New studio computer coming

With the recent rearrangement of computer roles in my place, I’ve been left without a dedicated studio workstation. I made an attempt at running my home photo gallery on my old home office P2, but that was a failure. The computer was just too slow to handle Apache, MySQL, PHP and Gallery2 with a reasonably snappy response. So I repurposed the P2 machine to just running HomeSeer for my X10 home-automation.

I decided that the Celeron 1.2GHz machine I’ve been using as a studio workstation would make a good Apache server. So that’s what it is doing now, serving the home photo gallery. It wasn’t really all that good as a studio workstation anyway. Ever since I upgraded to Cubase SX3, it just seemed unable to handle the load. I don’t know why, it did great with Cubase SE.
So, after a lengthy investigation, I’ve finally placed an order with NCIX for the new studio workstation. As in the previous studio workstation, silence is golden. And stability is platinum. For help in building a silent PC, you can do no better than to read SilentPC Review. I referred to their reviews constantly while specing out this system.

Processor

I knew from the start that I wanted to build it on an Intel Core 2 Duo (“Conroe”) processor. Dual cores should finally give Cubase SX3 the grunt it needs to play a song heavily-laden with virtual instruments and effects. And the famously low power-consumption of the Conroe processor means less heat, and heat is the enemy of the silent PC builder (heat means fans).

Heatsink/Fan

There are tons of CPU heatsink/fans out there to consider. SilentPC Review has reviewed a great many of them, looking for the best cooling per decibel. I ended up choosing a Zalman CNPS9500. It’s near the top in terms of silence. The Scythe Ninja is apparently quieter, but not available from NCIX. With the low power-consumption of the non-overclocked Core 2 Duo processor, I’m sure the Zalman fan will be able to run fairly slow and not generate much noise.

Motherboard

I also knew from the start that I’m tired of Asian motherboards. At least for a while. I’m tired of the crappy manuals that tell you hardly anything useful, in English that would be very funny if deciphering it weren’t costing you valuable time. I’m tired of random crashes. I want rock-solid stability. In short, I want an Intel motherboard.

I spent some time on Intel’s web-site learning about their motherboards. I chose the Intel D975XBX motherboard, aka “Bad Axe”. Just feast your eyes on this documentation! This is what a motherboard manual should look like! Can you imagine anything like this ever in a million years coming out of Asus or any of that pack?

And I look forward to a motherboard that doesn’t come with 12 discs of bundled crapware.

Case

I plan to reuse the existing studio workstation case. It’s an Antec Sonata case, very nice and quiet case. I took the trouble to line the insides of it with AcoustiPack soundproofing material, and I didn’t want to throw away all that effort. The old studio PC will be transplanted back into it’s original Dell PowerEdge 500SC server case.

Power Supply

The power-supply that came with the Antec Sonata case will not be usable with this new system. It does not have either the 24-pin main power connector, nor the 8-pin auxilliary 12V connector that the Intel D975XBX motherboard requires. It is a very nice, quiet power-supply, but I can’t reuse it.

It didn’t take much reading on SilentPC Review to learn that Seasonic has a solid reputation for making the most reliable and quiet power supplies. Seasonic actually manufactures the power supplies that many other companies put their names on. But for the models they sell under their own name, they try extra hard to make sure the quality is top-notch.

At first, I thought that the Seasonic S12 would be the way to go. Very high efficiency (low heat!), famously quiet, and active power factor correction. But then I heard rumors about a new M12 model that would be coming out shortly. The M12 is electrically the same as the S12, but features modular (detachable) cables, and an extra cooling fan (which only switches on under heavy heat loads that I expect I’ll never encounter.) I’ve always hated the massive tangle of unused power cables in my computers, modular seemed like a feature I’d be prepared to wait for. And wait I did… but finally, it is released in Canada, and NCIX is taking orders.

Storage

The old studio PC has a Dell CERC RAID controller board. I’ve been running it with three 100GB drives in a RAID5 (striped with parity) configuration giving about 200GB of effective space.

I want a RAID in the new system too. But this time, RAID1 (mirroring). I still want the redundancy, but I don’t want the write overhead of the parity calculations that RAID5 requires. The cost is more storage space lost to redundancy. But hard disks are always getting bigger and cheaper, I can afford the space lost to a RAID0 configuration. The Intel D975XBX has SATA RAID controllers onboard, which I will use. But onboard RAID controllers do scare me a bit… the controller/mobo is now a single point-of-failure. When the RAID controller is on a plug-in board, at least you can have a spare, and both the RAID controller or motherboard can fail and you still don’t lose your data. But anyway, it’s still better than no RAID at all.

In the old system, the three hard-drives were by far the greatest source of noise. I knew this was a place to focus some attention. After again consulting SilentPC Review, I learned about Samsung’s SpinPoint P-Series and T-Series drives, which are about as quiet as you can find anywhere. Originally I was going to go with P-series, but then T Series came on the market, with larger capacities and quieter. I’ve settled on a pair of T Series 400GB SATA2 drives.

Case Fan

This is an area where I’ve run into difficulties. In the Sonata case, the big quiet 120mm case fan is supposed to be controlled by the specially-designed Antec power-supply, making it variable speed, depending on the temperature in the case. But I’m not using that supply anymore. If I just connect the fan to the Seasonic power supply, it will run at full speed and make alot of noise.

The Intel D975XBX motherboard has a similar feature to control the case fan speed. But Intel’s speed control is implemented by a Pulse-width Modulation (PWM) technique. The fan control headers on the motherboard have 4 pins. The traditional 3 pins (Power, Ground, and Tachometer), plus a fourth pin which carries the PWM signal. These headers are compatible with the standard 3-pin fans, and will report the fan RPM, but the PWM speed control will not work and the fan will run full speed.

I’ve been trying to find 120mm chassis fans that have the 4-pin PWM connector, but they seem to be extremely rare. None of the major online retailers carry them (when they say “4-pin”, they mean the 4-pin Molex power connector from the power-supply.) The only manufacturer of 4-pin PWM fans that I’ve been able to find is JMC, but I can find no retailers that carry their products. So, for the present, I have no convincing fan solution. For the time being, I’m just going with a Nexus Real Silent fan. It’s fixed speed, but at least that speed is low and quiet.

Waiting

The order is in with NCIX now. Now I just have to wait…

13 Responses to “New studio computer coming”


  • Sounds like a nice system!

    re: case fan — why not build yourself a custom fan controller… thermocouples are dirt cheap as are PIC microcontrollers. Some PIC’s even have PWM functions built in. Power the fan and PIC off your main power supply but let the PIC control your fan speed via thermocopuple input modulating the PWM signal.

    re: noise in your studio… why not just go for your dream of creating a control room in your studio… 2X4’s and drywall… make a wall that will give you an anechoic chamber (with appropriate tiling, etc.) then keep the studio equipment outside. Noise will not be a problem and you’ll have a more professional studio!

    My $0.02 for free.
    Jones.

  • It would probably be a lot easier and cheaper to buy one. There are lots of off-the-shelf fan controllers available.

    Anyway, there’s one on the motherboard already, I’d rather find a way to use that.

    Actually, I’m thinking now that I can may convert a stock off-the-shelf 3-wire fan into a PWM fan. I looked at the datasheet for one of the motherboard PWM fan controller chips. All you need to do, I think, is just put a transistor in series with the GND wire of the fan, and connect its base/gate to the PWM signal. If that works, then it would be easy to just add the transistor to the fan’s wire and finish it up by surrounding it with a bit of heatshrink.

    When I get the system set up, I’ll give that a try.

  • i have a small control room on my studio. i have 3 2 x 2 holes in the bottom for mic cables and amp lines going out into the recording room. i also hoping to add on a small vocal booth in the back eventually….

  • I have a ACER Computer (Factory Case) with:

    Microsoft Windows XP MCE
    Version 2002
    Service Pack 2
    Intel Core 2 CPU
    6300 @ 1.86 GHz
    0.97 GB of RAM

    I am currently running SONAR 7.0 Producers Edition, along with too many VST DXi Plug-ins to list.

    I am useing the M-AUDIO Fast Track Pro USB audio/midi Interface with no problems at all. (latency ect…)

    But here’s my problem,

    I want a more professional studio set up! I want to know if I can convert to a more professional setup with my computer.

    Any Suggestions???

    Maybe you know a great sound card that would work on my computer???

  • Please Help Me.

  • anyone???

  • How do you define professional?

    I’m no expert, and my setup is scarcely professional. But there are some things that professional studios tend to have:

    A patch bay. Saves you from having to rip everything up whenever you want to do something unusual. Use normalled connections for a typical setup. All the required cables quickly add up, though. I saved $$$ by making my own cables.

    Rack-mounting the gear looks very professional. But it makes access to the rear-panel awkward. Again, a well-designed patch-bay means you won’t often need to access the backs of your gear.

    I don’t know what kind of recording you usually do. With your analog interface, I would guess you play most of the parts yourself, as separate takes. That’s about all you could do with only two analog inputs.

    If you wanted to record a band (which is what I usually do), you’d obviously need many more inputs. There are lots of options around. I like my MOTU 896 alot. 8 mic preamp inputs, but it’s $$$.

    I also have a Behringer 8x analog I/O (ADAT on the digital side, so the PC needs an ADAT interface of some sort.) It also has mic pre-amps. That’s a very economical box, but its sampling-rate is limited. Many people seem to dislike Behringer gear, but I think that’s mostly just elitism.

    I guess the real pros probably don’t like the analog ins with integrated mic pre-amps, since they’re so fussy about their pre-amps. You can get line-level analog ins, and use them with separate high-quality pre-amps. That’s even more $$$. I don’t have the golden ears to notice the difference between expensive and cheap pre-amps.

    I have lots of analog outputs available, but I rarely use more than two (my stereo main outs). Aside from the main outs, the other uses that come to mind would be:
    – Routing signal through an external analog processing box.
    – Sending customized headphone mixes to the musicians.

    I have no external processing gear (all VSTs), and rarely ever have occasional to use headphone mixes.

    You need some decent mics, and practice using them. My selection of mics will not be envied by any professional studio, but it works for me. You can spend as much or as little on mics as you want.

    If you get into this alot, then you’ll want isolated booths. I have no isolation. Most of my recording tends to be riddled with cross-talk between instrument tracks, which really limits the options on editing and mixing. There’s lot of information around about building sound-proof walls (staggered studs, things like that) and acoustics. I haven’t yet got into any of that.

    Your PC is probably capable of recording 8 simultaneous inputs over firewire, and probably a few VSTs at the same time. Mostly its just a matter of keeping Windows running well, which can be quite a challenge sometimes.

  • Thanks for the reply piper!

    Sounds like can answer some questions I have.

    But before I ask any, I’d like to say I also like behringer equipment. I use a behringer guitar preamp, and has all the ins/outs I could ever need and sounds great! Also, your right, I do play several different instruments, and record tracks seperately, and later edit and arrange.

    Now, on to questions,

    Ive looked over PCI interfaces such as the behringer 8x you mention using, seems great.

    Could you tell me a little more about your experiences with it? (regarding latency and performance with you DAW)

    Also, what software you rockin’?

    Thanks Man!

  • Oh sht.. almost forgot!

    Piper Man,

    although I am good at making music and using computers to record it, I dont know about building up my computer with the right hardware (ex: sound card).

    Are all sound cards plug ang play (driver installation?)?

    Thanks again

  • Hey piper,

    nevermind the behringer PCI question,

    I should have asked about your MOTU 896’s performance(regarding latency & software interaction).

    Are you able to play a riff and software monitor it with no noticeable latency?

  • Are you Ignoring this?

    Or are you thinking?

  • Just been kind of busy lately… with a newborn baby. I’ll try to get back to this when I can.

  • Congrats!

    Ill check back in a while

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