My Turn

Free Software for the Creative Mac

- 2007.08.03

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Free and Creative Again in My Mac

This is a story of resourcefulness with a not-so-new Mac, of making the best of what is freely available and of letting the life be without suffering.

I think that one of the things that makes life more rich and colourful - even meaningful - is the unexpected; the deterministic chaos that reigns in the universe. Sometimes it strikes as simple mistakes, sometimes as accidents, sometimes as luck. One who is confronted by these situations has basically two options: Learn or suffer.

The choice depends solely on oneself. Once the situation is given, one has to make it flow.

A few days ago, I was about to upgrade the Fedora Core 6 GNU-Linux I (used to) run in my iBook G4/1 GHz, along with Mac OS X 10.3, and due to a silly accident, I erased all the partitions instead of only the one containing the GNU-Linux installation.

Fortunately, I suffered no major loss of data, since almost everything was synchronised with my MacBook Pro and some things lived on my external hard drive. Still, it was striking. All the effort, all the small customisations, and all the hacks to make GNU-Linux/PPC work well with audio were suddenly gone.

I only took a deep breath and stared at the FireWire Target Disk mode icon.

Then I decided, without thinking it over too much, to go back to a single Mac OS X partition, grabbed the installation disks, and started all over again. After rebooting to install again, I played Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" as a companion to the installation ritual.

Miles played with the unexpected. He didn't forced the events; he basically made the necessary conditions to make events flow. He gave little instructions and made almost no prescriptions. The music just happened.

After installing everything, I decided that this Mac would be an example of a low-end Mac as an incredibly and flexible tool, based on free software running in Mac OS X. This would be a resource-efficient, non-bloated Mac.

I'm an electroacoustic musician and teacher. I use a lot of profession-specific tools that might be esoteric to some outside the field. Most of them only have commercial incarnations or that ones are easier to use than the free ones. The free tools might be a little difficult to learn, but they are almost always more flexible and more rewarding in the end than the commercial counterparts.

I decided to install the minimum drivers I really use, not the ones I could probably some time need: There were two sound interface drivers and a MIDI interface driver. Additional hacks, two: iScroll2, a personal favourite that allows me to use double-finger scrolling in my old Mac, and ScreenSpanning Doctor, which allows me to override the limitations imposed by the OS and use two discrete screens.

I decided not to install my copy of Microsoft Office. Too big, too annoying, and morally incorrect for some - including me. I stayed with NeoOffice and AppleWorks.

FreeMind is also a good free tool when you try to organise your thoughts. I also had a copy of OmniOutliner. I use the latter two to plan and build my classes. (Too bad that Bean doesn't run on Panther).

In the Internet side, I installed Adium for messaging, Firefox for the Web, and Cyberduck for FTP.

In the music-audio side I decided not to install the proprietary software - although I owned legal copies - but exclusively free tools. Here's a list (this information can be useful for meagerly budgeted but highly needy musicians):

Sound editing and playing:

Sound synthesis / composition:

  • Csound. A classic of computer-music
  • MacCsound (a very good front end for Csound)
  • Pd-extended. A free realtime graphic environment for programming music and multimedia
  • SuperCollider. An object-oriented language for music/sound.


  • LilyPond, a musical typesetting language.
  • jEdit, for editing LilyPond files. It highlights syntax and indents as necessary.
  • Inkscape, for making vector graphics. I use it for making graphic scores and for performance explanations.


  • Processing. A nice object-oriented multimedia language from MIT.
  • Xcode tools. A friend of mine - an extreme GNU-Linux hacktivist - says that a Mac is almost nothing without its developer tools. I'm not that radical; I tend to agree, but not completely.
  • Emacs and Vim. I decided to stick to the terminal-based versions included with the Mac OS, not the "carbonised" ones.

I made an additional decision: not to have more of the unnecessary data. No obsolete files, no nostalgic-weighted ones. No more than 2 GB in iTunes music (there used to be 25 GB).

From 6.3 GB free before the beautiful "catastrophe" I jumped to 62.6 GB of free disk space. With all the apps and all the documents I needed and some installers still lying around.

Now I have a powerful tool, made of a not-so-new Mac and free software. This will be an experiment on getting the most of the less, and a demonstration that having the most is not necessarily related to doing the most. A little escape from consumerism.

An example of not falling into the downward spiral of consumerism is Mauricio Bejarano, a colleague of mine - 25 years older than I am - who still works and makes amazing electroacoustic music with an old Macintosh Quadra 610 with a SoundDesigner card. He hasn't fallen for ultra-new equipment that soon will be declared obsolete.

It's not the tool, it's the way you use it.

Daniel Andrés Prieto García
Departamentos de Artes y Música
Universidad de los Andes

Daniel's Blogspot

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