Turn your old Mac into a jukebox

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If you’ve spent any time at all ripping your CD collection to your Mac, you’ve probably got gigabytes of music sitting on your hard drive. But how do you play your Mac-based music library on your living-room stereo—or, for that matter, share it with the rest of the house?

Of course, you could send music from your main Mac to your stereo via AirTunes, which is built into AirPort Express. If you have an AirPort network, you connect the AirPort Express’s audio jack to your amplifier, select the AirPort Express from any copy of iTunes running on your network, and stream your music directly to the stereo. The problem is that you can control iTunes only from that remote Mac. Attaching a Mac directly to your stereo lets you control everything right there.

What You Need

The Mac To pull this off, you need a Mac with speed, storage, and silence. You could get by with a 400MHz G3, Apple’s minimum for iTunes. But the faster the system, the better. For my music system, I use an 800MHz iBook G3. I like the laptop because it’s relatively unobtrusive, and it has its own screen and keyboard, so I can control it without bulky external accessories.

As for storage, that depends on how much music you want to store. If your music Mac’s hard drive is too small, you can add an external FireWire drive. Easy to connect and use, such drives can add as much as 400GB to your system without busting your budget. My system uses an external 250GB drive.

Your server should also have an AirPort card, so it can share its library with other Macs and find shared music libraries on your network. This is also great when friends drop by with their iTunes-equipped laptops (either Macs or PCs), because you can sample one another’s music.

And in order to pass the living-room test, the Mac should be silent— really silent. While you may not mind the whoosh of a computer fan or the rumble of a wonky hard drive in your office, you won’t want to hear anything like that when you’re deep into the quiet parts of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3.

If possible, put the hardware in a cabinet, to dampen any sounds it makes. If you get an external hard drive, buy one without a fan. And if you’re using an old iBook or PowerBook, don’t set it directly on a shelf: heat will build up around the processor, and the fan will spring into action. You can simply raise the laptop on a couple of thin pieces of wood so air flows underneath; as long as there’s air moving around the Mac, you shouldn’t hear a single decibel.

The Connections To connect your Mac to your stereo, you’ll need a 1/8-inch-to-RCA cable, which will run from the computer’s line-out port to your amplifier’s auxiliary input.

The Software iTunes is all you need.

How to Set It Up

First, you have to get music onto the Mac. If your laptop has an AirPort card, you can rip CDs on any Mac and then send their tunes over the network to the music server; the only drawback is that you have to manually add the music to the iTunes library on the server. If you want to buy music from the iTunes Music Store, do so directly from the server. That way, you won’t have to worry about copying from one Mac to another. But don’t forget to back it up!

Once you’ve got the music loaded or accessible, set iTunes to launch whenever your server starts up: In the Accounts preference pane for the user account you’ll be using, add iTunes to the list of items that load at startup. (Of course, you may not want to ever shut the music Mac down; instead, you can shut the lid to put it to sleep.) Then open up iTunes’ Sharing preference pane, and select both Look For Shared Music (to find other shared libraries) and Share My Music (to share the library on your music server with other Macs on your network).

That’s it! Your music server should be ready to go.

[ Kirk McElhearn is the author of several books about the Mac and the iPod, and he is a coauthor of Mastering Mac OS X , Tiger Edition (Sybex, 2005). ]

Tell iTunes to share your music server’s music and to look for shared music on your network, and all your tunes will be available in one place.
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