What's your computer setup like?

I sometimes forget that computers themselves, not just the code we write using them, are also living instruments that grow organically together with their user and usage. I’m in the process of setting up my first “serious” Linux-based system and so I’ve been reflecting on my configuration and usage of past setups, to see if and how I can improve on them.

It got me thinking about what my workflow really consists of, what software is important to that, how to best configure and customise that software, and how to make sure that these configurations are backed up properly and easily reproducible on other machines.

I got tired of my computer feeling like a bowl of different types of spaghetti that don’t work well with each other, so this time I figured I’d invest more time into setting everything up properly before it gets out of control.

What’s your setup like? What do you mostly use your computer for, and how is it making your work (and life) easier?

This can include both hardware and software. Do you have a favourite keyboard, or a dual monitor setup? What’s so special about your dotfiles? What scripts and keybindings can you not live without? Any file management & orginisation tips? Is your whole OS just a wrapper around Emacs?

1 Like

  • System : MacBook Pro Retina, 13"(2014)
  • Operating System : Sierra
  • Processor : Intel Core i7 3 GHz
  • Memory : 16 GB
  • Mouse : Wacom Intuos 3(2005)

GUI Software


Thanks for sharing!

Do you use the Wacom when live coding in any way? Also, is this arrangement static or do you find yourself moving stuff around depending on what you’re working on?

Besides just the specs of your system, I’m more interested in the dynamic between your setup and your work, how one influences the other and how they both evolve together.

Personally, over the past few years I’ve been struggling with two issues that have influenced what my setup looks like and how I use it: tennis elbow syndrome and tiny desks. The former led me to stop using a mouse and to seriously reconsider my ergonomics, both in the way I physically arrange stuff but also how I configure and go about my software workflow. The latter forced me to think about how much value I was getting from the various synths, midi controllers, and other junk that inhabited my desk over the years, and to try and boil it down to the bare minimum that works well.

The result is that my whole setup revolves around a keyboard, both physically and otherwise. I use a split keyboard, which I have DIY tented so that it’s a bit above my standing waist height to minimise strain on my forearms and elbows, and which has a layering feature that adds a numpad underneath the right-hand side letters, so I don’t have to move my hand to type numbers. On top of that, I have switched to using the Dvorak layout (apparently makes typing less strenuous, not sure if that’s true but I like it better anyway), and have been making heavy use of software like AutoHotkey for Windows or xdotool on Linux, which allows me to remap different keys (Caps Lock to Ctrl/Cmd is a big one) and trigger various actions and macros.

Because of the peculiarities of my target workflow, I tried to bring everything inside an all-capable, highly customisable, and fully keyboard-controllable text editor, so I wouldn’t have to worry about recreating it in across different applications and OSes. Without getting into too much detail and risking another editors war, I picked Emacs because it fits the above description perfectly, but also because it’s the only editor I came across that heavily encourages, if not expects, the live coding of its behaviour. In fact, I can’t think of an earlier piece of software that was explicitly built around the idea of its functionality, top to bottom, being re-programmable while running, without having to restart. It also really blurs the lines between editing and executing code, like a REPL but on steroids.

The above, together with the decision to get into live coding in the first place, have heavily influenced my musical workflow and output. I went from playing the piano and thinking in terms of real-time 1-to-1 gestures, to taking a short step back and thinking in terms of change-over-time and the architecture and interaction of processes. I now find that I’m happy to do most of my music ‘in the box’, as I find it much easier and more effective to develop a setup and workflow that feels more cohesive than plugging a bunch of different pieces of kit together, which have been built upon different philosophies and can sometimes hardly talk to each other.

While I generally agree that Computation is not about computers any more than Astronomy is about telescopes, I still feel that they are incredible systems that can mean different things to every one of us, and so I’m interested to see how others go about shaping and using them!

My setup = two Macbook Airs, an 11" and a 13". 11" is for music and gets taken to live shows with me. 13" for writing my thesis and doing everything else. There is some overlap in how they are used and the files on them, but essentially it means if I’m playing a London-toilet-circuit indie gig and someone spills a beer on my laptop I can still, you know, do my job. No external monitors or anything. My flat is tiny, so is my desk (I have a tiny postage-stamp garden with a mini greenhouse in it and the desk is in the greenhouse because there’s no other space for it, lol) so I want to keep things as compact as I can.

ixi lang for live-coding (though I’ve been playing with Tidal for other stuff lately too), Ableton Live 9 for other music stuff. Scrivener for thesis-writing, which I regret, it’s unwieldy and overkill for what I needed, but I’m so far into writing it now that it seems pointless to change.

In practice most of my non-live-coded music happens not in Ableton, but in iOS apps on my phone, currently mostly Auxy. If I could use ixi on my phone I ABSOLUTELY would - I really really want to try the iOS build of ChucK but haven’t got around to figuring out the setup yet.

I like switching up interfaces and translating between them when I’m running out of ideas, and I like being able to make music during ten-minute bus rides. I have a couple of Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators which are also good for this, and so is LSDJ for Game Boy.

I just started using an Anne Pro 2 keyboard when I’m at my desk, reprogrammed to have arrow keys instead of right shift/function/alt/ctrl keys, and I think it is making writing slightly more pleasant, the clickyness seems to help me with flow, but I still prefer the inbuilt Macbook keyboard when I’m using ixi for some reason, I think because it requires less hand movement. Mainly I like the mechanical keyboard because it looks like this though tbh.

No keybindings, no scripts, don’t know what a dotfile is, desperately disorganised, think I manage to get a lot done anyway. I work messily but I work fast, and I like being able to work wherever I am whenever I get a moment, and I think my setup (other than the keyboard, really) reflects that.

I am definitely chaotic neutral as a person, and I think it also reflects that.

(I’m a little envious of how organised @neauoire appears to be - what a beautiful desk, my goodness.)

I find using a mouse really uncomfortable, don’t understand why I would want to when I have a touchpad I barely have to move my hand to use, and am currently figuring out how I can use both a mechanical keyboard and the touchpad on the Macbook without it feeling weird. Any suggestions welcome that don’t require me to learn a million keybindings, because noooo.

Hello World, here is mine :

Good Topic!

I have an army of thinkpads - most are old and seem like they are waiting to die on me.

Thinkpad T420 - 8gb- i5

  • Linux Mint 19
  • Tidalcycles/supercollider/pure-data/etc
  • Bitwig for occasional DAW stuff
    I usually perform with this one - but the full displayport dongle has become a necessity for showing code (and i usually forget it)

Thinkpad T420s - 8GB - i5

  • Windows 10 Pro
  • Ubuntu (linux subsystem) - tidalcycles
  • Supercollider, etc
  • Ableton for DAW
    This computer gives me anxiety

Studio Hackintosh-Thing - 32GB - i5

  • Dual-booting windows 10 / high sierra
  • GTX 1060 6gb
  • Slew of mixing/mastering tools and DAWs on both sides.
    I love this computer but do not want to move it :upside_down_face:

all of these machines have some version of customized vim - tidalvim - zsh. Jack for linux/osx to enable friendly audio routing. I use virtual audio cable for the windows routing. The desktop machine is linked to a multitude of USB hubs and uses a 43" display. I keep an 88 key midi keyboard on the other side of the room for whenever it’s more convenient to tap on keyboards.

Powermac G3 Beige Tower

  • 768mb RAM
  • 100mbps ethernet card
  • usb 1.1 card and hub
  • firewire card
  • a/v board expansion
  • tascam usb audio interface
  • macman midi interface

I’m really trying to use this for more this year - I have 2 beige G3’s I saved from a recycling center when a local audio/tv studio moved. right now this is mainly used for reviving sounds from my childhood or running esoteric software like alchemy.

1 Like

Hey !

I’ll play :grin: :

  • Hackintosh desktop : 100% fanless build w/ i7 6700k / 8GB RAM / 1TB SSD / Gygabite MOBO
  • Hackintosh laptop : Razer Blade Stealth 13,3" i7-8550u / 16GB RAM / 256GB SSD
  • Soundcard : SPL Crimson
  • Monitors : Amphion One15 + Amp100 combo (my best purchase ever, really)
  • Headphones : AKG K702
  • Synths : mostly u-he’s (especially Bazille, what a marvelous synth)
  • DAW : Live 10, Reaper
  • Live-coding / composition : TidalCycles
  • Editor : Atom

I use the laptop for work mostly (teaching Ableton Live and electronic music production basically), and will take it to live shows whenever needed of course.

I went for hackintoshes to keep on using OSX (used to swear by Five12 Numerology before getting into Tidal) and overall audio/MIDI stability…

Most of the music making is done on the desktop unit. I’ve spent some time building a simple, minimalist yet functional desk for it so that sitting there is comfy and convenient. Regular Apple KB with NumPad and a vertical mouse.
I consider getting a fancy compact mechanical KB every now and then but I’m still on the fence, mostly feeling torn when it comes to choosing a layout (being French, AZERTY is standard (and I’m damn used to it tbh) but I spend a lot of time typing in English, and most QWERTY layouts seem to be a tad more ergonomic for coding).

Regarding sound sources, I’ve always been obsessed by synthesis, and I’m on a FM tip (and have been for the last couple of years or so). I simply gel with u-he synths, and Bazille’s my weapon of choice : sounds absolutely lush and is a bliss to patch. I’m seriously considering getting an Elektron Digitone to free up some CPU.
I do not use samples, just RT synthesis (hence the need for fast CPUs).
I try not to collect synths (focusing on one or two instead), and I’m on the verge regarding Razor : I can dial quite easily with it the sounds I absolutely love when listening to Gabor Lazar / Kindohm / Mark Fell etc… and at the same time I then feel like I’m cheating. Sweet paradox hehe

Last but not least, TidalCycles has totally rocked my boat, and I’ve switched from the usual piano roll / trackers / matrix MIDI sequencers to Tidal and I’m never looking back.
I’ve felt home using it from the beginning, still learning it of course but no matter the learning curve it’s the most logical way to write (electronic) music to me. I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to mentally visualize / conceptualize teh music I wanted to write, and writing my patterns using such a direct langage is exactly what I’ve always needed.

@thedigitalDog opusmodus looks quite deep ! Any reason you use both Tidal and that software ?

@nilhartman I’d love to go down the hackintosh route, but it always seems really scary and complex each time I’ve looked into it.

@tedthetrumpet it really depends on what you begin with : if you purposely build a computer with the right components, it’s incredibly easy and stable.
Now, it was much more difficult with the laptop : most of the hacking went smoothly… but the trackpad part (I basically spent a month obliged to use a mouse instead). A similarly spec’d macbook was way out my budget.

@nilhartman Hi, yes, to be honest I do use Opusmodus most of the time those days. I do absolutely love this software, and by the way, Bazille is also one of my favorite sound source :love_you_gesture: ! So, I was still using Tidal as a sampler mostly, but am slowly moving to build my own instruments in Kontakt or Redux, instruments that I can later play with Opusmodus.

1 Like