Embracing Obsolescence

Getting the Mac Digital Jukebox Up and Running

- 2006.05.08

Our journey to set up an older Mac as a digital audio jukebox is finally coming to an end. This installment examines the components needed for integrating our jukebox with an existing audio system, along with a few tips on how to control playback.

Specifics of this arrangement will reflect the use of my Power Mac 7600, but the techniques can easily be applied to any Mac.


Clearly, there are many different devices that can output sound. From a simple arrangement of connecting external computer speakers to small all-in-one devices and more complex component devices. However, the common denominator is the types of audio in ports available - likely one of two designs, a single 1/8" audio jack or the twin round red and white RCA jacks.

Physically connecting a Mac to your existing audio system is easy enough. Most Macs have a simple 1/8" audio out headphone port. If so, a 1/8" to RCA or 1/8" to 1/8" cable will be necessary, depending on the device you're connecting to. Some Macs, like the Power Mac 7600, have the same RCA ports found on regular stereo equipment. Finding an RCA to RCA cable should prove simple as well.

If your Mac is connected to your audio system via the 1/8" audio out port, remember to keep the Mac's volume set to the highest setting. Likewise, the specific audio application used for playback needs to have its volume set to the highest setting.

If your Mac comes with RCA out ports, the Macs internal sound setting doesn't matter, as the external device is in complete control of the volume. Those handy RCA out ports are yet another reason why I favor using my Power Mac 7600 for this project.

Make sure your external audio device is set for the correct input (common labels are CD, AUX, DVD, and a few others.) Typically, all of the stereo in ports are the same except for the phono port. Just remember to select whichever one is connected to your Mac.

When shopping for cables, you can spend good money on a name brand like Monster, although, in all honesty, I've found regular store brand cables transmit audio of comparative quality to the more expensive brands.

If you have a high-end audio system, better cables may make a difference in sound quality. Then again, you may find lossy audio sounds worse when played on a sound system that's able to really dig into an audio track. Even going from a quality set of computer speakers to playback through a home audio system can increase the likelihood of hearing noticeable audio imperfections from lossy formats. Of course, high VBR MP3 and Ogg Vorbis files will still sound darn good, even coming through a respectable set of home audio speakers. Maybe not as good as WAV, AIFF, or FLAC, but suitably nice.

Similarly, gold tipped cables have never made that much difference in my listening pleasure. I typically buy whichever is available and reasonably inexpensive. Improper speaker placement (not enough separation between channels) is always a killer, and ambient noise is more likely to interfere with the pleasure of listening to my favorite tunes than cable quality.

Take any advice on audio fidelity with the full knowledge that I am not an audiophile. I'm not sure how good an ear I have in regards to music, but in a blind test on my home setup, I can routinely detect the difference between lossy and lossless audio. The difference is not as great since increasing the bit rates on my digital music collection. Again, higher bit rates and a good encoder are the keys to good audio quality when dealing with lossy codecs.

I can't say much on placement of the Mac jukebox, as each setup will have different requirements. Desktop Macs similar to my Power Mac 7600 are certainly easier to integrate into my existing audio equipment. The fairly compact size of a desktop versus a tower or all-in-one design makes for easier placement on a shelf or rack. Also, depending on the size of the stereo system, the audio output device may be able to fit on top of a 7600-sized desktop Mac.

Controlling the Jukebox

Once the jukebox is physically connected to the audio system, you need a way to control it. Unlike typical home audio equipment, a Mac is not likely to come with a remote control (some older Performas and Power Macs had TV systems that came with a remote, but this was not a universal arrangement). Nor is keeping a full computer setup (system, keyboard, monitor, and mouse) always ideal for a living room, bedroom, den, small office, or other setting. Instead, there often needs to be a less cluttered integration method. Ideally, an integration that would grant occasional full access to the computer for restarting or other maintenance tasks.

There should be no need to state it, but I will anyway. If your Mac jukebox is an all-in-one, especially a portable model, there's not quite as much cause to conserve space. You may very well be able to squeeze a keyboard or mouse into your setup, since the monitor is already built in. With a portable Mac, the whole system is exceptionally integrated, compact, and energy efficient (proper sleep implementation is a grand thing).

There are many options for controlling of our new Mac jukebox system. A few of my favorite ways are detailed below, but this list is not exhaustive.

The Automated Stand Alone System

If life should be suitably random, why not go with an automated stand alone system for your Mac audio jukebox. No need for a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. The easiest way to accomplish this task is to place an alias of the desired audio application into the Startup Items folder (found within the System Folder). Next, set up your desired application to play a specific playlist automatically at startup.

My two favorite applications, Audion and MpegDec, can be configured this way. In Audion, create a desired playlist, go to "Preferences", found under the "Edit" menu, and click on the "General" tab. "Default Playlist" and its options for playback are listed near the bottom if this window.

MpegDec requires a little bit more configuration, but is not too hard either. Under MpegDec's preferences click the "AutoStart" checkbox. Create a folder named "mpegdecauto" on the root level of your startup disk. In Playlist Editor 3.1.1 (a separate companion application to MpegDec, found within the MpegDec folder), create and save one or more playlists of your favorite tunes. Press the "SelectMode" button, which flips you into the SetList Mode. In this mode, multiple playlists can be added to create a series of playlists which MpegDec can read and play together. Name this playlist autostart and save it to the "mpegdecauto" folder.

Now, when your Mac jukebox is turned on, your audio application will load and your desired playlist or playlists will begin playing. If you don't mind not having control of the system in regards to playing, pausing, stopping, or choosing a specific song, you can simply let the Mac do it's thing.

For a further refinement of this technique, use the Energy Saver Control Panel to start and shutdown your jukebox at specific times of the day. The Mac is ready to begin and end audio playback without further intervention.

Remote Control (Hurrah, a Pun)

The stand alone technique is not without obvious limitations. Once setup, there is essentially no user interaction until the next time a keyboard, mouse, and monitor are attached. A favorite technique of mine is to connect the stand alone Mac jukebox to my network, either through a switch or a direct crossover connection with a portable Mac. Even handier is a wireless network, where any computer in the house, portable or otherwise, can be used as a terminal for the Mac jukebox. The network connection also grants Macs without high capacity for internal storage access to music stored anywhere on the network.

Once you have established some sort of network connection between your Macs, you'll need software to actually do the controlling. I've experimented with three different packages and have been thoughtful enough to document my experiences.

Timbuktu Pro

I found Timbuktu to be the best solution for my particular audio setup, equally flexible and powerful. While I never tested the extent of the compatibility, Timbuktu is purportedly a cross platform Windows and Mac solution.

I have put to extensive use my fully licensed copy of Timbuktu Pro 3.0 (it came on floppy disks - remember when Mac software was distributed on floppies?). This version is compatible with both AppleTalk and TCP/IP networks. I don't honestly know if the binary is fat (68k and PPC), but Timbuktu Pro 3.0 works well on every Mac in my collection, from 68k to PPC. Timbuktu 3.0 supports every Mac OS release from System 7.5 to Mac OS 9.2.2 and even has limited support for the Classic environment found within Mac OS X (tested with Mac OS X 10.2.8).

Controlling older Macs from the Classic environment within Mac OS X works well. Doing the reverse, while out of the scope of this article, is not feasible, as this version of Timbuktu is not capable of displaying PDF images. Since OS X's display engine, Quartz, is built around PDF technology, this inability for Timbuktu to remotely administer and view OS X Macs makes sense. Obviously, newer versions may be more capable with OS 9 and OS X compatibility, but I only have version 3.0 on hand for testing.

Timbuktu has many features that go well beyond the scope of our project. Such niceties as the ability to transfer files back and forth from control to remote systems and a built in chat mechanism could prove useful when applied to a less specific operation. Timbuktu feels faster, perhaps better optimized, than the other solutions. This certainly makes sense. After all, this version was released when bandwidth was limited.

Timbuktu provides the ability to offer observation or full control of the remote system. The final compelling feature is the ability for Timbuktu to accept modifier key (command, option, and control, etc.) inputs that are fully recognized by the remote system. Indeed, Timbuktu offers a sensation almost akin to working directly with the remote machine. Whether using a 68k Mac with a 10base-T connection or a PPC-equipped Mac with 10/100 ethernet, performance is consistently acceptable. Controlling to or from a 68k or PPC Mac yielded similar performance.

The faster the connection the smoother the performance, but overall, the only time I felt disappointed with performance was during serial networking connections.

Everything sounds wonderful, but all is not flowers and sunshine. Timbuktu Pro isn't free; it's potentially costly commercial software. Also, the version needed for older Mac systems is at the least a few releases old. Consequently, finding the correct version for your individual setup may take some hunting.

Bosco's Screen Share

Quick sidebar, I cannot currently find a link for the older Mac OS 9 version of Bosco's Screen Share. Current versions are OS X or Windows. Since I still have a copy of the software somewhere and have used the software to great effect in the past, I wanted to at least mention it. For those who still have a copy of the OS 9 version, it makes a decent freeware alternative to Timbuktu. The OS X version is quite excellent as well, with more polish and features than the short-lived OS 9 version.

Bosco's screen share offers the same basic operations as Timbuktu Pro, except lacking a control option for Mac OS 9 systems. This feature remains Mac OS X only. However, if you were to couple this remote viewing application with an input device connected directly to the jukebox, say a trackball (which needs less space to perform its input duties than a mouse), you could jury rig a decent remote control system. Indeed, I have used that system in the past when I needed to control my old Power Mac 7300 jukebox system.

My G3 iMac (now my mother's computer - her first Mac!) acted as the eyes for the 7300 and the single extra input device (I don't recall if it was a mouse or trackball) performed ably as I pointed and clicked away.


Ideally, I would use Timbuktu Pro on all my systems, but cost considerations and OS compatibility dictate other options. Luckily, the open source and free of cost Virtual Network Computing (VNC) comes to the rescue.

Whereas both Timbuktu and Bosco's Screen Share are integrated solutions to remote access, VNC uses a separate server and client solution.

Another key difference, VNC is essentially ubiquitous when compared to the staid Windows and Mac cross platform nature of the other solutions. VNC viewers are available for almost every platform imaginable. Congratulations to Newton owners who want to monitor their computers - you're covered here as well.

Actually, a Newton or other PDA with a VNC viewer and WiFi connection would sure make a handy "remote control" for our Mac jukebox project. Unfortunately, I don't have any such hardware available for testing. Although, my PowerBook 1400c with a 802.11b card may make for a suitable substitute.

The basics of VNC are rather simple. The server software is installed onto the machine needing to be controlled remotely. The machine accessing the remote device is equipped with the client (or viewer) software.

In my testing VNC has generally been slower and less polished than Timbuktu Pro. However, VNC is completely cross platform and certainly comes in handy when I want to use my Ubuntu box as a media server and PowerBook 520c as the viewer.

You'll discover that even 68k Macs with 10base-T connections are up to the task of monitoring a jukebox over VNC, yet a 68k Mac doesn't have the power to be comfortably controlled as a VNC server.

PPC equipped Macs should fare better; both my 350 MHz Power Mac G3 and G3-upgraded Power Mac 7600 work admirably with the VNC server software. It should go without saying, but PPC Macs operate wonderfully well as a viewer.

Other than possible sluggish performance, the biggest negative with the VNC remote control solution is a slightly clunky setup in comparison to other remote desktop applications.

My Jukebox

My personal Mac Jukebox setup is fairly simple. Power Mac 7600 connected to both my Yamaha receiver via RCA out (which is outputting to dual Yamaha speakers) and my iHome iH5 via 1/8" out. I use the Yamaha stereo setup when I want to give the music a bit more volume. Otherwise I'm content to let the little iHome iH5 (a fantastic iPod charger/player, alarm clock, FM/AM radio, with both an audio input and output) perform its duty in cranking out respectably crisp sound (from a small integrated speaker system no less).

I tend to use Audion to play music on this system, and control is accessed with an attached keyboard (no monitor or mouse needed, thanks to Audion's handy keyboard shortcuts for play, pause, stop, forward, back, fast forward, rewind, volume up, volume down, and mute).

Either VNC or Timbuktu is used when I need visual access to my headless jukebox. Which remote software used depends on what computer system I use to make the connection.

Although the Mac audio jukebox project is now complete, I intend to provide further information as I discover new tips, tricks, and other customization techniques. In the immediate future, look forward to a 68k Mac rendition of our jukebox project.

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