“Door Stop” Computer Becomes a Music Learning Machine

By Martin Jansen, Owner of Jansen-PCINFO

I’m going to take this old Acer Computer that my son brought home from a demolition job and convert it into a music learning machine for my ‘Brothers in Song’ with the Appleton MacDowell Male Chorus.

Each season the Chorus has to learn or relearn about 30 songs that must be memorized prior to performances.  I am a junior member of the group having only a couple of years of experience, so I have to memorize almost all the music.  I am converting this “useless” computer that used to run an old unsupported version of Windows into a Linux machine for learning music.

Let’s take a closer look at the computer.  First, it was dirty and needed some cleaning.  Second, we’ll take a look at the outside and inside.  I see that this computer used to run Windows 8.1 which makes it around 8 years old.  The case is small form factor, metal, with a plastic front,  USB slots front and back and a SD card slot.  Inside the case we see a very small Celeron J1800 processor, a 500 GB hard drive, full sized DVD-ROM drive and 4 GB SODIMM memory with one memory slot available for a maximum memory capability of 8 GB.

Windows 10 will run on this hardware, but Linux Mint runs better.  The downloaded Linux Mint ISO only takes about 2.1 GB of space (compared to Windows 5.2 GB) and can be expanded on an old 4 GB USB stick.  I’ll press the Del key as the computer is starting to enter the BIOS to disable Secure Boot.  Then I will press the F12 key during boot up to select the USB drive.  I’m choosing  XFCE for a desktop environment.  Overall, Linux Mint has lower system requirements than Windows 10 and can run more applications with less memory and disk space used.  This computer is not eligible for Windows 11, because of Microsoft’s requirement of newer processors and TPM.

Linux Mint installs quickly and has Firefox, LibreOffice, Celluloid (music and video player) and numerous utility programs as part of the initial install.  I’ll add four more programs: Google Chrome, youtube-dl, VLC and MuseScore.  Chrome does a good job with multimedia and documents.  VLC is superb as a media player and converter. Youtube-dl can download music videos from YouTube. MuseScore is a great score creator and player.

We have a team of Chorus members that have been converting our music into MuseScore electronic files.  MuseScore also has a website where the music can be uploaded for viewing and playback.  The playback has the ability to use a mixer to lower the volume of some parts while raising others.  This helps with learning, say, the second tenor part over the basses, baritones and first tenor parts.  We also have a bunch of past performances from the choir in .mp3 files to playback using VLC.

Finally, I’ll load all the converted MuseScore files and .mp3 files on a USB stick to transfer to the hard drive of the Acer computer.  The files can be played from the desktop without an internet connection.  Of course, having an internet connection helps for accessing email for future updates from the Chorus.  The Acer does have a LAN ethernet port.  A wireless connection can be had for between $10 and $15, like this TP-Link USB WiFi Adapter.

The Chorus member receiving the Acer will need peripherals, at least a monitor, keyboard and mouse – something they may already have in their home.  The computer has an HDMI port so it can be connected to a flat screen TV.  Otherwise, a VGA port can be connected to an older monitor and speakers or a headset.  USB headsets are better and often come with controls for volume, like the Logitech H390 Wired Headset for under $20.  Alternatively, a USB bluetooth adapter like the Edimax Bluetooth Adapter can be added to the computer for around $15 if a member already has bluetooth earbuds or speakers. Note: peripherals need to be compatible with Linux.  

I would recommend using a headset instead of speakers if you want to keep a family’s sanity intact as you play the songs over and over.

The computer is offered free to a willing Chorus member, but peripherals could run between 10 and 50 dollars depending on the equipment already at the members home.