12 free apps for Mac creatives
Your Mac may make you look more like a designer or filmmaker, but beyond the basic functions of iLife, how do you write screenplays, record audio, develop websites, convert video and all the other productive stuff you bought a Mac for? What if you spent all your money on the hardware and don't have any cash left for software? Luckily, there are plenty of creative applications available for the Mac for the price of free-99. Here are twelve apps worth a lot more than their price tag suggests.
GarageBand ships with every new Mac and is great for recording music. But if you'd like a simpler way to record audio for, say, a podcast, Audacity is a free (and lighter) alternative. It records live audio from any source (a microphone, a record player), imports and exports a variety of formats (including MP3, Ogg vorbis, WAV and AIFF), and allows you to apply a variety of filters and edit multitrack audio. Cross-platform software (also available for PC and Linux).
If you're a professional screenwriter you're already using an industry standard like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, but if you're more of the "aspiring" ilk it's definitely worth checking out the free and open-source screenwriting program Celtx. Offering scheduling and budgeting in addition to scripting, Celtx has improved significantly since its earlier iterations (also worth keeping an eye on in this realm: Adobe Story).
If you have your own website you'll want to transfer files to and from the site using a FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program. Cyberduck isn't the greatest FTP program in the world -- some of its password handling tries too hard to ascribe to the Mac keychain, and I've gotten some errant (though harmless) overwriting prompts -- but it is reliable, often-updated, and free.
Google Chrome for the Mac is here, but it's missing a few features from its PC brethren, including the ability to operate as a Site-Specific Browser (SSB). A SSB allows you to run an oft-visited web site (say, Gmail, Wordpress, Google Reader) as its own application, to separate it from the rest of your tab-heavy and crash-prone browsing. Treating a site as an app also allows you to further customize it (for example, by assigning it to a Space, or in the case of Google Reader, by using Helvetireader), and leave it running instead of always sitting through page loads. Fluid is a Mac-only application that allows you to implement SSBs for any web site of your choice and can be a productivity boon for web-based content creation (or consumption).
I've written about this before, but the little-known freeware app Freedom does one very important thing: it shuts off your connection to the outside world, allowing you to focus on the task at hand (especially writing). Yes, you could accomplish this merely by turning off your Airport, but Freedom is better in two ways: one, you can set a time limit -- forcing you to work, say, three hours straight -- and two, you can't reconnect unless you shut everything down and restart your computer, which is enough of a deterrent to keep you from that distracting "mini"-break on the World Wide Web.
If you're ripping a DVD these days, odds are you're not outputting to a blank DVD but rather to a file on your laptop, Apple TV, media server, or mobile device. With a wide selection of codecs, fine control over settings, subtitling options, and easy-to-use presets, Handbrake is your best bet for converting an old-fashioned disc into a high-quality (legal or illegal... ) copy.
You cut a block of important text with the intention of pasting it elsewhere. But before you get a chance to paste it, you end up copying something insignificant (like a URL) and now the important stuff has vanished into the ether. Your computer's clipboard is like Memento's Sammy Jenkins -- he can remember what happened five seconds ago, but not five minutes ago. Kind of. Anyway, Jumpcut is here to help -- it logs all of your cut or copied entries and allows you to paste any of them on-demand via the menu bar. Very handy for anyone who handles text, and worth the price of this list alone (which is free, like all of the apps on this list).
This one's probably of limited interest to anyone other than web developers, but the first step to efficient web development is installing your own local server. MAMP virtualizes your own Apache and MySQL servers so you can develop and test at the speed of your own machine rather than waiting for every tweak to make it to your server in Ohio and back. There's a Pro version enabling you to setup multiple local servers, but for a single site, MAMP's free edition takes care of all the localization with ease and for free.
Now that Quicktime Pro has gone the way of the dodo, Apple's own native video application has gotten a bit over-simplified in its video-conversion abilities (Snow Leopard's Quicktime X offers presets for iPhone, web, and Apple TV exporting -- sans options for further tweaking). MPEG Streamclip steps in with all of the missing format conversion options (and then some), using Quicktime's engine to convert from virtually anything to anything. It's a great option for batch-conversion of files as well, which is necessary if you're a DSLR filmmaker.
I read a fair number of scripts on my laptop, and other than the hotness of my laptop (as in temperature hotness, not as in "new hotness" -- this thing's four years old), I never had any complaints about the PDF reading experience. But then thanks to Filmmaker Magazine I discovered ReadRight, an application that displays PDFs sideways, which means you can use your MacBook like a book (hold it sideways and use the arrow keys or mouse button to navigate). ReadRight displays PDFs full-screen and auto-zooms the pages, meaning you don't have to deal with scrolling past page breaks (it also saves your place when you quit). Until you get an iPad, ReadRight offers a nice alternative reading experience on the Mac.
Okay, so you've got Audacity and you used it to edit out the annoying skit out of your favorite mp3. But a lot of the stuff you might want to record and edit -- internet radio, a live video stream, a skype conversation -- you can't record! While there are plenty of paid applications that will do this, the cheapest -- although not the simplest -- is Soundflower. It acts as a virtual output that you can route your Mac system sound to; once you've done this, you select Soundflower as your input in Audacity (or any audio recording program), and viola: record anything you can hear. Soundflower also wins the award for "worst icon," but hey: it's for audio, not visuals.
There are a lot of alternatives to Mac's default TextEdit, but TextWranger is among the best (free) options. TextWranger (along with its paid big brother, BBEdit) is chiefly designed for coding html, php, or css, but its document drawer is handy when working with multiple text files, and it's also handy for light composition (e.g, emails) as it has more find/replace and spell-checking options than TextEdit; it is also useful for editing documents over FTP and SFTP.
Are you already using any of these programs, or do you know a better alternative to one (or more) of these apps? Let me know in the comments! Coming soon: a list of helpful paid apps (still cheap, but in many cases upgrades over the above).