Building a Silent PC by Kevin Powe

February 7, 2011  |  How To Articles

Hello Folks, Taji here letting you know all is well here in Egypt and that if you want to read about my experiences during the revolution that is happening as I write this then head on over to VoiceOverXtra and read my Article on the matter.

The article below is by a good tweep of mine and I’ve been hounding him for the past few months about completing it so you folks can get the benefit of his experience. Enjoy!

___________________________________________________________________________

Kevin Powe

So, about six months ago now, I realized that to make recording voice at home less painful, I wanted a silent PC. The laptop I’ve been using for the last few years has a fan like a jet engine, and while I couldn’t quite hear it when I recorded with it in the room, I didn’t want to take the risk that I’d suddenly discover it on a whole bunch of audio.

This is a rather exhaustive attempt to record how I’ve pursued the lofty goal of building a silent PC for audio recording. First up, I’m going to be talking about my goals for the machine – what I want it to do – and how that’s translated into the parts I’ve chosen. I’m also going to put my cards face up on the table and show you the resources I’ve used to get information.

This is by no means the only way to build a silent PC – there are countless other combinations you could go with. But hopefully by showing you some of the resources I’ve used, and the choices I’ve made, it will help you if you’re looking at doing the same thing yourself.

The key criteria I had for the machine when selecting parts were:

  • Silence. Above all else, I wanted the machine to be as silent as possible.
  • Inexpensive. Where possible, I wanted to be sensible about spending money. If I can save a few hundred dollars, that’s like a bonus paid voice gig.
  • Power-efficient. Ideally, I wanted to be able to keep my machine on 24×7, so I wanted to ensure that it was as energy-efficient as possible.
  • Low heat. Heat’s important because the more heat that components produce, the more fans have to work to cool, and that means more power and noise.
  • Ability to run games. The secondary purpose of the machine was to build a middle-of-the-road games machine. I’ll call out very specifically the choices that I’ve made to support this – it’s only one or two parts, really.

Silent PC Review: Amazing tool!

The key website I used as my starting point for research, and for advice, is Silent PC Review. They are INVALUABLE. So much so that I’ve donated back to the site since, for the time and effort that it saved me. For the relevant components, I’ve provided a link back to the Silent PC review page. You can also read the forum thread where I got some great feedback here.

So without further ado, let’s have a look at what I’ve chosen, and why. For the time poor, I’ve provided a short summary for the components I’ve chosen, along with a link to the Silent PC review.



10 Comments


  1. Hey Kevin,

    Certainly an in-depth article and good for you to take the time to put it all together.

    I built a silent PC 8 years ago and have been building them for my clients ever since.

    Of course, in your article here, you mentioned that you wanted to make this a medium-grade gaming machine. It should be noted that Voice Talent who are going to make a silent PC for their DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) should be reminded that the last thing they want in a DAW, is any games.

    Aside from the obvious fact that a DAW should only be used for recording and nothing else, I’ve seen games that can screw up the registry and the OS in general by simply installing them. Indeed, even anti-virus is not recommended.

    As for the PC you built….I gotta say – way too many fans. Again, you’re making this for gaming and those same rules don’t apply when making a DAW.

    For instance, You spent a great deal on the fan-less P/S, but the one that comes with the Antec case is uber quiet; it only kicks it when the power supply needs cooling, so it’s not always on.

    Yes, the case fans are quiet, but when building a DAW, they are not required.

    The graphics card is for gaming; a DAW would require a good, basic graphics card (ATI 9600 is pretty good) with a heat sink and no fan.

    I do like your idea of the solid state drive for the OS, but question your reasoning to add two more drives to the PC. You speak of reducing noise using solid state, but then turn around and add tow more traditional hard drives? This doesn’t make sense to me.

    I built the DAW I’m using now 8 years ago and it has but a single partitioned 120 gig Seagate SATA. I have never, ever had a problem recording audio with this drive, or many other DAWs I have built for clients in the past. It should also be note here that after 8 years of recording, I have still yet to fill up that 120 gig drive (though it is getting close).

    Readers should be aware that a single 300 gig (or larger if they like) would more than suit their recording needs for years to come. Western Digital HDs are OK, but in my experience, I have found that Seagate drives in general are quieter.

    Finally, those stuck with a PC that is noisy should consider using a fan controller to knock down the RPM of their CPU fan and case fans as a quick, cheap fix. Be sure to keep an eye on heat, of course. I’ve found that taking them down to half speed works just fine, reduces about 10 db of noise and presents no cooling issues.

    Regards,

    Todd Schick

    • I came across a software called Speedfan a while ago and it has proven quite helpful in controlling fan speed. It is dangerous to mess around with it however if you don’t know what you are doing so be careful. If you lower the fan speed to the point that it no longer cools your CPU then you can easily burn it and the motherboard out.

      Personally I would remove the video card all together and stick with a motherboard that has a built in video chipset… this way I don’t even need yet another fan to add noise to the mix (if I was building a dedicated DAW).

      Taji

    • Hi Todd. Thanks for the in-depth reply – particularly given your experience in the area. Very much appreciated!

      With regards ot the graphics card – I think we’re already mostly in agreement here. I understand that a lot of people looking to build a silent PC aren’t going to be interested in playing games, which is why I call out that specific component as a bit frivolous on my part.

      If I had the money and space where I record at home, I’d love to have a dedicated PC for recording, and one for gaming/file storage/other needs. Unfortunately at the moment I don’t, hence the graphics card being part of the kit.

      That being said, that’s the only real nod in the direction of gaming. The motherboard has a perfectly capable video card on-board, so you remove the ATI card and you’re good.

      Your point about installing games is an interesting one – while that certainly could happen, it’s arguably possible that any software (even Windows updates) could have that same effect,

      There have definitely been some pretty shocking cases involving root-kits used by some publishing houses, it’s not too different from the reported incompatibilities between the M-Audio pre-USB (which I use at home) and certain versions of Windows. And personally, I wouldn’t recommend running a Windows machine, even a dedicated DAW, without a virus scanner and firewall if it was connected to the internet in any way.

      I’d definitely agree that the fans in the kit aren’t *necessary* – I won’t claim to be an expert, and there’s certainly more than one way to skin a cat. That being said, I wouldn’t agree that the build has too many fans – the Nexus fans are whisper-quiet and efficient, working well with the on-board CPU cooler.

      I’ve seen the configuration associated with media PCs quite commonly, where the key concern is noise, not processing grunt. And the great thing about the motherboard is that it makes it incredibly easy to tune the behaviour of the fans, allowing me to be very specific about the speed I want them at. You’re absolutely right about how important it is to watch temperature when you start tweaking cooling behaviour, too.

      The version of the Antec SOLO case that I purchased actually doesn’t come with a power supply, unlike the earlier model it replaces. I definitely didn’t throw out an existing option to put in the Seasonic. Although you’re absolutely right – the power supply for the earlier version came highly recommended.

      I agree that the Seasonic is overpriced for my needs (and have said as much) – but if I’m deliberately paying for anything there, it’s the fantastic efficiency, which makes me feel less guilty in leaving the PC on 24/7.

      With regards to hard drives – I’d again definitely agree that the 1.5TB drive is optional – apologies if that didn’t come across clearly in the post. Personally, I require a large chunk of storage for files. And while that’s just me, that drive is only contributing to noise or heat while I’m using it, which is only outside of recording sessions.

      If we put that drive aside though, I think we’re mostly on the same page. I wouldn’t recommend a SSD large enough to use for voice recording, both because of the price, and because of rumours about lack of stability under that kind of performance pressure.

      Also, while 120GB is plenty for your needs, I suspect you’re either more diligent with your files, or cleverer with the configuration of your recording software. I’ve used up 168GB of the 640GB drive I’m using as a scratch at the moment already. And while I’ve got no doubt I could winnow that down to a fraction of the current size with an afternoon’s work, I like the fact that for the moment, I don’t have to worry about it.

      I’ll definitely check out Seagate drives based on your recommendation – thanks for the tip! Are you talking exclusively about 5400rpm drives there?

      Thanks again for taking the time to read, and for your detailed response. It’s very much appreciated!

  2. Hey Kevin,

    I totally understand your need to have the machine do double duty…

    Many people make the mistake of thinking that you need huge processing power to record audio and it’s simply not true. Well, if you want to run Pro Tools and record bands, that’s another matter. But for the average VO talent that only has to record voice and do some basic editing, the DAW doesn’t have to be super fast and expensive – it just has to be stripped down for recording….and quiet if it’s going to be in the same room as the microphone.

    XP takes up about 6 gigs of space and Adobe Audition 3.0, about 300 megs. Aside from a few other minor programs (WinRAR, etc), that is all that needs to be installed on a DAW. Next, you “tweak” the DAW for recording http://www.pcmus.com/TweakXP.htm to eliminate anything running in the background from interfering with the recording process and off you go.

    Most of the files on my DAW are mp3, as that’s what most of my clients request for a format, so space has never been a big issue.

    Neither has anti-virus. 8 years without it and never a problem. I don’t even open up a browser, much less run an e-mail client like Outlook. All I do is update the OS and defrag the C:\ drive once a week.

    Anti-virus can really screw with audio editing software and plug-ins like Source Connect. Because it’s so invasive in terms of how comprehensive it must be to perform the task of virus protection, it gets into everything.

    So long as one takes care not to surf the web or use the DAW for e-mail – there is no need for anti-virus software to be installed. Viruses come from surfing, e-mail and removable drives….all it takes is common sense.

    My DAW is networked, yes. I need that function to transfer files over to my NAS for FTP pickup. But that’s my LAN – not the internet.

    After 8 years…..my DAW boots up in 20 seconds. It’s blazing fast, reliable, never crashes and there’s never any transients in my recordings. Similar DAWs can be built for about $300-$400.

    It’s more about how you use the machine than what goes in it, that makes it fast and reliable.

    To answer you question about Seagate drives, I normally go for the fastest I can get in terms of RPM and cache, though it’s been so long since I installed the drive in my DAW, I couldn’t tell you what the RPM is – probably 5400.

    I sure would like to try out a solid state drive for recording; I have heard they can be finicky. I’ll wait until the technology is stable and the price for them come down – in about 1 year…..LOL!

    Kind regards,

    Todd Schick

    • Hey Todd!

      When you mentioned that you weren’t using a virus scanner, I imagined that your workflow was close to what you described – using the DAW PC in quite enforced isolation, which has obviously worked well for you for along time.

      I’d find that frustrating myself – particularly in dealing with accessing scripts or getting files back to clients quickly, but that’s just a case of horses for courses.

      One thing that’s worth mentioning here regarding anti-virus software – while a constantly running process that’s intercepting all file access or intermittently running scans is an issue, it’s possible with most virus checkers to configure them to only run when you schedule them. And agreed – they’re definitely a pain and cause of potential issues. (I’ve run into problems with them a lot as part of the day job, as well)

      And while running a PC lean and mean with limited programs is definitely going to keep it running smoothly, you’re still fundamentally limited by the quality of your components as to how quiet it’s going to be.

      The $300-$400 figure is an interesting one, and you’ve got my interest peaked now. Given that the majority of the parts I’ve used are mid-range rather than top-end, I’m wondering what you’d use to put together a silent PC for that price range, given that most local PC builders have low-end PCs retailing for $800 or so. I wonder if this is the difference in buying power in Australia versus overseas?

      I’m definitely tempted to see what the cheapest purpose-built PC for recording is, now. Looking at my spreadsheet from the last build, I don’t see a way that it’s viable to get down around that mark.

      I might revisit this later this year, particularly if it’s a good year for voice over for me. (which is all I can ask, really)

      • Hey Kevin,

        It sounds like the parts are more expensive in Australia; they should be cheaper with your proximity to Singapore….?

        Keep in mind as well that I’m talking about the CPU only; that doesn’t include a monitor, keyboard or mouse.

        I’d use an Antec Sonata case ($100) a Seagate HD (about 320 gig $70.00) a good basic Mobo from Asus with a decent FSB ($80) and processor to match ($100-$120, Intel means more $$$). Memory is cheap now, 2 gigs will cost you about $60.00.

        You don’t need any optical drives if you install the OS via USB, or yank the optical out of your gaming machine to install the OS. You can add one of you want for $30.

        Again…I “build” my machines from scratch as do you; if you buy all OEM from your local Chinatown, the only thing in a retail box will be the case, processor and Mobo…..and maybe the memory.

        That unit described above? It’s easily as fast as my DAW now, which cost me about $800 8 years ago.

        I’d say (to save some $$$), yank one of the drives out of your gaming machine, partition it and put it in the DAW, you can save recorded files where ever you want on your LAN.

        In reference to your observation regarding accessing scripts and the like, I don’t have that issue since I went with a 2-CPU paperless configuration http://www.toddschick.com/studio.htm

        My admin machine has MS Office on it, Adobe Reader and run my FTP server – all that crap – that’s what I read off of. The DAW….only records audio – as it should be.

        In respect to anti-virus….I’m not talking about it scanning….I’m talking about installing it at all. Even the most basic anti-virus software runs constantly in the background; AVG calls it “Resident Shield” but other companies have a name for the process that is always “on guard for thee” – pardon the Canadian anthem reference…lol!

        Anyway, just keep in mind that if you use common sense, you don’t need anti-virus on your DAW. Don’t open a browser, don’t install any programs that aren’t required and don’t update anything except the OS and your recording software.

        Hope this helps!

        Regards,

        TS

        • You’d think that being close to Singapore would make hardware pretty cheap, but unfortunately not.

          Your studio setup looks fantastic! I think I’ve actually seen the paperless office article linked before – from memory, during a discussion on vo-bb.com. One thing that I couldn’t be exactly sure of from the article though – you’re accessing the computers that are running in the studio from the booth, correct? Both the DAW and the office machine?

          You’ve really got my interest piqued now. I’ve been thinking about picking up an e-reader to go paperless in the studio, but I’ll weigh that up against the possibility of going through a custom build exercise to see what the cheapest purpose-built system I can put together is. I don’t have the ability to physically separate the CPUs and monitors over too big a distance at the moment though, which is the only downside.

          In the meantime, I’ll look at a comparison pricing of those components being purchased in Australia, and have a squiz at reviews for the Sonata case. The SOLO is a dream to work with, but I’m imagining that the Antec’s build quality is likely to be consistent across their range.

          One quick note regarding virus checkers though – it is (typically) possible with virus checkers to disable their ‘always on’ features that get in the way of accessing files, and only have them run when you schedule scans. It’s typically a pain to do, but definitely possible.

          Thanks again for the response – it’s definitely got me thinking, and I can see a possible follow-up project here.

  3. Hi guys — I know you’re talking about building, but some may find this off-the-shelf note relevant: when searching in ’09 for a new laptop for my mobile kit, I found one that has a “silent mode” switch. Testing reveals -62 levels at 2 inches from my AT4*** mic. Priced less than $800 US, running W7 64-bit, purchased at a major electronics retail chain. Don’t want to be a walking ad, so if anyone wants make and model details and can’t find this spec thru internet search, pls PM me directly.

    • Hi Lauren – I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’d love it if you posted the details. My goal here is just to help people put together a silent machine for recording.

      Simple solutions are always the best, so if there’s a particular pre-packaged solution you can recommend, then all the better!

      Thanks for the response!

  4. Kevin, you may actually be in a better position in your corner of the world to access this — trying searching for Samsung “Super Silent Mode” online. I have the Q320. Not sure if other manufacturers offer a similar option, and again, don’t want to be a walking billboard.

    Hope this helps!

Trackbacks

  1. Tweets that mention Building a Silent PC by Kevin Powe | TVE -- Topsy.com