Music / Audio Production in Linux: How to integrate your Windows-based plugins (VST2/VST3/CLAP)

(Hello! This is very broad strokes, work-in-progress guide, highly subjective / based on my personal experience of the last 2,5 weeks. The goal is that any musicians / audio producers starting out with ZorinOS (or other Linux systems) can quickly find some sort of overview + starting point (to get their Windows plugins working) in this excellent forum. I aim to keep it reasonably updated. Gladly comment and I'll amend where it makes sense.)

Scenario 1: If you want to use Linux as much as possible, but you also want to have the least amount of hassle in your currently Windows-based music production (especially when you do it professionally and are on tight deadlines), then it might be best to just keep a dual-booted Windows (or a separate machine) and do all your audio production there.
This will also easily allow you to use any future new Windows-only published plugins. It can also mean somewhat separating your digital music production life from everything else, which can be good or bad, depending on how easily distracted you prefer to be during your creative process. There's one exception: Bitwig (see below), which allows you to open + manage the same projects in both operating systems.
In any case, if keeping a dual-booted Windows sounds like a good fit for you, then you won't need the rest of this guide!

Scenario 2: However, if you want to ultimately leave Windows behind entirely, then I'd recommend to focus on integrating + preserving all the Windows plugins you want to keep using, then keep that situation stable, and when it comes to getting new plugins, focus on those that run on Linux natively (the selection is steadily growing).

Why? Because there's never a guarantee that new "Windows-only" stuff will immediately work on Linux, for different reasons: For instance, "Native Access 2" (Native Instrument's mandatory installer for VSTs + Kontakt Libraries), is necessary to update Native Instruments Kontakt 7 to the latest version (which is required by quite a few new libraries), and currently there seems to be no easily replicable process to run "Native Access 2" in Linux, so your only reliable choice is to use Native Instruments' legacy installer

So if you tend to get excited when Heavyocity, Native Instruments, Sonuscore etc. announce some great new thing, and you can't bear the feeling of potentially missing out -> better opt for Scenario 1.

My recommendations for Scenario 2:

1. Use a DAW that runs natively on Linux. For instance (not an exhaustive list, there are plenty more!)

  • Ardour seems to be a great + powerful free pick (I haven't checked it out too deeply yet), and it's open source. So if you use it + can afford it, please support the community developing it.

  • Reaper I have used almost since the beginning (15 years now). It's awesome, lightweight + robust, has lots of integrated effects (with very basic UI but they do the job) a very affordable pricing that tends to cover you for 3+ years (2 version upgrades), and an infinite, unlimited trial period anyway (nagscreen only).

  • Bitwig Studio , made by former Ableton people, I started using only when migrating to ZorinOS now. I'm already in love with it, and it's my 'home DAW' now. It can probably be considered the 'premium offering' on Linux (including the pricing, but I consider it good value for the money). It also offers nonlinear production (similar to Ableton) alongside more traditional linear recording.
    Depending on tier, Bitwigs comes with lots of integrated audio effects and instruments (including great-sounding orchestral stuff) and the poly grid in which you can visually build pretty much any synth imaginable).
    Finally, Bitwig can easily load the same project files from its Windows + Linux versions, which particularly useful if at first you want to use both operating systems. If you use VSTis in Windows that you have not synced via yabridge (see below) in Linux, best to 'bounce' (similar to freeze in other DAWs) the tracks so you can hear them in Linux as well.

In the end, whatever you use, audio + midi device setup seems to work much automatically these days, at least in ZorinOS. No need to set up anything with JACK, ALSA anymore etc. - to test your plugins and basic recording, just use PulseAudio as Audio Device, add your MIDI controller, and you're all set to get recording. If you decide to go forward however and wish to have low-latency and great sound i/o patching flexibility, I very much recommend installing PipeWire.

2. I strongly recommend to create a ->Bottle dedicated to manage your Windows plugins (and associated launchers like Native Access, Spitfire Audio, etc.) This will ensure that whenever you have to change something about your 'default' wine prefix, it will not mess up your VSTi setup (or change your virtual device ID, which can for instance lead to iLok (yes, that works too!) detecting a new location id + requiring you to report the previous device as unusable before you can activate your licenses again.
Back up this Bottle often! If anything breaks, you can return to an earlier state this way.

Regarding your virtual instrument sample libraries (usually kept separate from the launcher / VST plugin), I highly recommend you keep those files and folders outside your bottle (easier to backup the bottle this way as it consumes much less space), and simply locate them in the launcher / authenticator (for Native Instrument -> Native Access (legacy), for EastWest -> EW Installation Center, etc.).
There's no need to re-download any of them. I personally moved them to an ext4 drive because I want all my drives to be ext4. Not entirely sure if ext4 makes loading samples faster than in NTFS windows, but it certainly feels like it.

If you want to use a separate disk for this content, you need to add that drive to the bottle (->manage drives in the settings), so your launchers inside can find that drive and make the connection and inform the plugin. You might have to grant the bottle file access via Flatseal if you are using Bottles in the flatpak version.

If you DO need to download / reinstall things in Native Access (legacy), most libraries will download as an .iso file (installation will fail), then you need to mount the .iso file and run the installer. Except for maybe when installing Kontakt, usually there should be no need to keep a Windows 'installation' / registry entry. All those installers are basically doing is to unpack the libraries and / or plugins.

3. install the latest version of the excellent yabridge, add your Bottle's C:\Programs\Common Files\VST3 or \VST to it, then sync (detailed guide on the github link above).

4. Run your DAW, add to the VST directories the path where yabridge keeps the synced versions of your plugins -> scan, load + play!