an always-handy terminal window, the Iceweasel Web browser, the QJackCtl utility, and the WBar Dock, a neat "rolling" collection of program launchers. By default, the Dock includes launchers for the system's selected applications, but the user is free to add and delete items in the Dock.
The audio applications stack includes some unique selections. The stable Ardour2 is there, of course, but so is ArdourVST, a build of Ardour2 with support for Windows VST plugins (with some free VSTs to get you started). Demo versions of some commercial packages are included, making AV Linux a handy way to try Pianoteq or Renoise or the Loomer and linuxDSP plugins in an optimal system. Definitely a cool attraction.
Of course the stack includes the usual wonderful variety of free plugins in LADSPA, LV2, and native Linux VST formats, along with the variety of plugin-savvy hosts, e.g. Ardour, Rosegarden, Qtractor, Audacity, Guitarix, et cetera (see the manual for the complete list (PDF)). Csound5, Pd (any flavor), and SuperCollider3 are missing, but the first two are available from the default repos via Synaptic. I built SuperCollider 3.5 from its git sources, but only after searching for some Qt4 headers inexplicably missing from the Squeeze repos.
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