A very simple way to probe the Linux ecosystem is by having a look at DistroWatch.com. If we go to the Search Distributions page and select “Multimedia” as Distribution category we will find only 10 active distributions. However, only few of them are developed with “pro audio first” in mind. Also, not all the distributions of this kind are on DistroWatch. For this reason, I will list here the distros I bumped into along these years. I did not try all of them (yet) but I will give my impressions for the ones I tried.
Note: not all the items in this list are proper distributions, many are actually custom images. Check with the item website.
Active Dedicated Distributions
Ubuntu Studio: The very beginning of my Linux audio adventure. It comes packed with tons of software and a lowlatency kernel, but beware that it could require further configuration to maximize the audio performances (check my impressions of the 16.04 release).
Fedora Jam: Seems to be for Fedora what Ubuntu Studio is for Ubuntu: an official multimedia derivative. Actually I never tried it. However, I tried Fedora with the software from Planet CCRMA and I was overall happy with the audio performances… but I didn’t like Fedora for other reasons.
AudioPhile Linux: didn’t try it yet.
Archphile: an Arch Linux image targeting audio playback quality for ARM devices. Didn’t try it yet.
Crossfade GNU/Linux: didn’t try it yet.
DidJiX: didn’t try it yet.
io GNU/Linux: didn’t try it yet. I seems a very promising live multimedia distro.
KXStudio: One of the very favorites of the audio community, also because it supplies repos for Ubuntu/Debian systems. Tried the live years ago. Very cool software-wise, but I am not a fan of KDE. I will look into again!
For Linux Mint lovers there is a community project integrating KXStudio repositories in Linux Mint LTS releases. Check it out!
AV Linux: only tried it (years ago) on virtualbox and already impressed by the almost acceptable audio stability I got out of it! I will try it again sooner or later. Tons of software + optimization, clearly a good combination.
Musix: didn’t try it yet.
APODIO: didn’t try it yet.
Mainstream Distributions with good audio documentation and support
Other (and important) Linux distributions offer excellent pro audio documentation and software. As such any vanilla installation can be tuned fairly easily for ultimate pro audio performance. Most notably:
Parabola GNU/Linux-libre (Arch Based). The documentation above still applies, but it is made easier by two packages: parabola-proaudio-settings and parabola-proaudio. RT kernels are supplied as well. A tutorial has also been posted on LinuxMusicians.
Gentoo Linux: historically, the ProAudioOverlay was the reference point for Gentoo audiophiles. Nowadays it seems that the Overlay is not as active as it was before. There are new projects like Gentoo Studio, as well as people working to bring the software in the ProAudioOverlay in the main portage tree (see here).
Slackware: studioware and Slackermedia. This commercial distro was based on Slackware 13.37. Not sure whether this project is still alive. If I am not wrong, this was based on Studio4, originally a commercial version of Puppy Studio (see below).
More resources are available for these systems but I linked only the most important. For a general and distro-independent documentation have a look at the Linux Audio Wiki.
Discontinued honorable mentions.
Finally, I would like to mention few discontinued/dormant projects that I either tried and were very good for me or were interesting. The work of these pioneers has been enlightening!
Tango Studio: it supplied the best performance I could get in 2011 – 2012.
puredyne (home page expired): old but gold. Although the home page is gone, it can be still found around.
Artistix (home page expired): I tried this one when it was current. Not impressed with the out of the box performances, but it was packed with interesting software. I actually discovered pretty damn hot packages thanks to this project.
openArtist was an Ubuntu based distribution targeting Artists in both visual arts and music. It implemented a system of installation scripts rather unique: the menu of the OS GUI was filled with packages, not all of them installed. Upon clicking, the system checked whether the package was installed. If so, the executable was launched. If not, the package was downloaded and installed. Apparently, maintaining it was too much effort for the only developer. I did not focus on the audio performances very much when I tried it, but mostly on the endless software that was possible to install just with a click. Also, many of the packages were not Linux native or open source, making this distro a very good tool to glimpse over the whole landscape of software that can run on Linux. The latest version (uploaded in 2014) can still be downloaded.
DreamStudio: kinda like Artistix, but more of an Ubuntu + Cool apps thing.
RemixOS: the very best live pro audio persistent pendrive Linux I have ever configured. Not even the websites exists any more… only few traces.
And finally, the discontinued projects I did not try but made history:
Well, these are the ones I can recall. I feel like there is some more… If something else pop up in my mind I will update…
This should show quite well how much it has been done, but also how much is being done! Also, some name does not appear on DistroWatch at the time of writing. As such, I hope it will give to an eventual reader more directions.
Finally, few other names and less subjective descriptions (but not up to date page).
For a similar discussion on documentation see this.