In the Linux ecosystem there are literally hundreds of distributions. According to DistroWatch, we have 277 actively developed distributions (the actual number is likely lager). Only few of them are “pro audio” distributions, but there is still plenty to choose from for people interested in doing music on Linux. During these last 10 years I have been hopping from a distribution to another. As such, I think it might be useful for you if I reveal which one is the Best Linux Audio Distro ever existed!
And the Very Best Audio Distro Ever is…
no one. Sorry for teasing you but… I don’t really think there is a Best Audio Distro.
What I think about Linux distributions and audio
Linux is a rather strange beast. If one thinks about Mac OS or Windows one thing is clear: all the parts of the system are developed by a single entity that maintains the whole operating system (by the way, there are also open source operating systems developed this way, Haiku OS and FreeBSD for example).
On the other hand, on Linux the kernel comes from one source, the system services from another… every single piece of the OS is from a different source! A Linux system is pretty much a puzzle. And each distro alters the pieces, in some way. Many just select and package the software. Other choose to patch and edit it to some extent. Many contribute directly to upstream software development.
So, at first sight one might think that, with this great variability, a huge amount of mixes of software can be done, to yield to infinite many distributions. As such, there has to be a “best” mix for a particular task.
This is in part true, in some regards. For example, choosing Gentoo over a binaries based distribution can give significant performances advantages if you have to run computationally heavy numerical simulations, for example. This is a consequence of the degree of optimization one can reach on source based distributions. However, if you need your computer to browse the internet and maybe do some office work, chances are you will never notice a difference between your laptop running Fedora and a similarly configured Gentoo installation.
In other words: there are distributions that for certain tasks are objectively better (out of the box) then others. Debian, for example, is what you use if you really value stability. Actually, it is better to say that it is the task being better addressed by a certain distribution rather then a distribution being better than another. However, don’t get this message wrong. Although certain distributions better address (of the box) certain tasks nothing precludes users to set any distribution to be optimized for those tasks. I can get an enhanced stability Arch system by carefully selecting the updates I do, for example. What that changes is how the work is balanced: now to address stability is on the user’s hands rather than a responsibility of repository maintainers.
So, what makes distributions really different from one another? Differences between distributions reside much more in how the distributions are maintained than in the software. The software is actually studied to be able to work in this fragmented modular environment always in the same way. What that really matters is mainly how the software is installed and updated. For example: is the software built locally from source? Has it been tested for stability before made available to the repositories? Is it bleeding edge? Is it patched by the distribution maintainers? What about the release cycle? Is it rolling? All these questions are much more important really. What you can do with a Linux distribution is exactly what you can do with another distribution with the same software packages installed. What that makes your experience different is the development/packaging model of the distribution. Debian Stable is Stable because they allow only tested upgrades in the repositories. Not because they have better software. The software is always the same (I mean, a part for versions).
So, does the same happen to audio? Is there a better audio distribution?
Not really. All these differences in packaging and development matter really little to pro audio workflow. What is important for audio is system configuration, which is a local thing of your setup. Audio workflow is for sure demanding on your computer, but whether your distribution is built from source or not makes not really a significant difference for audio. Back to the Gentoo example: having numerical simulations delivered 5 hours early with respect an Apple machine can be a significant advantage. Data ready to be studied earlier can mean an earlier publication for a researcher. When doing audio the performance gap between compiled software and binaries is not really as evident: on modern hardware there is no need to push the optimization so much, binaries show pretty much the same performances! Same goes for stability: your server shall not crash. It is mission critical. When you do audio it is actually hard to produce a system wide crash. If “audio” is the load on the system, stability is pretty much the same regardless of the distribution. This reasoning goes pretty much untouched for every other aspect. Hence:
As long as audio is concerned, there are not significant technical differences between different distributions that have been properly configured, run on compatible hardware and have the same pool of audio applications.
Indeed, audio distributions are maintained so that the audio configuration is ready out of the box and repositories contain up to date software with all the necessary dependencies. This could look like a major advantage, and it is if you want your system to be ready for music just after install. Still, it is a situation that can be achieved virtually on every distribution.
Which distribution to choose is actually much more related to other variables and personal preference. For example, do you want it ready out of the box? Go for Ubuntu Studio, or AV Linux. Do you like to make it yourself? Go for LFS, Gentoo or Arch. Do you like to have plenty of software you can readily grab and install? Go for Arch, Debian, Fedora (any major distribution really). Do you want only libre open source sofware? Go with Trisquel, Parabula… Do you want it Rolling? Go with Arch… etc… etc…
For a similar analysis, but with kinda different conclusions, see here.