Repurposing an old laptop / old hardware as a music machine

Hi, first post after lurking the forum for about a year.

I wondered if anyone has experience they’d like to share of taking an old outdated computer and stripping it back to just one or two functions. Partly as I think it’s an interesting approach in light of GAS and the like, and partly as I’d like to optimise my set-up as best I can.

I have a 2007ish MacBook which has been sitting in a box for at least 5 years. I’m setting it up again to use only as a sound / music machine: mostly using Reaper and Automatonism in Pure Data. Both are quite light applications and run well. I’ve deleted lots of programs I won’t need, but I feel like there’s a lot of background processes still clogging it up from years of daily general use.

I could and do use my main laptop for this stuff, but I like the idea of treating the old laptop almost as a specific instrument. I like finding a use for the old tech rather than just throwing it away, and I’m more comfortable travelling and gigging with a laptop that won’t mess up my life if it breaks.

Any advice or thoughts welcome!


As you plan to use Reaper and Pure Data, i would propose that you consider installing a simple Linux distribution (Debian stable). But then i reread and saw the computer is a macbook, which makes the install process probably more involved than necessary for the goal here.

Live coding software also good for old laptop


Maybe that’s an option: Give an old MacBook new life with Linux.

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Thanks, I’ll look into the Linux possibility. I was more thinking whether it would be worth using one of those Mac Cleaner type programs to kill off redundant processes that are using up processor power.

I bought an old Dell Latitude E4200 netbook (circa 2008) for $30 on eBay quite a few years ago to use as a mobile/oldschool Windows music machine.

I stuck Windows 7 and Buzz Tracker on it and a tested out a bunch of lightweight VSTs. My findings: FM8 reigns supreme!

Part of the inspiration to get the laptop was watching this Future Music video with James Holden and remembering the good times I had with Buzz and all it’s strange and buggy “machines”.

But in the end, I created an oldschool jungle track on there and a bunch of sketches but that was about it. The screen sucks and the trackpad was annoying, so it wasn’t very much fun making music on there, but it was certainly capable. (I also dual-booted it with Linux and the OS was faster but all the configuration sort of did my head in and I started getting random errors.)

Right now, I use the iPad in a similar single-focused way. I don’t have email, games, random apps on there, it’s just a bunch of music apps and I mostly use just one.

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great idea!
linux could work, or a clean install of mac os
an easy way to start fresh
would be to create a new user account
(system preferences - users)
give it admin privileges
back up anything you want to keep
delete your current account
(and all files, it’s an option in the process)
and then use the new user account as your music machine

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Sounds like that might be the way to go! I actually run programs and files mostly off a usb stick for easy transferability anyway, so I could happily wipe almost everything from the laptop hard drive.

I am impressed that Reaper manages to fit into such a tiny package, run off a usb stick and work smoothly on old hardware. Meanwhile something like Word will freeze the whole system for 10 minutes failing to open.

I’m enjoying reading along with this thread about classic music software:

I was surprised to see so many folks buying vintage hardware to run vintage software since virtualization of old computer platforms seems pretty advanced these days… I have a basic QEMU setup with MacOS9 to try out old software by Rebekah Wilson and Curtis Roads etc… it’s running but I haven’t messed with it much. Crucially while I can of course run non-realtime processes and save them so they can be exported somewhere to listen to, I don’t have realtime audio working with OS9 QEMU – which would be pretty huge I think. Maybe this exists already and I missed it?

Anyway, I was hoping here we could share our experiences setting up old hardware or configuring virtual machines to keep “old” software running and useful.


QEMU docs on PPC emulation:

Booting OS9 while creating the thread:


Funny that you should bump this today, I was about to bump it myself as the Classic patches / software thread has inspired me to actually do what I was talking about here in August! So this week I decanted a load of files onto a thumb drive, set up a new user account, and then deleted the old account. Now I have a nearly-empty hard drive and a clean install of OS X Lion (2011’s finest!), which is a blast from the past. I’ll now be setting up a bunch of old programs I’ve gleaned from that thread, plus Pure Data and Reaper and whatever else is lurking in my applications folder.

It’s early days, but already this is emphasising how much these old laptops that we think of as ‘dead’ are in many cases still perfectly capable at doing what they used to do. I think more than anything it’s the internet that gives us this impression, as web pages get heavier and more advanced (Safari 5 simply would not open most pages I looked at yesterday, and a newer Chrome version slows everything to a crawl: only 2GB of RAM to work with here). But this is a music machine now, so the wifi can stay off! Anything else I need (programs, pure data externals etc) I’ll import from another laptop using a thumb drive. This laptop is now running smoothly and quickly now that I’ve cleaned the hard drive. Another bonus is that the 2007 macbooks actually have an audio input that is independent of the audio output, which is something I’ve missed.

I’m not currently planning to emulate OS 9, but just having a 2011-era set-up is enough to let me use lots of early OS X programs that wouldn’t run on my later machine. Exciting! Thanks again to the people who offered advice in this thread :+1:


I have been the recipient of several hand-me-down macs, of which I have had various successes and failures. the G4 I got for $25 from a painting client who kind of begged me to take it. I had no idea what to do with it but it ran fine and installed Reaper without issue. I tried looking for some other vintage programs, or more precisely, licenses to said software, and that is where my troubles began. because Abelton rolls their old licenses into their new, I found that people who were willing to sell me their licenses for vintage versions couldn’t, because their new versions were on the same key. I contacted Abelton and they wouldn’t sell me an old license (of course). But Reaper does run great on that box, and with my old Maudio Delta 1010 PCI in it, it became my main recording machine for a couple years.

I then took over an older Mac laptop that will only OS up to 10.7.5 when my wife updated to an Air, then another Air. The laptop is much more capable (but still no Orca or VCV) and my brother-in-law has his same model upgraded with an SSD running Live fine, but with his historical reg key. What I’m trying to get at is that if you go historical, Reaper is solid on basically anything because of its purchase scheme, but you may have a problem finding other software you don’t already own. My current attempts at OS9 are in part to get to old software that isn’t still locked down. chatted up my friend who used to work at Cycling 74 in the 90’s to see if he could help me out but he said he used to be the serial verification guy so when he wanted something verified, he would skip the codes and just punch the verify button. Cycling 74 still has all those historical programs like M for sale, and they cost real money.

10.7.5 is where I’m at, sounds like the same generation (good keyboard!).

I’ve never had much disposable income to put towards music stuff, so Reaper has been my DAW ever since I graduated from Audacity / Garageband, and when I wanted to try ‘proper’ computer music I went with Pure Data rather than Max. These decisions were cost-driven, but a few years in I’m really appreciating the fact that both of these programs take up very little space, are very solid, and will happily run on anything (Reaper doesn’t even mind being installed on a thumb drive).

Edit: Okay, this topic I see has been merged with another topic. For posterity and clarity, here is the title of the topic I created, which has now been merged into this topic:
An Idea - Bootable USB Synth/Seq/etc - Turn an old laptop into an otherwise OS’less synth machine

I have a dream… Well okay, it’s more just an idea that I’ve had for a while. The world is full of old laptops and some of these can be (and obviously are) used for making music, but the traditional OS+DAW set-up just seems so unappealing when compared to the immediacy of a standalone box synth/sequencer (say from someone like Elektron for example).

I like the idea of a USB bootable drive that has a synth/sampler/sequencer app-OS installed on it (with some persistent section on the stick to save your work). No internet, no other crap, simplified graphics and some basic settings to tweak.

You stick your USB stick into whatever husk of a laptop/pc you have and into a music fiddling/noisemaking app, no other messing about with an OS at all.

I understand that this would mean that this bootable app-OS would need to have a vast array of different drivers to accommodate most of the different machines out there. I also understand that there is a vast difference in what you’ll be able to do on a modern machine compared to an ancient netbook or something. So there would be a number of obstacles to overcome. It’s not going to suit all computers and yes, some computers will require some some bios fiddling.

I often use old pocket/portable computers with Sunvox, which I love and it allows me to remap the numeric and letter keys as notes on a traditional keyboard, so that in a crude way I can play a qwerty keyboard as a piano keyboard. It would be good to be able to do something similar with a bootable app-OS. I’m not sure I’d want to recreate Sunvox, but it’s a way to look at what this app-OS could be like.

I also like this idea from the point of view of having a really affordable and easy to get hold of music making device for everyone and anyone. So yeah, it’s just a laptop, but with the stick booted, it’s not doing anything other than being a relatively immediate synth/sampler/sequencer (or however it evolves). Also, I guess this could be an installable thing. No need to leave it in the realm of purely a USB bootable thing.

I’m also not exactly a developer… but I think I’d like explore this idea and see how far I can get.

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Often the way to test a Linux distro is to do exactly this, boot into a usb stick or image, so that part should be pretty easy.

I think maybe getting the settings right for low latency audio would be the hard thing here. My understanding is that often you need to tweak a few settings to adjust for different hardware. Not an expert on Linux though so it might be simpler then I imagine. Maybe combining usb storage with an audio interface you know are working would be a good idea.

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something close to your idea has happened before: puredyne - Wikipedia
Of course the OS layer was still prominently there but i guess it is inevitable.


Thanks for the link. I’ll have a read. Yes, it’s that inevitable OS layer that ideally I’d want to lose. I guess I want to repurpose computers to be like hardware music machines and lose all the other gumpf. Turn it on, make some synth noise.

Not having an OS sounds a lot cooler than it is. Think of it like this: to get a PC to the point where it can run a synth, you need to a bunch of boring stuff. You can either use Linux or you can write all that stuff yourself. That’s a lot of code before you get to making noise.

Start with, say, Alpine Linux, make it autologin and boot to a lightweight plug-in host.

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