5/52: Bill Van Loo at the iBook instrument station

Computers can have longevity as musical instruments, but it takes a little extra effort. (CC-BY-NC-SA) Bill Van Loo.

Computers and computer software can have as much or even more longevity than traditional music hardware – that is, if elements like copy protection don’t intervene first. As a postscript to the discussion last week, prompted by a new software release for the Apple II, here’s a report from our friend Bill Van Loo. He was able to make a productive little workstation out of an old iBook (500Mhz), with access to Reaktor Session instruments and an Apple electric piano now gone.

Bill has been doing a project a week all year, working towards the goal of 52 projects at the end of 2010, so consider this an excuse to peek into his studio and get some inspiration and ideas for projects:


What’s interesting to me is how productive the results were. But that means there’s a real failure caused by arcane copy protection. And much as we complain about dongles, the dongle worked – it was software/online challenge-response that was the failure point. (Before dongle advocates at developers rejoice, uh, guys, if you add online activation to your dongle as some of you have recently done, you’ve just killed your advantage.)

I don’t think it’s realistic for developers to always provide 100% backwards compatibility. But it’s clear that developers aren’t doing a great job of gracefully bringing products to the end of their life cycle. If a product is to be discontinued, why not do what Propellerhead did with their popular ReBirth instrument and provide it free? Open source licensing isn’t always the answer, as it adds additional legal work and presumes that someone wants all this old source code, which very often, they don’t. But at least by providing a free download, perhaps a very specific license that makes it free to trade the binary file, people don’t lose access to software they use in their music.

Bill’s comments, plus a link to the full story – well worth reading if you’re considering doing something similar yourself:

As it happens, I went through my own version of this (resurrecting old technology to get usable instruments back) and documented it on my blog, as part of my ongoing “52 things” (a “project-a-week” series).

A few years ago, I replaced my trusty titanium PowerBook with a shiny new Intel MacBook. That brought lots of increased power, but it also meant losing some things I really liked as a result of moving from the PowerPC-based PowerBook to the Intel-based MacBook. My favorite Rhodes electric piano sound came from Logic’s EVP73 plugin, which didn’t run on Intel Macs. One of my other favorite sound sources was Reaktor Session, which I loved for its Vierring ensemble, among others.

What it came down to, for me, is that it was worth getting back those capabilities. I learned, along the way, that the dongle-based copy protection schemes (much as I disliked them at the time) of Logic and Max/MSP allowed me to get them up and running extremely quickly.

In contrast to dongle-based copy protection, the challenge/response authorization system of Native Instruments actually made it much more difficult (relatively speaking) to get Reaktor Session installed & going. NI’s customer support got me set up quickly, but having to rely on that to get software working makes it more fragile in terms of dependencies.

5/52: iBook instrument station

  • I've actually been trying this myself, but with considerably older laptops; somewhere in the range of 200mhz. It's not only for the challenge of seeing what can run on a laptop that can only handle win98, but for some of the associated hardware; the OPL family of synth chips/sound cards. They are a great tool for manipulating oldschool Yamaha FM sounds without having to buy an old Yamaha synth.

    One software that really interests me is 'Keykit' and was maybe not so suprised to find out that people still use the software. (http://nosuch.com/keykit/).
    Keykit is quite an impressive assortment of algorithmic midi composition tools made into an object oriented environment, that runs well on old systems. what gets me stoked is the thought of keykit running with an old opl chip… mm.

  • poopoo

    Converter is pretty cool for an old DOS machines with a soundblaster if you have one lying around..


    It's a midi effects processor and audio to midi converter.

  • toupeira

    Also don't forget older versions of current software, which obviously run fine on older machines. Some companies even give you the old versions for free if you own a current license, Ableton for example has downloads of all their old Live releases back to version 1.

  • JDG

    While I realize I'll be forever marked as someone who clearly doesn't "get it", I have to say that a lack of forward compatibility is the fatal Apple flaw. One that will likely prevent me from ever making the switch, despite the pluses having a Mac would bring.

    My musical partner actually did the same thing as Mr. Van Loo – turned an old iBook into a secondary synthesis computer (to use along with his newer Powerbook). I was astounded at the amount of hunting around he had to do just to piece together enough software to be able to use it at all. Microsoft and Windows both suck in innumerable ways, but the ONLY issue I've ever had from one machine to another has been processing capacity.

    On the obsolete computers front: any other recommendations for music software that will work on obsolete PCs? I have a few candidates for digital audio resuscitation laying around…

  • There is plenty of trackers out there. adlib tracker being one of them, that uses the old OPL chipset.

  • Second on the trackers, they're a great way to make use of old computers.

    The other problem with resuscitation is drivers — I have a 13-year-old laptop for which I've searched high and low for sound card drivers, unsuccessfully.

  • Patrick_K

    While I applaud and fully support both Bills effort and Peter's wise decision to shine a spotlight on Bill to keep the hardware/software life-expectancy topic going. . . I'm feeling a devil's advocate urge to point out that:

    1. The latest version of EVP (which I'm assuming sounds identical to the Logic 6 version) is included in Logic Studio 9. . . and Logic 7 runs on intel mac if he prefers the pre-Apple GUI and workflow.

    2. The Verring patch still runs identically in Reaktor 5, and Reaktor 5 was on sale for $99 recently (or so I was told).

    So both of the two favorite instruments he cites are still fully available on Intel Macs. . . albeit for the cost of upgrading to the full and latest versions of Reaktor and Logic. While I applaud the "why pay money if you don't need to" route, the cost to upgrade those 2 apps likely pails in comparison to the cost of the intel mac he just bought.

    That being said, I still think it's great that Bill is doing this AND artfully documenting his experiences for all to see. I'm sure there are apps and workflows beyond the ones cited that are motivating him to not use his new 'puter for music making.

  • Patrick_K

    Re: Rebirth: a close friend of mine had a recent professional relationship with the Prop'heads guys, and has visited them at their HQ in Stockholm. . . He couldn't have had more great things to say about their approach to creating software and their philosophy in supporting their customers. I think it's safe to say that offering up Rebirth for free the way they did supports these positive accounts, and I hope that more companies take this approach to phasing out software in the future.

  • bobbob

    you can make fm7 as free as you like, it still won't run on intel mac!

    And, max still uses challenge/response. Although c74 offers ilok authorization, I prefer challenge/response so I can leave my ilok with all my other authorizations safely in my studio and still have an authorized version of max on both my studio and portable machines.

  • No, good point, these apps are still generally available. On the other hand, it may not be that you want to upgrade *all* your software. And I can think of other instances where software was end-of-lifed, only ran on PowerPC, only ran on pre-OS X Mac, etc.

  • @Patrick_K – thanks for the kind words! I can shed a little more light onto my thoughts and workflow in order to (hopefully) answer your questions.

    1. I'm running Logic Express 7 on my MacBook Pro, and it does not come with EVP. It does have the GarageBand electric piano, which is quite decent, but not the EVP73 plugin I liked so well. As a side note, EVP73 was released for Logic PowerPC as an AudioUnits plugin, along with the EXSP24 plugin – kind of an interesting route, considering Logic's built-in instrument track record.

    2. I did consider upgrading to Reaktor 5, but preferred not to spend the money. I used to do a lot of Max/MSP programming, and once I started using Live it really hit me how much I'd rather be making music than programming patches. That's part of why Reaktor Session was a good fit for me.

    The larger point of all this is that I really wanted to set up an instrument station, as my blog post was titled. I wanted to be able to sit down at a dedicated keyboard and just start playing. I've considered getting a real Rhodes for many years, but can't see spending that kind of money on my music hobby at the moment, so this works perfectly for me.

    In short, this setup allows me to use something I already have (the earlier Logic 6 license + EVP73 plugin) to accomplish something I wanted.

  • Patrick_K

    @Bill – thanks for the further elaboration.

    1. Yeah, the full "studio" versions of Logic are now the only way to obtain EVP, I just wanted to point out (to anyone else reading) that the EVP has not been discontinued or anything like that. . . it's just married to a version of logic that would necessitate an upgrade purchase.

    2. I know the feeling, Reaktor/Max are great at draining time from actually making music if you let them. I was bringing up the R5 point just because R5 could be used in exactly the same manner Sessions was (obviously) and the prices for R5 (both with and without using the upgrade path) have been so low lately. . . but I COMPLETELY understand not needing another temptation calling you away from actually laying down some notes.

    . . . and I also completely understand wanting a dedicated computer for running software instruments (which, as you point out, is the main motivator). Great to see that you were able to keep the G4 machine in play for at least a few more years.

  • rich

    i use c64 with a 1541 III (i can use sd card loaded with alot of music making apps) mssiah,cynthcart,moog song producer etc…

    also use ti99 with music app which isnt al that great lol.my fave is my old g3 powerbook with metasynth absynth,sinqube apps/synths,cubase vts with tons of older vsti's. i treat my old computers more like instruments than computers and i think thats why they have so much charm .

  • Charlie L

    I have a 6 year old ibook like the one pictured. I can run reason 4 and protools 6.9 on it at the same time off the internal hard drive, but nothing with too many tracks or effects. It would be pretty solid if I just used it to run reason though in a live setup though.

  • Axel

    Incidently, I just bought a Thinkpad T42 on Ebay for 160 Euros to turn it into a live looper. That'll be my project for March.

    @toupeira: Are you sure you can use all the old versions of Live for free? I've tried Live 4 but I couldn't get it to unlock with my Live 7 licence key.

  • Blob

    Let's also not forget that some Linux distros can run on old computers (Intel-based or even Apple G4's).

    Choice of software is more limited, but in any case, for those who use SuperCollider or Pure Data in their performances, running a "revived" Linux box could be an option (if it has the required processing power for the patch you've created).

  • beatniks3

    I still use my dell 700m, 1.6Ghz pentium m processor, 768MB ram, firewire with T.I chipset…use it as dedicated serato rig now but before i was running PlanetCCRMA linux distro built in fedora 10…worked great with renoise, aldrin, audacity and the other programs i tried that come with CCRMA.

    highly recommend planetCCRMA for those older laptops, just build it on 10

  • I might keep my macbook for live use and work (teaching) when I upgrade later. My Macbook should be valid for quite a few years. And with regards to Bill doing 52 projects this year; you guys should check out


    where I'm attempting to do a song a day for a year! There's others involved too so click back to the main page if you want to check them out too.

  • I have software on my pc dating back to Windows 3.1, no issues other than cosmetically they are UGLY.

    I still use Cubase SX version 1, with a dongle.

    I believe that if I buy something, hardware or software, I'll keep it as is so long as it's working for me. I never felt the need to upgrade SX, and I'm sure I'm missing some great features.. which I don't need. Yet.

  • JollyRogered

    Talking of Rebirth, another great piece of legacy software turned freeware, is SonicWorx – or rather it was.

    It seems that Prosoniq are now working on something else that's going to be called SonicWorx, but actually looks more like an expensive Melodyne DNA clone, so they've pulled the plug on the free SW download 🙁

    This is a real shame; I actually keep an old G4 running OS9 just for SonicWorx, the Koblo synths and a midi editor for my EVS1 (which actually runs via an Atari emulator – double retro!).

    Like OS9, SonicWorx is ugly and unpredictable, but it can make some great noises.

    It seems that Prosoniq are also going to make some kind of SonicWorx Lite but it's based on the old SW Studio, rather than SW Artist, which was where all the fun stuff was…

  • Metrophage

    I love seeing this idea getting some discussion here!

    My first Mac was a Performa 6200, which was a 1st gen PPC. It sucked, but my first computer music was using Cecilia to generate Csound scores – at 22KHz! – and it was brilliant fun.

    There is a lot of great old software out there which is damn powerful and begs to be used on an old Mac. There are great analysis/resynthesis tools like Soundhack, Lemur, Marcohack. Editors such as Amadeus, Alchemy, and Spark XL. Compostion environments like SuperCollider 2, OpenMusic, Bol Processor. And how about Opcode's Studio Vision Pro? This was a high-end sequencer/DAW which is now abandonware and free. Many of these apps are cool enough that even just one of them is reason enough to run a dedicated vintage system. Add to that the possibilities of cheap OS 8-9 hardware… Lexicon Core32? SampleCell? PARIS? Oasys PCI? The only reason not to is if you are pressed for space.

  • I'm tempted to set up an OS9 station as well. I'd love to be able to run th0nk again – its "stretch octaves to 1 minute" function was a fantastic-sounding bit of granular synthesis.

    I actually started out making electronic music on a computer using Studio Vision Pro (before that it was hardware plus a borrowed Alesis MMT-8). I still have the SVPro discs in a drawer, in fact.

  • D94

    Blast from the past! I've been online trying to find out if I can convert any of my old stuff to my PC. Back in the day I had a great setup all running off of a Mac IIFX.I don't know where that went, but I still have all my software and hardware. Studio Vision Pro (disks), Coda Finale (disks),Opocode Studio 5 Midi interface, Digidesign Sound Tools software, Digidesign Sound Tools Analog interface, Digidesign Sound Tools Digital interface, Tascam DA-30 Dat and so on. If anyone has a clue if any of this stuff will work with a PC conversion of some kind, I would appreciate some feedback. This was/is awesome stuff, I would hate to have to scrap it. Thanks.

  • You'd probably have better luck getting an older Mac to run it on than trying any kind of conversion to PC. eBay or Craigslist should be able to provide a workable Mac quite cheaply.