The Sound of Silence or How to build a Silent PC

Surprising or unsurprisingly, it didn't do a good job of recreating bass and other low end frequencies.

A few years ago, I built a computer solely dedicated to recording music.  Everything from the processor, motherboard, and memory amount, all the way to the graphics card were selected based on the PC specs established for Pro Tools 9.  I even purchased a rack mountable case designed specifically for music production and installed 3 Solid State Disc Drives to eliminate that annoying whirring sound from conventional hard drives.  This case was supposed to be extremely quiet. And, in theory, I guess it was.  Most of my recordings were done "in the box" for the most part, meaning very little productions required mics.  Guitars and bass were tracked through Digidesign's (now Avid) Eleven Rack Amp Modeller, drums were programmed using FXPansion's BFD2, and any keys were softsynths, (the minimoog from Arturia and a Native Instruments Hammond Organ models being my favorite.). I would track vocals in a small Clear Sonic booth, mostly using a Dynamic Microphone, so the noise from the computer was easy to minimize.  Plus when mixing music, the sheer number of instruments engaged at any one time can effectively mask any external noise.  And I know my voice well enough to not go A Capella for any reason. I bury it deep deep deep deep into the mix.  (His voice is good! --- TW)

When we started recording audiobooks, suddenly the noise floor became a bigger issue.  Our first books had a noticeable white noise, but they still managed to pass ACX's quality check.  We were in a basement, and even with the HVAC system kicking in, the noise wasn't too terribly bad because we were using a Dynamic Microphones with a tight cardioid pattern. Plus the same Clear Sonic booth attenuated a lot of external noise.  Eventually, I invested in some noise reducing software and that helped clean things up even more.  Again, we never had ACX reject any of our recordings.  But that doesn't mean improvements couldn't be made. And if there is anything an engineer likes to do, it's tinker with something to see if it can be improved.  Good enough is never good enough.

We moved our studio upstairs into a spare bedroom that Tiffany and I had been using as our bedroom while we renovated the master bedroom.  (I just used the word bedroom three times in one sentence.  Weird!)  Once that was done, everything moved out of the basement and up the stairs.  Winter was upon us and given the brutality of this past winter, we were happy to not be in a basement.  Brrr...  And as we got our studio arranged, I began to tinker some more.  I had added a few new pieces of equipment and some plug-ins, most noticeably Izotopes RX3, and we made another jump in production quality.  But the biggest jump came with a Neumann TLM103 Condenser Microphone.  I had tried a few other condensers early on that I had in my arsenal, but they were too sensitive, especially when in the basement,  and the Neumann was no different.   It picked up everything... but it also brought out the warm timbre in Tiffany's voice.  I also noticed that my quiet PC built for music was one noisy damn beast.  Sure I could stick with Noise Reduction software, but we finally had a signal chain that worked for us and I wanted to retain as much of its sonic character as possible.  So how to get rid of that damn PC noise!  

To the internet...  

I've built a few computers over the years, but this time I needed to alter my approach.  It wasn't just matching the specs to run the software.  At this point, the processor's capabilities far exceed the needs for most DAW software.  The focus was on NOISE!  The main contributor to noise in a PC comes from the cooling fans.  EVERY FREAKING COMPONENT HAS A FAN!!!    The CPU has a fan, the graphics card has a fan, the case has 1 to 3 fans, and the power supply has a fan.  It's a wonder the computer doesn't achieve lift off with all those propellers spinning around.  I thought about getting an iMac or even a Mac Mini, but wasn't ready to change course entirely.  So I researched.  

Keep your hands off my Power Supply!  (Slade reference...  anyone... Run, Run Away,... anyone...  no.  Nevermind!)

I started off with a fanless power supply from Rosewill called Silent Night.  It had enough juice to power my setup and it was silent.  However, when it arrived, it didn't fit into my current case.  Grrrr...  So I started to look at cases, silent case fans and even a silent CPU fan. I briefly considered a liquid cooling system for the CPU but that's more of a gaming thing and I'm not a gamer.  I am a musician!  An Artiste!!!  A Dork with a Blog!  Err... ummm....  Anyway, I found a case from Fractal Audio that had insulation on the inside keeping all computer generated noise within the case.  I also managed to talk myself into going forward and replacing the motherboard, maxing out the memory, and upping the Processor.  Why?  I dunno...  I'm weird that way!  And there was also the matter of a silent graphics card.  But the piece de resistance to this whole endeavor would be a heat sink that would replace the traditional CPU Fan, which I ordered from  

Ooooo... it's so pretty!  

Once I received all the parts, it was time for assembly... or as Ellie would say "It's Go Time, Ace!"  (Another shameless plug!)   So I went into my laboratory... I mean studio and began the construction.  Again, I've built PC's before and it's pretty straight forward.  However, the one thing that totally blew my mind, was the sheer size of the CPU Heatsink.  Not sure what I was expecting but still... the picture on the website did not do it justice AT ALL!  This damn thing was HUGE!  It literally filled up the ENTIRE interior of the case.  I wasn't even sure if it would fit but it did and in so doing eliminated one of my expansion slots.  (Hopefully that won't come back to bite me else I will be rebuilding again soon if a new technological breakthrough occurs.)

I probably should have taken measurements regarding the noise floor from the previous PC to compare to the new ultra sleek and quiet rebuild.  But I forgot.  But I can tell you what my ears hear when I turn on the PC... NOTHING!  After an obligatory beep the computer sits there like a timid little black box afraid to draw attention to itself... unless I put a CD ROM in... but I don't use those while recording.  Mostly I hear the barely audible white noise of my monitors.

But there is one drawback.  Suddenly, every noise that comes from outside the house is clearer and louder.  Well not louder in the literal sense, they just seem louder because they stand out more.  We live just south of Dulles International Airport, and on some days it sounds like planes are about to land on Route 28, just on the other side of our neighborhood.  I can hear the wheels on the bus going round and round as they drop off the kids from middle school.  I can even hear the sounds of photosynthesis from my lawn.  Okay, that last one is an exaggeration but you get the point.  So I still use SOME noise reduction, but luckily it's in the low end of the frequency spectrum so that it doesn't effect Tiffany's voice.  Now if James Earl Jones were to come in here, there may be a some tweaking necessary.

Later this month, we'll be getting our Sound Bricks Voice Over booth and that will hopefully be the final piece of the puzzle... at least for our Audiobooks.  I'm an audio engineer and there will always be something I'd like to add to our studio.  Perhaps a nice 2 inch 24 track Studer Tape Deck...  Or the old mixing desk from Sound City...  had Dave Grohl not gotten it first.  What gives Dave?!  We're both from Northern Virginia Man!  Help a NOVA brother out!  

Sorry this entry is short on tech specs.  And to those who abhor computer geek talk, sorry to bore you with... well... computer stuff.  Whatever.  The point is, if you want to lower the noise floor in your recordings, you can do so by building a silent computer.  It can be done!  Now if I can only chase away that man on my roof with the orange glow sticks waving the planes in our direction.  UGH!