Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Quiet Computer Build: Introduction

booting upI have desperately needed a new computer for some years. My current beast, a small system in a Shuttle case, is now woefully underpowered. It's a Pentium 4 running at 2.4GHz with 1GB of RAM. That was pretty good seven years ago but sucks now. The power supply (PSU) whines like a banshee and I am sure will explode any day. So it was long past time to do something positive about my work environment.

To save money and gain deeper understanding of the technology I decided to build a computer myself, a step I had never previously taken. And so I embarked into the wild world of system builders, overclockers and extreme performance, a world where nothing is good if it is affordable or over three weeks old.

In this article I will outline my methodology. In the second I will present my system choices. And in the third and final article I'll take you step by step through the build, illustrated with over three dozen photos.

My main goal was to build a quiet system with enough power to steam-roll through day-to-day tasks and give me a good deal of power for synthesis and multi-channel audio processing. There were several secondary considerations. It would be great to be able to consolidate the nest of external drives around my desk by pulling some inside a single case. This cuts down on cable tangles, lowers power usage and reduces noise, since fewer fans would be on at one time. I want a system that can support multiple monitors so I can expand on the single LCD I am restricted to at present. It would be nice to have a graphics card that can play something other than ancient games, for those times when I get to chill. And I have a real need for a system to have aesthetic appeal.

At this point I must make a diversion and head off operating systems war comments.

Based on that outline, many would no doubt suggest a Mac. But, though I do like Helvetica, white turns me off. After using Apple computers for a year in my degree course I am convinced they are no more stable than a decent Windows box and a great deal less versatile. There are one or two apps it might be nice to have an Apple for (Logic Audio springs to mind) but I rely on many more programmes that run only in Windows. And yes I know you can dual boot or use a virtual machine, but that is either inconvenient or slow. Plus more expensive since extra software is needed.

One thing that must be said is that a Mac is generally much quieter than a Windows PC. But that is because they tend to run hotter as well. I see no reason not to configure a PC likewise and avoid the Apple tax.

And LINUX? I love it for servers, but the audio apps simply are not there. I have twice tried to go this route and both times given up in sheer frustration. I need to get work done, not play around on the command line. (I am old enough to remember when everything was on the command line. But then again I wasn't running an entire recording studio out of a single box in 1980.)

OK, so like it or not, I want to run Windows, and may as well make it a 64-bit version of Windows 7 so I can utilise larger swaths of memory. I have many friends who are happy with their Mac or LINUX box. So be it.

OS diversion done!

Making a system quiet is, of course, a matter of compromise. Faster chips tend to run hotter. More hard drives mean more heat generated. And all of that means fans running faster to cool the system. Since it is the fans that make the most noise most of the time, this is the noise floor bottleneck.

With all this in mind, I scoured the net, reading voraciously. I found out about things I had never even considered, for example CPU coolers. My last system came with a tiny fan on the chip. Now there are giant bladed heat sink monstrosities that weigh over a kilo and look like they should vent rocket fuel.

I also discovered that many recommended products are simply overkill. Websites argue one system fan over another, on the basis of one or two degrees of cooling. And often those sites say nothing about noise. When they do, it is impossible to evaluate the data, since there are no standard methodologies for testing. I have found over and over that people will say a component is "whisper quiet" or "totally silent" when in fact the sound is quite apparent to me. The main reason for this is that gamers are used to very loud systems, so one that is moderately quiet will seem wonderful. I, on the other hand, am used to recording studios, so the sound of someone breathing next to me is distinctly loud!

Of course there are other ways of making a system silent, like putting it in an enclosure, using liquid cooling, or placing it in the next room. None of these are practical at home on my budget.

Before moving on, I should acknowledge that there are a good number of companies in the UK and the rest of Europe who specialise in music systems. Home audio has been a growth market for some time, and vendors need to find something to distinguish themselves and justify custom computers with higher margins. For your reference, here's a list of firms I checked out:

No doubt there are incredible computers that would suit my purpose (and yours) somewhere in that list of websites. But when I started looking I found missing information, dated systems and other hurdles to making an accurate comparison. I decided I may as well build my own.

In the next article I will outline the component choices I made.

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