Hardware Buying Guides How-To-Guides

Finding a Laptop for Audio Engineering/Production in Linux

Making a conscious decision to use only open source software and sticking to it even when you are just starting your journey seriously, is a very demanding thing. Linux being still somewhat infamous in a wrong way among majority of consumers and music/sound/audio engineers makes it a little more difficult for budding engineers like me to find and learn the craft using our system of choice but, after choosing and using Ardour as my one and only DAW i can say that Linux is steadily gaining a very good number and variety of users and high quality software every year for purposes as many as the users.

Audio Engineering, Recording, Mixing, Mastering on Linux has become very easy now. There are now thousands of plugins available, many fully-feature DAW, very easy audio configuration and a thriving community waiting for those who wish to switch their workstation and technology to the open-source.

While the abundance of software is indeed a positive sign, buying a good and compatible hardware to run your sessions on Linux is also a vital part in making this transition. Linux is old. And New at the same time. It still has support for 30 year old hardware and is constantly improving to accommodate new and upcoming gear. Today, Linux is mature enough to handle all you can imagine. Even if there is something missing, someone in the community rises up to the challenge to work on the solution and slowly that motivate others to contribute for the greater good. That is why working in and with Linux is such an enjoyable experience. 🙂

Also now, when the production, recording and engineering process has reached the bedroom of a creator, having a good hardware setup actually is a prerequisite no matter your skill level and financial condition. And since we all may not blessed with abundance of money all the time, the initial investment becomes that much more important because there is no going back for a while. You will have to get used to your gear, its sound, how good it stands on the promises you may have heard before buying it. There are so many things to consider therefore this topic demands some attention.

So below are some general guidelines for purchasing the computation hardware to run your music work on. There is no specific recommendation/name provided for a laptop to not to discourage someone, wherein their region the specific system might not be available. Every piece of information here is a pointer and hint to as to what to look out for when you go to buy, not exactly what to buy. Making music is a CPU demanding process. Nobody want to regret their purchase because we all are good human being who come from humble beginning. 🙂

I wrote about this topic in Reddit forum a few weeks back, you can read it here. I am writing here again properly because it will help the future music producers who are thinking about switching all their work on Linux and looking for information regarding the matter. Hence, remember and give following information a good thinking before you decide to invest your money :-

1. Go for AMD processor powered machine

linux music audio production amd

Pick up any Ryzen 5 or 7 processor with an “H” or “HS” and not “U”. “H” is build for performance. If you wish to play video games also, Go for a complete AMD build laptop(which means that processor and graphics card are made by AMD) or at least with a dedicated AMD graphics card. NVIDIA have problems with music production setups(especially with Real-Time Audio). Plus, you will be using open source with AMD. I do not have anything against Intel but AMD is making some very very nice processors these days in very attractive price range. AMD support is very good in Linux community now.

2. A Note about Audio Latency

It is desirable to have low(est) latency but latency upto 100ms under heavy use will not hurt your setup. Live setups with many tracks with synths and guitars working together will create havoc in this situation if the system is incapable for latency compensation in the routing but for recording and mixing in-the-box kind of workflows, this will not be a problem. If you check jack configuration in QJackCtl, latency is found to be common around 50ms with “4” periods with buffer size 512 and sample rate 44.1kHz. Latency will reduce if you up the sample rate to 88.2 or 96kHz. Regarding latency, low values (5,10,20,30,50 ms) are fine but what you should really aim for is consistent latency. You do not want your setup to jump around with latency. Linux nowadays work fine with latencies around 50ms but to really make the system stick to it, you need Real Time. Real time is not about lowest latency, its about fixing a timeslot for a process in the CPU processing queue. Very low value can produce jitters, very large value might make system less responsive. Find a balance in the QJackCtl settings. Check what is a fair value, even if it is a little more than desired but it will make sure you audio processing will be done without any hiccups.

3. If you are going to use WIFI in your studio machine

linux wlan card

Buy a Wireless LAN card with completely open source drivers or with matured drivers. Laptops these days comes with RealTek WIFI cards which do not like to play nice with Linux. They have shady drivers in binary format which cannot be maintained by open source community. Even if you install binary drivers, devices sometimes magically just vanish and it becomes hard to troubleshoot. DKMS drivers are also not very pretty. They work fine for the most cases but RealTek REALLY makes the job difficult for Linux users. Wireless AC support is also getting worked on right now.

So go for those cards which provides 2.5GHz and 5GHz in 802.11n specifications. A in-exhaustive list of compatible wifi cards :-

  • Qualcomm Atheros Wireless AR5BHB92
  • Qualcomm Atheros Wireless AR5BWB222
  • Intel WLAN cards
  • Portable Tends USB WLAN Adapters
  • TP-Link USB WLAN Adapters

Look out for Form Factor and Connector Type of your wifi card. Check what the model number is and find “dimensions” of the product. So buying in a hurry without giving it much thought may make you regret this later. Some examples of form factors are 2230, 2236. Connector types can be PCIe, M.2. Read about the above listed WLAN cards here at devwiki.

Some of these are a little dated but they give 2.5 and 5GHz networks in 802.11n with upto 300Mbps wireless transfer speed. Also linux drivers are very mature for these card. I highly recommend that you get one of these cards because it will be a one time future proof deal. If it is a bluetooth combo card then well and good but if not, then a decent bluetooth USB dongle will fulfill these requirements(if you have any) 🙂

4. In terms of storage medium

linux audio production hard disk

Most of the laptops nowadays comes with an M.2 slot and a 2.5 inch SATA storage slot. You always want your DAW and plugin software to be responsive so get a 250GB or 500GB SSD(if you can get an MLC, good. if not then get a very good TLC) in M.2 slot(look out for NVMe drives. It is a new standard and is very good but you must know beforehand if your slot support NVMe. If yes then get a M.2 NVMe ssd. if not then SATA III SSD will do just fine. SSD nowadays are very fault tolerant. They can handle sudden power outages. For 2.5 inch storage slot, get a SATA III SSD(I’d recommend samsung) or/and a 7200 rpm HDD(i’d recommend WD black series).

250GB SSD because you might have samples that you use fairly often. So having them ready in SSD opens up your sessions and projects very quickly. Rest will be stored in SATA III SSD or 7200 RPM HDD. Get at least 1 TB because Projects, samples, tutorials and plugin setup files fills the space up quite quickly. 1TB will give you enough room for a fair amount of time to work and to think whether it is time to get a new bigger better storage or just move your files to some other storage device for backup purposes.

5. RAM should be

linux audio music production ram

At least 16GB( with room for upto 32GB) and a FULL HD display because you will be sitting in front of the screen for a fair amount of time. Take care of your eyes. Check for displays which doesn’t use PWM. They are easy and less harmful on eyes. 16GB will make sure that multiple individual synth tracks will get fair amount of system resources to run. More than 32GB is a hype in simple record, track, mix, master kind of scenarios. It is relevant in Live setup with many heavy synths running simultaneously (For that you will also need a good processor to utilize this much amount of ram properly).

6. Portability vs High-End Bulky Specs

linux audio music production how to

Laptops these days are very light and thin. The very-light-and-performance-beasts are quite expensive but if you can afford one, go for it. If not, there are some very good gaming laptops in moderate price range. Look for the one that suits you and what are all the upgrading options it is providing. Hence, If you are unable to buy an expensive one, make a system out of a less costly option the way YOU want, out of it. I’m sure you will have to make some compromises but get most of the points right. One or two less important stuff will not be a hindrance. At least for quite a while.

This one is purely a personal opinion. Since you will be using focusrite with speakers or headphones for monitoring, Laptop speakers may not be important so no need to be picky about them. Some laptops comes with surround or multi channel setups. It is fine. PulseAudio server and ALSA can handle them with ease. You may want to listen to music some time using them also so just make sure to get a laptop which have a bottom front firing speaker configuration. Even if it is just 2 channel but speakers are good, audio will be a little more louder and clear.

7. Which OS to choose and use ?

linux audio music production list

I know about these 5 and out of these, i have used 2 of them.

AV Linux – Amazing. Built for multimedia production. Have applications for audio, video work. Latency is good. Based on debian buster with more recent drivers and kernel(5.6 available at the time of writing). Some applications might be a bit outdated but everything just works. Jack runs fine. I personally use this distro because it comes with some plugins which are not available in repository or are required to be built from github or any other source. Of course you can built them but since build requirements might be a hassle for many, This is a good option. Comes with a Low latency kernel installed. RealTime kernel available in repository ready for installation. Many many many less known very good plugins as an alternative to the very expensive once out there. Flatpak support.. checked. Go to distrowatch and check it out.

Ubuntu Studio – Very nice distro. It has an in-house build application to run jack. Comes with snap store. Flatpak is supported. Personally i feel that flatpak and Appimage formats are much more sensible than snap packages. Latest softwares. Now python2 is depreciated, only those applications that are using python3 are available. Python2 support is a little difficult to get back in ubuntu studio. Lots and lots of plugins installed. latest versions are available very often and it is at the time of writing, is running on kernel 5.4 real time kernel. A good system. Repo have drivers for latest WIFI hardwares(not open source but they are what the hardware manufacture has provided).

Sparky Multimedia edition

Gentoo Studio

APODIO

Again, I am not recommending any laptop model because they might not be available in some regions and many have their own plus and minuses. Do some research and find the one which approves most of the points in your specification checklist. I hope that this guide was helpful in Finding a Laptop for Audio Engineering/Production in Linux. Well then, welcome to the tux family and.. Happy buying 🙂

Image Credits for the graphics artists :-

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