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Building a Jukebox out of an Old Mac

Building a Jukebox out of an old Mac.
by M. Chris Stevens

The sparking of an idea.

Digital music is becoming a larger part of our lives. By this point most of us have used iTunes to play music on our computers while we’re working or relaxing at home. Let’s face it, iTunes is a pretty nifty app that is (at least in my humble opinion) just as good as any other music player out there.

Ever since iTunes was first released, there have been people who’ve been working on integrating it with their home stereo systems. Apple’s introduction of the AirPort Express made this a lot easier. But that method has two minor drawbacks: the $130 price tag and the fact you have to have your computer on and/or conveniently located to use it.

In the OWC Tech Department, we wanted to have some background music playing, but didn’t like most of what the local radio stations offered. For a while, each of us played music off our individual machines via iTunes, but it wound up in a small “stereo wars” situation: each of us started turning up our music to drown out the others’.

We finally decided that we should pool all our music into one central repository and play it from there. We had an old iMac to use as the central unit and we had enough speakers and wire to run a speaker to each person’s desk, so we could control the volume individually. It took about a month’s worth of lunch hours working on thing, but it finally got up and running the way we wanted it. There have been some tweaks over time, and now the Tech Jukebox is a thing of wonder here at OWC. We in Tech are quite proud of it.

This series of articles describes the method we used to build our jukebox. It does not go into the details of how to do each step, as much of it is specific for the computer itself or the personal tastes of the user. However, if you have decent knowledge of how to perform upgrades on your machine, this method should help get your own jukebox up and running.

The first part of this series is going to be mostly hardware-oriented - Getting your old computer up and running as a bare-bones music player. The next article will discuss some of the customization options to make your jukebox more automated, customized, and overall drool-worthy.

Building the Unit

A spare computer and display - This is one of those things you either have or don’t have. Some people are fortunate enough to have a spare Mac sitting in their attic, basement or other storage space gathering dust. Others have been able to find great deals online or at rummage sales. For our jukebox, we used an original iMac. In truth, though, you can really use any Mac with a G3 processor or later. If you are using MP3s or Apple AAC files, like we do, you can get away with a Beige G3 or original iMac. Some of the other codecs may require a zippier processor.

A large storage device - Audio files take up space, and the higher-quality they are, the more space they take up. You either want a large internal drive(in older machines, you’re going to max out at 120GB drive, unless you add an ATA card) or an external drive, such as our OWC Mercury Elite or OWC Neptune drives. For our project, we used a 20GB internal drive, as we had an extra one laying in a drawer, though as our library grows, we will likely need a larger drive..

Some decent speakers- You can play the music through your Mac’s built-in speaker, but, let’s face it, the built-in speaker is not exactly the pinnacle of audio reproduction. If you have a set of nice computer speakers, go ahead and use them. If you’re running it into your home sound system, all you need is a simple, inexpensive 1/8” Stereo minijack to RCA adapter cable.

A network connection - While this is mostly optional, having a network connection enables a lot of options that you wouldn’t have otherwise, including auto-download of album art, system updates, access to the CDDB, and remote control.

OS X - the latest versions of iTunes require OS X. We generally recommend the latest version your computer can run. (If you’re using a Beige G3, you can use XPostFacto to install 10.3.x, which will get you the latest version of QuickTime, as well).

Now that we have all the parts we need, we can get started.

Step 1: Get the lastest version of your software installed.

  1. Boot to your OS X CD

  2. Open up the Disk Utility from the Installer Menu and Erase the Hard drive. If you need to partition your hard drive, do it here. A standard OSX install, by itself, takes up approximately 2GB. A partition of about 4GB should be enough to install OS X and have enough room to work.

  3. Restart the computer and install OS X. Use the “Custom” install option, as you can choose not to install a lot of the unnecessary applications. About the only thing you need to install are the Base System and Essential System Software. Avoid the temptation to install Additional Applications. Although it includes iTunes, it also includes things for this setup that are unnecessary, such as iMovie. Choosing just the two items mentioned above will put the bare minimum system on your computer, allowing you to use the maximum amount of space for your music.

  4. Once the OS has been installed, download the latest version of iTunes and install it. As mentioned above, it was part of the group that was not selected, so it was not installed. By doing it this way, we are able to get the most recent version without any extra space being wasted.

  5. Run Software Update to make sure you have the latest versions of everything installed.

Step 2: Set Up iTunes.

  1. Once you have iTunes installed, before putting any music in, make sure you have your music library stored on the largest volume. If you have a single drive, you shoudln’t need to change anything and you can skip to part 2e. If, however, you partitioned your hard drive or are using an external drive to store the music, you will need to change the library’s location.

  2. Create a folder named “iTunes Music” on the volume you want to store your music.

  3. Open up iTunes and go to the Preferences.

  4. Under the “Advanced” section click the “Change...” button and select the folder you just created. Then click the “OK” button. This will tell iTunes to store all music there. We have also found it best to check the options to keep the iTunes Music folder organized and to copy files to the music folder when adding to the library.

  5. Add music to your music library by ripping them from CD’s, buying from the iTMS, or however else you want. All the music should be automatically stored and organized into the Music folder.

Step 3: Connect your computer to the speakers.

  1. If you’re using powered speakers, hook them up to the computer as per the instructions that came with them.

  2. If you’re hooking it up to your home stereo, hook the computer up to a line-in using the 1/8” minijack to RCA adapter mentioned above, set the iTunes player volume to Maximum, then use the system volume to set the output volume so that it produces a line-level signal. The easiest way to do this is to play some music from another source (such as a CD player) and switch between that source and the Mac, adjusting the volume on the Mac until the output is at about the same sound level.

Step 4: Enjoy your new jukebox!

You can now play music from your iTunes music library, just like any other stereo component. For long playlists, the Party Shuffle feature works quite nicely. Impress your friends!

At this point you have a nicely functional jukebox to play your music. However, as it sits right now, it is little more than just a really large, not-very-portable iPod. In the next installment, we will go over customization options ranging from the fairly simple to “darn near insane”, all for little-to-no cost over your initial investment.

Continued in Part 2 here.