Imagine the Apple TV as live music and visual instrument, and not just a way of watching archived Battlestar Galactica? Our friend Jeff Gambera has been busy hacking his Apple TV for just such unusual purposes. He’s gotten the real-time audio and music workstation Ableton Live working; even the demo song runs. (Plenty of people use Ableton Live with equal or lesser hardware; the aTV should easily beat many older G4s.)

This is big news for one primary reason: it means the Apple TV is capable handling multi-channel audio with real-time virtual instruments and time stretching. That makes the ATV a reasonable live music, DJ, sound art, or (once Quartz Composer and Max/MSP/Jitter and VDMX and Modul8 and such are running) live visuals. With networked music and sound and input from MIDI devices and alternative controllers just behind, this gets all the more interesting. Sure, a cheap PC could do the same — but it’s tough to find a $300 Mac this portable, let alone one that does all the Apple TV does. And, besides, it’s cool that someone’s got it working even as a gimmick.

First, some shaky video:

Of course, it’s a little hard to follow from the video what’s going on, so I convinced Jeff to write up some instructions. Check out the generic Apple TV hacking instructions first, but then you can follow how to make Ableton work. I also spoke to Jeff about some more advanced possibilities with the Apple TV; more on that after the break.

“AbletonTV” How-To:

This process invalidates your warranty on aTV. Please refer to for precise details regarding your aTV and the steps needed to get to the point you can run applications.

Summary: The Basic Concept

Enable SSH
Patch the kernel for USB
Mount drive read/write
Remove watchdog
Replace the

Once these steps have been completed, you can run many OS X applications on the device.

There are several ways to launch a program from the aTV. The most basic is using the ssh terminal into the box and
issuing the open command:


A second way is to actually copy a file manager program like Forklift onto the aTV and use that to double-click the application.

Step by Step

Copy your Ableton Live program to /Applications on your aTV. Use your serial number or just enable the demo. Ed.: Note that the demo will run unlimited; it just won’t save or load instruments you’ve purchased. If you’re concerned about running out of authorizations, that could be a fine way to go; just leave the serial authorization on your main machine(s). -PK

Once Ableton Live is on the aTV filesystem, from SSH run something like

open /Applications/Live 5.2/

If you have performed the USB kernel patch, your keyboard and mouse will work.

Have fun.

And Live is just the beginning. Apple TV already has the ability to run Core Image-style graphics, so imaging with programs like Quartz Composer and VDMX could be possible, as well. (Jerome was already playing around with Quartz Composer.) USB audio and MIDI should be possible, as well. Bluetooth might even enable the use of the Nintendo Wii controller, which can in turn be used with Ableton Live via additional intermediate MIDI software.

Jerome said he was next interested in playing with networking, so that aTVs could be combined with other Macs — or each other — and transmit networked audio, MIDI, and other information. Max/MSP can run on the Apple TV, so that’s one possibility for networking, and for audio he was trying plasq’s Wormhole plug-in. In theory, even online collaboration tools like Ninjam could work.

Of course, everything we’re describing here is possible because it’s possible on the Mac, and that’s really what aTV is. So why would you want to do this in the first place? Aside from “because it’s there”, think about the fact that the aTV is US$300, has capabilities of its own, and has significant appeal as an installation machine — at half the price of sticking a new Mac mini in an art gallery, you could have aTVs running visuals and sound, for instance. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.

If you hack your aTV for multimedia creation purposes, do let us know. Anything that takes this device beyond iTunes sounds good to me.

Previously: Apple TV Running Ableton Live

See also: Mac OS X running on Apple TV